BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE WOLF: How One German Raider Terrorised Australia and the Southern Oceans in the First World War, by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
, February 6, 2010
Terror on the high seas
THE WOLF: How One German Raider Terrorised Australia and the Southern Oceans in the First World War
by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
(William Heinemann Australia)
Paperback: 384 pages
Rec. price: $34.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
One of the more notorious aspects of Germany's conduct during World War I was its U-boat campaign, its most famous victim being the Cunard trans-Atlantic ocean liner the RMS Lusitania which was sunk off southern Ireland on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives.
The award-winning book The Wolf, by two Australian authors Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, explores an aspect of Germany's naval war which, despite numerous publications of accounts by survivors soon after the war, has largely been forgotten. This is the first full-length modern study of a famous German raiding ship that brings to life again a fascinating story for the modern reading public.
Late in 1916, as the German navy was preparing to relaunch its U-boat campaign against the Allies, it dispatched a couple of raiding ships. Disguising themselves as neutral or Allied vessels by flying the flags of these nations, they would suddenly hoist the German flag before they engaged their target.
Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen's book focuses on one of these raiders, the Wolf, commanded by KapitÃ¤n Karl Nerger.
Its mission was twofold. First, it was to lay mines in a number of strategic shipping lanes just outside of key British ports, including Cape Town, Singapore and off New Zealand. Second, it was to seize and destroy shipping vessels.
Against all odds, during its 15-month voyage, this small coal-powered vessel wrought considerable havoc on Allied shipping, before successfully returning to Germany.
Nerger was a master tactician. Aided by a reconnaissance aircraft, the WÃ¶lfchen (Wolf Cub), that he was able to launch from his ship, and by wireless apparatus, he was able to choose his targets carefully, avoiding those that could have outgunned or out-chased him.
However, on a couple of occasions, he avoided capture only because a passing ship failed to conduct a thorough inspection of the Wolf. On another occasion, the Wolf narrowly escaped being detected near Singapore.
Nerger showed his resourcefulness when he captured the New Zealand steamship, the Wairuna. Nerger sailed it and the Wolf to the remote Sunday Island (north of New Zealand), where he stripped the ship of coal and other resources.
As he travelled through the Indian Ocean, into the Pacific and then back to the Indian Ocean, Nerger was faced with an ever-increasing urgent necessity to conduct raids in order to replenish supplies of vital resources such as coal and food.
The consequence was that, by the time the Wolf returned to the German port of Kiel in February 1918, she had captured over 450 prisoners, including neutral and Allied civilians as well as seamen from the ships she had sunk.
Nerger was careful not to mistreat civilians. Unlike many U-boat commanders, his battle conduct was "gentlemanly" - that is, he would fire a warning shot across the bow of a ship, signalling it to stop. Then, after having all personnel on board safely escorted to the Wolf, he set about plundering and then sinking the captured ship.
As a result, the Wolf was very overcrowded. Although the German crew shared the captured foodstuffs among the prisoners, this did not prevent diseases such as scurvy, associated with vitamin deficiencies, breaking out among those on board.
To alleviate the congestion, Nerger used the Igotz Mendi, a Spanish ship (Spain was a neutral nation at the time) captured in November 1917, to accommodate some of the prisoners. The Wolf managed to return to Kiel in February 1918, but the Igotz Mendi ran aground in fog on the coast of neutral Denmark. As a result, many of the captured family groups and women, instead of having to spend the remaining months of the war in German captivity, found themselves free once again.
Although the volume of shipping sunk by the Wolf, either by raids or the laying of mines, was negligible compared to the volume sunk by German U-boats, the Wolf's activities had a terrible psychological impact upon inhabitants in various parts of the British Empire.
The Allied governments and naval authorities were especially worried at the dearth of naval vessels available to track down German raiders and escort ships. As a result, for example, transports of troops desperately needed on the Western Front were suspended.
Moreover, when ships were sunk off the Victorian coast, the Australian Government kept encouraging false rumours that such activity was the result of German spies and saboteurs, even when the most reliable advice it had received from intelligence sources was that it was in fact due to attacks by raiders.
The Wolf is a fascinating reconstruction of the episodes of the career of this extraordinary raiding ship. It is the product of careful research in which the authors have tried to discern the truth - a challenging task given the fact that some of the earlier accounts have either glossed over or obfuscated certain key details.