In the years before the Great War, when Germany and Great Britain were merely rivals, and not yet sworn enemies, both nations took pains to use their navies to show the flag in as many places around the world as possible. Indeed the Germans, lacking the convenience of an Atlantic naval base such as Halifax still maintained what they called the East American Station with a regular rotation of ships calling at Canadian and American ports as well as other locations of particular German interest such as Cuba and Mexico.
The first German naval visit to Charlottetown took place in 1906 when the gun boat Panther arrived in harbour and stayed for three days. It used the visit to take on 150 tons of coal for her bunkers from the Peake Bros. & Company wharf. The 977 ton Panther was 226 feet long and carried a crew of 120 men. It had been launched in 1901 the following year was involved in several incidents protecting German interests in Haiti and Venezuela. Years later the Panther was at the centre of an international incident at Agadir in Morocco which contributed greatly to the pre-Great War international tension. The vessel participated in the Great War but was scrapped in 1931.
In 1911 the series of courtesy visits even took a much larger German cruiser to Charlottetown for her first and last visit. The S.M.S. (Seiner Majestsat Schiff – His Majesty’s Ship) Bremen would spend almost 10 years of her life representing Germany in North and South American ports. She had been touring the east coast throughout 1911, had stopped for repairs in Baltimore and had visited Halifax in time for Coronation Day before leaving for Charlottetown. Anchoring off St. Peter’s Island for the night she came into the harbour and anchored off the Marine Wharf early on 26 June. Even those who had not spotted her coming into the harbour were soon made aware of her arrival as she fired a 21 gun salute in honour of the English flag.
The Bremen had been launched in 1903 and commissioned the following year. At 3,800 tons the 365 foot ship was the first of a series of seven light cruisers built for the Kaiser’s Imperial Navy. She was armed with two torpedo tubes and ten 10.5 cm guns. Although she had a large range her top speed was only 22 knots, somewhat slow for a ship of her class. In appearance the ship was a considerable contrast to the dull grey of Royal Navy vessels as she sported a white hull and yellow upper works and funnels. The Charlottetown Guardian said that the colour scheme gave her the “appearance of a big pleasure yacht.” However the sight of the ram bow and armaments for the ship suggested that she was built for fighting rather than amusement.
Cruisers were the nimble counterparts to the dreadnaughts (or battleships) of the world’s navies. Lighter, faster and more manoeuvrable than the dreadnaughts, they more frequently sailed alone or in small flotillas rather in the fleets used by the larger vessels. They came to be more feared as they could appear anywhere and the Germans in particular maintained vessels in stations all over the world which were to create havoc at the outbreak of the war.
As was customary with visiting naval vessels the Mayor of Charlottetown and a number of Councillors paid a visit to the captain of the first-time visitor soon after her arrival and later in the day the ship was opened to visitors. Those taking advantage of the opportunity would have had the opportunity to contrast the style of the German naval presence with that of the Royal Navy with the Prince of Battenberg’s fleet five years earlier and French cruisers which visited in 1906 and 1907. Once the war broke out in 1914 the Bremen’s visit would be cast in a different light. Those attending at least one patriotic meeting during the war were informed that the Bremen had been on a secret intelligence-gathering mission and that the Island’s military secrets and defences were now on file in a German archive.
The Bremen was recalled to Germany just before the outbreak in 1914 and was assigned to the Baltic Fleet. At the Battle of the Gulf of Riga in mid-August 1914 she succeeded in penetrating the Russian defences but later withdrew because if the danger of mines and submarines. However her war success was not to last long. In February 1915 the Bremen ran into a Russian minefield and sank with a loss of all but a handful of her 288 man crew.