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


(See "The Wolf" a website and book by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen)

The second ship to carry this name was a Hansa Line Freighter, having a gross tonnage of 5,809 tons, she had launched as Watchfels, but now was to be fitted out as a Raider, renamed Wolf.

Wolf 1 has already been covered in this work.

The new Wolf  became one of the most successful German Armed Merchant Ships of WW1.

The aim of ships of the Royal Navy was to bottle up the exit and return points that had to be negotiated by Raiders in breaking out of their home port, and then trying to return home after a long, arduous and often boring raiding cruise.

Wolf eluded RN patrols on exiting from Germany, and then managed to do it again by sailing safely home, no mean achievement.

She was fitted out for her role as an Armed Merchant Ship with a formidible armament, 6 by 15cm. guns, 1 by 10.5 cm. weapon, and some lesser calibre guns, 4 torpedo tubes were added, and then some 400 mines were loaded onboard.

For a WW1 Armed Merchant Ship the provision of a Freidrichshafen FF.33e two seater seaplane named Wolfchen (Wolfcub) by the crew, was an innovation, it was designed to provide Wolf's Captain with a broader horizon over which to locate potential victims, so he might place his ship in a favourable position to intercept. Two seaplane pilots, Leutnant z.S.d.R. Matthaus Stein, and Oberflugmeister Paul Fabeck were added to the Raider's crew list.

This plane after being hoisted onboard, was dismantled, and then hidden on deck beneath a tarpaulin, but disaster struck when Wolf's guns were test fired, blast crushing the seaplane's wings, forcing the crew to unload them and despatch them to a local arifield for ememgency repairs.

When these wings arrived back onboard the Raider, for safety they were stowed in No. 4 hold, whilst the body of this seaplane was stowed on the poop in a deck house, constructed for that special role.

Wolf was a relatively slow ship with a top speed of only 11 knots, but she did have the advantage of a huge cruising range at her economical speed of 8 knots.  Her bunkers carried 6,000 of coal, and she burned only 35 tons daily at 8 knots.  Wolf's range was thus an incredible 32,000 nautical miles, almost 1.3 times around the globe.

Korvettenkapitan (equivalent to a Commander in our Navy) Karl Neger was given command of this ship, he had seen previous service in the cruiser Stettin.

Wolf now sailed from Germany, at first on the 24th of November 1916, but a fire broke out in a coal bunker forcing the ship to return to Kiel. After further delay, caused by fog, Wolf once ore tried to commence her voyage on the evening of the 30th of November, and by the 2nd of December she had slipped past any Royal Navy patrols and had broken out into the North Sea, at last she was away.

The intrepid ship was to be free for 15 months before returning to Kiel on the 24th of February 1918. During that time she journeyed 100,000 kilometers, relentlessly nibbling away at a daily quota of distance, just as a mouse finding a chunk of cheese, will keep nibbling away at it, until at last it is all domolished.

January the 27th found Wolf as far south as the Cape of Good Hope, she almost ran into a convoy escorted by an Armed Merchant Cruiser, but then laid a course to avoid detection.

Some of her mines were now laid off the Cape, and Wolf made ofr to the North East, and by mid February further mines were sown off both Bombay and Colombo.

Two British ships, the 7,175 gross registered tonnage, Worcestershire, and Perseus of 6,729 grt. both came to grief on these mines.

Wolf now placed herself to the south, so that she might sit astride the route taken by ships sailing from South Africa to India, and other vessels taking the route from the Red Sea in the Dutch East Indies.

Just prior to the end of February, the seaplane was assembled and tested, its engine running quite successfully.

Early on the morning of the 27th of February, 1917 a British ship of over 5,000 tons was sighted, ashot across her bows soon convinced her Captain to stop!

Initially as Gutenfels, this victim had been owned by the Hansa Line, who also owned Wolf, but in 1914 she had been interned in Port Said, then impressed by the British into service, and renamed Polovan, then in 1916 she was converted to a tanker role, given yet another name change ( many seafaring nations seem to enjoy this game of name changing) to call her Turritella, and be operated by Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company Ltd. on behalf of the Royal Navy.

A prize crew and a 5.2cm. gun, plus 25 mines were placed on board, and she was ordered off to the area around Aden, but given yet another name, Iltis.

The British Captain had indicated that HMS Newcastle was prowling in the area, so the seaplane was ordered aloft, the FF.33e, as reported named Wolfchen, was quite slow, a top speed of but 119 kilometers an hour, or about 74.5 miles per hour, and to climb to about 5,000 feet took half an hour.

But all appeared well, no sign of HMS Newcastle, but being very careful, and to ensure he was not taken by suprise by the British cruiser, the Captain ordered the seaplane to again check the surrounding ocean.

Thankfully for Captain Nerger, no Royal Navy ship was to be found in the vicinity, but two merchant ships were spotted, but proved to be outside the capability of Wolf to overtake them, it was also prudent not to alert any British warship to the whereabouts of a German Armed Raider on the loose in the Indian Ocean.

Course was now set for Australia, and on the 1st of March, Wolf's lookouts reported a merchant ship in the distant seascape, Wolfchen was hoisted out over the ship's side, and to mitigate any gun blast from the main armament, her pilot now took off to investigate, he circled this vessel which proved to be the British Jumna of 4,152 tons.

The usual warning shot brought her to an abrupt halt, however all was not well aboard Wolf, the port after gun had been prematurely fired before it was trained sea wards, and on deck, five seamen had been mowed down, they all died as a result of this tragic accident.

Suitable stores were removed from Jumna, prior to sinking her on the 4th of March.

But now back to Iltis, now off Aden where she laid her mines during the night of 4/5th of March, but she now ran into the British sloop HMS Odin, armed with 6 by 4 inch guns, so Ilitis was scuttled to prevent her from returning once again to British ownership and control.

Wolf, on the evening of the 11th of March, whilst well east of the Seychelles Islands, sighted smoke on the horizon (in both world wars, the presence of smoke becoming being visible on the horizon was probably the greatest single reason a convoy or a single ship was discovered by the enemy at sea, whether the sighting was made by Allied ships or aircraft or Naval units/aircraft belonging to the German forces ) up went Wolfchen to investigate, she returned with the news that she had sighted a merchantship. The seaplane was hoisted inboard, and Wolf set off in pursuit, eventually Wordsworth of 3,509 tons with a full cargo of rice was overtaken and stopped, some of her cargo was retrieved and then, a combination of well laid explosive charges and opening up her sea cocks sent this ship to the floor of the Indian Ocean.

Wolfchen had now made 14 different flights in this part of the world, she was hoisted inboard, pulled apart, and restowed in No. 4 hold.

Right at the end of March, the three masted barque Dee of only 1,169 tons was over taken and then sunk about 400 miles south west of Cape Leeuwin, Australia.

The Raider now steamed well south of Australia skirted New Zealand on its eastern side, the lonely ocean yielding not a single victim, even the anticipated grain ships, by chance, managing to evade the watchful eyes aboard Wolf.

North east of New Zealand, on the 23rd of May, the seaplane was again assembled, but 4 flights proved to be completely barren, not a potential prize to be found.

Four days later, Nerger anchored Wolf off Sunday Island for some much needed boiler maintenance, then on the 2nd of June, smoke was in evidence in the distance, up aloft went Wolfchen to investigate, as Nerger needed to know if this smoke heralded the whereabouts of a Naval warship, or was it but a potential  prize for him?

This smoke transformed into the 3,947 ton New Zealand steamship Wairuna, loaded with cheese, milk, and meat, a virtual floating storehouse, but even better, she carried 1,200 tons of coal.

"More precious to us than our daily bread! "  said Captain Nerger.

This new capture was sailed back to Sunday Island where both ships anchored, and the coal and stores were soon transferred from Wairuna to Wolf. On the 16th of June both ships weighed anchors, and sailed in company, on clearing the Island, Wolfchen took off and soon found Winslow, a 567 grt. 4 masted schooner, and ordered her to steer towards Wolf.

The next day, no longer of any value to the Raider, Wairuna was scuttled, and then Winslow was cleaned out of any provisions and anything else of use to Wolf, and on the 22nd. of June she was left, a burning hulk adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Over June 25/26 mines were laid between King Island and the North Island of New Over June 25/26, mines were laid between King Island and North Island of New Zealand, and also in Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Wolf now sailed off to the Southern coast of Australia, laying further mines off Gabo Island on the 3rd. of July, almost running into HMAS Encounter, forcing Wolf to cease her minelaying operation, and seek the safety of the open ocean.

Cumberland, a 9,471 ton vessel soon became a victim of Wolf's mine laying activity, sinking on the 6th. of July, and Wolf now sailed past Howe Island into the relatively calm and safety of the Pacific.

She soon captured the American sailing ship Beluga, which was subsequently sunk using gunfire.

The 15th. of July found Wolf intercepting the 4 masted barque Encore of 651 tons, 51 days after she had sailed for Sydney from the Columbia River with a load of oregon pine, her cargo was doused with oil and then set alight.

But Wolf was now dangerously low on coal, and food shortages were also a problem, with about 200 prisoners on board from captured ships, feeding her own company plus all these additional mouths added to the situation confronting Captain Nerger on the coal shortage.

However relief appeared to be at hand, the radio staff aboard Wolf, on the 28th of July, read a plain language message indicating that a Burns Philip ship ex Sydney would be off Rabaul on the 6th of August, and more importantly, part of her cargo included 500 tons of Westport coal.

At 1945 (7.45 PM) on the same day, the seaplane found the 1,611 ton Matunga, and Wolf was duly informed, the aircraft returned to her ship, was quickly recovered, and the Raider then stalked this merchant ship throughout the night. At 0700 (7 AM  the following morning, Wolfchen was launched, she soon found Matunga, forcing her to stop.

Captain Donaldson of Matunga was most suprised when the German Officer leading the boarding party, asked him about the 500 tons of coal that was amongst the cargo his ship was carrying. Also on the cargo manifest, was listed the monthly liquor supplies for the people of Rabaul, a nice bonus and haul for the crew of Wolf, but on learning of the fate that had befallen their precious grog, the populace of Rabaul were not impressed. War or no war, one thing that helped them survive, was the arrival on a regular basis of their alcohol supplies, this was now denied them, and even worse still, their normal supply ship plying from Australia to Rabaul was no more, it had fallen prey to a wretched German Armed Merchant Ship.

Wolf and her captive steamed in company for a week, to then anchor in the harbour of the quite remote Waigeo Island, but a few miles south of the equator.

To give a first hand description of this area, allow me to quote from Roy Alexander's "The Cruise of the Raider Wolf." Roy had been serving in Wairuna when she was captured by Wolf, and he was taken a Prisoner of war.

"Round this impressive entrance the Raider emerged into one of the most gorgeously beautiful land locked harbours found in the world. The scene was breathtaking, so lovely that it appeared unreal, but there were lice beneath this peacock's plumage. There was not a breath of air between the hills, the atmosphere was dank and suffocating like that of a hot house, the place stank of rotting vegetaion, and with every movement, one oozed persperation. When the natives came near us, their bodies were seen to be covered with yaws, obscenely red sores, like overgrown abcesses.

"After nightfall, the place simply swarmed with malarial carrying mosquitoes. We only needed to be one night in Wolf's hold in this wildly beautiful Bay to hate the place more than any other spot on earth."

Over 12 days were spent at Waigeo Island, to allow maintenance to be carried out on Wolf's boilers and engines, her fouled bottom after so long at sea needed to be scraped clean. When planning to become a Raider, thought had been given to such necessities as cleaning a fouled hull, and diving equipment had been loaded to allow crew members to keep their ship seaworthy.

The precious coal and foodstuffs were transferred to Wolf, then both ships weighed anchors and sailed together, and Matunga was soon scuttled a few miles out at sea off the coast of New Guinea, and Wolf sailed into the Java Sea making towards Singapore.

There, overnight on the 2/3rd of September, the last 100 mines were laid, Lombok Straits navigated, and Wolf burst out into the Indian Ocean, and pointed her bows to a course that, at long last, would take her home to Germany.

What thoughts could have gone through the minds of all the crew members aboard this Raider? We have survived many lonely days and miles at sea, we have been a most successful Armed Merchant Ship, we have operated efficiently, but above all, "We have been a lucky ship!"

But, will we ever see home again? How have our loved ones been coping during our long absence? Do they believe we are still alive, or have they written us off and got on with their lives and living without us? Even if they still retain hope for us, have our respective partners remained faithful to each of us? or has someone new given them love and affection? Are we once more able to evade the Royal Navy blockade, seeking to prevent our reentry into our home port?

Plus, I am sure, many more such questions would have bubbled to the surface in the thoughts of both Officers and Crew members on board Wolf, and also amongst the 200 prisoners incarcerated in a hold below decks, and below the waterline, measuring but 40 by 30 feet, and 12 feet in height. How did the prisoners feel individually and collectively, locked below, during a  Wolf engagement with a ship it had stopped? The prisoners had no way of knowing if it was an innocent merchant vessel, or a powerful heavy cruiser from the Royal Navy, or one of her Allied Naval ships. If the latter, at any moment a shell could burst through the ship’s side, and explode amongst them all.

These prisoners were not on their way home, but were to face a further period being held in custody by the enemy, their morale would have been at rock bottom, their only real hope, that the Royal Navy would come to their rescue, but then as noted, the prospect of a ship to ship action in which they faced the possibility of death could have been uppermost in their minds.  

On the 23rd. of September, the seaplane was again assembled, hoisted out over the side, started up, to slowly bounce across the waves, trying to gain flying speed, to at last stutter into the sky and become airborne. So much was expected of Wolfchen, and, in general she delivered, a great deal of the credit for Wolf’s success and survival, flow to the two pilots who steadfastly maintained their charge and then flew her with great skill and dedication.

Within an hour, the seaplane had returned to the ship with news of a large merchant man in the vicinity of the Maldive Islands. The Japanese 6,557 ton Hitachi Maru eventually came into view, ignoring warning shots from Wolf, and her order to "Stop immediately."

A gun mounted on the stern of the Japanese ship was observed to be prepared for action, so Wolf opened fire rapidly, four salvoes crashing into her quarry, killing 14 of her seamen and injuring a further 6 more. This brought the required response, and Hitachi Maru quickly stopped, a boarding party discovered she was loaded with silk, copper, and provisions, and that a number of women were amongst her passenger list.

A prize crew was put onboard, and the major part of her crew and passengers were taken on board Wolf.

The two ships now sailed together until the 6th. of November, when Captain Nerger decided to scuttle this Japanese ship, and Wolf sailed on alone. Before this time, the seaplane which had proven so useful for scouting ahead in the general area surrounding Wolf, was declared unserviceable, all attempts had been made to repair wing damage with material taken from Matunga, but the seaplane was declared not to be airworthy, and was pulled apart and stowed below decks.

On the 10th. of November, the Spanish vessel Igotz Mendi was sighted and captured, supposedly neutral, she was carrying 5,000 tons of coal, ironically for the Royal Navy, but Wolf's Captain had no qualms in placing a prize crew on board, and sailing her to Coco Island. Going alongside the Spaniard, 1,000 tons of coal were transferred to Wolf.

Once more Wolfchen was removed from the hold and reassembled, this time, silk from the sunken Japanese Hitachi Maru, was used to totally renew the planes' covering, then two reconnaissance flights were undertaken, but, on a third flight large holes in the silk covering were evident, again, the seaplane was pulled apart and stowed below in No. 4 hold.

Showing infinite patience, the air crew, once again tackled the aircraft's fabric problem, this time using deck paint combined with lacquer. At last success! once again Wolfchen was sent aloft.

Early in December, the 1,395 grt, John H Kirby, a three masted barque became the next victim of the Raider, and was soon scuttled.

Both Wolf and Igotz Mendi were painted grey, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded across the South Atlantic towards the Ilha da Trinade.

Another three masted barque came into view, it was the 2,192 ton Marechal Davout, out of Melbourne Australia, loaded with wheat for Dakar in West Africa, she was sunk. The seaplane was again flown to ensure Trinade was a safe haven clear of any enemy warships.

The year 1918 had now dawned, and on the 4th of January, the Norwegian barque Storebror (big brother) was sighted and then sunk, she had no cargo onboard, sailing in ballast from Beira, Portuguese East Africa to Montevideo.

Wolf and her Spanish prisoner were slowly edging their way northwards in the Alantic.  The final week of January revealed two large grey ships crossing their path ahead. Nerger thought these were troop ships carrying United States army reinforcements for the European front. He reasoned that close by must be a naval escort, he kept clear, and his good luck continued, and no signals were exchanged, the two ships sailed on unnoticed and unmolested.

Wolf  with her Spanish prize, by early February, had steamed far enough north to be ready to run down the Norwegian coast to the safety of a German port. Igotz Mendi, raised the coast of Norway on the 21st of February, and was shaping a course for Kiel, only to run aground in thick fog on the Danish coast at 1520 (3.20 PM) the next day. So near to Germany, but in fact so far away.

A Danish gunboat took off all the crew and passengers, but the ship remained very firmly aground.

On the other hand, Wolf managed to make it back to Kiel in Germany, defeating both fog and ice, Nerger and his intrepid crew had been away an incredible 452 days, and had steamed almost 2.5 times around the globe, some 100,000 kilometers.

The population of Kiel flocked to the dockside to acclaim Wolf's achievements, many at home had long given up any hope that this Raider had managed to survive. Her arrival was considered something of a miracle, she had certainly made a cruise of endurance, and had survived through the efficiency and persistence of her Captain and crew.

The crew of Wolfchen insisted on flying their faithful seaplane  to the Kiel Naval airstation, even after a gruelling 15 months stint at sea, she was still airworthy.

The lesson learned from the use of an aircraft in conjunction with an Armed Merchant Ship was remembered, to be repeated during WW2.

When the war ended in the final defeat of Germany, Wolf was ceded to France, in 1919 she went to Brest, there to be refitted and given yet another name, Antinous, and served only two more years. This famous Raider met her end in 1931, in Italy, in the ship breaker's yard.

The Kaiser presented all the crew of Wolf with the Iron Cross, and they all came to Berlin to march through the streets. Captain Nerger was promoted with an extra stripe to full Captain, and appointed as Officer Commanding Armed Trawlers, North Sea Division, not considered a prize appointment.

See "The Project Gutenberg eBook, Five Months on a German Raider, by Frederic George Trayes"
A new book, The Wolf Odyssey by Peter Hohnen to be published shortly.

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