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Naval Action - 29th February 1916

29th February 1916 Naval Action - 29th February 1916  The Action of 29 February 1916 was a battle between a German commerce raider which broke out into the North Sea and a fleet of Royal Navy warships sent to intercept it by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. Four British vessels made contact with the German raider and in the ensuing engagement two ships were sunk.


Just launched, the 5,000 ton auxiliary cruiser SMS Greif was armed with four hidden 15-centimeter guns, one hidden 10.5-centimeter gun and two torpedo tubes. She had a ships complement of approximately 360 officers and crewmen. Greif left Hamburg and headed into the North Sea on February 27, intending to enter the Atlantic by an Icelandic route but a British submarine spotted her and reported her position to the Admiralty the next day. Admiral Jellicoe sortied five cruisers and seven destroyers to sweep the North Sea with the auxiliary cruisers HMS Alcantara and HMS Andes which were already on patrol. The British auxiliary cruisers both weighed about 15,000 tons and carried eight 6-inch and two 3-pounders each. Four Royal Navy warships encountered the Greif, including the two auxiliary cruisers, the light cruiser HMS Comus and the destroyer HMS Munster which arrived at the very end of the action.


At about 0845 on the 29th February 1916, lookouts aboard the Alcantara spotted smoke off the port beam. Her commander Captain Thomas Erskine Wardle maneuvered closer to identify the source of the smoke. This later proved to be from SMS Greif. A few minutes later HMS Andes reported that her lookouts had sighted a ship with two masts and a black funnel headed northeast. Two Norwegian steamers were also observed flying their large flags. The two British vessels closed on the Greif until within signalling range. First Captain Wardle ordered the German vessel to stop and two blank rounds were fired. The Germans hove to and signaled that they were from Trondheim and were headed for Rio de Janeiro. At about 0940 the British were close enough to lower a few boats with a boarding party to take command of the seemingly harmless steamer. At this moment the raider unmasked her guns and opened fire on the Alcantara at a range of 800 yards. The first discharge struck the Alcantara's bridge causing heavy damage and destroying the communications equipment. Further shots hit and sank some of the boarding party's boats and also knocked out the ship's steering gear. Alcantara increased her speed and began returning fire as the Germans attempted to flee towards the Norwegian coastline. Her first shot struck the Greif's poop gun, killing the crew. For several minutes the two vessels dueled at close range. The Andes which was about five miles from the battle area heard the gunfire. She closed to within three miles of SMS Greif and opened fire. Her first shots struck the bridge of the German raider and destroyed its steering gear. The Greif launched two torpedoes at the Alcantara, the first of which hit her amidships and the second passed under her stern. The British knocked out another German gun and set her fuel tanks on fire. One shot entered the hull of the Greif, exploded and slowed the vessel to a halt. Reports say that both the Greif and Alcantara were struck several times at or below the waterline which left the British vessel in a sinking state as well. German fire ceased at 1018 and a few minutes later the Royal Navy sailors spotted life boats being lowered from the burning Greif, but continued to fire at her. As the German commander climbed down the rope to his life boat, he was struck in the neck and beheaded. Several moments later Captain Wardle ordered his men to abandon ship and at 1102 the Alcantara was underneath the water. Around this time the Comus and Munster arrived and finished off the sinking German raider. Wardle and his surviving crew were in the water for about twenty minutes before being picked up. About 187 Germans perished along with seventy-two Britons. Five officers and 120 Germans were rescued and taken prisoner by the Andes and Munster.

Though the British managed to sink the raider, Captain Wardle lost his ship in the process. He was later criticized for maneuvering too close to the German raider without knowing its true identity. Assuming the Greif was a harmless merchant ship cost Wardle his vessel and several men. Despite this he was recognized for bravery and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and eventually became a rear admiral. Officer’s Steward Richard Henry Buckett, who was among the survivors was awarded the D.S.M. for gallantly assisting the wounded.

John Doran

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