SMS Cormoran II

From 1914-1917 the SMS Cormoran II, a German cruiser, was in Apra Harbor when the US declared war on Germany. Photo courtesy of the Guam Museum.

Details and description

The SS Rjasan (or Riasan) was a Russian passenger and mail carrier built by the German Schicau dockyard in Elbing in 1909. Named after the Russian town located southeast of Moscow, the Rjasan was built for the Russian Volunteer Fleet Association (known as the Dobroflot), founded in 1878.

According to Herbert Ward—researcher, diver and author of Flight of the Cormoran (1998)—the SS Rjasan was “3443 gross registered tons, 334.9 ft. in length, with a beam of 45.9 ft., and drew 22.9 ft. of water. Her main bunkers held 500 tons of coal, and 2000 tons more could be stored in her four spacious holds. With a full load of coal she could steam a good 10,000 miles before having to recoal…”

The Russian Volunteer Fleet

The Russian Volunteer Fleet or Dobroflot was an organization of ship transporters and was used by the military during times of war. They were established in the later part of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) by concerned citizens who raised funds to purchase ships to assist the navy. Through their efforts, Russia was able to purchase four auxiliary cruisers: the Orel, Saratoff, Kostrama, and Nijni Novgorod. However, they were not cleared for military use before the war ended.

After the Russo-Turkish War, Dobroflot became commercial transporters through charters with private companies and eventually with direct routes in the Pacific. Their status and purpose after the war was unclear but they were later organized under the Naval Department in a special Committee of Control. In this committee there were representatives from the Treasury, War, Navy and Audit offices, with an admiral as president.

As a member of the Dobroflot, the SS Rjasan would have frequented this route starting at Odessa, Ukraine; through the Suez Canal to Port Said; Perim (Birim Island) or Aden of Yemen; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Singapore; Nagasaki, Japan; and Vladivostock, Russia as the principal ports in about forty days. In the early 1890s, the Dobroflot would have voyaged this route seven to eight times a year but in 1896 the amount increased to about twenty two times a year. In 4 August 1914, the Rjasan had been with the Dobroflot for around five years before she was captured by the German warship SMS Emden near Vladivostock, three days after Germany declared war on Russia.

Old Cormoran

The original SMS Cormoran was built in 1890, launched in 1892 and was first commissioned in 1893. She had served in German East Africa for a year and sailed the rough South Seas with the East Asia Squadron for about nineteen years. In 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and mobilized its key ships from the East Asia Squadron headquarters at Tsingtao (Qingdao), China. Unfortunately, the SMS Cormoran, docked at Tsingtao harbor, was in need of repairs and therefore, was unable to join in battle. Captain Adalbert Zuckschwerdt of the Cormoran had the crew and men of the dockyard work day and night on the ship’s repairs. Zuckschwerdt believed, with the outbreak of war, it was critical to leave the harbor before being trapped by enemy ships in the area.

Captain Karl Von Müller of the SMS Emden was the senior ranking officer of the Squadron. He left the harbor of Tsingtao on 31 July to engage the enemies in the region. On 4 August Captain Müller captured the SS Rjasan as the first spoil of war. Müller sent a prize crew with Lt. Julius Lauterback to take the Rjasan in tow to Tsingtao. Lt. Lauterback evaluated the 3,400 gross ton ship and found it had enough space for 400 men. In addition, he found, “She had a low upper deck, running in a direct line from bow to stern, with two stumpy funnels marring the midship arrangement. Her design inspired confidence in both her speed and maneuverability.”

The Emden and Rjasan arrived in Tsingtao on 6 August. Shortly afterward, Captain Zuckschwerdt was given the Rjasan to convert it into a new German military cruiser. The next day the old Cormoran was officially decommissioned and the Rjasan renamed to SMS Cormoran II. After four days and nights of transferring equipment, the old Cormoran was scuttled outside the harbor. Then, on 10 August the new Cormoran and an eager crew left Tsingtao harbor.

Internment

The journey into the Pacific was difficult. Germany was losing colonies to the Allied Powers and communications between ships were limited. The Cormoran was often unable to restock on coal and supplies which made her powerless in a fight. With little stores of coal, Captain Zuckschwerdt hid from enemy forces in familiar islands with treacherous reefs. The Cormoran was hiding in Lamotrek before she headed to Guam (at the time, a neutral colony of the United States) and anchored 14 December 1914 in Apra Harbor.

Once in Apra, Captain Zuckschwerdt requested coal and supplies from the Governor of Guam, Captain William J. Maxwell of the US Navy. The Governor denied the request citing a lack of available coal and supplies on island. Captain Zuckschwerdt had no choice but to accept terms of internment, where the ship stayed for over two years.

By 7 April 1917, the US joined the Allied Forces and declared war on Germany. Captain Roy C. Smith had replaced Governor Maxwell as governor of Guam. Smith commanded Zuckschwerdt to surrender the Cormoran and her crew. Zuckschwerdt was willing to surrender the crew but refused to relinquish the ship. He signaled the crew to abandon the Cormoran and scuttled her. Both captain and crew were taken as prisoners of war. Shortly afterward on 29 April, the crew was sent to the POW camp at Fort Douglas, Utah.

The scuttling of the SMS Cormoran II represents many “firsts” in World War I between the US and Germany. It was the first ship to be scuttled or sunk; the first shots to be fired were at the Cormoran; the first casualties of war and the first prisoners of war were taken—all within hours of the US joining the Allied Powers.

On 26 April the US Navy began to send divers to salvage anything of use and hoped to also salvage the ship, now submerged below 100 feet of water. What they found most interesting were ammunitions: “1,239 10.5 cm cartridges, four revolving, 5-barrel, 3.7 cm cannons, 2,698 3.7 cm cartridges, and 349 6.0 cm cartridges.” The interesting thing about finding this large amount of ammunition in the Cormoran at all during its internment is that the whole ship was to be unarmed and was supposedly stripped of its weapons when they were interned on Guam. The Navy then decided against raising the ship due to her design and depth.

In the early 1920s, the US Navy had stopped diving the Cormoran. Before then the Navy was able to retrieve equipment worth more than $30,000.00. Some items recovered, like the Mauser rifles, were given to the Guam Militia before they received new guns in 1921.

Today, the SMS Cormoran II is a registered Historic Site with the Guam Historic Resources Division and the National Park Service, and is located at 13.4592° North by 144.6542° East. According to Ward, the Cormoran is protected from any natural forces because the US reshaped the harbor which discontinued water circulation. Also protecting the Cormoran is the Tokai Maru, a Japanese military transport ship sunk in Apra Harbor during World War II by US reoccupying troops.

By Nathalie Pereda

For further reading

Bartlett, Owen. 1931. Destruction of S.M.S. “Cormoran”. US Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1931.

Burdick, Charles Burton.  1979. The Frustrated Raider: The Story of the German Cruiser Cormoran in World War I. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Gardiner, Robert (ed.). 1979. Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905. Greenwich: Conway Maritime Press.

Rogers, Robert F. 2011. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai‛i Press.

“The Russian Volunteer Fleet: Its Origin, Present Size, Employment and Prospects.” San Francisco Call. Vol. 81(25). 25 December 1896.

“The Russian Volunteer Fleet.” Wanganui Herald, Volume XXXVIII (11370:4). 28 September 1904.

Ward, Herbert T. 1998. Flight of the “Cormoran”. Dexter, MI: Thomson-Shore, Inc.