The varied career of the Dutch Protected Cruiser Gelderland

My wife’s grandmother, a splendid lady who died at almost 100 in the 1980s, gave me a very graphic eye-witness account of actually seeing the ex-president of the Transvaal, Paul Kruger. He was then being applauded by a crowd while taking a carriage ride in Amsterdam around 1902. Kruger had been offered asylum in the Netherlands as his government collapsed in the Boer War and he was never to return to Africa. The manner in which this intransigent Boer leader was brought to Europe is of considerable interest and the ship that carried him, the Gelderland,  was itself to have a remarkable career.

 The Utrecht, a sister of Gelderland, showing how the latter would have looked in 1900

Kruger was born in 1825 on a farm in the east of what was then the British-ruled Cape Colony. At the age of 11 he accompanied his family on the “Great Trek”, in which thousands of Boer families, dissatisfied with British rule, struck eastwards and north-eastwards into the territories that would later to become the independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  Kruger was to play a significant military and political role in the development of the Transvaal Republic. He became president for the first time in 1880, at the time of First Boer War with Britain. Boer forces were to prove victorious in the only major battle – Majuba Hill – and the conflict was settled  by an agreement that secured recognition of  Transvaal independence under nominal, and face-saving, British suzerainty. Kruger was to win successive presidential elections thereafter and gained considerable prestige during an official tour of Europe in 1884.

Paul Kruger – a contemporary cartoon that encapsulates his image
His Bible and pipe were his constant companions

The independence of the two Boer republics might have continued indefinitely had not the discovery of gold and diamonds attracted large numbers of non-Boers, the so-called Uitlanders, essentially foreigners. Their presence represented a significant challenge to Boer culture and society and was widely resented. Denial of civil rights to Uitlanders were a major cause of the Second Boer War (1899 to 1902) which again pitted the Boer Republics against Britain. The conflict can be roughly divided into two phases, the first of relatively conventional warfare and lasting about a year, during which Boer forces were initially very successful, but which were thereafter crushed by superior British forces. The second, and most bitter, phase was to be a guerrilla war in which small, mobile and brilliantly led Boer columns proved difficult to hunt down and destroy.

 A Boer Commando – at the time perhaps the best irregular troops in the world

There was widespread sympathy for the Boer cause in Europe, not least in the Netherlands, since the majority of the Boer population were of Dutch descent. Both France and Germany were probably less Pro-Boer than Anti-British, as France was still smarting over its climb-down in the Fashoda confrontation with Britain, while Germany’s irrational Kaiser Wilhelm II was increasingly resentful of British power and prestige.

Pretoria, the Transvaal capital, fell to British forces in June 1900, thereby effectively ending the first phase of the war. Kruger had left the city shortly before this but age and infirmity – he was no longer able to ride a horse – precluded him taking part in the guerrilla campaign now starting. He lay low for almost four months before crossing the border into Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, heading for Lourenco Marques, now Maputo. Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the young queen of the Netherlands was moved by his plight. She resolved to assist Kruger, regardless of the problems this might imply for British-Dutch relations, and in so doing showed the same mettle that was to characterise her leadership of the nation four decades later when Germany invaded in 1940.

The young Queen Wilhelmina: she reigned under her mother’s regency from 1890
and alone after coming of age in 1898

The new Dutch protected cruiser Gelderland was accordingly sent to Lourenco Marques to carry Kruger to exile in Europe. This unusual assignment was to be the first in what was to be a remarkable career extending over almost five decades.

Roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Apollo Class of Second Class Cruisers, the Gelderland was one of the six-ship Holland Class which were primarily designed for service on overseas stations in the Dutch East Indies and Dutch Antilles. Details were as follow:

Displacement:   4,100 tons     Length: 310 ft
Propulsion: Two 3-cycle triple expansion engines, total 10,500 HP
Speed:  19.5 knots (1914)
Armament: 2× 6” (bow and stern chasers) 6× 4.7” (on the beam)
20 lighter weapons

The Royal Navy had been operating a blockade to prevent supplies reaching the Boer forces, mainly through Mozambique, but no attempt was made to intercept the Gelderland or prevent Kruger’s embarkation in November 1900. His removal from the scene was indeed probably seen by the British as desirable in view of his iconic status. He was carried to Marseilles and travelling on to the Netherlands, where he stayed as an honoured guest in rented homes in Hilversum and Utrecht. Ill health seems to have prompted him to move to Switzerland, and thereafter to Menton on the Riviera, where he died in 1904, an incongruous end for a man so closely identified with Boer life and culture.

A contemporary magazine illustration showing the Gelderland carrying Kruger to Europe

Kruger was a highly popular figure in the Netherlands, as attested by several streets and squares being named after him in various towns. In Amsterdam the  Transvaalbuurt (Transvaal Neighbourhood), constructed as a city extension for 1910 onwards had many of its streets named after Boer politicians and generals while in The Hague a generally similar Transvaalkwartier (Transvaal Quarter) had its streets named after Boer victories in the first year of the war.

In the following years the Gelderland was to serve in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, surviving a grounding occasioned by incomplete charts.

The Gelderland leaving for the Dutch Antilles

The Gelderland was to be involved in two further international incidents. In 1908 a dispute broke out between the Netherlands and Venezuela regarding harbouring of dissident Venezuelan refugees in the Dutch-governed island of Curaçao. Venezuela expelled the Dutch ambassador, prompting a Dutch dispatch of three warships, one of them the Gelderland, with orders to intercept ships sailing under the Venezuelan flag. In  a bloodless incident, on December 12th 1908, the Gelderland captured a Venezuelan coast guard vessel and thereafter, with the other Dutch ships, enforced a blockade on Venezuela’s ports. Angered by this, and blaming it on the Venezuelan president, his  internal opponents overthrew his regime and the standoff with the Netherlands was ended.

Four years later the Gelderland was again involved in an international incident, this time when she was sent to Istanbul to join ships sent by other European powers to protect the lives and properties of foreigners as the First Balkan war neared its climax and the Bulgarian army threatened the city. The Gelderland contributed a 100-man landing party to an international force of up to 3000 men. This force was subsequently withdrawn without action being required.

The Gelderland’s later years in Dutch service were as a training vessel, and she was out of use by the outbreak of WW2.  The hull appears however to have been in reasonable condition and in 1941 the Netherlands’ Nazi occupiers saw potential for employing her. She was therefore converted into an ant-aircraft ship at Elbing, in what is now Poland, and renamed the Niobe.  So named, she entered service in March 1944, and unlike other German anti-aircraft battery ships had her own engines and could steam under power. In this new guise the Gelderland/Niobe carried a very powerful anti-aircraft armament:

8× 10.5 cm Flak L/45 C/32
4× 40 mm Bofors L/60
4× 20 mm (4×4) Vierlinge C/38 – Four Barrel Pom-Poms

The Niobe operated off the Finnish city of Kotka during the Russian Vyborg–Petrozavodsk Offensive. In July 1944 she was subjected to massive air attack – by some 130 enemy aircraft according to one source – and she was sunk in the harbour,  70 of the crew being  killed and five of the attackers shot down.

The wrecked Niobe off Kotla

This was still not the end for the tough old cruiser – which indeed had possibly been the last of this type of vessel ever to see service in any guise – and she was raised by the Russians and not finally scrapped until 1953.

HMS Hereward in the 1930s. Note the twin mounting in B position

And one final twist – just as Queen Wilhelmina had rescued a fleeing head of state, so too was she to be rescued by a foreign warship in May 1940 when the Netherlands was overrun by Nazi Germany. The Queen was evacuated from Hoek van Holland by the British destroyer HMS Hereward and was thereafter the inspirational focus of Dutch resistance overseas to the Nazi invaders. She returned to a liberated Netherlands in March 1945 and reigned until her abdication in 1948. This indomitable woman died in 1962.

Queen Wilhelmina broadcasting from London to the Nazi–occupied Netherlands
Her confidence in the ultimate liberation of her nation never faltered

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