At the start of the First World War the Imperial German Navy had a number of surface warships deployed around the globe. These obviously posed a serious threat to Allied shipping and every effort was made by the Royal Navy to track down these warships and bring them to battle. Amongst these was the light cruiser Karlsruhe which began attacking ships in the Caribbean almost as soon as war had been declared. In the course of just two months she captured and sank no less than sixteen British merchant ships, with a combined weight of 72,216 tons.
A modern ship, Karlsruhe was capable of a maximum speed of twenty-seven knots and was armed with twelve 4.1-inch guns. Her last victim, on 28 October 1914, was the 10,000-ton liner Van Dyke. Just days later, on 4 November, Karlsruhe went down with the loss of its captain, Fregattenkapitän Erich Köhler, and more than 250 of his men. The Royal Navy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus was also in Caribbean waters, trying to catch Karlsruhe, but the German cruiser’s demise was not caused by naval action and its loss has always been unexplained.
On the afternoon of 4 November 1914, Karlsruhe was steaming across a flat sea when the entire forepart of the ship, including the bridge and the first funnel, was ripped apart by a huge internal explosion. The bow section quickly sank, though the stern remained afloat long enough for 140 of the crew to escape on to the attending colliers.
The cause of the disaster had never been satisfactorily uncovered. One explanation commonly put forward is the sweating of cordite in the forward magazines. Another possibility is an explosion of coal dust, which is at its most dangerous in a hot, humid climate. Whatever the cause, it was a formidable opponent that had been eliminated.
Probably the most famous of the German surface raiders of the First World War was the light cruiser Emden which captured or sunk almost thirty Allied ships, including two auxiliary merchant cruisers. Her demise was no less dramatic than that of Karlsruhe but it occurred when she engaged by HMAS Sydney on 9 November 1914. Sydney, along with another cruiser, HMAS Melbourne, was on convoy duty when alerted to the presence of SMS Emden. Sydney was despatched to engage the German ship and at 09.15 hours that morning Emden was sighted whilst anchored off Cocos Island.
Emden immediately weighed anchor and steamed towards Sydney, aiming to reduce the range as the Australian warship was far more powerfully armed, with eight six-inch guns compared to the 4.1-inch guns of the German vessel. Opening fire at 5,600 yards, three salvos from Emdenstraggled the Australian cruiser but the fourth struck, wrecking the fire control system.
Sydney, capable of almost three knots an hour more the German ship, hauled off to a point that was beyond the range of Emden’s guns but within range of her own bigger weapons. It took the Australian gunners, aiming manually, ten minutes to find the range, and then they began to batter Emden into wreckage.
In rapid succession Emden sustained hits to her bridge, radio room and mainmast crow’s nest and one of the after guns. By 11.00 hours all the German cruiser’s funnels were down, the gun control turret had been knocked out and fires were raging across the warship. The foremast had toppled over, the remaining guns had been silenced, the torpedo flat had been holed and was flooding, the ship was only capable of being steered from the steering flat, and the decks were littered with dead, dying and wounded sailors.
As the German cruiser was no longer capable of defending itself the skipper, Karl von Müller, who had himself been wounded, ran Emden aground on the reef of North Keeling Island to save as many of his men as he could.
Amongst the other actions in this book are the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the Battle of Coronel and the actions on Lake Tanganyika.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.