Karl Nerger turned a homely freighter into the most audacious commerce raider of World War I. Yet his prisoners considered him a fine gentleman.
The black freighter lumbering through the fog and roiling waves of the North Sea off Scotland in the first week of December 1916 was indistinguishable from hundreds of other British steamships plying their trade as World War I dragged toward its third year. Only on close inspection would its unusual features have been discernible: The steamer flew the Union Jack, yet no name was emblazoned on its bow; its cargo holds were clearly carrying a massive amount of freight, for its load-line was several feet under water and it labored through the waves like a blunt plow. This curious freighter was in fact a German commerce raider, the Wolf, and it was embarking on the most improbable naval voyage of the Great War. At 5,809 tons, the steamer carried a crew of nearly 350 men, a hidden arsenal of guns, torpedoes, and mines, and enough coal to stay at sea for six months. The captain, Karl August Nerger, had orders to disrupt freight and supplies shipped from Britain’s most distant colonies, at a time when a British naval blockade had effectively confined Kaiser Wilhelm II’s High Seas Fleet to port.
The odds against Nerger and his crew returning from this voyage were reflected in the memo that proposed their mission: “It is absolutely essential that the leader of the enterprise is not only efficient, but is also lucky.”
The Wolf‘s assignment was born of desperation: By early 1916, key German commanders had surmised that the land war in Europe was hopelessly dead locked and the only way to defeat the British was to cut off their ocean supply lines and starve them into submission. Germany’s principal weapon in this “trade war” would be the U-boat, but the Imperial German Navy also dispatched a handful of commerce-raiding surface ships to lay minefields and destroy Allied freighters in zones far from Britain. These raiders were refitted freighters, lone bandits that operated outside the chain of command, and their survival rate was so low that German sailors referred to them as “suicide ships:’ In the 28 months of the war, only one had returned to port–the Mowe, which had sunk 17 ships in the Atlantic over two months in early 1916.
The Wolf was the most elaborate of these raiders, its mission the most ambitious. The ship’s captain was in many ways a black sheep of the German navy, for despite a reputation for bravery forged in the 1914 Battle of Heligoland Bight, Karl Nerger had fallen from grace early in his career by courting the 16-year-old daughter of a lowly dock worker–an unpardonable sin in the rigidly hierarchical navy, which refused Nerger permission to marry her. His crew was a ragtag bunch of merchant seamen, many of them recruited from the drunken dregs of the naval reserve. His orders were to lay mines off Colombo (in Ceylon), Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, and Cape Town, and then pursue “war on commerce…until all resources are exhausted:’
Nerger was to maintain absolute radio silence, and he was to comply with the rules of commerce war, which stipulated that the crew and passengers from enemy freighters be taken as prisoners. These extra mouths to feed would further strain his supplies. To fulfill his mission he would also have to steal coal and food from intercepted ships. His superiors were startled when he boasted that he planned to remain at sea for a year.
Nerger chose as his ship the merchant steamer Wachtfels and personally supervised every aspect of its transformation in the Wilhelmshaven dockyards. A little more than 400 feet long, Wachtfels had a top speed of 11 knots, less than half that of a battle cruiser, but Nerger could easily convert its cargo holds into crew quarters and coal bunkers for a long voyage. Sections of the ship’s deck-walls were cut away with blowtorches and reattached as drop-down doors to conceal the six 5.9-inch guns and four torpedo tubes mounted on the fore and aft decks. A seventh gun was mounted in the middle of the poop deck and camouflaged with a canvas cover. Mines could be dropped overboard through a hatch door cut into the deck-wall under the poop. Telescopic masts and a detachable outer shell around the funnel would allow Nerger to alter the ship’s silhouette at sea. Below decks, the forward cargo holds were refitted with stays for the crew’s hammocks; the rear cargo holds were modified to house hundreds of prisoners and store 465 mines.
A fully equipped surgery and hospital were installed behind the bridge, and the wireless room was equipped with the most powerful Telefunken receivers available; code breakers would monitor enemy transmissions throughout the voyage.
Nerger’s most radical innovation came last: Just a few weeks before the ship’s departure, a biplane fitted with floats landed nearby and was hauled aboard, dismantled, and stored in the hold. The plane, dubbed the Wolfchen, was a Friedrichshafen FF.33e, the latest model of Germany’s most reliable two-seater seaplane, with a 150-horsepower engine that could take it to 3,000 feet and keep it airborne for more than five hours. This reconnaissance aircraft would be Nerger’s long-distance vision, monitoring the seas for hazards and opportunities.
Nerger’s reputation as a lucky captain held true from the outset of the voyage. After months of drilling and gunnery practice, the Wolf coaled up at Kiel and set sail on the last day of November as a heavy fog settled over the North Sea, allowing the ship to slip through the British blockade and into the icy waters of the Denmark Strait. The mission began in earnest six weeks later, at the entrance to the Cape Town harbor in South Africa, where Nerger laid his first minefield under cover of darkness. By late February he was nearly 5,000 miles north, laying mines in the Indian Ocean approaches to Colombo and Bombay. In these first weeks, the Wolfs handiwork sank or crippled five ships, including the 10,500-ton troop transport Tyndareus.
Nerger captured his first prize on February 27, 1917, when he encountered the British oil tanker Turritella south of India, not far from the Maldive Islands, bringing it to a stop with a shot across the bow.
But he made a rare tactical error when he decided to refit the Turritella as a minelayer, transferring a small contingent of his men to the tanker to command the Chinese crew and sail north west to Aden, at the southern tip of Yemen. Barely a week later a British gunboat intercepted the Turritella near Aden, and the rescued Chinese crewmen gave the British a full description of the Wolf, confirming that a German raider was at large. Nerger–whose radio operators picked up the alerts from Aden-fled south toward the west coast of Australia. From that point, he would weigh every decision with ruthless exactitude.
The British government enjoyed blanket censorship of the press during World War I, and the Admiralty was loath to release news that a new German commerce raider was on the loose. Britain at that time was reeling from the onslaught of U-boat attacks on its freighters in the North Sea, and could ill afford to have warships diverted. Reports of the Wolfs work off India, Ceylon, and South Africa were either suppressed or attributed to “internal explosions”–sabotage by German agents.
So Captain Stan Cameron, an independent American merchant mariner, was largely oblivious to the danger at hand when he sailed his three-masted whaler Beluga out of San Francisco with a load of engine fuel. Accompanying Cameron was a crew of 10 as well as two unusual passengers-his 27-year-old wife, Mary, and their six-year-old daughter, Juanita. Mary, who was Australian-born, was making the trip across the Pacific to see her parents for the first time in 10 years. It was a reunion she would miss, however; at 2 o’clock on a July afternoon, the black shape of the Wolf appeared on the horizon near New Caledonia, well east of Australia.
Hinged iron sections of the steamer’s bulwarks suddenly crashed down as the barrels of two guns swung out over the waves. A warning shot was fired across Beluga’s bow. Cameron and his family were about to become prisoners of war.
In the four months since fleeing the Indian Ocean, Karl Nerger had taken his crew on a grueling voyage across the frigid Southern Ocean below Australia and into the Pacific. He had laid mines off the southeast tip of Australia and in the entrances to the New Zealand ports of Wellington and Auckland. He had also captured and sunk six freighters. Brought aboard the Wolf, the Camerons were startled to find another 150 prisoners and more than 300 German sailors who had been at sea for eight months. They were even more bewildered when a mess officer presented their daughter with a slice of cake, and the impeccably dressed Karl Nerger appeared and apologized-in English-for their detainment. The captain directed the Camerons to an officer’s cabin and appointed one of his crew as their orderly.
Like many of the Wolfs prisoners, Stan Cameron would in time develop a high regard for Nerger. The two spent hours discussing the war in the captain’s cabin, and the American came to see his captor as a stoic loner but also as “a thorough gentle man…apparently anxious to do anything he could to make our lot bearable:’ Cameron’s daughter, meanwhile, became die impish mascot of the crew and a regular companion for Nerger, who gave her the affectionate nickname Wolfsplague.
Even the prisoners who were kept below deck-in a gloomy cargo hold they dubbed the Hell Hole–came to view the Germans with grudging respect. As merchant seamen, they admired the ingenuity of this crew of misfits, who patched up the Wolfchen’s wooden frame with sections of tea chests and repaired engine boilers using hot rivets fashioned from deck railing. And the Germans seemed generous captors: Nerger fed his prisoners the same rations as his men and let them exercise every day on the poop deck.
By late July 1917 the elusive Wolf had sunk or crippled 19 ships off South Africa, India, and Australia, prompting Britain to suspend troop transports from Australia and redeploy warships to its major Indian Ocean ports. Australia and New Zealand had panicked following false press reports of German “bomb planters” on the docks. The Australian government offered grand rewards to anyone who could unmaskt those responsible, even as Britain arranged for two Japanese warships to be dispatched to the Pacific to hunt down the Wolf.
Aboard the raider, Nerger’s most pressing problem was feeding his swelling numbers of POWs, but in early August his good fortune prevailed again; west of the Solomon Islands he intercepted the Australian freighter Matunga. The Wolfchen seaplane swooped low over the freighter’s masts, a warning shot was fired, and the Matunga was Nerger’s. It was carrying not only 500 tons of high-grade coal but also a load of food and liquor for the Australian Army garrison in New Guinea. After taking on those supplies and yet more prisoners, Nerger sank the Matunga and carried on with his mission, 110 mines still in his hold.
Nerger now made his boldest move, entering the heavily trafficked Java Sea and passing between the islands of the Dutch East Indies in broad daylight while flying a succession of false flags. His destination was Singapore, headquarters of the British Admiralty’s China Station, where in the middle of the night he laid his last mines in the northern approaches to the harbor. The venture nearly ended in catastrophe when the Wolf encountered the Australian light cruiser Psyche (one of three dispatched to hunt down the raider) late one night, but the Psyche slipped past and Nerger made his escape into the Indian Ocean.
His greatest challenge lay ahead of him: getting his weary crew and his battered, overcrowded ship back to Germany.
Congestion aboard the ship worsened when the Wolf captured the Japanese passenger freighter Hitachi Maru south of Ceylon just a few weeks later. The ship’s 150 crew and passengers the latter mainly Far Eastern colonialists heading home to London from Yokohama–pushed the number of prisoners to more than 300, including 13 women and several children. Nerger appointed one of his senior officers, Lieutenant Karl Rose, to take command of the Hitachi Maru and transferred all the married couples, children, and elderly prisoners. The Japanese ship carried valuable silk, copper ingots, rubber, and tinned food, and Nerger was determined to sail both ships back to Germany.
However, in early November, with his fuel perilously low, he was forced to sink the Hitachi Maru near Madagascar after moving its prisoners and coal to the Wolf. Conditions on the Wolf were now intolerable. Canvas sheets and cabin fittings from the Hitachi Maru were rigged up on the exterior decks for married couples and elderly passengers, while another cargo hold was refitted for prisoners. Hammocks in the Hell Hole were strung three deep, and in the close quarters fistfights broke out between the Japanese and British prisoners.
The presence of women added tension to an already fractious atmosphere. The upper-deck prisoners were scandalized by the fraternizing between the German lieutenant Rose and Rose Flood, the 33-year-old wife of an Australian Army officer–Mary Cameron later avowed that Mrs. Flood was “a beast of the lowest”–and two German crewmen got in a knife fight on the deck one night as they vied for the affections of the stewardess from the Matunga.
Worse, the lack of fresh food was taking its toll, and crewmen reported loosened teeth and exhaustion–telltale signs of scurvy. But Nerger’s good fortune again brought him relief when a steamship appeared on the night of November 10 near Madagascar. It was a Spanish freighter, the Igotz Mendi, carrying more than 5,000 tons of coal. Seizing the ship gave him enough fuel to get home–and much-needed room. Nerger transferred 27 prisoners to the coal tanker, along with Lieutenant Rose and a contingent of men to command the ship.
After more than a year at sea, the Wolf was now the only German warship at large outside the British blockade of Germany. The warships of the High Seas Fleet left port only sporadically for sorties in the North Sea. The last surface raider dispatched from Kiel–the motorized sailing ship Seeadler, under the command of Count Felix von Luckner–had been captured in the Pacific two months earlier. The British, moreover, were closing in on the Wolf. “There only remains one small German mer chant boat converted into an armed raider;’ the British politician George N. Curzon, Earl of Kedleston, triumphantly told the House of Lords. And the Wolf had been spotted periodically. In November a French navy cruiser confirmed that villagers had seen the Wolf near the Maldive Islands, and a Japanese cruiser dispatched from Cape Town had nearly crossed paths with the raider off Madagascar.
The mood on the ship turned somber: Like their prisoners, many of Nerger’s men dreaded the prospect of passing through the North Sea and the gantlet of British ships and minefields. Germany’s U-boats were also now attacking any freighters they encountered, making an unmarked ship like the Wolf a sitting duck. The captured crew of a Norwegian ship had told the Germans they had no chance of surviving the passage.
Nerger was forced to put down an incipient mutiny when a coaling crew refused to work and demanded that he sail the ship to a neutral port. One of the mutineers even drove a knife through his own hand and pinned it to a mess table.
“I don’t believe there were five men in all the crew of the Wolf, officers included, who ever expected the Wolf to win safely back to Germany;’ Stan Cameron later said. Privately, Nerger shared the same doubts. “There is only a small chance of getting through without being seen;’ he wrote in his captain’s log one evening, “and encountering even a fishing vessel equipped with wireless would be extremely critical for the Wolf.
The German captain, however, was hell-bent on returning home. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope in early December, the Wolf and the Igotz Mendi set course north on an arduous seven-week voyage from the balmy southern summer to the freezing northern winter. A vicious storm in the North Atlantic nearly capsized the Igotz Mendi in late January, and the two ships became separated a week later in a blinding snowstorm off Iceland. They entered the blockade zone north of Scotland several days apart, unwilling to establish radio contact lest they be detected.
Karl Nerger was still to benefit from one final piece of luck: In December the Royal Navy had quietly dismantled its blockade in order to deploy all available ships as freighter escorts. The Wolf was thus unmolested as it followed the western coastline of Norway south and entered the Baltic Sea–as it had left it–masquerading as one of the many freighters negotiating the northern European shipping channels.
When the raider dropped anchor off Kiel on February 18, local German navy commanders at first refused to believe it was the Wolf. That very day the navy had dispatched letters informing family of the crew that Nerger’s ship was likely lost with all hands. But then the celebrations began, and for the next few months Nerger became the most feted war hero in Germany. In Berlin, cheering crowds choked the streets as Nerger and his men marched through the arch of the Brandenburg Gate and were escorted by a phalanx of helmeted soldiers past the Imperial Palace, where the empress and her grandchildren waved from a balcony.
“Home oh home;’ Nerger wrote in his diary. “We are home:’ The German commander aboard the Igotz Mendi, Lieutenant Karl Rose, enjoyed a less heroic finale: Only a day’s sail from Germany, he ran the Spanish coal tanker aground in dense fog off Denmark. Danish surf-rescue boats retrieved the Camerons and other prisoners from the ship and delivered Rose and his men to the police, who sent them to an internment camp.
In 15 months the Wolf had traveled an incredible 64,000 miles without putting into port. It had destroyed or disabled 30 Allied freighters and evaded the combined Allied navies across three major oceans. Yet Nerger had observed the rules of warfare so assiduously that fatalities were remarkably low. His mines killed just over 200 people, and of the roughly 500 prisoners he captured, only five died during the voyage–two from illness; two who drowned while attempting to escape; and one, the captain of the Hitachi Maru, who committed suicide. Nerger fired his guns in combat only once, to engage a gun crew aboard the Hitachi Maru, and in his account of the mission he expressed regret about the 13 people killed in that encounter.
Britain’s official histories of World War I dismissed Nerger’s achievement, accusing him of playing it safe and capturing easy prizes. It was not until the 1940s that the Royal Navy, in a confidential briefing paper, acknowledged that Germany’s surface raiders had significantly disrupted the Allied war effort.
Nerger’s prisoners had little doubt about his extraordinary accomplishment. After returning to California with his family, Stan Cameron published a book about his family’s ordeal. Although he criticized Nerger for endangering the lives of women and children, he honored the captain as “a gentleman and an officer” who had treated them with “the utmost consideration:’ Another prisoner, the Australian merchant seaman Roy Alexander, also wrote a book about his imprisonment but focused on the German captain’s courage, skill, and humanity. “Karl August Nerger;’ said Alexander, “is one of the greatest seamen this world has known:’
RICHARD GUJLLIATT and PETER HOHNEN are the authors of The Wolf How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of World War I (Free Press, 2010).
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue (Vol. 25, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Deadly Decorum
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