Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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. 3, 2021: The Teutonic Flag Collector
Here we see Flugzeugmutterschiff No. 2, SMH Santa Elena, among the most storied aviation ships fielded by Kaiser Wilhelm’s navy in the Great War, with three Friedrichshafen FF.33 floatplanes alongside and another three on her decks. From a humble background, she would end up serving in several different fleets across her life but didn’t make it out of her second world war afloat. Before it was all through, she would be under a German flag (three different ones), as well as those of France, the U.S., Great Britain, and Italy.
Constructed by Blohm & Voss, Hamburg in 1907 as BauNr. 196, Santa Elena was built to spec for the Hamburg-Süd shipping line, intended to carry a mixture of light cargo and up to 1,198 steerage-level passengers from Europe to South America. In such sedate trade, she was intended, along with the other vessels of her line, to run regular trips between Hamburg, Bremen, Amsterdam, and Antwerp to the exotic climes of Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires.
The top speed of the 446-foot Santa Elena was not impressive, just 11 knots, but she could maintain it around the clock, making her ideal as an immigrant and middle-class traveler vessel.
By 1914, Hamburg-Süd had over 50 ships totaling around 325,000 GRT, ranging from impressive high-speed express liners such as 18,000-ton Cap Finisterre, Cap Trafalgar, and Cap Polonio to the smaller and more pedestrian 7,400-ton Santa Elena and her sister Santa Maria. Santa Elena‘s maiden voyage, starting on 7 January 1908, was from Antwerp to Bahía Blanca.
When the lights went out across Europe, Santa Maria was in Latin America and was interned at Caleta Buena, Chile, for the duration of the conflict. Santa Elena, meanwhile, was in the Baltic and was almost immediately requisitioned to the Kaiserliche Marine. Along with the cargo ships Answald and Oswald, she was converted to become an aircraft mothership (Flugzeugmutterschiff) at Danzig with the pennant numbers FS I-FS III, a designation that the Germans would also term as Seeflugzeugträger, or Seaplane Carrier. Two other ships would be converted later, leading the Germans to operate five tenders in all during the war.
The type made sense to the Germans as a counterstroke to similar ships already in use by its enemies in France (the Foudre, converted in 1912), the British (HMS Hermes, Empress, Riviera, Engadine, Ben-my-Chree, et.al), Russians (Almaz) and Japan (whose Wakamiya was used to launch aircraft in the taking of the German colony of Tsingtao in the first days of the war). Santa Elena was commissioned on 2 July 1915.
Willy Stoewer, the Kaiser’s favorite maritime artist, painted Santa Elena in 1915, showing her (incorrectly) launching a seaplane from her deck while underway.
Sans catapults, the vessels would crane their aircraft overboard for launch from the sea– providing the waves would allow– and then crane them back aboard to recover. Standard Seaplane Tender 101 for the next 50 years.
Assigned to the German Marineflieger, the principal type to operate from these vessels was the Friedrichshafen FF.33 scout plane, a reliable little single-engine canvas floatplane that could buzz around at about 60 knots, carry a pair of machine guns and light (25-pound) bombs, remaining aloft for as long as five hours depending on conditions and how rough they were flown.
The Germans would use their seaplane carriers in both the North Sea against the British– typically in conjunction with the seaplane base (Seefliegerstation) on Borkum Island overlooking Heligoland — and in the Baltic, operating from Libau against the Russians. Their use in combat was primarily by Santa Elena, whose aircraft flew bombing raids against the Tsar’s own scattered seaplane stations on the Baltic Sea.
Santa Elena also took part in Operation Albion in October-November 1917, the German amphibious landing operation to occupy the Baltic islands of Ösel, Dagö, and Moon, an expedition that led to the Battle of Moon Sound and the fiery glory of the Russian battleship Slava.
By the end of the Great War, with Kiel awash in red flags and rebellions, Santa Elena put into Swedish waters (sans aircraft and shells) where she remained, fundamentally stateless, escaping surrender under British guns at Scapa Flow. Nonetheless, the reach of London extended to Sweden and she was ultimately boarded and taken under British custody. In March 1919, her remaining German crew was ordered to take the vessel to the French port of Brest.
She had new flags to serve.
Coming to America
In cooperation with the British Admiralty, a U.S. Navy party took charge of ex-SMH Santa Elena on 26 April 1919 and, that very day, the 12-year-old liner/seaplane carrier became USS Santa Elena (ID-4052). She was soon repurposed for use as a troopship and left from France on 10 May 1919 with a load of Doughboys going home from “Over There.”
A slow mover, it took her two weeks to arrive at Hoboken, where she turned around on 6 June for France once again. Santa Elena came back from her third Atlantic crossing with another load of troops, arriving at Hampton Roads on 23 July.
On 20 August, her crew sailed the empty vessel to New York where it was taken over by representatives of the Cunard Line. A British merchant crew sailed into Portsmouth with the prize on 26 September.
Similarly, her sister Santa Maria, which had spent the war interned in Chile, where her crew thoroughly destroyed her machinery, was also allocated to Britain. Sold back to the reformed Hamburg-Süd for her value in scrap, her old company paid for her repair and refit at Hamburg and operated the vessel as the steamer Villagarcia until 1932, when she was scrapped.
Despite British custody, once all the paperwork at Versailles dried, the ships commission assigned Santa Maria to France and her custody switched in 1920 to the Compagnie des Chargeurs Réunis of Le Havre, the steamship concern that ran regular routes between France and South America and then Africa and Asia.
Refurbished and with new livery, by February 1922 she was sailing under the name Linois for the French, mostly on long, slow trips to Indochina and back via the Dunkirk – Saigon – Haiphong route.
In fact, one of the vessel’s last missions under the Tricolor was to repatriate 250 Indochinese laborers from war-torn France back to the colony at the time when the country was under Vichy control. Leaving Marseille in February on a government charter, she arrived in Saigon in May after stops at Casablanca, Dakar, and Tamatave on the long way around Africa– the Suez cut off by the British.
Back at Marseilles by November 1942, when the Allies landed in Vichy-controlled North Africa in the Torch Landings, the resulting German-Italian sweep into the Nazi puppet state resulted in Linois being seized by German troops. With the Italians needing shipping in the Med, she was transferred to the Regina Marina for use as a troopship under the name Orvieto. She would continue this task through September 1943 when Italy withdrew from the war after the armistice of Cassibile.
Seized again by German troops in Genoa at the time of the Italian surrender, she was placed at the disposal of the Mittelmeer Reederei Gmbh, a state-chartered shipping firm to move cargo and passengers around the Axis-controlled ports of the Med, although her wartime operations under that flag were limited. Withdrawn to Marseilles, she was scuttled as a blockship in the northern pass to foul the harbor during the opening stages of the Allied Dragoon landings in South France in August 1944.
Post-war, she was raised and scrapped by local salvors.
There are few remains of her, including her original 1907-marked bell, which is on display in the Hamburg IMM.
Dariusz Mazurowski has scratch-built an excellent 1/700 scale model of SMH Santa Elena in her tender configuration.
Displacement 7415 GRT in civil service; 13,900 tons FL in military service
Length: 431-feet (pp); 447 (overall)
Crew: 51 (civil); 122 as German seaplane tender; 276 as American troopship
Machinery: 3 boilers, quadruple expansion engine, 1 screw, 3000 hp
Speed: 11 knots
Liner capacity: 8260 dw tons cargo, 1198 passengers
Armament: 2 x 3.4″/45 DP (1914-18)
Aircraft: Four single-engine seaplanes (six maximum)
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