SMS Königsberg

SMS Königsberg was the name ship of the Königsberg class of light cruisers. She had a short career as an commerce raider, but is best known for the nine months she spent blockaded in the Rufiji River in German East Africa.

At the start of the First World War the Königsberg was the station ship at Dar-es-Salaam, in German East Africa. On 31 July, before the outbreak of war, she slipped out to sea with a full load of coal, and steamed north towards the Gulf of Aden.

Her career as a commerce raider began almost immediately. On 6 August she captured the City of Winchester, a 6,601 ton liner carrying a cargo worth £250,000. Most alarming was the loss of 30,000 chests of choice tea. The Königsberg was the first of the German commerce raiders to capture a prize, but the City of Winchester would remain the only merchant ship to fall to her. News of this success took two weeks to reach the outside world, somewhat negating its impact on trade – by the time anyone knew she had been in the Gulf of Aden, plenty of other ships had sailed the same route in peace, and it was clear that she had sailed back south.

SMS Konigsberg, 1907
SMS Konigsberg, 1907

After the capture of the City of Winchester she disappeared until 20 September. That day she appeared off Zanzibar, where she found HMS Pegasus, a Pelorus class light cruiser, launched in 1897 and armed with eight 4in quick firing guns. In normal circumstances she might have posed some threat to the Königsberg, or at least have expected to cause some damage, but on 20 September she was undergoing boiler repairs. Unable to move, she was soon sunk by the Königsberg.

The net was beginning to close around the Königsberg. On 8 August the British had bombarded Dar-es-Salaam, and the Germans had sunk their floating dock in the harbour entrance. Königsberg had lost her base, and three potential coal tenders. Three more powerful British cruisers – HMS Chatham, HMS Dartmouth and HMS Weymouth were searching for her. These all carried 6in guns and had the speed to keep up with Königsberg. Finally, on 19 October the Präsident, one of her supply tenders, was captured in the Lindi River. Papers captured on her gave away to location of a recent rendezvous, in the shallow delta of the Rufiji River.

On 30 October HMS Chatham found the Königsberg, moored in the river. She had been lightened and was too far upstream for the Chatham to reach, but the British immediately imposed a blockade of the river. The Königsberg was trapped. On 10 November the collier Newcastle was sunk across the most navigable mouth of the river, further reducing the chance of her escape.

Königsberg remained in the Rufiji Delta until July 1915. The river split into numerous shallow channels, and the Königsberg was in far too shallow water for the British cruisers to reach bombardment distance. The river mouth was defended, with gun emplacements in the trees and observation posts hidden on islands in the delta.

The German navy did not abandon the Königsberg. In April 1915 an attempt was made to re-supply her, using the British steamship Rubens, disguised as the Danish steam Kronberg. She was carrying 1,600 tons of coal, 1,500 rifles and a supply of ammunition. The British feared that the Königsberg would attempt to break out of the river to meet up with her. Weymouth, supported by HMS Pioneer, a sister ship to the Pegasus, and by AMC Kinfauns Castle, blockaded the river, while HMS Hyacinth set off the find the supply ship.

Hyacinth found her prey off Mansa Bay, but at a crucial moment suffered a partial engine failure, which allowed the Kronberg to beach herself in the bay. Despite being set on fire, and partly sunk, a large part of her cargo was later salvaged by the Germans and played a part in the defence of German East Africa.

The same month saw two seaplanes arrive off the river, but they could only reach a height of 800 feet in the hot tropical air, and so plans to bomb the Königsberg had to be abandoned – her anti-aircraft fire was too dangerous at that height.

Eventually it was decided to move two 6in monitors, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn, from Malta to East Africa. These were ex-river monitors, originally built for Brazil, but taken over at the start of the war. They carried two 6in guns and had a shallow enough draft to operate in the Rufiji River. That same shallow draft made them very hard to sail in the open sea. It had been difficult enough to get them to Malta, but the journey to German East Africa would take from 19 April to 3 June, and was only made possible by the use of four tugs. 
On 6 July the two monitors were ready to make their first attack on the Königsberg. At 5.20 am they entered the river, passing through a hail of fire at the river banks, took up a position 11,000 yards from the Königsberg at 6.30, and opened fire. A seaplane acted as an artillery spotter, attempting to correct their fire. They immediately came under fire, for the Germans had pre-registered their position. The first blow was struck by the Germans, who hit the Mersey, knocking her 6in guns out of service for the day. Severn continued the bombardment, inflicting some limited damage on the Königsberg, before both ships retired at 3.30pm. Of 635 shells fired, only 6 were recorded as hits.

A second bombardment, on 11 July, was much more effective. This time the Mersey stopped at the first bombardment point, while the Severn continued on up the river, and opened fire from much closer to Königsberg. Her eighth salvo was a hit, and after ten minutes Königsberg was down to three guns.

At 12.52 pm the British recorded a large explosion on Königsberg. Most of her gun crews were killed or wounded, her captain badly wounded and her magazine had been flooded to prevent an explosion. At 1.45 pm a torpedo warhead was used to scuttle her, and she sank slightly into the shallow water.

The sinking of the Königsberg allowed the British to disperse the squadron guarding the river mouth, and removed any last lingering threat that she might have posed to trade. However, it did not end her role in German East Africa. A number of her guns were removed from the wreck, and went on to play a valuable role in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s lengthy campaign in the area. The career of the Königsberg demonstrates just how much effort it could take to deal with a single commerce raider.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

23kts design
24.1kts trials

Armour – deck


 - conning tower


 - gunshields



383ft 2in


Ten 4.1in guns
Eight 2in quick firing guns
Two 17.7in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement



12 December 1905


June April 1907


11 July 1915

German Commerce Raiders 1914-18, Ryan K. Noppen. Looks at the surface vessels that operated against Allied shipping during the First World War, a mix of warships, converted liners and converted freighters, including one fully masted sailing ship. Although nowhere near as successful as the later U-boat campaign, these surface ships did embarrass the Royal Navy, especially early in the war, and forced the diversion of sizeable RN and Allied naval forces, so they are well worth studying [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 September 2007), SMS Königsberg ,

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