One of the lesser known vessels in the annals of WWI German commerce warfare, Karlsruhe was nonetheless a very successful warship raider, accounting for more tonnage than the much more famous Emden. A modern ship by all of the standards of her day, she was fitted with steam turbine propulsion, excellent protection and a substantial all-one-gun armament. Of the British ships patrolling the Western Atlantic, she could easily outrun the older, larger and more powerful ships and hold her own against those comparably sized.
She was on a “show-the-flag” mission off the east coast of Mexico when the war started. Her first order of business was a mid-ocean rendezvous with the passenger liner Kronprinz Wilhelm. There, Karlsruhe would transfer to the liner two 8.8cm guns, ammunition and small arms in exchange for fuel. In addition, Kapitänleutnant Thierfelder, the Karlsruhe’s navigation officer, was reassigned as the liner’s new commanding officer.
While refueling Karlsruhe, smoke was sighted on the horizon. The two German ships quickly dropped their mooring lines and sailed off on divergent courses. As the only two friendly ships in the area there was no other reasonable possibility, the sighting had to be British. Their fears were correct as it was in fact the armored cruiser HMS Suffolk, flagship of Admiral Craddock, the commander of the British 4th Cruiser Squadron.
Suffolk pursued Karlsruhe considering her to be the greater threat, but she quickly fell behind the fleeing German ship. Craddock had also ordered HMS Bristol, who was steaming on a closing course, to intercept Karlsruhe. Bristol was slower than the Karlsruhe by a couple of knots, but carried a heavier battery with 2 6-in. and 8 4-in. guns. The two ships met after dark and engaged in a mutually ineffective exchange of gunfire before Fregattenkapitän Köhler again utilized Karlsruhe’s superior speed to evade her adversary.
Karlsruhe’s high-speed escape runs had significantly reduced her already limited fuel supply. With her speed drastically reduced, she finally reached the port of San Juan de Puerto Rico with just 12 tons of coal remaining. As a neutral US port, the Karlsruhe was only allowed to add a minimum of fuel and had a maximum of 24-hours before having to depart.
After leaving port, she managed over the course of the next few days to fill her coffers from German colliers and then proceeded on her intended mission. She took her first victim when the British registered steamer Bowles Castle was intercepted and sunk on August 18th.
Over the next two months, Köhler balanced the arduous task of avoiding the British with the challenge of securing fuel and disrupting merchant shipping. Fifteen additional ships were taken, the last on October 28th, before Karlsruhe sailed on to Barbados in a raid on the island to disrupt the British communication station.
In the early evening hours of November 4th, as the she glided across the calm seas, a devastating explosion ripped through the forward part of the ship blasting off her entire bow section forward of the fore funnel. Köhler and more than 250 of her crew were immediately lost. The remaining crew quickly took to the boats before the stern section sank.
The reason for her loss was never definitely determined. The most probable cause was the ignition of sweating cordite that triggered a magazine explosion.
Ships captured (c), sunk (s), or mined (m): 16 totaling 72,216 tons
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