The 1916 Sinking of the SS Mount Temple: Historical Perspectives on a Unique Aspect of Alberta's Paleontological Heritage - Part 4
German surface raider history
There has been some confusion in the paleontological literature as to how the Mount Temple was sunk. Some reports indicated she was torpedoed by an enemy submarine and others indicate a specialized surface warship (a "raider") was involved (see Spalding, 2001 for review). Submarines are self-explanatory, but many in the paleontological community are unaware of what a "raider" specifically is. We explain here.
A bit of background naval military history needs to be related to help set the stage and explain the world situation that led to the sinking. Early in World War I, Germany's High Seas Fleet lost a number of her warships in a series of short, sharp engagements against Britain's much larger Royal Navy (Bruce, 1975; Halpern, 1994; Walter, 1994; Yates, 1995). Surviving German ships retreated to their home bases and for the most part remained there for the duration of the war. Britain, a relatively small island nation with a large population and few natural resources, relied heavily on sea trade with her colonies worldwide and the United States. If her lifeline of unescorted merchant ships (most carrying food and fuel) could be disrupted, her military power, economy and society would suffer, possibly enough to contribute to her losing the war. Germany's second U-boat offensive had not yet begun to pick up momentum and her remaining capital ships were largely blockaded in their homeports (Chatterton, n.d.). Even if they were available, Germany's cruisers were designed for fleet support and, while fast, had short ranges before needing recoaling. Something to deal with enemy merchant shipping was needed to fill this gap. So, during WW I (and WW II), the German navies used ships called "surface raiders". Able to slip past the powerful British naval blockade, their hit and run exploits on the open seas are legendary among naval military historians. But their important role in wartime is not well known to many laymen, and not even mentioned in some "complete" histories of WW I. Medium to large-sized German warships acting alone were also known as surface or commerce raiders (e.g. the famous Emden, Dresden and Karlsruhe in WW I and the Bismarck, Admiral Scheer, Hipper, Graf Spee, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in WWII). However, true surface raiders were originally commercial ships or large passenger liners, which in wartime were converted to carry heavy guns to serve an ad hoc military purpose (Chatterton, 1931; Muggenthaler, 1977; Schmalenback, 1977; Walter, 1994; Yates, 1995). Germany converted five large passenger liners, nine merchant ships and one sailing ship into raiders in WW I, with those made from converted commercial ships best suited. One disadvantage was that they did not carry any armor plating and thus were vulnerable to enemy shellfire. They relied more on stealth, cunning and the element of surprise to capture their victims, avoiding running gun battles if possible. Commercial ships converted into raiders had a much longer range, burned less fuel, and required smaller crews, but were not particularly fast. However, this was not a problem as the ships they hunted were no faster. In fact, in 1914, the future raider Moewe was nothing more than a newly launched ordinary freighter named Pungo with refrigerated holds. The Pungo was first intended to haul bananas for the Afrikanische Fruchtkompagnie between Germany and her colony in the Cameroons. This changed with the outbreak of WW I. After her rapid military conversion in only 25 days, and with the addition of range-finding equipment and deck armament, she was more powerful than some contemporaneous destroyers of the German Navy.
Surface raiders usually operated alone, typically disguised as harmless tramp steamers or freighters and flying a neutral or British flag. In reality they were long ranging, heavily armed and disguised ships that plied the shipping lanes in order to intercept and destroy British and Allied commercial maritime traffic of all types. Surface raiders were disguised through a variety of means, such as false funnels that could belch real smoke, or folding steel plates on the gunwales that hid weaponry and changed the silhouette and true identity of the ship. Other trickery included deck guns disguised as cargo or superstructure, misleading radio communications with targeted ships (or dummy communications to any enemies in the area who might be eavesdropping), and a regularly changing paint scheme. Some raiders had large national flags, and a fictitious name and country (Norway, Sweden and Greece were popular choices) painted in large block letters on the hull, to masquerade as neutral ships. Even the deck crews were disguised, by their casual behaviour - strolling about dressed as merchant seamen or in civilian clothes (in one case a man dressed up as a woman and pushed a baby stroller!). Disguises were so complete, that in a few cases, boarding British inspection parties were fooled.
Surface raider crews would man the deck, armed with binoculars, looking for ships or signs, such as smoke or masts visible on the horizon. It was a source of pride to be the first to spot a target, and along with bragging rights, the spotter would often be rewarded with a box of cookies or a package of cigarettes (Jouan, 1929). Once a ship was spotted, the crew would casually lure it closer or aggressively chase it down. When the ship was within range of the raider's main guns, the deceptive flag was lowered and the German military naval ensign would be quickly hoisted. Large hinged steel plates on the sides of the ship would suddenly fold down to reveal the heavy main guns, and secondary armaments would swing out and be brought to bear on the target. Signals to stop and a single blank round fired across the bows were usually enough to force the targeted ship to stop. Neutral ships were usually released, unless found to be carrying contraband. If a British ship (or one of her Allies) tried to escape, radioed for help, or fired back, then the battle was on. These were usually short, fierce and spirited actions. Radio transmissions for help could be jammed by the more powerful German transmitters. Sometimes more large caliber blanks fired across the bows or a live round fired into the water close to the target ship were needed to show that the raider meant business. In more severe cases, live rounds fired into the bridge or radio room usually sufficed to stifle any efforts by the crew to send a mayday or report the position of the raider. Once the crew surrendered, they were taken prisoner and, by law (Article 112 of the Prize Regulations), given safe passage to a German or neutral port (Cornford, 1918). An armed boarding party would quickly row over to inspect the ship and its cargo, and remove any important papers or valuables. Convoy routing instructions, current newspapers (providing ship names, ports and departure dates), logbooks, codebooks and military communications were much sought after. These materials would provide valuable intelligence for catching new victims or for military planners back at head office in Berlin. Anything useful to the raider was also taken. Coal or oil to fire the boilers, was highly prized for fuel, as were provisions like livestock or fresh foodstuffs. Once the ship was emptied of all crew and useful cargo, she was scuttled by torpedo, gunfire or time-delayed demolition charges. Wooden ships were sometimes set ablaze. Even ships without cargoes were sunk, depriving the enemy of their continued use. A very revealing and interesting account of the 1916 seizing and boarding of the British steamship Appam by crew from the Moewe may be found online in Anonymous (2001c).
Some large ships or those with particularly valuable cargoes were spared and joined the raider, operated by skeleton crews under armed guard. These ships were used to house additional prisoners and war booty secured during the cruise, and some were converted into new raiders. When the Moewe captured the British freighter SS Saint Theodore on the open seas, spare deck guns were transferred and mounted on the British ship and the new raider Geier was born.
Of all the true surface raiders used by Germany in WW I, the Moewe, Wolf II and the large 3-masted wooden sailing ship Seeadler were the most successful, but the Moewe was best. Over a period of seven months in two tours in the north and south Atlantic totaling, she captured or sank about 42 Allied merchant vessels totaling 123,444 tons (Scheer, 1920; 163,340 tons and one ship of unknown tonnage in Walter, 1994). This was well over a third of the tonnage claimed by all German raider ships combined throughout the war. In her first tour alone, she captured 199 prisoners and one million dollars in war booty. The ships she sank in her first tour were valued in excess of £2,000,000. Besides wreaking this type of havoc, the Moewe also laid 500 mines off Pentland Firth in northern Scotland and the Gironde and Loire estuaries off western France, claiming additional ships. One of her mines crippled and ultimately sank the 16,350 ton British battleship HMS King Edward VII, the flagship of the Royal Navy's Atlantic fleet. Five more steamers and three or four French fishing vessels also were sunk by her mines (Halpern, 1994:309).
During her life, the ship first named Pungo was given at least nine different names, confusing the neophyte naval historian. During WW I, to confuse the enemy, the ship was renamed six times in four years. Besides being called Moewe (on two different occasions), she was also named Vineta, Sperrbrecher 10, and Ostsee, and disguised as the ships Sutton Hall (British), Sagoland (Swedish) and the French ship Théodore Monté; (Hoyt, 1969; Schmalenbach, 1977; Walter, 1994).
Surface raiders had a romantic, yet dark and infamous history. They were successful not only for the ships they captured or sunk, but especially for making the Royal Navy and other combatants dedicate part of their resources to tracking them down. For example, in early 1917, 58 Allied warships of all types attempted to track down and destroy the raider Wolf II, but failed (Halpern, 1994:372). Because surface raiders operated alone and engaged in atypical warfare, they were elusive targets. Mere word of their presence in an area was enough to paralyze local merchant shipping, force ships to stay in port and thereby deprive Allied military forces and Britain of much needed supplies. A good illustrated review and short history of each of the German WW I surface raiders (those made from converted liners or merchant ships) can be found on the Internet (Emmerich, 1999).


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Last Revision: December 31, 2002.
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