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Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Raiders During World War I

Only operational from the 23rd. of January to the 29th. of February 1916, and in that time managed to claim but one vessel of 15,831 tons.

Launched as Guben on the 29th. of July 1914, this cargo ship of just on 5, 000 tons had a service speed of 13 knots.

At the commencement of 1916, Grief was pressed into Naval service and sailed for Kiel for a dockyard conversion into an Armed Merchant Ship.

Built with two funnels, quite unusual in a tramp steamer, the second funnel was removed, and 4 by 15cm. guns were added, two on the upper deck between her bridge and foremast, and two more, one on each beam before her mainmast.

A further single 10.5cm. was hidden in a gunhouse on the after deck, and two torpedo tubes were also added. She thus became a quite formidible weapon if met on the trade routes by an unsuspecting Allied ship sailing alone, unprotected by the strength of a convoy and its associated escorts.

Grief moved on the 25th.of February 1916 from Kiel to Hamburg, then sailed two days later moving out into the North Sea.

Poor weather obtained, mist and snow flurries being severe enough for the accompanying Submarine U-70 to lose contact with her charge. This U-Boat reported seeing a British Submarine which appears to have reported Grief's position to the British Admiralty.

Admiral Jellicoe on the 28th of February at 2338 (11.38 PM) sailed light cruisers Cordelia and Inconstant with four attendant Destroyers from Rosyth in Scotland. Three more cruisers, Calliope, Comus, and Blanche with a further three Destroyers sortied out of the fleet base at Scapa Flow to back up the Armed Merchant Cruisers of the 10th. Cruiser Squadron.

Sister ships owned by the Royal Mail Steamship Packet Company, Andes (15,620 tons) and Alcantara (15,831 tons) had joined the Royal Navy in April of 1915, each were fitted with 8 by 6 inch guns, plus 2 pounders, and had a speed of 17 knots, which was adequate to outrun any freighter or cargo vessel they were likely to encounter on the high seas.

At 0845 (8.45 AM) on the last day of February (1916 was a leap year) lookouts in Alcantara reported smoke on the port beam.

In both world wars at sea, it was the sighting of smoke in the distance, that so often alerted an enemy (on both sides of the conflict) to the presence of a single ship, or even ships in convoy. The making of smoke was to be avoided at all costs, and many a Captain on his bridge of a merchant ship or a warship, would become most upset at its appearance from the funnel of his command, and then vent his wrath on the engine room department in general and on his chief engineer in particular.

Andes now reported sighting a black painted ship with 2 masts and a black funnel. Alcantara was closer and Captain Thomas Wardle increased speed to bring his ship between Andes and this suspicious looking vessel, as he closed Greif, two large Norwegian flags,and RENA and TONSBERG could be made out on the ship's side. Greif trurned away to the north east, Wardle now hoisted the signal to stop instantly, MN. and fired two blank rounds to reinforce his order.

Greif now hove to, and signalled she was sailing out of Trondheim and was bound for Rio de Janiro and La Plata.

At 0940 (9.40 AM) when the Armed Merchant Cruiser was preparing to lower a boat to send over a boarding party, Greif suddenly declared her intent, dropped the gunhouse around her poop gun, opened fire, and at a range of only 800 yards, her first shell striking home on Alcantara's bridge, wrecked it, and destroyed the engine room telegraph and communications equipment. (Captain Wardle had made the fatal mistake of bringing his ship too close, instead of standing off at a safe distance until this ship could be properly identified.) Now unmasking her other guns, the German Raider poured shells into Alcantara, destroying boats and her steering gear.

At last Alcantara came to life, increasing speed, trying to block Greif from making for the Norwegian coastline, her port after 6 inch gun with its first shell scored a bull's eye on Greif's poop gun, putting it out of action, and killing most of this gun's crew.

The sound of this action brought Andes, some 5 miles away, scurring back to assist her shipmate.

Opening fire from a range of 3 miles, Andes landed a direct hit on  Greif's bridge which wrecked her steering gear.

Meantime, Greif and Alcantara were engaged in an old fashioned, close range slug fest, with each ship gaining repeated hits upon the other ship's waterline.

The Raider's port forward 15cm. gun was knocked out, her fuel tanks were set alight, and a third shell penetrated her hull to explode in the engine room.

Aboard Alcantara, a torpedo from Greif struck amidships, and a second torpedo passed under her stern. But Greif was mortally wounded, she was under fire from both British Armed Merchant Cruisers, and, she ceased fire at 1018 (10.18 AM) and four minutes later, boats were seen to be pulling away from the blazing wreck.

The German Captain was escaping down a rope ladder over his ship's port quarter when a fragment from one of Alcantara's shells decapitated him. Meantime, Alcantara listing to port, also appeared doomed, and Captain Wardle ordered his company to abandon ship at 1045. (10.45 AM)

By 1102 (11.02 AM) the British ship had slipped beneath the surface of the ocean and was gone, 72 men being lost. They had paid the price for their Captain's indescretion of closing too close to an unknown vessel, before it was really identified.

This lesson had still not been properly learned in WW2, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, in November 1941, off the west coast of Western Australia ran into the German Armed Merchant Ship, Kormoran, steamed too close, and was mortally wounded by the German ship. Sydney was last observed steaming away into the distance, on fire. She was never seen again, going down somewhere in the Indian Ocean with her entire company lost. To this day, her final resting place is still not known. Komoran also sank, but many of her crew survived to land on Australia's western coastline, and be rescued. 

Greif was still afloat, when the Cruiser Comus arrived on the scene with the Destroyer Munster, and Comus proceeded to finish off the German ship, and she finally sank by the stern at 1301 (1.01 PM) with her German Ensign still flying defiantly. It would seem that about 187 of Greif's crew perished, whilst Captain Wardle, his remaining crew, 120 Germans including 5 of their Officers were rescued from the sea by Andes and Munster.

This classic battle between Greif and Alcantara had indeed resulted in "an eye for an eye" as yet one more German Raider lived to have but a very short career.

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