Sunday, 17 August 2014

The fate of the German "Australian Station"

At the start of the First World War the German Navy (Kaiserliche-marine) was divided into two main fleets with a Home port each and several smaller stations with responsibility over their areas which usually lay with the senior Captain taking charge of the vessels in time of emergency if no Flag officer was present.

Outside of the Grand Fleet there was the East Asia Squadron under Admiral von Spee with the cruisers Scharnhorst, and Gneisnau forming the core and the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg. The light cruiser Emden was based in the home port, the Chinese concession of Tsingtao for defence. Smaller groups included the Schutztruppe in East Africa based at Dar Es Salaam (which consisted of the light cruiser Konigsberg) and the Australian station, based at Apia, tasked with patrols of the German islands of Samoa, Solomon Islands, Marianas, Marshal Is., Naura, Palau and Papau New Guinea. The vessels attached to the station were the survey vessel Planet and the Bussard class cruiser Cormoran.

Cormoran (Cormorant) was laid down in 1890 at Danzig with final completion on 25th July 1893.
SMS Cormoran
Armed with two deck mounted torpedo tubes, eight quick firing 10.5cm Sk l/35 guns on single pedestal mounts with 100 rounds each (range of up to 10,800 metres) scattered with two at the front, two on each side and two at the back. There was also five revolver cannon. The Bussard class were the last class of cruiser to be fitted with sailing rig as well as coal fired engines. As an "Unprotected" cruiser the Bussard class lacked side armour and all important deck armour protecting the vital equipment within the vessel. Eventually the Naval race between England and Germany meant designs leapt and bounded past them leaving them obsolete for fleet engagements but useful to carry out patrol ship duties, especially in the colonies and the islands of Australasia. She was never going to be the power in any particular water but against the isolated islands and for policing she was more than formidable. After a long career in Pacific waters carrying out various tasks including supressing two rebellions (once with the aid of the Kreuzerwaffe of the East Asian squadron), Cormoran was downgraded as a cruiser to a gunboat on 24th February 1913 by order of Admiral Tirpitz. Cormoran moved to Tsingtao for a refit on 30th May 1914. As war approached the senior Naval officer in Tsingtao, Kapitan Karl von Müller of the Emden ordered the repairs to Cormoran accelerated so that she could be sea worthy should war start. Emden left Tsingtao to go hunting just as war seemed imminent hoping to catch Russian warships at sea unaware. When she returned with the Russian freighter Ryazan in tow on the 4th August the situation had accelerated with Great Britain declaring war and Müller made the decision to abandon repair work on Cormoran and move her crew and guns over to Ryazan along with crewmen from the gunships Iltis, Luchs and Tiger as well as some war volunteers. The vessel was renamed SMH Cormoran II. The Cormoran was eventually scuttled by the Imperial Dockyard staff on the 28th-9th September to stop her from being captured.

Meanwhile her sister ship Geier (Vulture) was dispatched to replace her on the Australian station. The Geier had previously replaced another Bussard class cruiser, See-Adler, in East Africa and sailed from Taganyika for Tsingtao and stopped at Singapore to recoal and resupply. Hearing rumours of war about to break in Europe and aware of being in a British port the cruiser and her collier Bochum fled the Royal Navy and headed out to sea on the 29th July. Royal Navy intelligence passed to Admiral Jerream of the Chinese station stated that the Gneisnau instead of Geier had fled Singapore which shows how unreliable the observations and intelligence could be.

The Geier and Bochum managed to avoid the Royal Navy virtually disappearing and becoming a virtual threat that could have been a threat to merchant vessels and troop transports making the journey without escorts. She, like Emden and Spee's squadron were ghosts that were everywhere and nowhere. However Geier received orders from the admiralty to find the other vessel from the Australian squadron, the SMS Planet which was heading to Yap island to defend the important German Radio and supply base in the Caroline Islands. Once found she was to transfer her guns and torpedo tubes to the already lightly armed (3 revolver cannons) Planet and defend the island from any attack as best they could, failing that release the Planet for commerce raiding.

Geier was supposed to meet with the supply ship Tannenfels (which had also fled Singapore on the 2nd August) loaded with 8500 tonnes of coal aboard that had been bought in Batavia but the collier never appeared at the rendezvous. Luckily for the Geier they did come across the Emshorn which transferred 1300 tonnes to the German cruiser and 1700 tonnes to Bochum before departing to try and make contact with von Spee’s ships but with the British capturing and destroying German radio stations and Spee operating under W/T silence the chances of finding them was very low, especially as Spee was heading due East at a faster speed than the old Geier could muster. The only other major German warship in Asian waters did make contact and after a missed meeting at Anguar on the 20th August, Geier met with Emden and her collier Markommania at sea where the Geier’s Korvettenkapitän Grasshoff was ferried over to speak to Kapitan von Müller. No doubt they discussed the situation at length. It was decided that Geier would proceed to Anguar and not accompany Emden, possibly because she would slow down the bigger cruiser and be a liability if they were engaged by any Naval units. Geier taking on the mantle of a loan raider made things harder for the Royal Navy. With two separate units attacking targets in different areas it would cause confusion and chaos. If one were captured or sunk then the other would still be at sea. It was probably at this juncture that the decision to not get to the Planet was formalised and the junction at Yap Island written off, Geier would not make it before the Allies arrived and if they did they would surely be outnumbered, outclassed and out gunned by any Allied invasion force. Staying at sea was the only viable option.

As Emden made for the Molucca strait Geier turned for Anguar with Bochum. On arrival the empty supply ship was replaced with the supply ship Locksun (carrying 2000 tonnes of coal) and the Tsingtao (carrying 2300 tonnes of coal.) Locksun was ordered ahead to the Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands whilst Tsingtao accompanied Grasshoff to New Hannover but Tsingtao was far from perfect as a supply ship, the coal it carried was Japanese and of a poor quality, it also had limited supplies and even lacked a water distillery for fresh water so had to use the Geier’s water distillery which meant regular stops to transfer water.

On the 4th September at the island of Kusaie Geier surprised and captured the British freighter SS
SMS Geier
and boarded her. Captain Clopet told the Germans he had been at sea and had no idea that Engalnd and Germany were at war. Taking them at their word the German boarding party decided not to scuttle the vessel and instead disabled the engines and disposed of tools that would aid in its repair before promptly disappearing again. The situation on Southport was bleak, it would take a miracle to get the engines working again but with pure determination from Clopet and his engineer Mr H Cox they managed to jury rig the engines to work in a very flimsy manner – it wouldn’t go backwards and they were was a strong concern that should they ever stop they may not get it to go again. This was coupled with the 2000 miles to the nearest British port and a severe lack of supplies. The Germans had told the local tribal king to supply the British ship with as much supplies as they could whilst it remained at the island and Clopet was able to barter for 350lb of coconuts and 400lb of a local root that the natives would eat for sustenance when all other food ran out, then he gave the order to set sail. On the 30th September Southport pulled into Brisbane harbour and it became one of the great tales of British seamanship, doing the impossible and news of the Geier’s last known position was reported to the Admiralty but it was almost a month out of date. 

Now with the Locksun supporting her Geier continued its cruise around the Pacific but as coal supplies dried up the collier had to tow Geier when a recoaling at sea had to be abandoned due to rough weather and seas. Grasshoff had to change his plans again. He had hoped to get to San Francisco and surrender to the neutral Americans before he was caught by the Allies in open water, sadly his shortages of supplies meant that he would have to find a closer port to put into. On 15th October the two vessels put into Honolulu harbour. According to international law neutral ports were only meant to allow warships of belligerent nations up to twenty-four hours to resupply and do minor repairs but as there was a lot of anti-British feeling amongst the Americans and the islanders the Geier was given an extension of three weeks! 
 On 23rd October at 23:30 the USCRS Thetis spotted two steam powered launches acting strangely out in the harbour and signalled them to no avail, it lowered a boat and attempted to board one of them and fired a blank round from its’ 3lb deck gun causing the two ships to disappear into the night. The next morning the sun rose to reveal the battleship IJS Hizen and armoured cruiser Asama, with them was the German schooner Aeolus which the Japanese had caught just outside Honolulu harbour with its cargo of Copra. The Japanese were transferring the German captives to the Loksun in the harbour as well as taking the Copra aboard their vessels. Hizen’s launches continued to violate American territorial waters with their launches being chased by Thetis on several occasions including ordering the Japanese crews off the Hermes, another German trader overtaken and boarded within the three mile exclusion zone and ripping down the German flag. Captain Schmidt protested with the Japanese sailors claiming asylum and hoisted it back up as Thetis came closer threatening the Japanese with her guns. Hermes was greeted with cheers from the two German vessels already in port after the Japanese were forced to abandon their attempted capture. Hizen’s Captain claimed in an interview that he intended on waiting for Geier to come out and would stick to the rules of neutrality rigidly but every night his vessels would harry shipping within the boundary limits and the US navy sent out a further two launches from Pearl Harbour to aid Thetis, the actions of the Japanese did nothing to ingratiate them or the Allied cause to the Americans on the island.

With the amount of neutral shipping, including Japanese and German, operating in Hawaiian waters it would have been exceptionally disruptive should Geier take to sea and Grasshoff must have known that his vessel would have been doomed against the two heavier Japanese units and so it was decided to plead for asylum and internment at Honolulu, an action that satisfied all three parties and on 8th November it became official and the two Japanese vessels left for San Clemente.

Three years later Geier was seized by American forces when the US joined the Allied cause against Germany. Her crew was taken into POW camps and the vessel renamed USS Schurz and refitted for escort duties. After various duties she was eventually sunk in a collision with a merchant vessel (SS Florida) which cut a sizable chunk out of her bow killing one crewman and injuring twelve. The order to abandon ship was given and on 21st June 1918 she sank beneath the waves.

SMS Planet

The other vessel in the station, the aforementioned survey vessel SMS Planet was scuttled on 7th October 1914 at Yap island to stop her capture by the approaching Japanese expeditionary force and her crew were transferred to the SMH Cormoran
II, her wreck was later salvaged by Japan in 1916. With nothing more than three 3.7 cm revolver cannons she stood little chance of defending herself or the colony nor much chance of escape. Grasshoff's decision to not go to Yap was a wise one as his vessel would not have made any difference and both vessels would have been lost that day. He, like Spee took the gamble that should (when) Germany win the war, their colonies would be returned to them.

The German Australian squadron was not a war winning squadron, thousands of miles from the High seas fleet with obsolete vessels unsuited to war with the other Imperial powers and with only a limited ability against merchant shipping as their supply bases were quickly over run. The only hope for them would be to join up with Spee's East Asian squadron but they would be a hinderance to his larger vessels as traversed the ocean for Germany and would have been destroyed quickly in any major engagement. Their fate was sealed the day Britain and Japan entered the war and it was only a matter of time before they were forced to scuttle or be interned.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this great work. I am the Great Granddaughter of Captain Clopet who commanded the SS Southport that escaped from the German ship Geier. To add to the story, the Germans did not forgive the crew from the SS Southport for having embarrassed them during WW1. During World War II, they caught my Grt Grandfather, Aristide Clopet who was working in the Resistance in Paris at the time, and tortured him for what had happened during WW1. Artiside Clopet, who was in his Sixties by then, was imprisoned in the notorius prison Fresnes, outside Paris. But he managed to escape, and made his way to the Pyrenees, and out of Europe. He was then posted to Dakar, where he was in charge of arms and ammunitions.