The Saga of the Seeadler : Commerce Raider of the First World War

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the saga of the seeadler

As far as naval warfare is concerned in World War I, the dreadnought was at the forefront. Everything revolved around their thick armor, powerful guns, and cutting edge steam engines. The leviathans that took part in the Battle of Jutland were a far cry from the sailing ships of past wars. However, as it would turn out, the age of sail didn’t end quietly. One of the most successful commerce raiders was, ironically enough, a sailing ship. In this article we will examine the service history of one of the Great War’s most unknown ships. A ship with a wild and fascinating history from start to finish. This article is about the saga of the Seeadler.

The Pass of Balmaha

pass of balmaha
The Pass of Balmaha, prior to her conversion into the Commerce Raider Seeadler.

The first irony is that one of Germany’s most successful raiders was built by its future enemy. The future Seeadler was ordered by a Boston cotton company. Originally known as the Pass of Balmaha, she was built in 1888 by the Robert Duncan Company in Glasgow, Scotland. Pass of Balmaha was a steel hulled windjammer, just over 245′ in length with a displacement of 4500 tons. Her early career was uneventful and she plied the Atlantic trade routes from the United States to Europe for over 20 years until the start of the First World War.

The second irony is that the ship was first captured by the British. After leaving New York harbor in June 1915, she was bound for Russia with a cargo of cotton for the war effort. However, as she was traveling along the coast of Norway, a British cruiser intercepted her. A boarding party was sent over to inspect the ship for any contraband cargo or other items of suspicious nature. For reasons that are still unclear, the British determined that the ship was suspect and ordered it to proceed to the Orkney islands. A crew of seven British sailors were left onboard to oversee the transit. The British officer in charge ordered the captain of the Pass of Balmaha to lower the American flag and instead hoist the Union Jack. The captain furiously argued with the British officer, stating that raising the British flag would mark his vessel as belligerent, making it a target for German naval forces.

Not surprisingly, a short time later, the German submarine U-36 spotted the lone ship and moved to intercept. The British prize crew hid in the cargo hold, while the American captain ordered the Union Jack replaced once again with the Stars and Stripes. However, the captain of U-36 was suspicious and ordered Pass of Balmaha to proceed to Cruxhaven for further inspection with a German ensign left aboard to oversee the trip. The British crew was still hiding undiscovered in the cargo hold.

By this point, the American crew was angry with all the unneeded trouble brought about by British meddling. Fearful that the hidden British crew would attempt to retake the vessel, the Americans locked them in the cargo hold. The Pass of Balmaha sailed into Cruxhaven without further incident. Upon arrival, a German boarding party waited. The American crew revealed the still hidden British sailors to the Germans, who promptly apprehended the lot of them. For their cooperation, the American crew was allowed to return home by way of a neutral country. The Pass of Balmaha however, was confiscated by the Germans.

commerce raider
The ensign of the Seeadler , still in the possession of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand.

The Pass of Balmaha remained in German hands for the next year. During that time, the Allies had blockaded the German coast and ensured that German coaling stations were of no use. Germany was then faced with the dilemma that any raiders that broke the blockade would be unable to resupply. Desperation gave rise to a radical idea of using a sailing vessel as a commerce raider as it would not need to rely on coal. The Pass of Balmaha, still sitting idle, would be an ideal ship to carry out the plan.

The Seeadler

Renamed the Seeadler (sea eagle) the ship was equipped with hidden 10.5 cm guns that could retract discreetly below deck. Two heavy machine guns were also installed as well as a small armory to equip boarding parties. The cargo hold was reconfigured into lounges, prisoner holds, and additional berthing. A hidden diesel engine was also installed to provide additional speed when needed.

On December 21, 1916, the Seeadler set sail under the command of the famous Felix Von Luckner. Luckner had the ship disguised as a Norwegian wood hauler. Luckner chose a crew that could primarily speak Norwegian to further the charade. Under this guise, the ship approached the British blockade and , despite being boarded for inspection, managed to fool the British. Now free, the Seeadler slipped into the Atlantic and ran amok for the next 225 days, all the while leading various Allied warships on a wild chase.

Felix Von Luckner
Captain of the Seeadler , Felix Von Luckner.

By December 25th, the Seeadler was southeast of Iceland when another British ship intercepted it and sent over an inspection party. For a second time, the British failed to notice anything and allowed the Seeadler to sail on unhindered. On January 9th, the Seeadler spotted its first victim. Luckner raised a flag requesting a time signal, allowing him to bring the Seeadler in close before springing the trap. It captured a 3,000 ton steamship with no casualties. The crew was removed and the Gladys Royle was scuttled, the first of 15 ships.

The Seeadler traveled south through the Atlantic, intercepting any ship it came across. Off the coast of Brazil, the Seeadler captured the British steamer, Pinmore. Ironically, Luckner had sailed on the Pinmore years before when he was a civilian seaman. Apparently any feelings he might have had were not enough to save the ship as Luckner ordered it to be scuttled. By late February, the crew of the Seeadler learned from captured ships that the British had dispatched several ships to hunt them down. However, luck and skillful seamanship ensured the Seeadler was always one step ahead of the British Navy.

In early March, the Seeadler spotted a French cargo ship and demanded it stop, signaling that it was a German cruiser. Amusingly, the captain of the French vessel thought that it was an elaborate joke and actually rowed to the Seeadler. Reality set it when he witnessed his vessel sink. The very next day, the Seeadler came upon another British cargo ship. Attempts to get it to stop were ignored, so Luckner ordered a smoke generator to be used. The French vessel then turned around to render assistance to what it thought was a burning cargo ship. It unknowingly sailed right into a trap. Amazingly, this was the only instance in which someone died due to the Seeadler’s raiding career. A shot intended to disable the British ship’s radio burst a steam pipe, killing a British crewman.

By this time, Luckner had over 300 captured sailors onboard his ship. Upon capturing his next prize, he had a majority of the sails on the captured vessel removed and the captured sailors put aboard. This allowed the captured sailors to put into port, but not fast enough to reveal the location of Seeadler. Even so, the Royal Navy was closing in on Seeadler and laid a trap at Cape Horn. However, luck came to rescue once again and a storm blew Seeadler to the south, allowing it to evade the British trap and sail unmolested into the Pacific ocean. Sailing northwards into the Pacific, Luckner learned the United States entered the war and so he began raiding American merchant ships. Three American ships were captured and sunk in short order.

After capturing its fifteenth ship, luck finally ran out for the Seeadler. Needed to have its hull scraped, the Seeadler sailed to Mopelia. However, as she was anchored offshore, she was forced aground and subsequently wrecked. Luckner claimed that a tsunami dashed his ship onto a reef. However, captured American sailors onboard stated that Luckner and the German crew went ashore and had a picnic. Unattended, the Seeadler drifted aground and was lost.

The wreck of the Seeadler

Captain Luckner keeps the War Going

No one was lost, but the crew of the Seeadler and 46 prisoners were stranded on the small island. Refusing to give up, Luckner decided to take 10 men and one of the surviving longboats to Fiji, where he could capture another ship, allowing him to resume his raiding career. Sailing in a 33′ open boat, Luckner managed to cover over 2000 nautical miles, island hopping all the way to Fiji. Along the way, he and his crew posed as shipwrecked Norwegians. However, a suspicious resident called in local police to investigate. Catching up with Luckner as his crew was sailing to the next island, the police fooled Luckner into believing they had a naval gun to blow his little ship out of the water. Luckner surrendered in September 1917 and was sent to a prisoner of war camp outside of Auckland, New Zealand.

However, this was only a minor setback for Luckner. Noticing that the commander of the prison camp had a motor boat, Luckner convinced the camp commander to allow him to put on a Christmas play with his crew. In reality, Luckner used the play as a ruse to gather supplies. Along with other Prisoners, Luckner escaped the camp and commandeered the motor boat. He then used a machine gun to capture a larger 90 ton scow. With his new ship, Luckner made for a local New Zealand provisioning station, armed with a map drawn from a atlas and a handmade sextant. He knew larger ships were stationed there and hoped to capture one. However, an auxiliary cruiser guessed his probable destination. Days later it caught up with renegade Germans and with no chance of escape, Luckner surrendered. Just over a full year after leaving Germany, the war finally ended for Luckner. He would spend the rest of the war being shipped throughout various New Zealand prison camps before finally being sent home in 1919.

However, Luckner was not the only one trying to keep the war going. The remaining crew of the Seeadler left behind on Mopelia also refused to go quietly. They learned from their surviving radio that their captain had been captured. However, as luck would have it, a French ship anchored offshore. A lieutenant rowed out to the French ship and captured her at gunpoint. He returned to pick up the remaining Seeadler crew and set sail for South America.  They made it as far as Easter Island before the ship struck uncharted rocks. The crew managed to escape, but were captured by the Chileans who kept them in custody for the remainder of the war.

For the 46 prisoners still left on Mopelia, they also had much excitement left to contend with. One of the captured American captains took 3 other men in the second longboat of the Seeadler. Sailing 990 miles, they arrived in  Pago Pago in October 1917. There, they were able to inform the authorities of what had transpired as well as rescue the 44 people remaining on Mopelia.

So ends the saga of the Seeadler and her crew. In a voyage lasting 225 days, a sailing ship captured 15 vessels, all the while leading the Allied Navies on a spectacular chase. During the whole voyage, not a single member of the Seeadler crew was killed and all of her prizes were taken with only a single casualty. If anything the saga of the Seeadler shows that history is often more fantastical than anything Hollywood could dream up.

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Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.

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