Warship Wednesday, Sept 5, 2018: Der Piratenjäger

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, Sept 5, 2018: Der Piratenjäger

Here we see Kaiserliche Marine’s proud, twin-funneled flusskanonenboot (river gunboat) SMS Otter on the Yangtze River in China sometime between 1910 and 1914. She was one of a kind and had an interesting backstory.

You see, long before the Germans showed up in Kiautschou Bay on 13 November 1897 and the next morning steamed into the inner harbor of Tsingtao to carve out a colony by force, the Imperial German Navy wanted a riverboat to smash roving bands of waterborne Chinese pirates and protect Teutonic interests in the region. While corvettes, sloops, and other traditional bluewater warships could muscle their way into China’s coastal cities and exercise gunboat diplomacy, you needed something much shallower to penetrate the sprawling Yangtze river system and ward off hostile junks filled with sword and musket-armed bandits.

Thus, in 1876, F. Schichau in Elbing was contracted to work up a warship like the Germans had never used before. Displacing just 130-tons (165 max) the 101-foot long gunboat could float in a gentle 5.4-feet of water. Carrying a 120mm rifle forward and an 80mm aft, she could plod along at 8-knots on her coal-fired steam plant (when not using her auxiliary sail rig) and accommodate some 43 officers and men. She was to be a littoral combat ship of the late 19th Century:

The design for the 1877 German pirate buster. She never did get her canvas

The name of this mighty river-going pirate buster? Well, the Germans were fond of animal names for gunboats and Otter just seemed to fit. Commissioned 1 April 1878, everything seemed set.

She even boasted dragons on her prow.

However, the nearly flat-bottomed Otter proved a horrible sea boat, nearly swamping on trials, and the prospect of her sailing from the Baltic to Nanking was thought to be just a drawn-out suicide. This relegated her to a career spent as an artillery tender, compass trials boat and pierside training ship that never left sheltered waters or put to sea on a cloudy day. Decommissioned in 1907, the Navy kept her around as a hulk and test ship until she was scrapped in 1926, never seeing China. Indeed, never even really leaving German coastal waters.

Sadly, this version of Otter never went to China, losing her name in 1907 to a second Otter that did.

Putting their desire for a river gunboat on ice, the Germans eventually acquired the 147-foot Shanghai-built river steamer Woochow locally and, after adding some Germans to her crew as well as a couple of four-pounders, dubbed her SMS Vorwärts (Forward) like her deployment, just in time for the Boxer Rebellion. The same was done with the smaller 120-foot coaster Tong Cheong, which became SMS Schamien. However, they did not prove very well suited to the task and purpose-built craft were urgently requested.

Therefore, two new flat-bottomed gunboats were purpose-built by Schichau on experience learned from Otter— the 157-foot SMS Vaterland and Tsingtau.

Frankes Collection vintage postcard Kaiserliche Marine German river gunboat SMS Tsingtau

Armed with an 88mm gun and a four-pounder, they were built in nine sections and shipped to the region in pieces, solving Otter‘s biggest drawback. Vaterland went via the HAPAG steamer Bisgravia in February 1904, then reassembled in Shanghai and put into service on 28 May 28, 1904. Tsingtau was carried by Prinzzess Marie to Hong Kong the previous September and was in service by Feb. 1904. Once they were operational, they replaced Vorwärts and Schamien, who were sold locally.

However, things were heating up in China. In 1905, no sooner than the two new gunboats entered service, riots broke out in Shanghai that required landing forces. International (read= European) efforts to penetrate and extend influence on the upper reaches of the Yangtze as well as the Min and Pearl river systems taxed the two boats and their crews.

Enter a new and improved Otter!

The boatyard of Joh. C. Tecklenborg, Geestemünde, laid down Germany’s purpose-built fourth (and largest) Chinese river gunboat from a development of the Vaterland/Tsingtau design. Some 177-feet overall (173 at the keel), she could float in just 3.2-feet of water. Equipped with Thornycroft-Schulz steam boilers vented through twin stacks, her two VTE steam engines allowed her to reach a blistering 15.2-knots (faster than Vaterland/Tsingtau‘s 13) despite her flat-hull, or poke around at 5-knots for an impressive 4,300 miles.

Her armament was a pair of fast-firing 5.2-cm SK L/55 Krupp guns— popguns still capable of poking smoking holes in random junks or blowing apart suspect buildings 2,000 yards from the river banks– and three big water-cooled Spandau machine guns.

The 2.05″ 5.2-cm SK L/55 gun was found on German torpedo boats and cruisers of the 1910s. Otter carried two as her main armament, with about 300 shells carried in her magazine.

To protect against small arms fire, she was given 5mm of steel armor plating on her sides and over her vitals.

Completed in 1909, Otter trailed on the Weser before she was disassembled and was shipped overseas in nine sections aboard the Leonhardt & Blumberg GmbH steamer Marie Leonhardt.

German river gunboat SMS Otter, built for China service, round about 1909 on the river Weser under national flag prior to commissioning.

Reassembled and ready for service by April 1910 after inspection by Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl himself, Otter was the pride of the East Asia Squadron’s riverine operations. Over the next few years she calmly did her job and ranged the rivers of China, the biggest German on the block once you moved inland, and the fastest thing on the brown water.

Otter in China service. Note she has her Reichskriegsflagge flying

Going back to the days of the Woochow, the commander of each German river gunboat was given an operating budget to buy supplies for their ship, as they were not attached to a base. These funds were typically in Mexican silver pesos as they were the easiest to move in China (keep in mind that the famous Tsingtao brewery was started with 400,000 Mexican silver pesos in 1903). The budget also allowed for the hiring of as many as a dozen local Chinese auxiliaries to serve as stokers, pilots, cooks, and stewards besides, of course, doubling as terps. The practice was common on European (and American) river gunboats of the era. It was a quiet life, interrupted by periods of terror. Think The Sand Pebbles but with more sauerkraut and better beer.

A local aboard Otter with the ship’s mascots. via Auktionshaus Christoph Gärtner GmbH & Co. K

Enter the July 1914 crisis that turned into the guns of August.

The German Navy in Asia was far-flung in the late summer of 1914. Under the command of the Vice-Admiral Graf Spee, his East Asia Squadron proper was homeported in Tsingtao. This included the armored cruisers Scharnhorst (his flag) and her sister, Gneisenau, as well as the light cruisers Emden, Leipzig, and Nurnberg; and the four Iltis-class gunboats Iltis, Jaguar, Tiger, and Luchs. Also in the principal German colony in China was the old cruiser Cormoran, which was laid up; a torpedo boat (S90), the tug/minelayer SMS Lauting, and a few steamers quickly converting to auxiliary cruisers.

Out in the German Pacific island colonies– which the Allies would rush to capture, setting the stage for the island-hopping campaigns of 1943– were the old cruiser Geier (Vulture) and the survey ship Planet. Poking around the Pacific coast of Latin America was the cruiser Dresden, complete with a moody junior officer by the name of Wilhelm Canaris.

At Canton on the Pearl River was the flusskanonenboot Tsingtau and on the Yangtze at Nanking with Otter was Tsingtau‘s sister, SMS Vaterland.

The whole of the Kaiser’s military ashore in Asia.

With the likelihood of being able to fight it out with the large Russo-Anglo-French fleets in the Far East when the balloon went up, the good Graf Spee got going. His East Asia Squadron sans the auxiliary cruiser Cormoran and light cruiser Emden beat feat for the Atlantic (which didn’t go well) leaving the aforementioned ships to embark on commerce raiding on their own.

The four Iltis-class gunboats were left at Tsingtao and scuttled before the Japanese could capture them, although their crew and guns were used to arm auxiliary cruisers that largely made it out before the siege. The hardy torpedo boat S90 scuttled after breaking out– as she sank the Japanese mine cruiser Takachiho (3,700-tons) — and had her crew interned by the Chinese in Nanking. By March 1915, the last of von Spee’s squadron, the weathered Dresden, scuttled off windswept and remote Robinson Crusoe Island of southern Chile.

Geier went to Hawaii and was interned. SMS Tsingtau was abandoned on 2 August at Canton with a skeleton crew who later sank her in the river. On 7 October, the crew of Planet scuttled the vessel off the island of Yap to avoid capture by the Japanese.

In Nanking, things went a little differently.

In an effort to have their cake (not be destroyed by the Allies) and eat it too (not lose their ships to the Chinese), the crews of the river gunboats Vaterland and Otter were converted to non-combatants and their ships sold to a private company (although they still apparently kept their armament from what I understand). Vaterland became Landesvater and Otter became München (Munich) on 18 August. The crews, leaving their Chinese auxiliaries behind along with a handful of volunteers to keep the boats afloat, let out for Tsingtao colony as best they could.

This subterfuge of the gunboats-that-weren’t lasted until China, stretching her newfound legs of post-Imperial nationalism, drifted into the Great War on the side of the Allies. In 1917, the German unrestricted U-boat campaign saw the freighter Athos I sunk off Malta with 754 Chinese workers aboard in February (some 200,000 laborers were recruited by French and British agents in the country to work behind the lines on the Western Front.) The next month, China broke off its diplomatic ties with Germany, and on 20 March promptly requisitioned (seized) the two “civilian” gunboats in Nanking although they ran into some trouble as much of the vital equipment on both were wrecked or tossed overboard. Vaterland/Lansesvater subsequently became the Chinese gunboat Li-Sui (also seen as Li Chien) while Otter/München became Li-Tsieh (also seen in Western sources as Li Chieh, Li Jie, Lee Ju, or Lee Jeh, as transliteration is bullshit).

Both ships, reworked and rearmed, went on to serve on the Chinese Sungari flotilla along the Amur river throughout the confusion of the Russian Civil War and Allied Intervention followed by the terrible warlord era in that part of the globe that persisted through the 1920s.

During the 1929 border clash known as the Sino-Russian War, Soviet aircraft from the seaplane-carrier Amur working in tandem with Tayfun-class river monitors of the Red Amur River Flotilla apparently sank Otter/München/Li-Tsieh during this period of undeclared confrontation. Otter‘s fate was sealed in a duel with the monitor Krasnyi Vostok (alternatively credited as killed by Sverdlov on Navypedia) on 12 October at what was termed invariably the Battle of Lahasusu (Sanjiangkou), although the old German ship in Chinese hands reportedly scored hits on two Soviet gunboats. Grounded, she later was scrapped in 1932 or 1942 (again, sources vary).

As for Vaterland/Lansevater/Li-Sui, she was rebuilt several times and, captured by the Japanese in 1932, became part of the puppet Manchukuo Navy until 1945 as the Risui.

A river gunboat from the Manchukuo Navy,on Japanese 1930s

The Soviets then captured her when they swept into Manchuria and she became the gunboat Pekin for a time under the Red banner– which would have been at least her 4th.

To wrap things up:

Many of the 1914 German river gunboat crewmen looking to leave managed to ship out of China on the auxiliary cruiser Cormorman, only to be interned in Guam for the duration. Others, falling in with one Kapitänleutnant Erwin von Möller, formerly the of the SMS Tsingtau, managed to make it to the Dutch East Indies where they fitted out the schooner Marboek and took her 82 days Westward to the Arabian coast, in hopes of making the Ottoman Empire. However, they were reportedly caught by Arabs and killed in the desert in March 1915.

Kapitänleutnant Erwin von Möllers party

Otter‘s prewar skipper, Korvettenkapitän Rudolph Firle, made it to the Ottoman Empire on his own by late 1914 and was put in command of the Turkish torpedo boat flotilla at Constantinople. He went on to win two Iron Crosses and two Ritterkreuz before the Armistice. His most noteworthy action came on a moonless night in 1915 when, at the conn of the Schichau-Werft-built Ottoman destroyer Muavenet-i Milliye (765-tons), he was instrumental in sinking the moored old Canopus-class pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath (14,000-tons) in Morto Bay off Cape Helles with three torpedoes. He later had escapades with the Bulgarians and in the Baltic. Leaving the Navy in 1921, he became a big wheel at Norddeutscher Lloyd and was later instrumental in the design of the 1930’s passenger liners Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Potsdam.

A fez and RK/EK-clad Firle, left, among his Ottoman Navy buddies, Yuzbasi Ali Riza (commander of torpedo boat Sultanhisar), and Binbashi Ahmed Saffed (commander of Muavenet-i Milliye) around 1916.

The Tsingtau – historischbiographisches Projekt (in German) has a list of Otter‘s final Kaiserliche Marine crew.

About the biggest reminder of Germany’s past colony in China that endures is the Tsingtao Brewery, which is now publicly traded and is China’s second largest such activity. Further, Oktoberfest is alive and well in the Qingdao region, as it is known today.


As far as I can tell, the German Navy never had another warship named Otter but did brush off “Piratenjäger” assignments, contributing ships to anti-piracy operations in the EU’s Operation Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield/CTF-151 in the Gulf of Aden, Guardafui Channel, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean over the past decade. In all, at least a dozen frigates and replenishment ships flying the black, red and gold Bundesdienstflagge have been mixing it up in regular deployments off the HofA since 2008.

If only they had dragons on their bows.


Otter compared to her predecessors Tsingtau and Vaterland, via the 1914 Janes

Displacement: 280 tons
Length: 177-feet overall
Beam: 28.3-feet
Draft: 3.2-feet
Engineering: 2 Thornycroft-Schulz steam boilers, 2VTE 3cylinder steam engines, 1730hp, twin stacks, twin 1.4m screws
Speed: 15.2 knots designed (listed as 14 in Janes, 13 by Navypedia)
Range: 4350@5kn on 87 tons of coal
Complement: 3 officers, 44 men, + auxiliaries
Armor: 5mm steel sides
(As built)
2 x 5.2-cm SK L/55 Krupp rapid-fire four-pdrs with 300 shell magazine
3 x MG08 machine guns
(the 1920s, Chinese service)=?

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