Max von Looff

From Kaiserreich


Max von Looff (born Max Looff in Strassburg, Germany on May, 2 1874) is a German colonial administrator and naval officer. Mostly known for his role in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's campaigns in East Africa during the Weltkrieg as commander of the SMS Königsberg, he is the current Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial Navy of the Freistaat Mittelafrika.



The SMS Königsberg adventure

Born in Elsaß-Lothringen, Looff was Fregattenkapitän and commander of the very modern SMS Königsberg when she arrived in German East Africa. As tensions rose immediately preceding the Weltkrieg, cruisers of the British Cape Squadron arrived with the intention of bottling up Königsberg at the colony’s capital Dar es Salaam. Captain Looff got his ship ready to sail and left port on 1 August 1914. Looff was able to give the Cape Squadron the slip. When war was declared, Königsberg was a thousand miles away from Dar es Salaam in the Indian Ocean.

Königsberg now embarked on a brief and frustrating career as a commerce raider, intercepting a then neutral Japanese liner whose captain was convinced his ship, manifest and cargo had been examined by a British cruiser, then stopped the German steamers Zieten and Hansa from heading to the Suez Canal, chased after the German freighter Goldenfels whose officers mistook Königsberg also for a British cruiser. Then, finally a British ship, the City of Winchester off the coast of Oman, to get at her coal. A boarding party discovered that City of Winchester carried poor quality Indian coal and Looff certainly did not want to clog his boilers with this inferior product. A demolition team then opened the sea cocks, placed charges and Königsberg’s main battery got in some firing practice. The collier Somali rendezvoused with the raider and positioned itself at predetermined points around the Indian Ocean. Königsberg met Somali again and took on coal for four days of cruising. Somali’s young captain, a knowledgeable local pilot, suggested the Rufiji Delta as a hiding place; he had been part of a survey team and had charted that area of the colony and found the river unexpectedly deep. On 3 September 1914 at high tide, Königsberg passed over the bar at the mouth of the Rufiji and slowly made her way up the river to the settlement of Salele. The villagers watched the ship with concern, thinking Königsberg to be British and having heard of the bombardment of Dar es Salaam by British ships.

On 19 September 1914 Looff learned from “coast watchers” that a 2-funnel warship had entered the harbor of Zanzibar; he assumed it was either Astraea or Pegasus. Königsberg had again full bunkers thanks to lighters from Dar es Salaam and Looff decided to act immediately. With the afternoon tide the ship left the delta and started her run to Zanzibar. At dawn the next day Königsberg fired salvos for 20 minutes into the stationary Pegasus. With the British cruiser capsized at the bottom of Zanzibar harbor, Königsberg, that very day was back at her anchorage at Salele in the delta, the morale of the crew immeasurably enhanced.

Rufiji Delta

Looff had chosen as his next target the shipping lanes off South Africa, hoping to get at sufficient coal to eventually make the long journey up the Atlantic to reach Germany.[9] “But a ship is only as good as its machinery,” and it was the machinery rather than her captain or crew that caused Königsberg complications. The long cruises, the intermittent high speed dashes, the lack of dockyard attention, all had taken their toll on the ship’s boilers, “and one of them broke down altogether.” Anchored at Salele, the engineering staff began to disassemble the affected boilers and Looff had these heavy parts taken to the workshops at Dar es Salaam some 100 miles away, placed on wooden sledges for dragging them there and back. During this time, an avenging British squadron spent its time tracking down leads to the cruiser's whereabouts. Eventually, the search bore fruit when the German East Africa Line ship Präsident, rumored to be supplying Königsberg and Somali, was discovered at Lindi. Although the Präsident was converted to a hospital ship, the British ignored protests and boarded; their investigation uncovered suspicious documentation of the delivery of supplies to the Rufiji Delta. There Königsberg was discovered by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Chatham at the end of October.

Meanwhile, Looff fortified the water approaches to the ship, dismounting the ship's 47 mm secondary armament, and emplacing them on the delta's water approaches, along with observers and troops, nicknamed the "Delta Force." Just before the repaired boilers were returned and installed, two additional British cruisers had arrived, HMS Dartmouth and HMS Weymouth to assist with the blockade. While Königsberg might have been able to escape from the superior Chatham, the infusion of strength meant that the German cruiser was now trapped. On the other hand, the bigger British ships had too much of a draft to navigate the delta, meaning that they could not get within effective range of the German ship. This was not for lack of trying, however. On one occasion in early November, Chatham came close to scoring long-range hits; while the Somali was sunk, the Königsberg simply moved further up the river. The situation was at an impasse.

Blockade and Sinking

The British now employed grab-bag of methods to sink or render useless the Königsberg. An attempt was made to slip a shallow-draft torpedo boat (with escorts) within range, an operation easily repulsed by the force in the delta. A blockship, the Newbridge, was successfully sunk by the British across one of the delta mouths to prevent her escape; it was soon realized that the Königsberg could still escape through the delta's other channels, however. Dummy mines were laid in some of these alternates, but they were considered a doubtful deterrent. A civilian pilot named Cutler at Durban, South Africa, was commissioned into the Royal Marines and convinced to make his private Curtiss seaplane available for the British Empire. Lieutenant Cutler, and the mechanic he hired on the ship transporting the airplane, arrived 15 November 1914 to report to the captain of Chatham. On 19 November Cutler flew his first reconnaissance mission and was able to verify the presence of the elusive cruiser. A pair of Royal Naval Air Service Sopwiths were brought up with the intention of scouting and even bombing the ship. They soon fell apart in the tropical conditions. A trio of Short seaplanes fared a little better, managing even to take photographs of the ship before they were grounded by the glue-melting tropical heat and German fire. Attempts to use the 12-inch guns of the old battleship HMS Goliath to sink the cruiser were unsuccessful, once again because the shallow waters prevented the battleship from getting within range.

In the meantime, conditions were deteriorating on the Königsberg. There were shortages of coal, ammunition, food, and medical supplies. Although safe from the British, the crew was ravaged by malaria and other tropical ailments. Generally cut off from the outside world, the morale of the sailors fell. However, the situation was marginally improved with a scheme to resupply the ship and give her a fighting chance to return home. A captured British merchant ship, Rubens, was renamed Kronborg. It was given a Danish flag, papers, and a crew of German sailors selected for their ability to speak Danish. It was then packed with coal, field guns, ammunition, fresh water, and the like. After successfully infiltrating the waters of East Africa, it was intercepted by the alerted Hyacinth, which chased it to Manza Bay. The trapped ship was eventually sunk, burnt, and left for scrap. Astonishingly, upon investigation by the Germans, much of her cargo was deemed salvageable, and made its way to Königsberg on the backs of African porters.

Finally, in late May 1915, the equipment necessary for a successful attack was brought together by the British. Two shallow draft monitors, HMS Mersey and HMS Severn, were towed to the Rufiji from Britain by way of Malta and the Red Sea. With non-essential items removed, added armour bolted on, and a full bombardment by the rest of the fleet, they ran the gauntlet. Aided by a squadron of 4 land planes based at Mafia Island to spot the fall of shells, they engaged in a long-range duel with Königsberg, which was assisted by shore-based spotters. Although Mersey was hit and the monitors were unable to score on the first day, they returned again on 11 July. Finally, their 6-inch guns seriously knocked out Königsberg's armament. By 13:30 the ship was down to two guns, each with two rounds left. One of these last rounds was shrapnel and the gunners hit the British spotter plane, causing it to crash in the river. With fires burning below decks, Looff, now wounded as were many of his crew, ordered the magazines flooded. Two torpedo heads were rigged with fuses to blow out the ship’s bottom. With the British still firing, the charges went off and with cheers for the Good Ship, the Kaiser and the Fatherland, Königsberg settled into the river just after 14:00, her flag still flying.


The next day 33 German sailors were buried by the 188 remaining crewmen. A plaque was placed near the graves, reading "Beim Untergang S.M.S. Königsberg am 11.7.15 gefallen..." followed by a list of the dead. The armament and all other useful equipment and material were removed from the wreck and, together with the ship's crew, went on to see service in the East African land campaign under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The Königsberg 4.2-inch (110 mm) guns especially played prominent roles for the Germans for the rest of the war, acting as the theater's heaviest field artillery, used in harbor fortifications, and even remounted on the Götzen, the German "capital ship" of the inland Lake Tanganyika fleet. The wreck itself, submerged to the main deck, was removed from the river in 1928 and put in a Museum in Dar-es-Salaam. Looff and 15 crew members of Königsberg were left of a complement of 322 to participate in General von Lettow-Vorbeck's parade through the Brandenburg Gate after their return to Germany in 1921.

Looff was ennobled by the Kaiser Wilhelm II and remained in active duty, later earning the rank of Vice-Admiral, the first to achieve such a position in the colonial navy. He continued to serve in Africa, eventually becoming the first and by now the only Commander-in-Chief of the small Mittelafrikan navy.

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