The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
I’ve started reading more about World War One this year so I picked up The Wolf: The Mystery Raider that Terrorized the Seas During World War I. It was coauthored by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, though I’m pleased that it read fluently and not disjointed as some multiple authored books do. This book tells the true tale of the SMS Wolf, an Imperial German Navy commerce raider that was active during the second half of the First World War. Captained by Karl Nerger, the Wolf became a dangerous ghost on the waves of much of the world’s seas that haunted Allied shipping for much of the war.
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The history in this book this book is fantastic and deftly handled. The Wolf steamed across the oceans of the world for about fifteen months from the end of 1916 through the beginning of 1918 and traversed 64,000 miles of water. What makes this even more remarkable is that she maintained radio silence and did not enter a single port throughout the entire duration of the journey. This was critical in order to remain anonymous and stealthy on the waters and keep a guise as merchant vessel. During the expedition, the Wolf also sank, severely damaged, or captured about thirty enemy ships from several different countries through mines or seizure. A major part of the story that is told in The Wolf is that of the crewman and of the prisoners that were taken aboard after an enemy ship was captured. Captain Nerger fought by international naval prize law rules, which were fairly chivalrous considering the events of World War One. Inherent with this was the taking of prisoners rather than simply sinking a vessel with everyone on aboard or executing anyone captured. Indeed, on the one occasion the Wolf fired upon an enemy ship, she rescued everyone who managed to escape in the lifeboats. This isn’t to say that being a prisoner was easy and the authors do not shy away from that. In fact, a few prisoners did die of diseases, but as the authors pointed out as well, much of the crew and everyone else ate roughly what the prisoners ate as supplies were hard to come by withought being able to go into port or communicate to the outside world.
The book also deals quite a bit with how other countries were reacting to the activities of the Wolf as time went on and how suppression of the press and censorship likely led to the Allies suffering more disasters than necessary. The only real flaw I felt the book had was that, while this content was fine and added another dimension to the story of this commerce raider, this part of the narrative was heavily based on what was occurring in Australia and New Zealand. (Though it was enlightening to see the the politics of Australia as well as the discrimination that took place against even second and third generation German-Australians.) Some of the more general aspects of the naval war, in particular the U-boat campaigns, could have been touched upon as well to give the journey of the Wolf a little more context as time went on.
All in all this was a great book highlighting an interesting story that took place during The Great War and was benefited by not only focusing on the ship’s battles (if you could call them that.) By highlighting the story of the crew and the plight of the prisoners the human touch was added, especially by including Captain Nerger’s stoicism and adherence to old world naval chivalry. Also, the descriptions of the political turmoil and countermeasures employed by the Allies fleshed out the context of the Wolf’s journey quite well.
4.5 out of 5 stars.