Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Boarding Party

A few weeks ago, my friend Adam Pawley told me a story about a German First World War raider, that upon closer inspection showed promise as an article, so here we are.
The RMS Victorian, before she was taken into service.
On June 23, 1915, the armed cruise liner HMS Victorian was part of the blockading forces off the north of the UK. Their task was to stop any shipping that might be bound for Germany. On that fateful day she was closing on a sailing ship, flying an American flag. This ship was the Pass of Balmaha, onboard was a cargo of cotton bound for Arkhangelsk, and her crew of twenty which consisted of nineteen ratings and her captain, John Lenard. HMS Victorian put a boarding party of one Royal Navy Reserve officer, a petty officer and four men onto the Pass of Balmaha for inspection, all were armed. Cargoes such as the cotton bales could not be easily inspected at sea. In such cases the merchants were to be sent to port for closer inspection. In this case the officer was ordered to take the ship to either Lerwick or Kirkwall. The choice was left to him, as the Pass of Balmaha had no engines and was entirely reliant on the wind. With this, the two ships went their separate ways.
The sailing ship Pass of Balmaha
On the evening of 23rd of July the twenty-eight souls aboard the Pass of Balmaha saw a ship torpedoed by a German submarine. The following morning a similar fate befell another ship within their sight. Obviously, the Pass of Balmaha was right in the middle of a U-boat's hunting area. The Royal Navy men disguised themselves with borrowed clothing and concealed themselves in a hold. This way they hoped that the ship could pass itself off as a neutral merchant. Then, at 0700 on the 24th of July, the U-boat surfaced, and pulled alongside. It sent over a boarding party to take the ship into Cuxhaven. The Royal Navy men were not unduly worried, as there was another patrol line similar to the one HMS Victorian was operating in or failing that random patrols from around the coast of the UK. One of these was almost certainly bound to spot the Pass of Balmaha and intercept her, at which point the tables would be turned. Remarkably none of these events occurred and the sailing ship was able to make it to German held territory, and the ship was captured, the Royal Navy men ended up as POW's and the American crew were repatriated to a neutral country.
U-36, the U-boat that captured the Pass of Balmaha
An interesting aside is that the U-boat that captured the Pass of Balmaha, would twelve hours later attempt to sink a collier. This turned out to be an armed decoy ship, which was basically a prototype idea to the Q-ship and was armed with 6-pounder and 3-pounder guns. It quickly sunk the U-boat in a brief exchange of gunfire.

By this stage in the war at sea the Germans were defiantly losing. Their main problem was the usual one for Germany. Blockaded in central Europe she lacked the international trade empire to provide refuelling sites. Docking at a neutral country would mean impounding until the war was over, and so her surface units had no way of resupplying, and would very quickly become dead in the water, adrift and of no use to anyone. But a sailing ship, like the Pass of Balmaha did not need refuelling. Thus, the plan was hatched to refit her as a commerce raider. Hidden rooms for boarding parties would be installed along with a pair of 105mm guns. In addition, a couple of machine guns and even torpedo tubes were fitted.
One of the 105mm guns fitted during the upgrade.
To defeat the blockade the ship was disguised as the Norwegian vessel Irma. Norwegian style furnishings were fitted, along with photographs of the Norwegian monarchs as well as the British King. Uniforms were Norwegian, and as many Norwegian speakers as could be found were employed. The remainder of the crew were taught what certain commands in Norwegian meant, so even if they didn't speak the language, they could react when commanded. With all this in place, they departed in December 1916.

Inevitably she ran into a blockade ship and was boarded. Here the crew put the second stage into operation. In the main mess, where, for reasons of camouflage the crew did not want too detailed an inspection a young 17 year old sailor, who looked distinctly feminine was wearing a dress. He was introduced as the Captains wife, who had been taken ill and was resting. In the background the song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was playing. Not wishing to disturb the lady the British boarding party kept their inspection to a brief glance. This pantomime was entirely successful, and the Irma was sent on her way. Once in the Atlantic, she began her raiding activities under the new name, the SMS Seeadler.

For the next eight months the SMS Seeadler worked her way south, heading for the pacific. She sunk fifteen ships on her way. As she reached the Society Islands, she heaved to on Mopelia, an uninhabited island. The reason for this rest stop was to provide some relaxation for the crew and enable some heavy-duty repairs. At 0930 the wind changed direction and drove her onto the reef around the island. Holed badly she began to take on water, and the pumps failed to make a dent. Indeed, nothing the crew could do would save her, and the crew were stranded.
Two pictures of the wreck of the Seeadler, visited some years later.
The captain of the SMS Seeadler and five others sailed for help in a 32ft launch from the ship, eventually arriving on the Fiji Islands. Upon arrival they were detained as prisoners of war. Before help could be sent, a French sailing ship called the Lutece arrived at Mopelia and was captured by the Germans. They then sailed on, arriving at Easter Island in October, where the ship was once again wrecked. Easter Island then belonged to Chile, and the Germans were interned by the neutral nation.


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