The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

SMS Königsberg

by Pierre du Toit

This is the story of Seiner Majestat Schiff Konigsberg, a light cruiser of the German Imperial Navy that became involved in naval history's longest engagement, 8 1/2 months to be exact. (Much has been written - fact and fiction. Conflicting dates, ranges and calibres, names and places. Beware of memoirs and reports of the officers and officials who seem to only recall what places them in the most favourable light.) I think this is a reasonable chronology of events.

The Konigsberg was laid down at the Imperial Dockyard in Kiel and launched in December 1905, completed by June 1906 and was the lead ship of her class of light cruisers

This rare cut-away drawing [Slide] from the German archives of the Konigsberg, shows the layout of the boilers and twin shaft triple expansion engines producing a top speed of 23 knots. Overall length was 115m, the beam 13m with a draught of 5.24m. Her sisters included Stettin, Stuttgart, and Nurnberg. These ships were armed with a main battery of ten 10.5 cm guns and an additional eight 52 mm guns in single turrets and casemates. The ships were also equipped with two 450 mm torpedo tubes.

At the end of the Boer War the Scramble for Africa was over and the seven European states had largely settled their border disputes. They had now gained 10 million square miles of new territory and a 110 million bewildered new subjects. Britian and France were the largest colonisers and almost at war over border disputes in the Sudan. Belgium, Portugal, Italy, and Spain had all secured colonies, only Liberia and Ethiopia (defeats Italians) remaining neutral. Germany had Togo, Kamerun, South West and East Africa. In 1906 in the Reichstag the Colonial Empire policy was under furious attack by a coalition of parties led by the Catholics, for barbarous treatment of the indigenous populations by the settlers and the financial drain by the constant demand for troops to put down the various insurrections in the far flung colonies. After winning what became known as the "Hotentott election", the Chancellor von Bulow determined that every colony be financially independent and a hard nosed banker, Bernhard Dernburg was made head of a new ministry as Colonial State Secretary. He appointed Georg Albrecht von Rechenberg as Govenor of East Africa with 6,000 Germans and almost eight million residents.

The energetic "iron-man Rechenberg", fluent in Arabic, had previously served as a Judge at Tanga and also spoke Swahili. He banned slavery and flogging, making them both criminal offences. Dar es Salaam, the capital, became a modern thriving town; Tanga, Bagamoyo and Lindi ports were all improved. He built roads, bridges, 1,500 schools and the railways, with a network of 4,500 km were completed. He also tripled exports especially rubber, rice, peanuts and cotton. In 1912 he was succeeded by the equally motivated Heinrich Albert Schnee, who stated that his major goal was the welfare of the native people entrusted to his care. They achieved more in 6 years than the previous administrations had in two decades.

In 1913 the rumblings of war in Europe convinced Governor Schnee that it was time to request that the ageing steam and sail light cruiser SMS Geier be replaced with a modern warship to defend the colony. The admiralty decided to despatch the refurbished Konigsberg from Kiel to East Africa under Commander Max Loof with a Crew 350 officers and men.

After passing through the Kiel Canal [slide]... she entered Wilhelmshaven for final fitting out. This was the main Naval base of the High Seas fleet and you can get an idea of scale from this 190 meter long Bayern class battleship. [Slide] Map circa 1910. She left Wilhelmshaven 28th April 1914, Almeira 3 - 5 May, 7-8 May Cagliari, 9-12 May Naples; joins battle-cruiser Goeben and cruiser Breslau. Called at Malta then 11 Mersin in Turkey, arrives 21 May in Port Said.

This [slide] is the entrance to the canal about that time. After passing [through the Suez Canal] .. Tea in Aden 23- 27 May arrived Dar [es Salaam] 6 June. For Captain Loof and crew visiting the various ports, it must have seemed like a holiday as they received VIP treatment. Anchored in Dar they were entertained at civic functions and private homes and enjoyed the tranquillity of the town and its parks and gardens. There were even hunting expeditions to the interior. With the rumblings of war in Europe growing ever louder, Loof had his orders and discipline and drill were maintained at the hiqhest level.

Late in July whilst the British Cape cruiser squadron was on a routine visit to Mauritius, the commander, Rear Admiral Herbert King-Hall, received a wireless message that the Konigsberg was preparing to leave Dar es Salaam. He immediately set sail with his flag aboard HMS Hyacinth accompanied by the slower Pegasus and Astraea intending to blockade the German cruiser in Dar.

Loof, aware of the approaching British squadron, had not been idle, he had already despatched the Somali, a steamer converted to a collier to a fuelling rendezvous, and with his ship at action stations left Dar at 4: 30pm on July 31. An hour and half later they ran headlong into the British squadron which immediately took up station around the Konigsberg at 3 000 yards maintaining a stately 12 knots. Should war be declared they could pound the German to bits. Loof meanwhile ordered his engineer to get up to full steam but not make smoke and waited his chance. It came when they ran into a squall, Loof ordered full ahead, outstripping the lumbering British fleet, he then brought his ship 180 degree turn to starboard, after an hour when the squall lifted the British fleet had vanished and Loof cruised into the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

After successfully giving the now furious King-Hall the slip, Loof, following his orders to destroy Allied shipping in the event of war, headed north. Off the horn of Africa he received the long awaited radio signal advising that Germany was at war with France, Britain and Russia and he set course for the busy shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. On the evening of August 6, 1914, the lone cargo ship S.S. City of Winchester was steaming southwest en route to London with her load of general cargo and the first of India's seasonal tea crop, when searchlights stabbed out of the evening haze followed by a rapid signal lamp query: 'what ship and nationality.' Captain Boyck believed the approaching vessel to be a British cruiser and so he dutifully replied to the inquiry with the ship's name and port of registry. He was immediately ordered to stop his ship. It was only when a German naval officer accompanied by an armed party of sailors climbed aboard that Captain Boyck realized that war had been declared.

By now Konigsberg's coal situation was becoming a concern so bringing with her the City of Winchester, and 3 German freighters she had found in the gulf all five ships lay at anchor off the Oman coast. Konigsberg transferred coal & four hundred tons of supplies from City of Winchester and after putting a few shells through her waterline she was scuttled. All of the German ships headed on their independent ways, whilst the Konigsberg remained in the Gulf area.

Due to reports of both the Konigsberg and the Emden loose in the British Lake as the Indian Ocean was known to the RN, ships were confined to port and Loof only encountered neutral Japanese ships in the gulf. Once again he needed coal and headed for the rendezvous with his supply ship Somali, off Ras Hafun in Somalia and then headed south hoping to find richer pickings from the French in Madagascar.

Early on the morning of August 29, the German cruiser coasted gently into the bay at Majunga, only to find a Red Cross station and no ships. As had happened before, the locals believed Konigsberg to be British, and only when she was steaming back out of the bay without anchoring did the local radio send out alerts that the Germans were in their harbor. By now Konigsberg's coal supply was down to 200 tons, only a quarter of her normal full load. Careful planning allowed her to meet Somali, this time off the Aldabra Island. But the seas were too heavy, and the coaling effort was called off and both ships headed for the Rufiji River delta. This delta believed "un-navigable" by the British, had recently been charted by the German survey ship Mowe, who had discovered this river to have several deepwater channels.

On the afternoon of September 3, 1914, Konigsberg and Somali passed the bar at the mouth of the Rufiji River and steamed quietly up the Simba Uranga channel. Once the German authorities at the Salale customs station recovered from the shock at Konigsberg's unexpected arrival, messages were sent off to Dar-es-Salaam notifying them that Konigsberg was not sunk as the British had claimed, and that she required coal and supplies. The steamer President was despatched from Dar and using lighters and the tug Adjutant made the Konigsberg seaworthy again. Since the last French report the Konigsberg had again disapeared.

On September 19 a coast watcher personally reported to Loof that he had seen a British cruiser steam into Zanzibar Harbour, (It was the Pegasus). Commander John Ingles would have much preferred his ship's overhaul to take place at the British stronghold of Mombasa, but the Royal Navy had already suffered loss of face in East African waters and it was deemed sound policy that Zanzibar's inhabitants should realize the Navy's resolution to protect them.

This photo [slide] claims to show the Pegasus at anchor off Zanzibar. I am sceptical and this picture [slide] appears far more likely to be genuine. Ingles was uncomfortably aware that the Pegasus - her fires drawn while the residue of long steaming on poor-quality coal was cleared from her boilers - was a sitting duck. He ordered his gunners to tak it in turns to sleep at their posts and sent the armed tug Helmuth to patrol the harbour approaches.

A little before 0500, Helmuth sighted what looked like a merchantman making her way cautiously through the shoals of Zanzibar's south channel. The stranger's reply to Helmuth's challenge was sudden and shocking. Breaking out the German battleflag, she gathered speed and brushed Helmuth aside with two warning shots. The Konigsberg drove in towards Pegasus. The first salvos from Konigsberg's 5 gun broadside opened up from 7,000 meters and bracketed the motionless Pegasus, whose eight 4-in guns were outranged by about a half mile. By 0525, when Pegasus had fired some 50 rounds to no more effect than a graze on Konigsberg's 2" armoured deck, the British cruiser was ablaze amidships. One by one her guns fell silent as the German scored hit after hit.

An illustration [slide] from an unknown source showing Pegasus, despite reports that her fires were drawn, under fire from Konigsberg. The Konigsberg had scored around 300 hits on Pegasus, killing 31 men, wounding over 50. Pegasus sank at 1300. Konigsberg swung around and headed out of the harbour, firing three rounds at the British radio station which was sending frantic requests for help. As the German cruiser left the harbour several zinc cordite casings were thrown into the water to give the effect of mine-laying.

Captain Ingles was strongly criticised by the High Command for his actions and this chart [slide] was part of the official enquiry into the sinking. Possible Court martial - Copy of the report by the director of Navigation.

Unfortunately for Konigsberg, one of her main engines had broken a piston-rod crosshead and Looff's plans for a raid along the South African coast were shelved. Only the machine shops at Dar-es-Salaam could manufacture the spare parts needed. So twenty-four hours after her departure Konigsberg was back in the safety of the Rufiji delta. Both Konigsberg and Somali were camouflaged and many of Konigsberg's light weapons were moved ashore to keep out curious British landing parties. Soon, they were joined by forces from the land army who garrisoned the local islands and dug entrenchments and spotting posts throughout the seaward edge of the delta.

In early November 1914 another German light cruiser SMS Emden sank a cruiser, a destroyer and 16 merchant ships, coaled 11 times from three captured colliers and had attacked Madras, a major Indian port, firing 125 shells in ten minutes into the oil storage depot and destroying 350,000 gallons of oil. This caused panic among the British and Allied shipping offices in the Indian Ocean. Insurance rates for merchant ships skyrocketed, shipping companies could not afford to leave harbour. It was a source of much embarrassment to the British and other Allies that two German light cruisers could effectively shut down the entire Indian Ocean.

This double blow to British interests was not to be stood for, the modern 5,400 ton, 25 knot, 8 x 6" gun cruisers HMS Chatham, HMS Weymouth and HMS Dartmouth under Captain Sidney Drury-Lowe were dispatched to find and destroy Konigsberg. Additional units were despatched to the Indian and far east stations whilst a mixed force of Russian, Japanese and British ships went after the Emden.

The Royal Navy searched the east coast of Africa without success. Germany's carefully deployed supply-ships were, ironically, the means of Konigsberg's betrayal. Early in October, Captain Drury-Lowe of Chatham, following yet another false trail in the Mozambique Channel, captured the 250-ton German tug Adjutant. The tug's papers revealed she was bound for a rendezvous with President in Lindi Bay, south of the Rufiji. This date was kept by Chatham. Although not registered as a hospital ship, President flew the Red Cross flag. Turning a Nelsonian blind eye, Drury-Lowe sent a boarding-party, the liner's papers showed that she had off-loaded coal into lighters in September. These had taken it up the Rufiji. This, combined with a study of President's charts, gave Drury-Lowe the clue he needed.

The British cruisers arrived off the Rufiji on 30 October. Lookouts reported the German collier Somali about three miles up one main channel and what looked like the upper-works of a bigger vessel much farther inside the delta. Local Africans confirmed that there was a large warship about 12 miles up-river and added that the main channels' banks were strongly held by German and askari troops and that the waters were mined. On November 2, the three British cruisers zeroed in on what they now knew to be the German ship's masts and fired throughout the day. No targets were hit but Looff moved his ship two miles further upstream as a precaution. This was the beginning of an 8 month impasse.

At this point the British also began formulating a strategy that they hoped would quickly end the war in East Africa. Apart from the threat of the Konigsberg, the war to date had only amounted to a few minor actions by the Schutztruppe accross the border into southwest BEA. The British had already despatched a force of 4 000 men in early September, known as Indian Expeditionary Force C, to reinforce the KAR in the Kilimanjaro region protecting the railway. The next phase of the British plan involved the dispatch of a second force to Mombasa in preparation for the attack on Tanga. This force, 8000 strong, commanded by the over confident Major-General Arthur Aitken, was known as Indian Expeditionary Force B.

On November 1st, Force 'B' in 14 troop transports, protected by the battleship Goliath, cruiser Fox and destroyers, weighed anchor at Mombasa and moved south in sight of the coast towards Tanga. The British landed largely unopposed. The German inland garrisons were rushed by rail to defend the town and over the next three days, von Lettow Vorbeck, with his well trained and equipped Schutztruppe, despite being outnumbered 8 to 1, drove the invaders back onto their ships with over 800 casualties. The Secretary of State for War, Kitchener, was so furious he refused to issue medals even to those who fought bravely. This debacle was concealed from the British public and only became public knowledge in 1966.

In February Drury- Lowe summoned the battleship HMS Goliath which was stationed at Mombasa . She arrived off the Rufiji and after firing over 450 rounds from her 4 35 x 12' guns for a whole day was forced to withdraw with engine problems without scoring a single hit. Several days later Chatham scored several hits on Somali during the course of a general attack. Somali soon began to burn and eventually became a total loss. The Royal Navy intercepted radio messages that indicated a supply ship was on its way to replenish the Konigsberg. If that were to happen, the embarrassment would be intolerable and so Admiral King-Hall was pressured to resolve the matter.

An attempt to send cutters armed with torpedoes up the river was severely dealt with by the Delta Force. As the British could not sink the Konigsberg they decided to plug the exits so she could not escape. They filled the collier Newbridge's holds with rubble and explosives and at dawn on November 9 the ship crept into the channel. The defences were waiting for them and through a hail of gunfire the ship was positioned and the sea-cocks opened and the charges detonated as the crew made their escape on the escorting cutters. Of the 60 odd men involved 2 were killed and 9 badly wounded. The jubilant admiralty announced that Konigsberg was imprisoned and posed no further danger. Wrong channel.

The British were now desperate. Captain PJ Pretorius the SA elephant hunter responsible for the decimation of the Addo herd, who had farmed and hunted in the Rufiji area, was a fugitive on a number of counts from the German authorities. He was summoned to meet Admiral King-Hall aboard the battleship Goliath anchored off Mafia island. Frederick Courtney Selous trekked from Rhodesia. Both were charged with finding the elusive ship. Despite claims of success very little happened.

The rumour of a supply ship was well founded. The 6 000 ton steamer Rubens, loaded with 2 000 tons of coal, 5 million rifle cartridges, Torpedoes, 1 000 x 105mm shells, spares and provisions for the troops left Wilhelmshaven on the 18 Feb. Disguised as the Danish freighter Kronburg, which was in dry-dock in Copenhagen, she avoided the British blockade and arrived off GEA in mid April heading for the Port of Tanga. Intercepted by the cruiser Hyacinth they made a run for the shallow Manza bay where the cruiser could not follow and although the coal was alight from shellfire they succeeded in beaching the ship and flooding the hold, saving most of the cargo.

The C in C, Admiral Sir Henry King-Hall obtained two civilian Curtiss flying boats from Durban, These arrived aboard the Kinfaun Castle with a Royal Navy Air Service contingent under Flight Commander JT Cull and they established an airfield and base on the recently occupied Mafia Island. These planes proved totally unsuitable for use in the tropics, unable to rise above 1500 ft, or withstand the ravages of the summer rains.

The Admiralty diverted the two shallow-draft river monitors, Mersey and Severn which were on their way to the Dardenelles, to the East African coast. Originally built in Britain for the Brazilian Navy in 1913, they were designed for service on the Amazon river. They were of shallow draft and fitted with 6 inch guns fore and aft plus 6 pounders and machine guns. Ideally suited to inshore, riverine and coastal work but totally unsuitable for service at sea. They left Malta under tow on 28 April with four tugs, a collier and fleet messenger SS Trent; after a torturous journey reaching Mafia Island on 3 June. Here they made good their defects, had the decks sandbagged and fitted with extra protection.

The Air Service on Mafia was reinforced in February 1915 with more pilots and two Sopwith Seaplanes, but these proved equally unsuitable, one shot down by the German land forces over the delta and the other crashing into the sea. These were replaced with a two-seater Short "folder" seaplanes which also proved unsuitable. Additional staff and equipment had arrived at the airfield on Mafia, Two new Caudron G3 and a Henri Farman F15 also proved far more serviceable and were fitted with floats. Flight Commander Cull and his observer Flight Sub-Lieutenant H. J. Arnold now finally located the Konigsberg and were able to take the first aerial photograph of the elusive cruiser. Despite the sailors of the Konigsberg efforts to shoot them down.

On the 6th July the monitors slowly entered the channel and immediately came under intense fire from the shore defences. An aircraft left Mafia with a cargo of bombs at 5:20 in the morning and after signaling their observations to the monitors proceeded to the Konigsberg where it came under intense fire with the bombs falling wide of the mark. The first day of operations did not go well for the British. The fire of the Konigsberg had proved accurate, but the Royal Navy's monitors were not - even after Cull had signalled the adjustments from the air. The accurate fire of the Germans, directed by telephone from the surrounding mangroves & Pemba Hill, had knocked HMS Mersey's forward six-inch gun out of action and holed the ship below the waterline and she was forced to withdraw. The Konigsberg now targeted the Severn, forcing her to move. She was no sooner underway than a salvo landed on the exact spot she had just left. After a further two hours of near stalemate the British withdrew, having fired 635 rounds for only four inconclusive hits. Described in one report as "aimless shelling of the African Jungle". Cull and his observer returned unharmed.

On July 11th the Monitors with Cull and Arnold overhead were in the entrance to the river and Konigsberg began firing with four of her main guns. The monitor's carefully rehearsed system for aerial observation and fire control worked better the second time. Konigsberg was so low on ammunition that she was unable to maintain the same rate of fire but still managed to knock out Mersey's rear gun and she was forced to withdraw. Soon numerous direct hits impacted along the length of the German cruiser.

One of the first hits landed next to the conning tower, followed by others which brought down the middle funnel and started a fire near the forward magazine which caused the ship's hollow mast to smoke like a chimney. The land lines to Pemba Hill and the forward observation post were cut and Konigsberg was firing blind, burning and under continuous shell fire. The order was sent out to abandon ship and the remaining crew scrambled down the side of the ship, bringing with them what wounded they could ...

As six inch shells continued to rain down, First Officer Koch placed torpedo heads to blow out the cruiser's keel, and at 1400 on the afternoon of July 11, 1915, SMS Konigsberg heaved slightly as the torpedoes detonated. A roar and a blast tore open the cruiser's hull plating and she started sinking into the mud of the Rufiji River. By 1500 the British monitors had ceased firing and retired back down the river to Mafia Island. The crew returned and tipped the 105mm guns overboard.

Flights over the deltas confirmed the Konigsberg sunk and the jubilant King-Hall 50 relayed the [news] around the world.

Lieutenant-Commander Schonfeld, a retired German naval officer and plantation owner in German East Africa, conceived a bold plan that was to bring immortal fame to the guns and the crew of Konigsberg. He suggested they salvage her guns for von Lettow-Vorbeck's forces to use on land. So under the noses of the Royal Navy that failed to interdict the salvage operations, the Germans retrieved the 10 105-mm guns from the bottom of the Rufiji River, plus 2 x 88mm guns and all the ammunition, transported them more than 124 miles to Dares Salaam (via some of Schonfeld's plantation vehicles) and mounted them on gun carriages. Employing this simple bit of ingenuity, the Germans expanded and modernized the Schutztruppe artillery and added 180 men from the Konigsberg to von Lettow-Vorbeck's force. Indeed, as the British Admiralty admitted, it was "a priceless acquisition."

It must have been tough on the crew bottled up in the delta for all those months, plagued by mosquitoes and other tropical pests and yet look in amazing good health in this photo [slide] taken during the salvage operation. They buried their dead next to the ship.

The guns of Konigsberg were successfully deployed around German East Africa. This captured photo appeared in The Illustrated War News in June 1916 & shows a 105 in a redoubt at one of the ports. In addition to the ammunition salvaged from the Konigsberg and her supply ships, ammunition was manufactured in Dar es Salaam.

The sailors and soldiers continued to fight on after the armistice in Europe on the 11 November 1918 and only laid down their arms on the 25 November when they heard of it. They were ordered to march to the British HQ in Abercorn Northern. Rhodesia. Here 135 Europeans, 1 168 Askaris and 3 000 porters surrendered. The Konigsberg's Gunnery Officer Richard Wenig, on his homemade prosthetic, refused to surrender his gun from the Konigsberg and blew it up. 1 100 rifles and 200 000 rounds of ammunition were handed in. Not a single German weapon was left.

Two of the Konigsberg guns were brought back by the SA army - this 88 at the [Ditsong] Museum [Slide]
And this 105 at Union Bldgs. [Slide]
The wreck in 1965 shortly before vanishing into the mud.[Slide]

One light cruiser and 12 000 German troops tied up 24 warships for 9 months, and 300 000 allied soldiers till the end of the war. Of the Konigsberg's original crew of 350 men, only 15, including Captain Looff, survived the war and returned to Germany where they received a hero's welcome.

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 11 April 2013

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