In April 1914 SMS Königsberg, a light cruiser laid down in 1905 armed with ten 4.1 in Krupp guns and capable of a speed of 24 knots, was sent to German East Africa for a two year deployment.
On the outbreak of war in August, SMS Königsberg, captained by Max Loof, became a surface raider. The first victim was the freighter ‘City of Winchester’ off the Oman coast. The two problems SMS Königsberg now faced were a shortage of coal and a safe harbour in which to overhaul her engines. The steamer ‘Somali’ had been sent to recoal SMS Königsberg but a British cruiser, HMS Pegasus, had entered Zanzibar harbour depriving the German ships of the harbour’s facilities. The Rufiji delta was now chosen as a safe refuge to overhaul the ship’s engines but first the problem of HMS Pegasus had to be sorted out. Loof sank HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour before retreating to the delta. During the overhaul of the ship’s engines the worn and damaged parts were transported overland to Dar as Salaam for expert repair. During this time a sophisticated system of observers and guns were set up so that SMS Königsberg could not be surprised before the repair was finished.
By October the Royal Navy had discovered the whereabouts of SMS Könisberg from captured documents taken from a German ship which had taken coal to the Rufiji delta. Now a flotilla of cruisers, HMS Chatham, Dartmouth and Weymouth were sent to blockade the delta and prevent any escape. The Königsberg was protected by thick mangrove swamps and exchange of shell fire between the British cruisers and the Königsberg did not lead anywhere. Loof moved his ship further up the river and the British decided to block one outlet of the Rufiji delta by sinking a collier midstream.
Next the British response was to request the use of a Curtis seaplane privately owned by a civilian Denis Cutler. Cutler located the Königsberg on his third investigatory flight but the seaplane developed a problem with its radiator and was grounded. The British now used two RNAS Sopwith camels for aerial observation but they fell apart under the tropical conditions. A trio of Short type Folder seaplanes were used next, they did successfully photographed the Königberg but they too were incapacitated.
By April 1915 a new plan emerged – two monitors (relatively small warships with large guns but lightly armoured) HMS Mersey and HMS Severn, were towed from the Mediterranean through the Red Sea to East Africa. They were able to enter the delta (July 06) and move into position to shell the Königsberg despite the heavy fire from the German shore positions. Each side was firing directed by observers – seaplanes for the British and tree top observers for the Germans. After three hours of shellfire, HMS Mersey had been hit, one gun put out of action and had been withdrawn. July 11 saw the monitors return to their position (with damage repaired) and after a five hour bombardment, all the guns of the Königsberg were knocked out. Shell fire had caused a fire and heavy casualties (23 killed & 37 wounded). Loof decided to scuttle his ship, disable the guns he could not remove by throwing their breech blocks into the river and taking his crew with the salvaged guns on ox carts (for use as field artillery) to join General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in the East Africa land campaign.
Report by Peter Palmer