Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Royal Navy's hunt for von Spee in the Pacific

The Royal Navy were well aware of Vice Admiral von Spee's East Asian Squadron and even its numbers. Before the war officers of HMS Minotaur dined upon Scharnhorst in Tsingtao harbour on 12th June 1914 on an occaision that prompted one German officer to remark;

 "They desired a little glimpse at our readiness for war."

SMS Cormoran was well known in Brisbane  where she had regular refits and the squadron as a whole had been active in policing the colonies but now at this important juncture no one knew for certain where they were.

Conflicting information put the Scharnhorst in the Pacific, perhaps near Yap, Gneisnau was reported in Singapore to Admiral Jerram on the China station, which turned out to be the Geier, she was also sighted at Nagasaki (possibly with Scharnhorst) to Admiral Patey of the Australian station. They had very accurate information of the forces in Tsingtao but were unaware of the Emden's departure at the end of July.

The Royal Navy had been quite fortunate and had captured a lot of the auxiliary cruisers and commerce raiders in the Indian ocean. Although the Yorck and Prinz Eital Friedrich were being fitted out in Tsingtao and the Ryzlan was also under tow by Emden, the  Dirfflinger and Sudmark had been captured. There were others though, Seydlitz had disappeared off the coast of Australia, Princess Alice was last seen in the Phillipines and the Tabora, Zeiten and Kleist disappeared into the Indian ocean.

Admiral Jerram who had served on the China station since 1913 decided the best course of action was to try and isolate Tsingtao as soon as possible. British strategy had stated that it would take a couple of months to organise an invasion force to take the German stronghold and that would be reliant on gaining Naval Supremacy, should von Spee's fleet get amongst the transports it would be certain death for the soldiers aboard ship. In his report after the events the Admiral stated that;

I regarded it as likely that the German Admiral intended to concentrate his forces in the South seas but I did not feel justified in leaving China station to search for him through the southern pacific ocean and more over, the Australia, Sydney, Encounter and three destroyers were comparatively close to him.

In lieu of orders from the Admiralty Jerram decided the best course of action was to trap German shipping in the harbour and deny von Spee of a vital supply base, he was however over ruled by London who ordered his vessels back to Hong Kong.

HMS Triumph
Jerram's orders on the 28th July were to await the commissioning of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Triumph which had been put in the fleet reserve  on 25th August 1913 and which was hurriedly being equipped with crews and weapons from a flotilla of river gun boats as well as 100 volunteers from the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry and two of their officers. Once activated she would provide Jerram's cruiser squadron enough firepower to deal with the Germans. These repairs were completed and Captain Fitzmaurice steamed out of Hong Kong with HMS Yarmouth, four destroyers, the French cruiser Dupleix and began an interdiction sweep of Tsingtao under strict radio silence on 6th August.

Meanwhile Jerram planned to catch  Emden which he thought was heading to the strategic communications hub at Yap. He dispatched the Cruisers Minotaur, Hampshire and Newcastle at 15 knots, which he thought would be more than enough to overtake the German ship and its slow colliers. Unfortunately for the British the only vessel encountered was the SS Elsbeth who was on a routine journey with a cargo of Government coal for Yap from Tsingtao. Hoping to still catch Emden the German vessel was pulled over, her crew placed upon Hampshire and the vessel sunk with her cargo. Hampshire, which was low on coal and could have used some of the Elsbeth's cargo, was sent back to Hong Kong with the prisoners.
The German radio station at Yap Island

Yap was completely defenceless save for a party of soldiers from Rabaul who were preparing trenches and fire pits near the landing place but Jerram hadn't come to take the island, he did not have the men to spare or the time - his target was much more specific. The long range radio station was powerful enough to reach Tsingtao, Shanghai, Bismarck Archipelago and the Dutch colonies. Whilst the station stood it allowed von Spee to coordinate all of his vessels in the Pacific including colliers into a resupply network. With this still remaining in German hands he would be able to strike anywhere at anytime and it would make sense that Emden would be here to defend it.

At 9.30 on 12th August the two British cruisers opened fire from 4500 yards having given the civilian operator a signal to get clear. The new German garrison stood powerless as the 7.5" shells brought down the 200ft tower and caused fires in buildings and the oil depot. At 10am the British left to rejoin Triumph at Saddle Islands dividing in the hope of increasing their chance of catching any colliers or Auxiliary cruisers. Their voyage was uneventful and they discovered that Tsingtao had locked itself down and begun preparing for the inevitable siege.

The whole of the China station had been moving under radio silence and Jerram was unaware of the message sent by the Admiralty on the 11th August;

Practically certain Japan declares war against Germany on 12th August. Communicate by wireless with the Japanese Commander in Chief and concert measures. Send forth with one light cruiser to close Rainbow at Vancouver, coaling at Honolulu. You may now have whole protection of British trade north of Hong Kong to Japanese, concentrating your attention in concert with Australian squadron on destroying German cruisers.

At the same time the British forces were reinforced by two Russian cruisers (Askold and Zhemchug).  After their patrol the China squadron pulled in to Hong Kong on the 17th August and the C-in-C sent a message to the Admiralty:

Probably Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, Emden and Nurnberg are now together, but their position is still unknown, though Marshall Islands seems likely. I'm watching Tsingtao and arranging to protect trade routes between Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore with all available ships... Possible objective of German Squadron may be Dutch Indies, but ore likely Pacific coast of America.

He also asked the Admiralty if any vessels were available from home waters to help search the blue abyss and asked if they had any more news on the possibility of Japan joining the war. There was just too much sea and too many trade routes to cover for such a small force and von Spee's ships had disappeared like ghosts. Churchill would go on to describe that;

 von Spee and his squadron could turn up almost anywhere. On the other hand we could not possibly be strong enough every day to meet him

Ships were vital and already Admiral Patey's Australian squadron was being reassigned to escort troop ships as part of the Australian (and New Zealand) Naval & Military expeditionary force which was busy taking German colonies and facilities that could provide safety to von Spee but would be better used to search for the cruisers themselves. The only source of new vessels were the Home fleet on the other side of the world which were also being held in reserve in case the German High Sea's fleet were to set sail in numbers, or Japan which despite its anti-German stance and territorial ambitions in Asia was still uncommitted and denying the Allies 12 battleships, 11 armoured cruisers and 12 light cruisers that would have been invaluable to the search for von Spee.

Despite Jerram's theory that von Spee was heading toward South America he was concerned that he could double back having distracted the Allies. A transmission came from the Admiralty, its vagueness and penmanship point to it originating from Churchill;

How is China Station disposed? Destruction of Scharnhorst and Gneisnau is of first importance. Proceed on this service as soon as possible with Minotaur, Hampshire and Dupleix, keeping in communications R. A. Australia who together with Montcalm is engaged on same service. They are at present searching for them at Samoa.

However Admiral Patey wasn't at Samoa and had moved on and wasn't actively searching for the German squadron, merely hoping that they would run into them. Like Jerram his hands had been tied by the Admiralty and other events beyond his control.

HMAS Melbourne
Admiral Patey had originally deployed his squadron of Australian (and New Zealand) ships where he 
thought von Spee might attack and so the Sydney and a destroyer escort headed for Brisbane, Melbourne was at Fremantle and his light cruiser fleet went to Port Moresby ready to react. The Australian coast was large and unprotected and a bold bombardment of one of her coastal towns could make a large statement and be a major morale blow to the Allied cause. 

Patey also began to plan his own bold stroke of heading to Neu Pommern where the deep harbour would make an excellent base of operations for the German fleet. He hoped to catch von Spee there or failing that destroy the facilities there, any vessels or W/T transmitters. 

Things came to a head on the 6th August when the Australian Naval board reported that the German fleet were heading South East from the Solomon islands and were clearly on their way towards Australia. Patey swung into action and ordered the light cruiser Pioneer to relieve Melbourne so that the heavier ship could join his flotilla in the St George channel that led up to Neu Pommern. and meet the Germans head on. He was so convinced that the Germans would be hiding in the Bismarck Archipelago that he signalled Admiral Jerram to sweep down from the north whilst he probed from the south and catch the Germans unawares. His message didn't arrive until the 9th as Jerram's fleet were under radio silence heading for the Saddle islands and Yap. During this time Patey organised his fleet and briefed the Captains with a brave and audacious plan that involved HMAS Sydney and his destroyers to sail for Simpson harbour, Neu Pommern and after dark strike the German fleet at anchor catching Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Nurnberg at anchor with the survey ships Komet and Planet which were on the Australian station. Landing parties would then search and destroy any W/T station they could find. No sooner were his plans laid out than the Admiralty in London sent an telegram to tell him to do what he was already doing and to do it quickly before the Australian government called his force to other things.

His forces swung into action and reached the port but found no German warships and the only evidence of a W/T station was one captured engineer who had recently arrived to make the hidden station operational. His vessels requiring coal and having failed to find anything of worth to destroy Patey's men destroyed all telephones and the post office and then withdrew.

On 12th August the New Zealand government alerted Patey that they were ready to send an occupation force to Samoa and enquired if it was safe to send transports. The bewildered Admiral had had no prior consultation and had to reassign his vessels as escort in case von Spee attacked it. He did agree that, having not found any German activity in Neu Pommern that the Germans must be concentrating at Nauru via Samoa and by occupying it they would cut the German line of retreat. Patey decided that the New Zealand's older P' class cruisers would not be sufficient to meet Scharnhorst and Gneisnau and so sent a message to meet Australia and Melbourne 400 miles south of Fiji before proceeding to Port Moresby to recoal for the final approach. He had unknowingly over ruled. The Admiralty in its' wisdom believed that there was enough local superiority and ordered the lightly escorted troop transports to sea, it was exceptionally fortunate that they did not meet von Spee's forces and invited a massacre. The Admiralty had also now directed that the French cruiser Montcalm should join Patey's force which was now divided in two and effectively neutered in its search and destroy capability. Instead of taking his heavy ships to Samoa straight away he had to send Sydney and Encounter to meet the Australian Expeditionary force that was intended to take Rabaul whilst he took Melbourne, Montcalm, and Australia to meet the New Zealanders at Noumea.

The New Zealand force arrived on the 22nd August and reached the final coaling point at Suva on the 25th August some two weeks later having effectively tied up the half of Patey's squadron that would have been most effective against the German squadron. Escort duties for Expeditionary forces had been the concern the Admiralty had warned Patey about on the 9th but yet a week later they were guaranteeing his forces to such duties without the Admiral's knowledge. Had they given Jerram and Patey more free reign to hunt for von Spee and catch him then the German colonies could have mopped up at their leisure without need for heavy escorts as without the Kreuzerwaffe only German commerce raiders and unprotected Bussard class cruiser Geier would have remained at sea.

Although significant in their actions in the Pacific the Allied commanders were left pouring over their maps asking... Where was Admiral von Spee and his cruisers?

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