Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The fall of Tsingtao

SMS Scharnhorst and HMS Minotaur in Tsingtao early 1914 (IWM HU 64344)
   As the Geopolitical situation deteriorated the situation in Tsingtao grew tense. Orders came through for all gunboats to return to base, and the Yangtze river gunboats Otter, Tsingtao, and Vaterland simply disarmed themselves and the crews hurried back to the Naval base leaving the boats at their moorings where they were taken by the Chinese.

   Searching for a safe port and bearing news from Berlin warning of possible if not probable war, the arrival of Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth on 21 July prompted the Emden’s Fregattenkapitän, Karl von Müller, to call a council of war as the senior Naval officer in port. Although it was all speculation as to whom they would be fighting, the fleet still had to mobilise, defend the colonies, escort colliers to a rendezvous for squadron manoeuvres, and above all not get blockaded in port. The cruisers of the East Asiatic Squadron and the skill of her crews were more than a match for the Russian forces and could also match the French. The big question lay over England, and how swiftly HMS Minotaur and Triumph could swing into action or Australia and New Zealand to organise their vessels and soldiers for occupation forces. There was the chance that Japan would join her ally England and lend her vast and modern warships to the struggle—her recent aggressive foreign policy and voracious need for fresh territorial gains meant that this would be very likely. There was a prevalent view in Germany that Europeans were superior to Asians, which led to the Kaiser declaring that he would rather surrender Berlin to the Russians than Tsingtao to the Japanese.

   It was obvious that Japan’s involvement could mean a siege sooner rather than later, and with Germany their sole source of coal and ammunition, it would only be a matter of time before Tsingtao would be forced to surrender. Things in the islands would be more cut and dry; with no formal defences, and only a handful of Melanise policemen and army reservists on each island, an organised Allied landing would quickly overpower German resistance. The only plausible defence would be for von Spee to catch the invasion forces unescorted, or for an organised guerrilla war against the Allies. The nearest the Germans came to this was Leutnant Herman Detzner disappearing into the jungles of New Guinea. If the war was restricted to Russia and France, their limited reinforcements in the region and more pressing priorities on the European front would mean attacks on the colonies would be less likely. Only Britain’s involvement would include enough soldiers to occupy all of the scattered islands and their overwhelming sea power could escort invasion transports and hunt the East Asiatic Squadron.

   On 22 July the Cormoran’s captain, Zuckschwerdt, ordered his crew to work around the clock, using spotlights at night. Supplies and ammunition were organised to warehouses by her slip, so they could be loaded quickly when it was fully operational. Although Zuckschwerdt knew that the Cormoran would stand little chances against a modern warship, it was better to be at sea than trapped in port awaiting capture or internment, which was the likely outcome for the inhabitants of Tsingtao. Adalbert Zuckschwerdt had been in the Pacific a long time and was well known throughout the fleet with a reputation for fairness laced with discipline, and a stubborn streak that favoured action rather than wasting time on deep contemplative thought. Even though he avoided harsh personal exchanges and was quiet and conscious of others, with the advent of war he was putting an amount of zeal and strength into getting the Cormoran ready. Throughout the colony the efforts to mobilise the flotilla of gunboats for defence, the colliers for supplying the Kreuzerwaffe, and the creation of auxiliary cruisers moved at pace. Korvettenkapitän Sachse of the Iltis was ordered to mobilise the dockyard to war. Korvettenkapitän Friedrich Luring of the Jaguar was ordered to stay in British Shanghai to reorganise German operations there whilst his vessel fled under Leutnant Fritz Matthias before handing over command of Karl von Bodecker the former commander of the Tiger. The Jaguar along with the Luchs, Tiger, Iltis, and torpedo boat S.90 were charged with protecting the harbour at the direction of Governor Alfred Meyer-Waldeck.

   Emden was put on a war footing and through July her readiness was increased until 31st, when all her unnecessary equipment, flammable trim, and excess personal effects were stored in a warehouse on the dock. Her ammunition and coal stocks were fully supplied, so when the orders came through, she would be ready to leave immediately. A shore party was also arranged to assist with the receipt of telegraphs and increase the military capability. Von Müller was determined to leave port on the 31st, this was to avoid a blockade that would see his ship wasted and to comply with orders from Berlin—to get as much available coal out of the harbour and delivered to von Spee. After meeting with Zuckschwerdt to hand over command of the naval forces and give directions, he ordered the cruiser to leave port at 7.30 p.m., with the S.90 sailing ahead to clear the way and scout for enemy vessels while the collier Elsbeth sailed behind. When reports came through that Russia had declared war on Germany, von Müller was given permission to carry out his plan; after releasing the Elsbeth to head for Yap the Emden turned towards the Tushima straits hoping to find Russian shipping plying the trade between Nagasaki and Vladivostok, or the Russian cruiser Askold. On 4 August, the lookouts spotted a vessel flying the Russian flag and moved to intercept. When the ship responded to the warning shot by opening up her engines and commencing evasive manoeuvres, as well as sending out a plethora of wireless transmission signals, von Müller loaded his guns and fired a few shots closer to the vessel. On the third passing through the rigging, the Russian vessel came to a stop, still sending SOS signals that the German Captain hoped had been jammed by his vessel’s signals. On inspection the Russian vessel, SS Ryazan, turned out to be a modern German passenger vessel built in Danzig in 1909, with a top speed of 14 knots and decent capacity. Reservist Leutnant Lauterbach led the boarding party over to secure the vessel, almost falling in the sea when his small launch got caught in a swell alongside the ship. The Russian Captain protested that he did not know war had begun, he protested that the Germans were pirates and he protested that he did not speak German. Lauterbach reminded him that he had seen him in Tsingtao and knew he could speak German, he also reminded him that the Russian had tried running, which meant he knew war had begun. On inspection of the cargo manifest, he found that the vessel was carrying tea, iron railings, salted meat, and spirits, as well as some passengers who also protested that they were being kidnapped. Von Müller decided to take the vessel back to Tsingtao for conversion and turned both vessels around operating in blackout and wireless transmission silence; the passengers aboard the Russian vessel were not cooperative and kept turning lights on and, when the bulbs were removed, taking them from other fittings. Lauterbach was kept very much on his toes. The two vessels passed many Japanese fishing vessels and even intercepted a transmission that Britain was now at war with Germany, a very ominous piece of news but he had no wish to run into any of the heavier British vessels.

   On arrival at port, von Müller ordered the immediate resupply of the Emden and took Zuckschwerdt to see Meyer-Waldeck to report his success and future plans. It was decided that the liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich should be fitted with guns and crew from the Tiger and Luchs, and placed under command of Fregattenkapitän Max Thierichsens of the Luchs. All excess sailors were to be assigned to marines, formed into infantry detachments ready for the eventual siege. Though not what they were trained for, it was the best solution that could be hoped for as they needed everyone who could carry a rifle to assist. Zuckschwerdt reported that Cormoran’s engines had been repaired and tested that very morning. However, the haste at which it had been reassembled by tired men, working day and night, meant that the repairs had not been successful and the engine merely shook herself apart, causing the propeller shafts to break. Its completion would take a further few days at least. It was decided to convert the Ryazan into another auxiliary using the crew and Captain of the Cormoran due to her having a good rate of speed and crew capacity. With the older Bussard out of commission it made sense to at least use her guns and crew for something useful. Zuckschwerdt began work immediately, using the large spotlights and twelve-hour shifts that had been in place from his previous command. The new vessel was also to be called Cormoran in honour of the previous vessel—to carry on the legacy. In four days of continual work the vessel was ready for commission, with eight 4-inch guns deployed, two searchlights, ammunition, food provisions to last five months at sea, and 2,000 tons of coal. Due to the small coal bunkers on the new the Cormoran, the crew quarters had to be converted and the crew were assigned to sleep on the decks of the ship. The crew was topped up with reservists, volunteers from the Vaterland and Iltis and the new recruits that had arrived just two months beforehand. The total compliment was twenty-four officers, 218 men, and fifteen helpers, including four Chinese laundrymen.

   Events were beginning to overtake Tsingtao, with news that the Japanese fleet had sailed on 8 August and the German’s worst fears were confirmed by a telegram from Berlin that stated war with Japan was imminent. SMS Emden reacted to von Spee’s summons to Pagan Island by leaving port on 6 August taking the Prinz Eitel Friedrich and the collier Markommannia, with a small flotilla of other colliers leaving on separate routes to meet the Admiral. Zuckschwerdt was determined not to get caught and the Cormoran left Tsingtao on 10 August at 2 p.m. amidst a growing chatter of Japanese wireless transmission traffic, with concerns that the vessel may not make it to the open sea. S.90, predominantly used as a scout ship, reported the horizon all clear and with one last look at Tsingtao the Cormoran slipped out to sea. Over the next few days came warnings from command of the Japanese fleet detaching and operating heavily in the area. On the 15 August the Japanese ultimatum arrived; this gave the Germans a month to abandon Tsingtao to the Japanese, and to remove all warships from Chinese waters immediately—they gave the Germans eight days to respond. Obviously this was unacceptable to the Germans and Mayer-Waldeck responded with a letter:

It is a matter of course that we can never consent to surrender Tsingtao to Japan without drawing the sword. The frivolity of the Japanese demand admits but of one reply. But it implies that we must reckon on the opening of hostilities at the expiration of the date fixed. It will be a fight to the finish.
Another German wrote in his diary of the Japanese ultimatum, ‘they can tell this to a Russian but not to a German’.

   A heavy Japanese presence, with a week until hostilities were declared, meant that any operations in the Yellow Sea would be perilous, and so the Kaiser’s newest auxiliary had to head south away from her coaling base. Flying her Russian flag, the Cormoran, tried to slip past islands and Japanese fishing boats at night so as to avoid observation, all the while listening to continued Japanese wireless transmission messages that seemed closer and closer. After four days at sea, and lacking communication from the radio station at Yap, Zuckschwerdt decided to use a general radio call out. Gaining a response from the steamer Ahlers, who reported an English vessel visible on the horizon. The Cormoran rushed towards the scene only to receive a second message that it was in fact another German vessel—the Göttingen of the Deutshe Lloyd steam company. Although Zuckschwerdt ordered his vessels truned about, he received orders the next day from the Scharnhorst to rendezvous with these two ships, and to bring them immediately to him—he required as much news as possible. However, it was not as simply as it initially seemed to be; the Cormoran got caught in a storm knocking her 100 nmi off course, which also damaged the wireless transmitter, smashed a lifeboat, and saw supplies being washed out to sea. It was not until 21 August that they met with the two wayward German vessels and began their journey to von Spee (which took another four days), passing the released Gouverneur Jaschke, which pointed them towards the Majuro Island. Within the lagoon lay the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, Titania, Yorck, Prinz Waldemar, Holsatia, Mark, and Longman, with the Emden and the Nürnberg detached. Zuckschwerdt immediately reported to his Admiral and submitted for inspection.

   In Tsingtao the situation looked bleak. They had amassed a force of 1,500 men in four infantry
Some of the Prinz Heinrich Kompagnie at Tsingtao
companies with 140 cavalry men, six quick-firing 3-inch guns organised into a field artillery battery, two machine gun detachments, and 140 engineers. There was a further 750 men coming from Tientsin, under Oberstleutnant Kuhlo, and a Taube aircraft, flown by the redoubtable Gunther Plüschow. A second Taube had crashed on her maiden test flight, putting pilot Leutnant Müllerkowski in hospital and his aeroplane in pieces. Further reinforcements had come from the Prinz Heinrich Kompagnie, part of the Shanghai Volunteer corps, the elements of this detachment arrived carrying Lee Metford rifles and wearing British cut uniforms and ammunition pouches and were quickly assimilated into 7. Kompangie of III. Seebataillon. The German forces would be no match for a large Allied army and they knew it; however, the British had estimated that it would take five months to organise and deploy an Indian garrison, reliant on favourable conditions. Japan on the other hand would be more than ready as it had no other military commitments. Tsingtao had a tactical advantage of a strong mountainous defence to the north, as well as neutral China; if the Allies were to obey the rules of war and not violate China, they would have to come from the sea. The harbour was well defended with guns, mines, the torpedo boat S.90, and the gunboats all under the Kaiserin Elisabeth. There were also diplomatic channels for Mayer-Walbeck to explore. He tried to get Washington to intervene by making European settlements in China neutral, and also contacted China to say that they would like to terminate the lease and give it back. Washington was not interested and China just terminated the lease refusing to take it back. This only gave legitimacy to the Japanese claim that the Germans were unwanted interlopers in Asia, and they would expel them ‘…for the assurance of peace of the Far East and the preservation of China’s territorial integrity’.

   Martial law had already been declared on 1 August and the German troops had already filed into their trenches, fortifications, and strongpoints preparing for an invasion. The Japanese were likewise anxious to gain the colony, and had already begun massing its troops ready for embarkation and preparing a blockade. While the German government looked at the ultimatum, they would be joined by a subordinate Anglo-British force under Colonel Barnardiston. The force of 23,000 men and 142 guns landed on 2 September to the north of Tsingtao in Chinese territory, setting up a headquarters in the provincial town of Tsinanfu. This was much to the consternation of local British consul John Pratt, who argued this was a violation of Chinese neutrality akin to Germany’s march through Belgium, but he was hushed by his superior in Peking. After the Chinese protested, the Japanese stated they were going to secure the railway network and any Chinese resistance would be seen as friendly to Germany and an act of aggression to Japan. The march was impeded by bad weather and heavy rains that flooded large parts of the plains, but as they marched the Japanese censored all local communications and removed all Europeans from their line of advance to mask their numbers and strategy.

   Mayer-Walbeck was informed of the landing and began preparations to strengthen the northern approaches, sending Kuhlo’s men to the mountains to dig trenches, lay mines, and prepare artillery emplacements using Chinese labourers. There followed several days of inaction, with only two very ineffectual Japanese air raids and one Japanese spy, shot for trying to poison the water supply with Typhus. A third air raid on the Kaiserin Elizabeth and Jaguar was also attempted to no effect. The second Japanese landing came on the 18th, supported by the Anglo-Indian forces shipped in on rented Chinese vessels on the 22nd, in the south of the peninsula. Their advance was slow as the weather had turned the roads into quagmires bogging down the men and their equipment. Relations were strained between the two allies and General Kaimo, though polite and reserved, saw this as a solely Japanese venture of which the British were allowed to tag along. His officers did not think much of the British fighting skills and, on more than one occasion, mistook them for German troops and fired at them. The weather, and Kaimo’s cautious advance, meant that it was the end of September when the naval blockade opened fire for the first time, destroying the Russian cemetery, a pigsty and Bismarck barracks prison.

 As the bombardment, began the German defenders fell back from the front line to protect
SMS S.90
themselves and it was up to the remnants of the East Asiatic Squadron to strike back for Germany. On 28 September the Iltis was damaged by Japanese artillery and along with a toothless and damaged Tiger, Luchs, and Cormoran was towed to deep water and set aflame to stop them falling into enemy hands. The Jaguar remained busy engaging enemy shore batteries and positions as well as causing the destroyer Shirotaye to be grounded on the 3 September. The Jaguar had also engaged in an unsuccessful sortie with the Kaiserin Elisabeth before the cruiser donated her large 6-inch and 2-inch guns forming the 'Batterie Elisabeth'- her excess crew assigned to the garrison. These were not the only victories for the navy, the minesweeper Lauting and torpedo boat S.90, with the support of one of the shore batteries bombarded HMS Kennet on 22 August; S.90 hit Kennet twice forcing her to withdraw. This success was again repeated by Kapitanleunant Brunner's vessel as she ran the Allied blockade on the evening of the moonless 17 October torpedoing the Japanese Cruiser HIJMS Takachiho killing 271 of her crew of 325. This was an outstanding success, but celebration was short lived as at 1:30 a.m. a wireless message was recieved from S.90;

Have attacked enemy cruisers with three torpedoes, registered three hits. Cruiser blew up at once. Am hunted by torpedo-boat destroyers return to Tsingtao cut off, trying to escape south, and if necessary shall explode boat.    BRUNNER.

Brunner was forced to scuttle of the Chinese coast and the crew interned themselves, eventually being held in Nanking. The gunboats continued to shell the Allied vessels, with the minefield around the harbour would claim three Japanese steamers. Despite their limitations the last surface units of the East Asiatic were going down fighting against a much superior force.

   However, the ground forces were becoming more fatalistic knowing that they were outnumbered six to one. One German officer told his men ‘we cannot obtain victory here; only die. Still, before it reaches that point, take as many of the yellow Apes with you as you can’. As they withdrew (to twin lines along the ridges around the settlement) they destroyed bridges over mountain gorges and destroyed the Mecklenberg Inn. The Germans gave a token night attack, but were repulsed. Following this, the allied forces attacked in the middle of the month, pushing the Germans back along the line except at a strong point where the German Cavalry were able to aid in driving off the infantry and take a toll on the enemy. A negotiated ceasefire occurred after this assault, in order to bury the dead. The Japanese were playing a long game, bringing 100 heavy siege guns, with 1,200 rounds each, to the top of Prinz Heinrich Heights. They began shelling on 31 October. The land bombardment was joined by naval guns, up to 11 inches in calibre. Although the Germans did respond at the Japanese land positions, with accurate spotting from the unstoppable Plüschow, they soon ran out of ammunition. Their guns sat silent as the Japanese rained death upon their positions for a whole week, setting coal stocks and petrol tanks on fire and causing the 150-ton docking crane to collapse under the incessant fire.

   The weather still caused massive problems for the attackers, slowing their advance. The hostile weather killed several engineers and eight Welsh soldiers, who were constructing a pontoon bridge across a swollen river, all the while Japanese fire came down upon the Germans.

   On 6 November, Plüschow flew out of the encirclement clutching the last of Meyer-Waldeck’s dispatches. He came down in a rice paddy, though still managed to get the dispatches out and back to Germany. He also began his long journey home, which involved travel via China, Japan, across America by train, and a boat to Italy, which unfortunately for him stopped at Gibraltar, where he was taken prisoner. He eventually escaped from Donnington Hall POW camp in England, working at the London Docks before eventually slipping out to Holland and finally into Germany. On the same day, the Japanese infantry charged in a great wave through the remains of the German lines under the cover of darkness and swept through the tired German defenders, taking 200 prisoners and forcing others from their positions, which the defenders often detonated. Other fortifications were abandoned, left full of bodies and equipment. The Japanese urged the Germans to surrender, while at the same time switching to shrapnel shells to cut down the fleeing infantry. By morning the struggle was over, with the surrender of the remaining forces to the Allies. The Jaguar was scuttled that morning and joined the Kaiserin Elisabeth, which had been scuttled on the 2 November by her commander Richard Makovicz after she had exhausted her ammunition; his final message to his ship was ‘Addio Lisa’. Meyer-Waldeck refused to fight on—some of his officers felt that they should—and sent a message to Kaimo: ‘…my defensive means are exhausted. I am now ready to enter into surrender negotiations for the now open city’. The German marines and sailors of the East Asiatic had put up a spirited defence and held out against Allied forces for three months, a lot longer than anyone had thought possible and caused 727 killed and 1,335 wounded, for the loss of 199 and 504 wounded.

German prisoners from Tsingtao held in Japan © IWM (Q 52827)
   When the Allies marched into the town, the Germans lined the streets in silence to watch the Japanese. The moment the British column arrived they turned their backs in disgust, for their use of Asians to fight their battles instead of fighting them honourably. The surrender documents were signed by the chiefs of staff for the German and Japanese forces and, in yet another snub, the British were left out. The Kaiser was deeply disappointed, but could not be surprised—the best support he had been able to offer were words of encouragement: ‘With me, the entire Germanic nation looks with pride on the heroes of Tsingtao whom, true to the word of the Governor, are fulfilling their duties. You should know all of my appreciation.’

   The garrison laid down its arms and marched into Japanese captivity, to be freed and returned to Germany in 1920.  One British officer described the garrison:

…their dejection was far from pleasant to watch. They were brave men, they had done their best, their clothes were ragged. They seemed amazed to see Britons standing by and, as though with final effort, they raised their heads as they passed and met me eye-to-eye with burning looks.

With the loss of the port the only harbour with a German Imperial grade shipyard in the whole Pacific was lost to von Spee. It was of no consequence to the Admiral as he was an ocean away when it fell.

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