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SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm


USS Von Steuben

SS Kronprinz Wilhelm was a German passenger liner built for the Norddeutscher Lloyd, a former shipping company now part of Hapag-Lloyd, by the AG Vulcan shipyard in Stettin, in 1901. She took her name from Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of the German Emperor Wilhelm II, and was a sister ship of the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

She had a varied career, starting off as a world-record-holding passenger liner, then becoming an auxiliary warship from 1914–1915 for the Imperial German Navy, sailing as a commerce raider for a year, and then interned in the United States when she ran out of supplies. When the U.S. entered World War I, she was seized and served as a United States Navy troop transport until she was decommissioned and turned over to the United States Shipping Board, where she remained in service until she was scrapped in 1923.

Kronprinz Wilhelm was launched on 30 March 1901 and started her transatlantic maiden voyage on 17 September 1901 from Bremerhaven via Southampton and Cherbourg to New York. She was one of the fastest and most luxurious liners on the North Atlantic and stayed on that run until 1914. The ship had a Marconi telegraph, electric central heating and electric light of 1,900 lamps on board. About 60 electric motors worked bridge cranes, fans, elevators, refrigerators and auxiliary machinery. Kronprinz Wilhelm had a control panel in the map room to close or open the 20 watertight doors. If a door was closed, this was shown by a lamp. This security system alone needed 3.2 km (2.0 mi) of special cables and 1.2 km (0.75 mi) of normal cables.

In September 1902, captained by August Richter, Kronprinz Wilhelm won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing yet from Cherbourg to New York in a time of five days, 11 hours, 57 minutes, with an average speed of 23.09 kn (42.76 km/h; 26.57 mph).

In her time as a passenger liner, many famous international personalities sailed on Kronprinz Wilhelm. These included the lawyer and politician Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler Jr. (1903), the opera singer Lillian Blauvelt (1903), the theatrical manager and producer Charles Frohman (1904); the inventor and author John Jacob Astor (1906) who died in 1912 aboard the RMS Titanic; the most picturesque woman in America, Rita de Acosta Lydig and her second husband, Captain Philip M. Lydig (1907); the author Lloyd Osbourne (1907); the star conductor Alfred Hertz (1909); the ballerina Adeline Genée (1908); the theatrical and opera producer Oscar Hammerstein together with the conductor Cleofonte Campanini and the opera singers Mario Sammarco, Giuseppe Taccani and Fernando Gianoli-Galetti (1909); and the multi-millionaire, politician and lawyer Samuel Untermyer (1910).

In 1902, Prince Heinrich of Prussia (1862–1929)—brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II—made a state visit to New York, where he was received by President Theodore Roosevelt. Media-oriented, he sailed on the new, impressive Kronprinz Wilhelm, on which a huge number of reporters could accompany him, and not the imperial yacht. There were also 300 passengers and 700 Steerage passengers aboard. This state visit was also an early example of film reporting. This was also the ship's first voyage under Captain August Richter, who was the captain until August 1907.'

When Germany entered World War I, Kronprinz Wilhelm was on the western side of the Atlantic, under the command of Captain Grahn. She was commissioned into the Imperial German Navy, and ordered to rendezvous with SMS Karlsruhe to take on two 88 mm (3.46 in) rapid-firing guns, 290 rounds of 88 mm ammunition, a machine gun, and 36 rifles as well as one officer, two non-commissioned officers, and 13 ratings. She was commissioned as an auxiliary cruiser. Lieutenant Commander (Kapitanleutnant) Paul Thierfelder—formerly Karlsruhe's navigation officer—became her commander, and Grahn was made 1st Officer.

The close proximity of the British cruiser HMS Suffolk abbreviated the rendezvous, forcing the two German ships to cast off hastily and speed away in different directions. Kronprinz Wilhelm took a meandering course towards the Azores, arriving on 17 August and rendezvousing with the German steamer SS Walhalla off São Miguel Island.

Walhalla and Kronprinz Wilhelm headed south from the Azores, while transferring coal from Walhalla to Kronprinz Wilhelm. She then learned from German representatives at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands that no further coal would be available in the neighborhood of the Azores and the Canaries. Consequently, her commanding officer decided to head for the Brazilian coast, where he hoped to find sources of coal more friendly to Germany or at least a greater choice of neutral ports in which to intern his ship if she should find herself unable to replenish her supplies from captured ships.

During the voyage to the Azores and thence to the South American coast, Kronprinz Wilhelm had to avoid contact with all shipping since she was not ready to embark upon her mission raiding Allied commerce. The guns had to be emplaced and a target for gunnery practice constructed. The crew—mostly reservists and civilians—received a crash course in their duties in a warship and in general naval discipline. A "prize crew" was selected and trained in the techniques of boarding captured vessels (prizes), inspecting cargo and ship's papers, and using explosive charges to sink captured ships. Finally, all members of the crew were outfitted in some semblance of a naval uniform.

The crew worked at a feverish pace in order to be ready, and by the time Kronprinz Wilhelm met Karlsruhe's tender—SS Asuncion—near Rocas Reef north of Cape San Roque on 3 September, preparations were nearly complete. At 2030 the following evening, the auxiliary cruiser encountered a target, the British steamer SS Indian Prince. The merchantman stopped without the raider's firing a shot. Heavy seas, however, postponed the boarding until shortly after 0600 the following morning. The prize crew found a cargo composed largely of contraband, but before sinking the ship, Commander Thierfelder wanted to salvage as much of her supplies and fuel as he could. Continued heavy seas precluded the transfer until the afternoon of 8 September. Indian Prince's crew and passengers were brought over to Kronprinz Wilhelm at around 1400, and the two ships moved alongside each other immediately thereafter. Coaling started and continued throughout the night of 8/9 September. The following morning, the German prize crew detonated three explosive charges which sank Indian Prince. Kronprinz Wilhelm then headed south to rendezvous with several German supply ships.

Coal, more than any other factor, proved to be the key to the success of Kronprinz Wilhelm's cruise. The hope of finding that commodity had brought her to the coast of South America, and her success in locating sources of it kept her there. Initially, she replenished from German steamers sent out of South American ports specifically for that purpose. She spent the next month coaling from four such auxiliaries before she even contacted her next victim. That event occurred on 7 October, when she hailed the British steamer SS La Correntina well off the Brazilian coast at about the same latitude as Rio de Janeiro. The next day, the raider went alongside the captured ship to seize the prize's coal and cargo of frozen meat before sinking her. She took La Correntina's two ammunition-less 4.7 in (120 mm) guns and their splinter shields. The raider later mounted the additional guns aft, where they were used for gun drills and to fire warning shots with modified, blank salute cartridges. She continued coaling and provisioning operations from La Correntina until 11 October, when bad weather forced a postponement. On 14 October, she resumed the transfer of fuel but broke off again when she intercepted a wireless message indicating that her captive's sister ship SS La Rosarina had departed Montevideo two days earlier and would soon pass nearby. The prize crew placed the usual three explosive charges, and La Correntina sank that same day.

During the ensuing five months, Kronprinz Wilhelm cruised the waters off the coast of Brazil and Argentina. Allied newspapers often reported that Kronprinz Wilhelm had been sunk, torpedoed, or interned, but between 4 September 1914 and 28 March 1915, she was responsible for the capture (and often sinking) of 15 ships—10 British, four French, and one Norwegian—off the east coast of South America. Thirteen of them sank from direct actions of Kronprinz Wilhelm; another she damaged severely by ramming, and it probably sank later. The remaining ship served to transport into port what had become an unbearable number of detainees on board after her 12th capture.

"Ships were usually captured either by Kronprinz Wilhelm simply overtaking them with superior speed and size, ordering them to stop, and then sending over a boarding party, or by pretending to be a ship in distress (or of a friendly nationality) and luring unsuspecting prey to her in that way. The targeted ships were usually caught by surprise (some did not even yet know that war had been declared), and their captain had to make the quick decision of whether to run, fight, or surrender. Since the captured ships were no match in speed, and usually had few or no arms, the unpleasant but expedient choice was to surrender. Kronprinz Wilhelm would send over a boarding party to search the captured vessel. If it appeared to have nothing of value or military significance, it was released and sent on its way. If it did have valuable (or contraband) cargo, or was a warship or a ship that might someday be converted to military use, the crew of Kronprinz Wilhelm would then systematically (and quite politely) transfer all of the crew, passengers, and their baggage and other valuable cargo from the captured ship to their own, including coal and other supplies. Then they would usually scuttle the captured vessel by opening up the seacocks (valves in the hull below the waterline), thereby causing the captured ship to fill with water after small charges were detonated, and sink. Throughout the entire journey, not a single life was lost." Lieutenant Alfred von Niezychowski, author of The Cruise of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, the book about her 251 days as a commerce raider in World War I. In this way she took the following:

  • SS Highland Brae, United Kingdom
  • Schooner Wilfred M., United Kingdom
  • Barque Semantha, Norway
  • Barque Anne de Bretagne France
  • SS Guadeloupe, France
  • SS Tamar, United Kingdom
  • SS Coleby, United Kingdom
  • Schooner Pittan, Russia (released)
  • SS Chasehill, United Kingdom
  • SS Indian Prince, United Kingdom
  • SS La Correntina, United Kingdom
  • Four-mast Barque Union, France
  • SS Bellevue, United Kingdom
  • SS Mont Agel, France
  • SS Hemisphere, United Kingdom
  • SS Potaro, United Kingdom
She missed one potential success, when on 14 September 1914 she came across the British armed merchant cruiser RMS Carmania, already badly crippled following a battle with the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cap Trafalgar, which had sunk shortly before Kronprinz Wilhelm's arrival. However, Kronprinz Wilhelm's commander chose to be cautious, and believing it to be a trap, steamed away without attacking the severely damaged Carmania.

Late in March 1915, the auxiliary cruiser headed north to rendezvous with another German supply ship at the equator. She arrived at the meeting point on the morning of 28 March and cruised in the neighborhood all day. That evening, she sighted a steamer in company with two British warships 20 mi (17 nmi; 32 km) distant. Though Kronprinz Wilhelm did not know it at the time, she had just witnessed the capture of her supply ship—SS Macedonia—by two British cruisers. The raider steamed around in the general vicinity for several days, but the passage of each succeeding day further diminished her hopes of a successful rendezvous.

Finally, a dwindling coal supply and an alarming increase in the sick list forced Kronprinz Wilhelm to make for the nearest neutral port. The apparent cause of the illness was malnutrition from their diet consisting mainly of beef, white bread, boiled potatoes, canned vegetables, and oleomargarine. The few fresh vegetables they seized from the captured vessels were reserved for the officers' mess.

Dr. Perrenon—the ship's surgeon—is reported to have said, "We had many cases of pneumonia, pleurisy and rheumatism among the men. They seemed to lose all resistance long before the epidemic broke out. We had superficial wounds, cuts, to deal with. They usually refused to heal for a long time. We had much hemorrhage. There were a number of accidents aboard, fractures, and dislocations. The broken bones were slow to mend." Slow healing is an early symptom of scurvy.

Early in the morning of 11 April, she stopped off Cape Henry, Virginia, and took on a pilot. At 1012 that morning, she dropped anchor off Newport News, and ended her cruise, during which she steamed 37,666 mi (32,731 nmi; 60,618 km) and destroyed just under 56,000 long tons (57,000 t) of Allied shipping. She and her crew were interned, the ship was laid up at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, and her crew lived in a camp nearby, as "guests". During their internment, the crews of these vessels—numbering about 1,000 officers and men—built in the yard—from scrap materials—a typical German village named "Eitel Wilhelm", which attracted many visitors.

The name Kronprinz Wilhelm was reclaimed by the German navy in 1918 when it renamed its battleship SMS Kronprinz as SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm. This ship was scuttled in June 1919 with the remainder of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow.

14th September 1914 Battle of Trindade 1914  The Battle of Trindade was a single-ship action fought during the First World War on 14 September 1914 off the coast of the Brazilian island of Trindade.


The German auxiliary cruiser Cap Trafalgar was steaming in South American waters on her commerce raiding mission when she came across several German colliers, trapped in the region by the Allied navies in the Western approaches. Cap Trafalgar, in need of supplies, was led to the Trindade and Martim Vaz islands where the Germans had established a small, hidden supply base. Cap Trafalgar arrived at the base on September 14, giving away her position early that morning by smoke from her steam engines. The British auxiliary cruiser Carmania, a former ocean liner which was designed to fight merchant vessels and small enemy warships, noticed the smoke and moved to engage. Coincidentally, the Cap Trafalgar, also intended for use against enemy merchant fleets, had been altered to resemble the Carmania. Some accounts wrongly claimed that both ships were disguised as each other. Carmania moved into Trindade's only sheltered anchorage, surprising Cap Trafalgar and two enemy colliers. Both the British and German commanders believed that in order to obtain a decisive victory, they would need more space to manoeuver their ships. They steamed several miles into open sea before turning into each other and commencing hostilities. Carmania fired the first shots, which fell short, thus allowing Cap Trafalgar to give out the first hit. For some ninety minutes the two ships fought a gunnery duel. They also used machine guns to target each other's crew. At first the German fire was more effective. Eventually, as the two ships closed to within a few hundred yards of each other, British shots became more accurate and fires began to spread aboard the German raider. Carmania received most of the hits during the fight, 73 hits in total. Her bridge was completely destroyed and she had taken hits below the waterline. However, just when things began to look dire for the British, the Cap Trafalgar turned away and began lowering life rafts, having been holed below the waterline and taking on water. She soon sank. The German colliers were able to rescue 279 German sailors from the sea and rafts. Between 16 and 51 of the crew are cited by different sources as killed in action or drowned. Carmania's crew suffered 9 dead, several wounded and the ship was severely damaged.


After receiving Cap Trafalgar's distress call, the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm arrived near the battle scene. Fearing a British attack, assuming the Cap Trafalgar had already been sunk and not knowing the poor condition of Carmania, she turned around and steamed away. The day after the battle, Carmania was rescued and escorted to the port of Pernambuco. The surviving Germans were dropped off by the colliers in Montevideo

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