Warship Wednesday Feb.22, 2017: The Kaiser’s Cormorants
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Feb.22, 2017: The Kaiser’s Cormorants
Here we see the Bussard-class unprotected cruiser SMS (Seiner Majestät Schiff =His Majesty’s Ship) Cormoran of the Kaiserliche Marine as she appeared early in her career (pre-1908) with her three-masted barquentine rig. She floated around the far-flung colonies of Imperial Germany– and even help establish some of them—then went on to serve (in a way) during the Great War.
Germany got into the colonialism thing late in the game and it was only after unification and at the prodding of an anxious Kaiser that the new Empire got took part in the “scramble” by picking up German South-West Africa (current Namibia) and German New Guinea in 1884. The problem with overseas territories is that they are over-seas and Germany had a very small Baltic-centric naval force. This led Prussian Gen. Leo von Caprivi, then head of the Navy, to order two 1,300-ton/13-knot steam “cruisers” (let’s be honest, they were more gunboats than anything else) of the Schwalbe-class in 1886.
Recognizing the shortcomings of these warships, the German Navy upped the ante with the follow-on Bussard-class vessels in 1888.
The six warships of the class could eke out a bit more speed than the Schwalbe‘s (15.5-kts as designed) and, if they packed coal in every nook and cranny, extend their range to 3,610 nm which could further be stretched by their barquentine rig (and were the last German fighting ships to be designed to carry canvas). With a hull of yellow pine, they were sheathed with cupro-lead Muntz metal to prevent fouling.
Armed with eight 4.1-inch 105/32 RK L/35 C/86 rapid-fire singles, they packed a decent punch that was augmented by a pair of 350mm torpedo tubes as well as five 37mm/27cal revolving cannons.
With a full load approaching 1,868-tons, these 271-footers could float in 15 feet of calm water and carried a half-dozen small boats that enabled them to land a company-sized force of armed sailors while keeping enough of a skeleton crew aboard to fire a few guns and keep the boilers warm.
The hero of our tale, SMS Cormoran, was built to a modified design which was capable of 16.9-knots on a quartet of coal-fired boilers and mounted slightly upgraded 105/32 SK L/35 C/91 guns. Laid down at Danzig Kaiserliche Werft in 1890, she commissioned 25 July 1893, Korvettenkapitän Robert Wachenhusen in command.
Following sea trials, Cormoran headed for East Africa, where she remained as a station ship in Portuguese Mozambique for seven months before transferring to East Asian waters in Sept. 1895.
After helping the stranded gunboat SMS Iltis, Cormoran steamed up the Yangtze where her shallow draft made her quite useful. She was still there when, on 1 November 1897, the Big Sword Society slaughtered two German Roman Catholic priests of the Steyler Mission in southern Shandong.
Ordered by Admiral von Diederichs to join his cruisers there for a punitive expedition-turned-land-grab, Cormoran showed up in Kiautschou Bay on 13 November and at 0600 the next morning steamed into the inner harbor of Tsingtao with 717 German sailors in small boats from the larger cruisers SMS Kaiser and Prinzess Wilhelm to land at the dole and proceed into the city.
Reinforced by a battalion of Marines sent from Germany the next January, the Chinese granted a 99-year lease to the port in April. Germany had her Hong Kong at the point of Cormoran‘s guns.
When the Americans and Spanish began to scrap in the PI during the Span-Am War in 1898, Cormoran was sent to poke around Cavite but was rebuffed by Dewey with the cruiser USS Raliegh closing danger close on the German.
Following this, she became a persistent presence in Samoan waters, adding to the tension there as Britain, Germany and the U.S. hashed out just who owned which rock.
Over the next several years Cormoran continued her colonial work among the islands, landing sailors to disarm locals, enforce German laws, and arrest those breaking them while conducting survey work in the uncharted archipelagos the Kaiser now counted as his own.
It should be remembered the German flag flew at the time over the Solomon Islands (Buka, Bougainville, and several smaller islands), the Carolines, Palau, the Marianas (except for Guam), the Marshall Islands, and Nauru.
In 1908, Cormoran returned to Germany and was rebuilt and re-rigged as a topsail schooner, landing her quaint revolving cannon.
She returned the Pacific in time to help put down the very messy Sokehs Rebellion of 1910-11 in the Caroline Islands at the hands of Polizei-Soldaten commander Karl Kammerich and his 160~ locally recruited constabulary troops. In early 1913, Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Zuckschwerdt arrived aboard and commanded the ship and her crew in putting down a disturbance on Bougainville.
By 1914, the Bussard class was showing their age. Sisterships Seeadler and Condor were that year converted to mine storage hulks in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, respectively. Bussard and Falke had already been stricken from the Naval List in 1912 and sold to the breakers. Only SMS Geier (Vulture), the youngest of the class, was serving actively in East Africa while Cormoran was hobbled in Tsingtao with bad engines.
By this time our elderly cruiser was done for and was looking for a new ride.
Zuckschwerdt had her crew strip everything useful from Cormoran and move it aboard the captured 3,400-ton Russian freighter SS Ryazan— which had been seized at sea by the German raider SMS Emden on the first day of the Great War and brought to Tsingtao on 4 August as a prize. The Ryazan was a fast ship for a merchantman (17 knots) and had been built in Germany at the Schichau shipyard in Elbing just five years before which meant her engineering suite was at least marked in the right language.
On 10 August, at the Imperial Dockyard at Tsingtao, with the crew of the (old) SMS Cormoran on board as well as the warship’s 8x105mm guns, 1,200 shells and stores crammed in every room, the (new) hilfskreuzer SMS Cormoran II was commissioned in her place. As she was a much larger vessel, the crews of the scuttled gunboats SMS Vaterland and Iltis were piled aboard to be used as prize crews for captured merchantmen the new raider was sure to take on the high seas.
The former Russian freighter turned auxiliary cruiser left the Chinese coastline the same day she was commissioned, stalked by the still nominally neutral Japanese navy.
On 15 August 1914, two weeks after the outbreak of World War I in Europe, British-allied Japan delivered an ultimatum to Germany demanding that it relinquish control of the disputed territory of Kiaoutschou/Tsingtao and when they didn’t Japan declared war on 23 August.
The stripped and crewless (old) SMS Cormoran was scuttled on the night of 28–29 September 1914 by dockyard workers to prevent her capture and Tsingtao fell to the Japanese on 7 November after a siege and blockade that cost the lives of over 1,000. Her wreck was salvaged by the Japanese in 1917.
As for the (new) Cormoran, she had left China dangerously low on coal and spent 127 days at sea on the run and only narrowly remained uncaught.
On 23 September, she came within 200 meters of Warship Wednesday alumni, the Challenger-class protected cruiser HMAS Encounter (5,800-tons/11 × 6-inch guns/21kts) on a moonless night and avoided sure destruction.
In October, Cormoran took on 98 officers and men of the stricken survey ship SMS Planet at Yap, one of the last German-held islands in the Pacific.
For a time, she hid in the lagoon of sparsely populated Lamotrek atoll in the Carolines and Zuckschwerdt considered scuttling her there, ala HMS Bounty-style, and going native but in the end decided against it.
Out of coal, low on rations save for coconuts and without being able to take any prizes, the overfilled (355 men, 22 officers aboard) Cormoran put into the U.S. territory at Guam on 14 December with British, French and Japanese ships combing the waters for her. She was ordered to moor within range of the three 7″/45cal naval guns mounted ashore at Fort San Felipe del Morro.
The event made the papers in the States, front page news.
16 December 1914, Sacramento Union:
Zuckschwerdt and the Americans eyed each other cautiously over the next 28 months as the ship was disarmed and interned but kept up good spirits.
By June 1916 some of the crew were reportedly “driven mad by isolation.”
When the U.S. declared war on Germany on 7 April 1917, American officials attempted to seize the Cormoran and fired at least one warning shot into the air. The hopelessly outgunned station ship at Guam, USS Supply (3,100-tons/6x6pdrs) put a prize crew of 32 men afloat to board the German ship, though the Germans outnumbered them 11:1.
Zuckschwerdt was cordial and told Supply‘s captain, LCDR William P. Cronan, he could surrender his men but not the cruiser and as soon as the bulk of the men orderly jumped ship, blew her hull out at her mooring in the harbor and she sank in 120 feet of water, tragically taking nine of her crew with her.
“The stricken ship settled by the stern, slowly listing heavily to starboard. For a moment the port half of the deck was exposed to view, the ship lying almost horizontally on her starboard beam ends. Then, as one blinked an eye there was nothing but a small column of water hanging suspended, a bubbling seething area of surface disturbance, a bit of flotsam shooting up like a fish jumping and falling back with a splash, two or three laden boats, and heads, hundreds of heads, bobbing here and there.
“Men clinging to bits of wreckage, oars, life preservers, chests, were swimming toward the shore in all directions; pigeons, apparently carriers released from the ship, hovered over the water, circled, and were gone; men clinging to bits of flotsam with one arm, put bottles to their lips and drank from brown bottles, square colorless bottles; the black men of New Guinea, some carrying bundles dry on their heads, some pushing small chests, paddled off businesslike toward the nearest land. And then a voice was lifted, a strong true deep voice singing Deutschland über alles, and the chorus went up from many a throat.
The crew was rescued by USS Supply, with Cronan noting his German counterpart as “a large, well-formed man, with jet black mustache and Vandyke [beard], always spotlessly attired, spoke English with the elegantness of the educated foreigner, was a gifted conversationalist, possessed a rare charm of manner, and, incidentally, must have been an able disciplinarian to have maintained the high morale evident in his personnel during their long sojourn in Guam.”
As noted by the NPS, “U.S. Marine Corporal Michael B. Chockie fired a shot across the bow of the Cormoran‘s supply launch in an attempt to stop the fleeing launch. Chockie’s shot was the first one fired by an American in the Great War–later known as World War I.”
The dead were buried at the naval cemetery at Agana and are remembered today.
As for Zuckschwerdt and the rest of his crew, they were the first German POWs in America and were only repatriated in 1919 with the non-German individuals from China and German New Guinea separated.
The good Korvettenkapitän returned to post-Versailles Germany where he was given a position in the drastically smaller Reichsmarine. Continuing to serve, he was a Konteradmiral in the Kriegsmarine in WWII where he commanded coastal fortifications along the French coast until his retirement in May 1944– just before D-Day. When the Brits occupied his hometown in April 1945, he was arrested and put into a POW camp again where he died in July 1945 near Hövelhof, aged 71.
The last of her sisters afloat, SMS Geier, was interned at Hawaii in October 1914, seized 7 April 1917 and pressed into service as USS Schurz. She was sunk off the North Carolina coast 21 June 1918 after a collision with the steamer Florida.
As for (new) Cormoran, she is still in Agana harbor, with the wreck of the 8,300-ton Japanese freighter Tokai Maru— sank by U.S. submarines in 1944– atop her and is a popular dive spot.
In July 1974, the SMS Cormoran II was listed on the Guam Register of Historic Places, and a year later, the vessel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In April 2007, Guam commemorated the 90th anniversary of the scuttling of the SMS Cormoran II. The festivities included wreath-laying ceremonies at Apra Harbor and the US Naval Cemetery in Hagåtña, and a series of lectures and an exhibit. Surviving descendants of the original crew and other German representatives were invited to participate. The graves continued to be visited and honored.
The Guampedia Foundation has kept the ship and her crew’s memory alive and have compiled crew lists, oral histories and accounts.
They have a great gallery of images of the Cormoran online
The country of Palau, a former German colony, commemorated both versions of Cormoran with recent postage stamps and German Imperial post cancellations.
Displacement: 1,864 t (1,835 long tons; 2,055 short tons)
Length: 82.6 m (271 ft. 0 in)
Beam: 12.7 m (41 ft. 8 in)
Draft: 4.42 m (14 ft. 6 in)
Propulsion: 2 × 3-cylinder triple expansion engines, 2 screws
Sailing rig: 3-mast bark with 9,440 sq. ft. canvas as built, 2-mast schooner after 1908
Speed: 15.5 knots (28.7 km/h; 17.8 mph), 16.9 kts
Range: 2,950 nmi (5,460 km) at 9 knots (17 km/h) with standard 315t coal load.
152 enlisted men
8 × 10.5 cm (4.1 in) SK L/35 rapid fire guns, 1200 shells
5 × revolver cannon (deleted in 1908)
2 × 35 cm (14 in) torpedo tubes, five torpedoes
Bronze ram bow
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