When launched just before the dawn of the 20th Century, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (KWdG) was the first ship to be called “wundershiff” – wonder ship. That was hardly the only notable mark set by this elegant beauty. She was also the world’s first four-stack liner, the first to be fitted with automatic watertight doors, the first to carry a Marconi wireless radio, and the first to wrest the coveted Blue Riband (awarded for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing) away from the British for the first time in forty years by sustaining a speed of 22.3 knots on her maiden voyage.
The famous AG Vulcan shipyard in Stettin built KWdG along with her three near-sisters, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Each featured the distinctive paired four-stacks providing them with instant recognition. They were collectively known as “The Hohenzollerns of Hoboken” after their namesake German royalty. Considered a lucky ship by all accounts, KWdG weathered a number of challenging events, the most notable being in 1900 where she escaped a severe dockside fire at Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Hoboken, New Jersey pier without any loss of life. Sadly claimed several hundred lives on three other liners. In addition, on a clear night in 1906 she was involved in a dangerous collision with the packet steamer Orinoco. As the two ships collided at high speed the Orinoco’s bow tore open a 21-meter long gash in the liner’s hull that unfortunately killed five of the liner’s passengers as they slept in their berths.
After providing excellent service for the better part of sixteen years she was beginning to show some tarnish on her once fine appointments. The rush of America bound immigration dictated a change in passenger service, so in 1913 she was modified to carry just third-class and steerage passengers. First and second-class passengers would never again grace her decks as “The Guns of August” put a halt to civilian sailings. The KWdG was in Bremen as war became imminent and therefore was one of the first civilian ships taken over by the German Navy. Features built into all German liners of the era allowed for rapid conversion to armed auxiliary cruisers.
On 4 August 1914, after receiving her armament and crew, she made for the shipping lanes south of Iceland, easily finding her first victim after just three days. However, by the time she dispatched her third and final victim, fuel was reaching a critical state. The Achilles Heel of all the large liners was becoming all too apparent as they lacked the necessary range to stay on station for long periods of time. Despite the threat of British warships, Captain Reymann had no option but to call for a rendezvous with the colliers Arucas and Duala at Rio de Oro in Spanish West Africa.
Along with HMS Vindictive, HMS Highflyer had been tasked with patrolling the approaches to the Canary Islands specifically to protect merchant shipping. On 26 August 1914, lookouts on the KWdG spotted the Highflyer approaching her position in the mouth of the Oro River. Unfortunately, since she was coaling, the KWdG was virtually motionless – her long string of good luck had finally run out.
Had the two ships encountered one another while at speed, she probably could have outrun the Highflyer given the protected cruiser’s maximum rated speed of 20 knots. While obsolete by British Fleet standards, at 5,560 tons and armed with 11 6-in. and 9 12-pdr guns, she was more than a match for a raider.
Recognizing the dire situation for what it was, Captain Buller of the Highflyer considerately extended an opportunity for surrender, but Captain Reymann unsurprisingly refused, preferring to make a run for it if for nothing more than to provide the other German ships an escape. The two ships exchanged a short but furious barrage of shells, but the weight of the British firepower was just too much.
KWdG slowed and started to heel over; the crew was ordered to abandon ship. At 1620 hours, the one time star of the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line met a courageous yet unglamorous end in the shallow waters off Durnford Point.
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
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Ships captured (c), sunk (s), or mined (m): 3 totaling 10,685 tons