German leader Adolf Hitler was pressing the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) to increase the number of naval officers for his impending war plans so an additional tall ship was needed to support the Barque Segelschulschiff Gorch Foch used in training naval cadets. The shipbuilder chosen was Blohm und Voss and the vessel was formally commissioned at the Hamburg dock on September 17th, 1936 as the "Horst Wessel". The Horst Wessel was named after a Nazi party member and SA Storm Trooper that killed in a street brawl with Communists in 1930. Hitler, and a number of his personal bodyguards with staff, were aboard for the commissioning ceremony.
The Horst Wessel served as flagship of the Kriegsmarine sail training fleet home-porting out of Bluecher Piers Kiel, Germany. The fleet consisted of Gorch Fock, Albert Leo Schlageter and Horst Wessel. The Horst Wessel combined a traditional three-masted barque with a modern steel hull rather than wood. The Foremast was 147.3 feet (44.9 meters) high with square sails, the Mainmast at 147.3 feet (44.9 meters) high (also square sails) and the Mizzenmast measuring 132 feet (40.2 meters) high, though with gaff rigging. She carried twenty-two total sails across her three masts as well as sails on her bowsprite, this with a total sail area of 2,070 meters squared (22,300 feet squared). Under sail, the Horst Wessel managed 17 knots (31 km/h) and about 7.5 knots when using her diesel engine. She featured a running length of 295 feet (89 meters) with a width of 40 feet (12 meters) and a draught of 17 feet (5.2 meters). All told, she displaced at 1,750 tons under full load as built.
For defense the vessel fielded 8 x 20mm anti-aircraft (AA) guns, two on the bridge wings, two on the foredeck and two quad mounts on the waist deck - the upper deck amidships. The ship's hull was constructed of steel four-tenths of an inch thick while having a raised forecastle and quarterdeck. The weather decks were three-inch-thick teak over steel decks. The entire ship has two full length steel decks with a platform deck below. Crew quarters were below for 300 as well as adequate machine spaces for the auxiliary diesel engine, fresh water supplies and fuel stores. A complete kitchen, dishwashing station, shower and waste facilities were state of the art for 1936.
After her commissioning in 1936, the Horst Wessel was assigned as a training ship for the German naval under-officers in basic seamanship. The training of the cadets sailed Horst Wessel on a number of foreign voyages, visiting Edinburgh, England and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. Braving the North Sea, she also docked at the Norwegian port of Kristiansand and the crew looked forward to the cool breezes and warm nights at the port of Havana, Cuba. At the outbreak of war in September of 1939, the Horst Wessel was assigned to the marine training officer candidate's station in Stralsund, Germany for 1940. In 1941, she was a stationary training ship placed in reserve alongside a tender ship. However, by mid-May 1941, Horst Wessel again was assigned to training cadets for sea duty. Some reports indicate that during training cruises, after war had been declared, her crew shot down three Soviet aircraft. Also a German aircraft was shot down in error due to the German pilot having used incorrect radio codes indicating it was not a Luftwaffe aircraft. The pilot was rescued by the crew of the windjammer.
Late in the war, she was put in reserve at Kiel. A small crew and Kapitanleutnant Berthold Schnibbe was assigned to remain onboard and, in late 1945, British Allied forces entered Kiel and took position of Horst Wessel and her sister ship, Albert Leo Schlageter, that had been damaged by the allies. The German crew was interned and a drawing was held with the United States ending up with the Horst Wessel as a war prize. In January of 1946, the US Coast Guard sent a small crew with Commander Gordon P. McGowan from the United States to Bremerhaven, Germany to take charge of one of the German tall ships. Commander McGowan was to choose one of the ships being held by the British, who had no use for them, and informed the American Navy two tall ships were available. The Coast Guard charged Captain McGowan to choose the best ship available and find local resources to overhaul her and acquire needed stores to outfit her for the return trip to the United States.
Upon arrival in Bremerhaven, Captain McGowan contacted the British and made his way to their sector assigned by Allied Command. Two chief petty officers accompanied McGowan to inspect the two ships docked at Bluecher Piers. The decision McGowan had to make, with the advice from the chiefs, was between the Horst Wessel and the Albert Leo Schlageter. The Albert Leo Schlageter was less seaworthy of the two ships. Her lower decks had water damage due to the ship being hit by a mine. McGowen chose the Horst Wessel because, overall, she seemed to need less work to make her seaworthy. The British had the German ship's crew in a POW camp and offered McGowen the men to help in making the crossing to the United States. Captain McGowen took charge of the ship and commissioned her into the United States Coast Guard as the "Cutter Eagle" on May 15th, 1946.
The decision on what to name the newest Coast Guard Cutter reverted back to the earliest days after the American Revolution. The War Department, in 1790, by the order of George Washington, created a new service to combat an ongoing threat called the Revenue Marine. Smugglers were costing the United States much-needed tax dollars for goods entering the rivers and ports on the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The new service needed ships and the USRC Eagle was one of the first 10 cutters built in the United States. The Revenue Marine would become the Revenue Cutter Service that developed into United States Coast Guard, becoming the oldest American maritime service. The Coast Guard chose to honor the three-masted barque war prize with a truly American name, the USCGC Eagle, IMO number: 6109973.
The figurehead on the Horst Wessel was the German Eagle with wings open with its talons holding a circular disk embossed with the Hakenkreuz, or Swastika. The figurehead was replaced and, today, remains a gold Eagle in flight, having five levels of feathers under the open wing with an open beak holding a circular disk in its talons displaying the Coast Guard Seal. The differences between the two eagles lay in the German version appearing to stand with its wings open showing four levels of feathers under the wing and it also featured a closed beak.
The Coast Guard crew spent a lot of time cleaning the engine room. Also the name tags indicating the engine room functions were in German and no one on the American crew could read them. The work was slow and, while working on the engine, they found the block was cracked. McGowen called around and found engine parts in Hamburg and sent a crewman to pick up the spare parts. A major problem that slowed the work was there were no manuals on board for the ships functions. However, with time, the engine was repaired with some help translating the German on the pipes and dials by local German citizens.
By the time Captain McGowen felt the ship was ready for sea the Eagle had settled in the mud so it was necessary for the tides to refloat her. To maneuver by diesel out of the mine-laden Bremerhaven harbor, the British provided a minesweeper escort. Once she had cleared the harbor, her first stop was England. McGowen was in no hurry to make port - his German and American crew needed some time to get accustomed to the ship and each other. Arriving at the port of Falmouth, England, the German crew was kept aboard under guard while she took on stores, fresh water and topped off the fuel tank. After 48 hours in England, Eagle weighed anchor and sailed for the port of Funichal, Portugal. From this port, Captain McGowen had decided to follow the course used by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the new world. McGowen could not pay his crew for two months due to a lack of funds available from the Coast Guard. The American crew sold some excess clothing to the locals in Funichal for shore leave money.
During the Atlantic crossing, the Eagle ran into a hurricane that lasted for about 24 hours. The Eagle was underway by diesel power with the royal set sails unfurled on all three masts. The rigging was in a poor state as the wind and heavy seas increased. The concern was turning the ship from a following sea into the wind to ride the storm out. Waves were breaking over the decks in two feet swells. Safety lines were tied the length of the ship to keep men from being washed overboard. The need was to furl sails from fouled rigging so when the ship made her turn the vessel would not heal over and swamp. One of the German POW crew members understood the danger and volunteered to go aloft and unfoul the rigging. This brave act allowed McGowen to turn Eagle into the sea which righted the ship.
The rest of the voyage was without major incident and Eagle sailed into New York harbor to Orangeburg, New York. Orangeburg was the home to Camp Shanks, the largest Army camp on the East coast used to embark American soldiers to England. Ships on the return trip brought POW's back to the states for internment at Camp Shanks. After the German crew disembarked the Eagle, the German crew were turned over to the MPs at the camp. Eagle then proceeded to her new home at New London, Connecticut, home of the Coast Guard Academy.
The Coast Guard Academy was founded in 1876 with a starting class of nine cadets using the Revenue Cutter Dobbin as a training ship - housing and classrooms all in one. The Dobbin was a sister ship to the namesake cutter Eagle. Since 1946 to today, the Eagle is the only active commissioned sailing vessel in the US maritime services. The Eagle continues to serve as a seagoing classroom for the cadets of the US Coast Guard Academy. The Freshman year has seven weeks before class room instruction begins called "Swab Summer". The last week is scheduled for seamanship when 175 cadets and upper classmen instructors board the tall ship Eagle. The young men and women cadets get their first example of life at sea. The week is tough, hard work learning in the use and purpose of 20,000 square feet of sail and 5 miles of rigging. They steer the vessel with sexton and with the wood wheel helm and learn the decks and rigging to furl and unfurl the sails. The cadets must learn the names of the more than 200 rope lines needed to maneuver the ship.
Eagle has participated in OpSail events over the decades like the World's fair in 1964, the US Bicentennial in 1976 plus the centennial celebration for the Statue of liberty in 1986. Her latest voyage was to New York City in June 2012 for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812. She also visits ports all over the world showing the flag and her sharp lines of times past.
All photography courtesy of JR Potts, AUS 173d AB.
- Blue Water Operations
- Fleet Support
- Specialized / Utility
295 ft (89.92 m)
Width / Beam:
39 ft (11.89 m)
Height / Draught:
17.5 ft (5.33 m)
(1936): 1 x Burmeister and Wain (Elmer) diesel engine
(1946): 1 x MAN diesel auxiliary motor developing 550 horsepower and driving 1 x shaft; (1965): 1 x Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg-Nurnberg diesel direct reversible engine with reduction gear developing 750 horsepower; (1980): 1 x Caterpillar D399 diesel engine developing 1,200 horsepower to 1 x shaft; 3 x Masts for 23 x Sails of 22,300sq ft area.
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