German Commerce Raiders

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Renaud Mayers
Renaud Mayers
Currently working on behalf of the Belgian Ministry of Defence, thanks to my knowledge in WWII and other areas. Working in two WWII era fortresses still belonging to the Army.

How do you attack your enemies’ shipping lanes when your warships are hunted down everywhere on the globe and your own ports are blockaded ? The Germans found a solution to this problem: German Commerce Raiders. They armed merchant vessels with guns and mines. The ships were equipped with collapsible sides behind which their weapons were hidden, they could erect fake masts and funnels to alter the ship’s silhouette and they sailed under neutral flags.

During both World Wars, those raiders would wreak havoc on the high seas: They could get close to their victims without raising suspicion and attack them by surprise. The ships would be looted for valuable raw material to be sent back to Germany then sank or captured and used as auxiliary ships.

Piraten des Kaisers: The Wolf, the Seagull and the Sea Eagle

The Wolf

German Commerce Raiders
SMS Wolf

The Wolf had a crew of 348 men including her commander: Fregattenkapitän Karl August Nergerby. She was slow but had a maximum range of 59,000 kilometers. She was equipped with six 15 cm guns, three 5.2 cm guns, four torpedo tubes and 450 mines. This wolf even had a pup: A FF.33 seaplane called “Wölfchen” (little wolf), used to spot enemy ships.

The Wolf sailed 451 days without interruption before making it back to Germany: The longest voyage undertaken by any warship in WWI. During those 451 days, the Wolf sank or captured 14 ships and an extra 13 ships sank due to the mines she laid. She made it back to Germany in February 1918 with her holds full of valuable commodities such as Copper, Zinc, Brass and rubber as well as 467 prisoners.

SMS Wolf was handed over to France as a war prize at the end of the conflict. She was scrapped in 1931.


The Mowe (Seagul)

German Commerce Raiders
SMS Mowe

SMS Mowe was equipped with four 15 cm guns, one 10,5 cm gun, two 503mm torpedo tubes and carried 500 naval mines. Her crew counted 235 men including Nikolaus Graf und Burgraff zu Dohna-Schlodien, her commander.

The Mowe operated 3 sorties between 1915 and 1917, each time, running the gauntlet of the British Blockade to get to the high sea and then again to come back home. Her crew sailed her from Norway to France, in the North Sea and the Atlantic. The Mowe ended up with an impressive score: 41 vessels sank or captured with an extra 3 claimed by its mines. This includes 25 ships inside a period of 4 months in 1916, making her the most successful German Raider of WWI !

From 1917 onward, the Mowe was withdrawn from service as a raider as she was deemed too valuable as a propaganda tool to risk her again in the Atlantic.

SMS Mowe went to Great Britain as a war prize at the end of the conflict. In 1933, the Mowe was purchased by a German company and renamed SS Oldenburg. The Oldenburg was pressed into service in the Kriegsmarine as a freighter in WWII and she served until April the 7th 1945, when she was sunk by British aircrafts… One more month and she would have survived two world wars…


The Sea Eagle

German Commerce Raiders
SMS Seeadler

SMS Seeadler was a successful raiding ship commanded by Count Felix von Luckner. The ship’s crew managed to capture and sink 15 ships over a period of 225 days (between 1916 and 1917).

What made the Seeadler special is that she was a 3 masted windjammer ! This antiquated ship sailed under a fake identity with crew members who could speak Norwegian ! She was equipped with two 105mm guns and two heavy machine guns. The weaponry was hidden from view.

The Count and his crew took pride in taking over ships by using cunning and deception rather than violence. Their luck ran out in 1917 when the Seeadler, chased by both the Royal Navy and the US Navy, ran aground on a reef in French Polynesia. All crew members were eventually imprisoned. A year later, they went back home to a defeated country but were celebrated as heroes.

The Seeadler was one of the very last recorded fighting sailing ship and a very successful raider at that !


Bonus: SMS Emden, The Swan of the East

German Commerce Raiders
SMS Emden

SMS Emden was a Dresden class light cruiser based at the German Concession of Tsingtao in China. Just before WWI broke out, her commanding officer -Karl von Müller- took to the sea to avoid detection and earnestly began commerce raiding.

Being the only German warship in that area, the odds were stacked against the SMS Emden. And yet… Between August and November, she operated as an independent raider, using deception, camouflage (a fake fourth funnel to look like a British ship) and surprise, her crew rampaged through the South Pacific and Indian ocean. SMS Emden travelled 56,000 kilometers and sank or captured over 30 ships, bombarded Madras, proceeded to seriously disrupt most of the maritime traffic in the region and went as far as the Maldives and Diego Garcia…

In the end, up to 60 British, French, Japanese, Russian and Australian ships were involved in the hunt for the little light cruiser. Emden met its end when an Australian cruiser caught up with her at the battle of Cocos. 133 out of 376 of its crew members died during the engagement.


Pirat des Fuhrer: The penguin

German Commerce Raiders
SS Penguin

A penguin with teeth… Following the success of commerce raiders of WWI, the German navy decided to play the same trick all over again in WWII. The most successful German raider of WWII was called the Penguin. She carried six 150 mm guns and one 75 mm cannon. Additional armament included two 533 mm torpedo tubes, a twin 37 mm anti-aircraft mount, four 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, and 300 mines. She Also had two He 114A-2 seaplanes for spotting potential preys. Finally, one could find 25 G7a torpedoes and 80 mines in her holds, destined to resupply U-boats at sea. She had a crew of 401 men including her commander: Fregattenkapitän Ernst-Felix Krüder.

The Penguin sailed for a year before being sunk in an engagement with a Royal Navy ship. During her year at sea, Penguin changed her name and appearance 3 times (Soviet cargo ship Petschura, Greek freighter Kassos and finally Norwegian freighter Tamerlane). The Penguin’s mission was hugely successful: In one year, she sailed 59.000 miles, sank 12 enemy ship and captured 16 other vessels that sailed back to occupied France loaded with 50.000 tons of much needed raw material. 4 more ships sank due to the mines she laid. Her total score for ship sunk or captured was 154,710 gross tons.


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