Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The fate of SMS Karlsruhe

Fregatenkapitan Erich Kohler
On 4th November 1914 an explosion ripped through the German Cruiser SMS Karlsruhe breaking it in two and taking more than half the crew with her. One of Germany's newest warships, having only been commissioned in January of that year. Fregattenkapitan Erich Kohler was criticised by Geoffrey Bennett in his book Naval battles of the First World War for being ineffective compared to Kapitan von Muller's Emden. However this is not entirely accurate as after Emden the Karlsruhe was the most successful lone raider capturing 16 vessels in three months.

Kohler's campaign almost stuttered to a stop within days of the outbreak of the war. At the outbreak of the war the Karlsruhe was in the Caribbean sea to having relieved SMS Dresden on station to fly the flag for Germany and protect German citizens (and interests) during the Mexican revolution. The standard order to Cruiser commanders serving in overseas was to conduct cruiser warfare against any military targets and trade at the best of your ability. The Captain of the cruiser would have full jurisdiction and freedom to make the best choices. Kohler took his vessel out in a remote corner of the Bahamas laying 120 miles north of Watling Island where on the 6th August he rendezvoused with SS Kronprinz Wilhelm and began the slow process of transferring weaponry and crew over. Not long after putting two of the 10.5cm guns, a machine gun and a small compliment of crew under the Karlsruhe's  navigation officer Kapitanleutnant Thierfelder when smoke was spotted over the southern horizon. It was HMS Suffolk the flagship of Rear Admiral "Kit" Craddock and she was heading straight for them. Kohler ordered the transfer to cease, to raise steam and prepare to get underway, an order that Thierfelder echoed on the liner and the two German vessels parted company at top speed, the Karlsruhe heading up to 27 knots and the liner at 23 with HMS Suffolk giving chase to the cruiser which made course away from the liner. After a spirited chase that spanned around eight hours Suffolk was forced to finally give with the German's speed out pacing them. This was not  the end of the chase though. At 20:15 HMS Bristol which had reversed course on Admiral's orders caught a glimpse of the German cruiser in the moonlight. Captain Fanshawe closed to 7000 yards and opened fire. A brief exchange began but being caught at a disadvantage Kohler decided to retreat using his superior speed. The darkness again saved her as HMS Berwick changed course at the last minute when near enough on top o her.

The encounter worried Kohler. The Royal Navy were obviously searching for him and having been chased by at least two cruisers he decided that the Caribbean was too risky for a sustained campaign. The other thing that swayed his decision was coal. If he could pull over enough freighters (as Emden did.) he could sustain  his coal but that was a big if especially that it seemed the Royal Navy were actively searching him for him (with more ships than were searching for Emden). He could not do as von Muller did and relocate somewhere else quickly if there was a lack of coal. There was the option of raiding ports and colonies but this presented the problems of temporary gain and no guarantee that he could take coal stocks as to do so took time, time that he may not have if a radio transmission was sent and Craddock's ships were coming. There was also a choice that the port authorities may do what the French did at Tahiti to von Spee and ignite the stocks which would mean Kohler would have expanded fuel, ammunition and men for nothing. All three of these resources were irreplaceable and beyond value. The easiest target was the British merchant marine but where to find them?

On the 9th of August the Karlsruhe pulled into San Juan, Puerto Rico with only 12 tonnes of coal left and began coaling. Whilst in port he took control of the Hamburg-Amerika line Patagonia to coal up and head off the coast of St Thomas and wait for him to reach there. Karlsruhe pulled into Curacao three days later and took on another 1,100 tonnes  and met another German vessel Stadt Scheieswig and ordered them to carry as much coal as she could to the coast of Brazil. He then headed out along the coast of Venezuela picking up the Patagonia before proceeding in the Dresden's tracks.

Karlsruhe's first victory was on the 18th August some 180 miles east of Barbados and well off the usual trade route, some 70 miles north in fact. The Bowes Castle had been advised by Captain Luce of the HMS Glasgow that a German cruiser may be stalking merchant shipping and so it was best to avoid the usual routes. At 16:45 she had the misfortune to be overhauled by that very same German cruiser. After removing the crew to the Patagonia and any supplies the merchant ship was scuttled.

The following week he rendezvoused with his second collier Stadt Scheieswig at St Joao Island where he re-coaled and sent her on to Maranham where it arrived on the 2nd September. The arrival of a German ship buying up coal and supplies was reported to Admiral Craddock. Kohler took his cruiser along the coast trying to stay hidden and in a secluded inlet coaled from the Patagonia on the 30th. The following day he received good news via his wireless sets. Three German ships made themselves available to him. The Nord Deutsche line Crefeld and the Hamburg-Sud Amerika line vessels Asunchion and Rio Negro who were all directed to meet at Rocos reef.

Rocos reef was a focal point for trade travelling down from Europe and for the route that ran from New York to Cape San Roque. Here Kohler could have a massive impact on trade and gather a huge amount of supplies. He was immediately rewarded by overhauling the Strathroy which was on to Rio from Virginia bringing coal to the Brazilian government.  The steamer realised something was wrong despite being some 80 miles off the trade route and when she saw Karlsruhe on the horizon and tried to escape but was quickly pulled over. Kohler sent a prize crew aboard and had the prisoners were transferred to the Asuncion though a contingent of Chinese sailors were retained with the German prize crew to assist in the running of the Strathroy. He brought his officers together and explained his plans.

Coaling at sea was not only impractical due to the rough seas but also because it meant that both the tender and Karlsruhe would be vulnerable should the Royal Navy come over the horizon he would be caught. Kohler's plan was simple. Whilst cruising the coast he had identified a small inlet that was remote. The Strathroy would go with the Patagonia and lay at anchor. When supplies ran low Karlsruhe would sneak back to the inlet to coal and resupply. It would mean leaving the trade routes for the best part of a week but it was preferable to the alternative.
Luck played a big part again as at this time the Dresden pulled over two cruisers (Hyades and Holmwood) at the River Plate which immediately drew off the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy (Otranto, Glasgow and Monmouth) had already started a sweep of the Brazilian coast from the Rocos reef but three days before Karlsruhe arrived there with her flotilla of tenders! Admiral Stoddart, who was in command of the second nearest squadron had his hands full watching the Canaries from Cape Verde and policing ships heading towards England from South Africa and neither he or Craddock had the vessels available to police the route permanently which meant the Karlsruhe could operate with relative impunity. Kohler also devised a scheme to try and catch scattered shipping, his cruiser would sit between two tenders at a distance which increased the visibility of the squadron and they either drifted (to conserve coal) or cruised during the day time and at night they went into darkness and pulled in together. Where as Emden played a daring fast paced campaign, Karlsruhe played the waiting game. He also redistributed coal and supplies amongst the ships in the flotilla so that he could accommodate hundreds of prisoners which had the effect that he didn't have to send ships back to port to drop them off and meant that little to no intelligence was gathered about her movements for seven weeks! Kohler was incredibly cautious not to give away his position, even to the point of ignoring direct W/T messages from the Kronprinz Wilhelm which was in the vicinity on the 4th September.
SMS Karlsruhe

Along with coal the Karlsruhe was also reliant on the merchant ships to provide him with food and on 3rd September he boarded the Maple Branch out of Liverpool that was carrying livestock for exhibition in Brazil. The freshly slaughtered pigs, sheep and cows were a very welcome addition to the German crew and the foreign prisoners.

There was another close call where Karlsruhe and the Asuncion barely missed the Cornwall and Good Hope on the 6th as the Germans cruised to their secret base. After returning on the 10th they floated for four days without seeing anything until the Highland Hope was pulled over on the 14th. The British vessel had been running without lights through the night as per Admiralty instruction but was still sighted and pursued until daybreak. This encounter led to yet another lucky escape for Kohler's men. Whilst his men were boarding the vessel he received a W/T message from a neutral Spanish vessel, Reina Victoria Elene asking what was going on. Kohler managed to bluff his way through the meeting and told them they were a British convoy. He ordered his men to hurry up with stripping their prey which proved to be a prudent move as his Radio operators reported intercepting communications between the Spanish vessel and a British vessel, HMS Canopus a pre-dreadnought battleship that was cruising south to meet Craddock. This episode forced Kohler's hand and he again relocated to another part of the trade spine.

He returned on the 20th September after a period of coaling and captured an amazing five vessels in  two days! Two of them were neutral (Swedish Prinsessan Ingeborg and Italian Ascaro and they were set free.) and on their release they provided the first intelligence on the Karlsruhe on the 28th September when Ascaro arrived at her destination of St. Vincent. A third neutral, Maria, a Dutch ship carrying wheat to Ireland which was deemed by Kohler, and in the German high courts in 1915, to be a reasonable target as they were going to a British port and could go to the British army.

One of his captured colliers, the Indriani, was a modern vessel with a modern Marconi set and was soon renamed Hoffnung (Hope) and became one of Karlsruhe's permanent consorts. The Strathroy was scuttled having run out of coal and the last of her crew were transferred to the Crefeld which had become the flotilla's prison ship and carried in excess of 150 prisoners! Although the treatment of these crews was good it was getting more than a little crowded aboard and there were a lot of hungry mouths to feed, something the Germans were struggling to do with the long periods with no victims.

SS Crefeld a liner for 192 passengers carried 415 prisoners!
In the beginning of October things improved again. News arrived that Craddock's vessels had gone south to find von Spee, which was doubly good news that the Karlsruhe was less likely to run into the armoured cruisers and that the East Asiatic squadron could be on her way, however there was also news that another British cruiser was nearby and Kohler again relocated to another part of the spine which proved fortuitous because he sailed into a stream of homeward bound vessels catching another four vessels in three days carrying general stocks and much needed foodstuff. Their capture was very lucky and as all the vessels were forty miles off the trade routes and travelling with lights dimmed following to the letter the Admiralty orders. Crefeld now carried 350 prisoners and it was decided that on the 13th October she should make for the distant Tenerife so that by the time she arrived any intelligence about the German cruiser's position would be out of date. Thankfully before she left the cargo ship Condor was pulled over with a cargo of foodstuffs and 2000 cases of condensed milk! Although the journey was uncomfortable the vessel arrived without incident, though narrowly missing the auxiliary HMS Victorian and arrived on 22nd. The 415 prisoners could not tell the Allies any information beyond what had happened to them and their time in captivity and that Kohler had four tenders and ample fuel. They couldn't tell him about the German's plans or whereabouts.

Kohler continued to operate in the same area until the 22nd October which was the allotted date for the Crefeld's arrival. He moved off and spent time coaling in preparation for his next move. He had formulated a plan to strike where the British would not be looking. The Caribbean.

On the 4th November with the Hoffnung and Rio Negro in attendance the Karlsruhe was heading towards Barbados for a daring raid that would bring the Royal Navy back to the Caribbean to search for him whilst he slipped back to the trade routes. Most of the crew had gathered on the fore of the ship to hear the Ship's band along with their Captain up in the fore-bridge when a massive explosion ripped through the vessel tearing the vessel in half. As the aft bobbed for a further twenty minutes before disappearing below the waves the two tenders rushed forward and saved 129 of the crew and 15 officers. Sadly though Kohler, 14 officers and 259 men were killed. Although the explosion's cause has never been definitively identified it is considered to have been an ammunition explosion that caused a chain reaction.

The crew of the Hoffnung were taken off with all needed supplies and promptly sunk by Rio Negro which then made the slow journey back to Germany arriving in December having run the British blockade. In a sad coincidence it arrived at a time when the German admiralty were planning on recalling Kohler's vessel.

Although Kohler's campaign is not as glamorous as von Muller's in the Indian ocean it still managed to capture a large number of vessels. Despite this its impact was much less significant. Where as Emden became infamous and von Muller a legend Kohler and Karlsruhe were more of an irritant. The two ships pulled over by Dresden had more of an impact on shipping and Naval deployment than Karlsruhe's actions and the arrival of Crefeld with news of all of her successes. The trade route was so lucrative and made shipping companies so much money that they weren't worried about the possibility that there was an unlocated German raider on the route and Kohler's secretive and overly cautious moves meant that no one really thought much of a vessel being overdue at first coupled with the amount of ships that had gone up the trade routes without seeing anything. The sixteen vessels destroyed is impressive but was a mere drop in the ocean of vessels that had got past and the losses were more than sustainable. If they hadn't been then Stoddart would have had to make a concerted search for him.


  1. Pardon my ignorance, but what are the initials SMS (I get USS and HMS, but how do S M describe anything German or Deutsch?)

    1. Hi Ruth,

      No problem, I probably should have put a translation in. SMS stands for Seiner Majestät Schiff (His Majesty's ship).

      Hope you enjoyed the article