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


When war began, Dresden, a light cruiser of 3,664 tons, fitted with 10 by 10.5 cm guns, and some of a smaller calibre, also had 2 submerged torpedo tubes, one each on the port and starboard sides, was in company with Karlsruhe in the West Indies. For a period of seven months she presented problems for the British naval authorities. Dresden slipped down the eastern seaboard of South America, rounded Cape Horn to sail northwards along the Chilean coastline.

Eventually Dresden was run down by the British cruisers Glasgow and Kent, assisted by the auxiliary cruiser Orama, and was sunk at Juan Fernandez on March 15 1915, about 400 miles westward of Valpariso. She had claimed but four victims, totaling 12,960 tons, however this ship had succeeded in tying down British naval forces far from home, which could have been far better employed around the British Isles.

A three funneled light cruiser with a similar armament to Dresden, Leipzig was a member of the German Far Eastern Squadron. Between the 1st. of August, and the 8th of December 1914, she dispatched four ships totaling 15,279 tons, before being sunk by ships of the Royal Navy at the Battle of Falkland Islands.

Another light cruiser also with three funnels, she carried the same armament as Dresden and Leipzig, but this ship had no success as a raider, and joined Leipzig in being sunk by the Royal Navy in the Falkland Islands. About 350 crew members including 60 Reservists who had been recruited from Germans residing in Hawaii, died in this action, leaving only twelve to be rescued from the sea, and five of these died aboard HMS Kent.

Fast passenger ships converted into Armed Merchant Ships
This small group of ships on the 4th. of August 1914, were, either at sea, in foreign ports, or had slipped out of Germany before any blockade could be set in place.

Ships with names such as : Wilhelm, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Printz Eitel, Cap Trafalgar, and Fredrick made up this group.

Without any doubt they could not be considered to have been successful, they proved to be too large, and were thus very conspicuous, they simply devoured large quantities of coal, and refueling them became a major problem. To coal them at sea from the Motherland proved an impossible task, and these raiders had to depend upon their victims as a source for their coal requirements.

Kronprinz Wilhelm
This liner of 15,000 tons, slipped out of New York harbour to meet up at sea with the cruiser Karlsruhe, to obtain her armament, a conversion which took but two hours, and was undertaken by her own crew.

Under Captain Thierfelder, Kronprinz Wilhelm, became the most successful of this class of commerce raider. She accounted for seventeen ships, including Highland Brae, a Nelson liner, and Guadeloupe, a French mail steamer.

Operating in the South Atlantic for eight months, this vessel was forced to seek refuge in Newport News, USA on the 11th. of April 1915, and was duly interned by American authorities. On the 7th. of April 1917, the Americans renamed her Von Stueben, with a career as a troopship before her.

Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

A similar liner to Knonprinz Wilhelm, being of 14,500 tons, and as already noted was the first merchant ship to gain the coveted title of the "Blue Riband of the Atlantic" for Germany.

As a raider, her time in the sun was but brief, after being fitted out with 6 by 10.5 cm guns, this liner sneaked out of Germany on the 4th. of August 1914, and made her exit before war was actually declared on that day.

She sank a small British trawler, the Tubal Cain, Kaipara, a New Zealand trader of just over 7, 000 tons, and Nyanga, a small freighter of 3,000 tons.

The British light cruiser HMS Highflyer, on the 26th. of August off Rio de Oro in Spanish West Africa found, engaged and sank Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, it was all over in just over three weeks as a raider for this ship.

It is interesting that in the early stages of WW1 at sea, Germany was intent on observing conventions, both the liners Arlaza and Galician had been intercepted by her, but, as both women and children were part of the passenger list on board, both of these vessels were allowed to proceed unmolested. However this state of affairs did not last for too long, any Allied ship that was encountered by German Naval ships or Armed Merchant Raiders, irrespective of their human or material cargo, was soon sunk.

Cap Trafalgar
An 18,800 ton ship capable of 17 knots, and fitted with 2 by 10.5 cm guns was at sea only two weeks.

The converted Cunard Line Carmania, fitted with old British 4.7 inch guns outfought her German adversary, and was able to sink Cap Trafalgar before she was able to claim any Allied ships.

Prinz Eitel Friedrich
A smaller liner of 8,797 tons, having a surface speed of 15 knots that operated over the period from the 5th. of August 1914 to the 8th. of April 1915. Her armament of 4 by 10,5 cm guns had come from the gunboats Luch, and Tiger, and were fitted at Tsingtau in China.

In all she accounted for 11 ships of 33,424 tons, but this raider was running short of supplies, and her increasing number of prisoners exacerbated this problem of feeding both the crew and her captives.

Captain Thierichens decided to enter the American port of Newport News on the eastern coast of America on the 11th. of March 1915, there they were interned, and had the ship seized on the 7th. of April 1917, to serve as a troopship renamed De Kalb.

The US American Lines Inc. bought the ship in 1921, another name was used, and as Mount Clay, she served only for 3 years, to be broken up in 1935.

Lesser Merchant Raiders
This group consisted of ships named: Berlin, Cormoran, Geier, Iltis, Leopard, Meteor, Victoria Luise, Vineta 1, Vienta 11, and finally Wolf 1.

In general, this group were insignificant, and had little impact as Armed Raiders, they had absorbed a great deal of time, money, and materials in fitting them out as Raiders, but obtained only limited results that hardly justified all the trouble and expense.

A ship of 17,324 tons, was fitted out essentially as a mine layer to carry some 2,000 mines, she also had a formidible armament of 6 by 10.5 cm guns.

Berlin and her crew were soon interned in Norway in November of 1914, but mines she laid off Tory Island accounted for the British battleship Audacious and a steamer Manchester Commerce, on the 26th. and 28th. of October.

It took until the autumn of 1917 to finally clear this minefield that Berlin had laid.

At 0900 ( 9 AM ) on the 17th. of November 1914, Captain Pfundheller entered Trondheim harbour, hoping to be able to coal his ship. But the Norwegian authorities had no sympathy for Germany in general, and this ship in particular, and only granted him a 24 hour hour stay in that port, and Berlin submitted to internment.

In June 1919, this ship was returned to Bremerhaven, but was ceded to Britain that December, and was renamed Arabic.

Given an extensive refit for the White Star Line, this vessel was eventually scrapped in Italy in 1931.

This former Russian steamship Ryazan, was one of 5 sister ships built over 1908 -  1909, that at the outbreak of war was captured by the cruiser Emden, becoming the first prize for Germany in the first world war.

Her registered tonnage was 3,522 tons, with a designed speed of 14 knots, she was converted to an Armed Merchant Raider by adding 8 by 10.5 cm guns and renamed Cormoran.

Roaming the Pacific Ocean seeking out targets which were not forthcoming, this Raider, running out of coal, was interned at Guam on the 14th. of December 1914, and once the United States declared war on Germany, authorities attempted to seize Comoran, but her crew scuttled the ship on the 7th. of April 1917, but seven crew members died as a result of this action.

A cargo ship of almost 5, 000 tons, with a speed of 11.5 knots, had been owned by the British and Foreign Steam Ship Company Limited of Liverpool, and named Saint Theodore.

She was captured by Moewe on the 12th. of December 1916, and fitted out with 2 by 5.2 cm guns mounted alongside number 2 hold on the main deck, one to port, and one to starboard.

Under Kapitanleutnant Wolf, Geier had but a short career, accounting for the Canadian barque Jean, of 215 tons, and one other small sailing vessel.

This Armed Raider was scuttled off Ilha da Trinade on the 14th. of February 1916.

Launched as Gutenfels in November 1905, this 5,528 ton ship of 11 knots was seized br the British in Alexandra harbour in 1914.

The following year she was sold to the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company of London and renamed Turritella. On the 27th. of January 1917, the Wolf captured her, she was now given her third name of Iltis, and equipped at sea with a single 5.2 cm gun, and despatched off Aden to lay mines in the sealanes off that port.

Such are the fortunes of war, over a period of almost three years, this ship was to have been German, then British, and then back to German ownership, but this last change was only to be short lived.

When challenged by HMS Odin, west of Aden, Iltis was scuttled to prevent her ownership changing yet again, she enjoyed a life of only 12 years in all, finally coming to an ignominious end by meeting up with HMS Odin.

Launched at Newcastle in UK, in 1912, as Yarrowdale, for the Mackill Steam Ship Company Limited of Glasgow, with a registered tonnage of 4,652 tons, and a speed of 13 knots.

Moewe, the Armed Merchant Raider had captured her on the 11th. of November 1916, and putting a prize crew onboard she was sailed back to Germany, to be fitted out as Leopard, an Armed Raider, with 5 by 15cm guns, plus two torpedo tubes, she now sailed in her new role as a very formidible fighting ship on the 16th. of March 1917, pretending to be the Norwegian Rena.

The Norwegian flag and NORGE were painted on both sides of her hull.

On the very first day that Leopard ventured to sea as a Raider, she was stopped by the cruiser HMS Achilles, and ordered to proceed west by south for inspection by Dundee, an Armed Boarding Steamer.

Commander Selwyn Day in Dundee carried but one 4 inch gun, and a three pounder, he sent over a boarding party, and then lengthy signals passed between the two vessels. Day became suspicious, and the Raider then launched two torpedoes, both passed astern of Dundee, at a range of only 1,200 yards. Day opened fire, and succeeded in destroying most of the Raider's guns, in fact, 70 shells had been fired by Dundee, before Leopard was able to reply.

Achilles alerted by the sound of gunfire, arrived on the scene at 0400 (4 AM) to join in the fray, and opened fire at a range of 5,300 yards, she also fired a torpedo which struck Leopard in the bow. After taking a tremendous pounding, Leopard sank at 0435 (4.35 AM) being lost with all her crew, the British boarding party of 1 Officer and 5 Ratings were all killed in this action.

When WW1 commenced, this former North Sea packet named Vienna, of 1,912 tons with a 14 knot speed, was seized in Hamburg and converted to carry 374 mines, two torpedo tubes were added, plus 2 by 8.8cm guns, and a 5.2 cm gun were fitted.

Renamed Meteor, and disguised as a Russian ship, a sortie was made into the White Sea and the Kola Peninsula.

In August 1915, she was sent out a second time to mine the Moray Firth, but Meteor was stopped by the Armed Boarding Steamer Ramsey, which carried only 2 by 12 pounder guns, the German ship opened fire and soon sank Ramsey,  her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Raby, and 50 crew were all killed.

On trying to return to Germany, Meteor was intercepted by the British Light Cruiser Force from Harwich, to avoid capture, her Captain Von Knorr scuttled her on the 9th. of August 1915.

Her single success was the sinking of a small Norwegian schooner, thus Ramsey was quickly avenged, and Meteor had her time as an Armed Raider and Minelayer cut short.

Victoria Luise
Launched in January of 1900 as Deutschland with a registered tonnage of 16,703, and an expected speed of 17.5 knots.

It was in 1901 she won the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing.

This ship was reengined by Vulcan over 1910-1911, and only four days after the declaration of war in 1914 she had been gunned as a Raider with 4 by 10.5cm weapons, and some lesser 3.7cm guns and renamed Victoria Luise.

Trials soon indicated that her boilers and propulsion machinery could no longer generate enough speed, and although mine laying was considered as a possible role for this ship, she was now returned to her peacetime owners by the German Navy.

The Navy appeared to rush off willy nilly with ship conversions, without first checking out that selected ships would be totally capable of carrying out their required role as Armed Merchant Ships. A great deal of time, money and materials were, I suggest wasted, so much for vaunted German efficiency.

Vineta.( 1 )
Built as Cap Polonia, in 1914, this 20,772 ton vessel was capable of 17 knots, and had 4 by 15cm guns fitted, together with some smaller calibre weapons.

She was the first German ship to be fitted with forced draft water tube boilers.

The declaration of war brought immediate problems relating to a suitable supply of quality coal.  Top of the line Welsh steaming coal was needed to achieve top speed, and now, such coal was of course, not available. German coal that could be used, only clogged up all the boiler tubes, and once more, a ship had to be returned to its owners, and then was laid up for the entire war.

Post war, Britain gained this ship  in 1919, via the Treaty of Versailles, but she carried out only one voyage as a troopship to South Africa, and one journey to Bombay, only to be laid up again in 1920.

The following year Cap Polonia was resold back to her original owners, converted to oil burning, and served until the early 1930's, then spent time at Hamburg as an accommodation ship, to be finally broken up in June of 1935.

Her original owners must have despaired at all the cost they must have laid out on this vessel for such a small return over her life time.

Vineta ( 11 )
The Raider Moewe operated under this name in the Kattegat and Skagerrak over the period June/ August 1916, then once more resumed her own name.

Wolf ( 1 )
Started her life by being launched as Belgravia in 1906, this 6,648 ton ship of only 13 knots was requisitioned for Naval service at the start of 1916.

She fitted out as Wolf, with 4 by 15cm guns, 2 torpedo tubes, and 2 by 3.7cm machine guns.

Sailing on her first voyage as a Raider on the 20th. of February 1916, she promptly ran aground at the mouth of the Elbe, and was so badly damaged that she needed to be towed back to port, and was then decommissioned.

Once again, an incredible amount of effort, training and expense in fitting her out for a role as an Armed Merchant Ship had come to nought. In 1919, this ship was ceded to France as part of the Peace Treaty arrangements, she was rebuilt, and, in 1922 was registered as Iowa, finally being sent to the breakers yard in 1934.

Smaller Armed Merchant Ships
The final group of ships converted from freighters, comprised Grief, Leopard, the sailing ship Seeadler, a Clyde built full rigger fitted with an auxiliary diesel engine, and the best known, and most successful Merchant Raiders, Wolf, and Mowe.

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