24 FEBRUARY, 1918: The Snail That Roared

I feel like telling a simple tale today, so let’s raise a glass to the extraordinary voyage of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf. The Wolf made it home to Germany a hundred years ago today after some fifteen months at sea without putting into port, much of it spent playing cat and mouse with British naval forces, some of it spent taking the War to places other German warships couldn’t reach.

In service as an auxiliary cruiser, the Wolf had begun life as a commercial cargo ship, the Wachtfels, completed in 1913.  Although it was slow, with a maximum speed of only 11 knots, the ship was built for long voyages, with room for enough coal to give it a maximum range of almost 60,000km.  It was converted to carry six 15cm guns, three 5.2cm guns, four torpedo tubes and more than 400 mines, as well as removable false superstructure for disguise purposes, before being commissioned into the Imperial German Navy in May 1916.  Sometimes referred to as Wolf II because, somewhat confusingly and for no good reason I know about, the German Navy already had an auxiliary cruiser called Wolf, it was also one of very few auxiliaries equipped with a seaplane, a single-engine, two-seater Friedrichshafen FF33 reconnaissance biplane known as Wölfchen (wolf cub).

A propaganda shot of the Wölfchen at work.

The Wolf and its 348 strong crew sailed from Kiel on 30 November 1916.  A U-boat escort and foul weather helped it break through the British naval blockade to reach the open sea on 10 December.  Its first priority was mine laying, and it laid its first field off Dassen Island, some 80km north of Cape Town, on the night of 16/17 January.  Working its way east, it put down further minefields off Cape Agulhas, at South Africa’s southern tip, off Colombo and finally, on 19 February 1917, off Bombay, before switching to a hunt for Allied merchantmen.

The first Allied ship taken by the Wolf was its former sister ship with the civilian Hansa Line, since captured by the British and renamed the Turritella.  The manner of its taking illustrates the difference between the everyday realities of commerce warfare and the explosive stuff they like to show in movies.  A warning dropped from the seaplane about the Wolf’s guns was enough to persuade Turritella‘s captain out of fight or flight, and he accepted a boarding party from the German ship on 27 February.  In no position to deliver his victim to a German port,the Wolf‘s Captain Nerger put a prize crew aboard, renamed the captured vessel the Iltis, gave it a small 2-pounder gun and 25 mines, and sent it off to work for the German cause.  On 5 March, after laying its mines at the Red Sea port of Aden, the Iltis was scuttled when challenged by the Royal Navy sloop HMS Odin.

Nerger meanwhile steamed slowly for the Pacific, capturing three more ships during March and making a maintenance stop off Raoul Island, some 600km north of New Zealand, where the Wolf dropped anchor on 22 May and captured another passing merchantman on 1 June.  By late June the German raider had reached New Zealand, laying 25 mines off North Cape on 25 June and 35 more off Cape Farewell a couple of days later, before crossing the Tasman Sea to mine Gabo Island off the Australian coast.  Nerger then turned north, capturing three more Allied ships en route to another maintenance stop at the island of Waigeo, just off the northwest tip of Papua/New Guinea.

Captain Nerger: a good egg and still a national hero in Germany after the Second World War, which is why he died in a Soviet interment camp in 1947

Late August saw the Wolf steaming slowly west across the Pacific towards Singapore, where it laid the last of its mines on the night of 2/3 September.  That was mission accomplished.  With no more mines on board, and not enough fuel or supplies to reach Germany, the Wolf‘s obvious next move was to sail to a neutral port and accept internment.  Instead, the ship turned south into the Indian Ocean, and got lucky.

On 26 September Wolf captured a Japanese freighter, which carried a gun and put up a brief fight before surrendering, and on 29 September it hit the jackpot by intercepting a collier.  Hauling 5,500 tons of coal, the Igotz Mendi was Spanish and neutral, but under the circumstances the fact that it was headed for a British port – Colombo – made it at least arguably fair game.  With fuel supplies secured, Wolf and its latest prize steamed in tandem for the Atlantic and home.

Capturing coal wasn’t quite the same the same thing as using it, and the first attempt to transfer fuel to the Wolf, in rough seas on 26 December, left both ships damaged.  Once repairs at sea were completed they tried again, in even worse conditions on 10 January 1918, and after 21 hours of bumping and grinding enough coal had been redistributed for the two ships to proceed independently towards Germany.

The last stage of Wolf‘s epic tour of duty was the most arduous, partly because of major storms in late January but principally because it faced danger from both the British blockade and German defences, which could not be informed of the disguised ship’s true identity without breaking radio silence.  Reaching the coast of Norway on 14 February, it succeeded in entering the Baltic on 17 February and was then able to contact Kiel, only to be told to wait offshore while preparations were made for a gala welcome.  Replete with speeches and medal ceremonies, the welcome took place on 24 February, the same day that the less fortunate prize crew of the Igotz Mendi ran aground on the Skaw spit, at the top of Jutland, and was captured by a (neutral) Danish gunboat.

A very long journey on a very slow ship

The fate of the Wolf and its equally well-known seaplane had been the subject of worldwide rumour and speculation for months, although British authorities had suppressed evidence of that the ‘Black Raider’ had reached Australasia because they had no minesweepers in the region.  The ship’s safe return was therefore a gift to German propagandists, and to be fair they had plenty to brag about.

The Wolf had made the longest single voyage of any warship during the conflict, and had sunk or captured 27 Allied or neutral vessels, including two warships and, representing the farthest reach of the German Navy’s trade war, two ships sunk by mines laid off New Zealand.  The ship had arrived home not just intact, but carrying a lot of booty, including rubber, copper, zinc, brass, silk, copra and cocoa, all of it very valuable to Germany’s starved economy.

The Australian cargo steamer Wimmera, seen here at Wellington harbour, was sunk by a mine from the Wolf off Auckland on 26 June 1918. Twenty-six of 151 on board were killed.

Captain Nerger seems to have been a good egg.  Thanks to his determination to protect civilians, a total of 467 prisoners captured from Allied merchant ships were also on board when the ship arrived at Kiel.  According to the many accounts written by survivors of the voyage, the prisoners were both a cause of universal hardship during the latter stages of the journey and, because they included crew from dozens of countries, an extraordinary and at the time unprecedented social experiment.  It seems to have passed in remarkably harmonious style, considering the history of inter-racial relations ever since, but then threats to basic survival do have a tendency to put human prejudice in its place.

The rest of the Wolf’s story was more prosaic.  It ended the War back in service, in the Baltic with a new captain and crew, but became a French ship, the Antinous, as a tiny part of the massive bill charged to Germany by the post-War peace treaty.  It ended its career in its original role as a commercial cargo vessel, and was finally scrapped in 1931.

If you’re looking for a message from this particular post, you’ll struggle.  The Wolf‘s propaganda value was fleeting and its strategic impact on the War as a whole was minimal, though it has been argued that its mines did more than anything else to bring the concept of global war home to the people of New Zealand.  Its story does offer glimpses of the realities behind the concept of trade warfare, one of the First World War’s most important and unsung battlegrounds, but is essentially a family-friendly tale with moderate violence.  In the end my only excuses for making both of you read it are a personal weakness for naval derring-do, and the fact that it’s a German wartime epic, inevitably left out of posterity showreels written by the winners.

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