Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 29. Friend or foe, 1917

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Pass of Balmaha, later the German auxiliary raider Seeadler

Pass of Balmaha, later the German auxiliary raider Seeadler

The German sailing ship raider See-Adler had started life as the US-flagged Pass of Balmaha, a Clyde-built full-rigged three master only seven years older than Monkbarns herself. She became a player in the war in 1916, when she was stopped by a Royal Navy vessel north of Scotland patrolling Britain’s blockade of German ports, and ordered to Kirkwall for examination of her cargo.

Even though the ship was neutral, and bound for Archangel on the White Sea with cotton from Texas for an ally, Russia, the British blockade was rigorous. Neutral America was still trading raw materials with Germany and every item on the waybill had to be scrutinised. Under British interpretation of international law, German goods were not to be traded, and Britain impounded anything of potential use to the enemy – or indeed itself – deaf to the protests of her trading neighbours.

The British patrol put half a dozen marines aboard Pass of Balmaha, to ensure compliance with its orders, hoisted the Union flag and left. But they were no sooner out of sight than Pass of Balmaha was stopped again, this time by a German U-boat. As the guns on the grey conning tower appeared, the ship’s American officers hurriedly raised the stars and stripes and hid the compromising British guard in the hold, but the enemy lookout has seen the flags change. Suspicious, the German commander ordered the ship to Cuxhaven, putting aboard a single officer armed with a hand grenade to ensure they did so.

In Germany, the British marines were discovered in the hold and the ship was seized.

Pass of Balmaha turned out to be just what the Kaizerliche marine had been looking for. A sailing ship was a good bleating goat in the shipping lanes, but it also avoided the fuelling problems that dogged the coal-hungry turbine-driven raiders. The vessel was fitted with diesel auxiliary engines, guns, and bunks for 400 prisoners, and she had slipped out into the North Sea the previous December with stolen Norwegian papers, commanded by Felix, Count von Luckner.

Count Felix von Luckner, the Sea-Devil

Count Felix von Luckner, the Sea-Devil

Von Luckner was a flamboyant character, reputed to have run away to sea himself at 12. He had served seven years in sail on ships of various nationalities, including British. When See-Adler’s false identity had to be changed at the last minute, he simply gave the papers a realistic splash of sea water to blur the forgery, and set off to run the enemy blockade with a Norwegian-speaking crew on show and a deck load of timber concealing the gun emplacements. He put up portraits of the Norwegian king and queen in his cabin and was even reported to have dressed one of the crew in a wig and frock, and settled “her” cozily over some domestic chore in a dark corner of the master’s quarters. When a British armed cruiser intercepted them southwest of Greenland four days out, the Norwegian ship with the shy wife was allowed to pass.

By March 1917 as the former banana boat, Mowe, was putting into Kiel with 800 prisoners at the end of her second raiding voyage around the Atlantic, Von Luckner had made his way down to the latitude of Rio. On the way he had sunk eight sailing vessels, including one on which he was reported to have himself served as an able seaman, and three steamers, which he got within range of his guns by various ruses, including pretend fires on board.

However, success brought its own strains: he had collected 203 prisoners and feeding them was becoming a problem. Instead of sinking his next victim, therefore, he cut down her masts and packed all the captives off aboard her, together with one of the British captains to navigate and enough provisions to reach Brazil.

Bert Sivell's postcards from Montevideo, 1917

Bert Sivell's postcards from Montevideo, 1917

Then he made himself scarce, heading south for the Horn and escape into the Pacific, to wreak havoc there, although he hove to briefly off the Falkland Islands – to say a few words and drop a large iron cross marking where Vice Admiral Count Von Spee and his men had died at the hands of the British navy two years previously.

Monkbarns had arrived in Montevideo after a passage of 47 days right through Von Luckner’s war zone to learn that every warship in the Atlantic was now gunning for a three-masted square-rigged commerce raider much like, or indeed very like Monkbarns.

Read on: For those in peril on the sea
Previously: Monkbarns or See-Adler?


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  1. […] Read on: Count Felix von Luckner’s See-Adler […]

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