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Prowling wolf: not many Australians realise that an enemy merchant raider was stalking the eastern Australian coastline during the First World War.


The distinctive red granite lighthouse marking Gabo Island is a welcome sight for many sailors completing a passage across Bass Strait on their way to Eden. However, next time you are sailing past the southeast tip of Victoria, spare a thought for the little-known fact that it is the place where World War I came closest to the Australian home front.

Merchant vessels were vital to Australian commerce during the period because of the lack of alternative infrastructure. Most vessels had also been commandeered for the various European war fronts. The loss of a precious freighter could have a major impact on the ferrying of essential supplies around the nation; particularly to Western Australia, which was heavily dependent on sea cargo from the eastern states.

One of the few freighters still plying Australian waters, the SS Cumberland, was sunk off Gabo Island on 6 July 1917. Initially considered to be the result of an internal explosion, it took two months for authorities to investigate due to the lack of available vessels. During this time, news arrived that two vessels had also been sunk in New Zealand waters and that the passenger ship Mutanga had disappeared en route from Australia to New Guinea.

Wartime authorities started to piece the puzzle together and suspect that an enemy ship was operating in the South Pacific. Suspicions were furthered when it was discovered that the partially submerged Cumberland was the victim of an enemy minefield laid off Gabo Island.

Armed merchant raider ships were used by the German navy to surprise and attack commercial vessels in allied waters during WWI. Disrupting commercial trade could have a significant effect on the allied home fronts as well as securing vital supplies such as coal and much needed metals to contribute to the German war effort. The merchant raiders were disguised as non-combatant vessels so that they could approach commercial ships until it was too late for their prey to flee from their concealed cannon, guns and torpedoes.

In order to avoid panicking the nation with news that an enemy vessel was operating in the South Pacific, relatives of the 46 crew and passengers on Mutanga were told that she had probably been lost due to savage storms. However, secret news that she had been captured by German raider Wolf arrived via a message in a bottle found in the Celebes. Remarkably, prisoners threw the bottled message overboard, describing how the enemy merchant raider had stalked Mutanga up the northern Australian coast. Once captured near New Guinea, prisoners and her cargo of coal and liquor were transferred to Wolf and Mutanga was scuttled off a remote island.

The tale contained in the castaway bottle detailed the German raider's voyage across the Pacific and outlined that Mutanga's fate was not unique. Wolf was very successful in its mission, sinking over 35 trading vessels and two warships. She laid extensive minefields off Sri Lanka, India, New Zealand and Australia. She managed to evade the British blockade a second time, returning to Germany near the end of the War in 1918 with 467 prisoners and a rich prize cargo of precious metals. All crew were hailed as heroes and the Kaiser decorated the Captain with Germany's highest honour.

Wolf was also unique as she was the first merchant raider to use a scout plane, nicknamed 'Wolfchen' ('wolf cub') by the crew, to search for victim vessels to intercept and attack for valuable coal and cargo.

A history detailing the extraordinary voyage of the German Raider Wolf, which completed the longest voyage of any ship during WWI, is soon to be published by Random House. Peter Hornan, whose uncle was a prisoner of war on Wolf, has joined forces with journalist Richard Guilliatt to bring the fascinating story to life.
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Title Annotation:Nautical History
Author:Wells, Jenifer
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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