Alcantara battles with the German raider, Greif

Reprinted from The Packet, July 3, 2019
by Lester Green

(Click on images to enlarge)

Seaman William Peddle and Seaman J. William Peddle. (Photo courtesy of Lana Rowsell)

The battle between Alcantara and the Grief was described by writers as an old-time fight between two armed cruisers. When the gun smoke settled, the two ships were resting on the bottom of the sea. There were 12 Newfoundlanders on board, among them Hodge’s Cove sailor, Seaman William Peddle. He would be Mentioned in Dispatches by his commanding officer.

In March 1916 several world newspapers listed the following news item from London:

LONDON, March 25. — The news was given out here today of a fight in the North Sea between the German raider Greif and the British armed merchant cruiser Alcantara, in which both vessels were sunk. Five German officers and 115 men out of a total of 300 were captured. The British lost five officers and 69 men. The Greif was sunk by gun fire, and the Alcantara by a torpedo.

Among the crew of the Alcantara were 12 Newfoundland Royal Naval Reservists. Two sailors from Port de Grave did not survive – Seaman Nathan Mugford and Seaman William H. Dawe.

Seaman William Peddle of Hodge’s Cove was also a crew member when the ship unexpected encountered the German raider disguised as a Norwegian merchant ship. The Grief was displaying the name Rena and flying the Norwegian flag.

The story of this encounter was recounted many times by Seaman Peddle.

Newfoundland sailors onboard Alcantara . Source Parson’s Book-The Best Small-Boat Seaman in The Navy.

In interview conducted with James Peddle of Hodge’s Cove during the fall of 2017, he recalled the many stories he heard from William, or “Uncle Bill”, during visits with his father, Archer Peddle, who was also in the war.

The following account is James re-collection of the events has told by Uncle Bill:

“The Greif was a disguised German surface raider that looked like a merchant ship but carried light armour that was hidden. She raided the coast of England a number of times. The British Admiralty ordered a search for this ship. They were searching up around the Skagerat (the German name for the body of water between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea) where the Greif used to raid the coast.

Uncle Bill was onboard when they sighted a ship showing the Norwegian colors.

The Alcantara order the ship to stop and prepared a boarding party to check for contraband. Uncle Bill was part of the boarding crew when the landing boat was lowered into the water.

Another British ship, HMS Andes, that was off in the distance, realized that this was the ship that they were seeking. Immediately they sent an urgent, open message to the Alcantara that this was the German raider.

The German raider also picked up the message that said, “You are in the presence of an enemy ship.”

The Alcantara response was, “Where?” 

The Andes responded, “The ship that you are about to board.”

The Greif also heard and understood the messages and responded with running up the German colors.

Both ships were stopped when the Greif started to fire its guns.

The Alcantara responded but for Uncle Bill and the boarding party that was hanging over the side when the Alcantara started to move, they were in great danger of losing their lives.

Some of the men in the boarding boat were shot. Uncle Bill was about to climb up the rope but stepped aside to allow the officer of the boarding party to climb first. When Uncle Bill got to the deck, the officer was lying dead on the deck. None of the others from the boarding party survived.

In the ensuing battle both ships were disabled and eventually sank. When Uncle Bill was about to abandon the ship, he noticed a fellow sailor with a broken leg. He got a lifejacket and gave the fellow his hat. Then he helped him into the water.

Uncle Bill was picked up by one of the British ships and the ship continued to pick-up survivors.

The crew of the rescue ship noticed what appeared to be a periscope. They fired upon what they believed was a German submarine.

Uncle Bill, however, always believed that it was not a submarine but a lifeboat from the Greif.

After Uncle Bill returned to his base, he received a box in the mail. He opened it up and inside was the hat that he had given the sailor with the broken leg. That’s all I can remember about that story told by Uncle Bill.”

Oak leaf spray worn on Victory Medal.

For his actions during this encounter Seaman William Peddle was Mentioned in Dispatches (MID). This was an award given when the commanding officer mentions to his superiors in official reports of deeds of gallantry. It is denoted by oak leaf emblem on the Victory Medal.

Seaman Peddle returned safely to Hodge’s Cove after the war. He spent many hours recalling stories from the war.

He passed away in 1964 at the age of 84 years old and rest at Anglican Cemetery in Hodge’s Cove.