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The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of WWI [Hardcover]

Richard Guilliatt , Peter Hohnen
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Book Description

April 20 2010
On November 30, 1916, an apparently ordinary freighter left harbor in Kiel, Germany, and would not touch land again for another fifteen months. It was the beginning of an astounding 64,000-mile voyage that was to take the ship around the world, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation in her wake. For this was no ordinary freighter—this was the Wolf, a disguised German warship.

In this gripping account of an audacious and lethal World War I expedition, Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen depict the Wolf ’s assignment: to terrorize distant ports of the British Empire by laying minefields and sinking freighters, thus hastening Germany’s goal of starving her enemy into submission. Yet to maintain secrecy, she could never pull into port or use her radio, and to comply with the rules of sea warfare, her captain fastidiously tried to avoid killing civilians aboard the merchant ships he attacked, taking their crews and passengers prisoner before sinking the vessels.

The Wolf thus became a huge floating prison, with more than 400 captives, including a number of women and children, from twenty-five different nations. Sexual affairs were kindled between the German crew and some female prisoners. A six-year-old American girl, captured while sailing across the Pacific with her parents, was adopted as a mascot by the Germans.

Forced to survive on food and fuel plundered from other ships, facing death from scurvy, and hunted by the combined navies of five Allied nations, the Germans and their prisoners came to share a common bond. The will to survive transcended enmities of race, class, and nationality.

It was to be one of the most daring clandestine naval missions of modern times. Under the command of Captain Karl Nerger, who conducted his deadly business with an admirable sense of chivalry, the Wolf traversed three of the world’s major oceans and destroyed more than thirty Allied vessels.

We learn of the world through which the Wolf moved, with all its social divisions and xenophobia, its bravery and stoicism, its combination of old-world social mores and rapid technological change. The story of this epic voyage is a vivid real-life narrative and simultaneously a richly detailed picture of a world being profoundly transformed by war.

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"The authors’ thoroughly researched and convincing study makes clear that good modern naval history is more than just a true account of strategy or battles, for it deals not only with ships but with men." --U.S. Naval Institute Book Review

About the Author

Richard Guilliatt has been a journalist for 30 years and is the author of the book, Talk Of The Devil – Repressed Memory and the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt (Text Publishing, Australia, 1996).  Born in the UK, he was a feature writer at The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, before moving to New York in 1986 to work as a freelance writer. His work has appeared in many leading newspapers and magazines including The Independent, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. He is currently a staff writer at the Weekend Australian Magazine in Sydney.  In 2000 he won Australia’s highest award for magazine feature writing, the Walkley Award. 

Peter Hohnen studied history and law at the Australian National University and was a partner in a prominent Canberra law firm for twenty years.  A commander in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve for two decades, he was posted to Cambridge University in 1999 to study the law of the sea and the laws of armed conflict as a visiting fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law.  On his return to Australia he was awarded a Masters Degree in Law from ANU in 2002.  He has been an independent legal consultant to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and has made several contributions to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His great-uncle, Alexander Ross Ainsworth, was chief engineer aboard the steamship Matunga when it was captured by SMS Wolf in August 1917.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating WWI naval story Nov. 17 2011
I must confess that, compared to WWII, I know relatively little about WWI. But this book seemed to be an interesting story, so I picked it up. Fortunately, it was a very interesting story indeed. It is the tale of the Wolf, a German merchant ship modified to carry guns, torpedoes, and mines. It was thus a wolf in sheep's clothing, capable of prowling the world's oceans in plain view without attracting undue attention at a time when Germany's navy was dominated by those of its enemies.

The Wolf's captain Karl Nerger presided over an amazing feat of seamanship as he kept his boat active for 415 days, traveled a distance equal to three times around the globe, sunken over a dozen ships, captured over 700 prisoners, and avoided enemy contact all without ever radioing home or setting foot in a harbor. After the first few months, everything the ship needed and used (e.g., fuel and food) was taken from captured ships. Their voyage started with them sneaking past the British naval blockage in the North Atlantic before sailing down to the tip of Africa, crossing into the Indian Ocean and on to the Pacific.

It was a herculean endeavor, with very low odds of success. Throughout the voyage, Nerger had to manage the delicate balance of the welfare of his prisoners (who included women and a child) with the success of his mission. Clearly, it would have been best to drop them off at some neutral port, but that would have betrayed his presence. Which, thanks to the Royal Navy not wanting to look bad, was hidden from the general public, making him much more effective. The book has a good amount of action in it, both in capturing ships/laying mines and in the contests between crew and captives.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Focuses on the Human Dimension June 17 2010
By R. A Forczyk - Published on
When its High Seas Fleet was unable to break the Royal Navy's blockade in 1916 and unrestricted submarine warfare risked sparking war with the United States, the Imperial Germany Navy decided to use disguised merchant raiders (Hilfskreuzer) to attack Allied shipping on the high seas. The merchant ship Wachtfels was chosen for endurance, not speed, and she was armed with concealed 5.9-inch guns and duly commissioned as the raider SMS Wolf. This book, by authors Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, chronicles the 451-day voyage of the Wolf in 1916-18 which destroyed about 110,000 tons of Allied shipping. In many respects, this is a fascinating and well-written piece of history, which delves in considerable detail into a chapter of the First World War at sea with which few readers will be familiar. However, the emphasis in this book is on the human story - particularly the privations of the prisoners taken from captured ships and the Wolf's Captain Karl Nerger. Readers expecting more military detail and insight will find these details often shoved to the background in favor of descriptions about what the prisoners were eating. Yet even though I was quite familiar with the Wolf's cruise - having written a book on German Second World War commerce raiders - I still learned a number of new pieces of information that the authors had unearthed in their diligent research. Overall, The Wolf shines a spotlight on an obscure corner of the First World War and a style of conduct in warfare that now appears almost quaint.

The Wolf is divided into twelve chapters and has four appendices (the Wolf's specifications, a list of ships mined or sunk, a by-name list of the Wolf's crew and a list of the Wolf's prisoners). The book also includes two maps, a very nice cutaway diagram of the ship itself, 16 B/W photos and a 5-page bibliography. Although much of the book is reliant upon post-war memoirs by German officers and former prisoners, the authors have included research from other archival sources to fill out the rest of the Wolf's story. The book focuses very heavily on a few characters, such as the captured Cameron family, Captain Nerger and his Leutnant Rose, and much of the cruise is seen from their perspective. However, many of the other prisoners are simply annoying, such as the alcoholic Mabel Whittaker or Gerald Haxton (whom the authors continually refer to as the "secret lover of novelist W. Somerset Maugham"). Who cares? Many readers would have preferred that the authors allow the Germans to throw these prisoners into the cargo hold, slam the hatch shut and forget about them, instead of returning every few pages to their whining about not having whiskey and soda aboard the raider. The authors also diverge onto a few characters, such as Carl Newman, who were neither prisoners or crew members. Newman was a ethnic German who lived in Australia as a fisherman but was jailed under suspicion that he was aiding the Wolf somehow by surreptitious meetings off the coast. Newman's story is tragic but barely related to the Wolf and it would have been more pertinent to discuss some of the Allied officers involved in hunting for the Wolf. Throughout the book, Allied efforts to counter the Wolf are discussed rather haphazardly and focus more on what the Allied media was saying, rather than naval intelligence.

My opinion of Karl Nerger and his crew did change considerably with this book. Heretofore, Nerger was regarded as virtually the epitome of the sea corsair and his crew the cream of the Imperial Germany Navy. While these authors do continue to depict Nerger's humane side, he comes across as less than daring and his aloofness from his crew contributed to a serious deterioration in morale. After a year at sea, Nerger's crewmen were often involved in drunken and violent incidents, one of which nearly sparked a mutiny. Nerger's decision to keep over 700 prisoners on board - over three times what the prisoner hold was designed for - seriously reduced the efficiency of his ship, consumed resources such as food and water at an alarming rate and created endemic morale problems. As the author's discuss, the presence of women prisoners aboard a ship with men who have been at sea for over a year caused real problems and Nerger seemed oblivious to it all. During the Second World War, German raiders made greater efforts to transfer prisoners to auxiliary ships or drop them off on isolated islands, but Nerger seemed obsessed with their potential to give the Allies information about his ship's activity (which they did through other means, including a message in a bottle).

Most readers should enjoy this book, with its in-depth characters and periodic adventure (including two prisoners who try to swim to an island), although specialist readers will not learn much about strictly military issues. The cruise of the Wolf belonged to a different era of warfare, where enemies could still act with a certain basic human decency toward each other and the combatants respected non-combatants (and to a lesser degree) neutrals.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars True tale of "pirates" during the Great War, fascinating! Aug. 9 2010
By Wulfstan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I got hooked into reading the true naval stories about the WWI German Naval raiders through the exploits of Count Luckner: Count Luckner: The Sea Devil by Lowell Thomas, and Count von Luckner;: Knight of the sea, by Edwin Palmer Hoyt. The sea- tales of these chivalrous latter day privateers are fascinating, and you can root for the "underdog" with a clear conscience as most of these captains followed the rules of naval warfare scrupulously and with the sort of chivalry not seen since.

If you haven't read about Count Luckner, now is the time, you won't be disappointed.

This is the story of The Wolf, a armed merchant cruiser that sailed the seas late in WWI. She was also the first raider to use a seaplane with good effect. Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Karl August Nerger kept his ship at sea for 451 long days, baffling the Allies. When he finally brought his ship back to Germany, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, aka "the Blue Max".

The story has been told before but not as often as some of the other raiders, and never to this depth.

The authors here have added quite a bit of focus on two subjects not covered as much: the Allies propaganda and censorship campaign, and the travails of the prisoners on board. I found the sections about the prisoners to go on a bit too long, and focus too much on the hardships. However, the research is impeccable. The personal stories are well done.

The info about the Allies censorship and propaganda campaigns is fascinating. The Allies refused to let the real story out, blaming the sinkings on "Hun saboteurs" leading to more sinking of ships in the minefields that they should have been able to avoid, and the persecution of German born Australians who were thought to have planted bombs and put mines loose in the seas.

Readers wanting more about the naval actions and military detail can find that in: Edwin P. Hoyt, "Raider Wolf, The Voyage of Captain Nerger,"), which is a very exciting book.

Further reading on this subject:Hoyt, Edwin P Elusive Seagull
Lochner, R. K. Last Gentleman-Of-War: Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden
The Germans who never lost;: The story of the Konigsberg, by Edwin Palmer Hoyt
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting Reading May 20 2010
By Michael H. Schultz - Published on
I found that I could not put the book down. The Author's had carried out fantastic research to present such a detailed account of a German Raider, a converted coal burning merchant steamship, which went on a 15 month "rampage" from Kiel across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans and return without going to a port to refuel.

The rampage took place at the time of the First World War from November 1916 to February 1918 laying mines in the main shipping routes off South America, South Africa, India, Singapore Australia and New Zealand.

Many Ships captured and sunk after bringing on board Wolf, passengers and crew as prisoners and transferring coal, supplies, and all other equipment required by Wolf at the time. A very good read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Book! June 8 2010
By Cycles 67 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I ordered this book as soon as it was available on Amazon and waited in anticipation for it to arrive after being alerted to it by the excellent review in the Wall Street Journal. I was not disappointed! The book is meticulously researched and extremely well written. The book is a about the epic adventures of the Merchant Raider Wolf of the German Imperial Navy of WWI. It recounts the amazing story of this converted merchant ship (bristling with armaments) and its crew and prisoners as it made its way (some 64,000 miles) to South America, S Africa, India and Australia, all the while pirating for food and fuel, and laying mines along the way. The book recounts the brilliance, tenacity and sheer luck of the Captain and his crew that somehow survived a seemingly suicidal mission. I have also read Alexander Roy's Book "The Cruise of the Raider Wolf", which I also enjoyed, however, I really liked how the authors of this book (Richard Guilliat and Peter Hohnen) are able to provide a broader historical context which provide much rich History about WWI that I was not aware of.

I could not put this book down and would recommend it highly as an incredible adventure story. I would give it six stars If I could! I also think this book would make an excellent film, perhaps in the same league as Das Boot. This book was of particular interest to me because my Grandfather was a crewmember and I learned much I did not know about his harrowing journey.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the thinking person's WW1 book. May 25 2010
By Susan Canavespe - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Wolf" is a very well-written, well-researched true life story surrounding the events of WW1. German raiders ships roamed the world hijacking ships of any nation and stripping them of any sort of materiel that could be used by their nation and even themselves, as no provision was made for restocking them. Often the prisoners were held for weeks or even months. This book follows a well-documented case, and if you like WW1 history, this book will teach you a lot.
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