Action of 29 February 1916
The Action of 29 February 1916 was a naval engagement fought during the First World War between the United Kingdom and the German Empire. SMS Greif a German commerce raider, broke out into the North Sea and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe dispatched Royal Navy warships to intercept the raider. Four British vessels made contact with the Greif and in the ensuing encounter, the commerce raider and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara were sunk.
In April 1915 the Admiralty requisitioned Alcantara and the other "A-series" ships Avon, Arlanza and Andes as armed merchant cruisers. Alcantara was armed with six 6 in (150 mm) guns, anti-aircraft guns and depth charges. On 17 April at Liverpool she was commissioned into the Royal Navy's 10th Cruiser Squadron as HMS Alcantara. Arlanza and Andes were also commissioned into the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which joined the Northern Patrol, part of the Blockade of Germany. The Squadron patrolled about 200,000 square miles (520,000 km2) of the North Sea, Norwegian Sea and Arctic Ocean to prevent German ships from sailing to or leaving the North Atlantic.
Converted and renamed from the Guben, the 4,963 long tons (5,043 t) auxiliary cruiser SMS Greif was armed with four hidden 150 mm (5.9 in) guns, one concealed 105 mm (4.1 in) gun and two torpedo tubes. Greif was crewed by about 360 officers and men and had orders to sail around the north of Iceland into the Atlantic to operate as a commerce raider and then make for German East Africa, if it could not return to Germany
Greif departed its home port of Hamburg into the North Sea on 27 February; at noon on 28 February, the Admiralty warned Jellicoe that a ship, escorted by the submarine SM U-70 40 nautical miles (74 km; 46 mi) ahead until Lat. 59° 20' N, had left the Elbe. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe ordered two cruisers and four destroyers from Rosyth into the North Sea, to block the path of the ship if it sailed west and the light cruisers HMS Comus (Captain Alan Geoffrey Hotham), Calliope and Blanche with the destroyer HMS Munster, from Scapa Flow (Scapa), to sweep the Norwegian coast in case it sailed north. Just after midnight, British wireless direction-finders identified a German ship off Egersund on the south-west coast of Norway and the light cruisers from Scapa were ordered to search an arc radiating from Egersund. Columbella and Patia of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, part of the Northern Patrol, were sent to search from the north end of the Shetland Isles to the north-east.
The auxiliary cruiser HMS Andes (Captain G. B. W. Young) was already there, having arrived to relieve HMS Alcantara (Captain Thomas Erskine Wardle), which was due to sail to Liverpool to re-coal. Wardle had arranged to meet the relief 60 nautical miles (69 mi; 110 km) east of the Shetlands and was close to the meeting-point at 08:00, when a signal arrived ordering the Alcantara to remain, because a disguised German auxiliary cruiser was expected to sail through the patrol line that day from the south.
At about 08:45 on 19 February, Alcantara was steaming north-north-east up its patrol line, lookouts spotted smoke off the port beam and Wardle manoeuvred closer to identify the source of the smoke. Unbeknownst to them, the smoke was from SMS Greif. A few minutes later Andes signalled "Enemy in sight north-east 15 knots" [17 mph (27 km/h)]. Wardle ordered Alcantara to turn north at maximum speed and soon sighted a ship with one funnel, flying Norwegian flags. Another message from Andes described a two-funnelled ship and the identity of the ship in sight remained doubtful. A few minutes later, Andes was seen to starboard seeming to be steaming north-east at speed, as if in pursuit. Before joining the chase, Wardle decided to examine the unknown ship and fired two blanks to force it heave to, going to action stations. By 09:20, Wardle was signalled by Andes that it had altered course to the south-east, which only added to the ambiguity, because the ship hove to could not be the one being pursued. The lookouts on the Alcantara could see the Norwegian name Rena on the stern and that the ship looked authentic.
A boat was lowered from Alcantara when it was about 1,000 yards (910 m) astern to check the ship's particulars, as the voyage of the Rena had been notified to the Admiralty. Wardle signalled the Andes of developments and Young replied with "This is the suspicious ship". As the message was being read, a gun at the stern of the "Rena" was unmasked and flaps fell down along the sides, revealing more guns. The Greif opened fire, hitting the boat containing the boarding party and damaged Alcantara's telemotor steering gear before the British ship could reply. Alcantara's gunners opened fire and the ship closed with the raider as it began to move and for about fifteen minutes the ships exchanged fire and Andes began to fire as it arrived and Greif began to disappear in smoke. The German gunners ceased fire and boats full of survivors were seen pulling away from the smoke. Alcantara was badly damaged and also ceased fire, apparently torpedoed and listing to port; Wardle ordered abandon ship and by 11:00 the list had put Alcantara on its beam ends and it sank with 69 members of the crew.
Hotham in the Comus, the most northern of the cruisers from Scapa, had seen the signals from Andes and sailed south in company with the destroyer Munster and arrived as the action ended, beginning rescue work with the crew of the Alcantara as it sank. The Andes had reported a submarine between it and the lifeboats and could not close and after several submarine alarms, Comus and Andes moved closer to the wreck of the Greif and sank it with gunfire; about 220 men of the crew of 360 were rescued.
Four British warships had encountered Greif, Alcantara and Greif had been sunk and Wardle was later criticised for manoeuvring too close to the raider, before properly identifying the ship, which out-gunned the Alcantara. The mistake cost Wardle his vessel and several casualties but he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and eventually reached the rank of rear admiral. The swift end to the voyage of the Greif led to the German Admiralty suspending commerce raiding and renewed emphasis on submarine warfare.
Order of battle
- HMS Comus, light cruiser
- HMS Alcantara, auxiliary cruiser, flagship
- HMS Andes, auxiliary cruiser
- HMS Munster, destroyer
- SMS Greif, auxiliary cruiser
- The British auxiliary cruisers were about 15,000 long tons (15,000 t) each and carried eight 6-inch and two 3-pounders apiece.
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