Painting depicting the battle between Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and HMS Highflyer in August 1914.
It was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ambition that Imperial Germany should not only be a major naval power but also project her greatness in maritime affairs at sea with a range of fast, luxurious liners that would rival those of Great Britain for speed and comfort and even wrest from her the coveted Blue Ribands, awarded for the fastest eastbound and westbound crossings of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first of the new liners, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was launched in 1897. She had beautiful lines and was the first ocean liner to carry four funnels, arranged in two pairs of two. In addition, she was the first to be fitted with watertight bulkhead doors linked to an indicator board on the bridge, the first to be equipped with a Marconi radio transceiver, and the first to win the Blue Riband for the fastest trans-Atlantic run for forty years, completed at a sustained speed 22.3 knots. All in all, it was no surprise that she was known as the Wundershiff (Wonder Ship)
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, usually referred to simply as KWdG, was built at the AG Vulcan shipyard in Stettin, as were her sister ships Kronprinz Wilhelm, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Passengers aboard them would have noticed a number of unusual metal fittings along the deck which were the mountings for the guns that would be installed in time of war, thereby converting the ships to armed merchant cruisers. Along the New York waterfront they were known collectively as the Hohenzollerns of Hoboken, references to the name of Germany’s Imperial family and the location of Norddeutscher Lloyd’s berth at New Jersey. In 1900 she managed to escape a serious fire on the pier that claimed numerous lives on nearby ships. Her luck continued until 1906, when a gash over 80 feet long was ripped in her hull following a high speed collision with the steamer Orinoco’s bow, killing five of her sleeping passengers. By 1913 the number of First and Second Class passengers was declining while the number of emigrants was rising. The ship was also beginning to show signs of wear and she was therefore modified to provide accommodation for Third and Steerage Class passengers only.
The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was in Bremen when war broke out the following year. She received her guns and naval crew on 4 August and, under the command of Captain Max Reymann, broke out into the Atlantic, keeping as far north as possible to avoid the British blockade. On 7 August, to the south of Iceland, she stopped and sank an insignificant fishing vessel, the Tubal Cain, displacing only 227 tons. Her orders then required her to head south and prey on the busy shipping lane off the west coast of Africa. On 15 August she stopped the liner Galician, belonging to the Union Castle Line, south of Tenerife. A boarding party carried out the customary search but nothing happened for several hours, during which it seems Reymann was thinking over what to do with his prize. At the end of this he signalled Galician: ‘I will not destroy you as you have women and children aboard – Good Bye.’ The following day she sank two ships, the Kaipara of 7,392 tons, and the smaller Nyanga of 3,066 tons. By now the folly of using ocean greyhounds as armed merchant cruisers was becoming apparent, for the level of coal in KWdG’s bunkers was dropping at an alarming rate. Arrangements were made for her to rendezvous with two colliers, Arucas and Duala, at Rio de Oro on the coast of West Africa. The problem was that Rio de Oro was a Spanish colony and the proposed coaling would take place in Spanish territorial waters.
The disappearance of the Kaipara and Nyanga had caused some concern in shipping circles. The Royal Navy had detailed two cruisers, the Vindictive and the Highflyer, to patrol the sea lanes around the Canary Islands, another Spanish colony. On 26 August Highflyer, under the command of Captain Henry Buller, was approaching Rio de Oro. Launched in 1900, she was still a handsome ship, her two two tall masts crossed with not one but two yards and numerous ventilators along her deck combining to give her a distinctive appearance. While she was rapidly becoming obsolescent, her armament, consisting of eleven 6-inch and nine 12-pounder guns, was quite adequate enough to deal with the Kaiser Wilhelm der Gross, which mounted only six 4.1-inch guns.
While still some miles from the German raider, Buller could see that she was coaling and clearly in no position to fight. He sent her a signal asking if she surrendered. Reymann answered, somewhat pompously, ‘Germans never surrender and you must respect the neutrality of Spain.’ The last was a piece of cheek as he had been present for far longer than the twenty-four hours permitted to a ship of war. Unperturbed, Buller replied that he would be back in thirty minutes and that Reymann should use that time to remove the civilian colliers out of the danger area and get his ship ready to fight. Reymann was well aware which way the fight would go and transferred most of those aboard to the two colliers, including the crews of the sunken merchant vessels and those of his crew who were not required to fight and sail the ship.
When a half hour had passed Buller again signalled his opponent to enquire whether he now wished to surrender. Reymann’s response was that there was nothing more to discuss. At a little under 10,000 yards Buller ordered one of his 6-pounders to fire a ranging shot. The resulting splash showed that it had fallen short. Reymann replied at once and although his guns threw a lesser weight of metal they were more modern and had a longer range. The result was that Highflyer was quickly straddled and began to absorb hits. One exploded against the bridge shortly after Buller had left it for the conning tower. A searchlight was then blasted overboard. An explosion against the superstructure sent a shower of shell splinters into the back of a nearby seaman, the position of the strike clearly indicating that the round had passed between his legs.
Once Highflyer was within range the situation changed dramatically. A 4.1-inch gun was shot off the poop and a second round exploded below, starting a major fire. A third round, striking amidships, blew a huge hole in the ship’s waterline. Thereafter, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse received a constant blizzard of 6-pounder shells. In less than thirty minutes the liner’s guns had been silenced. As she slowed to a standstill and began list to port three boats were seen pulling for the shore.
Buller ordered Highflyer to cease firing and sent his surgeon and sick berth attendants across to the stricken ship with medical supplies to treat those wounded who had remained aboard. From them it was estimated that the enemy’s loss amounted to 200 killed and wounded. This was almost certainly too high, but more accurate figures could not be obtained as the ship was listing ever more heavily and the medical party were lucky to get off before she rolled over and sank in 50 feet of water. For her part, Highflyer had been hit fifteen times without being seriously damaged and her casualties amounted to one man killed and five slightly wounded.
Reymann’s account of his ship’s end differs and is somewhat grudging. She ceased firing, he claimed, because she had run out of ammunition. This is a little difficult to believe as she was at the start of her cruise and the action itself barely lasted half an hour. He also suggested that she sank because of demolition charges that he had rigged with a view to scuttling. Again, that seems unlikely as no further explosions were heard aboard her once she had ceased firing and her fatal list was to port, where a gap 60 feet across had been blown in her waterline. Reymann himself reached the shore with the surviving members of his crew that had fought the ship. He then achieved the remarkable feat of returning to Germany on a neutral ship, working his passage as a stoker under an assumed name. Those who escaped the action aboard the colliers were either captured or released, according to their personal circumstances, two weeks later when the Hamburg-Amerika liner Bethania was intercepted while trying to run the British blockade.
This action was the first naval duel of the war. It was not a good beginning, for two more of Germany’s ocean greyhounds had already been removed from the board. Kronprinzessin Cecilie had left New York bound for Bremen when war broke out. Her master, unwilling to take the risks involved in trying to run the British blockade, decided to return to American waters and entered Bar Harbor, Maine, on 4 August. She was ultimately interned and taken into American service as a troop transport when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. Kaiser Wilhelm II had left Bremerhaven for New York on 3 August and, using her speed to evade British cruisers, arrived at her destination three days later. She, too, was subsequently interned and later entered American service.
The fourth, and most successful, of Germany’s ocean greyhound sisterhood was the Kronprinz Wilhelm, another winner of the Blue Riband. In the palmy days of peace she had been a favourite of those Trans-Atlantic travellers who were involved in the international world of musical entertainment, notably the theatrical and opera producer Oscar Hammerstein, and on one occasion she had conveyed the Kaiser’s brother, Crown Prince Albert von Preussen, on a state visit to New York, where he was met by President Theodore Roosevelt. Receiving her armament and naval personnel from the cruiser Karlsruhe, from whom she was forced to separate when they were surprised by Admiral Cradock’s flagship Suffolk. Following this meeting, Kronprinz Wilhelm was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Paul Thierfelder, the Karlsruhe’s navigation officer, with the liner’s original skipper as his First Lieutenant.
Having separated from Karlsruhe, Thierfelder took Kronprinz Wilhelm on an unpredictable course towards the Azores, where he met the collier Walhalla and replenished his bunkers. He then headed south-east to the Canary Islands where the German representative informed him that there was no prospect of his being able to obtain further supplies of coal in the area. Thierfelder therefore decided to head for the South American Coast, where there was considerable support for Germany. In addition, he could also top up his supplies from captured ships and seek internment in a neutral port if he found himself unable to proceed further. At this stage, he was unaware that around the entire coast of South America, German naval officers, diplomatic representatives and consular officials were setting up the Etappendienst, buying up local coal supplies and chartering ships to convey it to secret rendezvous points at sea, thereby keeping their commerce raiders supplied and active.