Copyright; John H. Marsh Maritime Collection,
Iziko Maritime Centre Cape Town.
Tonnage 6,101 / 9,860 dwt
Scuttled 25 JUL 1941 off Uruguayan coast by her own crew to avoid capture by HMS Newcastle
54 crewmembers and 6 passengers were rescued.
Data kindly provided by Ken Deshaies.
ACROSS THE VASTNES OF PACIFIC. THE SAGA TO REACH NEUTRAL CHILE
By GABY KLIKA. newlandmagazine.com.au
In late August 1939, a ship of the North-German Lloyd, the 6100-tonne steamer SS Erlangen, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The outbreak of war was imminent and the Erlangen, with a crew of 63 (captain, 12 German officers, engineers & assistant and 50 Chinese seaman), was moored at Dunedin Harbour, New Zealand. This is where the captain, Alfred Grams, received a telegram from Berlin with orders to seek a neutral harbour. And thus starts one of the most interesting stories of the war in the Pacific that turned a mere merchant ship into Germany’s most famous blockade- runner of WWII.
The Erlangen’s immediate problem was that the nearest neutral harbour was Chile, some 5,000 nautical miles from New Zealand. She had all but five days of coal supplies as she was supposed to coal in Port Kembla on Australia’s NSW coast. Capt. Grams had no choice but to slip his ship unobtrusively from its berth in Dunedin and feign a northwesterly course. But, under cover of darkness, he did the unthinkable – he sailed south for 200 nautical miles to the uninhabited Auckland Islands, one of the sub-Antarctic islands belonging to New Zealand.
The captain and his officers had concluded that the extreme head of North Arm of Carnley Harbour on Auckland Island would be a good hiding place to wait out further developments. Fortunately, food and drinking water were in ample supply, and the island was heavily forested with raita (iron wood), a wood notoriously difficult to cut but with a high heat rating. According to intercepted radio communications the crew knew that England had in the meantime declared war on Germany, and New Zealand too was now their enemy.
Highly unusual for the time, Capt. Grams convened his entire crew, including the Chinese seamen, to map out a strategy for reaching Chile and did not spare listing the difficulties and hardships that lay ahead. The Chinese seamen agreed to the plan as long as the German officers would guarantee their lives and possessions.
Having made careful calculations of how many tonnes of wood was needed for the voyage (three tonnes of iron wood replacing one tonne of coal), the crew spent 5 weeks of backbreaking labour with the most primitive tools and on dwindling foot rations to equip the SS Erlangen with 400 tonnes of firewood. Sails were also improvised to turn the Erlangen into a sail ship when winds would permit. The 6-acre clearing, called ‘Erlangen Clearing,’ can be seen from Carnley Harbour to this day.
On 5 October 1939, the Erlagen set out to sea in the direction of the west cost of South America. The long voyage was not without difficulties – fuel became so short that many of the ship’s wooden fittings were fed into the furnace. Food too was in very short supply, yet only one crewmember was lost to scurvy thanks to Capt. Grams’ daily beer rations. To the amazement of all the enemy navies scouring the Pacific for the elusive German steamer, the Erlangen reached the port of Puerto Mott in Chile on 11 November 1939.
With a third of its population of German extraction, the town feted the captain and his crew like heroes. Thanks to the exemplary and disciplined behaviour of the entire crew and the audaciously ingenious bravery of Capt. Grams, the Erlangen had stayed out of enemies’ hands! Chile is as far as the Chinese crew of the Erlangen stayed on, but it was not the end of the Erlangen’s run. The captain released the crew and sent everyone back to Asia.
In mid-1941, ordered back to Germany, the Erlangen laid a course for Montevideo with a crew from the German school ship Priwal. Again, Capt. Grams’ luck held and his ship remained undiscovered during the arduous and treacherous trip around Cape Horn until he reached his destination.
The Erlangen was discovered on 25 July 1941 by the British cruiser, HMS Newcastle, off the coast of Montevideo. Captain Grams scuttled his ship by ordering his crew to set her afire. He and his crew were taken prisoner and sent to Senegal, Scotland and finally to Canada; they were set free in 1946.
Hans Peter Jürgens (born 1924) is one of the former cadets from the Priwal. He is the last survivor of the crew of the Erlangen’s voyage around South America. After his release from POW camp, he became not only a maritime pilot in his own right but also one of Germany’s foremost painters of marine art. He is the artist who painted the iconic paintings pictured here of Germany’s most famous blockade-runner during WWII.
HMS Newcastle. When she hove in sight, the German captain before the imminent capture scuttled the ship. Photo www.mercahntnavyofficers.com