In late 1916 the German raider SMS Wolf sailed from Germany to disrupt and sink allied shipping. During the course of an epic voyage lasting 15 months the ship brought the nature of global naval warfare to New Zealand when it laid mines off the coast that claimed two ships.
SMS Wolf was a converted cargo vessel of the Hansa Line of Bremen, previously named Wachtfels, and commissioned into the Imperial German Navy, under the command of Corvetten-Kapitän Karl August Nerger. It was a single screw ship, built at Flensberg in 1913, displacing 5809 tons, with a top speed of 11 knots. As an armed merchant raider the ship was fitted with seven 5.9 inch (150mm) guns, four torpedo tubes and 400 mines. In addition a seaplane nicknamed ‘Wolfchen’, (wolf cub) was carried. Manning the ship were 16 Officers and 320 men.
As an armed merchant raider the ship was fitted with seven 5.9 inch (150mm) guns, four torpedo tubes and 400 mines. In addition a seaplane nicknamed ‘Wolfchen’, (wolf cub) was carried.
Wolf departed Germany on 30 November 1916 in atrocious weather conditions which although most unpleasant, were particularly helpful when breaking through the Royal Navy blockade. Wolfsuccessfully reached the open sea on 10 December.
On the night of 16/17 January the ship laid its first minefield off Dassen Island, South Africa, followed by others off Cape Agulhas, Colombo and Bombay. The last field was laid on 19 February and with his task complete Captain Nerger began seeking out enemy shipping.
With some irony the first British vessel encountered was the SS Turritella, a sister ship to Wolf, previously the Gutenfels of the Hansa Line, captured at the beginning of the war, at Port Said. They met on 27 February and the procedure used by Captain Nerger became the standard for all boardings. The enemy ship was signalled to stop immediately and informed that a boat was being sent across. A boarding party comprising two officers, one petty officer and 10 seamen would board the enemy ship, the officers dressed in their white uniforms, armed with swords and pistols and the seamen armed with rifles and bayonets. The officers proceeded to the bridge and the petty officer to the engine room. Having taken control of the ship the captured officers were sent across to Wolf and the ship worked with its normal crew until no longer required, when they too were sent to Wolf. The Master of the Turritella was Captain T.G. Meadows, a New Zealander while the crew was mainly Chinese. Following this capture Captain Nerger learned that some of his crew were guilty of looting and having recovered the stolen items, formally warned his men that such offences were punishable by death.
The ship was renamed Iltis, after a ship in which Captain Nerger had served in China in 1900 and 25 mines were put aboard, together with a 12 pounder gun. Kapitän Leutnant Brandes was put in command, with 25 German seamen. On the night of 5 March Iltis laid the mines in the approaches to Aden, but then encountered HMS Odin. Not being able to escape Lieutenant Brandes scuttled his ship and the crew were captured.
Three more ships were captured during March as Captain Nerger made for the Pacific Ocean. Having been at sea for over four months the ship needed some essential maintenance, which required a remote anchorage. On 22 May Wolf anchored on the South Eastern side of Raoul Island (also known as Sunday Island) in the Kermadec Group, some 600 miles to the north of New Zealand.
On a local level, Wolf, brought the war to New Zealand in a tangible way. That the war was truly world-wide was not appreciated by the majority of New Zealanders until it was known that the enemy had laid mines off our coast.
Ten days later a ship hove into sight and the seaplane was hurriedly made ready and steam raised. The 2nd Mate of the SS Wairuna called Captain Saunders when the strange ship was sighted suggesting that it could be a German raider. The Captain scoffed at the idea, but then the seaplane flew overhead and dropped a message on deck which stated “Do not use wireless. Stop Engines”. As a warning a bomb was dropped ahead of the ship and Captain Saunders complied. Wolf then anchored again and continued with repairs. On the night of 6 June, two officers of the Turritella, Chief Officer A. Steers and 2nd Engineer A.C. Cleland, a New Zealander, slipped over the side in an attempt to escape ashore. Neither was seen again.
At 10.00 pm on 25 June, in squally rainstorms and a choppy sea, Wolf laid mines off North Cape, towards the Three Kings Islands, completing the field of 25 mines at 2.30 am the next morning. A second field of 35 mines was laid off Cape Farewell, in the western approaches to Cook Strait on the night of 27/28 June. These mines subsequently sank the SS Port Kembla and the SS Wimmera.