Warship Wednesday, July 17, 2019: Willy’s Vulture
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, July 17, 2019: Willy’s Vulture
Here we see the three-masted bark-rigged “kleiner geschutzter kreuzer” (small protected cruiser) SMS Geier of the Imperial German Kaiserliche Marine photographed at the beginning of her career around 1895. A well-traveled Teutonic warship named after the German word for “vulture,” she would repeatedly find herself only narrowly avoiding some of the largest naval clashes of her era.
The final installment of the six-ship Bussard-class of colonial cruisers, all of which were named after birds, Geier and her sisters (Falke, Seeadler, Condor, and Comoran) would today be classified either as corvettes or well-armed offshore patrol vessels. With an 1800~ ton displacement (which varied from ship to ship as they had at least three varying generations of subclasses), these pint-sized “cruisers” were about 275-feet long overall and could float in less than three fathoms. While most cruisers are built for speed, the Bussards could only make 15-ish knots when everything was lit. When it came to an armament, they packed eight 10.5 cm (4.1″) SK L/35 low-angle guns and a pair of cute 350mm torpedo tubes, which wasn’t that bad for policing the colonies but was hopeless in a surface action against a real cruiser.
Constructed between 1888 and 1895 at four different Northern German yards, the half-dozen Bussards were a very late 19th Century design, complete with a three-masted auxiliary barquentine rig, ram bows, and a wooden-backed copper-sheathed hull. They carried a pair of early electric generators and their composite hull was separated into 10 watertight compartments. Despite the “geschutzter” designation given by the Germans, they carried no armor other than splinter shields.
The only member of the class built at Kaiserliche Werft, Wilhelmshaven, Geier was laid down in 1893 and commissioned 24 October 1895, with Kaiser Wilhelm himself visiting the ship on that day.
Notably, Geier was the largest and most developed of her sisters, using a slightly different gun arrangement, better engines and 18-inch torpedo tubes rather than the 14s carried by the preceding five ships of the class.
All six Bussards were subsequently deployed overseas in Willy’s far-flung colonies in Africa and the Pacific, a tasking Geier soon adopted. Setting off for the West Indies, she joined the German squadron of old ironclads and school ships that were deployed there in 1897 to protect Berlin’s interests in Venezuela and Haiti.
The next year, under the command of Korvettenkapitän (later Vizeadmiral) Hermann Jacobsen, Geier was permitted by the U.S. fleet during the Spanish-American War to pass in and out of the blockaded Spanish ports in Cuba and Puerto Rico on several occasions, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds to evacuate neutral European civilians.
However, Jacobson dutifully kept a log of ships that ran the American blockade and their cargo as well as conducted a detailed analysis of the damage done to the Spanish ships at the Battle of Santiago. These observations were later released then ultimately translated into English and published in the USNI’s Proceedings in 1899.
By 1900, Geier was operating in the Pacific and, operating with the German East Asia Squadron, was in Chinese waters in time to join the international task force bringing the Manchu Dynasty to its knees during the Boxer Rebellion. She remained in the region and observed the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, notably poking around at Chemulpo (Inchon) where the Russian protected cruiser Varyag and gunboat Korietz were scuttled after a sharp engagement with a superior IJN force under Baron Sotokichi.
Returning to Germany in 1909 for repair and refit, her rigging was changed from that of a three-mast barquentine to a two-mast topsail schooner while her bridge was enlarged, and her boilers replaced.
Recommissioned in 1911, she was assigned to the Mediterranean where she spent the next couple years exercising gunboat diplomacy in the wake of the Moroccan Crisis while eating popcorn on the sidelines of the Italian-Turkish War and Balkan Wars, all of which involved a smattering of curious naval actions to report back to Berlin. By 1914, although she had never fired a shot in anger, our Vulture had already haunted five significant wars from Tripoli to Korea and Cuba, very much living up to her name.
To catch us up on the rest of the class, by the eve of the Great War, the Bussards was showing their age. Sisterships Seeadler and Condor in 1914 were 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. Meanwhile, in the German Chinese treaty port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), Cormoran was laid up with bad engines.
Speaking of which, when the lamps went out across Europe in August 1914, Geier was already en route from Dar es Salaam in German East Africa (where she had been relieved by the doomed cruiser Konigsberg) to Tsingtao to join Vizeadmiral Count Maximilian von Spee’s East Asia Squadron in the Pacific.
Once the balloon went up, she was in a precarious situation as just about any British, French, Russian or Japanese warship she encountered could have sent her quickly to the bottom. Eluding the massive Allied dragnet, which was deployed not only to capture our old cruiser but also Von Spee’s much more serious task force and the downright dangerous SMS Emden (which Geier briefly met with at sea), Geier attempted to become a commerce raider and, taking on coal from two German merchant ships, managed to capture a British freighter, SS Southport, at Kusaie in the Eastern Carolines on 4 September. After disabling Southport’s engines and leaving the British merchantman to eventually recover and report Geier’s last position, our decrepit light cruiser missed her rendezvous with Von Spee’s squadron at Pagan Island in the Northern Marianas and the good Count left her behind.
Alone, short on coal and only a day or so ahead of the Japanese battleship Hizen (former Russian Retvizan) and the armored cruiser Asama, Geier steamed into Honolulu on 17 October, having somehow survived 11 weeks on the run.
After failing to leave port within the limits set by neutral U.S. authorities, she was interned on 8 November and nominally disarmed.
Meanwhile, the Graf Spee’s East Asia Squadron had defeated the British 4th Cruiser Squadron under RADM Christopher Cradock in the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, sinking the old cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth and sending Cradock and 1,600 of his men to the bottom of the South
Atlantic Pacific off the coast of Chile. A month later, Spee himself along with his two sons and all but one ship of his squadron was smashed by VADM Doveton Sturdee’s battlecruiser squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.
Our Vulture had evaded another meeting with Poseidon.
As for Geier, her war was far from over, reportedly being used as a base for disinformation (alleging a Japanese invasion of Mexico!) and espionage (tracking Allied ship movements) for the next two years.
Finally, in February 1917, the events came to a head.
According to the U.S. NHHC:
German reservists and agents surreptitiously utilized the ship for their operations, and the Americans grew increasingly suspicious of their activities. Emotions ran hot during the war and the Germans violated “neutrality,” Lt. (j.g.) Albert J. Porter of the ship’s company, who penned the commemorative War Log of the USS. St. Louis (Cruiser No. 20), observed, “with characteristic Hun disregard for international law and accepted honor codes.” Geier, Korvettenkapitän Curt Graßhoff in command, lay at Pier 3, moored to interned German steamer Pomeran when a column of smoke began to rise from her stack early on the morning of 4 February 1917. The ship’s internment prohibited her from getting steam up, and the Americans suspected the Germans’ intentions.
Lt. Cmdr. Victor S. Houston, St. Louis’ commanding officer, held an urgent conference on board the cruiser at which Cmdr. Thomas C. Hart, Commander SubDiv 3, represented the Commandant. Houston ordered St. Louis to clear for action and sent a boarding party, led by Lt. Roy Le C. Stover, Lt. (j.g.) Robert A. Hall, and Chief Gunner Frank C. Wisker. The sailors disembarked at the head of the Alakea wharf and took up a position in the second story of the pier warehouse. Soldiers from nearby Schofield Barracks meanwhile arrived and deployed a battery of 3-inch field pieces, screened by a coal pile across the street from the pier, from where they could command the decks of the German ship. Smoke poured in great plumes from Geier and her crewmen’s actions persuaded the Americans that the Germans likely intended to escape from the harbor, while some of the boarding party feared that failing to sortie, the Germans might scuttle the ship with charges, and the ensuing blaze could destroy part of the waterfront.
The boarding party, therefore, split into three sections and boarded and seized Pomeran, and Hart and Stover then boarded Geier and informed Graßhoff that they intended to take possession of the cruiser and extinguish her blaze, to protect the harbor. Graßhoff vigorously protested but his “wily” efforts to delay the boarders failed and the rest of the St. Louis sailors swarmed on board. The bluejackets swiftly took stations forward, amidships, and aft, and posted sentries at all the hatches and watertight doors, blocking any of the Germans from passing. Graßhoff surrendered and the Americans rounded-up his unresisting men. 1st Lt. Randolph T. Zane, USMC, arrived with a detachment of marines, and they led the prisoners under guard to Schofield Barracks for internment.
Wisker took some men below to the magazines, where they found shrapnel fuzes scattered about, ammunition hoists dismantled, and floodcocks battered into uselessness. The Germans also cunningly hid their wrenches and spans in the hope of forestalling the Americans’ repairs. Stover in the meantime hastened with a third section and they discovered a fire of wood and oil-soaked waste under a dry boiler. The blaze had spread to the deck above and the woodwork of the fire room also caught by the heat thrown off by the “incandescent” boiler, and the woodwork of the magazine bulkheads had begun to catch. The boarders could not douse the flames with water because of the likelihood of exploding the dry boiler, but they led out lines from the bow and stern of the burning ship and skillfully warped her across the slip to the east side of Pier 4. The Honolulu Fire Department rushed chemical engines to the scene, and the firemen and sailors worked furiously cutting holes thru the decks to facilitate dousing the flames with their chemicals. The Americans extinguished the blaze by 5:00 p.m., and then a detachment from SubDiv 3, led by Lt. (j.g.) Norman L. Kirk, who commanded K-3 (Submarine No. 34), relieved the exhausted men.
The Germans all but wrecked Geier and their “wanton work” further damaged the engines, steam lines, oil lines, auxiliaries, navigation instruments, and even the wardroom, which Porter described as a “shambles.”
As such, she was the only German Imperial Navy warship captured by the U.S. Navy during World War I.
Coupled with the more than 590,000 tons of German merchant ships seized in U.S. ports April 1917, Geier was reconditioned for American service and eventually commissioned as USS Schurz, a name used in honor of German radical Carl Schurz who fled Prussia in 1849 after the failed revolution there. Schurz had, in turn, joined the Union Army during the Civil War and commanded a division of largely German-speaking immigrants in the XI Corps at Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga, rising to the rank of major general.
[Of XI Corps’s 27 infantry regiments, at least 13 were “Dutch” (German) regiments with many German-born/speaking commanders prevalent. Besides Schurz, brigades and divisions of the XI Corps were led by men such as Col. Ludwig Blenker and Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr, formerly officers of the Royal Armies Bavaria and the Duchy of Brunswick, respectively.]
Postwar, Schurz was a senator from Missouri, where a large German population had settled, and later served as Interior Secretary in the Hayes Administration.
Under the command of LCDR Arthur Crenshaw, the new USS Schurz joined the fleet in September 1917 and served as an escort on the East Coast. Her German armament landed; she was equipped with four 5-inch mounts in U.S. service.
While on a convoy from New York for Key West, Fla., on 0444 on 21 June 1918, she collided with the merchant ship SS Florida southwest of Cape Lookout lightship, North Carolina, about 130 miles east of Wilmington.
As noted by the NHHC, “The collision crumpled the starboard bridge wing, slicing into the well and berth deck nearly 12 feet, and cutting through bunker no. 3 to the forward fire room.” One of Schurz’s crewmen was killed instantly, and 12 others injured. The 216 survivors abandoned ship and Schurz sank about three hours later in 110-feet of water.
A later naval board laid the blame for the collision on Florida, as the steamer was running at full steam in the predawn darkness in the thick fog without any lights or horns and had failed to keep a proper distance.
USS Schurz was stricken from the Navy list on 26 August 1918, and her name has not been reissued. The Kaiserliche Marine confusingly recycled the name “Geier” for an auxiliary cruiser (the former British merchant vessel Saint Theodore, captured by the commerce raider SMS Möwe) as well as an armed trawler during the war even while the original ship was interned in Hawaii with a German crew pulling shenanigans.
Of SMS Geier‘s remaining sisters in German service, Seeadler was destroyed by an accidental explosion on the Jade in April 1917 and never raised, Cormoran had been scuttled in Tsingtao and captured by the Japanese who scrapped her, and Condor was broken up in 1921.
Today, while she has been extensively looted of artifacts over the years the wreck of the Schurz is currently protected as part of the NOAA Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and she is a popular dive site.
East Carolina University conducted an extensive survey of her wreckage in 2000 and found her remarkably intact, with her boilers in place as well as brass fasteners and copper hull sheathing with nails still attached.
Displacement, full: 1918 tons
Length: 275 ft oal, 261 wl
Beam: 34 ft. 10.6
Draft: 15 feet 4.74 mean 5.22 deep load
Machinery: 2 HTE, 4 cylindrical boilers, 2880 hp, 2 shafts
Coal: 320 tons
Speed: 15.5-knots max
Range: 3610nm at 9kts
Complement: 9 officers, 152 men (German) 197 to 217 (US)
8 x 1 – 4.1″/32cal SK L/35 single mounts
5 x 1-pdr (37mm) revolving cannon (removed in 1909)
2 x 1 – 450mm TT with 5 18-inch torpedoes in magazine
4 x 5″/51cal U.S. mounts
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