German Commerce Raiders Built a Village in America's Most Important Shipyard During WWI

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Postcard view of the German ships Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Prinz Eitel Friederich outboard of one another along the Elizabeth River bank with the “German Village” on Navy Yard property beside them. (Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Collection)

For a brief period during World War I, “over there” became “over here.” More specifically, it was the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where German sailors tried to wait out British ships off the coast of the then-neutral United States. They even reconstructed a slice of Germany along the Virginia shoreline.

When World War I broke out, Germany, never one to think ahead and build a real navy, converted many of its civilian vessels with naval weapons and ordered them to raid Allied shipping. These makeshift warships became notorious for seizing merchant ships, stealing their coal, supplies and cargo, then sinking them.

The most prominent German auxiliary cruisers were the Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, two of the country’s most luxurious passenger liners before the war. Now notorious pirates, -- or privateers, depending on which side of the war you supported -- the ships would surprise and board enemy vessels, steal everything of value, capture relevant documents and destroy the ships with explosives. It was actually not a bad plan.

Unless you were the one being boarded, that is.

The Kronprinz Wilhelm operated in the waters off the coast of South America. In little less than a year, the converted luxury liner captured an estimated 16 enemy ships without losing a single sailor. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich sailed in the Pacific Ocean and South Atlantic for seven months, capturing 11 ships.

But the time at sea took its toll on the ships and their crews. The Kronprinz Wilhelm was running low on coal, and its crew began to take ill from malnourishment. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich’s engines were worn out. They were both in need of repairs and shore leave for the crews. They needed a place that could facilitate both and was operated by a neutral country.

They sailed for the United States, and the British Royal Navy hunted them down. They both ended up at Newport News Shipbuilders, a private dock. As their repairs finished, their captains became acutely aware that British ships were waiting for them outside the safety of American harbors. Instead of steaming out to meet certain death, they stayed past their welcome. Both ships were interned at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

At first, all went well. The 1,000 or so German sailors were not yet considered prisoners of war, but they could not leave, either. Those that attempted escape (six officers purchased a yacht and sailed it back to the war) never were seen again. They were welcomed by the locals until Germany began killing Americans at sea and tried to convince Mexico to go to war with the United States.

As the U.S. government began to turn on Germany, the sailors were confined to their ships and the immediate shore adjacent to them. But instead of remaining in their berths or elsewhere aboard the cruise liners, the Germans acquired as much scrap metal as they could and built a series of adorable houses along the waterfront.

A German sailor shows off one of the cottages of the German Village, in the shadow of one of Norfolk Navy Yard’s cranes. (Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)

The pirates had turned into literal homemakers. The German Village (as it was called) was a series of tiny shacks, complete with picket fences, gardens and livestock. All was well once again.

But not for the U.S. government. Within six months, the charming German-style houses were gone, cleared to make way for an expansion of the yard’s capabilities in a war the U.S. knew was coming. And then the United States declared war on Germany.

Once interned as “guests” of the United States, the German sailors were now prisoners of the U.S. The ships were seized as well, sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and converted into troop transports to send the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe.

A quick and easy way to wreak havoc on enemy shipping had become just one more tool of Germany’s own defeat.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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