Tag Archives: SMS Tsingtau

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

Deutsches Bundesarchiv Bild 134-C0105

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.

Geier’s sister, SMS Seeadler, in a postcard-worthy setting. The six ships of the class ranged from the West Indies to Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. Much more exotic duty than the typical Baltic/North Sea gigs for the High Seas Fleet

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.

SMS “Geier” der kaiserlichen deutschen Marine

SMS “Geier”, Kaiser Wilhelm II. spricht zur Besatzung

SMS “Geier”, Kleiner Kreuzer; Besichtigung des Schiffes durch Kaiser Wilhelm II.

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.

The unprotected cruiser SMS Geier entering Havana Harbor, Cuba, in 1898, during the SpanAm War

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.

GEIER Photographed early in her career, before her 1908-1909 refit that reduced her Barkentine Rig to Brigantine Standard. NH 88631

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.

Geier with her late-career schooner rig

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.

Bussard Class Unprotected Cruiser SMS Geier pictured interned in Hawaii, she arrived in Honolulu on October 17th, 1914 for coaling, repairs and freshwater– and never left

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.

Schlacht bei den Falkland-Inseln (8.12.1914) Battle Falklands Islands, German chart

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.

German cruiser Geier shown interned in Honolulu. Photo by Herbert B Turner. NARA 165-WW-272C-006

German cruiser Geier shown interned in Honolulu. Photo by Herbert B Turner. NARA 165-WW-272C-006

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.

Her crew headed off to Schofield Barracks for the rest of the war, some of the first German POWs in the U.S. (Hawaii State Archives)

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.

German cruiser Geier with boilers on fire being sabotauged by her crew Honolulu Feb 4 1917 Photo by Herbert NARA 165-WW-272C-007

German cruiser Geier with boilers on fire being sabotauged by her crew Honolulu Feb 4 1917 Photo by Herbert NARA 165-WW-272C-007

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.

Don’t let his bookish looks fool you, although Schurz was a journalist who served as editor of the New York Evening Post, he also fought in the German revolution and saw the elephant several times in the Civil War.

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.

USS Schurz off the foot of Market Street, San Diego, California, in November-December 1917. Note the U.S. colors. Courtesy of the San Diego Maritime Museum, 1983 Catalog #: NH 94909

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.

NOAA divers swim over the stern of the USS Schurz shipwreck. Photo: Tane Casserley, NOAA

Photo: Tane Casserley, NOAA

Photo: Tane Casserley, NOAA

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)
Armor: None
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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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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