Friday, 17 October 2014

Reise, Reise, Seaman Reise! - Admiral Spee's journey across the Pacific

Admiral von Spee's flagship Scharnhorst
On the outbreak of the First World War Admiral Maximilian von Spee was faced with a dilemma.
The cream of the Kaiserliche marine was in Germany preparing to fight the Royal Navy for supremacy of the North Sea. His flagship Scharnhorst and her sister Gniesnau (with the supply ship Titania )were based in the Pacific tasked with protecting Germany's colonies and were at the island of Ponape, in the Caroline islands the day war began.

The other vessels in his squadron were scattered around the Pacific on patrol. The Konigsberg class cruiser Nürnberg arrived in Ponape the next day having been relieved on the Mexican coast by the Leipzig (Bremen class) some time before. The Dresden class cruiser Emden was in Tsingtao, China with the Bussard class (unprotected cruiser) Cormoran (which was under repairs) and the gun boats Tiger, Luchs, Iltis and Vaterland. Another Bussard class cruiser Geier was in British Singapore and quickly fled to try and find the German fleet. The Gunboat Jaguar quickly evacuated Shanghai and fled for Tsingtao.

Admiral Graf von Spee realised quickly that the Allies would want to quickly remove his fleet and had the power to do so. The Australian flag ship HMAS Australia had enough fire power to destroy most of his fleet on its' own, there was also the Triumph, a pre-dreadnaught battleship in Hong Kong that lay in reserve. He knew that his fleet in its current state would be hunted down and quickly destroyed, there would be safety in numbers but he was also concerned that his ships would be caught in port as the Russian fleet had at Port Arthur in 1905. He moved to the uninhabited Pagan Island to avoid detection and on 5th August he ordered his light cruisers, liners and merchant vessels to return to him as quickly as they were able. He also received a message from the German Admiralty on the 5th which followed on from an earlier warning of "imminent danger of war" he had received on the 1st. This advice would ultimately inform his decision later.

Chile is friendly neutral. Japan will remain neutral.

Emden had already set out to commence commerce raiding as well as hoping to catch the Russian cruiser Ryzan and quickly overcame the Russian vessel Ryzan which Kapitän von Müller brought back to Tsingtao. Von Müller took it upon himself as the senior Naval officer to begin organising the defence of the German colony by taking the guns from Cormoran and putting them on shore emplacements and the Ryzan with the crews from the near useless gunships and defunct Cormoran (which was scuttled to stop it's capture) and the Russian vessel was rechristened Cormoran II Steps had been taken to activate the auxiliary cruiser Prinz Eital Friedrich by taking arms from two of the aging gunboats; Luchs and Tiger. She was activated on the 5th August. When von Müller received von Spee's order Emden led Prinz Eital Friedrich and collier Markomannia to meet him arriving on the 12th August. 

At Pagan Island von Spee considered the situation. He knew that the Allies would start looking for him and would easily sweep away the defenceless colonies and he had already lost communication with the radio station at Yap. Should his fleet make a stand against an Allied invasion fleet it would be wiped out. He had limited supplies of coal and ammunition and his bases would soon dry up. The options open to him were a glorious last stand against the Allies, nuisance raids against the Allied shipping until coal and ammunition dried up and intern his vessels in a neutral port or try and make a break for Germany picking up coal on the way by raiding and trading. With enough notice German agents could secure a large stockpile of coal for his vessel's arrival and colliers to support his journey around the cape.
Von Spee decided that the first two options were off the table. Cut off from reinforcements and soon to lose his supplies meant that any superiority he gained would be only temporary. Gambling that Germany would win the war and get any of its lost territories  returned in the peace treaty, and knowing that he also had a duty to Germany to return his vessels and his crews to the fleet he decided that the only real option was to try and break out around the Cape Horn causing as much chaos as possible. There was also a rich traffic of merchant vessels moving up the South American carrying coal, meat and resources, even the rumour of his vessels in the vicinity would cause massive disruption. He also knew that the Royal Navy was not concentrated in that area.

 Kapitän von Müller argued that the fleet should head East and instead of picking up Leipzig link up with Konigsberg and raid the Indian Ocean which had much more trade than America. Such a force would cause the Royal Navy to react in sending vessels from the home fleet to aid in the search which could tip the balance of the North Sea standoff in Germany's favour. There was also the chance that if Germany could cause enough havoc it could destabilise the region and cause a revolt in India and tie up troop transports. Spee disagreed, he was not a prepared to take his forces into an area crawling with British warships on the off chance. He also believed that raiding commerce would not yield a suitable amount of coal to support the whole fleet indefinitely. Müller argued that if the whole fleet would not head east then a solitary vessel should remain in the Pacific to actively commerce raid and tie down the Allied fleet's resources by looking for that rather than Spee's ships. He volunteered Emden for the job which Spee agreed too. It was also decided that the Auxiliary cruiser Cormoran II would be released for commerce raiding as well.

On the 14th August Emden left the two armoured cruisers, one light cruiser, one auxiliary and seven colliers steaming East South East towards the Eniwetok lagoon where they would recoal and steam at a slow but steady pace of the Colliers, some 14 knots, whilst the Allies rushed around looking for them. Commander Pochammer, the first officer of Gneisnau later described the;

"apprehension that gripped all the officers and men. With thoughts of home tugging at our hearts, it was almost impossible to do our duty."

Lieutenant Commander Lietzmann, also of Gneisnau said; "No one believes we'll see home again."
Another German sailor, writing to his family described the high morale and "The feeling aboard was excellent."
One letter from a seaman home also described the tension and nerves that the crew were feeling;
Owing to being at war, we ceased coaling at dark and are continuously under steam ready to proceed. Our repairs have to be carried out during watch keeping. We have many clear ship for action exercises. You may believe this tires us. But one gets used to anything. The main point is that we win the war and return home safe and sound.

The Commander-in-Chief wrote to his wife on the 18th August with his feelings on the matter of the Allies hunting his forces.
The East Asiatic inferior in strength, can do noting against them. The English have an Australian squadron lurking with battle cruiser Australia as flagship. This ship alone is so superior to my entire squadron that I have no choice but to flee her. Given this unfavourable balance of power do not expect us to perform great deeds.
The 15th brought a gale struck the squadron tossing them and blowing them off course, half the colliers temporally lost sight of the flagship causing much concern and it was with a great degree of luck that the rough swells did not capsize them and the Nurnberg as they rolled up to forty degrees! However the extra coal supplies that were stored in great piles on the decks of the cruisers and the reserve food supply in the form of cows and pigs penned up were washed away in the three day storm. The weather finally cleared to scorching hot sunshine and on the 19th Eniwetok, a paradise of white sands and palm trees surrounding the blue lagoon. Von Spee gave the order to halt and take stock.
Spee briefed his commanders on the Prinz Eital Friedrich of his intentions and aims. They would be heading to Easter Island and then on to Chile where hopefully they would meet Leupzig and any other detached cruisers that could reach him but also the English.
The crew of SMS Nurnberg
 It was also important to gain intelligence of what was actually going on so von Spee released Nurnberg on the 22nd to the neutral US ports in Hawaii. The Allied intelligence of Spee's movements and vessels was very confused. They had reports that Scharnhorst was alone or in Tsingtao with Gneisnau (who was also spotted leaving Nagasaki and Singapore.) There were other rumours that had last seen Nurnberg off the coast of Mexico or working in concert with Leipzig of San Francisco, despite her calling into Honolulu to refuel whilst on her way to meet von Spee in July. The Admiral knew that if a lone cruiser arrived at Honolulu the Allies wouldn't assume that it had anything to do with Spee's movements. On arrival the Nurnberg gathered newspapers, wired the German admiralty of Spee's intent and contacted German agents in South America to ready coal supplies so that he could refuel on their way. When she returned on the 6th September she brought news of the fall of Samoa to the Allies. There was also a report from the Admiralstab in Berlin which told Spee that they would not interfere with his decisions as he was best place to decide his squadron's actions and a message from the Kaiser wishing them God's protection.

 Nurnberg was quickly detached again under the French ensign with Titania and sent to disrupt the British Radio station at Fanning Island to buy them more time which she succeeded in doing on the 7th September. After a preliminary bombardment a landing party went ashore to blow up the All Red line cable station that provided communications between Australia and Canada. The German landing party raided the staff payroll safe and took 3000 gold sovereign as well as the post office stamps and money totalling £71s which could be used to pay for coal and supplies from neutral ports.(*)  

 Spee had taken Gniesnau and Scharnhorst to an island near Christmas Island and after Nurnberg returned they cruised to the island itself so von Schonberg could make a full report to the Admiral. The Nurnberg's captain's report of the loss of Samoa caught his Admiral's attention only a week beforehand. The idea of catching the Australia at anchor protecting the Australian landing forces. Scharnhorst and Gneisnau were detached for a five day cruise of 1500 miles in the opposite direction whilst Nurnberg escorted the colliers proceeded towards Marquesas islands.

On the 14th September the two armoured cruisers approached the colony in the early hours. The crews were primed and practiced. Adrenaline was high and expectation of fighting their first engagement and winning the first naval victory for Germany was foremost in their minds and hopes. They approached the Apia but as the first light of dawn broke they saw that there were no Allied warships laying vulnerable in harbour. Spee had been unlucky and only missed the Allied invasion force by three days. He'd been even more unlucky as a month before hand his fleet had passed the New Zealand invasion force, which was only escorted by old P-class destroyers, by fifteen miles!

On the bridge of the Scharnhorst the Admiral made the decision that his forces were of no match for the 1600 troops that had taken the colony. Although they were tired, miserable, wearing winter weight uniforms and poorly trained volunteers he still lacked the numbers should they decide to fight and in a battle of attrition he would lose. Further to that, even if they were victorious what then? The Allies would simply send another force and his cruisers would not be able to protect them. He put the colony to his rudder and took a North Westerly course to throw off any observers before heading towards Nurnberg. The ruse worked and the Scharnhorst radio room picked up an Allied message to the fleet that the Germans were heading back to Eniwetok picking up the collier Ahlers, which had been dispatched to top up their fuel, on the way. However Spee would not go quietly and steered his vessels south east towards Tahiti in the hope of filling his bunkers with coal and to sew the seeds of confusion.

On the 21st he ordered a stop at Bora-Bora to resupply before proceeding onto Papeete the next day at first light. The two German cruisers got to 9000 yards before the shore batteries opened fire at them. Quickly turning his vessels to present a smaller target and then ordering the best gunners in the German fleet to open fire. By the third salvo the shore batteries were no more and the Cruisers turned back towards the harbour where the gunboat Zelee was sailing at pace firing her only 4" gun at the German vessels. A flash of fire from the Germans and the ship disintegrated.

What Impudence to open fire on us with a couple of pea shooters. Pochammer wrote.
Walkure after von Spee's bombardment.

It was all for nought though. The French Commander, who had heard the Allied warning from Samoa and taken no chances that the Germans were heading west, had prepared. Armoured cars had been crudely constructed, marines had drilled and were helping to reinforce the local police and native conscripts. As commander of the Zelee and the ranking officer Lieutenant Destremau had also stripped his vessel of all but one of her guns and put them on land to assist the shore batteries. More importantly he had ordered the coal supplies burnt at first sight of the enemy. It was seeing the black smoke rising above the town that forced Spee, with heavy heart, to turn his force around. There was nothing for him here now.

Scharnhorst and Gneisnau turned away and left the harbour ablaze. Though von Spee had not gained the prized coal supply it did however cost two million Francs of damage, sank the wooden gunship and the interned German merchant vessel (captured by Zelee) Walkure but miraculously only killed two civilians.

After reaching Nurnberg the whole fleet resupplied for a week before finally leaving on another 2500 mile long trek to Easter Island, leaving some of Gneisnau's crew upon Prinz Eital Friedrich which was released to raid commerce. The loss of the coal supplies at Papeete was telling as two empty colliers were also released to Honolulu in an attempt to resupply. Then came news from an unlikely source.

SMS Dresden had made it around the Cape Horn having escaped the Caribbean and was searching for Leipzig with orders from Berlin to work together raiding the west coast of South America. On the night of the 4-5th Dresden again reported to von Spee.

My position 31.25 south, 89.58 west, near Mas Afuera, 500 miles west Valparaiso. have contacted Leipzig with admiralty orders to reinforce cruiser squadron at Easter Island.

The Admiral ordered Dresden to coordinate with Leipzig which was beyond his range at the time, and get them to meet him at Easter Island. Dresden was to meet him at the island with her tender when the East Asiatic squadron arrived on the 13th and Leipzig and her flotilla of colliers arrived on the 14th with news of the measures that had been taken to establish coal resupply in Chile. With five warships and a large fleet of colliers von Spee's escape attempt looked more than possible now.

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