SMS Seeadler by Christopher Rave
On 21 December 1916 a very different sort of raider had slipped down the River Weser and out into open water. She was the fully rigged, three-masted barque Seeadler (Sea Eagle), originally the American-owned Pass of Balmaha which had been intercepted by a British cruiser off the Norwegian coast. The cruiser’s captain had his suspicions about the ship and ordered her to head for Kirkwall in the Orkneys for a detailed search with an officer and six marines left aboard. Contrary to the wishes of the American skipper, the British officer insisted that she should fly the Union Flag. On the way she was captured by U-36. The marines were locked up and the American captain was told to take his ship into Cuxhaven. On arrival, the Americans were permitted to leave for a neutral country and the barque became the property of the Imperial Navy. The German Admiralty’s thinking at this time was that as providing coal for raiders at sea was becoming increasingly difficult, the use of a sailing ship equipped with an auxiliary diesel engine would not only reduce the problem but also attract little attention as so much of the world’s maritime traffic still employed vessels of this type. It was decided, therefore, that the Pass of Balmaha would assume the identity of a neutral Norwegian ship and a great deal of effort into ensuring that even the smallest details would seem accurate to a boarding party. For example, the ship’s navigational instruments all bore the name of a well-known Norwegian maker and the captain’s cabin contained portraits of the Norwegian King and Queen and King Edward VII of Great Britain. In addition she carried false papers made out in the name of Hero and her German crew were all fluent in Norwegian or Swedish. Initially, her disguise was supplemented by a deck cargo of Norwegian timber, apparently bound for Australia. Her armament consisted of two carefully concealed 105mm guns, plus machine guns and rifles.
The Imperial Navy contained very few officers with experience in sail, but Seeadler was commanded by one of the most remarkable officers in the service. Lieutenant Commander Count Felix von Luckner was born in 1881 and had run away to sea when he was twelve. Since then he had gained a wide experience in sail and obtained his Mate’s ticket, changing to steam in 1908. He had obtained a reserve commission in the Imperial Navy and since being called up in 1914 he had seen active service at the Battles of Heligoland Bight and Jutland. Luckner’s principal characteristics were an engaging personality that made him a favourite of the Kaiser’s, and a fertile – some would say cunning – mind that would enable him to outwit his opponents time and again, resulting in his being nicknamed The Sea Devil.
Seeadler did not break through the British blockade. On Christmas Day 1916 she was stopped by the Armed Merchant Cruiser Avenger. The ‘Norwegian’ seamen were, of course, dressed in civilian seagoing rig and to add a touch of authenticity Luckner provided female attire and a blonde wig for a young sailor, who played the part of his wife. Satisfied, the two British officers in the boarding party returned to their own ship and Seeadler went on her way, ditching her timber deck cargo as soon as she was alone.
The raider’s career took her from the Atlantic into the Pacific and lasted until 2 August 1917. She did not cause the Allies too much damage, capturing just sixteen ships with a total displacement of only 30,099 tons. Just three ships displaced over 3,000 tons and most of the remainder were sailing ships displacing between 364 and 2,199 tons, including three American schooners. This was not unduly impressive and its interest lies in the manner of their capture and Luckner’s ability to avoid his pursuers, which latterly included the United States Navy. Sometimes, when approaching a steamer, he would request a time check as a navigational aid, a common enough request made by sailing ships. The steamer would slow down to oblige. Then Seeadler would send up the Imperial Navy’s ensign, fire a shot across her victim’s bows, and that would be that. On another occasion he impertinently took his capture into Rio de Janeiro himself and acquired supplies on her owner’s account. Sometimes flotsam bearing Seeadler’s name would be thrown overboard to give the impression that she had sunk. A further ruse was to set off a smoke discharger on his deck and request assistance in extinguishing the ‘fire’ from his potential victim, which was then snapped up. By March 1917 he had over 200 prisoners aboard and they were eating their way through the ship’s food supplies at an unacceptable rate. On 21 March he took the large French barque Cambronne and decided to send them off in her. She would be manned by her own crew, which he knew would immediately disclose his presence as soon as they reached port, so he removed her topgallant masts and destroyed spars and sails that could be employed as a replacements. This meant that the Cambronne could only sail slowly and that by the time she reached port Seeadler would be far away. His method of stopping sailing ships that were faster than his own was simple. His machine guns would fire continuously into her sails until they were full of holes and no longer able to hold the wind. Then, inevitably, she would slow down and be overhauled and threatened with heavier weapons unless she surrendered. There seemed to be no end to Luckner’s ingenuity yet, throughout Seeadler’s career, only one life was lost, and that because of an accident.
By summer it was becoming clear that Seeadler was in dire need of careening so Luckner took her to Mopelia Island, some 280 miles from Tahiti, hoping that she could be heeled over and scraped in the shelter of its large lagoon. Unfortunately, the entrance to the lagoon was too shallow and Seeadler was forced to anchor outside the coral reef. According to Luckner, on 2 August she was driven onto the reef, wrecked and dismasted by what today we would call a tsunami. There is no official record of this kind of activity in the region in August 1917, and some American prisoners later stated that most of the crew were ashore enjoying themselves and that the ship had simply run herself aground, possibly as a result of dragging her anchor. Quite possibly Luckner, a notable teller of tall tales, was doing his best to save face. The subsequent story of his own and his crew’s adventures was one of escapes and recaptures that would do justice to any Hollywood script.
When the British freighter Yarrowdale was captured by the Mowe she was sent to Germany for conversion to the role of commerce raider and renamed Leopard. The work was carried out at the Kaiserliche Werft yard in Kiel, from which she emerged with the comparatively heavy armament of five 150mm and four 88mm guns and two torpedo tubes. At the beginning of March 1917 she sailed on her first and only mission under the command of Lieutenant Commander Hans von Laffert, disguised as the Norwegian freighter Rena, the words RENA and NORGE being painted on either side of her hull, together with the Norwegian flag. She did not get very far and on 16 March ran into the armoured cruiser Achilles and the armed boarding vessel Dundee under the command, respectively, of Captain F.M. Leake and Commander Selwyn M. Day, in the area of the Faroe Islands.
Leake ordered her to proceed west by south for a detailed examination by Dundee. At 14.40, as the raider was closing in on Dundee, Day signalled WHAT SHIP IS THAT? There was no reply and five minutes later he flashed a second signal: STOP INSTANTLY. This drew the response AP, which was simply gibberish. PAY ATTENTION TO MY SIGNALS ordered Day. Again, there was no reply and at 14.50 he ordered a blank round to be fired. Nine minutes later he asked WHAT IS YOUR CARGO? and received the reply GENERAL.
A boat containing a boarding party consisting of one officer and five ratings had been despatched at 14.42 but was no longer visible, being in the lee of the stranger. The easygoing attitudes that had resulted in the loss of The Ramsey and the Alcantara had long gone. Day’s crew were at action stations and he had positioned Dundee so that her broadside was across the raider’s stern. Laffert was perfectly aware that his ship could be raked, with terrible consequences, and that he could make little or no reply with his own guns. By using his port or starboard screws he tried to improve his position but Day correctly interpreted the water disturbance created by the propellers and adjusted his own position accordingly. Leopard’s behaviour, her appearance, the information contained in his confidential books and the lack of communication from his boarding party all reinforced Day’s suspicion that she was a raider. At 15.10 he signalled WHERE ARE YOU FROM? The answer MOBILE came back. That seemed improbable but he decided to wait a little longer. At 15.30, still not having heard from the boarding party, he decided to test the other’s veracity, signalling WHEN DID YOU LEAVE? There was no reply.
Laffert, unable to calculate the time required for the voyage, knew that he had been found out and decided to make the best of it. Ten minutes later Day was alerted by an unusual noise. One of the raider’s Norwegian flags, painted on large boards hinged at the bottom, had fallen outboard. The aperture within could only contain guns and he immediately gave the order to fire. Leopard was now turning slowly to port to bring her own broadside to bear but Day responding by ordering half-ahead to deny any such advantage. Hardly had Dundee began to gather way than two torpedoes sped 20 to 50 feet past her stern.
Dundee’s guns were now hammering away at 1,000 yards range. Forty-four 4-inch and twenty-five 3-pounder rounds had been fired before Leopard got off her first shot. ‘Every shot was a hit,’ wrote Day in his report.
The first (from our aft 4-inch) raked her port battery deck, causing an explosion and volumes of smoke. The fore gun fired through the deck into her engine room and volumes of steam spread with intense smoke and flames caused by further hits, so as to completely the ship from us from bridge to stern. The 3-pounder gun fired at her bridge. Dundee was then in the smoke to leeward and both ships were practically obscured from each other in consequence. Observing Achilles on an almost opposite bearing, I turned and went to full speed and down the lane of smoke so as to clear the range for the cruiser. On turning, one torpedo was fired at us, and also three salvoes, two short and one over, of three or four guns by her port broadside. There followed some very wild single shots, including shrapnel, fragments of the latter only hitting the ship. The aft gun was bearing and made consistently excellent on any visible part of the enemy. Ignited oil was observed streaming from her port beam.
Meanwhile, Achilles had joined in the fray at 5,300 yards as soon as it had started. ‘The raider was firing at her,’ recorded Captain Leake, ‘but with more intensity at Dundee, whose safety was due to the prompt manner in which Commander Day answered the raider’s first hostile act, and the initial success she gained in getting raking hits; hers was a most dangerous position and she extracted herself with the utmost credit.
‘On opening fire the raider at once enveloped herself in smoke of a light colour. At 15.55 she fired a torpedo at Achilles, which broke surface off the port quarter. Hits were now being obtained and the raider was on fire forward. About this time she was hit in the bow (on the gripe) by a torpedo from Achilles.’
By 16.10 Dundee had expended all her ammunition. Leopard had become a floating inferno but continued to fight with one gun. Finally, at 16.33, the raider finally succumbed to Achilles’ fire, listed slightly to port and sank horizontally. There were no survivors and the fate of Dundee’s boarding party remains unknown; presumably, once aboard the raider they were overpowered and then confined during the action. In other respects, there were no British casualties.
Leopard was the last commerce raider to be sent out by the Imperial Navy. A small number of raiders had achieved spectacular success, others had produced modest results, and some had barely justified their conversion costs. The fact was that they were too few in number and the world’s oceans too vast for them to make any difference. While, with the exception of some peripheral activity in the Baltic and at the northern and southern extremities of the North Sea, the High Seas Fleet had rotted at its mooring since Jutland, the U – boat arm had brought the United Kingdom to the verge of starvation until the tide was turned by the introduction of escorted ocean convoys in May 1917.