The SMS Cormoran in the waters of Tsingtao, 1914. Photo from the Herbert T. Ward collection courtesy of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC).
The SMS Cormoran in the waters of Tsingtao, 1914. Photo from the Herbert T. Ward collection courtesy of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC).

The German cruiser that was scuttled in Apra Harbor in April 1917 at the start of World War I was actually the second vessel in the German fleet named Cormoran. The original SMS Cormoran visited Guam in 1913 for a crew holiday, before its engine was damaged beyond repair at the German base in Tsingtao, China later the following year. Below is a description of the original Comoran vessel.

Details and description

SMS (Seiner Majestät Schiff or His Majesty’s Ship) is designated to the German Imperial Navy, established in 1871. The name Cormoran comes from an aquatic bird, the cormorant. There are around 40 cormoran species. They are medium-to-large birds with dark feathers and a long, thin hooked bill, best known for their ability to dive for fish from the water’s surface.

Construction or keel laying for the SMS Cormoran began in 1890. She was built by the Imperial Dockyard in Danzig, located on the Baltic Coast for its available timber. The Cormoran was a Bussard class of light cruiser. This class of vessels were designed for service in the German colonies or “protectorates.” German protectorates were territories or colonies protected through negotiations by the Imperial Navy. These light cruisers were built for traveling long distances and in groups. They were mid- to heavily armed and one of the last kind of vessels to be built with a sail. The Imperial Navy built six ships of this bird class between 1888-1893. Including the Cormoran, they are the SMS Bussard, Falke, Seeadler, Condor and Geier.

Below is a table of the SMS Cormoran specifications provided in German Warships 1815-1945, by Erich Gröner (1990:97):

BuilderImperial Dockyard,
4.42 fwd
5.35 aft
Modified 1907-08
2857ihp max
2800ihp des
Cost in Marks
130 max
1864t max2
1612t des3
Modified 1887t max
15.9 max
15.5 des
82.60 oa4
79.60 cwl5
Modified 3040/9
12.7 max
10.5 des
315 max
205 des
Modified 340

1 Keel laying (construction) to commission
2 Maximum (max) displacement equals type displacement plus full load fuel oil, diesel oil, coal, reserve boiler feed water, aircraft fuel and special equipment.
3 Design (des) displacement includes 25 to 50 precent full load as above, and has been used in the German Navy since 1882 as a basis for performance and speed calculations.
4 Overall
5 Waterline as designed

In addition, Gröner provides more details on the Bussard class’ construction, propulsion system, armament, handling, complement or crew, notes and career from launch to decommission.

The SMS Cormoran was constructed with a steel transversed frame with pine planks going all the way to the upper deck. Muntz metal (a high temperature brass) was used as sheathing; the stem and stern were made of steel and timber; and the vessel was fitted with a bronze ram (an underwater weapon from an armored protrusion from the bow). Gröner also mentions there were ten watertight compartments, with a double bottom under the boiler room.

The SMS Cormoran‘s propulsion system was made of two horizontal 3-cylinder triple expansion engines in two connecting rooms from the stern to the bow. There were two generators operating at 24kW/67V. In addition, Cormoran had topsail schooners, or square sails above the foresail, that measured approximately 600 square meters, a triangular mainsail, and one rudder for steering.

Regarding armament, Cormoran was equipped with eight 10.5 cm/35 quick fire guns with 800 rounds, and after her 1908 modification, 704 rounds with a range of 8,200 and 10,800 meters. There were five revolver multi-barrel cannons (removed when modified) and two 35 cm deck torpedo tubes with 5 rounds.

The handling of the Cormoran, according to Gröner, was generally good. The Bussard class made good sea-boats, except turning into the wind at low speed was difficult. In more detail, these vessels had a “slight pitch but early and severe roll; speed had to be reduced in high seas because the sponsons [structure projecting from the ship, for example, a gun platform] produced dangerous vibrations…”

Bussard class complements usually entailed a crew of 9 officers and 152 to 157 enlisted men, although these numbers varied in war times as more men were needed to operate the weapons. The ships had a picket boat to perform sentinel duties or to patrol, and one cutter—a small two-masted sailing boat. Also on board were two yawls or small ship’s boats for a crew of 4 or 6 with a third sail, and two dinghies, which were usually rowboats or fitted with a motor.

Gröner notes the color scheme of the Bussard class in 1893, the Cormoran had white bow and stern ornaments, and a white hull, and the bulwark (sides of the ship above the deck level) were colored with a yellow band. All the fittings, like the nets, masts and top masts were yellow. Then in 1894, the bow and stern ornaments were “gold ochre with highlights and heraldic colors.” This is also noted by Cormoran researcher, diver and author Herbert Ward as he described the Cormoran here:

Cormoran was a birdlike ship, built in the old style, with a gilded imperial eagle painted on her bow–a bow built for ramming. Her masts were rigged to carry sail, so that when running before the wind, she might save precious coal, and in rough seas, they would stabilize her against the inevitable rolling. She wore a coat of gleaming white, and the industrious and well disciplined German sailors kept her that way.

Service history

The SMS Cormoran was launched on 17 May 1892, and then commissioned on 25 July 1893 in the Imperial German Navy. In 1894 she was assigned to the colonies of German East Africa. Shortly afterward, the Cormoran was assigned to the German East Asia Squadron, which was comprised of German navy cruisers in the Pacific colonies with headquarters in Tsingtao, present day Qingdao, China. The East Asia Squadron was established in the 1890s. Pacific German colonies at the time included German New Guinea and German Solomon Islands in Melanesia, the Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands, Palau and the Northern Marianas in Micronesia, and Nauru and German Samoa (Upolu and Savai’i) in Polynesia.

In Guam

The SMS Cormoran had a pleasant visit to the American colony of Guam previous to its internment in 1914. According to Ward, the year before, the Comoran was given permission by the US Navy to visit the island. Governor Alfred W. Hinds (Lt. Commander of the the USN) warmly welcomed Captain Adalbert Zuckschwerdt and the crew. The Cormoran stayed five days. Both parties spoke of mutual respect and friendship.

Final service

In the month of June 1914 the Cormoran was in Tsingtao harbor in dire need of an overhaul. Then on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia. Captain Zuckschwerdt was aware of the need to leave Tsingtao before enemy ships appeared in the harbor. The crew and dock workers tried to complete the needed overhaul in a few days. They took the vessel out to open waters for testing on 5 August, but the engine failed and the crippled ship returned to the dock.

The following day, Captain Karl Von Mueller of the SMS Emden arrived in Tsingtao with the SS Rjasan, the first prize of war with Russia. Captain Zuckschwerdt boarded the Rjasan and examined the ship thoroughly. With the Cormoran decommissioned and unlikely to recover in time Captain Zuckschwerdt requested and was given control of the Rjasan. On 7 August, ceremonies were held for the official change of names and reassignment of crew members. The crew and dockyard then removed the guns, ammunitions, recyclable materials, machinery and supplies from the old Cormoran and placed them on the newly renamed SMS Cormoran II. The original Cormoran was then taken outside of the harbor and scuttled. The vessel currently rests beneath the ocean located at 36° 03′ North Latitude by 120° 16′ East Longitude.

By Nathalie Pereda

For further reading

de Quesada, Alejandro. Imperial German Colonial and Overseas Troops 1885-1918. ePublication. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2013.

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

Gröner, Erich. German Warships 1815-1945. Revised and Expanded by Dieter Jung and Marin Maass. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Ward, Herbert T. The Flight of the Cormoran. New York: Vantage Press, 1970.