World One War: Africas German Predator

SMS Knigsberg at Dar es Salaam 1914-1915
SMS Knigsberg at Dar es Salaam 1914-1915
Left elevation and plan as depicted in 'Jane's Fighting Ships' dated 1914
Left elevation and plan as depicted in 'Jane's Fighting Ships' dated 1914
Max Looff, Captain of the Konigsberg
Max Looff, Captain of the Konigsberg
HMS Pegasus a Pelorus Class protected cruiser was the first victim of the Konigsberg
HMS Pegasus a Pelorus Class protected cruiser was the first victim of the Konigsberg
Blockship HMS Newbridge in1914
Blockship HMS Newbridge in1914
HMS Severn (monitor) taken on 3 July 1917 which ran the gauntlet of the Knigsbergs' Guns
HMS Severn (monitor) taken on 3 July 1917 which ran the gauntlet of the Knigsbergs' Guns
Battle damage to the SMS Knigsberg
Battle damage to the SMS Knigsberg
Wreck of SMS Knigsberg
Wreck of SMS Knigsberg
SMS Knigsberg sinking into the Rufiji river bottom
SMS Knigsberg sinking into the Rufiji river bottom

Defiant to the Last!

The SMS Konigsberg was the most feared German hunter in African waters at the start of World War One and has become a forgotten heroine of the German Navy.

Originally commissioned in 1906, she was one of Germany’s most modern ships of the period.

In 1914, under the command of Commander Max Looff, the SMS Konigsberg arrived in German East Africa.  Considered in some circles, native and colonial, to be the largest warship in African Waters, she stunned all who saw her.  The most impressive features were her three funnels or smoke stacks.  The Africans, who considered funnels with naval power, gave the ship the nickname ‘Manowari na bomba tatu’ which translates as ‘the man of war with three pipes’

During the growing international tensions immediately prior to World War One, three British cruisers of the Cape Squadron arrived at Dar es Salaam with the intention of blockading the German ship in the harbour.  Knowing war was imminent, Commander Looff set sail on the 1st of August 1914 with the British ships in pursuit…

Deceiving the British ships, when World War One was finally declared, the Konigsberg was in the distant Indian Ocean.  Knowing that his high speed run had emptied his coal bunkers, Looff knew he either had to rendezvous with Colliers in the Ocean or take it from ships at sea.

Embarking on a career as a commerce raider, the Konigsberg intercepted a neutral Japanese liner, stopped the German steamers Ziethen and Hansa from heading to the British controlled Suez Canal and chased the German freighter Goldenfels which mistook the Konigsberg for a British Cruiser.  The Konigsberg finally grasped the City of Winchester, a British ship, off the coast of Oman in order to replenish her coal stores.  Ingeniously, the German collier Somali rendezvoused with the Konigsberg and organised positioning itself at pre-determined points around the Indian Ocean in order to supply the German raider.

Knowing that fuel supplies ran dry quickly, Looff organised with the captain of the Somali to meet at the Rufiji River for future supplying.  In early September 1914, the Konigsberg passed the mouth of the Rufiji River and made her way up river to the settlement of Salele.

Action against the British came on the 19th September 1914, Looff, learning that a 2-funnel warship had entered the harbour of Zanzibar, he knew it was either the Astraea or the Pegasus.  Having been fully provisioned, Konigsberg attacked!

At dawn of the 20th, Konigsberg fired salvos for 20 minutes into the stationary Pegasus.  The British cruiser rapidly, capsized, sank and settled at the bottom of Zanzibar Harbour.

Feeling the predatory instincts and sensing the confusion and fear of the allies, Looff chose the shipping lanes off South Africa for Konigsberg next treasure.  Looff also hoped to ‘acquire’ enough coal in order to make the long journey across the Atlantic to reach Germany.

Despite the Germans intentions, the long cruises coupled with the lack of maintenance all took a severe toll on the ship. Having severe boiler trouble and docked at Salele, an avenging British Squadron was gaining on the Konigsberg….

The British Squadron tracked down leads which led them to the Konigsberg’s location.  The German East African line ship Prasident, which was rumoured to be supplying both the Somali and Konigsberg, was intercepted at Lindi.  Despite being converted to a hospital ship and against protestations, a British search party boarded the Prasident uncovered suspicious cargo and documentation which clarified the delivery of supplies to the Rufiji Delta.

The Konigsberg was finally discovered by the Royal Navy Cruiser HMS Chatham at the end of October 1914

Knowing the Konigsberg was trapped; the British Navy attempted to attack the German ship, but failed.  Destroying only the Somali, the Konigsberg moved further up river out of range.

Losing time, the British now deployed a mixture of methods by which to render the Konigsberg useless or sunk.  Firstly, an attempt was beaten of by German forces to slip a shallow-draft torpedo boat within range.  Secondly a block ship, the Newbridge, was sunk in the Delta to prevent the Konigsberg from using the channel.  Despite this, it was realised that the German cruiser could easily slip the cordon and use another channel.  Further to this, attempts were made by the old Battleship Goliath to sink the cruiser; despite this the shallow waters prevented the Goliath from getting within range.

Whilst the British were trying to ‘resign’ the employment of the German Cruiser, conditions were deteriorating aboard the German Cruiser.  Shortages of food, coal, ammunition and above all medical supplies, placed the crew at the edge of sanity.  The dwindling medical supplies meant that the crew suffered from Malaria.

The only hope came in the form of a plan to re-supply the ship.  The captured British merchantman Rubens was renamed Kronborg, given a Danish flag, papers and a crew of German sailors who could speak Danish and ordered to break out of the blockade.  Packed with food, fuel, guns, ammunition and fresh water, the Kronborg infiltrated East African waters and was hunted down by HMS Hyacinth.

The final chapter of the Konigsberg came in the spring of 1915.  The equipment necessary for a workable attack was put together by the British.  This new attack plan came in the guise of two shallow draft monitors, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn.  Running the gauntlet of German fire, aided by a bombardment by the rest of the fleet and supported by a squadron of four planes, they engaged in a duel with the German Cruiser.

Despite the Mersey being hit and being unable to directly hit on the first attempt, both returned on the 11th of July.  Both ships guns knocked out Konigsberg’s heavy guns and by 13:30 the German Cruiser was down to two guns, each with two rounds.  With serious damage evident and spreading fires, Looff who was wounded ordered the magazines flooded.  In their final act of defiance, two torpedo heads were rigged with fuses to blow the ships belly.  The charges exploded, the British still fired and the German crew cheered for the ship, the Kaiser and the Fatherland.  The ship finally sank into the river after 2pm, her colours still flying.

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lions44 profile image

lions44 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

Great article. So much of the fighting in Africa during WWI is forgotten. But it's so interesting. Love the pics. Very detailed story. Keep up the good work.

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