Merchant Commerce Raider Warship
The SMS Mowe excelled at attacking Allied merchant shipping for the German Navy during World War 1.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
In the city of Sarajevo in 1914, Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Serbian nationalists spurring all related nations to honor their alliances to one another once the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Germany then invaded Belgium (prompting a British declaration of war on Germany), France and Russia in turn. The "Allies" included the empires of Russia and Japan to the East and the nations of France, Britain Belgium, Montenegro and Serbia to the West. These would face off against the "Central Powers" made up of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Before it was all over, no fewer than twenty-two nations would enter the war - the United States joining in 1917.
World War 1 was fought across all manner of terrain including oceans. The war at sea saw a number of new equipment designs and concepts put forth - the British Navy developed the revolutionary "all big gun" battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, and changed the course of naval warfare forever. Both the British and German navies built innovative submarines - one British concept was an "antisubmarine" submarine called the British R-class while the Germans developed the merchant-minded Deutschland-class submarines, each 315 feet long with two large cargo compartments that carried 700 tons of cargo. The British began arming passenger ocean liners and merchant ships for self-defense and the Germans responded with arming existing freighters to attack Allied shipping.
Arguably the most successful of the German raiders became the SMS Mowe. She was originally built in 1914 as the freighter "Pungo" and used to carry shipments of fruit from German colonies to Germany proper. With the outbreak of war, she was claimed by the German Navy as a minelayer and then armed and disguised by the German Navy in late 1915 to appear as a neutral cargo ship under Swedish colors. Her disguise allowed her to move across Atlantic waters and the North Sea with relative impunity, stopping only to engage targets of opportunity which were either captured or plundered and sunk. The Germans resorted to the disguise in an effort to break the British naval blockade of German ports which were restricting food supplies from reaching its people - and thusly creating for a deteriorating war effort back home. The Germans hoped that, by arming a few inexpensive merchant ships and using them to pirate Allied shipping lanes, this would force the British Fleet to abandon their blockade by committing warships to the hunt of the German raiders. The lack of suitable blockade vessels would eventually open German ports and lanes and provide a more beneficial position for Germany when the Allies would be forced to sue for peace.
The SMS Mowe (translating to "Seagull") ran the British naval blockade and broke out to challenge the Allied merchant fleet. Her weaponry was carefully hidden behind false bulkheads though she lacked the armor protection of a regular naval cruiser. Her armament consisted of 4 x 15.0cm (150mm) SK L/45 (5.9in) 45 caliber main guns, each gun managing a rate-of-fire of 7 rounds-per-minute out to 13,500 meters (14,800 yds). Its high explosive projectiles were 100lbs each with an explosive charge of half its weight. The secondary battery was a 1 x 105mm (10.5cm) SK L/40 (4.1in) gun held forward and of smaller caliber designed as a rapid fire naval weapon utilized for warning shots over the intended boarding target. To counter surface vessels at range, the Mowe was outfitted with 2 x 503mm torpedo tubes and carried 500 naval mines.
The design of the SMS Mowe featured a running length of 405ft, 8in (123.7m) and her beam was 47ft, 4in (14.4 m) with a draught of 23ft, 6in (7.2m). Her propulsion required the burning of coal through five boilers which made the needed steam for her 3-cylinder triple expansion engines driving one shaft. All told, the configuration netted 3,200 horsepower which allowed her to make 13 knots (14.9 mph) in ideal conditions with an operational range out to 8,700 nm (at 12 knots). As she primarily relied on her disguise for survival, speed was not an essential inherent quality to her design - she needed to appear as a neutral freighter hauling supplies. The SMS Mowe displaced at 9,800 tons and was crewed by 235 officers and sailors.
On December 29th, 1915, the SMS Mowe left Wilhelmshaven to set up a naval minefield at Pentland Firth near the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow. The Mowe's disguise proved a clever one for the British Navy was not accustomed to look out for commerce raiders at this point in the war. The British ships passing by the Mowe did not hail her, believing the freighter under Swedish colors was on her way to an English port. The weather was heavy, complete with low visibility, though this served to cover the Mowe's mine laying actions resulting in hundreds of mines being laid (one of her mines would eventually claim the pre-dreadnought HMS Kind Edward VI).
The SMS Mowe then received her orders to begin "cruiser warfare" and was relocated into the shipping lanes of the Atlantic. The lanes were a lifeline for Britain and the European mainland, stretching as far south as South America. On January 11th,1916, two steamers were sighted and the German flag replaced the Swedish colors and a warning shot was fired across both steamers. The first steamer was thoroughly searched before being sunk while the second steamer was claimed as a prize, her coal to be used to fuel the German ship. The enemy crews were taken captive. On January 16th, 1916, the Mowe encountered a lightly-armed British merchant ship, resulting in the British ship being scuttled. In three months, the Mowe would be credited with 19 ships sunk, two captured as prizes and one serving more than five hundred Allied prisoners. The Mowe then returned to Germany on April 4th, 1916, her first voyage proving a resounding success.
The SMS Mowe was then sent to dry dock for repairs that lasted two months. The British Admiralty was now aware of the SMS Mowe so an effort by the Germans was made to maintain her advantage which forced some structural modifications to be made. She was also given a new operating name - the SMS Vineta. SMS Vineta then set out on a series of short cruises off Norway during the summer of 1916. In three months, only one ship was captured to which, on August 24th, 1916, the Vineta was ordered back port-side for refit.
The SMS Vineta was renamed as the SMS Mowe before heading out for her second Atlantic voyage. Mowe took on a new crew and supplies and on November 23rd, 1916 she entered the Atlantic. Her first victim was on December 6th, 1916 when she came upon the steam ship SS Mount Temple. The cargo included war supplies and 700 war horses - the ship was subsequently sunk after the crew had been removed. Six days later, on December 12th, the SS Georgic was sighted and captured with 1,200 war horses as cargo that were heading for the Western Front. Accordingly, the ship and her live cargo were sent to the bottom.
The Royal Navy diverted a number of destroyers to specifically hunt down the Mowe but none were successful. The SS Yarrowdale was found and seized and sent to Germany as a prize to which the vessel was then converted as an auxiliary cruiser ship fitted with 5 x 150mm deck guns and 4 x 88 mm guns anti-aircraft guns with two torpedo tubes. On January 9th, 1917 the captured freighter Yarrowdale was commissioned as the auxiliary cruiser SMS Leopard for service to the German Navy. Mowe captured the steamship SS Saint Theodore to which the German Navy converted as a collier and armed her as best they could under her new name of Geier. The Geier, with a small crew from the Mowe, operated as a raider for six weeks and sunk two ships.
On March 10th, the SMS Mowe was in action against a New Zealand merchant ship and suffered damage, forcing the raider to return to Germany for repairs. Mowe successfully ran the British blockade yet again and, on the same day, the auxiliary cruiser SMS Leopard set out on her first and only raiding voyage. Disguised as the Norwegian freighter Rena, and after a fierce exchange of gunfire, the Leopard was sunk by the same British force that missed the Mowe prior. Mowe arrived safely in port on March 22th, 1917. In just four months Mowe claimed 28 ships - one ship was captured and released while another was taken as a war prize and the remaining 26 were sunk.
The crew of the SMS Mowe were greeted as heroes in Germany and toured a number of cities for propaganda purposes. However, Mowe's days as a commerce raider were finished as German Navy authorities felt the British would target her at all costs now, what with her record of having sunk 45 ships. As such, the Mowe's next mission involved a conversion program to a submarine tender to be stationed in the Baltic. In 1918 she was renamed the Ostsee and classified as an auxiliary minelayer. By this time, the German war situation had made a turn for the worse and an Armistice was signed in November, thusly ending World War 1. With the German Empire charged with much of the blame for the war, the SMS Mowe was handed over to the British as war reparations per the Treaty of Versailles and operated as the freighter "Greenbrier". In 1933, the Greenbrier was purchased by a German shipping company to be used as the freighter "SS Oldenburg". When war greeted the European mainland once more in World War 2, she was pressed into service with the German Navy as a freighter used to ferry supplies and equipment between German ports and occupied Norway. On April 7th, 1945, the SS Oldenburg was attacked by British warplanes while off the coast of Norway and sunk - thus bringing an end to the long storied tenure of the SMS Mowe.