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Painting depicting the battle between Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and HMS Highflyer in August 1914.

In as much as Germany was inferior to Britain in nominal naval strength, but owned so many ocean liners, she foresaw that in the event of hostilities there was a large potential fleet of fine steamers which in a few hours and by careful organization could be transformed into cruisers. They would require no external alteration, except what could be done with black paint; and, in fact, the more they looked like liners so much the less would they create suspicion when met at sea. Having coaled and provisioned, they would be armed with guns and sent out to waylay those merchantmen whose existence was vital for a nation of islanders. In certain localities there must be arrangements for a supply of coal; and at least part of this supply must be mobile. That is to say, a number of well-filled colliers must be stationed at suitable centres and ready to steam to given rendezvous. But, on the other hand, a very important factor could be relied upon: of all Britain’s exports, not less than seventy-five per cent consisted of coal. In other words, these armed liners could always be sure of helping themselves to as much sea-borne fuel as they required.

As far back as six years before the Great War, Germany had issued her instructions to the captains of her liners. If hostilities seemed imminent, and the ship chanced to be lying in a neutral port, then she was to remain there. If she were on passage, she must make for the nearest neutral harbour and wait till the receipt of further instructions. As recently as February 1914 these orders were supplemented. Every master of a North German Lloyd vessel equipped with wireless received a document marked “Strictly Confidential”, which told him that, in order to announce the outbreak of war, news would be transmitted by the Norddeich wireless station. All German ships were accordingly to listen-in at 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 11.10 p.m. In April of that year directions were given for wireless practice to take place daily between German trading vessels and men-of-war.

The German Admiralty also compiled a “Cruiser Handbook”, and in this was given a list of secret rendezvous, where liners so ordered could make for immediately and be fitted with their guns. One of these places was near the Bahamas: another was off that lonely South Atlantic island of Trinidada, a most inhospitable spot several hundred miles east of Brazil, notorious alike for its terrible land-crabs, its heavy seas, and for the futile visits of treasure searchers finding nothing but desolation. It was off the Bahamas that the Kronprinz Wilhelm was to be changed into a raider, as we shall soon see: Trinidada was the rendezvous where Dresden and Cap Trafalgar both bunkered from German colliers during the first few weeks of the war, but it was also here that the Hamburg-Amerika steamship Navarra with supplies for German cruisers was found on November 11 (1914) by the British armed merchant cruiser Orama. After a chase, Orama was able to sink Navarra and rescue the crew.

It was typical of Germany’s pre-war thoroughness to have taken the greatest pains with regard to supplies in the Atlantic. This, being the richest of all the seven seas, must inevitably be the principal sphere for raiding operations, so it was dotted with a number of Supply Centres, each supervised by a Supply Officer. These centres were at New York, Las Palmas, Havana, Rio Janeiro, and Buenos Aires; that is to say, at the north, east, west, and south of the Atlantic trading area. There were also smaller centres at the Danish island of St. Thomas in the West Indies; at Para in Brazil; at Pernambuco and Bahia in Brazil; at Santos further down the same coast; at Monte Video in Uruguay; and even as far south as Punta Arenas in the Magellan Straits. A reference to the map will show that there was thus a chain of stations all the way up the east American coast from Cape Horn to New York. On the opposite side of the Atlantic there were small centres at Lome in Togoland; at Tenerife in the Canaries; whilst at Horta in the Azores there was a mid-Atlantic rendezvous.

Each Supply Officer was responsible for seeing that the requisite colliers were in his appointed area. The raider had only to consult her “Cruiser Handbook” and select one of the rendezvous, go alongside, and begin bunkering. There was no necessity to send out wireless messages saying she required so many hundred tons by a certain date: the coal was already there waiting. The Supply Officer-in-Chief, or Controller-General of all these centres was that German naval officer, Fregatten-Kapitän Boy-Ed, of the German Embassy at Washington. Extremely able, astute, cunning, dangerous, this organizer did his share of the work till late on into the war, when he left the United States and came back to Europe.

After the first few days of war Korvetten-Kapitän Leonhardi was the Supply Officer in charge at Las Palmas, and his activities caused no little trouble to the British Navy. A number of German steamers were here interned, and not all of them were content to remain thus immobilized. Whilst British cruisers had to be employed keeping watch to prevent these vessels all emerging and assisting the attack on commerce, there was the unpleasant fact that during this first critical ten days of war it was still possible for the internees, and for Leonhardi, to communicate with the German Admiralty in Berlin. This was effected by the following chain. In accordance with the orders previously enunciated, a number of German steamers had availed themselves of neutral ports in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. Among those in Spanish waters was the cable ship Stephan at Vigo, and the Frankenwald at Bilbao. These picked up the wireless messages sent out from Nauen, and then sent them on to the German Embassy at Madrid, whence in turn the telegrams were transmitted to Cadiz. From there the cable connected with Tenerife and Las Palmas, but also across the Atlantic to Pernambuco, Rio Janeiro, and Buenos Aires, so that the Supply Officers could be advised quite effectively.

During the first week of war German colliers with coal from Cardiff and Barry were able to reach Las Palmas and, as we shall witness, come out to supply the raider Kronprinz Wilhelm. The Hamburg-Amerika Line chartered a number of neutral steamers to carry coal and provisions from Atlantic ports for other raiders, Newport News being a favourite supply base. Indeed, later events will show that the raiders were generally more than attracted by this Virginian port. The wide entrance to the Chesapeake was much to be preferred, when British cruisers were hovering about somewhere in the darkness, to some narrow and tricky channel. But there were the ship-repairing yards, dry docks, and the facilities for coaling which encouraged drooping spirits after months of strenuous roving. One of the neutral supply ships thus chartered by the Hamburg-Amerika Company was the Norwegian S.S. Thor, but between September 7 and 13 the British cruisers of the West India Squadron captured Thor as well as four other supply vessels.

The close co-operation between the German steamship owners and their Government was such that in time of emergency the former became practically a department of the latter, employing a huge Atlantic organization as a kind of extended Admiralty. The Hamburg-Amerika Line had contracted, in the event of war, to provide 75,000 tons of coal each month to German cruisers working in the Atlantic, and the intention was to maintain these supplies from North American ports. This grandiose scheme, however, collapsed owing to the very fact of the war itself. There were not enough colliers available, credit could not be granted, and the United States Government showed a firm hand. None the less, Boy-Ed succeeded in sending as many as fifteen ships out from his area, and still had four more ready.

The instruction for German liners to make for the nearest neutral port was not always the wisest precept to practice. Better for them would it have been if the order had been thus: “Make for the nearest port of a neutral country that is most likely to remain neutral.” On August 3,1914, two of the Hamburg-Amerika liners were off the western entrance of the English Channel, when their wireless informed them that war had broken out between Germany and France. These two steamers therefore selected the first neutral port, which happened to be Falmouth, and I saw them anchored up the Fal. Not many hours elapsed before Britain became a belligerent, and Falmouth ceased to possess neutrality. Off the entrance one saw the arrival of British cruisers, a small steamboat was lowered, and hurried up the Fal alongside the first liner. Three naval officers stepped out on to the gangway and were met by a German mercantile officer; both liners were detained, and later condemned. German crews and passengers were taken ashore, and before the month was out these two Atlantic ships steamed to the open sea, but with the White Ensign flying at the stern over German colours and a prize crew on board. The first was the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, of 8689 tons, and the other was the slightly smaller Prinz Adalbert, of 6030 tons.

In like manner those German ships which had interned themselves in Portugal and the United States were at later dates to suffer irreparable misfortune.

Now the first of the German merchant cruisers to get through the Narrow Seas into the Atlantic was the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. This four-funnelled passenger ship, which had once been the fastest liner afloat, still belonged to the North German Lloyd. Seventeen years previously she had been built by the Vulcan Company on the agreement that she was first to run a trial trip to New York, and if during this voyage she failed to reach the requirements of the contract, then the North German Lloyd need not accept her. In October 1907, whilst homeward bound, she encountered bad weather and lost her rudder when about seven hundred miles from Halifax; but that did not prevent her from steaming safely another 2300 miles to Bremerhaven, calling at Plymouth on the way. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was of 14,349 tons and at her prime could attain a mean speed of over 22 knots. Internally, she was regarded at one period as the most decorative ship afloat and is certainly still remembered as one of those vessels which have made steamship history so notable.

At the beginning of August she was lying at Bremerhaven, but on the third of that month her familiar yellow funnels and white upperworks were all painted black, she received her guns, a naval crew came aboard, and Captain Reymann took over command. On August 4 she came out of the Weser, stood up the North Sea, and then adopted a course that was to be followed by other raiders which were subsequently to leave Germany for the Atlantic. The great nervousness created in the raiding captains by the British blockading cruisers, and the desire to reach the ocean without being seen by one of the patrols, brought about a route which long before the end of war was pretty well stereotyped, receiving modifications only because of weather, atmosphere, or the amount of daylight at the particular season. Thus, it would be a raider’s aim to utilise fog, heavy gales, dark moonless long wintry nights, for passing through that portion of the British waters where likelihood of encountering warships was most possible. Daylight hours must therefore be as few as practicable, and spent in some high latitude away from close patrols. Eventually it became a matter of choosing a ship with the right speed to bring her to the patrol area at the proper time. It also meant, and became the practice, that outward-bound raiders had better leave Germany in either late November or December, returning home not later than about March.

Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the first of the pioneers, and she had far greater speed as well as tonnage than most of them. She was also — like the rest of these crack fliers — most extravagant with coal, and consumed over 250 tons a day at half-speed. The seriousness of this is at once appreciated, since her cautiousness took her by such a roundabout way that she had used up most of her fuel by the time she had reached her area. For she could never have dared to rush the Dover Straits and down the short English Channel, but instead had to hug the coast of Norway, then go right up north to Iceland waters, next well to the westward of the British Isles and so down to that previously mentioned busy trade south of Tenerife. By August 7 this black liner was no further than 50 miles WNW of Stalberg, Iceland, where she wasted effort by sinking the British 227-ton trawler Tubal Cain and took the crew prisoners.

She had to steam another eight days before she met her second ship, and this was the Union Castle liner Galician, passing through the Canaries area on voyage from Capetown for London. Had the raider only known that the Cruiser Squadron, which was to act as the Northern Patrol, was still in the English Channel when Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse came up the North Sea, much time might have been saved. By the time the latter reached the Canaries district there were only two British cruisers — Vindictive and Highflyer — in the assigned area. Captain Reymann had certainly arrived on the right spot, and his wireless soon intercepted en clair signals from steamers ordering coal for them at Tenerife. As they gave their names, it was quite easy for Reymann to open Lloyd’s Register, turn over the pages of that volume till his finger stopped at the column where full particulars of her tonnage, ownership, and so on could be at once noted.

The occasion was not without humour. “Is the track clear?” Galician was heard to inquire on the air, and Reymann flashed back to Captain E. M. Day an encouraging message, so that at 2.45 p.m. the two liners met. “If you communicate by wireless I will sink you,” was the German’s greeting. But at five the following morning came another signal releasing her. Why was that done? The answer is the Galician could be nothing but an embarrassment to the raider. Here were 250 passengers from South Africa, of whom some were women and children, who would soon eat up the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse’s provisions. But two hours after dismissing Galician there arrived the S.S. Kaipara, 7392 tons, on a voyage from New Zealand and Monte Video, with 4000 tons of meat and no passengers. This was ideal. She was promptly sunk and her crew were taken prisoners; but on the same day the Royal Mail liner Arlanza, bound from Buenos Aires, was stopped and then released because she was a 15,000-ton passenger ship with women and children. Still on the same August 16 came next the S.S. Nyanga, a 3000-ton cargo vessel with a cargo of African produce, so her crew were removed and the ship sent to the bottom.

Thus twelve days and considerable steaming had brought about the destruction of only one trawler and two cargo steamers. The raider herself had now run out of coal and proceeded eastward, but on the same night reached that lonely and unfrequented anchorage of Rio de Oro, which is in Spanish territory on the northwest shoulder of Africa. Administered by the Governor of the Canary Islands, it has on the settlement a sub-Governor; but a German raider paid scarcely any more respect for rulers of white men’s settlements than would have been shown to a cannibal chief. Might was right, and opportunity was always legitimate. She now waited for supply ships to reach this rendezvous and bring her coal as well as provisions. Thither after five days came therefore the German S.S. Duala and the Arucas. The former had defied the Spanish authorities at Las Palmas by staying forty-eight hours and then proceeding on a pretence of being bound for New York. The latter had escaped from Tenerife. A few days later two more supply ships came to the raider’s succour. One was the Austrian Magdeburg, with 1400 tons of coal and provisions, and the other was the Bethania, which had brought from Las Palmas Supply Centre some 6000 tons of coal.

On the few occasions when these raiders were boarded at anchor, the excuse was always the same: they had come in to effect engine repairs. A Spanish official having come to inquire as to the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse spending several days in these territorial waters was given the usual lie, but he was completely fooled into believing she was nothing more than a liner: for the crew were wearing on their caps the ribbon of the North German Lloyd. She was still completing her coaling when on August 26 there suddenly appeared a three-funnelled British cruiser. This was the 5600-ton Highflyer, well known as a training ship, armed with eleven 6-inch guns as opposed to the raider’s six 4-inch. The latter, having refused to surrender, was engaged and eventually sunk. Captain Reymann, nine other officers, and seventy-two of the crew reached the shore and walked to the Spanish fort, where the sub-Governor took charge of them. They were later interned aboard three German ships in Las Palmas. Four hundred others escaped in the Bethania, which steamed across to the North Atlantic coast of America, where she was sighted by H.M.S. Essex, who chased her, captured her, and brought her into Kingston, Jamaica. The other supply ships had made off before Highflyer opened fire, and aboard Arucas went the transferred crews of Kaipara and Nyanga.

So the first raider from Germany had not achieved much success. Whilst she destroyed about £400,000 worth of shipping, she had lost her own more valuable life. But she was not quite suitable for the job, her appearance (with that characteristic German gap between the second and third funnel) being not materially altered by paint, and her coal consumption being both a danger to herself and a terrible strain on the supply organisation. It was indeed just because she had to spend so much time waiting and coaling in Rio de Oro that news reached Highflyer in sufficient time. Except for special “rush” incursions of short duration British record-breaking Atlantic liners likewise were not the useful war auxiliaries which it had been hoped they would become. To use them in the best manner was to turn them into either (a) minelayers, or (b) hospital ships. And the same remark very much applied to steamers of the cross-Channel type, such as the Dover-Calais class.

In the first month of war Britain made the same mistake and learned the same lesson as Germany. The fast Cunard liners Lusitania, Mauretania, and Aquitania were found too extravagant with fuel and altogether of too great a tonnage for cruiser work, which demands moderate consumption of oil or coal, a reasonable amount of mobility (seeing that she will have to be stopped and manoeuvred when arresting or fighting another steamer), and a speed somewhere between 14 and 18 knots. It was for this reason that both Lusitania and Mauretania were handed back to their owners, as indeed was Aquitania after she had been in collision. The first-mentioned did excellent work in maintaining rapid communication between America and England until torpedoed, and Mauretania was invaluable as a hospital ship when hundreds of sick and wounded had to be rushed home from the Dardanelles, whilst Aquitania was to render notable service as a transport. Similarly the rapid, handy, but short-radius class of cross-Channel packets evolved by such vessels as Riviera, Empress, Engadine could be usefully employed either to carry seaplanes during some particular brief occasion, or to lay hurriedly a minefield and then scurry home.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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