SMS Möwe, Otaki’s Nemesis – An ex-banana boat, Part 2

As with figures such as the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen, Werner Voss and General Erich Ludendorff, Dohna-Schlodien was celebrated in newspapers, postcards, postage stamps, medallions and war art by a German propaganda machine that glorified individual heroism. This is shown in the image of the medallion below.

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Medallion depicting Count Dohna-Schlodien and citing the Möwe, from National Maritime Museum collection

While there were other figures who were publicised just as much and more, Dohna-Schlodien’s story in particular might have served as a useful inspiration for the effort that the German people as a whole were expected to put into the war. Just as the Möwe had operated alone with limited and often pilfered supplies, Germany as a whole was also increasingly isolated and under-supplied as the war progressed.

Thus Dohna-Schlodien’s story likely served as a useful inspiration for an increasingly besieged population. This can be strikingly seen in the fact that following that in 1917, a film was released in Germany titled Graf Dohna und seine Möwe (Count Dohna and his Seagull), detailing the Möwe‘s first and second voyages, emphasizing the success of both. Thus the Möwe‘s success as a morale booster was just as great as her actual military success.

While her exploits were being celebrated, the Möwe herself underwent a refit after her first voyage and was briefly renamed Vineta on 12 June 1916. This was done due to the Möwe‘s new-found infamy – she needed to be disguised as protection from sabotage, or pre-emptive action by the Allies; she was considered too valuable an instrument to lose.

Thus under her temporary name she began raiding off the Baltic and Norwegian coasts. She only captured one ship in these less documented actions – a merchantman that is believed to be Russian – before getting her old name back on 24 August.

After leaving the Baltic, Möwe departed from Wilhelmshaven on a second raiding voyage into the Atlantic on 22nd November 1916, with additional gunwales and a slightly altered silhouette to hide her armament, once again under the command of Nicholas von Dohna-Schlodien. This time, however, she did not depart alone – the merchant raider tactic had expanded considerably since her first voyage.

Two other merchant raiders, SMS Wolf and Seeadler, followed in her wake over the course of the closing days of that November. This was a co-ordinated raid, as the Germany Navy was stepping up its commerce-raiding efforts in the wake of the indecisive Battle of Jutland on 1st June that year. The High Seas Fleet had again failed to break the Allied blockade, and British naval supremacy remained intact – commerce-raiding was now vindicated as the only way the Navy could turn the war in Germany’s favour.

To that end U-boat production had been stepped up – and the submarine force was making a serious impact in the war at sea. The merchant raiders were thus facing increased competition from their own side, as well as an increasingly alert enemy.

Nevertheless, the Möwe and her crew persisted. Once again facing bad weather, Dohna-Schlodien rounded the Norwegian coast, steering into Arctic latitudes to avoid North Sea blockade to the North Atlantic. The conditions were no doubt terrible for all on board – and though this voyage would be even more successful than the last, it would also be the most challenging for the German seagull’s crew.

Over the course of her cruise until her return to Germany in March 1917, the Möwe would sink or capture 25 merchant ships, amounted to over 123,000 registered tons of shipping. Yet it was also during this voyage that she would suffer her most serious challenge: the SS Otaki and her captain, Archibald Bissett-Smith.

This action happened on the 10th March. Already flushed from sinking or capturing many Allied freighters since November, Dohna-Schlodien and his crew had captured had scuttled the 4,500 ton freighter Esmeralda (a sister ship to the Flamenco, sunk during the first voyage) earlier that morning, which was bound for Baltimore to fetch horses for the British Army in France.

Then they spotted a much larger vessel, the 9,575 ton New Zealand Shipping Company-registered SS Otaki, which had just come out of a passing rain squall. Launched on 15th August 1908 and the first merchant ship to be fitted with steam turbines, she was also armed with a single stern-mounted 4.7 inch gun for self-defence. As a result of her advanced engines, her speed of 14 knots was roughly equal to that of the Möwe. She was en route to New York from London when she was spotted.

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SS Otaki

Captain Bissett-Smith attempted to flee, bringing his single stern-mounted gun to bear, deliberately turning into back into the heavy seas of the squall in order to frustrate the Germans. Since this was a stern-facing chase, Dohna-Schlodien could not bring his full broadside to bear, and could only fire his bow-mounted guns. This Smith had positioned his vessel as best he could in what would otherwise have been a very one-sided battle.

After the raider fired several warning shots, Otaki‘s gun crew of two fired back. One shell hit the Möwe‘s boiler room after penetrating under the bridge, killing five of the crew and wounding ten others – the first human casualties Dohna-Schlodien’s crew had suffered in their ship’s career. The damage went beyond loss of life, however.

Other hits were scored – the shells fired from the Otaki started a coal bunker fire and inflicted minor holing in the hull. This damage, though seemingly superficial, would have a lasting effect on the Möwe for the rest of her second voyage.

Dohna-Schlodien’s gunners responded furiously, scoring a total of thirty hits on Otaki, which was set ablaze. She eventually rolled over by her starboard side and sank by the stern.

Six of her crew were lost, including Bissett-Smith, who is recorded as having not attempted to join his crew in abandoning ship, thus going down with his command. He would be posthumously commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve so he could receive a VC. He was one of few Merchant Navy officers to receive the Victoria Cross during the First World War, in recognition of the heroic defence of his ship against a well-armed and competent opponent.

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The sinking of the Otaki – the Möwe and her coal fires are clearly seen in the background

Dohna-Schlodien also regarded his adversary with the utmost respect, writing in his log that his battle with the Otaki was “as gallant as naval history can relate.” Most of the Otaki‘s crew escaped in lifeboats and were rescued, before being put in the Möwe‘s hold with prisoners from other Allied vessels. Among them was Japanese sailor Kikutaro Yamashita, who was put together with over 600 other prisoners from a wide range of different ships.

Möwe, however, had not left the battle unscathed. Not only was her engine room bunker still alight, she was also taking on water and assuming 15 degree list. Thus other compartments had to be counter-flooded to balance her out. Though the German crew were eventually able to repair the damage and save their ship; the holes at the waterline were plugged and the coal-bunker fire was put out after five days (the fire came dangerously close to aft magazines), for Dohna-Schlodien it had been too close a call.

As a result, it was decided for the Möwe to head homeward. Captain Dohna-Schlodien was unwilling to risk further damage to his ship – the Otaki action convinced him that the British were now much more alert to his activities, and that he was on borrowed time. There was no choice but to return to Germany.

As it turned out, his decision was the correct one – and he was very fortunate to return to port safely. On the 16th February, a mere six days after the Otaki battle, another merchant raider, SMS Leopard, was intercepted off the Norwegian coast by the cruiser HMS Achilles. Newly commissioned and on her maiden voyage, the Leopard refused to surrender and attempted to fight back. She suffered repeated hits before being sunk, with no survivors.

Thus the Möwe‘s previous run of success was becoming increasingly untenable, and her duty much more dangerous. True to his character however, Dohna-Schlodien did make an effort to rescue the Otaki survivors even when his own ship was in serious danger. Even so, when it came to combat after that engagement, chivalry could only be taken so far when it came to the lives of his crew.

The German crew no longer took any chances once they spotted a merchant ship that was armed. This was seen with the freighters Demeterton and Governor on 13-14 March 1917, where the raider kept out of their arcs of fire and opened fire as soon as she raised her ensign. Four men were killed aboard the Governor, the last victims of the Möwe‘s devastating campaign.

By the time of the final leg of her voyage on the 18 March, as the raider plotted a return course around Iceland, she was crowded with over 800 men – including the Allied prisoners. Food and fuel supplies were beginning to dwindle, and rations were meagre for everyone aboard. Kikutaro Yamashita described the conditions for the prisoners of the Möwe:

” We had to sleep on the decks, there were no bunks, and the only food we got was vegetable soup about twice a day, occasionally varied with boiled rice; no bread. This food was not sufficient and we were all very hungry and got exceedingly weak.”

Kikutaro Yamashita, sailor, SS Otaki

The Arctic conditions around Iceland would have made all of this very miserable, for both prisoners and captors. Yamashita describes himself and other prisoners being handled ‘roughly’ on occasion – yyet he described the treatment as generally good from their captors, who were no doubt suffering similar conditions on what was a small, cramped and increasingly undersupplied ship. No doubt the German crew were living on very similar rations at this point, yet made an effort to keep their prisoners fed and housed.

Dohna-Schlodien and his crew seem to have treated their prisoners as correctly as they could under the circumstances, in spite of increasingly difficult conditions and thus deserve praise, not condemnation, for their conduct. The fact that they continued to rescue survivors and followed the old rules of commerce raiding – at a time of unrestricted submarine warfare – further highlights this.

Compared to the conduct of the German Army in Belgium and the ruthlessness of the U-Boat war, Dohna-Schlodien can be seen as having waged a relatively humane war. For that reason, he earned praise from his foes as well as his own government and military.

Still, the Möwe POWs all undoubtedly suffered from the inevitable deprivations on board such a small, overcrowded ship on a long and isolated voyage. Later on the Otaki crew, Yamashita among them, would be interned in POW camps in Germany. Here, Yamashita describes much more varied treatment, with more ‘rough’ conduct by camp guards, with poor food and hard labour. As civilian prisoners, merchant seaman were not accorded the same rights as captured military personnel.

Later on, in August 28th of that year, Yamashita and another sailor from the Otaki staged an escape from their camp in Lubeck, eventually stowing away on a Norwegian merchant ship, eventually reaching the safety of that neutral nation.

The Möwe finally returned to Kiel on 22 March 1917 – it would be her last raiding voyage. Dohna-Schlodien, still a war hero in Germany, was rewarded with a promotion to naval aide-de-camp to Kaiser Wilhelm II – a position he held until the end of the war. However, the merchant raider war was drawing to a close. The sinking of the Leopard and the damage suffered by the Möwe demonstrated that armed merchant ships were far more vulnerable than U-boats – especially since the convoy system was now being fully implemented by all the Allied navies.

More to the point, the U-boat was now available in far greater numbers and at far smaller cost. Thus Merchant Raiders were no longer needed to fill any gap. Owing to the lack of any legal restrictions in the war they fought, the U-boats could sink more merchant shipping than the Möwe and her fellow raiders could ever have hoped to have sunk. In April of 1917 alone, the U-boat force sank a combined total of over 600,000 gross registered tons.

Thus the Möwe and the war she fought belonged to a bygone age. She would never terrorize the British Merchant Navy again. Instead, she continued service as a minelayer in the Baltic, until the war ended with Germany’s surrender in November 1918, heralded by abdication of the Kaiser and the great mutiny in the Kaiserliche Marine in its bases at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November of that year.

This mutiny happened in response to an order to sortie against the Royal Navy once more – a sortie which the High Seas Fleet was now in no position, in terms of fuel or morale, to undertake. Neither the Merchant Raiders nor the U-boats could break the Allied blockade and convoy system, or end the growing discontent in Germany in the final year of the war.

The Möwe was thus caught up in the events of the 1918 surrender, the Versailles Treaty and the collapse of the German Empire. She was eventually ceded as a war prize to Britain and became the freighter Greenbier in 1920. Fate would taken an interesting turn, however. She was sold back to a German company in 1933, as Oldenburg, and Count Dohna-Schlodien would be present at the handover.

As the Oldenburg, she would play a much smaller and less publicised in the Second World War. At the start of this conflict, the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany also converted and armed merchant ships for use as commerce raiders. Just as they had in the First World War, these ships would score successes against Allied shipping alongside the U-boat force, and would range across the world in their raids.

The former Möwe, however, was judged to be too old and slow for such work – unlike the newest merchant ships, she still ran on coal-fired engines. Instead, she ran supplies between Germany and occupied Norway during the Second World War, and over the course of the conflict was part of a supply route to an increasingly isolated and besieged garrison.

On 7th April 1945, the Möwe‘s luck finally ran out. The Oldenburg was spotted by RAF Bristol Beaufighters on an anti-shipping mission, moored in a fjord near the village of Vadheim, Norway. Under air attack, hit repeatedly using modern rockets and cannon, the former banana boat and merchant raider sank at her moorings. Her long and distinguished career across both world wars came to an end, at the hands of modern aircraft.

Her story is a vivid lesson in the history of war; one which shows how a low-cost, low-tech and improvised strategy – using the simplest resources available – can enable a nation in an isolated position, with limited resources and at a military disadvantage to outwit a superior opponent – and wreak havoc in the process. Such a strategy is especially potent when conducted by very competent personnel – as was the case with the crew of the Möwe.

The Royal Navy proved incapable of tracking down and stopping the Möwe in both her voyages, in spite of all the damage caused by that single merchant ship. And though the German merchant raiders were ultimately outmatched, they left much destruction in their wake – and the cost was dear to the Allied side.

The Merchant Navy suffered 40 ships sunk in total by the Möwe alone, totalling 180,000 gross registered tons. Though the U-boats would prove even more devastating to British shipping, such losses – along with the efforts made to counter them – were out of all proportion to their perpetrator – a single converted and armed banana ship, with a very determined crew under a very skilled commander.

As for Nicholas Burghaff, Graz zu Dohna-Schlodien himself, his life would ultimately extend beyond that of his famous vessel, surviving through the post-First World War political and economic instability under the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime, the Second World War and the post-war division of his country.

He finally passed away in Bavaria, in the new Federal Republic of West Germany on the 21st August 1956, at seventy-seven years of age.

Written By: James Whittaker


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