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


"War has broken out between Great Britain and Germany."

This was the message received by the Australian Naval Board, from the British Admiralty on the 5th of August 1914, at 1100 (11 AM) Australian time.

The Melbourne Argus of the 6th of August 1914, reported under the following banner headline:


The Prime Minister (Mr. Cook) said last night:-

"We have just to sit tight and see the thing through. Whatever the difficulty, and whatever the cost, we must be steadfast in our determination. Our resources are great, and the British spirit is not dead. We owe it to those who have gone before to preserve the great fabric of British freedom. and hand it on to our children. Our ancestral home is the repositry of the great liberties, the great traditions, and the great pieties, and on our very lives we must cherish them. Our duty is quite clear - namely, to gird up our loins and remember we are Britons.

German ship in Melbourne when WW1 dawns
On the day war broke out, there was one German ship in Melbourne, it was the 6,560 ton steamer Pfalz, which had taken on board the Consulate staff from Melbourne, and was proceeding down Port Phillip Bay to pass through the heads, into the freedom of the open sea.

Captain Robinson was the Australian pilot navigating this vessel towards the Rip.

Port Phillip Bay, is a large body of water, but it narrows at the entrance, and is overlooked by protecting Forts on each side of the entrance, these two areas are collectively known as the Heads. A narrow dredged channel  between the Heads is called the Rip, it is the only means of entering into, or exiting from the Bay, the tide races through this narrow gap as it ebbs or flows to and from Bass Strait. Ships entering or leaving Port Phillip usually do so at high tide, so that they have the maximum depth of water under their keel as they transit these dangerous waters.

The morning war was declared by Britain on Germany, the Forts situated each side of the Bay, and guarding the Rip, were warned that Australia was now also at war with Germany.

The first shot to be fired by Australia in WW1, came from a 6 inch gun emplacement at Queenscliff, it was aimed across the bows of Pfalz as she was about to enter the Rip. Captain Robinson now observed the signal flying at the Fort, was against the vessel he was piloting, notwithstanding an argument with the German Merchant Captain, Robinson prevailed, he turned Pfalz about, and sailed her back to Melbourne and captivity.

A subsequent inspection uncovered 4 inch guns stowed in her hold, plus evidence came to light that this ship had been built to enable these guns to be mounted to turn her into an Armed Merchant Ship. It had been a close run thing!

The Germans now became Prisoner's of War, and Captain Robinson barely escaped the title of " Australia's first POW of WW1."

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