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SMS Seeadler (1888)
Pass of Balmaha later SMS Seeadler.png
Pass of Balmaha, later SMS Seeadler
Career (German Empire)
Name: SMS Seeadler
Namesake: sea eagle
Ordered: 1888 as Pass of Balmaha
Builder: R Duncan & co
Launched: 1888
Acquired: 1915
Commissioned: 1915
Fate: Wrecked 2 August 1917
General characteristics
Displacement: 4500 tons (1,571 GRT)
Length: 83.5 m
Beam: 11.8 m
Draught: 5.5 m
Installed power: 900 hp
Propulsion: 1 shaft auxiliary diesel engine
Sail plan: 3 masts, full rig, 2,600 square metres (28,000 sq ft) sail area
Speed: 9 knots (17 km/h)
Complement: 64
Armament: 2 × 105mm guns
This page is about a commerce raider. For the World War I cruiser, see SMS Seeadler.

SMS Seeadler (Ger: sea eagle) was a three-master windjammer. She was one of the last fighting sailing ships to be used in war when she served as a merchant raider with Imperial Germany in World War I. Built as the US-flagged Pass of Balmaha, she was captured by the German submarine SM U-36, and in 1916 converted to a commerce raider. As Seeadler she had a successful raiding career, capturing and sinking 15 ships in 225 days until she was wrecked, in September 1917, in French Polynesia.

Pass of Balmaha

Originally named Pass of Balmaha, she was built by Robert Duncan Company, Port Glasgow, Scotland, in 1888. She was a 1,571 GRT steel-hulled sailing vessel 245 feet (75 m) long owned by the Harris-Irby Cotton Company, Boston.

She was captured by U-36 in the North Sea en route to Kirkwall. The circumstances of her capture are somewhat peculiar. She departed from New York harbor in June 1915. Originally bound for the Arctic port of Arkhangelsk to deliver a cargo of cotton for the Russian war effort, she was intercepted by the British auxiliary cruiser Victorian off the coast of Norway. A boarding party was sent aboard to inspect the cargo for contraband, headed by the captain of the cruiser. The British captain found reason to find the ship suspect, and ordered the captain of the Pass, Captain Scott, to set sail for Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands for further inspection. A prize crew of one officer and six marines was left aboard to ensure that Scott did not alter his course.

The British officer ordered the neutral American colours struck and replaced with the British flag, against the will of Captain Scott, who realised that this would mark his ship as a belligerent. Soon after, the U-36 intercepted the Pass. Out of a desire to avoid being impounded, Scott ordered the British hidden in the hold and the Union Jack quickly replaced with the Stars and Stripes. The commander of the U-36, Captain Ernst Gräff, was not entirely convinced by this ruse and ordered the Pass to sail for Cuxhaven for inspection. A German ensign was left aboard. The American crewmen, resentful of what they perceived as British meddling, locked the British marines in the hold to make sure that they did not attempt to retake the ship and cause unnecessary bloodshed.

The Pass of Balmaha reached Cuxhaven without major incident, and was boarded by a German inspection party. Captain Scott then revealed the seven British seamen to the Germans, who imprisoned them. For their cooperation, the Americans were allowed free passage to a neutral country, but the Pass became property of the German Navy.[1]

SMS Seeadler

SMS Seeadler by Christopher Rave

By 1916 the Allies had blockaded German warships in the North Sea, and any commerce raiders that succeeded in breaking out lacked foreign or colonial bases for resupply of coal. This gave rise to the idea of equipping a sailing ship instead, since it would not require coaling.

The Seeadler was equipped with an auxiliary engine, hidden lounges, accommodation for additional crew and prisoners, two hidden 105 mm cannons that could emerge from the deck, two hidden heavy machine guns, and rifles for boarding parties. These weapons were rarely fired, and many of the 15 ships encountered by the Seeadler were sunk with only one single accidental casualty on either side during the entire journey.

Seeadler wrecked

On 21 December 1916, she sailed under the command of Kapitänleutnant Felix von Luckner. The ship was disguised as a Norwegian wood carrier and succeeded in crossing the British blockading line despite being boarded for an inspection. The crew had been handpicked partly for their ability to speak Norwegian. Over the next 225 days, she captured 15 ships in the Atlantic and Pacific and led the British and US Navies on a merry chase.

Her journey ended wrecked on a reef at the island of Mopelia 450 km from Tahiti in the Society Islands, part of French Polynesia. Luckner and some crew sailed for Fiji, where they were captured and imprisoned. A French schooner, the Lutece, of 126 tons was captured by the remaining crew on 5 September 1917. They sailed to Easter Island as Fortuna, arriving on 4 October and running aground there, after which they were interned by the Chilean authorities.

Captured ships

Route of the SMS Seeadler and locations of ships engaged (1–2 North Atlantic, 3–11 Mid-Atlantic, 12–14 Pacific)

Sixteen ships, totaling 30,099 tons, were captured by the Seeadler between 21 December 1916 and 8 September 1917. Unless otherwise noted, all vessels in the list were steamships.

  • Gladis Royle, 3,268 tons, captured and sunk 9 January 1917.
  • Lundy Island, 3,095 tons, captured and sunk on 10 January 1917.
  • Charles Gounod, 2,199 tons, French barque captured and sunk on 21 January 1917.
  • Perce, 364 tons, schooner captured and sunk on 24 January 1917.
  • Antonin, 3,071 tons, French barque captured and sunk on 3 February 1917.
  • Buenos Ayres, 1,811 tons, Italian sailing vessel captured and sunk on 9 February 1917.
  • Pinmore, 2,431 tons, schooner captured on 19 February 1917 and later sunk after being used to obtain supplies.
  • British Yeoman, 1,953 tons, sailing bark captured and sunk on 26 February 1917.
  • La Rochefoucauld, 2,200 tons, French barque captured and sunk on 27 February 1917.
  • Dupleix, 2,206 tons, French barque captured and sunk on 5 March 1917.
  • Horngarth, 3,609 tons, captured and sunk on 11 March 1917.
  • Cambronne, 1,833 tons, French barque captured and released 21 March, arrived at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 30 March 1917.
  • A. B. Johnson, 529 tons, United States schooner captured and sunk on 14 June 1917.
  • R. C. Slade, 673 tons, United States schooner captured and sunk on 18 June 1917.
  • Manila, 731 tons, United States schooner captured and sunk on 8 July 1917.
  • Lutece - see above.

See also


  1. Pardoe, Blaine (2005) The Cruise of the Sea Eagle: The Amazing True Story of Germany's Gentleman Pirate Guilford, CT, The Lyons Press


  • Allen, Oliver E. and the editors of Time-Life Books. 1978. Captain Sea Devil of the "Seeadler". The Windjammers pp. 120–143. (The Seafarers, vol. 6.) Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.

External links

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