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Admiral Maximilian von Spee was one of the most famous German sailors of the First World War, winning his fame at the battle of Coronel, the first British naval defeat for a century. He is normally described as a successful cruiser commander, but Coronel was a conventional battle between two naval squadrons.
Von Spee was born into an aristocratic family in 1861. He joined the German navy in 1878, only seven years after its creation. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving as a lieutenant on the 1884-85 mission that established Germany’s empire in west Africa. He returned to the Cameroon as the port commander in 1887, but was soon forced home by illness. He then served on the training ship Moltke, before being appointed commander of the first class cruiser SMS Deutschland in 1897. Originally built as a central battery ironclad battleship, she had been rebuilt as a cruiser in the 1890s. In 1897 she was serving on the China station, returning during the Boxer Rebellion.
In 1905 von Spee was promoted to captain and given command of the battleship SMS Wittelsbach. In 1910 he promoted to rear-admiral, and was appointed second Admiralty officer of the Scouting Forces of the High Sea Fleet. Finally, in 1912 he was appointed to head the Cruiser Squadron in East Asia. This was the most coveted post in the German navy, as the squadron contained some of the most modern cruisers and had a wide and varied field of operations.
At the outbreak of the First World War von Spee’s squadron contained the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Emdenand SMS Nürnberg. He had bases at Tsingtau, the German colony on the coast of China, and at Rabaul on New Pommern (New Britain, off the north east coast of New Guinea). At the start of the war, von Spee with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau was at the island of Ponape, at the eastern end of the Caroline Islands.
This placed him in the centre of German’s Pacific empire, but a long way from either of his main bases. It was also a long way from any of the main trading routes in the Pacific. In any case, von Spee did not believe that either of his bases were safe. It was possible that Japan would enter the war, making Tsingtau nothing but a trap, while Rabaul was too close to the Australian battlecruiser HMAS Australia, which von Spee is said to have believed could have destroyed his entire squadron. Von Spee was left with two choices – either head west into the Indian Ocean, or east to South American.
At first he did neither, preferring to wait in the central Pacific. He stayed at Ponape until 6 August. While he was there he was in touch by radio with Yap, and by cable from Yap to Tsingtau. While at Ponape he was joined from Honolulu by SMS Nürnberg. On 6 August he sailed for Pagan Island in the Ladrones, his first war rendezvous, staying there from 11-13 August. While at Pagan Island he was joined by the Emden, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich and a number of supply ships. Supplies would be his biggest problem over the next few months, in particular coal. He had three main sources of coal – pre-arranged supply ships, captured British or Allied ships and friendly Germans in neutral states.
On 12 August, while von Spee was at Pagan Island, the radio station at Yap was destroyed, isolating von Spee. From Pagan Island, von Spee moved to the Marshall Islands. It was at this point that the Emden was detached from the main squadron, and sent into the Indian Ocean, where she would become one of the most successful German commerce raiders of the war. He also sent Nürnberg to Honolulu, in the hope that she could discover the location of the main British forces in the area.
Once at the Marshall islands, von Spee was joined by the Cormoran. He also learnt that Japan had indeed joined the war. His only real option now was to head east, to attack British trade on the west coast of America. On 29 August he left the Marshall Islands, and headed towards Fanning and Christmas Islands, to rendezvous with the Nürnberg. At the same time he detached the Cormoran and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich.
The Nürnberg returned from Honolulu on 6 September with news of the New Zealand expedition to Samoa. Von Spee decided to take his squadron to Samoa in the hope that he could find some isolated ships to attack, for the first month of his cruise had been largely futile. On 14 September he reached Samoa, but found no ships and a garrison too strongly dug in to attack. He then sailed east to Tahiti, where he sand the French gunboat Zélée on 22 September. From 25 September-1 October he was at the Marquesas Islands, where he was able to seize some French Government funds and fresh food. Finally, on 1 October he left the Marquesas Island and headed for Easter Island.
Von Spee’s final squadron came together at Easter Island. On 3 October his radio operator had made contact with the Leipzig and the Dresden and von Spee ordered them to join him at Easter Island. The next day further radio messages were intercepted by a wireless station on Fiji. The British ordered Admiral Craddock to concentrate his squadron on the west coast of South America.
Easter Island had been part of Chile since 1888. Von Spee and his squadron repeatedly used Chilean territorial waters for actions that were in breach of her neutrality, both at Easter Island and later at St. Quentin Bay in the gulf of Penas. This would late give the British all the legal justification they needed to hunt down and destroy the Dresden in Chilean waters. For the moment it allowed von Spee to take on coal and prepare for his next move.
On 18 October he left Easter Island, arriving at Mas-a-fuera Island (now Alejandro Selkirk Island) on 26 October. This island is just over 400 miles off the coast of Chile, and would be used by von Spee again in November. On 29 October he reached the vicinity of the Chilean port of Valparaiso, but chose to remain out of sight from land while communicating by radio with Germans on shore. He soon discovered that Craddock and his inadequate squadron was in the area.
On 31 October HMS Glasgow, cruising off Coronel, heard radio signals from the Leipzig. At the same time von Spee learnt that the Glasgow was at Valparaiso. Both von Spee and Craddock decided to bring their main squadrons to Coronel, each hoping to catch an isolated cruiser. On 1 November the two squadrons came together at the battle of Coronel. This was von Spee’s moment of glory. HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth were both lost, along with 1,600 men and Cradock.
Von Spee’s victory at Coronel sent shockwaves throughout the Royal Navy. His squadron was expected to appear off the Panama Canal, at the Cape of Good Hope, in the West Indies, off the coast of Canada or in any one of a dozen suddenly vulnerable spots. The Admiralty responded with a massive movement of ships, reinforcing every station they thought he could reach. Most significantly, Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee with the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible were sent south with orders to chase von Spee anywhere in the Pacific or south Atlantic.
This disruption was von Spee’s last achievement, for after Coronel he showed no real sense of urgency. His first action was to take Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nürnberg into Valparaiso to make sure that the Good Hope had indeed sunk. He then returned to Mas-a-fuera to take on coal, then returned to Valparaiso on 15 November. On 21 November he reached St. Quentin Bay in the Gulf of Penas, where he was joined by four German liners carrying coal. He lingered there until 26 November taking on coal.
It was not until midnight on 1-2 December that his squadron finally rounded the Horn, heading into the South Atlantic. Even then he did not hurry. Soon after entering the Atlantic he captured a British barque carrying coal, and spent three days at Picton Island transferring that coal into his ships. Finally, on 6 December he set sail for the Falklands.
The plan to attack the British wireless and coaling station at Port Stanley was apparently not von Spee’s. He had wanted to head straight out into the Altantic then scatter his cruisers on the trading lanes, but his staff officers had convinced him to attack the Falklands. This now looks to have been a foolhardy operation, but in many ways von Spee was unlucky. Admiral Sturdee and his battlecruisers reached the Falklands on 7 December, and were only planning to stop for three days. If von Spee had not captured the British barque, then Sturdee would have arrived at the Falklands well after von Spee had left. The only British ship at the Falklands would have been the battleship Canopus, by then deliberately beached to improve her gunnery. Despite having four 12in guns, she would have been outgunned by von Spee’s squadron.
Instead, von Spee arrived at the Falklands on 8 December. As he arrived, the Canopus opened fire. Her first salvo fell well short, but her second came with 100 yards of the Gneisenau and some shrapnel may even had hit the German ship. Von Spee’s lookouts sighted the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers, and he gave the order to turn and flee.
Sturdee had been operating with even less urgency than von Spee, but on 8 December he made up for that. His battlecruisers were soon at sea, and a long chase followed. Once he was in range of the German squadron, von Spee turned back with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in the hope that he could win time for his light cruisers to escape. At just after 4.00pm the Scharnhorst sank, taking von Spee with her. His two sons were also killed in the battle, along with 2,000 other German sailors. Only the Dresden escaped from the battle of the Falklands, to be hunted down and destroyed while taking refuge in isolated Chilean waters.
Despite his great reputation, von Spee was not a greatly successful cruiser captain. He took very few prizes, although he did disrupt trade on the west coast of South America. His fame rests on the battle of Coronel, where he won one of the few decisive naval battles of the First World War. This victory, and the panic it caused, was perhaps more disruptive than the activities of even the best commerce raiders. The defeat at the Falklands was perhaps unlucky, although given the scale of the British response to Coronel, von Spee could hardly have expected to remain at large for too much longer.
Coronel and the Falklands both demonstrated the changing nature of naval warfare in 1914-1918. In earlier wars inferior squadrons of ships had a chance of causing serious damage to their attackers before being forced to surrender. Now minor technological advantages could produce very unequal battles. Von Spee’s victory at Coronel damaged a major prop of British naval strategy.
The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was named after von Spee in 1934. In something of a twist of fate, she too met her end in South American waters, being scuttled after the battle of the River Plate in 1939, but only after a rather more successful career as a commerce raider than von Spee, sinking 50,089 tons of shipping.
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