The Hartlepool ship which was captured as the First World War broke out - and she was in a German port when it happened

The Rubens which played its own significant part in the Great War. Photograph courtesy of Harold Appleyard
The Rubens which played its own significant part in the Great War. Photograph courtesy of Harold Appleyard
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She had only been at sea for a few years when the world went to war.

The Rubens, a steel screw steamer, was launched from the William Gray shipyard in Hartlepool 110 years ago – built for the Bolton Steam Shipping Co, of London.

The Rubens which played its own significant part in the Great War. Photograph courtesy of Hatlepool Museums Service

The Rubens which played its own significant part in the Great War. Photograph courtesy of Hatlepool Museums Service

She was 343ft long, with a breadth of 49ft, depth of hold of 23ft, and was fitted with a three-cylinder CMEW triple-expansion steam engine.

Unfortunately, when war broke out, she was in the German port of Hamburg.

Luck had deserted her. The ship was seized and her crew interned.

But that wasn’t the end of the Rubens story.

In an attempt to re-supply the ship, and at the same time provide guns and ammunition for the troops of Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Corps, the Rubens was converted to match the appearance of a Danish vessel, the Kronborg

A spokesman for Hartlepool History Then & Now

German warships were stationed at naval bases around the world and one of them was the light cruiser Konigsber, under the command of Max Looff.

She was operating out of Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of German East Africa and determined to attack British shipping in 1914.

After attacking the port of Zanzibar on August 20, and sinking the elderly British protected cruiser Pegasus, the Konigsberg retired up the Rufiji River for a much needed overhaul, and moored at the town of Salele.

But she needed a lot of engine parts replacing and the only way to do it was to transport them overland from Dar-es-Salaam. Effectively crippled, the Konigsberg was spotted by the British cruiser Dartmouth on October 30, and she blockaded the river delta, along with two other ships.

Conditions on the Königsberg soon began to deteriorate, many of her crew suffering from malaria with increasing shortages of food and medical supplies.

And that’s where the Hartlepool ship Rubens comes back into the story.

In an attempt to re-supply the ship, and at the same time provide guns and ammunition for the troops of Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s Corps, the Rubens was converted to match the appearance of a Danish vessel, the Kronborg.

She loaded a cargo of much-needed supplies, including 1600 tons of best steaming coal, guns, ammunition, food and medical supplies.

With suitably forged papers and a hand-picked crew of Danish-speaking German sailors under the command of Captain Carl Christiansen, she sailed on February 19, 1915. By April 8, she had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was off the coast of Madagascar.

Her captain now sent a wireless message to the Konigsberg, which was intercepted by the British.

On April 14, the ‘Kronborg’ approached Manza Bay, only to find the light cruiser Hyacinth waiting for her.

And that’s when the recent Hartlepool ‘addition’ to the conflict really found herself at the centre of the Rufiji action.

Next week – the battle unfolds.