Abandon Ship! details two famous Merchant Navy ships sunk during both World Wars, as examples of the sacrifices made by merchant seamen during both conflicts – along with the perils that they faced when the order came to abandon ship.
The case that our exhibition uses to highlight the Merchant Navy losses during the First World War was the SS Otaki, registered with the New Zealand Shipping Company Ltd and commanded by Captain Archibald Bisset-Smith, one of only a handful of merchant seamen awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War.
As described in the section of our exhibition dedicated to the Otaki, this VC was earned due to the fact that Bisset-Smith’s vessel fought back against her attacker before she was finally sunk. This makes her case notable at a time of unrestricted submarine warfare, when German U-boats would simply torpedo merchant ships without warning. Any merchant ship that was not in a convoy would have little defence against such attacks. The action that Bisset-Smith fought has earned his vessel remembrance aboard HQS Wellington.
Yet the main reason the Otaki was able to fight back, however, was that her attacker was not a U-boat, or even any normal warship – but another cargo ship of similar size, commissioned into the Imperial German Navy, converted and armed for the sole purpose of attacking merchant shipping. Before the war, this ship had been nothing more than a fruit carrier – mostly shipping bananas from Africa.
Her name was SMS Möwe, and Otaki was not her first victim.
This remarkable vessel was nothing more than a standard merchantman fitted with guns and torpedo tubes. But appearances are deceptive – the Möwe had sunk and captured many other Allied cargo ships – and some Royal Navy warships – before she confronted the Otaki. It was Germany’s most successful merchant raider in either of the wars, first entering service in this role in November 1915. Throughout her career, she proved to be a menace to Allied shipping lanes, and a major irritation to the British Royal Navy.
Her story is one of a very unorthodox form of warfare, one that the German Navy would employ to devastating effect in both world wars – an innovative naval strategy that was devised in response to Germany’s circumstances, and stood out from the way that modern warfare was increasingly being carried out.
This concept of a so-called ‘merchant raider’ was an asymmetric-warfare strategy first developed by the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) during the First World War. It was a strategy that was devised in response to what for the German Empire was an increasingly unfavourable situation on the high seas.
Since the beginning of the war, the British and French Navies had maintained a blockade on German ports across the North Sea. Britain’s strategy during the First World War was simple – use her superior naval power to ensure the German Navy stayed in port, while cutting all merchant shipping lanes to Germany. The German Army would in turn be stopped in France and once forced into a long war, the enemy would gradually be starved into surrender.
It was a prolonged strategy – but successful. The level of effect it had on Germany’s war economy and food supplies was considerable, if gradual – but the most immediate success was in confining the Kaiser’s surface fleet to the North Sea.
German warships that had been stationed overseas, in colonies in Africa and Asia, would not survive for long after war began. This was shown during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 – where the East Asia Squadron under Admiral von Spee, after fleeing German holdings in China, was annihilated in spite of an earlier victory over the British at Coronel. The cruisers Emden and Konigsberg, which had also been based abroad and carried out raids against Allied shipping, were both sunk the following year.
By late 1915, the Kaiserliche Marine was reeling from a string of serious defeats – not just at the Falkland Islands but also at the Heligoland Blight on 28th August 1914, just off the north German coast. In this battle, three out of six German cruisers present were sunk, with no British vessels lost. On 24th January of the next year, the cruiser Blücher was sunk at the Battle of the Dogger Bank, with the loss of nearly 800 lives. Once again, the British suffered no ship losses.
These defeats ensured that in spite of raids on English coastal towns such as Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby in December 1914 which caused some civilian damage, The German High Seas Fleet – the main surface fleet – was confined to the North Sea from 1915 onwards, leaving the Royal Navy still dominant.
Even without the overwhelming British naval presence, operations beyond the North Sea were impossible for the High Seas Fleet by mid/late 1915 – Germany’s overseas territories had been overrun, and with them the German Navy’s overseas coaling stations. The result was that the Kaiserliche Marine did not have the fuel to operate beyond its narrow confines.
In turn, the German Naval High Command was very reluctant to engage the British directly. Admiral Hugo von Pohl, commander of the High Seas Fleet from February 1915, concluded from these engagements that a direct assault on the Royal Navy would only lead to a greater defeat. He advocated extreme caution, and ordered his surface fleet to preserve itself by avoiding pitched engagements with the Royal Navy – its focus had to be on protecting the German coast.
Indirect action was considered to be a better strategy, even early on in the war. This was the aim of the attacks on the coastal towns in December 1914; as a retaliation for the blockade of Germany and to bait the British fleet away from its blockading duties to coastal defence.
Ultimately, it was from this policy of naval guerrilla warfare that unrestricted submarine warfare and commerce raiding – attacking British merchant shipping, thus cutting off Britain from her overseas colonies and trading partners instead – came to be embraced by the German Admiralty. It was a strategy that Von Pohl constantly advocated over traditional naval battles.
Von Pohl saw commerce raiding as the best response to the Allied blockade – and in turn, saw the U-boat as being the best weapon for this strategy. Submarines could evade the Anglo-French blockade undetected, and even break into the Atlantic. If the old procedures for raiding civilian shipping – such as stopping the cargo ship, inspecting the cargo and giving the crew time to escape – were dropped, then the U-boat could become a very effective weapon.
The big problem was that there were only 23 serviceable U-boats in 1915 – hardly enough to decisively effect the outcome of the war, in spite of their early successes compared to the rest of the German Navy (one U-boat, U-9, sank three British armoured cruisers in a single action on 22nd September 1914).
The German Naval Command needed a stop-gap method of commerce raiding, while more U-boats were being built. They found their solution in an idea outlined in a paper authored by the young Leutnant zur See Theodor Wolff in October 1915 – convert and arm small merchant freighters as commerce raiders.
Merchant ships consumed less coal than warships; loaded with extra coal reserves and supplies they would not need to seek out any coaling stations and could operate with complete independence. They could also be disguised as neutral shipping – approach their targets disguised as a merchant ship, and then reveal themselves when in range. Best of all, they were cheap to fit and much more expendable than any valuable cruisers or U-boats.
Thus Admiral Hugo von Pohl approved the plan – the Merchant Raider tactic had been tried before with converted fast passenger liners, but these consumed far too much coal to be viable. This new venture would be the first time an ordinary cargo ship was used.
The chosen vessel was the Pungo, an average-designed freighter launched in 1914 in the months before war broke. She had been built with an onboard refrigeration plant in order to carry fruit and agricultural product; much of her early career involved shipping bananas from Germany’s African colonies.
When war broke out she was first commissioned into the Navy as a tender, or stores ship. But in keeping with Leutnant Wolff’s thesis, she was considered to have decent speed and a non-descript enough appearance to be a merchant raider. Added to the fact that she was a new ship with a fairly strong hull, with a decent speed of 14 knots along with suitable deck and cargo space for mines, guns and extra coal, she was considered suitable. Her on-board refrigeration unit also allowed for extra provisions – an added bonus.
Thus the man Admiral Von Pohl selected to implement the merchant raider tactic – 36-year old Korvettenkapitan Nicholas Burggaf, Count von Dohna-Scholdien – chose her as the vessel that he would command throughout her merchant raiding career. A skilled navigator, Dohna-Schlodien had served as navigational officer aboard the battleship Posen, as well as commander of a small gunboat in China. It would be his command of the Möwe, however, that would be the apex of his career at sea.
The Pungo underwent her conversion in the naval dockyards in Wilhelmshaven. Here she was fitted with five heavy guns (4 150mm and 1 105mm) obtained from warships that were out-of-date. She also had two torpedo tubes fitted on either side of the foremast. Taking advantage of her large cargo space, the Germans also loaded her with 500 sea mines.
Since her primary tactic would be to sneak up on her prey disguised as a neutral merchant ship, bulwarks were erected to hide her armament from the enemy, and space was made for a false funnel that could be erected as an additional disguise. Whilst all this work was going on, the ship was simply designated Hilfsdampter 10 (Auxiliary Steamer 10), or HD10, in order to hide her true purpose from Allied intelligence.
Eventually the Pungo received her new name – Möwe, the German word for Seagull. After a brief period of sea trials, she first left Kiel – with Dohna-Scholdien in command over a crew of nearly 250 officers and men – in December 1915 on her first raid.
Dohna-Schlodien found a way of affixing his position in the gloomy, rough weather conditions: he simply used the beams of the Cape Wrath and Sule Skerry lighthouses, which were not turned off due to the need for Royal Navy ships to navigate the area.
Thus he was able to lay a minefield in gale-force winds with near-perfect accuracy. More than 250 mines (half of the Möwe‘s total complement) in 11 separate lines were laid over the early days of January 1916 – which threatened any ship passing by Cape Wrath from the east on a course to Scapa Flow. Once this minefield was in place, Möwe quickly left the area and moved into the Atlantic, ready to hunt Allied shipping.
The minefield she left behind off Cape Wrath would eventually sink one Norwegian and two Spanish freighters – but the first and most serious loss from these mines was the old British battleship HMS King Edward VII. This vessel, a pre-dreadnought design first commissioned in February 1905, had left Scapa Flow on 6th January for a refit in Belfast.
After striking one of Möwe‘s mines off Cape Wrath that morning, her engine rooms flooded and she was immobilised. After numerous attempts were made to save her by towing her back to port, King Edward VII finally sank, nine hours after striking the mine.
Fortunately, only one man was lost – the rest of King Edward VII‘s over 750-strong crew managed to escape. Nevertheless the Möwe‘s first kill – the sinking of a valuable Royal Navy capital ship – was undoubtedly the greatest success of her career.
Meanwhile Möwe was already making good progress in the Atlantic – after laying another minefield off the French coast, she captured and sunk her first two merchant ships off Cape Finistere, Spain on 11th January 1916.
The raider would ultimately operate as far as the Brazilian cost and Canary Islands. She followed the old rules for commerce raiding – halt the enemy ship, order her crew off into lifeboats and inspect the cargo, before sinking or capturing the ship. Then the crew would either be taken prisoner – if this was not possible they would simply be left in the lifeboats.
Möwe would only raise her Kaiserliche Marine naval ensign once she had closed to a target – the rest of the time she would either fly no flag or operate under false colours. After raising her true colours she would signal the targeted vessel to halt. If the target did not halt, the Möwe would fire a warning shot across the enemy’s bows. If this had no effect, only then would deadly force be used – typically if the enemy freighter was armed and tried to fight back.
The Möwe‘s first raiding voyage was eventful – she captured three merchant ships and sank another twelve, until her return to Germany in March 1916. In spite of their vessel’s small size, Dohna-Schlodien and his crew often took the trouble to take on prisoners themselves – in some cases these captives were repatriated if circumstances allowed.
In the case of the captured liner SS Appam, Dohna-Schlodien assembled a prize crew of 22 men under the command of Leutnant Hans Berg to take control of the vessel. They were put aboard with one main mission – to ferry the Appam‘s 150 passengers (including the British Governor of Sierra Leone and German nationals being ferried to internment in Britain) to the still-neutral USA, along with prisoners from other captured ships who were loaded onto the Appam from the Möwe.
Leutnant Berg succeeded in this mission – the Appam reached Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the 1st February. Unfortunately for Berg however, he and his prize crew were ultimately made POWs after the United States entered the war in April 1917. The Appam passed through several legal cases (in which the British government filed suit for the ship’s return, while the German government appealed), until the US Supreme Court ruled on March 6th, 1917 that the ship be returned to her former owners.
In another action on 16th January 1916, Clan Mactavish – a freighter armed with a single 6pdr-gun at her stern – was intercepted off the coast of Madeira by the Möwe. She was en route to Britain from New Zealand, and attempted to fight back. As a result, 18 of her men were killed and five wounded in a short but furious battle. The Germans suffered light damage to their ship, but no human casualties.
The Mactavish‘s resistance proved futile – she surrendered and was scuttled, while her surviving crew – including her Captain, William Oliver – were taken prisoner. Oliver, his crew and gunners would be taken back to Germany and interned – but they received respectful treatment on board the Möwe. When Captain Oliver explained his decision to resist – in the context of the fact that it was duty to get his cargo to England at any cost, in the face of enemy action – Dohna-Schlodien shook his hand, replying that he would have done the same in Oliver’s position.
The men killed during the battle with the Clan Mactavish, along with a single sailor killed aboard the freighter Flamenco on 6th February, were the only deaths suffered by Allied merchant seaman during Möwe‘s first raid into the Atlantic.
Yet the engagement with the Mactavish proved that German Merchant Raiders did not perform their roles without risk – and the Royal Navy put considerable effort in trying to hunt down Dohna-Schlodien’s vessel. The Möwe had a narrow escape off the Canary Islands, after being spotted by the cruiser HMS Glasgow, which gave pursuit. Only the sudden appearance of a tropical rainstorm saved Dohna-Schlodien and his crew.
The Möwe‘s success and survival was largely due to the fact that the formal convoy system – the use of large numbers of merchants combined with Royal Navy escorts – still had yet to be implemented by the British. Furthermore, she was one of only a few merchant raiders in miles of ocean. Dohna-Schlodien, ever resourceful, used captured food and coal supplies from vessels he seized to sustain his own. Since the Möwe‘s coal bunkers and food stores were enough to keep her going independently, supplies were seldom a problem.
For the Royal Navy’s part, searching the Atlantic Ocean for a single covertly-armed freighter that did not fly her true flag proved, in the words of one attendee to this author’s lectures, a ‘wild seagull chase’. The use of large cruiser squadrons, sent on wide patrols to stop and search any vessel that looked like a possible German merchant raider, proved ineffective.
More irritating from the British point of view, considerable naval assets, including cruisers and destroyers, had been diverted to track down the Möwe and other simple merchant raiders, at a time when they were truly needed elsewhere, particularly in the Mediterranean. Thus the merchant raider proved just as effective a distraction as well as an offensive weapon.
She thus safely returned to Wilhelmshaven, Germany on 4th March 1916, to a hero’s welcome – the Möwe‘s exploits were swiftly exploited for their propaganda value, and thus the ship, her captain and crew were made well known in both the German and international press. Every member of the ship’s company was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, via an ecstatic wireless message from the Kaiser on 3rd March:
“I present to you and your gallant crew my most cordial greetings on the occasion of your return to a German port after your long and brilliantly successful cruise, and I offer my thanks for your heroism which has struck so vital a chord with all the German people. I confer on all your crew, the Iron Cross Second Class, I desire that you personally present yourself as soon as possible at Imperial Headquarters.”
– Kaiser Wilhelm II, 3rd March 1916
Written by: James Whittaker