[From F. Keble Chatterton The Sea-raiders, [nd but c.1929]


FEW chapters of naval warfare so well illustrate the varied careers of ships as that series of incidents which brought to a quick end the two ships which performed such useful work until the month of August 1915. It almost seems as if some vessels are predestined for adventure from their early days.

The first of these was built in Barrow originally for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company and for some time, as the Duke of Lancaster, used to steam regularly across the Irish Sea between Fleetwood and Belfast. Presently, however, she was sold to the Turks and was reconditioned with new boilers; but then came the war between Greece and Turkey, so that she was prevented from being handed over. In 1912 she was purchased by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, who named her the Ramsey, and was employed in the service between Liverpool and Douglas where this single-funnel twin-screw steamer was well known to excursionists from Lancashire and Yorkshire. She fulfilled her duties as usual carrying summer visitors in 1914, and was then taken over by the British Admiralty as an armed boarding steamer to look out for suspicious ships who might approach the British Isles on mine-laying raids.

Ramsey was given a couple of 12-pounder guns mounted below the bridge to starboard and port respectively, and she carried a crew of ninety-eight. In November 1914 she was sent up to Scapa Flow and thence began her duty of patrolling off the north-east Scottish coast. Steaming at night without navigation lights, one of the marines would be sent round the ship at dusk to ensure that all scuttles were screened and not the suspicion of a light was visible anywhere. Every man was on the alert, and whenever a ship was sighted, Ramsey would steam up abeam of her, keeping about 50 yards away, and then illuminate with her search-light the stranger's form whilst the latter was being questioned, " What ship ? " " Where from ? " "Where bound ? " Assuming everything seemed correct, the stranger was allowed to proceed, and the patrol resumed her cruising.

So weeks and months in that trying North Sea weather sped by, but the summer of 1915 was a busy one. The Grand Fleet having dominated the High Sea Fleet into a state of inactivity, punctuated by occasional tip-and-run raids, it remained for Germany to rely on the operations of submarines and furtive mine-laying adventures by surface craft. Ramsey in the last three months of her life stopped and searched quite a large number of ships, and in some cases had to put prize crews aboard them and take the suspects into port for further examination.

At last came Saturday, August 7, 1915, and it so happened that on this day Admiral Jellicoe proceeded to Cromarty in Iron Duke where he was to meet the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, who came north from London to discuss urgent matters with the Commander-in-Chief. At 5 p.m. Ramsey in the ordinary course of her routine left Scapa Flow for her patrol area off the Moray Firth, which of course has to be negotiated by all ships making for Cromarty Firth. Something out of the ordinary was happening on the night of August 7-8, for two separate patrol units-an armed yacht and an armed trawler-both sighted strange lights without being able to identify the vessel. About midnight there came through to the commanding officer of Ramsey a wireless message ordering him to keep a sharp look-out to the eastward.

Nothing further seemed to happen, though a great deal had occurred. The night was exceptionally fine though a little hazy, and thus the conditions had been ideal for a German raider. The German Admiralty were not aware that the flagship of the British Fleet the Commander-in-Chief, and the Prime Minister, were at the end of the Firth: that was a mere coincidence, But German naval intelligence still believed that Cromarty Firth, which in peace time had so often been used by the British Navy, was the Grand Fleet's war head-quarters and base. For this reason Germany had sent out a steamer named Meteor for the operation of laying mines to entrap all ships passing through Moray Firth.

The selection of Meteor was wise. She was really the British S.S. Vienna, which used to trade between Leith and Hamburg, but at the beginning of hostilities chanced to be in Germany where she was arrested and taken over by the Germans. As this vessel was just the kind of steamer likely to be seen in Scottish waters, she was not likely to arouse immediate suspicion when sighted : in fact, she was somewhat similar in build to Ramsey though slightly bigger and slower. It so happened that the summer haze and extent of sea combined to prevent her being observed, and she worked her time to a nicety, so that just as it was dusk she made the coast of Scotland and was able to lay her mines right up to within a mile of the southern shore of the Moray Firth. This was the new phase of raiding which for the present took the place of those abandoned ocean operations which we have just witnessed, and the strategy was sound. No fewer than 374 deadly eggs were thus laid, and the raider was able to dump her terrible cargo without interference.

Theoretically this effort should have been a huge success, for the field was laid in such a position that if the Grand Fleet were using Cromarty, and if they were shortly to proceed down the North Sea for one of their customary sweeps, they must inevitably have the same experience as happened to Audacious soon after Berlin deposited her traps. But the German enterprise failed to allow for one important fact : minesweeping trawlers next morning in the course of their usual work of towing their sweep-wires along Moray Firth's southern shore discovered these black eggs off Banff. It was thus that the enemy's secret was revealed, and this was immediately notified as a danger area. Its extent could obviously not be defined immediately, and at 6 a.m. on the 9th H.M.S. Lynx, a destroyer, struck one of the mines, blew up, with the loss of her commanding officer as well as all hands except three officers and twenty-one men. During the ensuing weeks sweepers carried on, so that by the first of October 280 of the then unknown number of mines had been accounted for.

But in the meanwhile, what about Meteor? At 5 a.m. on Sunday Ramsey sighted smoke on the horizon, and in accordance with the wirelessed orders, chased after the strange ship which was eventually overtaken, so that in half an hour that which was Meteor was seen to be flying the Russian flag and resembled a tramp steamer. So far there was no reason to suspect her particularly, when Ramsey blew her whistle for Meteor to stop. Perfectly disguised were ship and men, and after Meteor had stopped, Ramsey's boat with a boarding party put off. Now the latter had rowed only a short distance, when suddenly the Russian flag was hauled down and up went the German Ensign. Simultaneously Meteor threw off the last vestige of deception, opened fire with machine-guns, as well as two 4-inch guns on disappearing mounts. Ramsey was taken completely by surprise, her decks being showered with bullets and shells, her commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Raby, R.N.R., and the officers with him on the bridge being immediately killed. Meteor then loosed off a torpedo which hit Ramsey aft where the crew's quarters in this ship were situated, thus causing heavy loss of life as most of the men were off watch and below. The stern was shattered and the steamer began to sink before a gun had been able to fire in reply.

The Chief Engineer, Mr. T. Fayle, was asleep in his cabin at the after deck-house, and the torpedo's explosion carried away the deck abaft this house, so that this officer on finding the deck here missing jumped into the water whence he was later rescued by the Germans with a severely crushed foot. Unfortunately that incident which always seems to accompany the loss of a merchant ship occurred on this occasion: one of the boats in being lowered capsized. Thus the occupants were trapped underneath, but some of the ship's personnel managed to reach the bottom of the upturned boat and were rescued by the Germans whilst still clinging to the keel. One or two boats from Ramsey were lowered safely, but the whole incident happened so quickly that within four minutes the 1862-ton vessel had gone down, though with colours still flying.


Meteor picked up a total of four officers and thirty-nine men, and it is a pleasure here to record that, contrary to certain unforgettable incidents connected with the U-boat campaign, the behaviour of the German rescuers was both humane and courteous. Captain von Knorr, Meteor's commanding officer, was in every sense of the word a gentleman. Having mustered the British prisoners on deck, he sent them below to get dry clothes and medical comforts. After-wards he made a speech, expressing his regrets to see them in such a plight and his sorrow that so many brave men had been lost, but this was the fortune of war. He added that, as British officers had been so kind to many Germans, it behoved him to do all within his power for the British prisoners ; and anything that was asked for in reason should be granted. At the same time he inquired if they would like to have a service in memory of their lost comrades. The reply was that the offer would be gladly accepted, so this was done; a lectern was covered with the Union Jack, Captain von Knorr and all officers not on duty attending the service.

The Meteor made her way south-eastwards towards Germany and the excellent treatment of prisoners was not abated. They were supplied with cigarettes and cigars, extra privileges were conceded to officers who were confined to cabins on deck, whilst the men were placed in the ship's hold with a mattress and blanket for each. Here they remained till 3 p.m. that Sunday afternoon when they were brought up on deck and exercised for an hour, after which they were sent below, given tea., and eventually went to sleep. Their slumber that night was disturbed by the firing of Meteor's guns; for, towards the middle of the North Sea, she en-countered one of those little Norwegian schooners which at this time were making such good profits by carrying cargoes of pit-props so badly needed in England. Meteor sank her, brought the Norwegian crew on board and sent them down into the hold to join Ramsey's men.

But an interesting situation was fast developing. When the various items of news reached Admiral Jellicoe on Sunday in Iron Duke that a Moray Firth minefield had been discovered and that an armed steam yacht as well as a trawler had sighted strange lights during the dark hours, the Commander-in-Chief realised that the visitor had been a German surface minelayer. He therefore reasoned that this vessel would now be on her way back home and might with luck be intercepted. There were but two routes available : either up the Skagerrak and then south down the Kattegat ; or south-east across the North Sea to pick up Horn Reef, and thence to the Heligoland Bight. So the Admiralty was informed, and whilst one Light Cruiser squadron was sent to the Skagerrak, other Light Cruiser squadrons were sent to the Horn Reef.

Thus we come to the afternoon of Monday, by which time Commodore Tyrwhitt's Light Cruiser force had come out of Harwich, steamed to the north-east and about 4 p.m. was off Horn Reef. Meteor was some 50 miles still to the north-west of that Reef when she was warned by a German airship of the approaching British cruisers. German air scouts were patrolling north-west of the Ems, and it so happened that the German submarine U 28 was in the neighbourhood on her way home. She picked up the wireless signals likewise. When Knorr sighted those beautiful Harwich greyhounds of the sea, he realised that the game was up. Thanks to Admiral Jellicoe's foresight, retribution had arrived in due time at the right spot. The German captain decided to abandon and sink Meteor. That was why his British prisoners to their surprise were hurriedly ordered to come up out of the hold as quickly as possible, only to find smoke on the horizon signifying the approach of naval strength. Meteor's people were not a little alarmed, but a number of Danish fishing sailing craft happened to be about, and one of these was commandeered by Knorr, who packed into her both British prisoners and the Norwegians. Two German officers remained to place a time-fuse bomb in Meteor and then joined the rest of Knorr's crowd, so that just as the cruisers came up Meteor was seen to explode and sink.

Now the senior surviving officer from Ramsey was Acting-Lieutenant P. S. Atkins, R.N.R., and he did a smart thing. As he watched the leading cruiser-H.M.S. Cleopatra-come rushing along, Atkins ordered a surviving signalman to inform Cleopatra that Ramsey's survivors were aboard the fishing craft and asked to be taken off. But the picture at that moment was a complicated one, the Commodore was being attacked by aircraft and submarines, so a signal came back thus

" Steer south-west. I will return and pick you up." Atkins was also ordered to take charge of the fishing vessel.

Knorr, of course, would not allow interference with the fishing vessel's navigation, and reminded Atkins that they were under a neutral flag. But eventually British arguments prevailed, and a south-west course was steered until another fishing craft was reached. This was a Norwegian, and Knorr after consultation with his brother officers agreed to the British prisoners being transferred. By means of two dinghys Atkins and his shipmates were taken off, whilst the Germans remained in the Danish vessel; but an incident at this juncture took place which would never have happened if Knorr had not possessed the character which we have noted. Just as Atkins was leaving, the German captain inquired if he had any money. " Seeing that you picked me up in my pyjamas," answered the R.N.R. officer, " how could I have any ?"

Knorr insisted on Atkins accepting money, but the latter equally insisted that this would not be necessary. In the end Atkins did as he was requested, receiving an English £5 note together with other money. The courtesy was another instance of the statement that the German surface-raiders usually carried out warfare with clean hands and respect for the traditions of the sea ; whilst U-boat officers too often showed a total disregard for anything but frightfulness. It only remains to add that eventually this money was handed to Admiral Jellicoe, who sent it on to the British Admiralty asking that it might he returned with the thanks of the British.

Atkins and party were aboard the Norwegian only about half an hour when H.M.S. Arethusa, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Tyrwhitt, came along. After the latter realised the state of affairs, he lowered a boat and took his compatriots off. The latter, now full of joy at such deliverance, were mustered on the quarter-deck and addressed by the Commodore and then given a good square meal. On Tuesday afternoon they were landed at Harwich where they were sent to Shotley Barracks. Yet even now there was not immediate rest. About midnight the Germans had their revenge by an air-raid, and bombs dropped over the Ramsey men in such proximity as to cause the latter to wonder which was the worse: a raid from the sea, or one from the air.

To very few sailors has there ever been the experience of being at sea in one afternoon under four different flags. Possibly no other men have been guests on the same day in a German, Danish, Norwegian, and British vessel. Nor have many survivors had the rare experience of being addressed by a German officer on Sunday, and similarly mustered by a British officer on the day following.

Knorr owed his escape, after the British cruisers had departed, to the presence of U 28, which the German Commander-in-Chief, Admiral von Pohl, had sent out, by whose orders, likewise, the airship had been sent forth as escort. (Admiral Tirpitz, none the less severely criticised his brother admiral, by remarking: " Young Knorr has carried out a brilliant minelaying operation. Pohl had again failed to fix any rendezvous for a supporting force for Knorr's auxiliary cruiser.") Ordering the submarine to take the fishing vessel in tow, Knorr with his crew numbering over a hundred thus reached Lister Tief (Sylt) in safety after a brief but exceedingly adventurous raiding cruise.

This was not the first minelaying mission which Meteor had undertaken, for in June of that year she had been up to the White Sea and laid a series of minefields off various landmarks of the Kola Peninsula so as to entrap the steamers bringing munitions from Britain to Russia. A very tiresome series of operations followed when British minesweepers in the face of every difficulty (not excluding Russian lethargy and pro-German-ism) were sent to locate and destroy these hidden dangers.

But the great lesson which the German Admiralty learned from the Meteor-Ramsey episode was this: An ordinary merchant steamer — not a big liner nor a naval cruiser — properly disguised and well armed with powerful guns as well as torpedo-tubes, possessed considerable possibilities as a raider. If she were accosted by some armed merchant cruiser and ordered to heave-to, she would have plenty of time to unmask herself and attack whilst the British patrol was lowering the boat with its boarding party. The use of some foreign flag, the perfection of disguise, would be efficacious for a temporary delay, and then would come the knock-out blow following immediately after perfect surprise.

The only weakness to Knorr's exploit had been the narrowness of the North Sea, which had enabled the Harwich cruisers to dash out and make interception across the only two possible tracks. If, therefore, the principle were applied again to the ocean with its wide area, and the right kind of vessel were chosen that had the right type of captain, then it was possible that deep-sea raids might again be launched even though the German Supply system and Captain Boy-Ed had fallen. The crux of the cruise would be how to get through the British blockade both outward and home-ward bound. If this could be overcome, then the chances of doing on a big scale what Knorr had achieved in a limited sphere were quite as favourable as could be expected.

Mines must be laid at strategical points off the British Isles where they would be likely to destroy, or at least damage seriously, capital ships. But sufficient armament must be aboard the raider to cope with any likely patrol vessel, and the long nights of winter must be taken advantage of in order to allow sufficient cover for the minelaying operation. It is thus that we reach the period when the greatest possible effort was made (z) to break out of the North Sea by every artifice and daring, and (2) reach the trade routes along which for months British vessels had been bringing food, raw materials, and warlike stores with impunity, whilst the Grand Fleet was keeping the same from reaching Germany.

Looking at the problem from the Teutonic point of view, one appreciates that something had to be done. The submarines had not yet realised their full powers or radius of action, the High Sea Fleet was deteriorating slowly both in moral and popularity because it did nothing, and the German public was just becoming conscious that the British blockade was to cause them inconvenience followed by serious hardship. The time, then, was ripe to make a fresh effort at harrying British commerce on voyage, and in thus doing bring back to the German nation the confidence which was once possessed in its naval strength.

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