‘A small German gunboat, steaming slowly west

It’s October 16th in the book by now, and the narrative has switched to Carruthers’s diary for the next few days. It is today that our two heroes encounter two boats which will form a key part of the last part of the book: the rather sinister Kormoran, which we’ll discuss separately, and the Blitz, the boat commanded by the model German officer Commander von Brüning:

Davies identified her at once as the Blitz, Commander von Brüning’s gunboat. We wondered if he recognized the Dulcibella, but, anyway, she seemed to take no notice of us and steamed slowly on. We quite expected to fall in with her when we came to the islands, but the actual sight of her has excited us a good deal. She is an ugly, cranky little vessel, painted grey, with one funnel. Davis is contemptuous about her low freeboard forward; says he would rather go to sea in the Dulce. He has her dimensions and armament (learnt from Brassey) at his fingers’ ends: one hundred and forty feet by twenty-five, one 4.9 gun, one 3.4, and four maxims–an old type. Just going to bed; a bitterly cold night.

The mention of Brassey had me heading towards my 1902 copy, scanned from the Web Archive and apparently complete. I assumed, as we always have done, that the Blitz was modelled on a boat Childers saw, or perhaps had knowledge of, or perhaps just found in the pages of Brassey. But my search came to a shuddering halt: there are only four ‘torpedo gunboats’ listed in Brasseys for 1902, the Jagd, the Wacht, the Komet and the Meteor.


HMS Lightning - the world's first torpedo boat, 1877. By Author of article credited as "Mr. Donaldson" (Scientific American Supplement 7 July 1877) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
HMS Lightning – the world’s first torpedo boat, 1877. By Author of article credited as “Mr. Donaldson” (Scientific American Supplement 7 July 1877) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Unfortunately, all of these boats were too large to be the Blitz: the Jagd and the Wacht, for instance, seem to have been almost 300 feet long and equipped with far more weaponry and a bigger complement than we could imagine for the Blitz. They seem to have been a form of aviso, rather than a gunboat, and frankly we were a bit stumped as to what an aviso was.

Thankfully, a club member came to the rescue after listening to our podcast on this subject. The always reliable Ian Synge had this to say on the subject of the Blitz, and his stuff is too good leave in the comments, so we’re reproducing it here:

The Gunboat Blitz – Think the crux of the problem is relying on Brassey’s Naval Annual, there was a reason Jane’s Fighting Ships supplanted it…

You can track down the 1900 edition on Google Books which has some useful pearls of wisdom in there. First of all, there was a Blitz in the German navy of the period, built in 1882 but considerably larger than von Bruning’s vessel, and with two funnels (here’s the scan of the page), a more likely candidate is one of the second class torpedo boats, of which Germany had 62, were 140 feet long, single funneled, 85 tons, and sound like the sort of vessel that would be stooging around the Fresians, the illustration of it also shows it shipping quite a lot of water over the bow, which would also fit with Davis’ comments about her (here’s the scan of the page).

A further dig about also yields a Cormoran.

On avisos, this is a French term for a dispatch boat, so a light vessel akin to a frigate or a corvette. The French still use it as a term, so more recently their light Type A69 ships were classified as avisos. If you’re interested in the derivation of this sort of thing have a look at Theodore Ropp’s “The Development of a Modern Navy” – the Naval Institute Press edition is a beautifully illustrated work and you can view a decent chunk of the text on Google Books.

Splendid stuff, Ian! I believe he’s bang on about the torpedo boats, and what’s particularly interesting is that, according to Jane’s, these boats were coming into service right up until 1892, so only five years before Childers made his own voyage round the region. Indeed, there are some first class torpedo boats being launched at around the same time which are somewhat bigger and may have some claim to being the Blitz.

One of 16 lithographs from the "Album Deutscher Kriegsschiffe". Visit nucius.org
One of 16 lithographs from the “Album Deutscher Kriegsschiffe”. Visit nucius.org

The biggest problem with this explanation, though, is the lack of a name for any of these boats in Jane’s Fighting Ships. With stereotypical Germany efficiency, they are numbered, not named. So did Childers choose to christen his gunboat for sentimental reasons? And was this, as Tim NotCarruthers has speculated, because Childers had already seen a German boat named the Blitz?


We’ll never know. But our thanks to Ian for his masterly rooting around in Jane’s Fighting Ships.

Incidentally, Jane’s states that all these German gunboats were built at Elbing, which in itself was quite interesting. Elbing was a Hanseatic city, absorbed first into West Prussia after the first partition of Poland in 1772. During the 19th century it became a centre for shipbuilding, principally at the Schichau-Werke which specialised in torpedo boats. The city was virtually destroyed during the Russian advance at the end of World War II. It is now the city of Elbląg in the Polish region of Żuławy.



One thought on “‘A small German gunboat, steaming slowly west

  1. I’ve alway wondered how many crew would such a ship have? They don’t really get much of a mention.

    I get the impression that von Bruning pretty much went where he wanted when he wanted. Would pottering around the Friesland Islands be typical of what a german sea captain would be doing, or could he be following some sort of orders?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: