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HMS Achilles and SMS Leopard, 16 March 1917

Posted by Matt Willis, on February 4th, 2016

Abstract

The relatively little-known encounter involving the commerce raider SMS Leopard and the armoured cruiser HMS Achilles was a small but notable event in the conflict being waged between the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine in the First World War. Under the command of Captain Francis Martin Leake the Achilles was patrolling the Norwegian Sea in March 1917 in company with the converted merchant ship HMS Dundee when she sighted and hailed a suspicious vessel purporting to be the Norwegian freighter Rena. However the Rena was in fact the auxiliary cruiser SMS Leopard, formerly the British steamer SS Yarrowdale which had been captured by another German raider earlier in the war. As an ill-fated boarding party from the Dundee approached, the Leopard’s identity as a commerce raider, equipped to prey on unarmed merchant vessels, was revealed. A brief but ferocious action between the ships ensued, during which the destruction of the Leopard was assured by the superior armament of the Warrior-class armoured cruiser and the well-honed gunnery skills of the Royal Navy crews. This blow-by-blow account, enhanced by a series of watercolours painted by a witness to the scene, gives the reader a compelling insight into the desperate nature of this action, and of the damage inflicted upon the hapless Leopard. This strategically significant engagement contributed to the German change of tactics from commerce raiding with converted auxiliary cruisers to that of unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision which had a considerable influence on the course of the war.

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