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The Königsberg Incident - I
The Königsberg Incident - II
A summary of her career

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The Indian Ocean and Rufiji Delta

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Königsberg Summary
On the evening of August 6, 1914, the lone cargo ship S.S. City of Winchester was steaming southwest through the Gulf of Aden en route to London. With her load of general cargo and the first of India's seasonal tea crop, the City of Winchester represented a humble fraction of Great Britain's merchant power. But on this particular evening, she entered the history books both as the first merchant shipping loss of the First World War, and as the first war time target of the German light cruiser S.M.S. Königsberg. For as the City of Winchester's Captain George Boyck was called upon by one of his officers to investigate an unidentified vessel approaching their ship, 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 all was not right. His ship was commandeered by a 'prize crew' from Königsberg and taken to the east coast of Oman, where she was partially stripped of her cargo and scuttled. Thus began the war time portion of the Königsberg Incident that had begun in Kiel five months before, and which did not end until 1918. During the course of the Great War this particular chapter in military history resulted in the loss of over a dozen vessels, the deaths of hundreds of men and littering of the East African plains, rivers and bays with relics of the fighting.

Königsberg at Dar es Salaam
Click to view photo
The story began before the war when the German government decided to post a modern cruiser to their East African colony. In 1913 this area of the continent, which today is the country of Tanzania, was controlled by a surprisingly enlightened civilian administration. They did not view the Africans as inherently inferior, and this not-so-subtle distinction dramatically affected the course of war time events within the colony. As a key component of colonial policy, Königsberg helped to enhance the status of German East Africa with its capital of Dar es Salaam, and reinforced the German Navy's ability to conduct commerce warfare in the case of war. This last item was not lost on Great Britain, which was keenly aware of the German colony's proximity to major shipping routes.

So it was that Captain Max Looff was assigned command of Königsberg in April, 1914. There was a great deal of excitement stirred up by the new mission, and by the time Königsberg departed Kiel on April 25, Looff had even purchased a new 9mm rifle to use for big game hunting. But hunting prospects aside, the seriousness of the assignment was clear. The ship's crew was hand-picked for their stability and temperament, the journey would be long, and tropical station required unusual stamina. With such a carefully selected team it is not surprising that the Captain and crew departed for the Indian Ocean in high spirits, ready for whatever adventure and travel awaited them. By the middle of May, 1914, Königsberg stopped at Alexandria Harbor in Egypt, and then passed through the Suez Canal on the way to Aden where Looff dined with the British governor. The hostile events which would soon overtake them were as yet unknown. Certainly Europe had been dancing along the brink of war for several years. But when Captain Looff and his light cruiser made landfall at Makatumbe, outside the port of Dar es Salaam on June 6, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand still had three weeks to live.

After arriving, Königsberg had the easy job of playing host to the innumerable Germans, Africans and other visitors curious to see her. The German East African capital was a world away from the clammy North Sea coast and the dusty red soil and sun-scorched docks packed with locals were overwhelming reminders of this. East Africa was to be, for most of Königsberg's crew, home and headquarters for what remained of their lives.

Manoari wa bomba tatu

During her peacetime stay on the African coast, Königsberg was known as Manoari wa bomba tatu by the Africans who believed a ship with three funnels to be more powerful than a ship with two funnels. Within weeks Königsberg had sunk the two funneled British cruiser Pegasus, but was later sunk by two single funneled river monitors at her mooring in the Rufiji River Delta.
On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Serbia, and as the political situation in Europe slid toward open war, the authorities in German East Africa began to discuss their own options. The civilian governor, Dr. Heinrich Schnee, stood against military action which would certainly endanger his civilian projects. He was already negotiating a neutrality agreement with the British. General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German Colonial Army, had no intention of allowing the British in Africa to be used elsewhere and he was already taking steps to prepare for war. Captain Looff's immediate and less controversial goal was to make sure his light cruiser was at sea if war came. He knew that the British were sensitive to his cruiser's presence on the East African coast, and in case of war they would quickly blockade Dar es Salaam. So as the last half of July passed, Königsberg finished a series of gunnery and torpedo training exercises and steamed back into harbor for an overhaul to wartime readiness. All wood furnishings were removed, lacquered paneling stripped away and supplies poured into every empty space.

By July 30, all was nearly ready and Captain Looff spent time ashore coordinating his plans with General von Lettow-Vorbeck's deputy, Major Kepler. German freighters in the area had been ordered to bring in their spare coal, and two were now in harbor. One of them, the 2,500 ton Somali, was pressed into service as Königsberg's seagoing supply depot. On July 31, the Deutsche Ost Afrika steamer Tabora arrived with news that three cruisers of the British Cape Squadron were due to coal at Zanzibar the next day. There was now no more time for planning if Königsberg was to avoid being trapped in the harbor. By 4:30 in the afternoon, she cast off and slowly made her way out into the Indian Ocean twilight.

Königsberg was ten miles out to sea and the night was already beginning when the officer in the foremast called down "three ships approaching." The Cape Squadron had arrived, only to discover Königsberg steaming out to sea. All three British cruisers, HMS Hyacinth, HMS Pegasus and HMS Astrea converged their courses on the Königsberg and took up station around her. If word of war came now, Königsberg would be in serious trouble. Captain Looff could only order steam for 22 knots and wait. Not long after, a squall blew in from the southwest and blanketed Königsberg with a driving warm rain, hiding all three of her unwanted escorts from view. The German cruiser whipped into a 180 degree turn and sped back toward the British ships. As she cleared the squall, Königsberg passed the Hyacinth, which was already making heavy smoke as she tried to bring up steam for full speed. Captain Looff turned south for one hour and then headed at full speed out to sea for the rest of the night, burning tons of valuable coal in the process. British Admiral King-Hall was left to his own fury at letting the cruiser escape from under his very nose, and Captain Looff waited for war in a cruiser already looking for more coal to fill her bunkers.

Somali in heavy seas
Six nights later, Königsberg was pushing her way through heavy seas off Cape Guardafui when she received the long anticipated order: EGIMA, the code word meaning that Germany was now at war with England, France and Russia. In all the long miles of the Indian Ocean, Königsberg was now alone and hunted. But she herself was a hunter, and hunt she would, with British shipping as her prey. After contacting several German merchant ships, Königsberg headed for the main shipping lane which ran through the Gulf of Aden. Within several hours of daylight she encountered three German steamers, the last of whom tried to evade the cruiser thinking her to be British. This short pursuit wasted more of the cruiser's coal, and none of the German steamers had any to spare. After passing a Japanese freighter Königsberg captured her first prize when she came upon the British steamer City of Winchester.

By now Königsberg's coal situation was becoming a concern. She headed for a rendezvous with her supply ship Somali, bringing with her the City of Winchester, and the German freighters Zieten, Goldenfels and Ostmark. Eventually all five ships lay at anchor off the island of Hallaniya, the largest of the Kuria Muria group on the Oman coast. Königsberg transferred four hundred tons of supplies from City of Winchester and then scuttled her. Looff then arranged for a second rendezvous with Somali at Ras Hafun on the African coast as the Hallaniya anchorage was obviously unsafe in the aftermath of City of Winchester's disappearance. All of the German ships headed on their independent ways, with only Königsberg and Somali remaining in the Gulf area.

For several more days Königsberg searched in the main east-west shipping lanes and found nothing. It was as if the desert had extended out into the ocean, swallowing up everything. The British had reacted swiftly to the disappearance of the City of Winchester by diverting all ships away from the area. Also, the Japanese freighter of a few days before had recognized the Königsberg for what she was and radioed British authorities. So Captain Looff steamed up and down one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world, unable to find a single enemy ship. While the upheaval caused by his cruiser might have given him some comfort, his concerns were increasingly focused on finding more coal and fresh water. Fortunately, the second rendezvous with the Somali went mostly as planned, and by August 24 the Königsberg was underway again with full coal bunkers.

As his ship steamed down the African coast, Captain Looff wondered what was going on at Dar-es-Salaam. Her radio had been silent since war began, and he worried for news of events. He did not know that the German land transmitter had been shelled and destroyed by the British on the first day of war. Looff decided to steam south to Madagascar, where he hoped to catch French shipping unawares. But 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 Königsberg 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 Königsberg'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. Now the situation was critical because Königsberg had to have her coal if she was to avoid losing all power. It was finally decided that both ships would head for the Rufiji River delta, which had recently been charted by survey crews who had discovered this "unnavigable" river to have several deep-water channels. So on the afternoon of September 3, 1914, Königsberg 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 Königsberg's unexpected arrival, messages were sent off to Dar-es-Salaam notifying them that Königsberg was not sunk as the British had claimed, and that she required coal and supplies. Captain Looff was also able to gather the latest news on world and local events, the most important of which came on September 19. A coast watcher personally reported that he had seen a British cruiser steam into Zanzibar Harbor. There was only one possible course to follow; head immediately to Zanzibar and destroy the lone British cruiser. Judging by the watcher's description of the British ship, Captain Looff and his officers decided that it must be the Pegasus or the Astrea. In reality, it was the Pegasus which had returned to Zanzibar for minor boiler work.    Go to Page 2

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