In this brilliant article, Bill Edwards-Bodmer tells the tale of the Konprinz Wilhelm, a converted German ship that terrorized Allied shipping in the Atlantic during World War I. Well, until it had to dock in Hampton Roads, Virginia – so leading to a fascinating interaction, including the formation of a German village on American soil.
On the morning of April 11, 1915, residents in Hampton Roads, Virginia awoke to a stranger in their midst. Looming just off Ocean View at Norfolk was the gray, rusting behemoth of a ship, Kronprinz Wilhelm. Despite its battered appearance,Kronprinz Wilhelm was something of a celebrity, and a mystery. For the past 8 months, the German luxury-liner-turned-commerce-raider had been terrorizing Allied shipping during the opening year of World War I. Now here it was in Hampton Roads, seeking much-needed repairs and refuge from the British navy lurking just beyond the Chesapeake Bay.
In its heyday, Kronprinz Wilhelm appeared as one of the grandest passenger liners of its era, sleek black and sparkling white. Named in honor of the young heir to the German throne, the ship was launched on March 30, 1901 by AG Vulcan Shipbuilding Company at Stettin, Germany. Kronprinz Wilhelm was one of a small, but prestigious, group of ships known as “four-stackers”; renowned for their size and the fact that they had four funnels or smoke stacks (Titanic was part of this group as well). Built for speed, Kronprinz Wilhelm plied the Bremen-New York route, setting record times for Atlantic crossings. The ship was advertised as part of the “Royal Family” of the North German Lloyd Steamship Line and its lavish accommodations made it especially popular among wealthy passengers. Prince Heinrich of Prussia even chose to sail on Kronprinz Wilhelm on an official state visit to the United States in 1902. But this was no ordinary steamship anymore. On the morning of April 11, 1915, the ship presented a naval appearance, painted dark gray and stained and scarred from months of hard service at sea.
At the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, Kronprinz Wilhelm was docked at New York. Recently overhauled, the ship had been scheduled to make a passenger run to Bremen in early August, but all North German Lloyd passages were cancelled in late July, as tensions mounted in Europe. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, the ship’s captain, K. Grahn, received orders to take on supplies and proceed at once to sea, with a second set of sealed orders to be opened once clear of U.S. waters. Immediately, Kronprinz Wilhelm began to take on extra quantities of coal, food, and other provisions. At 8:10pm the following evening, assisted by eight tugs and empty of any passengers, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed out of the harbor towards the Atlantic. Speculation mounted as to what the ship was up to. The New York Times andWashington Post both noted that the ship was officially cleared by U.S. Customs to sail for Bremen. Both papers also pointed out that this was highly unlikely, with the Post article stating, “What she might really do after passing out of the harbor, however, was a question…”(1) Both papers surmised that Kronprinz Wilhelm was heading to refuel German navy vessels at sea. Adding to the mystery was a large, unusually shaped crate on the ship’s forward deck, which, according to the New York Times, “might very well cover a naval gun, mounted for use.”(2) Alfred von Niezychowski, a lieutenant on Kronprinz Wilhelm, makes no mention of the mystery crate in his memoir, The Cruise of Kronprinz Wilhelm Wilhelm.
Rendezvous and Transformation To Commerce Raider
Once at sea, Captain Grahn opened his sealed orders and saw that he was to sail to a specified rendezvous at sea with the German cruiser SMS Karlsruhe. When the two ships met on August 6, Karlsruhe transferred two 88 mm guns and other arms and ammunition to Kronprinz Wilhelm in exchange for coal and provisions. The liner also received a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Paul Thierfelder, formerly Karlsruhe’s navigation officer. With this change in command, Kronprinz Wilhelm officially became an auxiliary cruiser in the German Navy. Its mission: to hunt down and destroy Allied merchant shipping.
The rendezvous with Karlsruhe almost proved to be the undoing of both ships. As the Germans were nearly finished transferring supplies, they spotted a British naval vessel, the cruiser Bristol, heading for them. The German ships quickly pulled apart, and the chase was on. Bristol gave chase to Karlsruhe, but the wireless operator on Kronprinz Wilhelm picked up British messages and knew that other British ships would soon be on the path of the commerce raider. Niezychowski described in his memoir how the crew in the boiler room, the “fiendlike toilers,” kept up a furious pace shoveling coal into ship’s hungry fires to keep steam up and put distance between Kronprinz Wilhelm and the British ships.(3)
Once clear of danger, Captain Thierfelder ordered the crew to continue the transformation of Kronprinz Wilhelm into a war ship. Before meeting Karlsruhe,Kronprinz Wilhelm was painted a dull gray to help disguise its identity and aid in camouflage at sea. Now the crew set about removing glass and wood paneling to prevent flying shrapnel in the event of battle. Mattresses and carpeting were used to pad vulnerable areas on deck. The first-class smoking room was converted into a sick bay and the “now purposeless grand saloon, which from a chamber of palatial magnificence was thus brutally metamorphosed into a reserve coal bin.” Carrying extra coal was of particular concern as the ship burned through it at the furious pace of 500 tons a day. The crew also mounted the two 88 mm guns, nicknamed White Arrow and Base Drum, to the port and starboard sides of the forecastle. A movable machine gun, called the Riveter, was installed on the bridge.(4) Kronprinz Wilhelm was now ready to prey on Allied shipping.
It didn’t have to wait long. On the night of September 4, the crew spotted a one-funneled steamer that turned out to be the British merchant ship Indian Prince. After a brief chase, the British ship surrendered. Passengers and supplies, including the always-needed coal, from Indian Prince were transferred to the German raider. Passengers were given rooms in the first-class accommodations on Kronprinz Wilhelm. Later accounts from prisoners taken by the German raider attest to the hospitable treatment they received aboard Kronprinz Wilhelm. And after all of that, needed supplies had been brought over, the seacocks on Indian Prince were opened, and the British ship soon slipped beneath the waves.Kronprinz Wilhelm had taken its first prize.
Over the next 251 days, Kronprinz Wilhelm steamed 37,666 miles around the south Atlantic and destroyed some 60,000 tons of Allied shipping from fourteen ships, a majority of which were either British or French. Most ships were scuttled by opening their seacocks and/or exploding dynamite in the bottom of the hulls. On one occasion, though, Captain Thierfelder decided ramming was the best option, and set about cutting the British schooner Wilfred M. in two by plowing the massive German ship straight through the much smaller sailing vessel. Word ofKronprinz Wilhelm’s path of destruction reached Allied authorities, and the British sent several ships to the Atlantic to track down and destroy the German raider.
End of the Line
Kronprinz Wilhelm was able to elude the British for months, but soon the raider’s luck, and coal, ran out. With supplies of coal and provisions rapidly dwindling and the ship’s engines needing repair from months of continuous service at sea, Captain Thierfelder decided to head for a neutral port for repairs and replenishment of coal and supplies. Thierfelder ultimately decided upon Newport News, Virginia, where another German commerce raider, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, had recently interned.
Upon reaching the Virginia capes, Thierfelder found British ships waiting for him. Under the cover of darkness on April 10, Thierfelder made a daring dash between the waiting British vessels, which never spotted the German behemoth. Kronprinz Wilhelm anchored in Hampton Roads on the morning of April 11. Upon arriving,Kronprinz Wilhelm had less than 25 tons of coal left in its bunkers and many of the crew were suffering the effects of beriberi, a disease brought on by lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. The ship was soon allowed to proceed to the shipyard at Newport News to receive basic repairs and receive coal. After staying beyond the deadline imposed by American authorities, the German commander decided upon internment rather than risk capture by the British Navy waiting just outside the Chesapeake Bay. Soon thereafter, the German raider was moved across Hampton Roads to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, where it was interned, the same place that Prinz Eitel Friedrich was also interned.
During the early months of internment, the German sailors were allowed liberal leave from their ships and mingled with the surrounding communities. However, after several crew and officers escaped, leave policy was restricted and the Germans were confined to their ships and the immediate area of the shipyard. Beginning in January 1916, men from both ships, who numbered about 1,000, constructed a miniature German village on unoccupied land in the Navy Yard from scrap materials found around the shipyard and on their ships. This little village, named Eitel Wilhelm after both ships, included not only houses but other buildings and services a typical German town of the time would have, including a church, school, gymnasium, other public buildings, and police and fire departments. The Germans also had farm animals, a small zoo, vegetable gardens, and a village newspaper. The village became something of a local tourist attraction. Visitors were charged an entrance fee, with the proceeds benefiting the German Red Cross. The German sailors also crafted toys and other souvenirs, along with baked goods, that were sold to visitors.
Despite American ties to the Allies and being future enemies, the German sailors and Eitel Wilhelm were quite popular with locals and Americans in general. Accounts of the commerce raiders and the village appeared in national newspapers and magazines, such as the Literary Digest. The story of the German raiders added a bit of romance to an otherwise very unromantic and destructive war. American resentment of British overbearing tactics, including stopping American ships, in controlling the seas contributed to the German ships’ popularity. The German commerce raiders were seen as the underdogs fighting the British bully.(5)
Familial and ancestral ties also played into the German sailors’ popularity. Many Americans, including Virginians, were of German origin. More immediately, a number of the German sailors had relatives who had recently immigrated to the United States. Historian Phyllis Hall has noted that many letters from relatives arrived at the State Department requesting permission for their relatives in the village be allowed to visit. Overall, thousands of Americans visited Eitel Wilhelm over the next eight months.(6)
By August 1916, with the United States increasing its preparations for war, it was becoming clear that the village would have to go to make room for increased wartime related work at the Navy Yard. American authorities destroyed the village and the German raiders and sailors were transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the German sailors became prisoners of war and were moved to Fort McPherson in Georgia. The ships were confiscated by the U.S. and became troop transports during war; Kronprinz Wilhelm becoming USS Von Steuben and Prinz Eitel Friedrich becoming USS De Kalb.
You can read more about American involvement in World War I in the article: The tale of the last American World War I Battle – That took place for a bath. Click here to read it.
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- Washington Post, August 4, 1914.
- New York Times, August 4, 1914.
- Alfred von Niezychowski, The Cruise of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1931), 24.
- Edwin P. Hoyt, Ghost of the Atlantic: the Kronprinz Wilhelm, 1914-1919, (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1974), 18-21; quote from Niezychowski, 28.
- Phyllis A. Hall, “The German Village at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard,” Olde Times, v.2 no.5, Summer 1987, 5-7.
- Hall, 5-7.
Finally, the images in this article are courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia.