WITH THE INITIAL BATCH OF CRUISERS and merchant raiders now captured, sunk or returned to Germany, 1916 saw a new batch of converted merchant raiders attempting to sneak out into the Atlantic and intercept British shipping.
SMS Möwe – most successful raider
The merchant raider SMS Möwe began its life as the banana boat Pungo, a fast freighter ideal for conversion to a merchant cruiser.
Requisitioned by the Imperial Navy, the Möwe left Wilhelmshaven disguised as a neutral Norwegian ship on 29 December, 1915, and began its campaign on 1 January, 1916, by laying a minefield off the north of Scotland.
The first casualty was the pre-Dreadnought battleship HMS King Edward VII, which struck a mine on 6 January. The wreck was first dived on an expedition led by Leigh Bishop in 1997. In DIVER that year Leigh said: “The wreck is upside-down in 115m, listing to starboard but at an angle that still shows her superstructure and a row of 6in guns.”
Over the first two months of 1916, such was the success of the Möwe sinking and capturing steamships that the number of prisoners was becoming a problem. The captured Westburn was used to land them in Tenerife, neutral Spanish territory.
Prisoners ashore, on 24 February the Westburn raised anchor for the last time. Waiting at sea was the British armoured cruiser HMS Sutlej. Rather than lose the prize back to the British, the Westburn was scuttled with explosives.
The wreck of the Westburn is now easily accessible by RIB from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, largely broken and salvaged in 30m, but a magnet for fish on an otherwise flat sand seabed.
The Möwe returned to Germany on 4 April, 1916, having captured or sunk 20 ships. Möwe was refitted for a second cruise, from 23 November, 1916, to 22 March, 1917, capturing or sinking a further 25 ships.
On 6 December the Mount Temple was sunk with a cargo of 700 horses destined for the western front and crates of dinosaur fossils on the way from Canada to the British Museum. On 11 December the Yarrowdale was captured and returned to Germany with 400 prisoners, subsequently being converted to the merchant cruiser SMS Leopard.
On 12 December the Georgic was sunk with a cargo of another 1200 horses.
The Möwe survived the war and ended up in British hands carrying bananas for Fyffes, renamed Greenbrier.
In 1933 she was sold back to Germany, subsequently serving as the Oldenburg in World War Two to carry supplies between Germany and Norway.
On 7 April, 1945, Bristol Beaufighters of 114, 455 and 489 Squadrons attacked with rockets, sinking the Oldenburg off Vadheim in Sognefjord.
Bergen-based Dean Coote informs me: “This is the best wreck-dive in Norway. Access is easy via a set of stone steps and a swim out to a buoy I put on the bow. The bow is in 24m, bridge at 45m, and stern at 79m. Visibility is often 30m-plus in winter, but mixing salt and fresh water creates slush and the cold takes out electronic kit on the swim to the buoy. There’s a river that runs onto the wreck. When full it creates whirlpools and can drag you out into the fjord.”
Kieron Hatton adds: “Its impressive for its size and ship-shapedness. The wreck is blessed with detail; door catches still in place, a bathroom complete with floor tiles and even a mirror! It can take a few dives to see it all. Gun positions have fallen from the deck and lie on the seabed.”
Looking up Vadheim on a map, I am traumatised to learn that I have driven past such a significant wreck a few times, with dive-kit in my car, without even knowing it was there!
The rest of the raiders
Following on the heels of the Möwe, the converted steamship Grief departed Cuxhaven on 27 February 1916, disguised as the Norwegian ship Rena, only to be intercepted by the converted British liner Alcantara between Norway and the Shetlands. In the ensuing battle, both ships were sunk in deep water.
An unusual raider was the Wolf, equipped with a seaplane for reconnaissance. Wolf departed Kiel on 30 November and used captured fuel to make a cruise that lasted through 1917 to return on 24 February 1918.
Another unusual raider was the sailing ship Seeadler, converted from the US ship Pass of Balmaha, captured by U36 on 24 July, 1915.
Later on that day U36 became the first Q-ship victim. Seeadler sailed on 21 December, 1916. Without the fuel needs of steam-powered raiders, Seeadler captured or sank 16 ships on a cruise of 225 days before striking a reef in Tahiti.
The wreck is now well-broken and dispersed by the sea in water just a few metres deep, so it can be snorkelled as well as dived.
Sailing under the disguise of a neutral Norwegian ship had become a common practice for German raiders and blockade-runners to get through the Royal Navy patrols and into the Atlantic.
Unlike merchant cruisers that were typically selected for speed and capacity to carry a large crew, the impounded steamship Castro was chosen because it was similar in appearance to the Norwegian steamship Aud – small, slow and innocuous.
Disguised as the Aud and renamed Libau by the Germans, the ship was loaded with a cargo of rifles and machine guns destined to arm Irish rebels.
After sneaking through the blockade and various adventures along the way, the Aud was intercepted by a Royal Navy patrol and directed into Cork to be searched. Rather than let the supplies fall into the hands of the British, the crew scuttled her in the approaches to Cork on 22 April, 1916.
The wreck with its cargo of rifles and ammunition is now an easily accessible dive in 34m. A detailed report appeared in DIVER (Gun Runner, April 2016).
The real Norwegian Aud was torpedoed by U18 on 30 November, 1916, 16 miles north of St Ives. The depth to the seabed is 62m and the wreck was identified by divers recovering the bell in 1983.
As well as harassing enemy shipping, the other purpose of running the Royal Navy blockade was to bring essential supplies back to Germany.
When a raider captured a ship with a valuable cargo, rather than scuttling it a prize crew would be placed on board to bring the cargo home.
Some of these prizes made it back and, as we have seen, some ships went back out as raiders themselves.
Nevertheless, the Royal Navy closure of the way out to the Atlantic was almost absolute. By 1916 very few merchant ships could get through without being inspected, and another means of obtaining critical materials for the German war machine was needed.
In an attempt to overcome the Allied blockade, the unarmed German submarine merchant vessels Deutschland and Bremen were built as a private venture and given merchant crews.
On 23 June, 1916, Deutschland departed for the USA with a high value cargo worth $1.5 million, returning to Germany on 24 August with a cargo of 341 tons of nickel, 93 tons of tin, and 348 tons of rubber.
Bremen departed for the USA on 21 September, never to be seen again. The most likely cause of the loss was the British mine barrage.
In November 1916 Deutschland made another round trip to the USA, but that was her last. She was subsequently armed with guns and torpedo tubes and transferred to military service as U155.
Deutschland survived the war to be impounded in Britain, and was finally broken up for scrap in 1921.
Jutland – the last big battleship contest
Meeting the German fleet at Jutland was the opportunity the Royal Navy had been seeking since the start of the war.
It was an opportunity in one decisive battle to prove that the Royal Navy ruled the seas and to eliminate the German High Seas Fleet in a big-gun duel.
The Germans, thinking much the same, set to sea with a plan to co-ordinate with U-boats to split the British Grand Fleet so that the smaller German fleet could defeat it in detail. However, signal intercepts had revealed the plan to the British and the Grand Fleet put to sea on 30 May, avoiding the U-boats and surprising the German fleet by meeting it early on 31 May.
Despite wrecking the German plan, it was the Royal Navy that came off numerically worst, losing 113,300 tons to the German 62,300 tons.
Both sides claimed a victory, the Germans by numbers and the British by virtue of proportions of the fleet, and forcing the Germans to retreat to port where they stayed bottled up for the rest of the war. At that rate of attrition, the German fleet would be eliminated long before the British fleet.
Jutland was the first, only and last direct engagement of big Dreadnought battleship fleets. In the Royal Navy lessons were learned in terms of gunnery control, the quality of shells and preparation of the ships for battle.
Behind all the immediate lessons, the underlying issue was that the communications needed to manage a big-ship action had not advanced at the same pace as the technology of the actual ships.
As far as I know, the first UK skipper to visit the Jutland wrecks was Gordon Wadsworth when he was based in Scarborough in the early 1980s.
He now hosts divers in Narvik and remembers: “I was surprised to see evidence of extensive old salvage work on Lützow which could not have gone un-noticed, yet found no reference from any official source. Scrap was extremely valuable back in the ’60s.”
Innes McCartney reported in DIVER on the 2000 Starfish Enterprise expedition. He commented on a period photograph of the battlecruiser HMS Invincible “… the bow and stern sections pointing skyward as the broken midships section rested on the seabed. This became a defining photograph of the Battle of Jutland.”
On diving the wreck he wrote: “What we found provided an incredible spectacle, an entire gun turret, still sporting two 12in guns, lying upside-down on the sand and surrounded by debris.”
Through Periscope Publishing, Innes has produced two DVDs I would recommend to anyone thinking of visiting these wrecks.
A recent report has highlighted systematic looting of Jutland warships (Jutland Wrecks Plunder – Alleged Culprit Named, News, April).
U-boats and rules of engagement
The first change in U-boat operations came at the start of March, with a German declaration that defensively armed merchant ships would be regarded as cruisers.
On 24 March the cross-Channel ferry ss Sussex was torpedoed without warning by UB29. The bow was blown off, but the ship didn’t sink and was towed back to Boulogne. 50 passengers and crew were killed and, while no American lives were lost, US citizens were among those injured. Public opinion was inflamed, and President Woodrow Wilson threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany.
Fearful of further American reaction, U-boat rules of engagement were again restricted from 4 May. The changes in rules can be seen as a peak in shipping losses for the months of March and April, then a further rise in shipping losses later in the year after Jutland, as the German strategy shifted almost completely to U-boats.
Apart from March and April, rules of engagement still prevented sinking of merchant ships without warning, or not allowing crew to escape. Nevertheless, many merchant ships were sunk by lone U-boats halting them on the surface, often close to shore. U-boats also continued to sow minefields.
Off Orkney, on 5 June, 1916, the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire struck a mine laid by U75 while carrying Lord Kitchener on a diplomatic mission to Russia. In gale-force winds, only 12 survived.
Many conspiracy theories are voiced about spies guiding submarines in to lay the minefield, Kitchener being deliberately sacrificed by rivals in the British government, lost gold and official cover-ups hampering rescuers and the subsequent investigation. Nevertheless, Admiralty investigations at the time suggest that it was pure chance. U75 had laid the minefield a week earlier as part of Germany’s complicated operations surrounding the Battle of Jutland.
Diving the wreck of HMS Hampshire has been prohibited since 1986. Reports from divers before then suggest mine damage along one side of the ship, and other indications that it went down fast.
Mines know no rules of engagement. On 21 November, 1916, off Greece, the 48,158-ton White Star liner Britannic, converted to a hospital ship, struck a mine sown by U73 to become the largest casualty of the war.
The wreck was first dived by Jacques Cousteau in 1974. The first sport/technical diving expeditions to the wreck were led by Kevin Gurr in 1997.
“We had a nightmare with unreliable echo-sounding gear and local bureaucracy which stopped us bringing in more extensive search equipment,” Kevin told DIVER at the time. On diving the wreck “our line had caught on the superstructure, close to the second pair of lifeboat davits. I touched down at 88m, just inside my operating depth [90m].”
Closer to home, the 13,405-ton Cunard liner Alaunia struck a mine laid by UC16 south of Royal Sovereign on 19 October, 1916. “This is the biggest wreck in Sussex and after more than 100 dives on it I still have a great time. For those new to the area the Alaunia is an absolute must,” says Dave Ronnan, of Eastbourne’s Dive-125.
While the UC-class of boat carrying mines “wet” in vertical tubes through the forward hull remained the mainstay of U-boat minelayers, a new UE-1 design with longitudinal “dry/wet” tubes running along an elongated aft hull came into service. It proved to be a dead end development, with U74E sinking in a minelaying accident in the Firth of Forth and U77E sunk by gunfire off Peterhead.
The development of mines that could be laid through standard torpedo tubes put an end to the idea.
The wreck of U74E makes a tidy little dive in 45m, with the forward hull intact and the aft hull disappearing into a silt bank just aft of the 88mm gun (Wreck Tour 142, October 2010).
If you look at charts of where and when ships were sunk by specific U-boats, you will see that wrecks are often in clusters by location and date. Particular captains had favoured hunting grounds within which they gained experience.
Admirals directed patrols to locations “by numbers”, so even with a change of captain, the same U-boat could be directed to patrol the same area again.
Captains had lucky nights and even days, where an area of shipping was left in a gap between patrolling Royal Navy destroyers and trawlers.
UB29, already notable for blowing the bow of the ferry Sussex, was responsible for two clusters of wrecks off the south coast before falling victim to depth charges from HMS Landrail off the Goodwin Sands on 13 December, 1916.
The 4575-ton Braunton was torpedoed by UB29 on 7 April, 1916. Jamie Smith of Tunbridge Wells BSAC describes the wreck as: “A good-sized wreck with holds full of shell-heads. The engine is well worth a look as it is very accessible, and quite a sight.”
Dave Ronnan recommends the Braunton as “one of our best ‘club’ low-water dives. Upright and less than 30m.”
UB18, already noted for sinking the real Aud, was also responsible for a cluster of wrecks over 3 and 4 August from the Isle of Wight to Portland.
Later in the year, something of an anomaly for UB18 was the 1998-ton Oifjeld, sunk off Dieppe on 24 November 1916 while the U-boat was on its way to north Cornwall to sink the Aud.
For those on the opposite side of the country, on 19 December, 1916, the 686-ton steamship Liverpool struck a mine laid by U80 in Liverpool bay.
This is a beautiful wreck in the right conditions, and accessible from Anglesey or the Isle of Man. A month later it was mines from U80 that sank the liner Laurentic in the entrance to Lough Swilly.
All the usual navigational mishaps continue through times of war. With lighthouses and navigation lights extinguished and warships patrolling, the risk of navigational accidents is actually greater, so our review finishes with a couple of navigational mishaps.
On 23 July 1916 the 3818-ton steamship Enrico Parodi ran aground on Gurnards Head. The ship came off with the next tide and was under tow to St Ives when she sank in 30m. The wreck is upright but mostly broken level with the seabed, and makes a great club dive in the typically good visibility of the area (Wreck Tour 67).
On the Dieppe side of the Channel, the French destroyer Yatagan sank on 3 November, 1916 after a collision with the steamship Teviot. The wreck was charted only recently. “Shallower than 30m, almost entirely non-ferrous, a steam turbine destroyer of 319 tonnes and 5200hp,” says Dave Ronnan. “The bell is in the Dieppe Chateau museum.”
Get ready for 1917
The nature of submarine warfare changed irreversibly on 22 December, 1916, with Admiral von Holtzendorff’s memo on the shipping losses needed to effectively blockade the allies.
Six-hundred thousand tons per month was proposed as the target for 1917 and completely unrestricted submarine warfare resulted in a year with almost as much sunk as all other years in the Great War combined. Get ready for 1917.
EVENTS AT SEA
Battleship King Edward VII becomes first victim of the Möwe.
German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman sunk in Lake Tanganyika by gunboats Mimi and Fifi. The events on Lake Tanganika loosely inspired the fictional story of the African Queen.
Germany notifies USA that defensively armed merchantmen will be treated as cruisers from 1 March.
Raider Greif departs from Cruxhaven.
Greif and RN armed merchant cruiser Alcantra sink each other in an exchange of torpedoes and gunfire north of the Shetland Isles.
U-boat rules of engagement change – defensively armed merchantmen are now regarded as cruisers.
Cross-channel ferry ss Sussex torpedoed by UB29 in the English Channel. The bow of the ship was blown off, but the ship didn’t sink and was towed backwards to Boulogne. US citizens were injured and, fearful of further American reaction, U-boat rules of engagement were restricted from 4 May.
Möwe returns to Germany after sinking 20 ships.
Aud scuttled off Cork, carrying supplies for the Irish uprising.
Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth raided by German battlecruisers.
1 May – 1 June
Battle of Jutland.
HMS Hampshire sunk by mine off Orkney. Kitchener and his staff are lost.
In an attempt to overcome the British blockade, German submarine merchant vessel Deutschland departs for the USA with a high-value cargo worth $1.5 million, returning to Germany on 24 August with a cargo of 341 tons of nickel, 93 tons of tin, and 348 tons of rubber.
Cruisers HMS Falmouth and Nottingham torpedoed off east coast of England.
Merchant submarine Bremen leaves Kiel and is lost somewhere on the way to the USA. Most likely cause of loss is to the British mine barrage.
U53 sinks five ships just outside US waters off Newport, Rhode Island. American public opinion is inflamed.
Hospital ship Britannic sunk by mine off Greece. At 48,158 tons, Britannic was the largest ship sunk in the war.
Möwe leaves Kiel on second cruise.
Admiral Sir David Beatty succeeds Admiral Sir John Jellicoe as Commander of the Grand Fleet.
Raider Wolf leaves Kiel.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe appointed First Sea Lord.
Raider Seeadler sets sail.
British Ministry of Shipping formed.
THE WORLD AT WAR
Evacuation of Gallipoli completed.
Military Service Act 1916 passed. Introduces conscription of males aged 18 to 41.
German offensive on Verdun begins.
Military Service Act comes into force.
Germany declares war on Portugal.
German airship L15 brought down over the Thames by anti-aircraft fire.
Kionga in German East Africa occupied by Portuguese forces.
Italy prohibits trade with Germany.
Sir Roger Casement lands on the west coast of Ireland and is arrested.
Irish uprising begins.
Agreement signed for exchange of sick prisoners via Switzerland.
Martial law declared in Ireland.
Irish rebellion ends with surrender of leaders.
Irish rebel leaders executed.
German attack on Vimy ridge.
Germans storm Fort Vaux in Verdun.
Mecca revolts against Turkish rule.
Second Military Service Bill extends conscription to married men.
Conscription bill enacted in New Zealand.
Storming of Fort Thiaumont marks the extent of the German Verdun offensive.
Fort Thiaumont retaken by French. Verdun offensive is effectively over.
Somme offensive begins. Initial success comes with the worst losses in history for the British army – 57,470 casualties.
Lloyd George succeeds Kitchener as Secretary of State for War.
Medina surrenders to Arab forces.
Sir Roger Casement executed.
Roumania declares war on Austria-Hungary.
Germany declares war on Roumania. Italy declares war on Germany.
Battle of Verdun ends.
Largest German airship raid on London with 14 airships. L11 shot down by British aircraft.
Dar-es-Salaam surrenders to British forces in German East Africa.
First British tanks enter the Battle of the Somme.
French offensive begins at Verdun.
Woodrow Wilson re-elected as US president.
Battle of the Somme ends with more than 1 million killed or wounded.
Lloyd George succeeds Asquith as Prime Minister.
Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, German and Turkish governments pass identical proposals for peace to US ambassadors.
Britain, France and Russia reject German proposal for peace.
Shipping Losses by Month (tons)