Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The last of the Raiders; Kronprinz Wilhelm

SMS Karlsruhe
After a lengthy cruise with mixed results the SMH Kronprinz Wilhelm nosed her way into Norfolk , Virginia.  The weather had been atrocious and already a blizzard had struck Newport News on the night of the 11th April but now it was clear night as Kronprinz Wilhelm now crept in cautious of the British vessels out in the bay. The ship, once the pride of the Norddeutscher Lloyd line and winner of the Blue riband was in a poor state, her interiors were drastically altered, berths ripped apart for beds and padding for gun shields and the bridge.  Her hull battered from ramming vessels and coaling in the heavy south Atlantic swell. The German vessel had been at sea since the 3rd August the year before when she snuck out of New York and headed south for her fateful meeting with Karlsruhe.  As Kapitän-leutnant Thierfelder’s cruise came to an end his crew must have been greatly relieved there was hardly any coal left in the bunkers and that would have lasted only a few days, fresh water was running short and the mostly civilian crew were tired and there was a large amount of men on the sick list with symptoms that came from the poor diet and the early onset of scurvy. Wounds were slow to heal, there was haemorrhaging, pleurisy, rheumatism and pneumonia and Dr Perrenon the vessels chief medical officer had some grave concerns, had the fuel and water situation not dictated internment then he would have had to force the issue with his commander.  The officers had a better diet as they had the lion’s share of the fresh vegetables that were captured where as the men lived on beef, potatoes and bread.

The cruise had started so well back in August some 240 days and 32,731 nautical miles ago, and Thierfelder’s arrival heralded an exciting time for the ship. Having parted ways with the Karlsruhe on the 4th August with HMS Suffolk in pursuit Thierfelder had turned the his vessel east towards the Azores and a hoped rendezvous with a supply ship. On the 5th the new Captain took stock of his vessel consulting with the old Captain, Grahn, and began to turn the mighty liner into a warship and find out what she could and couldn’t do. His new vessel was large and powerful with a design top speed of 23 knots and engines that could generate 33,000 of indicated horsepower. Her speed came at a price though and it meant the boilers required 500 tons of coal every day to maintain the 23 knots. Having been intercepted in the transfer of arms Thierfelder had to make do with the two guns that they had managed to transfer placing one on each side of the forecastle and ordered mattresses, cots and baggage broken up and deployed as gun shields to protect his gunners and around the bridge’s windows to protect his bridge crew from splinters that would carve straight through the great glass windows. There were further modifications made with the main saloon and luxury smoking room being gutted and structures above decks altered so that these two rooms could be used as extra coal bunkers, as they were to live off what they could capture they had to be prepared. The journey to the Azores was fairly uneventful save from running from a French Cruiser which was easily shaken and lost as night fell. The majority of the journey was spent trying to enforce military regimen into the reservist civilian crew. Leutnant Brinkmann proved his worth in the W/T room being able to pinpoint the positions of vessels sending messages and kept a map by the set with coloured pins to plot his information and relay it to the bridge.

Kronprinz Wilhelm met with the supply ship Walhalla on the 18th August and began a gentle cruise south resupplying on the way.  The Canary Islands and Azores were a hot bed of German activity but the tide was turning and the consul at Las Palmas sent a message to Thierfelder warning him that sufficient coal would not be found. It was wise counsel as there was a growing presence of de Robeck and Stoddart’s patrols as they searched for Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. Two schooners were caught by the liner, a Danish vessel and a Russian sailing ship, Pittan and both were released as they had no knowledge of the war and had nothing of value for the vessel to take and their slow speed meant that it would take time for them to reach a port and report the German’s position. Indeed when the Pittan did pass the information on to the first vessel they found it was on the 11th September some two weeks later!  Thierfelder decided the best course of action was to head towards South America where he was sure he could gain support from German vessels in port and there was always the chance they could meet with Karlsruhe again and work together. They split from Walhalla and took a leisurely cruise with the reservists being trained in how to fire the two guns and a selected prize crew trained in boarding tactics and what paperwork to look for such as cargo manifests as well as how to place detonation charges. They arrived off the coast of Brazil on the 3rd September and were met by the Asuncion with the aim of resupplying however having just resupplied the Karlsruhe the Asuncion was unable to provide much sustenance and the frustrated Thierfelder was forced to go seeking his own supplies, especially when Karlsruhe refused to answer his calls. That evening though at 20:30 a vessel cruised past and mistook the Kronprinz as a friendly liner, obeyed the signal to follow her and
Kronprinz Wilhelm
go to a blackout and in the morning to pull alongside. The Indian Prince was systematically stripped over three days but heavy swell stopped the transfer of supplies before she was scuttled and the crew and passengers placed aboard the German raider.

Thierfelder turned his vessel Northwest where on the 11th they rendezvoused with the supply ship Ebernberg which had brought fresh water, coal and supplies but the resupply was cut short when SOS signals from another German auxiliary cruiser nearby. It was Cap Trafalgar. Thierfelder was hit by a dilemma, his countrymen were in peril and he should sail to their aid but he also had to consider the safety of his own crew and vessel but he was saved from making a decision as not long after getting underway the SOS signals abruptly stopped which could mean only one thing. Fearing the worse for the other vessel he turned around and went back to his resupply vessel which by this time had been joined by the supply ship Prussia and collier Pontos. Thierfelder took all of the vessels away from the trade spines and resupplied at length.

Several weeks went past until the Kronprinz encountered another vessel on the 7th October when the modern and fast la Correntina came over the horizon and made the same mistake as the Indian Prince and believed the German vessel was British which was not helped by the auxiliary turning front on to hide her distinctive outline until it was too late. The vessel approached them at speed which did not raise any concerns until the great liner was scraping along the side of La Correntina either by design or because Thierfelder was unaware of the suction caused by the great liners. The boarding party jumped across the gap and took the ship in tow. The La Corentina was carrying frozen meat from Argentina to Britain for the army and it was a great catch for the German raider providing plentiful meat for the coming months. The merchant vessel was also armed with two 4.7" guns which were meant to be used to keep German raiders at bay, unfortunately she had never been issued with ammunition which was left in Liverpool so they were lifted and placed on Kronprinz Wilhelm to add to her fearsome appearance. 

On the 20th October the Sierra Cordoba arrived with supplies, food, uniforms, water, coal, soap and cigars and began to transfer it to Kronprinz Wilhelm in exchange for the prisoners from La Correntina. Thierfelder’s luck held and a week later on the 28th October they came across the French barque Union carrying 3500 tons of Cardiff Coal and immediately took the vessel off the trade route to get it into his make shift bunkers as he had no secret rendezvous point to send her and comeback to in a time of need. It took a month of sailing around with the Union in tow to find somewhere to empty the vessel burning a large amount of coal to do so and abandoning the rich trade routes at La Plata without causing them any real trouble at all. Sierra Cordoba arrived at Montevideo on the 22nd November carrying the prisoners taken from La Correntina and Union which was the first news of their capture and sinking.
Kronprinz Wilhelm, like Karlsruhe was able to keep abreast of ship movements from agents in the neutral Brazilian ports with a W/T station near Pernambuco as well as from the Holger in the harbour.

Whilst patrolling the sailing routes on the 21st November the Kronprinz Wilhelm came across the French sailing barque Ann de Bretagne bringing £15,000s worth of timber to Melbourne. After removing the crew and trying to sink her with explosives, shells and ramming the vessels all the extra buoyant timber in the holds just kept her bobbing on the surface and the frustrated raider left the scene hoping that the sea would eventually claim her.

The liner continued her patrols between Cape Roque and Cape Verde Islands but found nothing until the 4th December when the collier Bellevue with 5400 tons of coal fell into their lap. No sooner had they secured the collier than the sails of the SS Mont Agel appeared on the horizon and the Kronprinz roared off in pursuit. On discovering the sailing vessel was carrying nothing but ballast he ordered her immediate sinking and returned to devour the prize of coal. Taking the Bellevue off track to an area of limited to no traffic on the 8th December and spent the next twelve days taking everything that they could use. They saw no other ships save for the Hamburg-Amerika line vessel Otavi bringing the liner coal and supplies on the 12th December and leaving Thierfelder's vessel on the 21st carrying all of the Prisoners for the neutral Las Palmas. Otavi had been one of the vessels earmarked to help von Spee or the von der Tann which was continually rumoured to have escaped the North sea.  arriving on the 3rd January having escaped the Victorian and Argonaut. As predicted the prisoners reported the Kronprinz's position not knowing that Thierfelder had sailed over 400 nmi north east to St Paul's rocks.

By Christmas 1914 the Admiralstab had given up completely on surface raiders. With von Spee's
Kapiranleutnant Paul Thierfelder
squadron, Emden, Kaiser Wilhelm der grosse and Cap Trafalgar sunk, Dresden and Königsberg under siege and only the Kronprinz was still known to be at sea and the effort of supplying her was proving too much for little if any gain. Thierfelder was advised by the Admiralstab to find a neutral port and intern his vessel but he refused to contemplate it just yet as his vessel was crammed with supplies and coal. For the meantime the cruise would continue. It was a decision that was soon rewarded as on the 28th December the Hemisphere appeared over the horizon carrying coal for the Argentine railway. After a two days of sailing off track the Kronprinz spent another two weeks picking the bones dry before sinking the vessel on the 7th January.

The Holger, a staunch servant of the German Naval cause over the past four months was forced to flee from Pernambuco on the 1st January without papers or permission leaving the Brazilian government to come down hard on the vessels that remained. However she found the Kronprinz on the 6th January some 550 miles east of St Paul Rocks where she was just finishing off the Hemisphere taking her prisoners off and accompanying the raider as she moved to the Las Palmas - Buenos Aires track where on the 10th January the Mail steamer Potaro was caught. Thierfelder, who usually sank vessels in ballast, decided to use the vessel as a scout and had her fitted with W/T aerials and painted navy grey.  Kronprinz sailed south and caught the Highland Brae on the 14th January some 150 miles off the steamer track in what should have been safe waters. The same day the Canadian schooner Wilfred M. carrying dried fish was spotted, overrun and sunk by ramming. The Kronprinz wasted over two weeks taking Highland Brae south picking the bones and finally sinking her on the 30th January a hundred miles off Trinidada. Thierfelder also changed his mind and ordered Potaro sunk as well.

The next victim was the Norwegian Sementha, which although neutral was carrying wheat Britain so deemed to have contraband and promptly sunk. The Holger departed for Buenos Aires on the 12th February carrying prisoners only to be interned on the 18th February for her role as an auxiliary although watched by Carnarvon and the auxiliary Celtic who believed she may try to escape yet again.

By the end of February and in early March the Kronprinz was in dire straits running low on coal, freshwater and supplies. They were having trouble finding vessels having only caught the SS Tamar which gave them some fresh water and fresh coffee before scuttling and the Coleby carrying wheat which was sunk by guns. Neither vessel provided them with anything that could improve their condition aboard. The colliers and supply ships were also drying up with many already interned. The Odenwald left San Juan in Puerto Rico but was stopped by American forces and returned to port. There was also a fault developing in the propeller shaft which was steadily worsening from the continual usage and being at sea for two thirds of a year.

 Thierfelder received a message from German agents who had provided the supply ship Macedonia which had escaped from internment in Las Palmas for Kronprinz to resupply from and then make an attempt to Germany via the Denmark Strait into the North Sea. They broadcast the exact coordinates and Kronprinz Wilhelm headed north full of expectation, after months of being at sea with no real success having caught nine steamers and four sailing ships over seven months. Unknown to the German crew the Macedonia had fallen into British hands. The broadcast coordinates had been picked up by the Royal Navy and HMS Gloucester had arrived and taken the vessel into custody standing by and awaiting the elusive German liner.

Thierfelder had been at sea too long and was not about to take his vessel into the unknown on a whim and instead approached the area slowly on the 28th March and he was right to do so. His lookouts reported sighting the Macedonia but she was not alone, there appeared to be warships with her. Thierfelder smelt a trap and turned his vessel around and ordered full speed away burning the last of the precious coal.

Life aboard ship had got really monotonous and dull with little to do over vast periods of time and with the crew spending so much time at sea they grew restless. There were long periods of sailing around interspersed with periods of action and stripping vessels. The romantic idea of Kreuzerkrieg and serving the Kaiser were soon replaced with a workman like approach to duty. There were also great differences between the officers and men with the men eating basic foodstuffs with limited fresh meat and vegetables and subsisting mostly on potato and stale meat. All the luxury foods were reserved for the officers who were in generally better health by the end of the cruise. Many of the sailors were starting to suffer from the effects of malnutrition and the beginnings of scurvy.