Warship Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022: The Loss of Trap Ship K
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Nov. 2, 2022: The Loss of Trap Ship K
Above we see a circa 1917 Willy Stöwer painting depicting a dashing German U-boat of the Kaiserliche Marine encountering the British Q-Ship Headley at sea, with the crew pretending to abandon ship to sucker the submarine in close enough to be pounded under the waves by hidden Vickers guns and 12-pounders. While the British extensively used Q-ships/Mystery Ships– heavily armed gunboats disguised as merchantmen– despite Stöwer’s propaganda piece, the Germans also had a few Qs of their own during the Great War, one of which is the subject of our piece this week.
Rather than “Q-ship,” a code name that referred to the British vessels’ nominal homeport in Queenstown, Ireland, the Germans used the term “U-Boot-Falle Schiff,” literally “Submarine Trap Ship” with each further described simply on naval lists and orders as a support/supply ship (Hilfsschiff). In stark contrast to the no less than 366 British Qs (of which 61 were lost in action while they only took down 14 U-boats for their sacrifice), the Germans only had eight trap ships and five of those were very small coasters and trawlers of under 1,000 tons.
As all were merchant vessels converted to decoys, the Admiralstab decided to keep the ships’ prewar names and simply designate their wartime service with a letter designation as Hilfsschiff A, B, C, well, you get the drift, with the letter typically drawn from the first of the vessel’s name. They often also had alter-identities that would include fake name boards, flags, and shifting profiles.
The Hateful Teutonic Eight:
- SS Alexandra (Hilfsschiff A) (1909, 1615 t, 4-10,5 cm L/35 guns)
- SS Belmonte (B, fake name Antje) (1914, 193 t, 2-105/35) three-masted schooner
- SS Friedeburg (F, fake name Anna) (1912, 211 t, 2-10,5 cm L/35) three-masted schooner
- SS Hermann (H) (1901, 5000 t, 4-10,5 cm L/35)
- SS Kronprinz Wilhelm (K, fake named Gratia, then Marie) (1914, 2560 t, 4-10,5 cm L/35)
- SS Oder (O) (1897, 648 t, 2-10,5 cm L/35)
- SS Primula (P) (1904, 834 t, 2-10,5 cm L/35)
- SS Triumph (T) (1907, 239 t, 2-88/27)
The Germans also had about 20 armed Vorpostenboot (outpost boats), small trawlers that often illegally flew a Dutch flag and served as something of an early warning picket and were sometimes used in sabotage actions such as cutting submarine cables and landing/extracting agents, but, while interesting, they are beyond the scope of what we are covering.
Of the eight trap ships, Kronprinz Wilhelm/Hilfsschiff K, was the most interesting and most successful, and, as she was sunk by British destroyers in the Kattegat some 105 years ago today (2 November 1917), she is our primary focus.
Meet Hilfsschiff K
Ordered for the Stettin Rigaer Dampfschiff Gesellschaft, a small Baltic passenger, and merchant shipping company that ran a regular route from Stettin to Riga from 1874 until 1937 when it merged with Gribel, Kronprinz Wilhelm was a small cargo steamer with a few passenger berths.
Constructed in 1914 by Stettiner Oderwerke (Yard No. 654), she was 252 feet long and powered by two boilers and a single engine that developed 1,500 hp, making her able to chug along at 14 knots.
Once the war shut down her cargo route (although the Germans would occupy Riga in 1917 and remain there in one form or another until almost a year after Versailles), Kronprinz Wilhelm was soon requisitioned by the German navy for further use.
One of the largest trap ships, she entered service on 12 November 1915 as Hilfsschiff K and was assigned to the I. Handels-Schutz-Flottille (1st Trade Protection Flotilla) in the Baltic. Her armament was a quartet of 4.1-inch SK L/35 guns recycled from the casemates of turn-of-the-century Kurfüst Friedrich Wilhelm-class pre-dreadnoughts. These were hidden behind fake bulkheads and under on-deck dummy crates.
The British also did the same thing, so it is likely that the tactic was borrowed after reports from U-boats of the Q ships, after all, Stower knew about it.
Hilfsschiff K was tasked with quietly escorting small convoys to Sweden with her “SS Gratia” disguise intact and embarrassingly ran aground in Swedish waters in January 1916. When responding Swede destroyers found out she had four popguns aboard and reported as such to the press, her cover was blown. This led Hilfsschiff K to get a new skipper– Leutnant (der Reserve) Julius Lauterbach, late of a series of Far East escapades.
Lauterbach was a Hamburg-America Line officer who joined Admiral Graf Spee’s Squadron when the war broke out and went on to be assigned to the cruiser, SMS Emden. Serving as a prize officer with the famed raider, in November 1914 he assumed command of the seized Admiralty chartered British coaler SS Exford with 5,500 tons of fine Welsh coal aboard and when the planned meet-up to refuel Emden two weeks later fell through after the latter was sunk by the Australian Navy, surrendered his 16-man prize crew to the armed British merchant cruiser Empress of Japan. Imprisoned in Singapore, he escaped during a mutiny of Indian troops there (which some reports say he had a hand in) in February 1915 and made his way across Asia back home.
As he had largely only ever had experience with merchant ships, it made sense to put the hero Lauterbach in charge of Hilfsschiff K once she was repaired.
Back in the Baltic Again!
Sailing alternatively as the “SS Marie,” Hilfsschiff K went on to a string of successes. On 27 May, she rammed and severely damaged the Russian Bars-class submarine Gepard after he fell for the German trap ship, and three months later had a tangle with the managed to damage the British E-class submarine HMS E43 which was operating from the Russian Baltic ports.
Hilfsschiff K was also credited (erroneously) with sinking HMS E18 the same summer after the British boat disappeared while on a patrol off the Estonian coast, but after E18‘s wreck was discovered off Hiiumaa, her hull busted by a mine, this was dispelled.
Regardless, Hilfsschiff K was by far the most successful German trap ship. However, if you live by the gun, you can also die by the gun.
Tasked with protecting German fishing vessels from British gunboats in the Kattegat cod grounds between Denmark and Sweden. There, on the late night of 2 November 1917, Hilfsschiff K met with the 15th Destroyer Flotilla of the Grand Fleet and made battle with the shiny new destroyer leader HMS Parker (1916, 1700 t, 4-4.1 inch) under Captain Rafe G. Rowley-Conwy, together with the companion S and R-class destroyers Sorceress, Ready, Rigorous, Rocket, Rob Roy, and Trenchant, in a running engagement, complicated by rough weather, that stretched from around 9 p.m. to just before midnight.
At the end of the day, Hilfsschiff K and eight German trawlers (Frankfurt, Frisia, Emmy, Makrele, Julius Wieting, Seadler, Sonne, and Walter) were at the bottom while the British suffered only a few splinters and zero casualties. Of the trap ship’s 81-man crew, 28 were killed or missing while the British plucked 64 prisoners (some of them crewmembers from the lost trawlers) from the icy waters, taking them back to the UK for the duration of the war. Danish steamers, arriving at the site of the battle the next morning, pulled bodies, wreckage, and 17 additional German survivors– Lauterbach included– aboard.
Julius Lauterbach (später Lauterbach-Emden) would evade internment, return to Germany from Denmark, and go on to be promoted to Kapitänleutnant. Subsequently, he was given command of the raider SMS Mowe, although the war ended before he could ever try to break out with her.
He spent the last days of the Great War writing a sensationalized autobiography, “1000 Pds. Kopfpreis – tot oder lebendig” (£1000 Head Prize – Dead or Alive) which dealt principally with his time as the former prize officer of the famous SMS Emden, a ship that had much more name recognition than Hilfsschiff K. As part of that, he often toured around Weimar-era Germany on lecture tours about his experiences, often appearing in conjunction with Count Felix Graf von Luckner, “Der Seeteufel” of the commerce raider SMS Seeadler.
In July 1920, the British Admiralty would grant HMS Parker and the rest of her flotilla a bounty for sinking the “Auxiliary Cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm.”
The wreck of Kronprinz Wilhelm was discovered in 1999. Resting in just over 100 feet of water off Torekov, Sweden it has become a popular dive site, inhabited by large eels and cod. At least two of her 4.1-inch guns and “piles” of shells are reported intact.
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