Review of the Kaiser’s Pirates: Hunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers in World War I

This is a superb read. It is well executed from the standpoint of the balance between recounting extensive research and engagement with a thrilling narrative. Hewitt covers ground that has been well covered before. Between the days leading up to the outbreak of World War One and the subsequent twelve months, a collection of often sole cruisers ranged the ocean’s wrecking havoc and tieing up substantial British and colonial capital warships. This book explores, the moral, economic and strategic implications of this short period. The individual tales of creative use of limited resources, the invention of new forms of sea-based warfare provide a primer for the evolution of fleet deployment for the next few decades. They question the value of the massive investment by the British ( allies and  German navies in massive capital ships) but also the nature of the compromises between speed, armour, gun range and weight and cruising range. 

Despite the wealth of context and apparent research, Hewitt brings together the various raiders’ tales into a nice holistic piece that doesn’t belabour the detail. It is not short on either colour or exposition, although I found his choices optimal – for me. I realise this is hugely subjective, but this treatment really appealed and even when I wondered why I was taking the time to cover older ground, I couldn’t put this one down.

It established the broader context in a thoroughly enjoyable manner, set the accomplishments of the various players into the context and demonstrated a thorough research agenda combined with superb editing.

I would highly recommend this for anyone even vaguely interested in the First World War at sea outside of the rather unitary engagement of the German High Seas Fleet (Jutland) or the first uses of U-Boat. The activities of the surface raiders in the Pacific, South Atlantic and East Africa are the stuff of legend in fairness. Desperate (but well trained) men in times of particular challenge making creative decisions. I was struck by the author’s decision to keep the various exploits in the context of warfare, making careful note of loss of life and of tactical and strategic advantage versus overall theatres. The tales are set within the context of what they caused and achieved and balancing realities against mythologies.

14 German ships, 15 British ships and a global hare chase that demonstrated both the vicissitudes of personality, the role of fate and circumstances that forced a reckoning with true character. Highly recommended.


P.s. as a tie-in, very much appreciated the tales ending with the Königsberg mired in the Mud of the Rufiji, reduced to a hulk, but then the survivors salvaging the armaments and trekking off to join Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s equally astounding tale of roaming Africa throughout the FIrst World War and remaining undefeated. This is particularly well covered in William Stevenson’s Lion of Africa.

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