Saturday, 4 October 2014

SMS Leipzig - the Terror of the West Coast of America

SMS Leipzig

Early morning on 1st September 1914 the sentries at Esquimalt Naval base spotted smoke plumes on the horizon. At last HMCS Rainbow was returning from her mission to locate the two missing sloops Shearwater and Algerine and was shepherding them home.

The vessel grew larger on the horizon. Something was not right about it and as it grew closer it became obvious that this wasn’t Rainbow. Neither was the second cruiser which was in line astern behind the first.

Binoculars were reached for and the vessels scanned. They were an unfamiliar design but flew Russian flags as they sailed confidently towards them. The duty commander was called but he wasn’t expecting any Russian vessels.

Then the shooting started. The two cruisers turned and delivered full broadsides, their ammunition falling with deadly accuracy. Within twenty minutes of firing the oil tanks were ablaze, vessels in the harbour were sunk, sailors and civilian workers fled in terror or cowered in whatever shelter they could. SMS Leipzig and Nürnberg turned seaward and set course for Vancouver.

This attack never actually occurred but the Canadian Admiralty and Government were acutely worried that it could and there would be nothing that they could do to stop it.

At the outbreak of the First World War SMS Leipzig was on patrol off the Mexican coast “flying the flag” for Germany and protecting German nationals who were getting caught up in the Mexican civil war, she had relieved SMS Nürnberg so it could return to Tsingtao for refit and some R&R. The reports that the Second Reich was now at war with the British Empire opened up a new problem for the German vessel.

SMS Leipzig, the sixth of the Bremen class light cruisers, had been commissioned on 20th April 1906 from the AG Wesser shipyards in Bremen. At three hundred and sixty-five feet long and displacing 3816 metric tonnes she was by no means a mighty warship but her ten 10.5cm guns and two torpedo tubes made her more than a match for any merchant vessel or liner that should come into contact and indeed more than a match for the two Royal Navy vessels on the same station. HMS Shearwater and Algerine were two sloops with no more than only 1”- 1.5” thick armour over the boilers and machinery and only 25 pounder guns, 3 pounder guns and three maxims machineguns. On the outbreak of war these two vessels were told to leave as quickly as they could before they could be found by Leipzig. Frigattenkapitän Haun’s vessel was of better use as a multi mission cruiser which supported larger battleships in fleet engagements and his crew were long term enlistments trained in gunnery skills like the rest of von Spee’s squadron but they were in need of shore leave and rest.

The response by the Canadian admiralty was a little panicked. The only vessel available to them was the aging HMCS Rainbow which was the only surface unit on the west coast and half the Canadian’s entire fleet. Rainbow had been practically decommissioned and was really only a training vessel put was pressed into service with only two thirds of her complement aboard and armed with training shells filled with black powder which were the only available shells in the Naval store at Esquimalt. The promised train of ammunition had not arrived from the East coast by the time Rainbow was ordered to sea on the night of 3rd August. Commander Walter Hose’s orders were to;

 “Proceed to sea forthwith to guard trade routes north of the Equator, keeping in touch with Pachena, until war has been declared.”

Hose did not rate his vessels chances against the modern German cruiser with her high velocity shells and superior guns. Indeed afterwards he stated that;

“To know where he [Leipzig] was exactly at that time would have been Rainbow’s main contribution… My main armament was my wireless, and that only had a range of two hundred miles.”

Neither did the dock workers who watched Rainbow leave and one stated;

“Few of those who saw her departure on that eventful occasion expect to see her return.”

HMCS Rainbow
With the dispatch of Rainbow the Naval strategists realised that the city of Vancouver, Prince Rupert Island, the Naval base as Esquimalt and other possible targets were now defenceless from the German vessels and could come under attack at anytime. Worse, should Rainbow fall to the German’s guns then it could be sometime before the Royal Navy’s China station could dispatch more ships to defend the Canadian shore. Two submarines which were being built for Chile in Seattle were hurriedly bought by the Canadian government and commissioned to form a basic defence force. Now all they had to do was wait and hope that the German vessels stayed away.

Commander Hose used the first two days at sea holding near Cape Flattery and Destruction strait practicing drill and calibrating the guns. If he was going to go into action he was going to be as ready as he could be. On 4th August at 20:07 he received word that war had been declared and he made course for the South but by 21:00 he was ordered to return to Vancouver to resupply with modern ammunition. Hose proceeded at increased speed with the intention to arrive the following day but by 18:00 on the 5th he was ordered to immediately change course and head south to escort Algerine and Shearwater who had left San Diego the day before with Leipzig in pursuit (last sighted at Magdalena bay). Rainbow proceeded at 3/5ths power and arrived at San Francisco on 7th August at 6.00. Hose could not see the two sloops and presumed them to be either in port or seaward. Through want of information he decided the best course of action was to enter San Francisco to recoal and speak to the consulate.

Rainbow had been exceptionally lucky during this time. Although due to orders from the President and despite there being 500 tonnes of coal bought expressly for the use of Rainbow by the British Consul, the American authorities only allowed 50 tonnes of coal to be put aboard as she had enough coal to get her to the nearest British port. Hose could also get no concrete information on the location of the Leipzig or Nürnberg and after the Hamburg line freighter Alexandria (who was reportedly working as an auxiliary for Leipzig) passed the Golden gate bridge Hose decided it was best to head out to sea and head north. An hour before he was due to depart though Hose received confirmation that Leipzig was heading to San Francisco and would be there in the following days. A German vessel in port had loaded up with supplies and lubricating oil and was due to leave on the 8th to meet the German warship(s) and transfer the cargo at sea. This made Hose’s mind up and Rainbow left quickly and headed south to meet Leipzig or the supply schooner. In foggy weather he held his position for two days waiting but to no avail. The only vessel they saw was a small Mail steamer from a German owned company in San Francisco which buzzed around them under the American flag reporting Rainbow’s position to the German cruiser. With his coal levels now reaching their safety margin Hose decided he had to return to Canadian waters to resupply and hopefully meet up with the two sloops or the Canadian supply ship that had put to sea. Before doing so the crew tossed over all the flammable woodwork which, when it washed up on the American shores, gave the impression that Leipzig had sunk her.

On 12th August however the Rainbow saw a three funnelled cruiser hulled vessel steaming towards them at full speed. Fearing it was the Nürnberg or Leipzig Hose ordered his vessel to turn 14 points away at full speed and ordered battle stations. His plan was to pull away and ready his stern guns before turning and attacking. Thankfully it was the liner SS Prince George which had been fitted up as a hospital ship and sent to escort Rainbow on her mission and to pick up survivors from her inevitable sinking. She also carried orders for the ship to return to base with her.

On the 2nd August Leipzig was anchored at Mazatan, Mexico but soon left for a sweep up the coast towards San Francisco in the hope of catching British flagged merchant vessels coming out of port. It was a good plan as San Francisco was a good stopping point for trade and more importantly coal up for the final push to Canada. The only drawback was that all precautions had be taken not to pull over a neutral American vessel. His orders only covered attacking mercantile shipping and any small enemy vessels that he came across, any larger vessels or fleets were to be avoided at all costs. The Nürnberg had left the region on the 21st July heading from San Francisco to Honolulu to rendezvous with von Spee and the Kreuzerwaffe. Haun was alone but the Allies did not know that and mercantile shipping began to seize up. Insurance companies were very tetchy about insuaring vessels when an enemy cruiser was in the sea-lanes, it is very bad for business. Captains were also wary about putting to sea in their livelihoods and risking their crews lives.

As the intrepid Rainbow put to sea from Esquimalt, the Leipzig was cruising up the west coast searching for any shipping but she found nothing. Either ships were scattering as she approached or were refusing to put to sea. Haun received transmissions that the Royal Navy were waiting for him with a cruiser out by the Golden gate bridge, although he was informed of its obsolete nature he was painfully aware that he was many miles from a German port for repair and proceeded cautiously through the fog. On reaching San Francisco on the 10th August Haun put in to coal up his vessel and get an idea of what British flagged vessels were about. International law stated that he could only take on coal and conduct minor repairs for twenty four hours in a neutral port and the US authorities in San Francisco were very strict at this time and Leipzig had to leave before she had been coaled properly. After consulting the German consulate Haun had decided to keep his vessel seaward of the Golden gate bridge as he believed that he would catch something either going in or out, especially colliers with which to stock his much depleted bunkers. He was in no rush to attack Rainbow or look for the sloops as if he were to sustain any damage his anti commerce campaign would come to an end very quickly, he also feared that if coaled insufficiently he would be forced to make the ignominious decision to intern one of the Kaiser’s warships with out any victory to show for it. It was resolved that if he could find no coal that he would steam after Rainbow and fight before interning his damaged and low on coal vessel.  There is a local rumour that a German battleship sheltered at Conception bay during the period and this very well could have been Leipzig awaiting shipping.

In San Francisco 25 steamers carrying in excess of 60,000 tonnes of Barley and large amounts of other trade were waiting for Leipzig to leave. In Seattle grain, salmon, flour and lumber were building up awaiting shipping to collect it. Businesses were frozen awaiting deliveries and removal of exports but whilst the German cruiser remained nothing moved.

Leipzig was forced to leave the area of San Francisco on the 18th August as after a week of inactivity caused by the British Admiralty’s order to all Merchant shipping to “stay in port”. News came that HMS Newcastle from Admiral Jerram’s China station was on its way across the Pacific to assist the Canadian fleet and that as relations with Japan looked to be deteriorating the armoured cruiser Idzumo, which had been off the coast of Mexico as well, would also come looking for Haun’s vessel. Before leaving though Haun invited journalists aboard Leipzig, personally met the mayor of San Francisco and donated two Japanese bear cubs to the zoo. He also proclaimed that the Leipzig would seek out enemy shipping and fight;

 “the number and size of our antagonists makes no difference to us.”

The decision was made to head south and Leipzig got underway and she proceeded to the Gulf of California where she laid low for a week and on the 8th September she coaled from the German Freighter Marie and railway trucks from the Sonara railway company that were assembled on the shore for Haun’s use. The very next day, along with Marie he left his sanctuary and cruised up the gulf where at 2.30 am they scored their first victory. The tank steamer Elsinore which failed to see the cruiser in the sporadic rain squalls and despite her turned down running lights was picked up by Leipzig’s searchlights. After the crew was taken aboard the Leipzig the Elsinore was consigned to the depths.

HMS Shearwater
Haun promised the Captain of the Elsinore that he would put them ashore on the Marie at Calao but changed his plans and headed out towards the Galapagos Islands, arriving on the 17th September and left the prisoners under the watch of one German officer before coaling and leaving on the 21st. As the Leipzig had sailed south all the shipping had been held in port so Captain Haun was hoping that by heading out to the remote Galapagos it would be assumed he had left the theatre heading out towards the Pacific. He planned a surprise attack on the trade routes along Ecuadorian and Peruvian coast.  The first casualty was handed to him on a plate.

The after shocks of Leipzig’s patrol up to San Francisco were still being felt by the Canadian and British shipping though. HMCS Rainbow overtook Shearwater on 13th August near the Straits of Juan de Fuca and escorted to Esquimalt where in a very quick turn around of re-coaling and taking on High explosive ammunition (which lacked the correct fuses and were thus fairly useless) and headed out the same day to find Algerine. The last sloop was found in the early hours the next day by the Prince George. She had run out of coal and had unfurled her sails but meeting strong headwinds her journey north had been slowed. Following the arrival of the fuses on the 15th of August Commander Hose requested permission to go and seek out Leipzig. Permission was duly granted and on the 18th Rainbow set sail for San Francisco once again. However later that day the order was quickly countermanded and Hose returned to base having been ordered to await reinforcements from Admiral Jerram’s China station; HMS Newcastle was due soon and they could proceed together. Before Newcastle could arrive an urgent summons was received from Prince Rupert Island where the locals were certain they had seen Leipzig and Nürnberg. Rainbow set off immediately searching for the Germans bolstered with crewmen from the RCNVR and the two sloops as well as her new ammunition but found nothing not even the US steamship Delhi which had supposedly resupplied the two German cruisers on the night of 19th-20th August. Little did they know that Haun and Leipzig were actually in the Gulf of California some 1998 miles away and Nürnberg was even further and was coaling at the Enewetak atoll with von Spee’s armoured cruisers. Commander Hose decided to take Rainbow on an extended patrol of the north British Columbia coast returning to Esquimalt on the 2nd September.

The reinforcements had arrived in Rainbow’s absence. On 25th August the IJN Idzumo arrived at Esquimalt and on 30th so did the Newcastle under Captain Powlett who took immediate command of the whole of the Naval operation as the senior Naval officer and began organise shore defence guns and mine laying to protect the coast. Rear Admiral Story arrived in mid September to take command of the situation after the Canadian Naval department became concerned about the methods Powlett was using as they considered all of these defences unnecessary and more importantly expensive! They wanted to also reassert Canadian authority over the Canadian Navy. Story quickly took charge as the senior officer and put things in order.

Newcastle and Idzumo began their sweep south on the 3rd September leaving Rainbow to guard the northern approaches in case Admiral von Spee’s squadron arrived to the north. They found nothing. Idzumo was left to guard the entrance to San Francisco in case Leipzig were to double back and Newcastle carried on alone, safe in the news that Nürnberg had been sighted in Honolulu on the 1st-2nd September. There was evidence that Leipzig had been through the waters leading to Panama, only rumours, sightings and old information greeted the British rather than the elusive prey. Powlett made a thorough search of the area and arrived  at Santa Rosalia at the Gulf of California’s mouth on 17th September. He theorised correctly that Haun would head for the Galapagos islands and may join up with Nürnberg again, if she had turned east to the South American coast rather than west to von Spee’s fleet. Having set up lookouts and an intelligence network on the coast and believing Leipzig had too much of a head start and may have Nürnberg with her he decided to return back to his station on the Canadian coast.

The SS Bankfields was carrying 9 tonnes of Copper ore and 5950 tonnes of sugar when she began her journey at 4am on the 24th September unaware that the British consulate’s order to hold all shipping until Leipzig could be located had been delayed by her company’s German owner who may or may not have also been in contact with the German warship. Blissfully unaware of the threat the freighter continued in a straight line across the gulf of Guayaquil on the Panama track until 8am on the following day when she was pulled over by the German cruiser and ordered to follow her after a brief boarding action at 8.55. Six and a half hours later the unmanned prize was sunk by gunfire and Leipzig again began to crawl down the coast looking for prey. Haun found the seas devoid of British shipping, word of his existence had paralysed the sea lanes here and his search was fruitless.  He decided to head for the Lobos de Afuera Islands where on the 28th he was met by a Kosmos liner Amasts which brought fresh coal.

After failing to catch the Tamar, a British freighter which stuck close to neutral territorial waters,
SMS Dresden
Leipzig planned to turn west again but was signalled that fresh vessels were coming to assist. There was also contact from the Admiralstab in Berlin. Another German cruiser, SMS Dresden was running from the Royal Navy on the east coast of South America and had rounded Cape Horn, he was ordered to meet Dresden so that they could work together in commerce raiding and for mutual defence. On the 2nd October a radio message from the Dresden, the first German warship they’d seen in three months, came through;

My position is Mas a Fuera Island. Intend to proceed to Easter Island to make contact with Cruiser Squadron.

The news that Admiral von Spee had brought the squadron across the ocean must have been greeted with much elation aboard the German cruiser, she was no longer alone in unfriendly waters and the Admiral was sure to have a plan of action. On the 3rd October three more Kosmos liners arrived fully laden with coal for him. They were the Anubis, Karnak and Abessinia.  Leipzig planned to move forward with purpose and Haun decided to make for Easter Island as a rendezvous point where Dresden and Leipzig could meet and plan their next moves but first he ordered Abessinia to fully coal up his cruiser on the 3rd October until the 4th.

Further communications with Dresden on the 5th carried orders from von Spee coordinating their arrival and on the 12th October the squadron reformed off the neutral port at Easter Island. Admiral von Spee’s fleet of two armoured cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisnau) and three light cruisers (Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig) was now fully attended by colliers and supply ships . The Admiral now had a fleet that could reckon with an English patrol. He could make his way to Germany with these ships.

On the 1st October the SS Marie put in at Callao and released the Bankfields’ crew. Coincidentally a small sailing boat from the Galapagos islands also put in to the mainland carrying half of the Elsinore crew. They had escaped from their solitary German captor on 24th September and spent a week at sea trying to get back to report Leipzig’s position and activities, all to late now. This information was relayed however to the Royal Navy commander who was rounding Cape Horn, Rear Admiral Craddock who had come to find von Spee and his ships.

No comments:

Post a Comment