Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Kaiser's Pirates

German Surface Raiders in World War One

Walter, John

1994, United States Naval Inst.
ISBN 1557504563
Hardcover, 192 pages, numerous b&w photos and maps

Type. General History
Pros. A well-written general summary of the topic, with excellent range of photos and maps
Cons. Ignores mine laying operations, research gaps

During World War One, Germany tried in several ways to interrupt the flow of supplies coming across the seas to Great Britain and France. While the use of U-boats is the most obvious example, the Kaiserliche Marine also made use of surface raiders to capture and destroy enemy shipping, including cruisers on colonial station at the outbreak of the war and specially disguised vessels sent out later.

Though the story of the Kreuzergeschwader, the Königsberg, the Emden, and the later German surface raiders like Wolf and Möwe I is well known, John Walter's book The Kaiser's Pirates does a good job of presenting many of the basic facts in an interesting and understandable manner. At the same time, the book provides little new information on this aspect of the war, and through a serious omission greatly underrates the achievements of raiders. It is almost as if the author is catering, as the title suggests, to the fascination with this "romantic" form of warfare, with its capturing, boarding, and sinking of vessels, rather than its reality.

The Kaiser's Pirates is organized into two main parts: a lengthy and useful introduction providing context, followed by individual chapters on 14 selected raiders. Information on raiders of lesser importance is included in a separate appendix. The division between these lesser raiders, which rate a third of a page each, and the more major ones, that warrant between three and 14 pages, is somewhat arbitrary. Several of the minor raiders actually had longer and more successful careers than the vessels described in greater detail. A separate appendix provides a great deal of information on the raiders' victims.

The sections on individual raiders open with extensive technical data on each ship. The author then describes in a very clear writing style a ship's operations from the beginning of her raiding career to her return to Germany, destruction, or internment. The author also does an excellent job of providing pictures and maps to provide greater understanding for the reader.

While Walter's book comes across as authoritative, it is not. On at least three occasions in The Kaiser's Pirates, Walter is unable to provide names for vessels captured by German raiders. Yet the identity of these vessels is not a mystery - the capture and/or destruction of the Eskino, Hallbjorg, and Staut are documented in Lloyd's War Losses as well as other books on the subject.

An even more major omission is the book's almost complete lack of information on mines laid by German raiders. While certainly depositing mines is nowhere near as romantic - or perhaps even interesting to the average reader - the fact remains that a ship lost by mines is as much a ship the enemy can't use as one captured and sunk by a surface raider. The Wolf, Möwe on her first patrol, Berlin, and Meteor all carried substantial quantities of mines and achieved significant successes with them. While Walter does mention a few successes in passing (they aren't even included in the appendix on the "Victim of the Raiders", which includes such minutiae as ships' call signs and paint schemes for ships captured and sunk), his list is far from complete. For Wolf, for example, he notes the loss of the Cumberland, Perseus, and Worcestershire by mines. In fact, Wolf's mines sank 11 ships and damaged four more - her tonnage destroyed from mines was nearly twice the tonnage she accounted for by her guns and scuttling charges!

While the rest of The Kaiser's Pirates is strong enough to merit the book have a place on one's bookshelf, these research gaps are easily large enough to keep this from being the definitive account of German surface raiders in World War One.

The reviewer welcomes your comments on this review.

Review written by Michael Lowrey.

Published on 7 Oct 2002.

Purchase information: (info)
Get The Kaiser's Pirates now at

Return to our main review page.