Saturday, 10 January 2015

Karlsruhe's survivors voyage home

SMS Karlsruhe was gone but a third of her crew remained
With his Cruiser and commanding officer lost to the depths Kapitän-lieutnant Studt had to make serious decisions as to how to proceed and what was best for the men. He was a long way from home with limited resources and in hostile waters. The options were ultimately surrender, internment in a neutral port or trying to return to Germany or one of her allies. The role of a German First officer was to be in charge of the running of the vessel and the visible face of command whilst the Captain led a solitary existence. The Captain only appeared at important junctures to add to his gravitas and was tied by strict discipline to avoid any fraternization with the ships officers outside of commands. This left the First officer as the disciplinarian, day to day commander and the conduit of messages to the Captain in short he was well prepared to command a vessel or body of men and make decisions.

Kapitän-lieutnant Studt climbed aboard the Rio Negro after the remains of Karlsruhe slipped beneath the waves and immediately began to assess the situation. One hundred and twenty one men had survived the explosion that had taken 21 men including Kohler to their watery graves with them went all the weaponry, supplies and ammunition, he was left with the two tenders and off ahead the other collier the Farn. As the senior officer he took command of the flotilla as well as relieving Oberleutnant zur See Tepfer of his command on Rio Negro and held a quick conference to discuss how best to proceed. Stopping at a neutral South American port was out of the question, an anti-German feeling had been growing in Brazil and British diplomatic pressure would force their internment as enemy combatants and news that Karlsruhe was gone would spread quickly. It would be beneficial for the war effort and the survivors that the Royal Navy kept up their search for the elusive cruiser rather than them. They could try and sail south but that was where Craddock’s mighty warships had gone, true von Spee would more than likely come around the Horn but what could he add to the East Asiatic other than his tenders empty of coal? There was also the dangerous journey. Could they contact Kronprinz Wilhelm? It was a possibility but the liner could be far out of range of their W/T set and could attract far too much attention especially if they were to organise a rendez-vous point. Studt knew that they were alone and would have to remain so for the meantime.

The next big question was where to go if south was out of the question and with no eapons and no wish for internment little point in going north it was clear that they would have to head east to Germany. Knowing that the British would be policing their home waters heavily to keep the German navy bottled up. Studt suggested a sunnier route via the Azores, slipping past Gibraltar at night and heading for neutral but German friendly Italy or Austro-Hungary. On the surface this seemed the most reasonable rout, a shorter journey and less chance of running into the Royal Navy. One of his engineering officers, Grabe, disagreed pointing out the British maintained warships at Cape Verde and regular patrols from Gibraltar to the coast of Africa and then there was the probability of the French fleet. Grabe successfully argued that although the weather would be deteriating at this time of year there was a better chance of avoiding British patrols and making contact with the German fleet or travelling via one of the Scandinavian ports.

They would need to be cautious of how they proceeded though as the Rio Negro was well know by British Intelligence from countless debriefs from former prisoners, she would, at least on the eastern coast of the Americas, be recognised quickly. The problem was of the three vessels available to him the Rio Negro was the best suited for the journey but what to do with the others? Farn was too far away and too much unnecessary W/T traffic including coordinates for a meeting would surely draw attention. After working out coal supplies they realised they didn’t have enough coal for Indrani and Rio Negro so decisions were made. Rio Negro was better suited for carrying the survivors rather than the more modern collier. If they pulled into a neutral port they would be able to bluff their way as a group of reservist sailors heading home on a German vessel rather than on a British vessel which would point to them being combatants.

Farn was directed to detach and remain at sea until further notice whilst Rio Negro and Indrani moved to the remote part of the Tesstigos Islands where the crews cannibalised the unfortunate Indrani for her 3000 tonnes of coal and anything that was of value for the journey home and also took the time to get rid of any evidence of the Karlsruhe including ribbons on hats, lifeboats and anything with the insignia or name. From now on they were strictly reservists trying to get to Kiel, it was a longshot but it could just be the difference between internment or returning to the Fatherland. With Indrani scuttled  the Rio Negro began her slow journey at 12 knots across the Atlantic as far from populated land as possible and steering away from any ship that crossed his path. As they turned for Iceland on the 19th November a warship was seen approaching and panic set in. A Union jack was hoisted up and the Rio Negro continued on her course casually hoping to fit in as one of the many merchants and vessels travelling across the Atlantic in the increased traffic. As the vessel drew nearer they must have felt that their long journey had been wasted and they would spend the rest of the war as prisoners, the Atmosphere was tense and the crew held their collective breaths  until she passed with the US flag fluttering on her mast as she sailed west.

The journey was long and tedious with the only news from the wireless to tell them what was going on in the outside world. They celebrated von Spee’s victory at Coronel and commiserated on the 20th when they heard a message from the Admiralstab for Karlsruhe telling them their work was done and come home. There was other bad news as well, they heard of the sinking of the Kaiser Wilhelm der grosse and they must have wondered about the fate of Kronprinz Wilhelm. The weather and wind was bitterly cold and the crew only had their light weight tropical whites but that suited Studt as it meant the majority of the men were below deck at anyone time which added to the façade of a collier or merchant ship. Then came the storm. On the 23rd November freezing sleet and snow rained down freezing the decks and making access to the mast observation points impossible so that all they could do was keep pressing on through the gap between Iceland and the Faroes Islands. By the 26th the storm passed leaving only minor damage to the vessel and the crew, cold and tired but still fighting fit. By the 28th Leutnant Frese plotted the course for Norway despite not having any specific maps and charts if the area but using the general Steiler’s Atlas he not only managed to get them to Norway but also to the very target port of Aalesund.

It was more than luck that saw the vessel through the blockade. As the weather turned to winter and the cold storms set in the Royal Navy found their Edgar class cruisers and destroyers were unsuited and sending them out was putting the vessels and cews at risk so withdrew the 10th Squadron. The Admiralty was in the process of of organising merchant ships which were of a hardier design to take over the blockade and through this loop hole sailed the Rio Negro.

On arrival Studt reported to the senior Naval commander, who was the officer commanding the gunship Troll which guarded the harbour. He reported that he was carrying 159 reservists from South America bound for Kiel and that his last port of call was Para. On consulting with his superiors in Oslo the Captain searched and held the vessel whilst the German consul brought a few luxuries and promised to dispatch coded letters to Germany telling the Admiralstab of their status.

With the radio set temporarily disabled by the Norweigans to prevent sending coded messages or intelligence all Studt could do was sit and see what came about. It did not take long before the Norweigans granted them permission to sail south in their territorial waters which gave the Germans some protection from British interference. There was also word from Germany, vessels of the Kaiserliche marine would be looking out for them as they approached home waters and would escort them. To be certain Oberleutnant Aust (the ship’s adjutant) and Leutnant Eyring were to travel via civilian post liner so that if the worse came to the Rio Negro someone would be able to report the fate of Karlsruhe.

Rio Negro began the last dangerous leg on the 1st December staying well within Norweigan territorial waters with her original commander, Tepfner, taking station on the bridge for the duration. Using the charts supplied by the German consul Tepfner hugged the coastline as closely as possible all the way down to the Skagerrak but ultimately it was bad weather that kept the British naval cordon away. During the voyage the Germans broke their neutrality agreement with Norway by sending transmissions to the High seas fleet as Studt was apprehensive about approaching German waters and the minefield which was not on the civilian charts they had acquired. On arrival at Fredrickshavn Studt went ashore to secure some fresh charts whilst an exhausted Tepfner retired to bed after thirty-six consecutive hours on the bridge. They broke Denmark’s neutrality as well by communicating with their superiors to state their position and request an escort which was granted. On the 5th December the torpedo boat S-124 met with them and began to lead them to the safety of German waters and the Naval base at Kiel.

A veil of secrecy was quickly drawn over the new arrival and Admiral Hebbinghaus the officer commanding of Kiel boarded the vessel and quickly ordered them to silence only they and the Admiralstab knew of the fate of Karlsruhe, Studt had not even told the commander of S-124 who they were and had stuck rigidly to their cover story. Regular radio intercepts and intelligence reports showed the British were still searching for Karlsruhe and Admiral Patey’s squadron had swung around the Horn whilst Stoddart was scouring the coast of Brazil and all the while Britiain was searching for a phantom they were committing resources they could be utilising elsewhere such as the Mediterranean. Although rumours did leak that Karlsruhe’s crew had returned and one of the crew was recognised and his return reported to British intelligence only for it to be dismissed as hearsay and not enough to cancel the sweeps which would confirm the ship’s loss. Studt’s men were congratulated by Prinz Heinrich von Hohenzollern and they were reassigned to the cruiser Regensburg which had just been completed.

The last of Karlsruhe’s crew still at sea aboard the Farn put into San Juan harbour when her food supplies ran out having received no further orders from Studt. They gave themselves up to internment with no hope of returning to Germany on their own or linking up with other German forces following the loss of the East Asiatic Squadron.

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