48: Admiral Spee's Great Adventure Pt. 1


In 1914 Vice Admiral Spee led his ships halfway around the world from China to South America, what happens when they get there?



Hello and welcome to History of the Great War episode 48. A thank you this week goes out to Susan from Minnesota and Mary from Pennsylvania for their donations this week, as always, Susan and Mary you are awesome and you should feel awesome. Before we start this week I would like to read a correction that I received from listener Phillip from Canada. Now he sent this correction in quite awhile ago but I thought that I would wait for our next naval episode before reading it. He did a good job of describing his correction so I am just going to read a quote from the email he sent me. “I just listened to the Lusitania episode, and being a bit of a boat nerd, wanted to offer one small correction. You described Lusitania as an “Armored Merchant Cruiser”, but I think that should have been “armed” rather than “armored”. You may have been thinking of an “armoured cruiser”, which was a kind of already-obsolete medium cruiser whose continued use by the Royal Navy would cost many British lives over the course of the war. Lusitania, and other merchant ships, were armed (by having guns placed aboard) but were not armored - they continued to be totally vulnerable to all types of attack.” Philip is 100% correct in his correction. I had armed merchant cruiser in my notes but when I wrote the script for the episode that somehow managed to morph into armored which is not correct. This episode will also involve several armored cruisers and an armed merchant cruiser, so I have been very careful to make sure they are designated correctly. Thank you Phillip for the correction. This week we will be jumping in our mental time machines to discuss events that occurred in 1914. Why am I talking about events in 1914 when we have been in 1915 for awhile now? Well long time listeners of the show know that I missed several episodes last fall and our topic today was one of those episode that were missed. So everybody put on their mental time machines and we will go back to a time when trenches were freshly dug, hopes were high, and the war would be over by Christmas. This week and next week we will cover the story of Admiral Spee and his German ships as they ran from the British all the way across the Pacific from their base in China all the way to the South American coastline and into the Atlantic. It is quite the story and we will start by looking at Spee’s voyage from China to the coast off of South America before looking at the British ships under Admiral Cradock that were sent to meet him. This will lead us up to the Battle of Coronel where the two groups will meet, but the discussion of the battle will have to wait until next week.

About a year ago we discussed the quick fall of all of Germany’s Pacific colonies after the war started. One of these colonies was the naval base of Tsingtao on the Chinese coastline. The base had been built at a cost of 50 million marks, a price paid for the purpose of giving the German navy a large base in the Pacific from which to base a cruiser squadron. If a war were to start this cruiser squadron could be used for any number of things to benefit the war effort. In the years leading up to the war Tsingtao was a long term service station for German sailors and once assigned to the squadron you were guaranteed to be there for over a year. In a situation that would seem odd once the war started the British and German sailors based out of Chinese bases were quite friendly to each other. There was a long history of the two nations working together when they were based so far from home. This friendliness extended to general pleasantness and also a custom of the Admiral of the Eastern Squadrons visiting each other once a year aboard their flag ships at the time. In June 1914, just a few months before the war started one such visit had taken place when the British had went to Tsingtao aboard the Minotaur, the British Asian flagship. There are reports of a soccer game taking place during this meeting which the English won. The arrangements for the two fleets went outside of simple pleasantries though. There were a few times before the war that the British let the German sailors use their dry-dock facilities at Hong Kong to repair damages to their ships. The British dry dock was the only one large enough within thousands of miles so this service was actually quite important. When the war started the commander of the German East Asia Squadron was Vice Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee. Spee was a devout Catholic and an aristocrat who had joined the navy at the age of 16. 16 seems young to us as we look back but in the naval traditions of Europe it was common for boys to join at an even younger age. Spee was known as a good commander and an aggressive one, who kept him men and his ships in tip top shape. These two factors were important for his position as commander. The post was obviously isolated from other German ships and as such should any hostilities break out Spee would be almost entirely on his own. Keeping the men and ships he had as prepared as possible was important if he was to have a chance of contributing to the war. In the case of war with other European powers Spee’s orders were a bit vague. It was very dependent on exactly who the other countries were that Germany was fighting with, or really, whether or not Britain was involved. If Britain was not involved Spee should do some commerce raiding if possible, but then try and get his ships home, since they wouldn’t have much to do in the Pacific. If Britain was involved then things became much more tricky. The same types of activities were expected, a bit of commerce raiding then maybe trying to get back to Germany, but when the largest navy in the world was trying to stop both of these activities, well, I’m sure you can see the problem. Spee had 5 warships under his command. The first two ships, and the backbone of the squadron, were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both armored cruisers at 11,400 tons with 22 knots as their top speed. They boasted 8 8.2 inch guns and were just 7 years old at a time when naval technology was constantly improving. They were very capable and were easily capable of standing their ground against all but the very newest of the British armored cruisers. Spee also had three light cruisers the Emden, Leipzig, and Nurnberg all of which had been completed between 1906 and 1908. They were all around 3,500 tons with a top speed of 25 knots and 10 4.1 inch guns. For light cruisers they were quite good and would be able to hold their own. These ships were as new and good as they were because the Germans were fully aware that if they wanted the squadron to be able to do anything but get destroyed the ships had to be at least reasonably new, fast, and able to take care of themselves. Spee also had a sizeable flotilla of colliers and supply ships, but extremely important in the wide expanses of the Pacific ocean. Spee also had 2 sons, both of them aboard ships in the squadron with one aboard the Nurnberg and another on the Gneisenau.

On July 7th the first news of possible troubles in Europe reached Spee. The message arrived on that day saying “The political situation is not entire satisfactory.” 20 days later on the 27th Spee was informed of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. Spee was out to sea at the time, doing the customary summer tour of German colonies in the Pacific, when he heard the news he sent orders to the Nurnberg and Emden to meet him with the fleet of supply ships. On August 1st Spee received the next message informing him that there was a “threatened state of war.” At this point Spee put all of his ships on war footing. All the ships were put on the wartime routine of two watches with lookouts posted at all times, the guns constantly manned and ready to go into action. This move to war footing also involved the jettisoning of anything nonessential on board the ships. Most of this nonessential material went ashore at port, but some of it just went into the ocean. Every pound counts at sea so things like hardwood furniture, decorations, and other peacetime material was gotten rid of in the interest of maybe gaining a fraction of a knot in top speed. On August 2nd Spee was informed of war with Russia, on the 5th of war with Britain. On the 6th the Nurnberg, Emden, and the fleet of supply ships met up with the other ships. Now the question for Spee was what exactly to do with the ship available to him. He had many options, some of which were appealing. The first question he had to answer was whether or not he would keep his little squadron together or separate them. Splitting up his ships meant that they had a better chance of finding shipping to intercept and capture. The simple law of probability meant that the more locations in which there were German ships searching for merchantships the better chance they had of finding them. It also meant that it would be harder for the British to hunt them all down and if one of them were caught the other ships could keep on raiding. All of these were very attractive positives for splitting up, but there were negatives to that plan. The problem was that, even if they raiding for awhile, they would all be hunted down eventually and either be forced to surrender or destroyed. It was just simply inevitable that a navy as strong as the Royal Navy would be able to finally pick them all up. Keeping his ships together was another option for Spee. This had some obvious advantages. If his ships were all together they would have a better chance of beating away any British ships in their path but it also had some problems. They may not be able to find as much British shipping, if they found any at all. But to balance out this negative there was another door opened with all of the ships together and that door was to operations other than commerce raiding. With all of his ships together Spee could do some coastal raids against British ports, or even consider the idea of a few battles with the Royal Navy as long as he could avoid confrontations with the big ships he stood a solid chance of coming out victorious. Whether or not to keep his ships together was not the only choice he had to make though, he also had to decide what to do with his ships in either scenario. He had several different options available to him, he could just hide his ships in the vastness of the Pacific, he didn’t have many bases, and this number would shrink as German colonies fell, but with his supply ships he could easily evade the British for awhile, trying to find a few ships in the Pacific in 1914 was not like trying to find a needle in a haystack but a needle laying in a field the size of a football field. Another option Spee had was to go raiding around Australia or into the Indian Ocean. Both of these areas were heavily trafficked by British Merchant ships and would be lucrative for the Germans to raid. Spee, however, ruled out this option early on because there would be no way to keep his ships supplied while he ran around the Indian ocean. All of the ports around that area were controlled by the British so getting neutral or German supply ships would be difficult bordering on Impossible. Also, while he could probably get into the Indian ocean without incident, the chance of getting back out was basically zero. Out of all of the choices available to him Spee made his choice as this: He would keep his ships together and they would sail for South America. It was a very very long way to South America, and they would try to do some raiding along the war, but it would be mostly just a lot of sailing day after day. South America was chosen because it housed many German businesses and merchant ships, these could be used to resupply the German ships and keep him going, maybe even all the way back to Germany. There would, however, be one ship that would not be making the journey, and that was the Emden. The Emden was the fastest of the German ships and the Captain of the ship suggested that he take his ship into the Indian Ocean. One light cruiser would be able to do damage to the area, but it would also be easier to keep it supplied off of the resources of captured ships. One ship was far easier to keep stocked in this method than 5 were. Upon leaving Spee’s fleet the captain of the Emden would say “I thank your Excellency for the confidence placed in me.” This confidence would be very well placed and the Emden would wind up being the most successful German commerce raider of the war. As for Spee, he had made his choice out of a set of pretty bad choices all of them with very high chances of being sunk by the Royal Navy at some point. Churchill would write that “Von Spee was a cut flower in a vase; fair to see, yet bound to die.” And this was an accurate assessment. Spee would be able to duck, dodge, and dive as fast as his ships could carry him but at some point it was almost inevitable either from bad luck, lack of supplies, or the skill of a British admiral, that he would be found and hunted down.

On August 12th Spee fully resupplied all of his ships from his supply ships. Over the next few months Spee would stop for coaling much more frequently than was the norm at this time in history. He did this to make sure that his ships could be separated from their supplies at any time and not have a problem. Just to give you an idea of how frequently coal had to be loaded, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau could both hold 2,000 tons of coal, a sizeable amount for sure, and they burnt at least 100 tons a day while cruising in the open ocean. So they could go 20 days maximum with the coal they had on board, however if they were in a situation where to speed was necessary, like if they were being chased by a British ship, they would burn up to 500 tons a day, so speed of travel was extremely important when it came to getting the most out of the coal on board. Also, coaling wasn’t the easiest task for the soldiers involved. It was done almost entirely by hand during this time, and as such was hot and sweaty work that involved a lot of coal dust hanging around the ship while it was being loaded. The heat of the South Pacific in the summer didn’t help. On August 13th with as many supplies as possible on his warships, including bags of coal setting on deck due to lack of space below, Spee said goodbye to the Emden and set off. Over the course of a month he would bounce between various islands in the Pacific, he visited the German colonies of Samoa and Tahiti before they fell to the British. During his cruising he used wireless to communicate with his ships and with German embassies all over the Pacific to arrange supply ships to meet him at various places. It was partially through these communications that the British were able to track the Germans as they moved around the big ocea. After sailing for a month a half Spee was moving close to the South American coast and on October 4th they were contacted by the German light cruiser the Dresden. The Dresden had been raiding in the South Atlantic before rounding the cape and coming into the Pacific and the captain wanted to meet up with Spee and join his little task force. This seemed like a fine idea to Spee and he sent a message to the Dresden on where to meet. There was just one problem though, the British were able to intercept the wireless message sent to the Dresden and they were able to decipher the location they planned to meet, Easter Island, and they would arrive on October 12th. When they arrived at Easter Island Spee’s ships had steamed 12,000 iles through the tropical heat without an engine breakdown or other mishaps, an accomplishment all by itself, but they hadn’t really contributed much to the war, they hadn’t found a single merchant ship on their route. As they approached the island they sent a wireless message to the Dresden that they had arrived and also learned that there were British ships in the area, ships we will discuss shortly. Easter Island was a British possession, but there wasn’t a wireless station on the island in 1914 or any other form of permanent communication with the mainland. The island was completely dependent on ships from the mainland to deliver them new and as such they had not received news of the start of the war, now a few months old. Because of this they assumed that the Germans were still friends, German ships had been welcomed in British ports for over a century, so why would October 1914 be any different. The businessmen on the island filled Spee’s orders for supplies and they received a check written to cover them. In what was a nice gesture, the German authorities on the mainland would actually honor this check when it was delivered to them sometime later, even though the war was still on. Spee and his ships stayed on the island for 5 days, but Spee was beginning to believe that a clash with the British would happen soon, and he wasn’t wrong, the news of the British ships moving in on his position were becoming more and more frequent. So which British ships were coming? Who was commanding them? Why were they there? Well, before we get to the answers to those questions lets first talk about the Emden. As I mentioned earlier, it let Spee’s fleet and went to the Indian Ocean. For three months the light cruiser sailed around the Ocean and during that time it found, captured, and/or sank 29 neutral merchantmen, 16 British merchantships, a Russian cruiser, and a French destroyer. While this was obviously harmful to British prestige there was almost no loss of life. The crew of the Emden always took all of the men from the ships aboard before sinking them, basically they were following prize rules of the sea to the “t” and being quite the gentlemen as well. The only deaths that they caused were two French sailors aboard that destroyer, and these two men received full military funerals at sea overseen by French officers. The Emden’s luck couldn’t last forever though, and on November 9th it was finally caught at the Cocos Island. The Emden had moved in to attack an Australian troop convoy and was confronted by an Australian Cruiser and forced to surrender. The Emden had been a headline story in the presses during its raiding days and after the news of its capture reached London the Daily Telegraph would write “It is almost in our heart to regret that the Emden has been captured or destroyed. The war on the sea will lose something of its piquancy, its humour and its interest now that the Emden is gone.”

For the British navy the search for Spee was an item on their to-do list right from the start of the war. This was not an easy task though, they did know where he had started from and they had a few confirmed sightings of his ships from islands in the Pacific. They had some radio signals as well, but even these became few and far between once Spee reached that giant Pacific deadzone far to the west of South American. This was also a time before radar, before reconnaissance satellites, before all other cool toys that modern navies have to find other ships. Churchill would say “As the days succeeded one another and grew into weeks, taking the Caroline Islands as the center, we could draw daily widening circles, touching ever more numerous points where they might suddenly spring into action.” The problem with the Pacific was simply one of size, you couldn’t just to looking for ships. Earlier I mentioned trying to find a needle on a football field, or I guess a pitch for our European listeners, but it wasn’t even that easy. Now imagine you are an ant on that field looking for that needle, without the benefit of perspective to see large areas of the field at one time. I believe it was also Churchill who said that on a very large map of the world the area a single ship could see at sea at a given time was the size of a pinhead. Now I’m not sure that is perfectly to scale, but it does certainly provide a nice mental picture of what a ship could see, relative to the total size of the ocean. So it was impossible for ships to just find each other, so the British wewre waiting on some other form of intelligence, but even if they were to learn of the whereabouts of the ships they weren’t perfectly prepared to deal with them. The British had the battlecruiser Australia and about 12 armored cruisers in the Pacific, but their main job was to safeguard the merchantmen and troop ships so they couldn’t go chasing after Spee, it was vitally important to the British war effort that the shipping be protected. This was as much to protect neutral ships as the British ships, if the British couldn’t protect the ships from neutral countries there was a chance that they might not carry British supplies moving forward. To quote from The Great War at Sea “Britain could not claim complete control of the seas, and must suffer serious commercial loss and above all damaging loss of prestige among neutral nations, notably the United States and the republics of South America.” Because of these factors most of the British ships spent the first few months of the war either cruising the merchant lanes or escorting troop ships to Germany’s Pacific colonies so that they could be captured. All of these were captured in relatively short order, as we discussed way back in our previous naval episodes. In a global sense, the priority of the Royal Navy was always in protecting the Atlantic and Mediterranean sea, followed in priority by the Indian ocean due to its links to India and Australia, the Pacific always fell to the last of the list in terms of importance. In the Atlantic the two light cruisers had raiding shipping, one of which was the Dresden that would join Spee were being chased by Admiral Cradock. Cradock had under his command only two ships, the Good Hope and the Monmouth, both armored cruisers. They were both old, in fact they had both been decommissioned before the war started, after war was declared they were quickly reactivated to serve as protection for commerce ships. These ships had been build in 1900 and were deficient in just about every way when faced with the prospect of fighting newer German ships. On September 14th Cradock was given orders to patrol the Straits of Magellen, with the possibility of meeting Spee in the future, should he move towards South America. He would be joined by the Glasgow, an armored cruiser far more modern than Good Hope and Monmouth, that was currently patrolling the South Atlantic. More importantly he would be receiving two other ships. The first, and most disappointing, was the Canopus. The Canopus was an old, obsolete battleship. It was slow, with only a 12 knot top speed, and was barely able to stay running for any great length of time. It had been scheduled for scrapping in 1915 before the war started but was “rescued” from this fate by the war. It was pretty much worthless when it came to facing German ships in the open sea. In Cradock’s diaries he actually questions why it was sent at all. While the Canopus was very disappointing the other ship, the Defence, was the exact opposite. The Defence was a modern armored cruiser, 14,600 tons, 4 9.2 inch guns, 10 7.5 inch guns. The Defence would be, by far, the best ship in the theater and would be a huge benefit in any confrontation with the German ships, all of which it outclassed. With the message of the two ships that he was receiving Cradock also received a long, very confusing, set of orders. The confusion caused by these and future orders would play a role in the tragedy that was Cradock’s journey. In the orders Cradock was supposed to engage Spee, but also defend certain areas, he was to keep Spee out of the Atlantic, but was also supposed to draw him into battle however possible. He was supposed to keep the Canopus with him to take on the German ships, with its 12 knot speed, but was somehow supposed to also catch the German ships. These are just some basic examples. As we discuss the following set of events leading up to the Battle of Coronel remember that the orders given between London and Cradock were often over telegraph and these would take some time to reach Cradock, and then some time for his response to reach London. There are instances where there were replies sent back before replies from previous replies that had information that would have affected the newer replies so Cradock was asking questions London thought it had answered while also answering questions that London thought were already answered. Basically everybody just got really confused about the status of Cradock’s fleet, his plans, and the role that the Canopus would play in the whole ordeal.

With the facts of the confusion in our minds, lets look at what happened on September the 18th. On that date Spee was spotted on his visit to the German colony of Samoa, and the Admiralty believed that this meant that he was going to stay on the Asian side of the Pacific. Because of this they cancelled the orders for the Defence to join Cradock, he only ever needed the ship if Spee got involved, but now he didn’t. The Canopus would still be going, but it would be alone. This fact, this incredibly important fact, that the strongest ship Cradock was supposed to have would never appear was never properly communicated to Cradock. All of his actions over the coming weeks were based around the fact that he would be joined by the Defence at some point. For the good part of October Cradock stayed in port while other ships searched for the Dresden, which they still thought was in the Atlantic. When the British finally learned that the Germans were headed to Easter Island the message that Cradock was given was “It appears that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are working across to South America, you must be prepared to meet them. Canopus should accompany Glasgow, Monmouth, and Otranto, the ships to search and protect trade in combination…If you propose Good Hope to go with them, leave Monmouth on East coast” Cradock quickly responded that he wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, if the Dresden was able to join the other German ships Cradock would be even more outgunned than he already would be. He also asked about the Defence, which he still believed was coming. This is one time where the two sides became very confused. Remember London knew that Cradock wasn’t getting the Defence, so they didn’t mention it in the message above. So Cradock asked what the plans should be for the Defence when it arrived, which caused London to wonder what he was on about, he wasn’t getting the Defence, at which point Cradock was like “WTF mate? What are you on about of course I am.” But he wasn’t and it would take far too many messages to sort out which ships Cradock would and wouldn’t have. In a separate thread of messages Cradock suggested that a new fleet be created specifically to safeguard the South Atlantic, especially if he was going to take most of his ships to the Pacific. This was a very good idea, and Cradock hoped that it would more more ships would be sent into the area and he would be put in command of all of them. Cradock would then be able to move the Canopus and his oldest and slowest ships to this Atlantic fleet while he took only his best ships after Spee in the Pacific. While this was a good plan it didn’t quite play out that way, instead another Admiral was put in command of the Atlantic ships, and just to add insult to injury, he was given the Defence as one of his ships. After the situation with the Defence was sorted out the messages between Cradock and the Admiralty took the format of Cradock either directly or indirectly questioning the usefulness of the Canopus while London believed that the Canopus was the critical piece to the puzzle that guaranteed victory. That the Canopus could only maintain 12 knots, roughly half of the German top speed, didn’t seem to bother anybody in London very much, it had a very nice set of guns after all. To quote Castles of Steel “Cradock thus faced a painful choice: He could obey Admiralty instructions and operate in company with Canopus, thereby forfeiting any chance of bringing the Germans to action; or he could fight without the canopus and face the probability of defeat. Churchhill considered the second alternative - fighting without the presence of Canopus - illogical and disobedient; Cradock considered the first - letting the Germans slip by unmolested - cowardly and unthinkable” Cradock was an old sailor, he had spent 40 years in the Navy after joining at the age of 13. He had participated in battle, had many awards and commendations, he fully understood what his chances would be if he met Spee’s squadron in battle with the ships that he had as his disposal. Because of this he gave a packet of documents to the governor of the Falkland Islands and asked that they be sent home should he perish in battle. The last message sent to Cradock from London before he left for the Pacific was that the Admiralty fully believed that the 5 ships he had under his command, the Canopus, Monmouth, Good Hope, Glasgow, and an armed merchant cruiser, all out of date ships, were enough to meet Spee in battle and defeat him. Next week we will very quickly see how wrong London was. Thank you for listening, and have a great week.