The Obscenely Successful Obsolete Sailing Ship and Its Daring Captain Who Terrorized the High Seas During WWI
The Great War of 1914-1918 is often remembered as one of the first truly modern, fully-industrialized conflicts, with many now-ubiquitous military technologies such as the aeroplane, the submarine, the tank, and poison gas making their combat debut on its battlefields. But the Great War was also a time of transition, with many older technologies and tactics like cavalry serving alongside the new – often with disastrous results. But every once in a while, old technology proved more than capable of holding its own in this modern conflict, and none more so than SMS Seeadler, a 19th-century sailing ship that managed to become one of the War’s greatest commerce raiders, sinking 15 ships in 225 days.
SMS Seeadler began life as the Pass of Balmaha, a three-masted iron-hulled windjammer launched on August 9, 1888 by Robert Duncan & Company of Glasgow. Windjammers were the very last development in commercial sailing technology, built in a desperate attempt to compete with steamships. In this they proved moderately successful; not only could they keep pace with steamers in a good wind, but on long-haul voyages such as to Australia they were actually more economical as they did not have to bunker coal or fuel oil and could thus carry larger cargoes. Over the next 26 years Pass of Balmaha changed hands several times, eventually coming under the ownership of the Harby Steamship Company of New York, where, upon declaration of war in Europe August 1914, she was registered under a neutral American flag.
On June 23, 1915, Pass of Balmaha departed New York Harbour under the command of Captain Scott, carrying a cargo of Texas cotton bound for Arkhangelsk in Russia. As soon as war was declared, the Entente powers had established a naval blockade of Germany, with the Royal Navy establishing two lines of patrol ships in the North Sea to enforce it. On July 21, while Pass of Balmaha was off the coast of Norway, she was accosted by the British Auxiliary Cruiser Victorian, who sent over a boarding party to search her for contraband. While nothing suspicious was found, the captain of the Victorian nonetheless ordered the Pass of Balmaha to sail to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands for further inspection, and placed a prize crew and six marines aboard to ensure compliance. Against the protestations of Captain Scott, he also ordered the Pass’s American Flag struck and replaced with the British Red Ensign. Understandably this made the crew of the Pass rather nervous, as it marked the ship as a belligerent vessel and made it more likely to be attacked. And indeed, two days later while en route to Orkney the Pass of Balmaha was intercepted by the German submarine SMS U-36. At the time, submarines and surface raiders still operated under the so-called Cruiser or Prize Rules, which dictated that a merchant ship could not be attacked and sunk without warning. Instead, the attacker had to make their presence known, board the merchantman to search for contraband, and allow the crew to safely escape before capturing or sinking the vessel. This gave Captain Scott enough time to hide the British prize crew belowdecks and swap out the Red Ensign for the Stars and Stripes. However, the Captain of the U-36, Ernst Gräf, was unconvinced, and ordered Pass of Balmaha to sail to Cuxhaven with a German prize crew aboard. More than a little annoyed at having been made a target, out of spite Captain Scott kept the British sailors locked below for the entire voyage to Germany. On arrival in Cuxhaven the American crew were allowed safe passage to a neutral country while the British sailors were interned and the Pass of Balmaha retained in German custody.
Meanwhile, U-36 continued on her war patrol. Less than 12 hours after stopping the Pass of Balmaha, she stopped and boarded the Danish steamer Louise. But while the boarding party were busy throwing the ship’s cargo overboard, Captain Gräf spotted another ship on the horizon: the 274-tonne collier Prince Charles. Realizing this was a much greater prize, Gräf ordered his crew to let the Louise go and made for the Prince Charles instead. As U-36 closed at 14 knots, she could see the collier’s crew scurrying across the deck, scrambling to lower the lifeboats. But when she was within 600 yards, the crew suddenly pulled down a set of painted canvas screens, revealing 6-pounder guns hidden beneath. Before U-36 could take evasive action, Prince Charles opened fire, scoring four direct hits. As the submarine began to flood, Captain Gräf ordered his crew to abandon ship, and U-36 slipped beneath the waves. She was the first victim of the so-called “Q Ships”, decoy antisubmarine vessels used extensively by the British throughout the Great War.
Given the success of the Q ships, it was only a matter of time before someone in Germany thought to copy the concept, and that someone was Captain Felix Graf von Luckner. A sailor through and through, von Luckner had run away from home at age 12 to serve aboard the Russian full-rigger Niobe. Over the next twenty years he would serve aboard a number of sailing vessels before joining the German Imperial Navy, commanding a gun turret aboard the battleship Kronprinz Wilhelm during the June 1, 1916 Battle of Jutland – the largest and only major engagement between dreadnought battleships. Following Jutland neither the Royal Navy Grand Fleet nor the German High Seas Fleet dared engage in that type of open combat with each other again, and von Luckner, growing restless and impatient, began casting about for a method to bring the fight to the enemy. On a visit to Hamburg he spotted the captured Pass of Balmaha sitting in the harbour and was struck by the idea of converting her into an armed merchant raider. Luckily for von Luckner, his legendary storytelling abilities had made him a favourite of Kaiser Wilhelm II, leading to him being selected for the assignment over a number of more qualified officers.
Germany deployed a number of armed merchant raiders during the Great War, including SMS Möwe and SMS Wolf, which over their careers sank or captured 40 and 27 enemy ships, respectively. However, these vessels were greatly hampered by Germany’s lack of worldwide refuelling capacity. The German Empire had been relatively late to the scramble for colonies, only managing to acquire a handful of possessions in what are now Namibia, Cameroon, Tanzania, Micronesia, Palau, and Tsingtao – among others. Furthermore, most of these colonies had been captured by Entente forces early in the war, which – combined international strict laws prohibiting the fuelling of combatant ships in neutral ports – left Germany with virtually no overseas coaling stations. Being powered by the wind, however, a ship like the Pass of Balmaha would not be subject to such limitations, and could cruise the seas almost indefinitely.
The preparations for the voyage were meticulous, the Pass of Balmaha being fitted with a 1200 horsepower diesel engine allowing her to steam at 10 knots, a hidden wireless hut, and an armament consisting of two hidden 105mm guns, two heavy machine guns, two torpedo tubes, and various rifles, pistols, and scuttling charges for boarding parties. To allow her to slip past the British blockade, it was decided to disguise the ship as one of the many Norwegian lumber carriers which frequented the North Sea waters. To this end von Luckner, who had previously served aboard a Norwegian ship, hand-picked his crew of 64 based on Nordic appearance and their ability to speak or at least understand Norwegian. The ship was furnished with registration papers and a log captured from the Norwegian vessel Malella, and all German buttons and tabs on the crew’s clothing were swapped for Norwegian ones. But the most elaborate and bizarre of these deceptions was the crew saloon, which was decorated with Norwegian cushion covers, portraits of King Haakon VII and Queen Maud, and even a gramophone playing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. In a move straight out of the Bond villain playbook, this entire room was mounted on a hydraulic lift so that if the ship was boarded, at the press of a button the enemy prize crew would be sent plunging into the cargo hold.
Acting on intelligence from German spies, von Luckner decided to disguise the ship as the Irma, bound for Melbourne in Australia. On December 21, 1916, the shortest day of the year, the rechristened Pass of Balmaha set sail from Hamburg and slipped into the North Sea. The stormy December weather worked in her favour, allowing her to slip past most of the British blockade lines, but at 9:30 AM on Christmas Day the Irma was intercepted and boarded by the auxiliary cruiser HMS Avenger. Playing his cover story to the hilt, von Luckner ordered the five best Norwegian speakers among his crew to remain on-deck and made a show of wishing the boarding party a merry Christmas. As he led the inspectors into the saloon, they came upon a crew member disguised as a woman reclining in one of the armchairs, whom von Luckner identified as his wife suffering from a toothache. Not wishing to disturb this “invalid”, the boarding party made a minimum of fuss, and after inspecting the ship’s papers and log decided she was genuine and let her go on her way. The only close call came when the boarding party were returning to their launch, and von Luckner realized that the Irma’s auxiliary propeller was plainly visible. Thinking quickly, he tossed a line to the launch, sufficiently distracting the crew to prevent them from noticing the propeller.
Once the Avenger was out of sight, the crew tossed the dummy cargo of lumber overboard, readied the guns, and rechristened the ship SMS Seeadler or “Sea Eagle.” The hunt was now on.
Seeadler’s first victim was the British steam collier Gladys Royle bound from Cardiff to Buenos Aires, which she intercepted on January 9, 1917 120 miles south of the Azores. As would become her standard operating procedure, Seeadler used her signal lamp to ask the Gladys Royle for a time signal, a common practice used by ships at sea to fix their position. When her target was close enough she then revealed her guns and ordered the ship to stop. The crew was then transferred aboard Seeadler while a boarding party placed scuttling charges in the hold and sank the ship.
The next day Seeadler came upon the American steamer Lundy Island, which upon being ordered to heave-to, ignored the signal and made to flee, turning into the wind in an attempt to outrun the sail-powered Seeadler. In response Luckner opened fire, and by sheer chance one shell shattered the Lundy Island ’s rudder chain, leaving her dead in the water. While the prisoners were being transferred aboard the Seeadler, the Lundy Island’s Captain explained that he had previously been captured by the merchant raider SMS Möwe, and had been none too keen to be made a prisoner of war once again.
Seeadler’s next victory came on January 21 when she captured and sank the French barque Charles Gounod. Using her logbook, von Luckner discovered the shipping route used by sailing vessels in the area, and with this information managed to track down and sink the French Schooner Perce, the French Barque Antonin, and the Italian ship Buenos Ayres over the next 20 days.
This was followed by an unusual incident on February 19 when Seeadler captured the British Barque Pinmore. While leading the boarding party, von Luckner found the ship strangely familiar and headed aft to inspect the helm. There, scratched into the brass, he found his own initials – it was the same ship he had served aboard at the age of 17. Other captures were even stranger. On being ordered to stop, the captain of the French barque Dupleix, believing the Seeadler to be a fellow French vessel playing a practical joke, rowed over in a lifeboat only to suddenly find himself in German captivity. When the Horngarth failed to acknowledge Seeadler’s time signal request, von Luckner ordered smoke generators to be lit, making it seem as if the ship had caught fire. Horngarth immediately drew alongside to render assistance and was duly captured and sunk.
By late February Seeadler was running low on provisions, prompting Luckner to place his second in command, Lt. Kling, in charge and sail the recently-captured Pinmore to Rio de Janeiro. After picking up provisions, he rejoined the Seeadler three days later, transferred over the cargo, and sank the Pinmore with scuttling charges. But von Luckner now had another problem: the 286 prisoners locked up in the hold. So on March 17, von Luckner captured the French Barque Cambronne and transferred the prisoners aboard her, placing the ship in command of Captain J. Mullen of the Pinmore. To prevent the Pinmore from reaching shore too quickly and betraying the Seeadler’s position, von Luckner ordered her topgallant masts sawed off and all her spare sails and spars thrown overboard. Pinmore and the prisoners arrived in Rio two weeks later, by which time Seeadler was long gone.
Seeadler’s activities in the South Atlantic had not gone unnoticed, and the British duly dispatched the Cruisers HMS Ortrano, Lancaster, and Orbita to intercept her as she rounded Cape Horn. Waiting for bad weather to cover his passage, von Luckner bided his time and instead headed for the Falkland Islands, where he threw overboard a large memorial cross in honour of Admiral Maximilian von Spee, who had been killed there in December 1914. Then, on April 18, Seeadler plunged into the hurricane-force winds of the Roaring Forties, successfully rounded Cape Horn, and slipped into the Pacific. Ever crafty, von Luckner ordered the former prisoners’ possessions to be marked with the Seeadler’s name and thrown overboard, hoping to fool his pursuers into thinking he had been sunk.
Moving on from there, in June of 1917, as Seeadler approached Christmas Island in the South Pacific, von Luckner learned via the wireless that the United States had entered the war. On June 14, Seeadler sunk its first American ship, the schooner A.B. Johnson, which was followed by the R.C. Slade on June 18 and the Manila on July 8. By this time Seeadler had been at sea for seven months, and von Luckner decided to find a quiet anchorage where the ship could be careened – or tipped over – so its hull could be cleaned of barnacles. He found it on Mopelia, one of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, but as Seeadler was too large to sail into the lagoon he instead beached her on the outside reef. Then, on August 2, 1917, disaster struck. According to von Luckner’s own account:
“At about 0930 he had noticed a strange bulge on the eastern rim of the sea…. at first we thought it was a mirage. But it kept growing larger. It came towards us. Then we at last recognized it… A TIDAL WAVE, such as is caused by a submarine earthquake and volcanic disturbances.
The danger was only too clear. We lay between the Island and the wave. We dared not raise sail, for the wind would drive us onto the reef. So, our only hope of getting clear of the Island was on our motor. The huge swell of the tidal wave was rushing towards us with breakneck speed. The motor did not stir. The mechanics worked frantically. They pumped compressed air into the engine. We waited in vain for the sound of ignition…. by this time the oncoming tidal wave was only a few hundred yards away. We were lost.”
The tsunami dashed the ship against the reef, breaking all three masts and opening a massive gash in her hull. After 225 days at sea and sinking an incredible 15 enemy vessels without a single loss of life, SMS Seeadler had finally met her end. But Captain von Luckner nothing if not tenacious, and using spare sails, masts, and guns from the ship he converted one of the 32-foot motor launches into a cutter, which he ironically christened the Kronpinzessin Cecile after a former Ocean Liner of the same name. On August 21, von Luckner, Navigator Lt. Kirscheiss, Chief Engineer Kraise, and 3 seamen sailed off into the open sea. Their goal was to reach the Cook Islands or Fiji, where they would capture another ship and return to Mopelia to pick up the rest of the crew. Despite foul weather, they reached the island of Wakaya in Fiji four days later. Stepping ashore, von Luckner arranged for their vessel to be towed to the capital, Suva, by the American cutter Sunbeam, but upon seeing the British steamer Amra enter the harbour he and his men attempted to flee. They were quickly run down and captured by the Fiji police and transported to an internment camp in Auckland, New Zealand.
But von Luckner still wasn’t finished. On December 13, 1917, he and Lt. Kirscheiss stole the camp commander’s motor boat, the Pearl, and after fitting it with a dummy machine gun, used it to capture the New Zealand timber carrier Moa. They then made for the Kermadec island south of New Zealand to raid a storage depot before heading back to Mopelia. Unfortunately, the boarding of the Moa had been noticed, and an armed cable layer, the Iris, dispatched to hunt her down. Iris caught up to Moa on December 21st, and after firing several shots across her bow, finally forced von Luckner to surrender. While being lead back into captivity, the plucky Captain reportedly declared:
” You left the door open, you cannot blame me for walking out!”
Back on Mopelia, the rest of the Seeadler’s crew had a slightly better go of it. On September 5, two weeks after von Luckner set off in the Cecile, they managed to capture the French schooner Lutece, which had stopped by the island to hunt turtles. Renaming her the Fortuna, they sailed East for South America, eventually reaching Easter island where they were arrested and interned by the Chilean government. Meanwhile, four American prisoners left behind on Mopelia repaired the last of the Seeadler’s lifeboats and set sail on September 19, eventually reaching the American coaling station at Pago Pago in Samoa.
After the war, the owners of the former Pass of Balmaha inspected the wreck to determine if she could be refloated, but she was found to be beyond salvage and left where she lay on the reef. Over the years the waves and local salvagers have taken their toll, and little remains of the Seeadler save for some anchors and other fittings scattered about the Mopelia lagoon. As for the intrepid Captain von Luckner, he spent the war in various prison camps in New Zealand before being repatriated to Germany in 1919. After retiring from the Navy, he sailed the world in his private yacht Vaterland and eventually moved to Sweden, where he died in 1966 at the age of 85. While in the end his legendary exploits did little to change Germany’s fortunes in the Great War, like his contemporary General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who waged a masterful guerrilla campaign in German East Africa, von Luckner epitomized just what a determined and resourceful officer could accomplish with extremely limited resources. It’s not for nothing that history remembers him as ‘The Sea Devil.’
- Forgotten History- The Battleship Built in Union Square
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- The Top Secret Navy Mission that Accidentally Rediscovered the Titanic
The Fortunes of War, Shipping Wonders of the World, https://www.shippingwondersoftheworld.com/fortunes-war.html
Ships – Seeadler, Walter, Pass of Balmaha, SMSMoew.com, https://web.archive.org/web/20190209124216/http://www.smsmoewe.com/ships/smsms78.htm
Mackenzie, J Gregory, Seeadler, Ahoy – Mac’s Web Blog, http://www.ahoy.tk-jk.net/MaraudersWW1/Seeadler.html
SMS Seeadler, Teleport Blog, http://blog.mailasail.com/beezneez/posts/2013/10/8/2129-sms-seeadler
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