Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Raiders During World War I


Only operational from the 23rd. of January to the 29th. of February 1916, and in that time managed to claim but one vessel of 15,831 tons.

Launched as Guben on the 29th. of July 1914, this cargo ship of just on 5, 000 tons had a service speed of 13 knots.

At the commencement of 1916, Grief was pressed into Naval service and sailed for Kiel for a dockyard conversion into an Armed Merchant Ship.

Built with two funnels, quite unusual in a tramp steamer, the second funnel was removed, and 4 by 15cm. guns were added, two on the upper deck between her bridge and foremast, and two more, one on each beam before her mainmast.

A further single 10.5cm. was hidden in a gunhouse on the after deck, and two torpedo tubes were also added. She thus became a quite formidible weapon if met on the trade routes by an unsuspecting Allied ship sailing alone, unprotected by the strength of a convoy and its associated escorts.

Grief moved on the 25th.of February 1916 from Kiel to Hamburg, then sailed two days later moving out into the North Sea.

Poor weather obtained, mist and snow flurries being severe enough for the accompanying Submarine U-70 to lose contact with her charge. This U-Boat reported seeing a British Submarine which appears to have reported Grief's position to the British Admiralty.

Admiral Jellicoe on the 28th of February at 2338 (11.38 PM) sailed light cruisers Cordelia and Inconstant with four attendant Destroyers from Rosyth in Scotland. Three more cruisers, Calliope, Comus, and Blanche with a further three Destroyers sortied out of the fleet base at Scapa Flow to back up the Armed Merchant Cruisers of the 10th. Cruiser Squadron.

Sister ships owned by the Royal Mail Steamship Packet Company, Andes (15,620 tons) and Alcantara (15,831 tons) had joined the Royal Navy in April of 1915, each were fitted with 8 by 6 inch guns, plus 2 pounders, and had a speed of 17 knots, which was adequate to outrun any freighter or cargo vessel they were likely to encounter on the high seas.

At 0845 (8.45 AM) on the last day of February (1916 was a leap year) lookouts in Alcantara reported smoke on the port beam.

In both world wars at sea, it was the sighting of smoke in the distance, that so often alerted an enemy (on both sides of the conflict) to the presence of a single ship, or even ships in convoy. The making of smoke was to be avoided at all costs, and many a Captain on his bridge of a merchant ship or a warship, would become most upset at its appearance from the funnel of his command, and then vent his wrath on the engine room department in general and on his chief engineer in particular.

Andes now reported sighting a black painted ship with 2 masts and a black funnel. Alcantara was closer and Captain Thomas Wardle increased speed to bring his ship between Andes and this suspicious looking vessel, as he closed Greif, two large Norwegian flags,and RENA and TONSBERG could be made out on the ship's side. Greif trurned away to the north east, Wardle now hoisted the signal to stop instantly, MN. and fired two blank rounds to reinforce his order.

Greif now hove to, and signalled she was sailing out of Trondheim and was bound for Rio de Janiro and La Plata.

At 0940 (9.40 AM) when the Armed Merchant Cruiser was preparing to lower a boat to send over a boarding party, Greif suddenly declared her intent, dropped the gunhouse around her poop gun, opened fire, and at a range of only 800 yards, her first shell striking home on Alcantara's bridge, wrecked it, and destroyed the engine room telegraph and communications equipment. (Captain Wardle had made the fatal mistake of bringing his ship too close, instead of standing off at a safe distance until this ship could be properly identified.) Now unmasking her other guns, the German Raider poured shells into Alcantara, destroying boats and her steering gear.

At last Alcantara came to life, increasing speed, trying to block Greif from making for the Norwegian coastline, her port after 6 inch gun with its first shell scored a bull's eye on Greif's poop gun, putting it out of action, and killing most of this gun's crew.

The sound of this action brought Andes, some 5 miles away, scurring back to assist her shipmate.

Opening fire from a range of 3 miles, Andes landed a direct hit on  Greif's bridge which wrecked her steering gear.

Meantime, Greif and Alcantara were engaged in an old fashioned, close range slug fest, with each ship gaining repeated hits upon the other ship's waterline.

The Raider's port forward 15cm. gun was knocked out, her fuel tanks were set alight, and a third shell penetrated her hull to explode in the engine room.

Aboard Alcantara, a torpedo from Greif struck amidships, and a second torpedo passed under her stern. But Greif was mortally wounded, she was under fire from both British Armed Merchant Cruisers, and, she ceased fire at 1018 (10.18 AM) and four minutes later, boats were seen to be pulling away from the blazing wreck.

The German Captain was escaping down a rope ladder over his ship's port quarter when a fragment from one of Alcantara's shells decapitated him. Meantime, Alcantara listing to port, also appeared doomed, and Captain Wardle ordered his company to abandon ship at 1045. (10.45 AM)

By 1102 (11.02 AM) the British ship had slipped beneath the surface of the ocean and was gone, 72 men being lost. They had paid the price for their Captain's indescretion of closing too close to an unknown vessel, before it was really identified.

This lesson had still not been properly learned in WW2, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, in November 1941, off the west coast of Western Australia ran into the German Armed Merchant Ship, Kormoran, steamed too close, and was mortally wounded by the German ship. Sydney was last observed steaming away into the distance, on fire. She was never seen again, going down somewhere in the Indian Ocean with her entire company lost. To this day, her final resting place is still not known. Komoran also sank, but many of her crew survived to land on Australia's western coastline, and be rescued. 

Greif was still afloat, when the Cruiser Comus arrived on the scene with the Destroyer Munster, and Comus proceeded to finish off the German ship, and she finally sank by the stern at 1301 (1.01 PM) with her German Ensign still flying defiantly. It would seem that about 187 of Greif's crew perished, whilst Captain Wardle, his remaining crew, 120 Germans including 5 of their Officers were rescued from the sea by Andes and Munster.

This classic battle between Greif and Alcantara had indeed resulted in "an eye for an eye" as yet one more German Raider lived to have but a very short career.

Thanks to Patricia Jones for this report from Yeoman of Signals Frank Coombes, O.N. 205280 
Friday, 21 November 2008

Dear Sir

I have been interested to read your correspondence about the battle between Alcantara and Grief in the North Sea. My grandfather, Yeoman of Signals Frank Coombes, O.N. 205280, was mentioned in despatches as a result of his actions that day.(see supplement to London Gazette 14 July 1916). He wasn't one of the wounded. I must tell you the story he told my husband and myself in 1967. My husband (a journalist) took it down in shorthand as he said it:

"Alcantara was a Portsmouth-manned ship. She went into action against the German raider Grief. Both vessels were sunk ....a great duel was fought in the North Sea. Alcantara was formerly a liner of 15,800 tons and was operating as an auxilliary cruiser. I was a Yeoman of the Signals on the bridge.  One of the signalmen spotted her (the Greif).  I looked at her through the telescope on the bridge. I didn't know what it was. She was flying the Norwegian flag and had the Norwegian flag painted on her side. We made a signal to her to stop. She replied: I am stopping my engines to adjust my machinery. She said she had come from Rio de Janeiro. But she had stopped to adjust her gunnery. The captain told the officer of the watch to man a board boat and he was sending a boarding party aboard. As the boarding party was being loaded over the side - she was about 300 yards away - she opened her gun ports...guns came out...7in guns...first salvo hit us and blew one of our guns over like a shuttlecock. Alcantara fired of the first salvos hit the Grief's magazine...she went up but as she went up she fired three torpedoes and all three hit the Alcantara.  She went over and order was given to abandon ship. I was three hours in the sea - floating ice ahead of me - bobbing about."

He was extremely guarded while telling us about this, as though he might be in trouble for revealing too much, even though he was in his mid-eighties. He joined the Navy at 17 - had been a fishmonger in the Isle of Wight - and served on about 30 ships. He won the Rumanian Distinguished Conduct medal and was at the Boxer Rebellion on HMS Glory, and whenever we took him out in the car and he spotted a Chinese restaurant he would mutter "blessied Chinese".

Hope this might be of interest to you and others.

Patricia Jones

Thanks to Chris Cooper for this report from Captain Wardle, HMS Alcantara:

Report by Captain Wardle, HMS Alcantara.
Copied from a file held at the National Archives, Kew, London.

1st March 1916


I have the honour to report that on Tuesday 29th February, at 9 A.M. I was in approximate position 61 – 45.N. O.58.E, having ordered H.M.S. “Andes” to rendezvous with me in 61.50.N, 1.O.E, to transfer secret papers.

At 8.55.A.M smoke was reported on the port beam, bearing N.75.W (true), and almost at the same time a signal was received from “Andes” stating enemy in sight, steering N.E., 15 knots, - and also another signal describing her – which I read as stating she had two funnels.

I at once increased to full speed and steered for the smoke.

At 9.10 A.M. I sighted “Andes”, hull down bearing N. (true), and steering N.E. (true).

At 9.15 being about 6000 yard off stranger I hoisted M.N. and fired two rounds of blank.

The stranger at once stopped and made a signal “I am stopped”

She then hoisted her number M.G.VI which was not in my copy of “Signal letters of ships of all countries”.

The ship’s company were at action stations and the guns were kept on the stranger.

About this time, 9.20. A.M., a signal was received from “Andes” “Enemy has altered course to S.E.”, and I saw that “Andes” had also altered to S. E. and apparently reduced speed. She was thus closing us.

When 4,000 off the stranger I altered course to port to keep this distance off while signalling her.

It could then be seen that she was flying Norwegian colours, and had Norwegian flags painted on her side with the name “RENA”.

I then signalled to “Andes” by search light “Am intercepting suspicious vessel, is enemy still in sight”. To this no reply was made.

In response to my signals the stranger signalled that she was from Rio de Janeiro to Trondghem.

These particulars, her size and course, all agreed with Lloyds confidential list of ships.

Getting no reply from “Andes”, I determined to put an armed guard on board stranger, who appeared quite normal, and then to proceed to help “Andes” with the enemy, as smoke had been sighted S.S.E. true.

While getting the guard ready, I reduced to 14 knots, and kept clear of stranger’s stern.

At 9.35, “Andes” signalled “That is the suspicious vessel”.

At 9.40, the boat was being swung out, and I was closing stranger on the port quarter when I noticed her ensign staff drop over the stern, and men clearing away a gun on the poop.

At the same moment stranger fired a shell at our bridge, which put the tellmotor steering gear, engine room telegraph, and all telephones on the bridge out of action, besides killing and wounding men.

The flaps with flags on her sides were let down, and she fought under no flag.

I at once gave the order full speed, and open fire. Range 2000 yards.

A messenger was sent aft to order the after steering gear to be connected up, and all further steering was done from the after control.

The enemy at once went ahead and turned to starboard, firing high explosive shell, some of them very short, but several hits were made near the water line amidships, penetrating the No. 1 stokehold bunkers which were half empty, and the engine room.

At 10.2., the enemy fired a torpedo which passed under our stern, starboard helm being used to avert it.

The first round from our after 6” – port, hit the ammunition of the after gun of enemy and put it out of action.

The German prisoners state that our third salvo all hit the enemy.

At 10.15 enemy was badly on fire by the bridge, range 5,500 yards. And she apparently stopped.

At 10.22 boats were noticed leaving the enemy who was enveloped in a cloud of smoke.

I ordered cease firing. H. M. Ship was beginning to list to starboard, and then suddenly listed to port.

The smoke cleared from enemy, and she fired one more round.

I then ordered open fire, but at 10.35 H. M. Ship was listing badly to port and sinking. I therefore gave the order, Cease firing, boat stations, stop engines. The order to stop engines never reached, but they apparently stopped themselves, when the water rose.

Every effort was made to get the boats out and save wounded, but several falls had been shot through, and men were precipitated into the water. – H. M. Ship was making about 3 knots through the water with the helm apparently hard a starboard, but the ship turning to starboard.

At 11.2. H. M. Ship sank.

At least 15 boats and a large raft floated clear.

H.M.S. “Comus” and “Munster” were rapidly coming up, “Munster” commenced saving life , while “Comus” proceeded to “Andes” who all the time had apparently been about 8,000 yards off, and reopened fire on the enemy, which was still burning furiously.

I am of opinion that enemy was completely abandoned by 10.30, and that the round fired afterwards was due to a heated gun. The statements of prisoners bear this out.

A wireless message was received from ”Comus”, but the decoded message never reached the bridge, and I was therefore unaware that help was on its way.

I have the honour to report that the officers and men of H. M. Ship fought with great gallantry, and that no one left their stations until ordered to, and I personally witnessed cases of men assisting wounded at great risk.

A full report will be submitted later.

The exact times will probably require revision when investigated. Those quoted are given from memory of the Navigating Lieutenant, who used a stop watch, but whose note book was lost while in the water.

A list of survivors on board H.M.S. “COMUS” is attached.

I have the honour to be,
Your Obedient Servant,


The Commander-in Chief
H.M. Ships and Vessels.
Grand Fleet.

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