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The Fortunes Of War

Extraordinary ingenuity and daring were shown by Count von Luckner, who converted the steel square-rigged “Pass of Balmaha” into an armed decoy vessel and sailed her half-way round the world during the war of 1914-18. His remarkable venture came to a surprising end


HMS Victorian

AN ARMED LINER, HMS Victorian was 2 unit in a blockading squadron off the north of Scotland during the war of 1914-18. On July 21, 1915, she stopped the American sailing ship Pass of Balmaha, and put an armed guard aboard. Built at Belfast for the Allan Line in 1904, the Victorian was sold to the Canadian Pacific in 1922 and renamed the Marloch. She was broken up six years later. She was a vessel of 10,687 tons gross and was 520 feet long, with a beam of 60 ft 5 in.

FEW stories of the sea and ships have a more sustained interest than that of the square-rigged, steel-built Pass of Balmaha.

This fine sailing vessel of 1,571 tons was built on the Clyde in 1888. She and her sisters represented one of the last efforts to compete with the all-conquering steamship. For years she made her ocean voyages under the Red Ensign, until the day came when she was sold and flew the Stars and Stripes.

During the war of 1914-18 there was a great demand for neutral shipping to carry goods needed in Europe by the belligerents, and until 1917 the United States was a neutral country. To prevent essential commodities from reaching the enemy, the British blockade off the north of Scotland was more strongly enforced. Doubtful ships were stopped and armed guards were put aboard.

The British blockading squadron was made up of armed liners and other commissioned merchant steamers. A good deal of preserved food, however, and such items as cotton were unquestionably getting past and, as a further precaution, a thorough examination of neutral ships was made. As this could not be done in the open sea, the guards would bring suspect ships into Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, or Lerwick, in the Shetlands, where experts carried out a detailed inspection.

On June 23,1915, the Pass of Balmaha left New York with a crew of twenty and a cargo of cotton bound for Archangel, in Russia. She crossed the Atlantic without any trouble, and on July 21 she approached the blockade zone 300 miles north-west of Cape Wrath. Here she was stopped by HMS Victorian, one of the blockading vessels. HMS Victorian sent off an armed guard, consisting of a Royal Naval Reserve officer, one petty officer and four men, with instructions to bring the Pass of Balmaha into Lerwick or Kirkwall according to the direction of the wind.

On July 19 the submarine U 36 started from Heligoland, bound through the North Sea for a cruise of several weeks. Three days later she began to make successful attacks off the north of Scotland. During the period July 22-24 she sank nine British fishing trawlers and three merchant steamers, one French, one Russian and one Norwegian.

U 36, in command of Lieutenant-Commander Graeff, with a crew of more than thirty men, soon crossed the path of the Pass of Balmaha. On the evening of July 23 the Americans and British aboard the Pass of Balmaha saw a ship torpedoed by U 36. The following morning at 6 am they saw U 36 sink another steamer and a British trawler.

HMS Glasgow patrolled the South Atlantic waters during the war of 1914-18

A LIGHT CRUISER with a displacement of 4,800 tons, HMS Glasgow patrolled the South Atlantic waters during the war of 1914-18. She was coaling at Rio de Janeiro in February 1917, when Count von Luckner landed there from the captured British barque Pinmore. He was undetected and later warned the German raider Moewe that the Glasgow was leaving Rio to seek her. Built in 1910, the Glasgow had a speed of about 25 knots She took part in the Battle of the Falkland Islands (December 8, 1914).

The Pass of Balmaha was in a dangerous position. If the Germans were so eager to clear the sea that the rights of neutrals were not to be respected, then this American vessel would stand a poor chance. The British officer decided to take instant action. He burned his secret orders, told his men to change out of uniform, borrow clothing from the Americans, and stow themselves in the forepeak till the crisis passed.

Graeff, however, did not sink the Pass of Balmaha that was flying the Stars and Stripes. Coming alongside about 7 am, he put on board Petty-Officer Lamm with orders to take the vessel into Cuxhaven.

Germany would be glad of this cargo of cotton for the manufacture of munitions. Again the Pass of Balmaha resumed her voyage. The Englishmen reasoned that this would not continue for long. They were confident that another of the blockading units would be sighted, and that Lamm would find himself a prisoner.

Never in any naval war has a blockade been made absolutely strict. In 1915 the two principal lines of blockading steamers were so disposed that Line “C” (consisting of seven to nine ships) patrolled to the north-west of the Hebrides, and Line “A’’ (including HMS Victorian and six other ships) patrolled to the north of Scotland from a position farther east. The plan was to ensure that if an oncoming stranger eluded one line she would be sighted by the second. It happened that the submarine menace required that Line “A” should not operate too far south, so that if Line “C” was' passed, no other line existed south of the Faeroes. Thus, with good fortune and determined enterprise, the ship eluded not only the ocean patrols that extended from the Faeroes to Iceland, but also the local Shetland patrols. Early in August, under the escort of another submarine, the Pass of Balmaha reached Heligoland and later arrived safely at Cuxhaven. The British armed guard were discovered and taken prisoners, and the Pass of Balmaha for the next eighteen months or so took no further part in the war.

First “Trap-Ship” Engagement

U 36 continued her depredations in the blockaded area north of Scotland. On July 24, nearly twelve hours after the Pass of Balmaha had sailed away, Graeff stopped the Danish steamer Louise about ten miles W.N.W. of North Rona Island. At the same time he noticed a little 373-tons collier. Graeff was in the same position as a greedy dog tempted by two pieces of meat. He forsook the Danish vessel and went off at full speed to intercept the collier, which was distant some three miles.

The collier was the Prince Charles, and on sighting U 36 she hoisted her colours. Graeff started to shell her with the purpose of making her heave-to. The first shot fell 1,000 yards over, but the Prince Charles blew three blasts to indicate that her engines were going astern. As she lay rolling with bows on to the Atlantic swell, the collier’s crew hurriedly swung out the boats. The submarine sped along the surface at 14 knots and fired a second shot. Now, 600 yards away, Graeff turned U 36 broadside on, and began firing in earnest.

Suddenly Graeff was surprised to see the collier’s crew clearing away some tarpaulins on deck. Before the submarine could dive, a number of shells were fired from the collier’s port side. At once the German gun-crew darted into the conning-tower, but a shell from the Prince Charles struck U 36 some twenty feet abaft the conning-tower. The submarine attempted to dive, but was holed too badly. Her crew poured out on to the deck as her stern began to settle down. With a quick plunge U 36 disappeared for the last time. The Prince Charles made every effort at rescue and picked up fifteen officers and men.

The Prince Charles was one of the first decoy ships, and her success had no little influence on the development of Q-ships, as these decoys soon became called. She had only recently been taken up by the Admiralty, and was fitted out in an effort to thwart the U-boats that were making havoc off the Scottish coast.

The Pass of Balmaha. She was built on the Clyde in 1888 and was a vessel of 1,571 tons. She was captured in 1915 by the Germans and fitted out as a decoy sailing ship under the command of Count von Luckner

THE MYSTERY SAILING SHIP that terrorized shipping in the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was originally the full-rigged ship Pass of Balmaha. She was built on the Clyde in 1888 and was a vessel of 1,571 tons. She was captured in 1915 by the Germans and fitted out as a decoy sailing ship under the command of Count von Luckner. After a daring career as the Seeadler, she was unexpectedly driven ashore in 1917 on the island of Mopelia, one of the Society Islands.

An ingenious and profitable idea of this nature is bound to be copied sooner or later by the enemy. During the ensuing months Germany resolved to follow this example with important modifications and on a larger scale. She longed to strike at the British supplies of raw materials and food in transit. Shipping convoys had not yet been inaugurated, and British light cruisers were unable to guard every section of the shipping lanes, so that any raider which could once get clear of the British Isles might for a limited period have considerable success in waylaying the traffic from South America.

The crux of this undertaking was obviously the evasion of the blockade zone. This could best be done during the season of the year when nights were longest, and when rain, fog, drizzle and bad weather were most prevalent. It might necessitate going to high latitudes where every one of these conditions of protracted darkness and bad weather was ensured. Obviously, too, December was the best time to set out.

In December 1915, therefore, the steamship Moewe left Germany, stole up the North Sea, and dodged her way past the patrols. She reached the Atlantic, and there was responsible for the destruction of ship after ship. On March 4, 1916, she was safely back in Wilhelmshaven.

This feat was largely due to the fine leadership of Captain Count Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schlodien. His cousin Count Felix von Luckner had accompanied him in the Moewe. Hearty of manner, an adventurer in the best sense of the word, quite fearless and a born leader, von Luckner was of all people destined to command a Special Service ship. In 1902 he had roughed it as a sailor in a British barque, and his roving nature and keen individuality would be best employed on some particular enterprise rather than,in a regular warship.

Von Luckner was wounded at the battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. When he recovered, weary of the inactivity that the High Seas Fleet compelled him to endure, von Luckner begged to be given command of a raiding vessel, so that he might emulate his cousin’s achievements. Approval was granted, and he went to the port of Hamburg to seek a suitable ship. There he noticed the Pass of Balmaha, and he conceived the daring project of using a sailing ship as a decoy. It was an excellent idea, for a number of once British-owned, but now Scandinavian-owned sailing ships were to be seen by the blockading steamers passing north of Scotland. Such a vessel was the Norwegian four-master Alonso, 1,723 tons, which had formerly been the British-owned Tinto Hall. The essential conditions for the success of von Luckner’s plan were that the ship and crew should look Norwegian and that her papers should carry conviction. The slightest irregularity would rouse the blockading squadron’s suspicions. Thus, long before the Pass of Balmaha could be ready, an immense amount of preparation and scheming had to be done. The ship was fitted with a four-cylinder diesel engine of 1,200 horsepower, though she retained her square rig. Two 4.1-in guns were stored between decks in the hold, and two torpedo-tubes were cleverly concealed. Two machine-guns and a number of carbines, bombs and explosives were put aboard, as well as a hidden wireless plant. A few weeks before sailing, the vessel loaded a large cargo of heavy timber, such as Norwegians often carry, but this was stowed intentionally to block the entrance to the hold, though secret doors were cut for emergencies.

The whole future of this projected expedition depended on the ship being allowed through the blockade area, and as she was to fly the Norwegian flag, it was well that von Luckner had the blond appearance of a Norwegian and that in his earlier days he had spent a year aboard a Norwegian sailing ship.

The problem of the ship’s papers was overcome by using documents that had been captured from a Norwegian ship. From the German Imperial Naval Reserve a crew was hand-picked of ages and description that tallied with the genuine Norwegian list. Before the sailing date, German spies in Norway supplied information as to the movements of Norwegian vessels, and it was decided that the Pass of Balmaha should represent the Irma bound from Norway for Melbourne, Australia.

The ship’s company numbered sixty-four, and the crew were taught to forget naval methods, and to understand commands given in Norwegian. Even the German tabs and buttons on their clothes were removed and replaced by others from Norway. The saloon was made bright with Norwegian cushion-covers; photographs of the Norwegian King and Queen, as well as of King Edward VII, were conspicuously displayed; and a gramophone with a record of the song, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, was also acquired.

Special pains were taken to make the saloon seem natural, for the entire floor had been altered to form the platform of an hydraulic lift that could be lowered for a depth of fourteen feet. Thus, if the ship were to be captured by a British crew and sent under their charge into Lerwick or Kirkwall, she would never get there. Von Luckner was to wait until the prize crew were having a meal and then, at the touch of a button, the floor would drop and the captors become captive. The Pass of Balmaha would resume her voyage as the Irma.

Provisioned for three years, this vessel was bound for the Pacific Ocean by way of the South Atlantic. The sudden presence of a disguised raider on that ocean would not fail to cause perturbation. No one, even at short distance, would ever suspect an old ship with yards and sails to be a man-of-war. The Pass of Balmaha, under sail and motor, could do 14 knots in a smart breeze, so that she had the speed of many a steamer in those days. If the wind dropped, she could still motor along at 10 knots. Her lifeboats were all fitted with motors so that the passengers and cargo of arrested ships could quickly be removed.

The staff of the Irma had been selected with care. Her Chief Officer was Lieut. Kling, who knew South America well and had served on several Arctic expeditions. The Navigating Officer was Karl T. P. Kirscheiss, who had experience in sailing ships and had been all over the world. The mate, Ludermann, had also served in British sailing ships, and H. H. Krauss (in charge of the motor) had been engineer in a German passenger steamer.

The Irma started out for her long voyage from Bremen on December 21, 1916, the year’s shortest day, in a strong gale. Two other distinguished raiders, the steamships Moewe and Wolf, had left not long before. Heading up to the north, the Irma encountered no other ship until 9.30 on Christmas morning, when she was about 180 miles S.W. of Iceland. Here she was stopped by HMS Avenger, a 15,000-tons armed steamer of the Blockade Squadron. HMS Avenger sent out a Boarding Officer.

Successful Bluff

Von Luckner kept on deck the five Germans who could speak the best Norwegian, and made a point of giving loud commands in that language. “Are you the Captain?” inquired the British officer. “Yes, Mr. Officer”, answered von Luckner in English. “Come aboard. A Happy Christmas! You wish to see my ship’s papers? Certainly, sir. Please come aft.”

In the saloon, where the fittings must not be examined too closely, reclined on a divan a seventeen-year-old lad with an effeminate appearance, dressed as a woman with a shawl round his head. “My wife! She has the toothache”, explained Count von Luckner. Regard was paid to the “invalid”, and the least possible disturbance was made. The Norwegian royal photographs and the sound of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, conveyed a reassuring atmosphere. The ship’s papers and her log-book (stolen from a Norwegian vessel named Malella) seemed all in order and the Irma was allowed to proceed. When they had once bluffed their way into the free Atlantic, they again changed the ship’s name to the Seeadler. Her guns were prepared and, after a fast trip in vile weather, she arrived 120 miles south of the Azores, where she sank her first ship, the Gladys Royle, a British steamer bound from Cardiff to Buenos Aires with a cargo of coal.

The guns were concealed in the Seeadler on much the same principles as were employed in British Q-ships. In conformity with the sailing-ship practice of carrying live pigs, the Seeadler disguised her armament with painted canvas that represented pigpens. Von Luckner’s sole risk was an encounter with one of the few British cruisers that patrolled the wide South Atlantic, and he listened-in on the wireless for their movements. Having headed over towards South America, the Seeadler sank the French sailing vessel Charles Gounod, on January 21, 1917. From her log, von Luckner discovered the course that was in use. Then, by sailing on the opposite course, the Seeadler met and sank three more sailing vessels - the British three-masted auxiliary schooner Perce, the French four-masted barque Antonin and the Italian sailing ship Buenos Ayres.

A FRENCH THREE-MASTED BARQUE, the Charles Gounod, was sunk by Count von Luckner in the Seeadler

A FRENCH THREE-MASTED BARQUE, the Charles Gounod, was sunk by Count von Luckner in the Seeadler off the South American coast on January 21, 1917. The Charles Gounod was built at St. Nazaire, at the mouth of the River Loire, France, in 1900. She had a gross tonnage of 2,303 and was 279 ft 9 in long with a beam of 40 ft 3 in.

When the British barque Pinmore loomed up on the horizon, von Luckner himself boarded her as Prize Officer. The barque looked familiar to him and he walked aft to examine her steering-wheel. There, still quite visible on the brass, were his initials “F. v. L.” scratched by his own hand more than fourteen years before. This was the ship in which he had gone to sea at the age of seventeen. It was a strange coincidence that after these long years he should now become her captor.

It was now late in February. The Seeadler had been at sea for two months and needed fresh vegetables, fruit and tobacco. Von Luckner decided to leave Lieut. Kling in temporary command of the Seeadler and appointed a rendezvous. Meanwhile, from a position some 100 miles off Rio de Janeiro, the Count sailed the Pinmore into Rio. Her crew were mostly Norwegian, but her commander, Captain J. Mullen, was British. At Rio, von Luckner went ashore, arranged for the stores to be sent aboard, and coolly went to watch HMS Glasgow coaling. With provisions aboard, von Luckner set sail again in the Pinmore.

the British four-masted barque Pinmore was sailed into Rio for provisions by the Germans. When she rejoined the Seeadler she was sunk by a bomb

CAPTURED OFF RIO DE JANEIRO by Count von Luckner in the Seeadler, the British four-masted barque Pinmore was sailed into Rio for provisions by the Germans. When she rejoined the Seeadler she was sunk by a bomb. The Pinmore, 2,431 tons gross, was built at Port Glasgow in 1882. She had a length of 310 feet and a beam of 43 ft 8 in.

Three days later he rejoined the Seeadler. The stores were quickly transferred and the Pinmore was sunk by a bomb. Then von Luckner sent a wireless message in code to his cousin Count Nikolaus warning him that HMS Glasgow was leaving to seek the Moewe. The Moewe later turned for home, ran the British blockade again, and reached Germany on March 22. The Seeadler went south and captured the French barque Cambronne. By this time the Seeadler was crowded with prisoners from various sunken ships. Von Luckner placed 286 prisoners aboard the Cambronne, with Captain J. Mullen in command, and supplied him with navigating instruments and a month’s provisions. To prevent them from arriving too soon at Rio, thereby giving away his position, von Luckner sent men to saw off the Cambronne’s topgallant masts and to heave overboard the spare sails and spars.

British cruisers were in the vicinity, and it was expedient for the Seeadler to move away. She rounded Cape Horn on April 18. Two uneventful months passed and the Seeadler, keeping 400 miles west of South America, sailed north as far as the Equator. On June 14 she surprised the United States schooner A. B. Johnson and set her on fire. Similarly she destroyed the American R. C. Slade three days later. On July 8, among the Pacific Islands east of Christmas Island, and north of the Equator, the Seeadler sank the American schooner Manila.

WITH 236 PRISONERS ON BOARD the French three-masted barque Cambronne, captured by von Luckner in the South Atlantic, was sailed to Rio de Janeiro under the command of Captain J. Mullen

WITH 236 PRISONERS ON BOARD the French three-masted barque Cambronne, captured by von Luckner in the South Atlantic, was sailed to Rio de Janeiro under the command of Captain J. Mullen. The prisoners had all been captured by the Germans and taken aboard the Seeadler. The Cambronne, 1,943 tons gross, was 263 ft 4 in long, with a beam of 36 ft 8 in. She had been built at Rouen, France, in 1897.

Wreck of the “Seeadler”

The Seeadler had now been at sea for seven months and had sailed half-way round the world. It was time her crew had a rest, and the ship needed an overhaul. The Count decided to look for some lonely, practically uninhabited island, off the main shipping routes, where the men could get a run ashore and the Seeadler could be careened after the custom of the old pirate vessels. After having beaten about in the doldrums for three idle weeks, he found that the small and unimportant Mopelia, in the Society Islands, suited his purpose.

Mopelia, situated on a reef surrounding a lagoon, is about ten miles long and four miles wide. As the prevailing winds were south-east, von Luckner anchored to the north-west. A bower anchor and cable were sent ashore and secured to the coral reef. The Seeadler was hauled over on to her side, and during the morning of August 2 half her crew with all her officers except one were sent ashore for recreation, with the three American captains. The rest of the Seeadler’s company, including prisoners from the American schooners, were scrubbing and cleansing the hull.

Count von Luckner had arranged that if anything untoward should occur the officer in charge was to fire a gun twice as a signal for the shore party to return. Unexpectedly at 9.30 am they were alarmed by two loud reports. A sudden shift of wind from south-east to north-west had driven the ship broadside on to the reef and she could not be hauled off. By noon she was half full of water. The diesel engines had been started, but to no avail. The destroyer of shipping was herself being destroyed. Despite the use of pumps, the water gained.

The Seeadler was abandoned, her sails were unbent and taken ashore for tents. The wireless was hauled down, the dynamo and its motor landed, and the aerials stretched between lofty palm trees. Provisions were fetched from the ship, but on the island pigs and game abounded, with fish and turtle in the water.

As von Luckner had been sent from Germany to raid Pacific shipping, he decided that the loss of the Seeadler must not interfere with his work. He therefore chose one of the six lifeboats with a 7-horse-power motor, fashioned a mast, and cut down some of the Seeadler’s canvas to make a jib, foresail, gaff mainsail and gaff topsail. Thus rigged as a cutter, the motor-lifeboat was named the Cecilie, and a canvas deck covered her forward and aft. On August 23 this small craft, measuring 30 feet long and 7 feet wide, set off to cross the Pacific Ocean.

The little Cecilie, with a S.E. wind, steered under all sail W.S.W. Von Luckner’s intention was to reach the Cook Islands or the Fiji Islands, seize an American schooner, sail back to Mopelia, fit her out and then go raiding again. The Cecilie could travel more than 100 miles a day, though sometimes she had to heave-to. Despite a rough passage, and rainstorms, the cutter reached Atiu, one of the Cook Islands, on the morning of August 27.

The Cecilie put to sea again the same day, steering S.W. for Rarotonga in the Cook group. There they saw a large black steamer in the harbour, and it appeared to be a patrol vessel. They carried on, therefore, to the island of Aitutaki and bought provisions. Some hostile natives, led by a half-caste who had lately returned from the war, accused them of being German spies.

The Cecilie hurriedly set sail and took a course to the north-west, bound for the Fiji Islands.

After they had passed north of Nairai, they were caught in bad weather, and on September 18 ran into the bay of Wakaya to anchor. The gale kept them weather-bound for some days. In Wakaya, the cutter Sunbeam was also sheltering. Her captain was a half-caste named Macpherson.

Captured by Fijian Police

The Count landed and, after some inquiries, said that he was a Dane and that the Cecilie had broken down; he asked if she could be towed to Suva. He was told that a schooner had come into Wakaya for shelter, and her owner was expected in another vessel as soon as the weather moderated. He learnt, too, that this owner was of Danish nationality.

This information made von Luckner anxious. His own plan had been, once clear of the land, to slip the tow, board the schooner, make the crew his prisoners and thus get away. When, however, on the morning of September 21, the 535-tons steamer Amra was seen entering Wakaya, the Cecilie weighed anchor.

Then the Amra lowered a boat, which pulled rapidly across and headed off the Cecilie. As this boat came alongside, the Germans found themselves covered by seven revolvers almost before they had time to reach for their hidden arms. Two white officers of the Fiji Constabulary and five native policemen simply and quickly brought the bold scheme to a sudden end.

The six Germans were taken to an internment camp in Auckland Harbour, New Zealand. On December 13 von Luckner and Kirscheiss escaped and captured another schooner, but they were caught. Kling’s party on Mopelia Island had to wait only from August 23 to September 5, when the 150-tons French schooner Lutece arrived from Papeete to fetch turtles. Kling captured her, put his party aboard, and that night sailed off to the south-east, reaching Easter Island on October 4. This party was afterwards taken to Chile and interned.

The Americans and the Lutece’s French crew were loft on Mopelia with nothing but some indifferent food and a damaged boat. Four of the Americans patched up this boat, set sail on September 19, and ten days later reached Pago Pago, the United States coaling station on the Samoan island of Tutuila. Thus assistance was obtained for the other men on Mopelia.

HMS Avenger

THE BRITISH BLOCKADE was designed to prevent vessels reaching Germany from the Atlantic. The German decoy ship Irma, originally the Pass of Balmaha and later the Seeadler, had therefore to run the gauntlet of the blockade vessels. Her commander, von Luckner, successfully bluffed a boarding party from the 15,000-tons armed steamship HMS Avenger, illustrated above. The Avenger had been built in the first months of the war of 1914-18, and when on her way to refuel, she was torpedoed and sunk on June 14, 1917.

You can read more on “The Convoy System”, “Epics of the Submarines” and “Troopships & Trooping” on this website.