'The Wolf' by Richard Guilliatt & Peter Hohnen - Corgi, ISBN 978-0-552-15705-6


Lantern Swinger
Book Reviewer
After the Battle of Jutland, the Imperial German Navy sought every way to take the war to the Allies except by means of its battle fleet, and if you wanted action the best way of getting it appeared to be by dodging capital ships and getting yourself drafted to aviation, destroyers or u-boats. If you really had something to prove, you would get yourself assigned to commerce raiders masquerading as merchant vessels. Alternatively, you would try to avoid them and many did, as they were known as 'suicide ships' in the ranks.

'The Wolf' is an account of the 444-day war patrol of one of the less well-known of these vessels, from her being taken up from trade and her previous life as the Wachtfels, through her detailed fitting-out as a state of the art 'Q-ship' (a mine delivery system is installed at the stern, guns and torpedo launchers are fitted behind drop-don screens on deck, the funnel gets a telescopic extension to allow her to mimic different ship profiles, she gets much larger coal bunkers for extended range, she gets a comprehensive passive COMINT fit to allow her to monitor shipping, and finally she embarks a floatplane for over the horizon targeting), her work-up and then her deployment, during which she never came alongside and took all her supplies from her victims.

About half of this book is a war diary detailing her exploits - basically successful. The other half is by far more interesting. Commerce raiders did not embrace 'unrestricted warfare' at this stage: every ship attacked generated a growing crowd of merchant service POWs which had to be embarked and looked after. The pressures on board increase throughout the deployment as racial tensions, shortages of rations and medicines and illnesses take their toll. The reactions of the POWs to their circumstances range from heroism to outright selfishness. They are merchant seafarers - proper hard men - but the conditions they are in are very similar to Allied POWs at the end of WW2. The natural leader (and equivalent to RSM Lord) is Captain Tom Meadows. Once in Germany, he still has the neck to ask for an Iron Cross from his captors - 'Second Class will do.'
The ship's company of the 'Wolf' have their own problems to deal with. A typical cross-section of the prewar Imperial German Navy, the huge divide between Officers and Rates threatens to boil over into mutiny at any stage. The pressures of total war render the men far less tolerant of the pretensions of the Prussian 'Officer Class' than in peacetime, particularly as the 'Wolf' gets assigned the dregs of the waterfront manning pool. Several of the more prominent lower-deck lawyers go on to become accomplished orators and writers during the inter-war years.

The main character who somehow holds this incredible pot mess together is the CO, Karl Nerger. He stands out as a skilled seaman with huge reserves of grit and self-discipline. Very much an unsung hero, despite the politics and tensions on board, all accounts of the patrol are unanimous in the respectful tone in which he is referred to. Nerger himself came from humble origins and had a hint of scandal about him which allowed the Navy to view him as expendable. His return to home waters seems to have come as a genuine surprise to the hierarchy, and his subsequent career undistinguished as a result.

The 'Wolf' had a massive moral effect in its area of operations, and the authors detail how too much secrecy and intrigue (to cover up the fact that the Pacific and the Dominions were stripped of defences to feed the war in Europe) caused needless panic and casualties. The mines laid by the 'Wolf' claimed several ships: rather than reveal them to be the work of a German vessel, censors pushed the idea of German saboteurs laying bombs on board, leading to internment and misery for loyal and naturalised Australians of German descent. The chief orchestrator of this is the Australian PM, Billy Hughes. He is described by a contemporary as 'cold as sea-ice, vain as a peacock, cruel as a butcher bird, sly as a weasel and mean as cat shit.'

'The Wolf' corrects an oversight of history and puts this story up there with the cruises of the 'Emden' and the 'Seeadler.' As military history, as a sea story and as a study of endurance and ordinary people under extraordinary pressures, I found it believable and well-written. Imagine a Clive Cussler story, but true and written by someone who can write.

5 out of 5 anchors.

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