Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Prinz Eitel Friedrich and SS William P Frye

The common conception of the Kaiserliche - Marine's attacks on neutral and especially American shipping was the sinking of the Lusitania but the first shots fired against the neutral United States occurred on the 27th January 1915 by the Hilfkreuzer SMH Prinz Eitel Friedrich.

Here is the German cruiser's journey and the consequences it encountered by attacking the neutral vessel.

SMH Prinz Eitel Friedrich
As vice-admiral von Spee's fleet prepared to head south for Cape Horn a final instruction to Captain Thierichsens which was to make the most of the German naval superiority and to attack British trade whilst giving the impression that the East Asiatic Squadron were still operating there with action and radio messages. He set about sending messages with Leipzig's call sign "Li" repeatedly as if Leipzig was signalling Scharnhorst. Allied shipping, like German merchants a few weeks previously had taken to port or sailing at night and close to shore to avoid detection. Prinz Eitel Friedrich only achieved one victory at this time when she encountered the SS Charcas on a foggy 5th December before boarding, taking the crew off and sinking her with her cargo of 220 tonnes of nitrate. It had been a lucky catch because the local head of the New York and Pacific steam company had put out an order following a sighting of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich at Valparaiso for all shipping to stay in port. As this was not an official order from head office the Charcas sailed keeping to the territorial waters however the fog had forced her away from the coast but still forty miles away from the usual track.

Having waited for the designated amount of time Thierichsens prepared to follow after his Admiral around the cape and hopefully catch up at a later point. Bad news struck on the 10th December when a radio message from Montevideo to Stanley that alluded to the defeat of the East Asiatic, a fact that was confirmed on the 11th when a Daily Mail radio query to the Bishop of the Falklands asking about the sinking of Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Leipzig.

Thierichsens had to revaluate his plans for his vessel in the light of a superior British fleet at the Falklands would soon be rounding the cape to secure British trade routes and be searching for the vessel that had been transmitting on behalf of Leipzig and his vessel was known by sight. The Pacific colonies had long been overrun so he knew that there was no point returning there but he was also constrained by the threat of British warships in the South Atlantic and in all probability sweeping around the Horn. There was a simpler solution; Thierichsens took his vessel to a "dead zone" in much the same way Huhn took Leipzig to the Galapagos. Easter Island was chosen as the place they could sit out and wait for the British searches to pass. If von Spee's fleet had been wiped out in its entirety then any sweep would be cursory and would hopefully leave quickly allowing Prinz Eitel Friedrich free reign. Then again his vessel was known in the region and there was no doubt they would be looking for the vessel that had been masquerading as Leipzig.

As the German vessel turned towards her new destination she came across the French barque Jean carrying 3500 tons of coal, a very welcome stroke of luck. A prize crew was sent over and the vessel taken into tow its cargo would be transferred in the remote harbour at Easter Island. The very next day the Prinz Eitel Friedrich came across a British barque, the Kidalton bound for Calou from Liverpool. As her cargo was of no use to the Germans the ship was promptly sunk and they continued on their way with the Jean in tow arriving at Cook’s bay on 23rd December.  On arrival the Germans set about coaling from the Jean whilst Mr. Edmunds the manager of the Williamson-Balfour sheep company was brought aboard to see Thierichsens who issued a demand for forty sheep for provisions after Christmas but refused to bring any news of the war or what his vessel or intentions were. It was an interview that made Edmunds so uncomfortable that he declined a later invitation for Christmas festivities aboard for fear he would be taken prisoner.

Thierichsens’ forces set up a radio antennae on one of the highest points on the island to listen for news from the Americas and more importantly any approaching ships. This was a flagrant violation of the rules of neutrality but this was of no concern to the German Captain, the island was far too remote to worry about any Chilean naval intervention and his officers reportedly treated the island as if they owned it. Once their primary concerns of coal and stores had been addressed they took Jean out to sea and sank her with gunfire on the XX January. The crews of the fallen barques were put ashore on the 6th January and Thierichsens put the island to his rudder. The prisoners were picked up two months later by a Swedish freighter save for a few who had died due to an outbreak of dysentery on the island and a half of the Jean’s crew who had promised not to raise in arms against Germany, the others were willing to abandon their parole having already turned down rescue by the British vessel Skerries on the 28th February.

Thierichsens had enough coal and mutton to last until April and knowing his Admiral was gone, the Pacific was closed to him and the Atlantic seaboards were closing with the Royal Navy and their Japanese allies were scouring the seas for any raiders left behind. There were only two options left to him both of which involved sailing up the trade spines causing as much damage as possible and then break for Germany or intern in a neutral port. Obviously they hoped for the former. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich was beginning to suffer from the extended time at sea too, her engines were tired, her boilers needed cleaning and her belly was fouled causing her top speed to drop below her original 15 knots. This was a matter of concern for Thierichesens, however not as great a problem as how he was going to avoid the British navy. The only way to round the Horn was to go as far south as possible as the British would more than likely be checking channels and islands to the north but not along the 61st Parallel which was as close to the Antarctic as they could. It was exceptionally cold especially for men in tropical uniforms and the ship’s company was on alert for ice as there was a very real danger from “growlers” and icebergs.

Knowing that his vessel’s speed was compromised and not wanting to draw attention Thierichsens decided to avoid the faster steamer lane and opted for the sailing route believing that he could still make captures without the Allied navies being drawn to investigate. Although fewer in number and harder to spot there was the advantage of their due dates being a lot more flexible if a vessel was delayed there was no great concern or the were months rather than weeks away. More importantly none of the vessels carried wireless sets and so could not call for help and they could not run even from his tired vessel. Although he had enough supplies there was still hope that they would come across a collier or ship that could be plundered to restock his holds but what would be desirable would be a tender to arrive but the likelihood of that was becoming very diminished.

What hadn’t factored in to pre-war German planning was the damage to the local economies that commerce raiding was doing and this led the South American republics to begin to enforce their neutrality by force. The SS Union, was caught by the Kronprinz Wilhelm was carrying 3500 tons of coal for the Argentine Railway and Electric power stations which was a big blow. It also damaged relations with British companies who traded meat, grain, nitrates and other valuable materials in these countries and there was a worry that Britain could take her very lucrative trade contracts elsewhere.

There also came the question of violating their sovereignty and all the German warships that had passed through South American waters were responsible in one way or another. Leipzig and Nürnberg had stopped vessels in territorial waters, Karlsruhe had allegedly had a secret cove on the Brazilian coast where she had gone for coaling and had messages concerning British movements, the whole East Asiatic squadron and Dresden had spent lengthy periods of time sheltering in neutral territory at Mas a Fuera and Easter Island. No action could be taken against the East Asiatic Squadron as it was too powerful and more importantly it was known after his stay in Valparaiso that von Spee was merely passing through the area and his Cruiser units did not harass the trade routes to the extent that was feared, though complaints were made to the German consulate. The Germans though did not pay them much heed as it was considered a means to an end with cordial relations being re-established after the war and the German merchant marine taking up some of Britain’s lucrative trade contracts. The South American republics were not going to wait for the end of the war and instead took action to reassert their sovereignty and take action against the lingering Auxiliary cruisers that were lingering.  The Kosmos line cruisers that had assisted Leipzig and von Spee were all interned whilst others were watched very carefully whilst the Roland line’s SS Holger‘s actions saw the company penalized significantly. Holger was believed to have lain in port at Pernambuco transmitting information concerning trade movements to Karlsruhe and Kronprinz Wilhelm an action that saw her boarded by the Brazilian authorities and her wireless set dismantled! To make matters worse Holger sailed out of port on the 1st January 1915 without permission to resupply  Kronprinz Wilhelm with coal, food and water before moving on to Buenos Aires carrying prisoners. Pernambuco was locked down with the port Captain and other senior officers being replaced and when rumours of the battle cruiser SMS Von der Tan’s escape from the North sea reached them only the Otavi managed to escape the impound. The Brazilians also took action against rumours of a secret base for Karlsruhe somewhere along the coast as well as a network of coast watchers with hidden wireless sets and although nothing was found the coastline and surrounding countryside was scoured. All of the nations tightened up their rules on coaling times and repair times and any vessel known to have acted as a tender or had intentions of acting as a tender was interned immediately including the Seydlitz when it turned up in KLJKJKLJKLJ. The Odenwald was caught leaving San Juan in Puerto Rico by the Americans and the Norwegian vessel Gladstone changed her name to Mariana Quesada and was given permission to change nationality by the Costa Rican consulate in Newport Virginia to sail under their colours. Under her German captain she sailed for Costa Rica and arrived at Limon on the 5th December where the Costa Ricans immediately impounded her and took away the right to sail under their flag. This did not stop the Mariana as she snuck out of harbour without a flag or orders on new years day and skirted around the coast of Brazil finally putting in on the 23rd January at Pernambuco where she was immediately impounded and her machinery dismantled so there would be no further escape. Elsewhere the Patagonia was arrested by an Argentinian cruiser and taken to Bahia Blanca on 21st December and the Mera was which had put to sea to meet von Spee was forced to return to Montevideo and was impounded.

SS William P. Frye
How much of this Thierichsens knew is debatable but having seen his support network in the Pacific dry up quickly it is safe to assume that he was not going to take any chances and avoided using radio traffic to give away his position. It was a valid move that meant that the first news of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich was from the Skerries which had seen the crews of Jean and Kidalton in late February and placed the vessel in the Pacific. With ample space aboard the former liner prisoners were held aboard and not set ashore unlike the other raiders which would frequently offload them on prizes or tenders leaving a rough trail. The first confirmed sighting of the ship and her position would not come until she arrived at Newport News in Virginia in March.

The sailing lanes were a lot quieter than perhaps Thierichsens had hoped for and it was not until 26th January when they caught the Russian sailing vessel Isobel Browne and on the following day the French Pierre Loti. Both ships had their crews removed and the vessels sunk with gunfire. The 27th also saw the first shots fired at an American vessel by Germany when the William P. Frye was pulled over carrying cargo of grain to Queenstown in Ireland. Although not a contraband cargo the German Captain believed that the grain could be given to the British army or by selling it to the Irish civilians could allow other grain to be passed on to the army and so ordered his men to destroy the cargo by throwing it overboard. By the following day with the task still not complete and spurned on by either impatience or through worry of being caught out in the same place for too long Thierichsens gave the order for his men to take the American crew from the vessel and to sink her with gunfire. The American Captain Kiehne was furious and protested but to no avail.

Sailing on the French vessel Jacoben was caught and sunk on the 28th February as well and these four prizes in three days gave the crew a morale boost for the first time since capturing the Jean and hoping to add to the tally the Prinz Eitel Friedrich began to patrol the same area of the sailing lanes and advanced north at a slow speed to conserve fuel eventually capturing the Invercoe and her cargo of wheat on the 12th February only a few hundred miles from where he had sunk the Jacoben and only thirty miles away from where Kronprinz Wilhelm had caught the Sementha only nine days before! It was around this time that they intercepted a message from Berlin for Kronprinz Wilhelm.  It advised the larger liner that the naval situation had drastically changed, the blockade was tightening up and there were too many Royal Navy vessels ahead and behind them and the German Navy would be unable to meet them and the chances of a tender were next to impossible. They believed the best course was for the liner to intern itself in a neutral port be it Spain or the United States. The German crew were pleased to learn that there was another vessel nearby but the feeling that of disappointment that they had come so far only to be denied at the final hurdle must have been very hard for them to stomach. No contact was attempted with Kronprinz Wilhelm and instead they continued to press northwards with dwindling coal and food supplies and as the number of captures had significantly dropped they believed they had exhausted the sail route knowing that internment was now the only option.

They reached the St Paul Rocks – Fernando Noronha line and on the 18th February stopped the 3605 ton steamer Mary Ada Short bound for St Vincent carrying a cargo of 5000 tons of maize from Rosario. Unlike Thierfelder Thierichsens did not take the ship off the route and strip her of anything and everything useful including every last lump of coal and instead sank her and moved on quickly. This turned out to be a very clever move as the following day HMS Otranto passed the spot carrying the survivors of the East Asiatic Squadron to their POW cages. Had she come across the raider the British vessel would no doubt have added another significant amount of von Spee’s men to her holds.  The move also meant that they were able to catch the French liner Floride of the Compagnie Générale trans Atlantique line taking on her passengers and crew before turning east. On the 20th February he caught his last vessel, SS Willerby from Marseille to Plate carrying nothing but water ballast. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich was in a bad way, her engines were in severe need of overhauling and his engines broke down regularly and with as many prisoners as crewmen the stores were dwindling quickly. It was only a matter of time before they would have to put into a neutral port.

Having narrowly missed the auxiliary Edinburgh Castle on her journey south and pulled into Newport News, Virginia having sailed 3000 miles from where she had taken Willerby. The arrival of the raider finally revealed to the world that they had been in the Atlantic. Other than the report from the Skerries, the only other report of Thierichsens’ vessel came from the Iquique which had reported sighting her on the 7th March just four days before she arrived in Virginia. Her arrival caused quite a stir that was reported in the local papers such as the Troy Times of New York after the customs team came aboard and discovered their arms and prisoners. The German officers knew that they could not continue without a serious overhaul of the engines, a thorough scraping of the befouled belly which had picked up barnacles and other parasites from two oceans and a complete restocking of the coal bunkers they were reported to be tight lipped but all hoping for internment. 
Prinz Eitel Friedrich serving as the USS DeKalb (© IWM (Q 58257)) 

Whilst customs officer Captain Hamilton conferred with the neutrality board in Washington, Thierichsens sent communications to the German Consulate naval attaché, Captain Boy-Ed whilst closing his vessel to everyone save for the customs officials. Of the three hundred or so prisoners only the Captains were allowed ashore with the first class passengers of the Floride who were kept under watch of the American Customs officers but the one person that Hamilton wanted to speak to was the one person that would cause the most problems for Thierichsens as Captain Kiehne of the William P. Frye told his tale. Thierichsens had other problems too. As the Ship’s band played “Deutschland uber Alles” to celebrate his birthday he had to contend with reports of Royal Navy wireless transmissions growing closer, they finally knew where he was and he knew the reports were confirmed by the two British steamers, Bolton Hall and a second carrying horses to Avonmouth. There was also the question of what to do with the prisoners with many refusing to honour any parole agreement that would see them not take up arms with Germany again. Captain Monssion of the Floride told the press on the 8th March that the German Commander had said he was willing to take his vessel out to fight the British with his prisoners still aboard.

As the investigation into the sinking of the Frye continues the German captain played for time refusing to hand over the American vessel’s papers claiming they should go to the prize courts in Berlin and that the Americans should make their claims of compensation there but as a concession he would make a copy of the papers. On the other hand he was trying to seek permission to extend his stay from twenty four hours to the seven weeks he believed his ship required. This was eventually agreed by the US neutrality board but under strict supervision to make sure the strength of the vessel was not increased. On the 18th March the Secretary of State W J Bryan wrote to the German Ambassador, Bernstorff, to tell him that the Prinz Eitel Friedrich required fourteen working days to be made seaworthy and by extension were allowed to stay in port until midnight on the 7th April or face internment. On the 29th March Thierichsens was told by the Secretary of State that the twenty-four hour rule would take effect should a British ship leave port further delaying any departures but this was of little concern and did not change the fact that the Royal Navy would soon be outside and waiting for him.

As the diplomatic debates intensified so did British interest and HMS Cumberland and HMCS Niobe were sent to the Chesapeake to await her departure which was considered to be the first move of a fresh campaign by axillaries in the Atlantic. The Germans had heard their signals and now the choice was fight and lose or intern. The Royal Navy strategists were suspiciously eying the German liners in New York and fearing that if they were to try to break out they assigned vessels to watch from Halifax to Bermuda. Weight was added to the argument as the SS Pisa began to coal and resupply in New York harbour being fully ready to leave on the 28th March. There was another rumour that the German fleet had detached more cruisers to run the blockade and head out into the Atlantic, including the elusive Von der Tam.

The 2nd April saw a blizzard strike the bay and with communications to the American main land

lost and visibility at a minimal the British feared that Thierichsens had seized the moment and broken forth. When the snow cleared she was seen to still be in port. The time was nearing though with the Prinz Eitel Friedrich taking on a pilot on the 6th April and making it be known that he was going to sail with all of his prisoners and go down fighting against the British. He also told the press that he had word from the Von der Tam and that the German battle cruiser was on her way to assist him by decimating the blockade. With his stores and coal collated Thierichsens prepared to leave port on the 8th April.

Everybody held their breath. Would the German commander really hide behind his human shield and go muzzle to muzzle with the Royal Navy? Would the British fire upon a ship laden with prisoners including women? Would the mighty Von der Tam appear on the horizon and save Thierichsens and his men?

The raider never left port and to the relief of everybody waiting in the harbour, on the British and Canadian ships and indeed on the German vessel, the ship powered down and Thierichsens officially requested internment. His prisoners and armaments were handed over as there was no reason to fight on, no where to go and no reason to sacrifice his men and the prisoners for a gesture. They would sit out the war in a shanty town with the crew of the Kronprinz Wilhelm until America declared war in 1917, took their ships into their service and placed the crews in various Prisoner of war camps finally releasing them in 1919.

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