Josef Kuppers and Repatriation

Alan Roberts tells the story of Skipton POW Josef Kuppers and his repatriation:

At first sight it may seem strange that prisoners of war were allowed to return home amidst the carnage of the First World War. On further consideration this was in fact an excellent idea from both the British and the German standpoints. Seriously ill or badly wounded prisoners of war were a considerable drain on Britain’s overstretched medical resources. Britain was anxious to fulfil its obligations for the treatment of prisoners of war under terms of the Hague Convention, but clearly there was also the need to treat wounded British and Commonwealth military personnel. (The more well-known Geneva Convention was not adopted until 1929.) As early as 1915 the British and German governments had negotiated the terms of an agreement for the return of prisoners of war who were so severely injured that further service in a military or administrative capacity was impossible. There were however some stringent conditions which needed to be met before this could happen.

One such prisoner was Josef Kuppers. He was captured on 2 November 1917 at Kattegat which lies to the east of mainland Denmark. He is described as serving as an Assistant Surgeon aboard the auxiliary ship, Kronprinz Wilhelm. Details of the ship and its capture will be given later. He was not interrogated by British Naval Intelligence as he was reported to have been in hospital at the time. He was initially sent to a prisoner-of-war camp at Taunton. Unusually no date of birth was recorded on the British prisoner-of-war lists. One possibility was that he was incapable of providing the information himself. Instead his age was simply recorded as being 21 years old. A German document gives his actual date of birth as 11 July 1896. He had lived in Krefeld which is to the north-west of Dusseldorf and was born in Bruggen which lies close to the border with the Netherlands. He was described as suffering from a cut head when he arrived in Britain. He was transferred to Skipton on 7 March 1918.

German Imperial Navy

A German navy document gives Kuppers’ service record as follows:

June 1915 Entered service:1st Technical Support Division at the shipyard in Kiel
November 1915 Kiel Naval Base Military Hospital
March 1917 SMH Glyndwr. Glyndwr was a British cargo vessel that had been seized by the Germans at the outbreak of the war and converted for use as an aircraft carrier: it was quite literally an aircraft carrier – it simply carried several aeroplanes on its rear deck
March 1917 Kiel Naval Base Military Hospital
October 1917* Prisoner of war in England
September 1918 Friedrichsort Military Hospital
August 1919 Left the navy.

 

This document gives his name as Josef Küpper.

*The final voyage of the vessel commenced on 30th October 1917. Hence the discrepancy in the dates

British Prisoner of War

Josef Kuppers’ own progress as a prisoner of war is given in the following table:

2 November 1917 Captured at Kattegat
12 November 1917 Transferred to Taunton
7 March 1918 Transferred to Skipton
16 April 1918 Transferred to Catterick
18 May 1918 Transferred back to Skipton
6 September 1918 Admitted to Brocton War Hospital in Staffordshire with no apparent disease
7 September 1918 Discharged from Brocton War Hospital to Brocton Camp
17 September 1918 Placed on list of prisoners for repatriation

 

Admittedly this is all very confusing. Each prisoner was given his own personal identity number which stayed with him for the duration of his captivity. Each of the entries in the British prisoner-of-war lists featured the same identity number: 150754.

Sachsse and Cossmann’s book reports that a British medical commission visited Skipton Camp at the end of March 1918 to see if any prisoners qualified for repatriation due to the severity of their injuries, or because they had other persistent health problems. The diarists write that the response was not what could be called small, but in the end only four cases were sent to the camp at Kegworth in Leicestershire for repatriation (pages 66 and 67).

Details of Kronprinz Wilhelm

The following details are taken from British Admiralty documents which can be found in the National Archives in Kew.

‘The steamer Kronprinz Wilhelm was built in Stettin in 1914 as a merchant vessel, but, before being completed, she was taken over by the German government. She was commissioned [in] about November 1915, and was based at Swinemünde, being attached to the 1st Commerce Protection Half-Flotilla. Her complement consisted of about six officers and 80 petty officers and men, including a small prize crew which she always carried.

When at sea she was known as the Kronprinz Wilhelm, or auxiliary ship ‘K’, but when in harbour she was called the Maria of Flensburg, ostensibly in order to mislead the crews of neutral ships, and also as a protective measure against spies, of whom there are supposed to be a huge number in Swinemünde. All her crew’s mail was addressed to her under the name of Maria….

…During the early part of her career she had a dummy funnel, which was erected when she entered harbour in order to give the Maria of Flensburg a different appearance from that of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, but as the funnel proved too cumbersome, its use was discontinued…

…Although this vessel was ostensibly used for convoy duties, she was fitted primarily to act as a raider or a submarine decoy ship.’

In this latter respect she was similar to the British Q-ships.

The last cruise of the ‘Kronprinz Wilhelm’

After standing idle for two months the vessel was hurriedly manned by a scratch crew obtained from trawlers and other vessels belonging to the Commerce Protection Flotilla.

‘At about 7 a.m. on 2 November …… she sighted several destroyers, which she first took for German vessels. She was disillusioned by a shot being fired across her bows.

The ‘K’, which as usual had been flying no colours, then hoisted the German ensign, and immediately a devastating fire swept her bridge and decks. One of the first shots apparently put the engine-room telegraph out of gear.

The second salvo must have struck the magazine aft, for a terrific explosion occurred which destroyed the whole stern of the ship, killing all the members of the crew stationed there. One of the guns, it was stated, fell right through the ship into the sea.

Most of the crew were under the impression that their vessel had been torpedoed, and they denied that there were more than 54 rounds of ammunition in the aft part of the ship, adding that all the ammunition they had on board was stowed near the guns.

Within five minutes the ship was burning fiercely aft and amidships. She did not open fire at all.

The Captain, Lieutenant-Commander (of the Reserve) Lauterbach seemed absolutely taken by surprise, and it was a minute or two before he rang the alarm bell and the guns’ crews went to their stations. The statements of the prisoners on whether orders were given to open fire are contradictory, but so far as the foremost guns are concerned, it has been ascertained that the gunlayers put their heads together and made their minds up not to fire in any case, in view of the overwhelming superiority of the enemy forces. After the explosion there was a general ‘sauve-qui-peut’ the crew being absolutely demoralised.

When the survivors were on the rafts they saw the captain fall down on deck and came to the conclusion that he had been wounded. One survivor saw blood streaming down his face.’

What happened next?

Kuppers returned to a military hospital near Kiel, whether as a patient or member of staff is not entirely clear. It is currently not known what happened to him after he left the navy.

Concluding remarks

Although an interesting piece of history, this is still work which is very much in progress. We are not certain exactly why Kuppers was repatriated. One could assume it was as a result of the wounds he suffered when his ship was captured, but there are doubtless many other possible explanations. As always we encourage people to come forward with information on this or any other matter, using the contact details which can be found on this website.