Wachtfels aka Wolf

The Hansa line steamship, Wachtfels, was one of many German vessels that came to lay idle in the port of Kiel in Northern Germany during 1916. She was a relatively new ship, having been constructed in 1913 by the Flensburgr Schiffsb. Ges., Flensburg, and already a ‘veteran’ of the orient run.

In 1916 she came to the attention of German naval officers as a suitable candidate for conversion to a raider. The Wachtfels was a vessel of 5809 grt with a length of 410′, breadth of 56.2′ and a depth of 29.6′. She was purchased and substantially converted/re-fitted for her new and more ominous role. She was even re-named – the SMS Wolf. As the Wolf, the Wachtfels become one of several commerce raiders employed by the German Navy in their bid to disrupt British shipping.
Amongst those merchantmen which were specifically converted by the German Admiralty and that took to the high seas to inflict a toll of shipping were the Moewe, Seeadler, and the Griffin, all of which all met with varying degrees of success.

In command of the Wolf as she eventually put to sea, after some minor catastrophes, was Fregatten-Kapitan (Captain) Karl August Nerger. On board were approximately 400 regular navy officers and crew and an armoury of seven 5.9 inch guns, 12 torpedos and a stock of 465 mines. The date was November 30th 1916.

Fregattenkapitan Nerger
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

Nerger’s orders ‘were to interfere with the enemy’s shipping in distant seas, and above all in the Indian Ocean, to wage war on commerce and to carry out other warlike operations, of which mine-laying was the most important.’

Mines had been employed as offensive weapons from the very beginning of the War when German minelayers had laid a number of the fields in the North Sea and English Channel. Their first victims were neutral merchantmen and British trawlers although by September 1914 several British warships had also been sunk.
Counter-mining was also carried out as a defensive measure by both the British and by the Germans off their Baltic Sea ports. Germany however, took the strategy a step further and with the aid of submarines and disguised merchantmen began to target the general sea-lanes.

Without fanfare the Wolf made her way out into the North Sea and successfully avoided the British blockade. The raider skirted the Arctic Circle before steaming south into the Atlantic and beginning her career of havoc and destruction. Her first action was the laying of a minefield south of Cape Town before entering the Indian Ocean. Further fields of mines were laid in the approaches to Aden and Colombo. In addition the Wolf began to actively and directly target and sink enemy merchant and other vessels.

By June of 1917 the Wolf had reached the South-West Pacific after a voyage through the Southern Ocean. Her first victim in these waters was the Union S.S. Company’s Wairuna. Formerly the Matoppo, the Wairuna was a 3947-ton (passenger and cargo) steamship and had been built in 1904 by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. at Newcastle. She had just sailed from Auckland and was en route Vancouver, Canada.

[Matoppo of the Ellerman & Bucknall Steam Ship Co. – later the Wairuna]
Photograph. Author’s Collection.

Nearing Sunday Island in the Kermedec Group, N.E. of Auckland the Wairuna was taken by surprise by the Wolf and her seaplane. Her master, …, had no alternative but to surrender his ship to the raider as the Wolf’s first Pacific prize. The Wairuna, however, was not a prize to be kept, but one to be plundered, and over a period of days her cargo, coal and water supplies were transferred to His Imperial German Majesty’s Navy. On completion, and having taken aboard all crew as prisoners, the Wairuna met an undignified end through a barrage of shellfire. A coup-de-grace was delivered by torpedo before she vanished from sight.

Having re-coaled and replenished her own supplies, Nerger pointed the Wolf in the direction of the waters between the Three Kings Islands and North Cape/Cape Maria Van Dieman, at the very tip of the North Island of New Zealand.

At about this time, the R.M.S. Mongolia, a 9505-ton steamer of the P. & O. line, was en route Sydney from London. She was underway in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean, some 50 miles South by West of Bombay on 23 June when she struck one of the Wolf’s mines and sank. A number of lives were lost, most presumably due to the initial explosion and included 16 Parsee crew members, six British crew, one Parsee and two English passengers. An Australian passenger, Mr. Frederick Earle Winchcombe of Sydney, and a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, later died from heart failure in hospital due to exhaustion and having overtaxed his strength from pulling “…an oar in one of the boats that left the sinking ship.” His death brought the toll to 26.

RMS Mongolia
[RMS Mongolia]
Detail from Postcard. Author’s Collection.

Off the coast of New Zealand, on the squally winter’s night of the 25th June 1917, in sight of the North Cape, Captain Nerger ordered his vessel to proceed on a zig-zag course on a line between positions 34° 06’ South 172° 40’ East, and 34° 19 1/2’ South 172° 48’ East.

The mines, which had been stored in the gutted compartments of the former merchantman, were brought up on deck where they were armed. They were then wheeled along a specially built railway track laid upon the deck and lead over the stern of the vessel to be dropped into the sea. The mines, together with their carriage, which was to also act as a mooring anchor, then sank to the bottom before the mine was released. Tethered by a wire, the mine would then ascend before reaching a pre-set depth at a level sufficiently deep enough to be hidden from sight on the surface but just deep enough to allow the weapon to come into contact with the hull of a deep-draught vessel – such as a loaded steamer.

These mines were of the Hertz horn variety, being cylindrical in shape and having five “horns” protruding from the top. Upon impacting the horns, acid which was held within would be released leading to the detonation of TNT explosive that was contained in the bottom of the mine and which also acted as ballast.

A total of twenty-five mines were laid by the Wolf on that winter’s night – in five lines of four mines and a sixth line with five mines, each with an interval of 600 metres and a set depth of seven metres. It was the first ever such activity against shipping in Australasian waters and, as it later proved to be, the first enemy activity to claim the lives of Australian and New Zealand citizens in their own backyard.

North Cape, New Zealand showing location of minefields laid by the German raider Wolf on the night of 25 June 1917.
Extract from Admiralty Chart New Zealand North Island Sheet 1. Author’s Collection.
Closer view of North Cape, New Zealand showing location of minefields laid by the German raider Wolf on the night of 25 June 1917.
Extract from Admiralty Chart New Zealand North Island Sheet 1. Author’s Collection.

Whether by chance or intelligence, the Wolf was fortunate to remain clear of enemy warships. The nearest vessel of any capability was the Japanese Second Class Cruiser, HIJMS Hirado, which had just paid a visit to several New Zealand ports. She departed Auckland on 14th June and passing via North Cape sailed for Sydney where she arrived on the 20th.

The Japanese Cruiser HIJMS Hirado in Sydney Harbour.
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

The Hirado was certainly a warship for which Nerger would have been glad to avoid. At some 5040 tons the six-year old warship was armed with six 6-inch, 50 calibre guns, eight 12 pounders plus two18-inch torpedo tubes. Also, her designed horsepower was 22,500, which effectively translated to a rate of 26 knots. In any event the Hirado was logistically superior to the Wolf.

At that time the only New Zealand Government warship in home waters was the 25-year-old Protected-Class cruiser HMS Philomel. She had returned to New Zealand in April from escort and other duties in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South Pacific and was subsequently placed into service as a Depot Ship in Wellington.

HMS PHILOMEL berthing at Ferry Wharf, Wellington, 1917.
Source: http://www.navymuseum.mil.nz/history/time/ww1/hms-philomel.htm

Roy Alexander, the Wairuna‘s wireless operator, was a prisoner aboard the Wolf at the time of her NZ mine-laying activities. Some 22 years later Alexander wrote and published an account of his experiences in the book The Cruise of the Raider Wolf. The night of 25 June 1917, off North Cape was described as follows:

It was typical Tasman Sea winter weather on June 25th – squally rainstorms and a choppy sea – as the raider eased along at half speed off the North Cape, the northern tip of New Zealand. The ship, well out of sight of land, was waiting for nightfall before slipping in to the coast to lay her first minefield in these waters. … This was the first time that an enemy warship had ever entered New Zealand waters: furthermore, the minefield to be laid that night was not only the first hostile act to occur in New Zealand territorial waters; where the mines were laid was the most distant spot from England that any enemy action was ever taken against British possession – other than local tribal wars. … The ship was too far out to be sighted from the Cape lighthouse. All day as she cruised slowly about, the mines section of the crew was busy getting ready for the night’s work. We could hear them fixing sets of rails along the deck overhead. These rails led from the hatch of the mine compartment to two doors cut in the stern of the ship over the propellor – the doors being opened to allow the mines to pass out over the stern when the time came for them to go overboard. … In the mine-chamber itself we could see the mines officer and his men regulating and adjusting the mooring cables of the mines. …
This same day off the North Cape the news had come through by wireless that the Mongolia had struck one of the Wolf’s mines off Bombay two days earlier. The least imaginative among us thought of the death and destruction that these same mines, and others like them, were then causing and would cause in the near future. The Wolf was now bringing to the Pacific these black seeds of death…
After night fell she continued her patrol off the North Cape. There was not a light showing on her decks, and she kept well out to sea for hours before Nerger considered it safe to slip in to the coast. It was ideal weather for the minelayer’s business; in the cold, thick weather and the frequent rain-squalls it would have been impossible for a passing vessel to have sighted the darkened raider, even at a distance of a few hundred yards. The ship eventually slipped in about ten o’clock. From our quarters in the hold we then heard the stern mine-doors opened and extra lengths of rails connected – this last so that the mines would run out well clear of the ship’s stern before dropping into the sea.
Then the mines one by one were taken up in a small elevator from the hold, trundled along the deck over our heads and dropped over the stern. It was a ticklish business getting them safely overboard. If one of the horns was damaged or broken as the mine struck the surface at the ship’s stern it would mean the end of the Wolf. One of her magazines was right over the stern, and the explosion of that magazine would, in turn, touch of the remaining couple of hundred mines.
The ship was now steaming at full speed, the mines being dropped overboard in groups of four or five. The minelayer would then steam on for some distance before dropping her next cluster. We gauged that all the mines were laid between the North Cape, Cape Maria van Dieman, and the Three Kings. This last is the group of rocks lying to the nor’-west of the two capes and known to most people who have crossed the Tasman Sea.
It took hours for the allotted number of mines (about 25) to be laid. The ship was manoeuvring about till nearly 3 a.m., and obviously scattering the mines over a wide area.

Rees, the 2nd Officer of the Wairuna, recorded information about the number and approximate position of the mines laid by the Wolf. Late in the voyage of the Wolf, Rees was transferred to the captured Spanish collier Igotz Mendi that went aground on the coast of Denmark. Rees was landed and eventually returned to England where he provided the naval authorities with the details he had so carefully recorded. He was later awarded an O.B.E. for his efforts.

On the very evening that the Wolf was off North Cape, the Wimmera was alongside in Dunedin, prior to her return voyage up the NZ East coast to Auckland and then back to Sydney via the North Cape route.

After laying the minefield off North Cape, the Wolf steamed south along the west coast of the North Island and into the waters of Cook Strait off Cape Farewell. On 27th June 1917, within sight of snow-capped Mt. Egmont, the crew of the Wolf again deployed a second field of some 35 mines. Again Roy Alexander described the Wolf‘s activities:

The course of the ship was changed frequently after Cape Egmont – we could tell that by the movements of the machinery controlling the rudder – and we became somewhat uncertain of the position of the ship, although she appeared to be making for Cook Strait.
This strait separates the two main islands of New Zealand, and is a busy and important channel. The shipping routes to and from Australia converge into the Strait, in addition to which there is much local traffic. At that time, too, there was often a troopship convoy coming from Wellington outward bound to England. Nerger was choosing a likely quarter for a profitable minefield in making this Strait. ..
Again the minelaying commenced about ten o’clock, and the mines began to be moved along the deck and over the stern. The fields being laid seemed to be more complicated – the ship was changing course and swerving about for four solid hours. It was after 2 a.m. when the last mine went over ; about 45 mines in all being laid. …

In his book, Roy Alexander also provided a description of the mines:

…they were large, metal globes each bigger than the average barrel, and each (as already mentioned) rested in a container like an egg in an egg-cup. A long coil of wire cable held each globe to its container; and this cable could be adjusted so as to reel out to any desired length. There were small wheels on the bottom of the container, so that the whole arrangement could be wheeled along rails and pushed over the stern.

When the arrangement sank the heavy metal container would act as an anchor, and the cable would unwind till the mine floated at the required depth below the surface of the sea. This depth was usually fixed at about fifteen feet, so that only fairly large vessels of deep draught would strike the mine. Smaller ships were not considered worth wasting a mine and making likely the discovery of the minefield. From various causes the wire cable would often break: then the mine would float to the surface and drift with the currents. These drifting mines were, naturally, as dangerous to shipping as anchored ones.

Mine and anchor together weighed about half a ton, and mine itself contained about 350 lb. of T.N.T., or other high explosive. (British mines were usually smaller.) Sufficient air-space was left in the mine to give it buoyancy and the top of each mine was studded with a number of leaden horns, or raised studs, about six inches long. When these were broken (a firm blow was sufficient for this) a liquid chemical was released; this would start a battery, which in turn would detonate the hundreds of pounds of explosive.

The next, and as it happened, final, location to be mined was off the Eastern Australian coast. Gabo Island was a prominent landmark, distinguished by its lighthouse that provided shipping along the east coast plying between Sydney and Melbourne or Hobart, with a warning of that coastal stretch.

The German captain must have been fully aware of the significance of that coastal trade route for he proceeded to lay two separate fields in the vicinity. Two lines of 30 mines were laid at a depth of about seven metres. Whilst was engaged in this operation another vessel was sighted. Mistaken for the Challenger-class warship the HMAS Encounter, which was then at Melbourne, the Wolf’s activities were quickly discontinued and the ship placed on a course back out into the Tasman Sea. Nerger decided not return to the coast but possibly erring on the side of caution and to avoid risking detection proceeded north towards New Guinea.

After leaving Australian waters the Wolf resumed to both capture and sink further shipping through direct action, and to lay further minefields in the Asian region. Nerger and his crew successfully managed to avoid detection and triumphantly returned to Kiel, having again slipped through the British blockade. Her return on Sunday 24 February 1918 was heralded in the German press and through an official German statement announcing her return home. This was subsequently published in The Times in London and telegraphed to Australia and New Zealand – the word was now out and an explanation to the loss of a number of vessels now revealed:


The following official report has been sent from Berlin through the wireless stations of the German Government:-
H.M.S. auxiliary cruiser Wolf, during the execution of the tasks allotted to her, has destroyed at least 35 enemy mercantile vessels or vessels plying on behalf of the enemy and having an aggregate of at least 210,000 gross registered tons, or has so badly damaged them that their further use is out of the question for a long time to come.
These consist chiefly of large valuable English steamers, the equivalent replacement of which is not possible for a considerable time. Several of these ships were loaded with English troop transports and their sinking has therefore caused a corresponding loss of human lives.
Further, the warlike measures of the auxiliary cruiser resulted in the sinking of the Japanese ship of the line Haruna, 28,000 tons displacement, and either an English or Japanese cruiser, the name of which could not be ascertained, was badly damaged…”

The Times, Thursday, February 28, 1918

SMS Wolf sailor. Postcard. Author's Collection.
A crew member of the SMS Wolf.
Shown here wearing the Oldenburg Friedrich-August Cross 2nd Class and the World War One Imperial German Ribbon Bar – featuring the ribbon for the WW1 Iron Cross and the Oldenburg Cross.
Postcard View. Author’s Collection.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021

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