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


Medal commemorating Captain Count Dohna-Schlodien of SMS 'Moewe'
Medal commemorating Captain Count Dohna-Schlodien of SMS 'Moewe'
Moewe (sometimes spelled Mowe)
Moewe became the most successful of all the German Armed Merchant Ships of WW1.

She carried out two raiding cruises, thus beating the British blockade ships twice.

She twice penetrated Royal Navy units to breakout, and then twice defeated them on her return journeys to make it safely back to Germany.

In all, Moewe accounted for 38 ships, totalling 174,905 tons, and sank a further ship of unknown tonnage, all without the advantage of a ship borne aircraft that we have seen used by Wolf.

This Raider was completed at Wilhelmshaven in 1915, for F. Laeiz of Hamburg, being named Pungo, and designed as a 4,788 ton refrigerated ship, intended to freight bananas from Togo to German Colonies in Africa.

Her speed was rated as 14 knots, with a 8,700 nautical mile range at 12 knots.

The German Navy had opened WW1 by using light cruisers or fast passenger ships fitted out with guns to ply the shipping lanes used by British Merchant ships, in an endeavour to totally disrupt this vital trade.

By 1915, most of the light cruisers loose in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been hunted down and destroyed by ships of the Royal Navy.

The large passenger ships had not been very successful either, they had been interned or sunk. Another problem associated with them, had been supplying these large ships with coal, which they gobbled up with a voracious appetite.

German Admiral von Pohl, had decided that "Unrestricted Submarine Warfare" was the way to go, but only 23 Boats were then serviceable, not nearly enough submarines to have the desired effect on British shipping.

In October 1915, a relatively junior officer, Leutnant zur See (a Sub Lieutenant in our Navy) Theodor Wolff, had written a paper in which he suggested that the Navy should look to the use of anonymous freighters, fit them out with extra coal bunkerage to increase their range, they would need to have an adequate speed to be able to overtake the relatively slow British tramp steamers that formed the core of the British Merchant Marine.

Add to these ships, adequate guns, torpedo tubes, a mining capacity, then the German Naval Staff would quickly have a potent Raider weapon at their disposal.

Admiral Pohl, was thus persuaded to try out this concept of the Armed Merchant Ship one more time.

Korvettenkapitan Burggraf Graf Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schlodien (what a mouthful) was chosen to test out this theory, and ordered to seek out a suitable ship for fitting out as a minelayer.

But Dohna-Schlodien was ambitious, he wanted much more, he persuaded his superiors that when he found a suitable ship, she should be completed for the role of a Commerce Raider, and not just for a minelaying task.

He went looking for his ship, with this list of criteria:-

  1. Not too fast so that coal could be conserved.
  2. Cargo space sufficient to cope with a large load of mines.
  3. Decks sufficiently strong to bear the recoil and weight of guns with a 15cm. capacity.
  4. A new ship would be ideal.
  5. Speed fast enough to overtake the average British Tramp Steamer.

The Captain without a ship went off to search for one, and he hunted through all the German ports, Kiel, Emden, even went off to Rostock, no such ship seemed to exist. He tried his luck in Hamburg, and then went to call on Herr Ballin, who was the Director General of the Shipping Association of that port. Ballin listened patiently to the Commander's list of requirements, but considered he was aiming too high, but suddenly he brightened. "I do know of one such ship, Pungo, built to haul bananas from the Cameroons. She is brand new, and will make 14 knots."

Pungo was docked in Bremen, bottled up by the British blockade, she seemed to be available, but was this ship really suitable?

Dohna-Schlodien quickly obtained a set of plans for Pungo, and hastened back to Wilhelmshaven, recruiting two Engineering specialists, and off to Bremen went the three of them.

There was Pungo, berthed alongside her sister ship Pioneer, both new, freshly painted, even down to a gold painted funnel.

The ship appeared to be ideal, the refrigeration plant added for the intended banana trade was an additional bonus that would allow extra provisions to be loaded and preserved.

But the acquisition of Pungo took longer than her provisional Captain had envisaged, at last he was ordered to take possession for the Imperial German Navy, and move her to Wilhelmshaven for fitting out in her new role as an Armed Merchant Ship.

4 by 15cm. guns (taken from a former battleship) were fitted in the fore part of the ship, and a disguised after steering contraption housed a 10.5cm. gun with a firing arc of 180 degrees.  A torpedo tube on each side abaft the foremast was added, plus a further two tubes just before the mainmast, and lastly, 500 mines were loaded on board.

During this fit out, the ship was designated HD 10, or Hilfsdampter 10, actually meaning Auxiliary Steamer 10, in an attempt to disguise the actual role intended for this vessel.

The ship commissioned as Moewe, which in German means Seagull, and there had already been a ship of this name earlier in this war, a survey vessel in German East Africa, but on the declaration of war, that Moewe had been scuttled.

November and December of 1915, found our new Moewe undergoing a shake down cruise, this is the time all gunnery weapons, torpedoes, and all machinery are thoroughly tested, all drills are carried out, over and over again, until men and machines and all offensive weapons integrate into an efficient fighting unit. Moewe's Captain pushed his crew to the limit in all their training schedules, it was a case of practice, then practice it all again, the very survival of the ship and her company depended so much on individual and collective skills of all, from her Captain down to the lowliest seaman and engine room rating.

In my 6 years of war at sea, it was always the same, after our ship had been in dockyard hands, off we would go to sea to work up again, and any Captain I ever served under, would work us relentlessly, over and over again, drills, and more drills, by day and by night, towing exercises, gun drills, evolutions, weigh the 5 ton anchors by hand, because one day we may not have steam available to do that task, man over board exercises, send away boats etc etc. Then, only when our Captain was really satisfied, and they always seemed to expect a still better performance, would they finally declare us to be ready once more "TO FACE THE ENEMY." We would then proceed north in the Pacific, back to the war zone and rejoin our Task Force.

Moewe now returned to Kiel for Christmas Day.

Admiral Bachmann commanding the Kiel Naval Station, now inspected the newest ship in his command, after which he declared she was "Ready for sea in all respects."

First cruise of Moewe
The High Seas Fleet Staff produced orders for Moewe that might be described as general, her Captain was given a fair amount of rope, so to speak. Five areas for possible mining were set out:

(a ) Around the North Minch area.

(c) In the surrounds of Lough Swilly.

(d) Sealanes around Bantry Bay, between 9 degrees 30 minutes W - 10 degrees 30 minutes W and 51 degrees 10 minutes N - 51 degrees 40 minutes N.

(e) Finally, the sealanes between Loire and Gironde.

At 1700 (5 PM) on the 26th of December 1915, Moewe was a last under way, she anchored the next day in a small bay at the mouth of the Elbe. Painting parties were transforming the white ship with the golden funnel into a black painted tramp, that hopefully would not attract attention.

The Raider became Segoland, with her home port listed as Goteborg, Sweden, her fake papers indicated she was carrying a general cargo from Rotterdam to Bergen.

Late in the afternoon of the 27th the submarine U-69 arrived to escort Moewe out of the anchorage, and into the open sea.  Bad weather kept the ship at anchor over the 28th with the high seas playing havoc with the new black paintwork and removing much of it, so much so that the painting operation needed repeating.

At 0500 (5 AM) on the 30th of December, Moewe weighed both anchors, her submarine escort sailing some 40 miles ahead to ensure a clear path and safety along the course ahead.

A force 8 gale assisted the new Raider in running the British blockade, and she was out of the Helogoland bight, into the North Sea. They were off Stravanger and shaping a course to take them well clear of the Shetlands.

Moewe was free, their epic voyage about to begin, but no one onboard could even contemplate what fate held in store for them, even in their Captain's wildest dreams, he could not have imagined what success would come the way of his ship, his crew, and himself.

Moewe commenced 1916, by laying mines to the east of Cape Wrath, the ship's position was fixed using Cape Wrath and Sule Skerry lighthouse beams, this field was close to the large Royal Naval Base of Scapa Flow.

250 mines, or half of Moewe's total load were laid, all in a position that would prove a threat to ships approaching Pentland Firthe from the west.

A moored mine sites on its wheeled base, which in turn runs down the launching track on board the laying vessel, the predetermined depth for each mine is set prior to its launch.  This will control the length of cable that will run out from the base which anchors each individual mine.

The combined mine and base are launched over the stern of the Minelayer, the combination sinks, the base will seat itself on the sea floor, then the set amount of cable will run out, and the mine rises to its preset depth, tethered to its base.

There are a number of criteria to be taken into account by the mine laying Officer:

  1. The nature of the bottom, he want a flat bottom on the sea bed on which to lay his mines.
  2. The depth of the water. The draught of ships he anticipates will pass through the area in which the mines are laid.  If he sets his mines too deep, the enemy ships will clear any danger.  He want the moored mines to be in position, so that the target will make contact with a mine under its keel, and so set off the mine mechanism to activate the mine, ad blow the ships bottom apart.
  3. The mines should not be set too far apart or ships may sail in between mines and escape destruction.
  4. If they are too close together, it is possible they may touch and set each other off.

The successful laying of a minefield and its aggressive or defensive use is indeed an art. A mine field may be laid as an offensive weapon as in the case of this work by Moewe, or it may be used as a defensive weapon, as a protective shield at the entrance to a port or base. In the later case, a clear path is charted for use by one's own ships or Naval Units, and all ships using the area would be aware of the strict course they need to steer when passing through such a defensive field. "Do not stray from the set course, or disaster awaits you!"

It did not take long for the Raider's minefield to claim its first victim. On the 6th of January, units of Home Fleet sailed from Scapa Flow for exercises, the old battleship King Edward VII ran on the mine field and sank.  (See Table 5 for details of this battleship.)

A Norwegian ship also came to grief on this field.

Moewe sailed south down the west coast of Ireland, and made for the French coast to lay more mines off the mouth of the Gironde.

On the 10th of January, the Spanish steamer Bayo, then only two days later, a second Spanish vessel Belgicia, were both claimed by this minefield.

Smoke was sighted at 1000 (10 AM) by the starboard lookout when the Raider was well west of  Cape Finistere on the 11th of January, but it took until 1600 (4PM) before Moewe started to slowly overhaul this ship.  But now, a second lot of smoke became visible, much closer on the port side, so Moewe turned towards this ship, and asked by signal for its name, the Farringford, a 3,146 ton ship inwards bound to UK with a cargo of copper ore, identified herself.

The Raider now hoisted the German battle ensign to the masthead and fired off a blank round across her target's bows. Captain Dohna - Scholdien from close by, ordered Captain Frederick Foley of Farringford to abandon ship, and her crew were transferred to Moewe, who then proceded to sink this vessel by gunfire.

The first ship sighted by its smoke held its course, and Moewe at last started to catch up. It proved to be another British tramp, the 3,687 ton Corbridge, loaded with coal from Cardiff for Brazil. A will aimed shell had the desired effect, and Corbridge stopped, the German boarding party reported finding quality coal, and, instead of sinking this ship now, it was sent off to a predetermined rendezvous, so that in due course Moewe could avail herself of this special cargo.

Another coal carrying ship, Dromonby, of 3,627 tons was stopped on the 13th of January. This coal had been destined for the British Cruiser Squadron operating off South America, but was now not going to arrive.The crew were taken aboard Moewe and scuttling charges soon disposed of her.

Now another ship appeared, it was Author, a 3,496 British tramp, loaded with a general cargo.

As Moewe had been flying a Red Ensign, Captain of Author considered it merely a chance meeting of two like vessels on the high seas and was very surprised when the German ranged alongside, hoisted her true flag, and trained her guns on his command, surprise was often a vital element in Moewe's armoury.

The crew of 58 were soon transferred to Moewe, a combination of laid charges and opening up the sea cocks disposed of this ship.

Another ship immediately appeared, this arrival was the 3,608 ton Trader of London, with a load of sugar cane from the West Indies destined for Liverpool, but would not now arrive.  The well tried routine of charges and opened sea cocks sent another British ship to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Moewe had indeed had a busy and profitable day, the 13th of January being lucky of this Raider, but equally unlucky for her three victims.

Only two days later, a bigger ship of 7,781 tons was stopped some 135 miles to the east of Madeira, this ship the Appam, had broadcast distress signals on being attacked, and Moewe had attempted to jam these transmissions, as she was well aware that the Royal Navy had a large force of ships covering this important trade route.

This latest prize had 150 passengers onboard, including the Governor of Sierre Leone, and the Nigerian Administrator, some German nationals who were also in the ship on their way to England for internment for the duration of the war. How ones fortunes may quickly change in the ebb and flow of war, one moment, a prisoner of war, the next freedom, and of course vice versa for all the English people in Appam.

This new capture was to provide a solution to the 157 prisoners that Moewe was carrying, place a prize crew in Appam, and transfer all the POW'S to her. Moewe now sailed south with Appam following in her wake, passing Madeira and the Canary Islands.

Now Moewe was again able to achieve what she had been designed for, raiding and destroying the commerce of Britain. Ariadne, a 3,055 ton ship from London, filled to the plimsol line with grain was stopped, this time a torpedo was used for the first time, and gunfire then used to hasten her end.

"SMOKE" reported one of the Raider's lookouts, it was the 16th. of January, and the two ships were approximately 120 miles south west of Madeira, Appam was ordered to wait whilst Moewe went off to investigate.

By the time the smoke had developed into a largish ship it had become dark, in the tropics, day changes into night very quickly.

Using a signal lamp, Moewe asked the darkened ship her name "You tell us your name first, and your destination" signalled the stranger in response.

Moewe's Captain quickly responded with "Author sailing from Liverpool to Natal." In the darkness the Raider looked sufficiently like the Author, that she had recently sunk, to get away with this bluff. The mystery ship now gave her name as Clan Mactavish, a member of the Clan Line, a 5,816 ton vessel returning from Wellington New Zealand to London.

Both ships were close to each other, when the German Raider indicated her true identity, and ordered the Clan ship to stop, to no avail! Her Captain tried to escape, and now used his wireless to broadcast a distress signal.

Moewe opened fire, and the single gun mounted on the stern of Clan Mactavish replied, but it was soon all over, and 18 crew members were killed and another 5 wounded onboard the British ship.

Surviving crew members were taken aboard Moewe, and the British ship quickly scuttled, it was mandatory for Dohna-Schlodien to move his ship as far as possible from this battle scene before ships of the Royal Navy arrived seeking him out.

In fact, the distress signals from Clan Mactavish had been intercepted and read in the wireless room of the British Cruiser HMS Essex, but for some inexplicable reason, the telegraphist taking this message, did not pass it on to his superiors. Essex was only 120 miles to the south, and another British Cruiser HMS King Alfred, was about the same distance to the north.

Moewe's Captain chose the right course to steer, due west, and he thus avoided any possibility of being discovered, but he had, had his share of luck.

Moewe and Appam met up again, but it was now time to part, staying together brought it own dangers, and would be likely to arouse the curiosity of any British warship Captain that they came across. Leutnant Hans Berg leading the prize crew, was ordered to sail his new command to a neutral port on the east coast of America, he arrived at Newport News on the 16th. of February.

Now the British Admiralty was alerted to the fact that a German Armed Merchant Ship was roaming the South Atlantic, but Moewe moved off towards the mouth of the Amazon River to rendevous with Corbridge, who was waiting to supply coal to replenish Moewe's almost empty bunkers.

On the 20th. of January, the 1,473 ton, three masted barque Edinburgh, with 2,000 tons of rice flour was captured, her crew removed, and she was sunk.

In another week Corbridge was met, and three days were spent in coaling the Raider, and then having fulfilled her coal supplying role, and having outlived her usefulness, she was now sunk.

Moewe again moved back into the sealanes, and on the 4th of February came upon the 4,322 ton Luxembourg, a Belgian freighter carrying 6,000 tons of coal for Buenos Aires, destined for a British owned railway in Argentina, she was soon sunk.

Two days later, the tramp Flamenco, of 4,629 tons was found, she used her wireless which in turn was jammed by a transmission from Moewe, and this ship was soon on her way to the ocean bottom.

It was learned that only the day before the capture of Flamenco, she had been stopped by HMS Glasgow, and warned that a Raider was operating in this area.

To be safe, Moewe decided to vacate this scene, and set a course for the Canary Islands. But in the evening of the 8th of February, a British collier Westburn was seized, she was on her way from Cardiff to Buenos Aires, with a load of Welsh coal. A prize crew plus all the prisoners that Moewe had collected so regularly, were sent across to this latest acquistion, and were transported to Santa Cruz where they were all released.

But, outside the harbour, the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Sutlej patiently waited, so, to avoid capture, Westburn was scuttled.

Now on the 9th. of February, some 80 miles north east of the Westburn capture site, Moewe stopped another ship, it was Horace, of 3,338 tons, but carrying nothing of interest to either the Raider or Germany, given this situation, it was not long before she was on her last voyage, to the bottom.

It was evident that the Royal Navy had regained control of the South Atlantic, their ships were out in force seeking to find Moewe, her Captain thought it was high time to withdraw from that area, and to make for home.

Working her way northwards, Moewe found the cupboard to be quite bare, nothing off Africa, nothing in sight off the Canaries, and still nothing off the Spanish coast.

From regularly finding ships to take, plunder, or else use as a fuel supply source, or use as a prison ship and then dispose of them as he wished, Moewe's Captain was now finding nothing but an empty horizon, the ocean could indeed become a lonely place.

After so much action, which keeps the whole crew on its toes, the excitement of the chase, the power of deciding the fate of a specific ship, boarding parties exploring a captured ship, interrogating prisoners for news and intelligence, then suddenly, it all stops, and the open sea becomes a totally empty void.

How does a captain keep up the morale of his ship's company during such a lull? Does he keep driving them? through exercising his gun's crews, boarding party techniques, reminding them what a great group of sailors he commands, of offering hope of future interceptions, promising them the glory of a triumphant march through the streets of Berlin, or perhaps an award of an Iron Cross? I suggest, any Commanding Officer as efficient and experienced as Dohna-Schlodien, would most likely use each of these methods as and when required to maintain a high level of morale aboard his command of Moewe.

It was not until the 23rd. of February that this drought was finally broken, a ship was sighted, and turned out to be the French vessel, Maroni, 3,109 tons, sailing for New York from Bordeaux. Her crew were removed, then, using both explosives and gunfire, she was sunk. It may well have been sufficient, to only make use of well placed explosives to dispose of this Frenchman, but the Raider Captain decided to give his guns' crews a lift, by allowing them to be a part of the action, who knows?

The wireless operator woke his Captain on the 25th. of February, with a signal from the Kaiser, indicating that he had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class, plus he had at his disposal 50 more Iron Crosses Second Class, to distribute amongst his sailors as he wished. Indeed, what a bonus at this particular time!

As if to celebrate this special day, 600 miles west of the Fastnet light, Saxon Prince, of 3,471 tons, was overtaken, she was bound from Norfolk Virginia, for London, with a mixed cargo, but it was found on inspection of this ship, the cargo included gun cotton, which had no other purpose than being used in the production of explosives, very much a product for war usuage. The ship was soon sunk, making her capture number 15.

Moewe now proceeded south of Iceland, to the north of the Faroes, and, on the last day of February, it happened to be a leap year, so it was the 29th. of February, they altered course to the south east towards the coast of Norway and home.

The next day, the coastline of Norway was in sight, by now excitement was building up within all the crew members, at last, it seemed they would manage to return to their Home Port.

During my six years of being at sea during WW2, the thought of arriving home after a long and difficult time at sea, used to engender an atmosphere within the ship, it bubbled, it almost boiled, the anticipation was intense, our sailors called it  "CHANNEL FEVER!" A truly wonderful feeling.

On the 3rd of March, they were off the Skagerrak , a German escort met the Raider the next day off the Island of Amrum, finally Moewe was home, safe in Wilhelshaven Harbour, her first maraudering cruise was over.

A wireless message from the Kaiser arrived for her Captain:-

" I present to you and your gallant crew my most cordial greetings on the occasion of your return to a German port after your long and brilliantly successful cruise, and I offer my thanks for your heroism which has struck so vital a chord with all the German people. I confer on all your crew, the Iron Cross Second Class, I desire that you personally present yourself as soon as possible at Imperial Headquarters."

Wilhelm. IR.

Praise indeed from the highest quarter.

Moewe's Captain took a train to Berlin and presented himself at court, to spend two hours with the Kaiser, and in turn, was then invested with Germany's highest award:-

The Blue Cross and Golden Eagle of the " Pour le Merite." the much prized " BLUEMAX."

By July of 1916, Moewe had completed her refit, and was once again ready for action , but it was prudent to play down the name of this now famous Commerce Raider, and she was renamed Vineta.

She now undertook three raids into the Skaggerak, the Baltic and the Kattegat, but her sole success, one ship, reported as the British Eskimo , a mail steamer, but in some references, this prize is named as a 3,326 ton Russian vessel.

Once more the name of Moewe was adopted, it appeared to have become a household name, not to be easily cast into limbo. Besides sailors go not care to have their ship names changed, they become attached to the name under which they have fought, and tend to be superstitious about changing a ship's name.

The ship now prepared to undertake a second foray as a Commerce Raider.

To twice carry out a cruise would create naval history in the annals of the ImperialGerman Navy, but, and it was a big but, could Moewe survive, to return home a second time?

The second cruise of Moewe
Nicholas Graf zu Dohna-Schlodien was also promoted to Fregattenkapitan (a rank between our Commander and Captain, but with no equivalent in either the Royal Navy or the Royal Australian Navy.)

Whilst Moewe was home in Germany, some conscious effort was made to make cosmetic changes to her appearance that would give her a different look to that which obtained for her first cruise.

The funnel was lowered and made broader, two large derrick posts towards the stern were removed, her hull filled in to hide the torpedo tubes, giving the hull a continuous straight appearance, and the two masts were straightened, whereas they had previously been raked.

On the 22nd. of November 1916, they were ready to sail from Whilhelmhaven, and at 1600 (4 PM) Moewe turned her propellors to commence her second cruise, to be followed by two more Raiders over the next month, Wolf and Seeadler, both of whom we have already covered in this work.

The ship crept northwards along the Norwegian coast, with the advent of bad weather assisting the breakout, then setting a westerly course to pass north of the Shetland Islands, within four more days, any British Blockade had been avoided, and Moewe was once again loose in the North Atlantic Ocean.

On the 2nd. of December, the British Voltaire of 8,618 grt. was caught, she was in ballast bound for the United States, her crew of 90 men were taken off, and she was sunk. A good start for the Raider's new cruise, on the 4th of December, the freighter Samland, 9,748 tons, with a load of refrigerated meat for the Belgian people was found.This ship was part of an International effort to alleviate hardship in the captured territories, and the German government had agreed to this plan , so Moewe's Captain had little alternative but to allow Samland to continue her journey unhindered.

The next day, the Norwegian Hallbjorg was stopped, although strictly a ship owned by a neutral country, amongst her cargo was steel tubing consigned to Britain, and Dohna-Schlodien believed this tubing was basic stock, destined to be turned into gun barrels, and the ship was sunk.

On December 6, 1916, Moewe overhauled a 9,792 GRT freighter, SS Temple Mount, commanded by Captain Sargent of of The Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. When instructed to stop, he refused, was subjected to a shelling, killing three crew, that action caused the ship to stop and be boarded, whereby her papers revealed the ship had been built by Armstrong, Whitworth and Company Ltd. at Newcastle on Tyne in 1901.

She was sailing to Brest with a load of wheat, horses, general cargo etc, none of which was of a great interest to Moewe's Captain, and with opening her sea cocks plus explosive charges the ship was sunk about 620 nautical miles west of Fastnet.

Note: I am indebted to Patrick Coulter for pointing out I had omitted this action against SS Temple Mount, in my covering of the German Armed Raiders of WW1. Which only goes to show I am often not infallible.

Moewe now positioned herself well, and continued to be busy, when 700 miles off Newfoundland, she sank King George, a Glasgow based ship of 3,852 tons, carrying 600 tons of gun powder.

Cambrian Range of 4,234 grt. was next to go.

Although a wireless warning about a Raider's activities, had been issued by the Bermuda land station, Dohna-Schlodien knew if he stayed in the vicinity of the main sealane, linking the United States with Britain, he would gain fruitful pickings, and he was prepared to take the inherent and implied risk.

On the 10th of December, the 10,077 ton Georgic was sighted, she did not stop, and the ensuing gun fight killed one man aboard her, until she too was gathered into Moewe's net.

Whenever a victim put up a fight without meekly surrendering, and some crew members were either killed or wounded, once the rest of the crew were taken aboard the Raider, her Captain would send for the defeated Captain, and give him a lecture on causing harm, and even death to some of his resisting crew, why didn't you just give up at once and thus save life? he would ask. In most cases the British Captain would respond by saying it was his duty to try and escape, and if fitted with a gun, it had been installed to use if attacked, it was not placed in his ship to be just an ornament.

Georgic's cargo had been horses for the European Armies, oil and wheat, all doomed for the ocean floor.

The very next day, brought Yarrowdale, a 4,652 ton British ship into the spider's web, she carried 100 motor vehicles, coal, and some thousands of tons of steel, it was decided this cargo was much too valuable to be sunk, on board went a prize crew, all the prisoners were sent there also, and she was ordered to be sailed to Germany.

Next was Saint Theodore, owned in Liverpool, but loaded with 7,000 tons of coal for the United States, she was soon despatched to a pre arranged rendezvous.

Moewe now headed south to avoid any Royal Navy ships seeking her out, and on the 18th of December, the Dramatist was found, she was loaded with fruit and explosives, some of the fruit changed hands, then the ship was scuttled.

As planned, Moewe met up with Saint Theodore on the 23rd. of December, a wireless set, and two 5.2cm. guns were fitted in her, and Kapitan Leutnant Wolf was given command, she then became the Commerce Raider Grier, and I have already covered her brief career.

On Christmas Day 1916, the French four masted 2,679 ton barque Nantes, with a load of saltpeter for London, received an unwelcome Christmas present in the shape of a German Armed Merchant Ship. She was quickly sunk.

On the final day of 1916, the wireless on board Moewe brought news that Yarrowdale had beaten the blockade and arrived safely in Germany.

The first 1917 victim, was the four masted barque Asnieres, just over 3,000 tons with 4,000 tons of American wheat in her holds, now destined not to arrive at Bordeaux as previously planned.

Next to be captured was the 3,798 ton Hudson Maru, instead of consigning her to the ocean depths, a prize crew was sent on baord with the intention of using her to accommodate all the prisoners now in Moewe, when it became appropriate,

The 7th. of January found Radnorshire laden with coffee beans, she was sunk by using explosives.

Two days later, the British collier Minieh of 2,890 tons, was met, in fact she had been selected by the British Admiralty as one of ten ships given the task of decoying German Raiders, only on the 7th she had coaled a British light cruiser HMS Amethyst. After quickly despatching this collier, Moewe headed off at full speed for the  relatively perceived safety of the mid Atlantic.

On the 10th. of January the British tramp Netherby Hall was intercepted, and sent to the bottom.

The 250 Prisoners of War, crowded aboard Moewe were now transferred to Hudson Maru and sent off to Pernambuco.

Geier was met a week later, she had only sunk a small three masted schooner, of but 215 tons, and Moewe undertook a difficult coaling from Geier, owing to the heavy Atlantic seas that were running. As the coal onboard Geier was almost exhausted,  the Captain of Moewe decided that since her capture, her success had been rather limited, she had proven useful as a collier for the Raider, but now was the time to dispense with her, and she was scuttled on the 14th. of February.

The next day, the brand new ship Brecknockshire, from the yards of Harland and Wolff of Belfast, a 8,422 ton steam ship built for the Royal Steam Packet Company was overtaken, she was making her maiden and only voyage, soon to be taking her 7,000 tons of coal with her to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The 16th of February arrived, and with it, came French Prince, her cargo of salted beef, wheat, and provisions destined for Le Havre, were all destroyed with the ship.

At this time, Moewe almost ran into HMS Edinburgh Castle, an Armed Merchant Cruiser, but a fortuitious rain squall intervened, and she was able to elude this ship of the Royal Navy.

It was almost time to make for home, the ship was showing the strain of running down potential victims, but perhaps a few more scalps could be added to the already formidible list of ships destroyed.

The 3,000 ton Katherine, with a full load of wheat from the Argentine was stopped, and sunk.

Of necessity, the last week of February had to be given over to working on both of Moewe's boilers and engines, they were in dire need of maintenance, if they were to function efficiently, and it was never known when a sudden burst of speed would be needed, to catch up with a ship ahead, or to get Moewe out of a potential trouble spot.

The 4th of March logged the disposal of the 3,061 ton British Rhodanthe, outward bound to pick up a load of sugar from Cuba, she met the usual fate of any ship unlucky enough to be found by Moewe.

The next day, a sister ship to Flamenco (sunk during the Raider's first cruise) was found, this ship was Esmeraldas, 4,491 tons, sailing to Baltimore for a load of horses ordered by the British Army, and destined for use in Europe.

Dear Mac,

If I may call you that. I am a big fan of your site and would like to thank you for your efforts, but that's not why I'm writing. The other day I was in the Ironmongers' Hall, the Ironmongers being one of the medieval livery companies of London. In a display cabinet I spotted the following. Now bear with me here, because all I did was hurriedly jot down some notes so I may not have got it word for word, but broadly speaking the citation went like this.

On the 10th March 1917, the Pacific Steam Navigation Co. ship Esmeralda was stopped by the Moewe.  The boarding officer Lt. Pohlmann told Captain Maken that he could take one item from the ship as a souvenir, so he chose the 1878 silver inkstand.  In 1957 aged 93, Captain Maken donated the inkstand to the Ironmongers' Hall, Livery Co. in Aldersgate, London as "a souvenir of a past when there still remained some chivalry in warfare."

Any inaccuracies in that are probably mine.

Yours sincerely,
John Random

Dear John,
I am delighted with your message, it is quite wonderful when someone such as your good self takes the time and trouble to contact me with another small piece of the jigsaw that throws new light on one of the stories I have written about.

AHOY is very efficiently put together and run by my very good freiend and Webmaster, Terry Kearns in Atlanta, Georgia. I do the research and all the writing, and Terry converts my ramblings into the site that faces the world of the Internet. Without Terry and his expertise, our joint work would not see the light of day.

John, I believe the ship you have found at the Ironmonger's Hall is the Esmeraldas, it has an s at the end of its name.

Read more.

No sooner had she been scuttled, when a larger ship hove into view, it turned out to be, the 9,575 ton Otaki, sailing out of London for New York, and in ballast. Stop! was ordered by Moewe, but stop she did not, merely clapping on speed trying to outrun the Raider, her stern 4 inch gun opened fire, killing 5 German crew and wounding another 10. This action really upset the Captain of Moewe, but further shots did still more damage to the German ship, now, her guns came into action and caused sufficient damage in Otaki, for this ship to roll over and sink.

Her crew were recovered from the sea as quickly as possible, but not before Captain A. B.  Smith, and 5 of his crew had perished, this courageous Captain, one of the few to even contemplate fighting back against the German Raider, and then to back up his defiance with action; was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.

On the 13th. of March, when south of Iceland, yet another ship was sighted, the 6,048 ton, Demerton, she had a cargo of timber, and scuttling charges needed the assistance of the 15cm. guns before this ship sank.

Next day, Governor, a sister to Dramatist, was the next to go, she was sunk 930 miles to the west of Fastnet, but she also put up a fight, and had to be subdued by shells, the crew were taken off, and a torpedo delivered the coup de grace.

By now, Moewe was crowded out, in all, about 800 people were on board, and food supplies were running short, by the 18th of March, the Raider was close to Iceland, she altered course to safely pass the Shetland Islands, and now turned to run down the coast of Norway and make for the santicity of Kiel.

The ship had been brought home for the second time by her Captain, a feat, to that time, unparalleled in the history of the Imperial German Navy.

This German Naval Officer, was to be honoured by his Kaiser by being appointed as "His Majesty's Naval Aide-de-Camp."

Moewe served out her Naval time as an Auxiliary Mine Layer in the Baltic, at War's end, she was ceded to Britain as part of the war reparations, and renamed yet again, as Greenbrier.

In 1933 the ship was sold back to German interests, to be christened Oldenburg, finally she was sunk on the 7th. of April 1945 during an Allied air attack off Vadhein in Sogefjord.

In 1953, this wreck was raised, the final episode  of a truly remarkable ship; crewed and Captained with flair, persistence, but above all, with typical German efficiency. 

Dohna-Schlodien should go down in German Maritime History, as a model Captain of one of the best Armed Merchant Ships ever to sail the seven seas.

The name was to live on, a new Destroyer was launched in 1926, to bear the proud name Moewe.


"On March 10, 1917, the refrigerated meat ship Otaki, commanded by Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, sailing 350 miles east of the Azores, was sunk by the German commerce raider Moewe, but not before the Otaki's 4.7 inch gun had inflicted so much damage on the Moewe that, although able to reach Kiel, she never returned to sea. The Otaki lost six crewmen, including Captain Bisset Smith, who went down with his ship. Smith was a civilian and therefore not strictly entitled to receive the VC, so he was posthumously gazetted a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. The London Gazette of May 24th. 1919, details the award.

Citation of the award of the Victoria Cross posthumously to Lieutenant A.B. Smith RNR. The Supplement of the London Gazette. 24th. of May 1919.

Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith, R N R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the S S " Otaki," on the 10th March, 1917.

At about 2 30 p m on 10th March, 1917 the S S Otaki whose armament consisted of one 4. 7 in gun for defensive purposes, sighted the disguised German raider Moewe which was armed with four 5.9 inch, one 4.1 inch and two 22 pdr guns, and two torpedo tubes.

The Moewe kept the Otaki under observation for some time and finally called upon her to stop.

This Lieutenant Smith refused to do, and a duel ensued at ranges of 1900, 2000 yards, and lasted for about 20 minutes.

During this action, the Otaki scored several hits on the Moewe causing considerable damage, and starting a fire, which lasted for three days. She sustained several casualties and received much damage her self, and was heavily on fire, Lieutenant Smith, therefore, gave orders for the boats to be lowered to allow the crew to be rescued.

He remained on the ship himself and went down with her when she sank with the British colours still flying, after what was described in an enemy account as " a duel as gallant as naval history can relate "

In 1936, the relatives of Captain Bisset Smith presented the Otaki Shield to the Governors of Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen, where he had been educated, to be awarded annually to the scholar judged pre-eminent in character, leadership and athletics.

From 1938, the New Zealand Shipping Company added a travel scholarship in the form of a return trip to New Zealand - a tradition which continues, with P and O now providing the passage.

In March 1951, Captain Bisset Smith's VC was bought at auction by the New Zealand Shipping Company and for two years it was housed in Robert Gordons's College, but was then placed in the 'new' Otaki when it was built in 1953.

It remained in the officer's dining room until the Otaki was sold in 1975. The medal has since been in the possession of PandO, in pride of place in the office of the chairman.

Signed: H.O. Smith, Head of Geography, Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen."


Here are the details relating to the award of the Victoria Cross, when the Merchant Navy members were classified as civilians, and could not be awarded a VC.
To get around this, in the case of Captain Archibald Bisset Smith, after his death in his ship, they commissioned him a Lieutenant Royal Navy Reserve, he died  in 1917, his son  (adopted ) collected his VC in 1919.
On the 22nd. of May in 1920, a Royal Warrant changed the rules as to the ward of the VC, and added the Mercantile Marine,  A copy of these details follows:

Gallantry Awards during the First World War (Mercantile Marine)

During the First World War when Germany's navy waged unrestricted war upon Britain's Mercantile Marine, many acts of gallantry by merchant seamen "before the enemy" were performed that could not be rewarded officially within the then existing gallantry award system. Naval awards were frequently made for such acts by making recipients temporary members of the RNR, and sometimes recipients were "awarded" posthumous commissions in the RNR in order to receive posthumous VCs. [This assumes that these Mercantile Marine Masters would have accepted RNR commission, and this is by no means obvious.]

Gallantry Awards after the First World War

Victoria Cross - Merchant Navy personnel became eligible by Royal Warrant dated 22 May 1920.

The relevant section of the Royal Warrant of the 22nd. of May 1920 that made the Merchant Navy eligible to be awarded a Victoria Cross.

Sixthly: It is ordained that:~
1 Officers, Warrant Officers and subordinate Officers hereinafter referred to as Officers, Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers, hereinafter referred to as Petty Officer, men and boys hereinafter referred to as Seamen serving in ~ (a) Our Navy or in ships of any description for the time being under Naval Command; (b) Our Indian Marine Service; (c) Navies or Marine Services of Our Dominions, Colonies, Dependencies or Protectorates; and (d) Our Mercantile Marine whilst serving under Naval or Military Authority, or who in the course of their duties may become subject to enemy action.

2 Officers, Warrant Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, men and boys hereinafter referred to as Marines, serving in Our Marines.

3 Officers, Warrant Officers (Classes I and II), Non-commissioned Officers, men and boys hereinafter referred to as Privates, of all ranks serving in Our Army, Our Army Reserve, Our Territorial or other forces, and the forces of Our Dominions, Colonies, Dependencies or Protectorates.

4 Officers, Warrant Officers, Non-commissioned Officers, and Airmen in the ranks of Our Air Force, or the Air Forces of Our Dominions, Colonies, Dependencies or Protectorates.

5 British and Indian Officers and men of all ranks of Our Indian Army, the Imperial Service Troops of Native States of India or any other Forces there serving under the Command, guidaance, or direction of any British or Indian Officer, or of a Political Officer attached to such Forces on Our behalf.

6 Matrons, Sisters, Nurses of the staff of the Nursing Services and other Services pertaining to Hospitals and Nursing, and Civilians of either sex serving regularly or temporarily under the Orders, direction or supervision of any of the above mentioned Forces shall be eligible for the decoration of the Cross.
Perhaps we add these details as an addendum to Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith RNR getting his Posthumous Victoria Cross.
Thats sorted that lot out, I couldn't believe that in WW1, the Merchant Navy who were in the firing line equally with the regular Navy, were not able to win a VC.

The transcript of the oral diary of  Donald Stewart is attached. He served on the Brecknockshire. The article was published in "The Loch a Tuath News" April 2005.
Thanks to PJ Enright

The Loch a Tuath News
April 2005
The late Donald Stewart, 29 Coll (Domhnall a'Charagain)
Service during the First World War

The Loch a Tuath News
April 2005
The late Donald Stewart, 29 Coll (Domhnall a'Charagain)
Service during the First World War

The following is a slightly abridged account by the late Donald Stewart, 29 Coll (Domhnall a'Charagain) of his service during the First World War. It is taken from a tape, in Gaelic, recorded in 1979.

In the summer of 1914 I was 22 years old, and like a lot of other Lewismen, I was at the East Coast herring fishing. I was one of the crew of a sailing boat called the Uganda and we were fishing out of Fraserburgh. There were another three men from Coll and one from Vatisker in the crew.

On Sunday I went for a walk before dinner and was taken by surprise to see notices in shop windows and at the gutting yards asking all Royal Naval Reservists to report, at once, at the Custom House. After dinner I went to the Custom House, as I was in the Royal Naval Reservists, and was told to report at Portsmouth as soon as possible. Some left on the Sunday train but it was too full to take all of us. I left on Monday morning and, again, the train was full, a lot of the passengers being Lewis fishermen. In the compartment with me were five of my near neighbors. There were Alexander Munro, 25 Coll (Adaidh), John Macdonald, 27 Coll (lain Domhnaill 'An Mhoir- athar Bhunuit), Norman Stewart, 28 Coll (Tormoid Chaluim Ruaidh - Gionn), Murdo Maciver, 33 Coll (Bochan), Norman Maciver, 34 Coll (Tormoid Mhurchaidh Bhig - seanair Neill Sheumais), and I was from 26 Coll at the time. (Alexander, John and Norman (34) were all lost at sea. They were married men with young families). Things were very chaotic when we arried in Portsmouth. The call-up had, obviously, caught them unawares and they were having difficulties in coping with such a large influx of personnel. There was no adequate accommodation, not even enough hammocks for us all.

In a day or two they lined us all up and told one section they could go home and await further notice. I was not in that squad, but there was a further line up two days later, on August 13th, and one section was told to report to the sick bay for a check up as they were to be drafted somewhere. I was among that lot but we did not go very far as we were sent to a light cruiser that was acting as a guard ship off Southampton. There were 45 Lewismen aboard at that time. I was there from August 1914 until April 1915. In April I was sent to a Gunnery School on Whale Island. When we finished our training in June 1915, four of us were drafted to join a liner in Liverpool. There was an Englishman, a Shetlander, a man from Portskerra and myself. We arrived in Liverpool and saw the ship that we were going to join. It was a White Star Liner called the Olympic. I was told that it was a ship of 50,000 tons, had a crew of 1,000 and was able to take 10,000 passengers. The Portskerra man and I were put on a 4.7 inch gun af on the quarterdeck and the other two on a 12-pounder for'ard, this was an anti-submarine armament. We were in the Gladstone Dock for a few days with nothing much happening. After that soldiers started coming aboard but we had no idea what our destination was going to be. After leaving Liverpool we heard that it was the Dardanelles we were taking the troops. We landed them at an island called Lemnos and then called at Spezia in Italy to take on coal as we did not have enough to complete the return journey - we were using 1,000 tons of coal a day. We did four trips to the Dardanelles with troops, taking 10,000 on each trip.

When we got back to Liverpool after the fourth trip we were told that we were going on a different route the next time. It was across the Atlantic we went this time to take Canadian soldiers over from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I cannot remember the date we set off for Halifax but we made twelve trips across the Atlantic, taking about 10,000 soldiers every time. After the twelfth trip, towards the end of December 1916, the Olympic needed to go for a refit, so we left her in Belfast and went back to Liverpool. The guns that we were manning came across with us in the ship that took us from Belfast (I was asking about the Olympic after the war and was told that she continued trooping throughout the war and came safely through it all).

The Portskerra man and I were sent to another ship, along with our guns. Our new ship was a cargo ship of over 8000 tons called the Brecknockshire. She was on her maiden voyage carrying a cargo of coal to supply naval ships in the South Atlantic. We did not have any trouble till we were about 500 miles south of Fastnet Rock, off Southern Ireland, when we ran into a terrible storm. The Captain decided that the only thing to do was to put her head into the wind and were hove to for three days being buffeted to and fro. The crew were kept busy securing anything that was in danger of being blown away and we were called to help them secure a jumbo that was attached to the mast and had broken loose. After that we were ordered to go and give a hand to engineers who were carrying out repairs to the steering gear down aft. We were just to hand them tools as they asked for them and help in any way we could. The storm was still raging without any abatement, but we managed to get down aft. While we were there a lump of water surged through the door and I was thrown down the stairway headfirst, but somehow managed to put my arm out and I got wedged between the bulkhead and the handrail. I remained there until they managed to release me with crowbars. The other man had disappeared and found later jammed underneath a boat. We were fortunate that we were not swept overboard. After the storm abated, somewhat, we set off again. On the 15th February 1917, when we were near the tropics we noticed some smoke in the distance. As there was always the fear of German raiders the Captain gave the order to get up as much steam as possible. It turned out to be the German raider Moewe which was much faster than we were and heavily armed. She soon caught up with us and started firing when she got within range. The first volley passed our bows but the next one hit us. In the end the Brecknockshire was so badly damaged that she could not carry on. Before she sank I went down to our cabin and picked up a Gaelic Testament that was lying on the bed and put it in my pocket. That was the only bit of my belongings that saved. Several of our crew were killed and before the ship sank the Germans sent a boat over to take the survivors aboard the Moewe.

When we got aboard we saw that there were 7 or 8 other survivors there. They were the crew of a schooner that was coming from South Georgia with a cargo of whale oil and had been sunk by the raider. If my memory serves me correctly we were at 25 degrees south at the time. During the time that I was in the raider it sank 12 British ships. I don't remember the names of all of them now but one called the Otaki had 6 inch guns on her and she put up quite a fight. A shell from her came through to where we were and several of the Germans were killed. I don't need to go into details about these encounters but you can imagine our emotions. On the one hand we wanted the Germans defeated yet we knew that if the ship was to go down we would go with her, as there was no way we could escape from where we had been imprisoned. We were kept in the after hold and battened before every encounter. She now continued North our conditions on board were getting worse all the time. There were over 300 prisoners aboard and with there own crew meant that there were between 500 and 600 altogether. They knew that the Royal Navy was on the lookout for them and they did not want to leave any clues, which would give a hint of their whereabouts. As we continued up North conditions on board were getting worse all the time. In the end we were nearly starving as the food consisted, mainly, of watery soup. I cannot blame the Germans too much as I think they were running out of provisions. She continued up North, between Greenland and Iceland over to the North Cape in Norway and down territorial waters until she arrived at Kiel, on the 22nd of March 1917. We were in a bad way when we got there. The lack of food, fresh air and hygiene had all taken their toll. The Portskerra man collapsed before we got ashore. He was a big strapping man of about 13 or 14 stones but had gone to less than 10 stones. However, he made a good recovery once he got better food and fresh air.

After spending a week in Kiel we were sent to a camp in a small town called Dolan in South Germany. We were there for another week. It was a transit camp where we were cleaned and bathed and given better food before deciding where to send us next. After the week was up we were on the move again. This time to a camp near Brandenburg. There was some work going on at the River Havel and we were sent to work there. While there I came across the only Lewismen I was to meet all the time that I was in Germany. He was a lad from Point that I knew at the fishing. I only spoke to him briefly as he was on his way elsewhere. We were in Brandenburg for a while and then we were sent to Lubeck up on the Baltic Sea. We were doing similar work there to what we had been doing in Brandenburg only this time we were working at a quay. All this time we were not getting any news of the war. The letters from home were censored and the Germans never gave us any information. We noticed towards the end of the war (although we did not know that at the time) that the guards were getting friendlier towards us.

We were then sent to another camp near Gustrow and when we got there we heard rumors that the Germans had been defeated and that the war was coming to an end. In a day or two after arriving in Gustrow we heard officially that the war was over and that we were being sent home. We were then taken to Warrenmunde and boarded a ship that took us to Aarhus in Denmark. As there was no ship available there we were sent to a camp in Viborg, which is quite a distance inland. When a ship did arrive we were taken back to Aarhus where we boarded and sailed to Leith. After a few days delay in Leith I was allowed home. Two weeks after arriving at home I got word to report to Stornoway where I was medically examined and given my demob papers.

I am now 87 years of age and God has been good to me all these years. I should be thankful to Him for taking me safely through many dangers along the way.

That, then, is a short account of my life between 1914 and 1918.


This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness. All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.

Copyright© 1984/2014 Mackenzie J. Gregory All rights reserved