Oblivious to the catastrophe they narrowly avoided, a century ago several thousand Australian troops sailing in a convoy of passenger liners passed an apparently friendly freighter off Cape Town.
With Table Mountain bearing witness, the freighter lowered a fake British flag in greeting, then continued south along the South African coast.
The freighter’s deception became apparent days later when, on January 26, 1917, the 7654-ton cargo ship SS Matheran approached Cape Town across calm seas on a clear afternoon.
Captain Maurice Addy was in his cabin when a thunderous boom shook the ship, almost knocking Addy off his chair. As he rushed to the bridge, another explosion ripped a massive hole in the aft hull below the waterline. Ordering his crew into lifeboats, as the Matheran sank within five minutes Addy saved all but one.
The Matheran became the first victim in a 451-day terror campaign by German raider SMS Wolf that claimed two warships and 35 trading vessels, including at least six off the Australian coast, as it seized 467 prisoners and plundered supplies of rubber, copper, zinc, brass, silk, copra and cocoa.
Built with a fake funnel, masts that could be lowered to change her appearance and false sides which kept her weapons hidden until the last possible moment, the Wolf covertly positioned thousands of mines across Allied shipping lanes. Her second victim, troop carrier Tyndareus, hit a minefield near Cape Agulhas, South Africa, on her maiden voyage on February 6, 1917.
Although an inquiry found the Matheran likely struck a mine, the British War Office suppressed news of ship losses, colluding with British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s insistence on withholding ugly facts of war from the public. As the Wolf’s mine toll escalated, explosions were blamed on “enemy aliens” who had infiltrated Empire nations.
With six ships reported missing or sunk near Australia since early July 1917 — all of them victims of the Wolf — Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes made an alarming announcement: he claimed pro-German saboteurs were planting bombs on Australian merchant ships. Their latest victim was believed to be the passenger freighter Matunga, which had disappeared while transporting troops to New Guinea.
Hughes’s warnings sparked public panic, as The Sun newspaper demanded the government jail all German-born Australians and the Daily Mirror warned that Germany might be preparing “an army of invasion”.
But Hughes’s sabotage claims — and the £7000 reward he offered to anyone who could find the traitors responsible — were completely misleading. The government would eventually be forced to admit the truth, which was that the missing ships had been sunk by German mine-layer and raider, the Wolf, under Captain Karl Nerger.
The Wolf embarked from Kiel in November 1916 to disrupt trade in the outer reaches of the British Empire. By August 1917 it had laid minefields off three continents, most recently scattering 25 mines off the Victorian coast and 65 off New Zealand.
The British Government had warned Hughes in March that the Wolf could be on its way to Australia. The problem for Hughes was that the British Admiralty had withdrawn every significant warship Australia and New Zealand possessed to European waters, leaving both countries almost completely defenceless.
When the Cumberland hit the Wolf’s minefield 13 km off south-east Victoria on July 6, the Australian Navy had no minesweepers and only one cruiser, the antiquated HMS Encounter. Navy divers who inspected the Cumberland were adamant the ship had struck a mine, but the official explanation offered to the public was that an “internal explosion” had gone off in the freighter’s cargo holds.
Hughes had established himself as the most rabidly anti-German leader in the commonwealth. He had bankrupted dozens of companies owned by German-born businessmen and ordered the imprisonment without trial of thousands of German immigrants, arguing that Australia was threatened by subversive bomb-plots and strikes hatched by Kaiser Wilhelm’s cunning agents.
The government never substantiated any such plots, but when the Matunga disappeared Hughes was quick to suggest the ship had been bombed and the 66 people aboard her all killed. In reality, the old passenger-freighter had been captured by the Wolf off the Solomon Islands on August 6 and her crew and passengers were among the 250 captives imprisoned aboard the raider as she escaped to the north of New Guinea.
By late August the Australian navy had informed Hughes that a raider was believed to be at large and drawing up plans for a minesweeping squadron. Hughes, however, continued to issue pronouncements about the “Teutonic hand” orchestrating terror on Australian soil.
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Source: Daily Telegraph