SMS Geier: an odyssey Under Two Flags, 1894 – 1918

                            SMS Geier in tropical waters

When one thinks of the Imperial German Navy, the image that immediately comes to mind is of the mighty battle-fleet that confronted the Royal Navy at the start of World War 1. In the two decades prior to this however the most active service seen by the German Navy was by small ships in far-flung corners of the globe where Germany, a latecomer to the scramble for colonies, was constructing an overseas empire. One focus was on Africa, with very large territorial holdings in South-West Africa and East Africa, and smaller ones in Togoland and the Cameroons in West Africa. The other main focus was on the Western Pacific, with holdings in Northern New Guinea (“Kaiser Wilhelmsland”), the Bismarck Archipelago and several island groups whose names were to become familiar in World War 2. Germany has significant trading interests in China and this led in turn to establishment of a naval base on the Chinese coast at Tsingtao (modern Qingdao) to rival the British and Russian bases at Hong Kong and Port Arthur respectively. The distances involved in “policing” this vast area – essentially using naval power, whether for bombardment or by landing parties, to quell local unrest – required small and relatively unsophisticated vessels. These had to be capable of operating alone for extended periods, often far from reliable coal-supplies. They represented an ideal opportunity for young and ambitious officers to display initiative and seamanship in a way which would never be possible in the “big-ship navy” in home waters. The story of one such vessel, SMS Iltis, was told in an earlier blog (click here to read if you missed it) and this piece tells of another humble vessel, SMS Geier.

SMS Bussard, sister of the Geier and lead ship of the class
(With acknowledgement to the Deutsche-Schutzgebiete website)

Launched in 1894, two decades after the Iltis, SMS Geier, was a considerably more sophisticated ship. One of the Bussard class of six, all named after birds (Geier meaning Vulture) she was an 1868-ton,  271-foot, twin-screw unprotected cruiser with a maximum speed of 15.5 knots.  Such speed was rarely called for and endurance was more important in view of the distances she would operate over –  she was consequently designed to steam on her bunkers for 3000 miles at 9 knots without resorting to her auxiliary sail-power. Since shore-bombardment was likely to be a requirement on occasion she was heavily armed for her size, carrying eight 4.1-inch guns and several smaller weapons. Given her expected duties it is surprising that she should have in addition two 14-inch torpedo tubes. Her crew amounted to 161, allowing her to land a potent and well-disciplined force should circumstances demand.

Over the next two decades SMS Geier, like her sisters, was to see service in all the German colonial areas as well as in the Caribbean, where she evacuated German nationals from Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In 1900 she supported international efforts to suppress the Boxer Rising and she was to spend the next five years patrolling the China coast – a hotbed of piracy – and the German possessions in the South-West Pacific. A return to Germany for overhaul was the start of a deployment in European waters, including protection of German interests in the Mediterranean during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

SMS Geier in her later years, when her sailing rig had been removed
(With acknowledgement to the splendid  Kaiserliche-Marine website)

Thereafter  SMS Geier was sent east again, but had not yet reached the German base of Tsingtao when the World War broke out in August 1914. She departed hastily from the British-held harbour of Singapore only days before Britain’s declaration of war. Obsolete, slow and with inadequate coal reserves, SMS Geier was now one of the German Navy’s nomads. Recognising that the Tsingtao base was untenable once Japan had also declared war on Germany, and was likely to capture this base quickly, the powerful German East Asia squadron, under the command of Admiral Graf von Spee, was already heading south-east across the Pacific in what proved to be  futile effort to return to Germany. SMS Geier tried bravely but hopelessly to follow the squadron, even capturing but not sinking a British merchant steamer on the way, a source of coal that helped extend her range. Her machinery was now at its limits however and by early October, though she had managed to escape the extensive British, Japanese and French forces scouring the Pacific, the game was up. Making use of her last coal supplies she crawled into Honolulu and surrendered herself for internment.

SMS Geier’s crew being marched by US troops into internment at Honolulu, October 1914

SMS Geier spent almost three inactive years at Honolulu (not a bad place for her crew to be interned!) but when the United States entered the war in April 1917 she was seized by the American government. Renamed the USS Schurz and hastily overhauled, she escorted a convoy consisting of three submarines to San Diego, then onwards through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean. Following further maintenance she was allocated convoy duty in the Caribbean and off the United States’ East Coast. Here she was to meet her end. Rammed on 19th June 1918 off the Outer Banks of North Carolina by one of the freighters she was escorting, the Schurz sank quickly with the loss of one crew member killed and twelve injured.

It was a fate that could never have been predicted for SMS Geier when she had embarked on her busy and useful career in the Imperial German Navy almost a quarter-century before.

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It’s 1882 and Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers.

Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter.

A new balance of power is emerging in the Far East. Imperial China, weak and corrupt, is challenged by a rapidly modernising Japan, while Russia threatens from the north. They all need to control Korea, a kingdom frozen in time and reluctant to emerge from centuries of isolation.

Dawlish finds himself a critical player in a complex political powder keg. He must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a powerbroker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

Britannia’s Spartan sees Dawlish drawn into his fiercest battles yet on sea and land. Daring and initiative have already brought him rapid advancement and he hungers for more. But is he at last out of his depth?

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  1. Roger Crossland December 10, 2018 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    Too late.

    I read B’s Gamble (knowing how it must end) and enjoyed it. My parents met in North Africa (the western side) during WWII so B’s Gamble and B’s Shark (I live in coastal Connecticut) have been the easiest books to visualize. I suspected there’d be breaks in the chronological and maybe a major flashback or two.

    Cold Steel and Cordite Forever!

    • Antoine Vanner December 11, 2018 at 10:58 pm - Reply

      I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed the books, Roger. I’ve lived and worked in Africa for some ten of the last forty-six years and I’ve loved it. As regards Connecticut I enjoyed doing the research for Shark in New Haven. I walked the length of the Mill River’s banks (with some difficulty) in order to describe Dawlish’s hijacking of the Fenian Ram from Reynolds’ Foundry there. In real life the ram was brought there by the Brotherhood after taking it from Holland’s wharf (mentioned in the book) but it stayed there and only years later ended up in the museum in Paterson, New Jersey, where it still is. It’s well worth making a visit some time – it’s a remarkably sophisticated craft for the 1880s, but it must have needed nerves of steel to have tested it in New York harbour – as far out indeed as the Narrows, as Holland did. I hope you’ll also enjoy the latest novel, Britannia’s Mission, set n what’s today Tanzania. I’m involved with a village development project there so that helped a lot as regards local colour etc. Best Wishes and great to hear from you: Antoine

  2. Roger Crossland November 6, 2018 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Tsingtao (or Tsingtau as your countryman, Charles Stephenson spells it in The Siege of Tsingtau)) was essential to the support of the German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron.

    Once the Japanese snatched up the German coaling station in (German) West Samoa the siege of Tsingtao (with its predictable conclusion), the steel German cruisers with became orphans. Those cruisers did cause an interruption in trade from India, but Spee conceded that convoys guarded by HMS Australia were safe. “{HMS] Australia is my special apprehension — she alone is superior to my whole squadron.”

    Felix Von Luckner either reaching a strategic epiphany or by virtue of his swashbuckling soul, realized that sail still had something to offer when it came to guerrilla warfare afloat. Not requiring coaling stations, he found Seeadler’s logistical needs were far less and his ability to disguise her profile was far greater than any of the Cruiser Squadron. On the other hand, naval ordnance doesn’t grow on coconut palms.

    Luckner did well, but he like the majority of the Asiatic Cruiser Squadron found himself cornered eventually.

    I’m greatly enjoy the Dawlish Chronicles and am up to Britannia’s Amazon. Your series is a nice complement to the Prohaska series. Sadly in both series we start out knowing the nature of the demise of the hero.

    Keep up the good work! Don’t promote Dawlish too fast. Maybe captains can lead landing and boarding parties, but admirals not so much.

    • Antoine Vanner November 20, 2018 at 7:40 pm - Reply

      Great to hear from your Roger. I’ve always been fascinated by the Tsingtao siege – without other bases worldwide its fall was probably inevitable, just as the lack also doom the East Asiatic Squadron.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying teh Dawlish books. “Britannia’s Amazon” was somewhat of a gamble, told as it is from Florence Dawlish’s viewpoint. It has however been well accepted. I’m publishing the latest Dawlish Chronicles novel, the seventh, entitled “Britannia’s Mission” on November 30th 2018. As it fits chronologically between “Amazon” and “Gamble” you might want to read it before the latter.

      And as for promotion … lets say there are also some incidents in his early career that need coverage first!

      Best Wishes: Antoine

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