German commercial adventurers built a village in America’s most important shipyard during WWI


For a brief period during World War I, “over there” became “here”. Specifically, it was the Norfolk shipyard, where German sailors tried to wait for British ships off the then neutral coast of the United States. They even have rebuilt a slice of Germany along the Virginia coast.

When World War I broke out, Germany, which never thought about the future and built a real navy, converted many of its civilian ships with naval weapons and ordered them to raiding the ships. allies. These makeshift warships became known for seizing merchant ships, stealing their coal, supplies, and cargo, and then sinking them.

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

Unless you were the one who got on board, that is.

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

But the weather at sea has taken its toll on the ships and their crews. The Kronprinz Wilhelm ran out of charcoal and her crew began to suffer from malnutrition. The engines of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich were worn out. They both needed repairs and shore leave for the crews. They needed a place that could facilitate both and that was operated by a neutral country.

They sailed for the United States and the British Royal Navy chased them. They both ended up at Newport News Shipbuilders, a private dock. As their repairs were completed, their captains fully realized that British ships were waiting for them outside the security of American ports. Instead of steaming out to meet certain death, they stayed beyond their welcome. Both ships were interned at the Norfolk Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

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

As the US government began to turn against Germany, the sailors were confined to their ships and the immediate shore adjacent to them. But instead of staying in their bunks or elsewhere on cruise ships, the Germans acquired as much junk as they could and built a series of adorable houses along the waterfront.

A German sailor shows off one of the cottages in the German village, in the shade of one of the Norfolk Navy Yard cranes. (Portsmouth Shipyard Museum)

The pirates had become real housewives. The German village (as it was called) was a series of tiny shacks, with palisades, gardens, and cattle. Everything was fine once again.

But not for the US government. In less than six months, the charming German-style homes were gone, cleaned up to make way for an expansion of the shipyard’s capabilities in a war the United States knew was coming. And then the United States declared war on Germany.

Formerly interned as “guests” of the United States, German sailors were now prisoners of the United States. The ships were also seized, sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and converted into troopships to send American expeditionary forces to Europe.

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

– Blake Stilwell can be contacted at [email protected] It can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell Where on Facebook.

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