Story of The Famous Sea Raider
Captures Made by the German Ship Dramatically Told
SMS SeaGull as photographed by a passenger on the captured liner Appam.
Merely a matter of dramatic value in a story it would have better if the crew of the German sea raider SMS SeaGull had found it necessary to use the dynamite, which they always kept in readiness, to blow up their own vessel in midocean to save her from capture by British cruisers. But it is a remarkably good story, as it is that one of the officers of the SeaGull tells here, even if he and his associates did end their great cruise of capture and destruction by going safely home to Wilhelmshaven to receive ovations and iron crosses instead of making the great and final sacrifice on the high seas with the ship's band playing "Deutschland uber Alles."
"This ship could change her clothes quicker than any other ship I was ever aboard," says the officer, referring to the many disguises by which the SeaGull succeeded in fooling the enemy throughout the two months of cruising on the South African trade routes in the course of which she captured many vessels, including the Appam, and took many prisoners and much treasure. Here are the extracts from the log of the officer who gives the story to the world:
Rough weather and complete darkness enabled the SeaGull in command of Count Nikolaus Dohna-Schlodien, to leave port and reach the North Sea undiscovered. Heavy seas tossed the ship as if she were a nutshell. Many of the crew, old sailors, paid tribute to Neptune. The SeaGull's disguise was a clever piece of work. None of the British ships which we passed while breaking through the patrol ever thought of hailing us, believing, of course, that we were on our way to some English port.
It certainly required not a little of nerve to lay mines almost under the noses of the British warships, but favorable, stormy weather with low visibility aided the work, which we carried on all night with feverish haste, every man working to the end of his strength. High seas continually washed over the ship and made our task more difficult. Below decks everything that had not been fastened securely was smashed to pieces, and in the crew's quarters the water was standing a foot deep. It seemed as if Neptune was in his worst rage and bent on our destruction. Finally the weather became milder and we could lay the second and third cordon of mines in still better time. With the quiet sea and excellent weather showing, the danger of being discovered was naturally much greater, but John Bull thought the German rats safely bottled up, never dreaming they would dare to come out to disturb his leisure.
Those first were our worst hours. Everywhere we could see lights of the British patrol ships. The searchlight of one of them even played on the SeaGull for some time. Our commander then had the deck cleared for action, thinking that now the first encounter with the enemy was on hand. But, with true British carelessness, they never thought of coming nearer and investigating the certainly suspicious craft. We want ahead sowing the sea with mines full of sudden death and hell for the ships that stepped on these snakes of the deep. The calmness of Count Dohna had taken possession of every one of us on board. And our work went on with smooth regularity until the last mine, at the end of the third night, went overboard with three "Hurrahs."
Count Dohna assembled officers and crew midship to tell them that his further orders included cruiser warfare. He intended to search the steamer lanes in the Atlantic and go as far as South America in order to do as much damage as possible to British shipping, and then return to port at the beginning of March. This announcement was greeted with great enthusiasm by all on board. The following day, January 11, we discovered at some distance, signs of the first ship prey and we quickly were in pursuit. In the meantime, another steamer was sighted, which laid a course toward us. However, our Captain managed to come between both of them, and soon the German flag of war as well as the signal "Stop" went up on our mast. To make sure a shot was fired across the bow of both steamers.
We had come so close we could observe the great confusion that prevailed on both ships. They could not have dreamed of being halted so near their destination by a warship of the German Navy, all of which the British claimed they had driven off the sea. In wild haste, lifeboats were swung out, and every member of the crew went after his belongings. The second ship was told to stand by and hold his crew on board while we were making preparations to sink the first steamer, the Farringford, sailing from Spain. The crew had taken to the boats in complete disorder, but performed the task without accident, except one sailor receiving a fracture of the leg. Their boats were alongside us when our prize crew left to search the Farringford before sinking her. The cargo, consisting of copper ore, was of great value. A few good shots then sent the steamer to the bottom.
A thick fog had come up in the meantime and our second prize had taken advantage of this to make an attempt to escape. The Captain must have thought his chances good for a clean getaway in the thickening weather, because we still had some of our boats out, but he had not figured, on the skill of German sailors. In a remarkably short time we had all our boats on board and the chase began.
Our first shot, coming very close to the steamer, did not disturb the Captain. But a second shot, went over the bridge and soon brought him to his senses. After half an hour, we had reached the steamer and a prize crew went aboard. It was the Corbridge, with a cargo of Cardiff coal from Wales on the way to Rosario, Brazil. It was the Corbridge's maiden voyage and this induced our commander not to sink our fine catch. Also we would need the coal aboard later on for ourselves. The crew of the steamer was brought onboard, and she was manned by some of our men commanded by Acting Officer Reinhold Badewitz. They were given orders to meet the SeaGull at a certain day at a fixed place.
Great enthusiasm stirred as all that very evening by the wireless message that the British dreadnought King Edward VII had struck one of the mines laid by SeaGull and was blown up.
Twenty-four hours of rest gave us an opportunity to overhaul the SeaGull thoroughly. The very next day, January 13, we sighted the British steamer Dromonby, on her way from Cardiff, Wales to the British coaling station at St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands, with a cargo of coal. Closing in on her was difficult, and at one time a collision was narrowly averted. But a well-aimed shot and a sharp watch of the maneuvers of the enemy prevented an accident. The steamer was blown up and sank within two hours.
We had hardly finished this prize when another came in sight. Full speed ahead, we reached her at 3 o'clock that afternoon, but the usual warning had to be given before she stopped and heaved to. It was the Author, with a cargo of merchandise from London to Durban, South Africa. Four purebred horses had to shot, to our deep regret, and as little use we could find for a number of brand-new automobiles on board. This steamer was blown up, but before she sank and we had got away we came into a very dangerous position.
The wind had shifted and the wreck of the steamer was drifting toward us, coming closer every minute. A number of boats loaded with members of the crew were still out and prevented our commander from starting the SeaGull moving. These few minutes, hours they seemed to us, would have ended our cruise right there had it not been for the skill of Count Dohna, who maneuvered the SeaGull out of the course of this dangerous wreck when the steamer had come within a few meters of us. The wreck thus drifted by us and sank while we were still taking the crewmen on board. Stern first she disappeared beneath the waves. A third steamship came into view.
Now the moon had risen, showing the way to the third steamer, which promptly and with supreme confidence signaled her British nationality. We had been accustomed to observe astonished expressions on the faces of the men on each steamer we had captured so far. The crew of the Trader, for that was the name of our latest victim, seemed to have the surprise of their lives when they learned of our heavy armament. This steamer, with a cargo of sugar, was also blown up. While the moon was shining she disappeared like the rest. It was a beautiful sight. She also sank stern first, but capsized in her last moments in a sort of death writhing. The number of prisoners on board the SeaGull had new reached more than a hundred.
The southern course we were traveling brought better weather every day. The nights were cool and refreshing, giving as relief from the heat of the day.
Twenty-four hours were spent establishing quarters for the prisoners below decks, and we had hardly finished this work when the next steamer appeared on the horizon. It was January 15 when we encountered the Ariadne, from Brazil to France with a cargo of grain. We had quickly come nearer and stopped her in the usual way. Several well-aimed shots fired into her hull beneath the water line, after the crew had safely got away, finished her. After this work breakfast was greatly enjoyed, but only to be interrupted by the command. "All hands on deck" when a large steamer was sighted several miles away.
We soon found out that unusual luck had come across our course. This steamer was of large size and great value. She carried wireless, which made it still more difficult to go near her without disclosing our identity. Count Dohna took great care not to let this fine prize slip by him. We all knew that the Appam, with her greater speed, could easily have escaped us. But our commander managed to get so close that she had nothing to do but to take notice of our signals.
Again the German flag of war and the signal "stop" went up; also the order to cut off her wireless station. But, on board of the steamer, our signal did not seem to be heeded until the first shot was fired across the bow of the Appam. Then the Captain apparently understood what we meant. He slowed up, but did not stop altogether. We maneuvered to follow in the course of the Appam, and soon had her stern before us. There we discovered a gun on her deck, and British soldiers in the act of making preparations to fire on us. Well-aimed rifle shots from the SeaGull drove the soldiers from their post and a panic broke loose on the Appam.
Men, women, and children were in wild confusion. We saw that the Appam had a large number of passengers on board, who were putting on lifebelts and preparing to leap into boats or into the sea until the arrival of our prize crew. Their assurances that life and personal property would, of course, be spared calmed them.
We had captured an ocean liner on the way from Senegal in Africa to Liverpool. Among those on board, were four British officers and thirty men of the Royal British Navy, who were taken prisoners and brought to the SeaGull.
To our greatest pleasure, we discovered twenty Germans, among them three women. Their surprise was great when we released them from their cabins. With tears rolling down their cheeks, they thanked us and could not understand that their countrymen had come to the rescue in the middle of the ocean when they had given up all hope of seeing the Fatherland for some years to come. The Germans were taken over to the SeaGull and given a great ovation by her crew. Count Dohna welcomed them in warm words and all joined in three cheers for the Kaiser and for Germany. It was a remarkable and heartrending scene to observe the joy of these liberated Germans.
While searching the ship, our prize crew discovered sixteen boxes of gold, which presented a value of about one million marks.
The SeaGull was now filled to her capacity with prisoners, and we had to find a way to make room for others. The Appam solved this problem. A crew of our men went aboard to stay until we had decided what the fate of the Appam would be. We knew that warships would be near such a valuable steamer, and we did not intend to jeopardize the safety of the SeaGull and her fine prize. During the night the gold was taken aboard the SeaGull. Our countrymen we had to send back to the Appam because we could not guarantee their safety on our future cruise. One of them, however, insisted on staying on board the SeaGull and joined our crew.
On the 16th of January we were making preparations to put all of our prisoners on board of the Appam when another steamer came in sight.
A fast ship it was, equipped with wireless. We immediately started in pursuit and had reached her at sunset. With Morse signals we asked: "What ship are you?" The Captain sent back the same question but did not obey our order to stop. To prevent her escape the SeaGull crossed the course of the ship and again signaled the Captain to stop, adding this time the signal, "Here German cruiser." In the meantime, both ships were dashing ahead in a parallel direction. We could observe that the ship was trying her best to get out of our dangerous company, although her Captain sent us the signal: "I have stopped."
At the same time it was noticed that wireless of the ship was working at a great rate. We were now near the Canary Islands and Madeira. Wireless calls would have warned the British fleet that until now was not aware of our sailing. When another shot of warning did not bring the Captain to reason a splinter round hit the ship's wireless station, silencing it.
The Clan MacTavish, as we later found out the ship was named, had cleared her afterdeck for action and was aiming a heavy gunfire at us, of course, without any result. This was sufficient for Count Dohna to proceed again parallel to the steamer and rake her, not caring now where our shots landed. Every salvo hit its mark. Soon we heard explosions on board and the ship was in a helpless position. Then her Captain morsed, "We stop," at the same time ceasing fire. The SeaGull's guns were also silenced, and our prize crew went aboard the ship, the men were taken off her, and a Captain and two sailors of the British Navy, added to the number of our prisoners of war.
The value of this prize was more than eleven million marks because the cargo consisted of skins, cotton, and meat. The steamer had been on the way from Freemantle, Australia to London. Here in the middle of ocean her trip was unexpectedly halted. At 9 o'clock that evening the Clan MacTavish, was under the Atlantic. Of the ship's crewmen, some had been killed by gunfire, to our regret and four others died shortly afterward. The night was quiet, and the surviving crewmen buried their countrymen in the ocean. We had more than five hundred people on board, and it was high time to transfer them to the Appam.
On January 17 this was accomplished in a short time, and Lieutenant Hans Berg received the order to bring the Appam to Newport News as a German prize of war, which he accomplished so well.
The SeaGull then went in search of a new field of operations, taking a southeasterly course. By this time our cruise on the ocean had become more and more hazardous. From all sides warships of the enemy were closing in on us, vainly trying to locate our position.
January 22 brought a fine three-mast schooner, the Edinburgh, in sight. She had been on her way from British India for over four months and was waiting in the Atlantic for better weather conditions. She didn't get them from us. Before the crew of the schooner recognized our flag of war they were signaling greetings over to us, because they had not passed a ship so near them for months. And much greater was their surprise when told that they would be made prisoners. But the men did not seem to mind this at all. Their food had been so bad for many weeks that a change was readily welcomed. The Edinburgh was on her way from Rangoon to London with a cargo of rice flour. The sinking of the schooner was a great spectacle. Dynamite, fastened on bags of flour, caused a high barb of fire to shoot out of her deck. The moon was sending its rays on the sinking ship, silence was all around us, and quietly the crew of the schooner watched their ship go to the bottom.
We were now nearing the day, which we intended to celebrate as our first military holiday, the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Special arrangements were made for the feast, and an exceptional treat was promised in coffee, cakes, and cigars. Beer we had not tasted for a long time. Until this day our prisoners had always seen us in our fighting clothes. They had the surprise of their lives when, on the morning of the Kaiser's birthday, we assembled on deck in full parade uniform, not forgetting our white gloves,
In a short and enthusiastic address Count Dohna remarked that we were the only ship flying the German flag on the ocean, and that we had all reason to do honor to this flag and our German Fatherland by more heroic deeds, whatever the sacrifices might be. Three cheers for the Kaiser ended the ceremony.
It may be remembered that the Corbridge, after her capture, had been manned by our prize crew on January 11 and told to meet us on January 28 at the most Western arm of the mouth of the Amazon. At 11 o'clock that morning she arrived and we anchored together and transferred the coal so needed by our furnaces.
The SeaGull, in a cleverly designed new disguise, again laid her course for the steamer lanes, but the first prey was not sighted for several days. It was a Belgian ship, the Luxembourg, with a cargo of coal on her way to La Plata.
Our ship's register showed that we had now sent ten vessels to the bottom. The next few days were rather quiet for us. We feared that British cruisers had warned all trading vessels of our presence and were close on our heels. Dynamite and torpedoes were always in readiness. It was the determination of every one on board to defend our ship to the last man, and rather to blow it up and sink with her than have her captured by the enemy.
Not before February 6 did we sight the next steamer, which was the Flamenco, a fine ship. Her Captain tried to call for help, but a splinter round near the bridge changed his mind, and he was seen standing with raised hands, indicating his willingness to surrender. While the prize crew was taking to the boat, the Flamenco, through some unknown circumstances, came into a dangerous position and had almost rammed the SeaGull. Only the presence of mind and quickness of our commander averted the danger.
The great number of people on board the SeaGull caused us some inconvenience. Fresh water began to run short, but our crew did with less in order to let the prisoners have their full measure. Again our engine rooms were completely overhauled and everything put in fine order to get the best possible speed out of our ship. This work was hardly finished when the next steamer appeared on the horizon. As soon as we came nearer the Captain, with true British impudence, asked our name without disclosing his identity. Great excitement seemed to prevail on board. Some of the crew took to their boats and tried to escape in them. This was a dangerous undertaking in the middle of the ocean. When our prize crew went aboard they found only the Captain and the first engineer, the rest of the ship's company having left them to their fate. The Captain was a fine old gentleman. We found that it was the steamer Westburn. Our prize crew manned the ship, having orders to follow in our course. At the same time we sighted another steamer, which we chased all night, to be hailed in the morning as the Horace with a valuable cargo of oil, cotton, alcohol, and benzene from Buenos Aires to Liverpool.
The Westburn reached us within a few hours, and Count Dohna decided to transfer all our prisoners to her. This was interesting work and lasted for some time. That afternoon the Westburn, with a few men of our crew and under the command of Acting Officer Reinhold Badewitz, was directed to take a coarse toward Santa Cruz on Tenerife. The Horace was blown up.
When the Westburn was out of sight we again laid a course toward the coast of Africa, and met a large liner filled with passengers. Count Dohna did not think it advisable to sink this ship because of the difficulty of taking so large a number of passengers on board, which would have filled the SeaGull above her capacity. And to send these passengers away in another steamer would have weakened our crew considerably.
Until we again reached the Canary Islands we had nothing to do, and Count Dohna was now more than ever before bent on going straight home. We spent one night taking the most important parts of the ship's engine down, and we were during this time, of course, absolutely helpless, an undertaking that manifested some nerve on our part. Had a cruiser of the enemy found us at this critical time we would have been lost beyond a doubt.
Many days had passed and no ship was sighted. One morning the well-known alarm bell sounded throughout the ship and every man rushed to his post. A heavy sea was rolling the SeaGull from one side to the other and causing much suffering among these on board. We had now captured thirteen steamers and were determined to get beyond this unlucky number. It was written our wish should be fulfilled. A Frenchman, the Maroni, from Bordeaux to New York, had crossed our course, making the fourteenth ship. She had wine, oil, cork, and seeds aboard, making a valuable prize. The sinking of this, steamer was a fine spectacle. It took several hours before she went down, and, with her, went great quantities of wine, of which we had not had a taste for some time. It seemed a shame to see it go into the Atlantic. The next day luck was again with us, sending the British steamer Saxon Prince our way.
Shortly after this work was done we heard good news from home. The Westburn had reached Santa Cruz, and the Appam was safely at Norfolk. The world had been astonished by our deeds, not knowing our name nor our strength and armament. Later we found out that the Westburn had left Santa Cruz under the nose of British armored cruiser Sutlej, and had sunk through an explosion of her boilers.
We had now reached the English coast, and all precautions were taken not to fall into the hands of the enemy at the very end of the raiding voyage. Our prisoners did not attempt to conceal their belief that we soon would exchange parts. Careful preparations and another complete alteration of the appearance of the SeaGull were made before our dash through the British blockade was again undertaken. Most unfavorable weather helped. We met ships of the enemy at a distance, but none halted us.
The very night, for we ran through under cover of darkness, before our arrival in a German port we were dangerously close to a flotilla of British torpedo boat destroyers and could not understand why they let us pass without even asking our nationality. We did not hesitate to send their position by wireless to the German naval base.
On the 4th of March we were in wireless communication with German torpedo boats. We were at home, or at least near the home coast. Several hours later we were to be rewarded for all our endurance by the most enthusiastic welcome we ever saw.
It was 10 o'clock in the morning and the sun had broken through the clouds. In the distance, still far away, we saw our own great fleet. German ships they were, and they had set out to greet us on our homecoming. One by one they passed with hundreds of flags hoisted and their crews lined on deck to welcome us. With bands playing "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles!" Two large cruisers passed us a short distance away, covered with flags and signals. We acknowledged this honor by hoisting the flags of all the ships we had sunk during our cruise. Soon we reached our homeport, where the heartiest and warmest welcome came from the Kaiser, who conferred on every man on board the Iron Cross.
The above account was originally distributed by the German Government and appeared in various publications in 1916. Factual and editorial changes were made to the article for clarity, but it is largely as originally printed. There are many omissions and some inaccuracies, which were no doubt, caused by wartime censorship. The article is written as if told by an officer of the SeaGull, most probably Kapitanleutnant Friedrich Wolf, second in command.
It was the plan to produce an original article to occupy this space, however time restrictions have prevented the completion of that effort. At some future date this article will be replaced. Everything takes longer than expected.
Last Revision: March 4, 2007.
© Copyright smsMoewe.com, 2007.
All Rights Reserved. All Content Protected.