How Germany Wreaked Havoc on the Royal Navy at the Start of World War I
Here’s What You Need to Know: Spee was determined to do as much damage to the Allies as he could.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, the captains of the various German warships called their men together to give three cheers for the Kaiser. The 53-year-old commander of the East Asiatic Squadron, Maximilian Graf von Spee, personally climbed atop the turret of an 8.2-inch gun aboard the cruiser Gneisenau and addressed his crew. They must be faithful to their oath to the Kaiser, he reminded them. “At the moment,” the Admiral added, “only Russia and France are our enemies. England’s attitude is still uncertain, although hostile. We must therefore regard all English ships as enemy ships.”
When Britain entered the war against Germany, Spee ordered all his ships to meet him in the Mariana Islands. There, the admiral called a conference of his captains. He expressed the belief that it would be best for the squadron to continue sailing to the west coast of South America and raid British merchant ships. Each captain was asked for his views. Karl von Muller, Emden’s skipper, believed that such raids would not be worthwhile. He suggested instead that they remain in Asiatic waters. Why not allow Emden to act independently as a raider in the Indian Ocean? Spee granted Muller’s request.
With Emden gone, Spee was left with only Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg. A short time later, the East Asiatic Squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden. As commander in chief of the East Asiastic Squadron, Spee faced many problems. He knew that his base in Asiatic waters, Tsingtao, China, would fall if Japan entered the war. His ships would have no facilities to make repairs, and he would be unable to replace ammunition when he ran out. Then there was coal. His ship could travel at top speed for four and a half days, or 2,200 miles. At economic speed it could go 5,000 miles. Either way, coal would be difficult to obtain.
Count Spee’s Rise as a Naval Officer
Confronted by such difficulties, Spee feared that the days of the East Asiatic Squadron were numbered. Before then, however, he was determined to do as much damage to the Allies as he could. He was the right man for the job. Although Spee was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he was one in a long line of German counts. He received a strict Catholic education during his youth. At the age of 16 he joined the German Imperial Navy as a cadet.
Spee took an active part in Germany’s seizure of colonies. In April 1884, he was promoted to full lieutenant. When German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck chose Dr. Gustav Nachtigal to colonize Africa, Spee accompanied him there. By 1897, he was flag lieutenant of the 7,300-ton cruiser Deutschland that carried Prince Heinrich of Prussia to the Far East. A fellow officer described Spee at the time as “a favorite in the wardroom. He made everyone his friend by his invariable kindness. I believe I can say without exaggeration that none of us ever found even the slightest fault with Count Spee.”
With the new century, Spee continued to climb the ladder of success. In November 1912, he was appointed to command the East Asiatic Squadron with the rank of rear admiral. The new commander in chief was a tall, well-built man with a Van Dyke beard, bushy eyebrows, and a straight back—one of his colleagues said he looked as though he had swallowed a broom handle. A devout Catholic, Spee had a passion for natural history and auction bridge. He had a wide variety of flowers decorating his cabin.
As commander of the squadron, Spee was a strict taskmaster. He held frequent gunnery and torpedo practice. Coaling at sea was rehearsed until it could be performed like a fine art. The policy paid off when Spee’s squadron twice won the Kaiser’s Cup for marksmanship. A British naval correspondent observed: “The German squadron was like no other in the Kaiser’s Navy. It was commanded by professional officers and manned by long service ratings.”
To Stop Admiral Spee
In the early hours of September 7, 1914, Nürnberg raided Fanning Island, where there was a British wireless and cable station. After Nürnberg rejoined the squadron, Spee learned from newspapers that the Allied warships New Zealand and Tromp had captured Samoa and that the British battleship Australia was anchored there. He decided to raid Samoa and catch the enemy by surprise. He detached Scharnhorst and Geneisenau from the squadron and headed for Samoa. On September 13, the German heavy cruisers arrived, but to Spee’s disappointment Australia and other Allied warships were not there. The only vessels in harbor were an American schooner and a small sailing ship.
Undeterred, a few days later Spee raided Tahiti. The guns at the French fort opened fire and straddled Scharnhorst. The French hastily burned their coal supply to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The Germans fired on the shore batteries and destroyed them and sank the 600-ton gunboat Zelee.
The British Admiralty was determined to stop Spee at any cost. On September 14, a telegram was sent to Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock reading: “The Germans are resuming trade on West Coast of South America, and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may very probably arrive on that coast or in Magellan Straits. Concentrate a squadron strong enough to meet Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, making Falkland Islands your coaling base, and leaving sufficient force to deal with Dresden and Karlsruhe.
“Defence is joining you from Mediterranean, and Canopus is now en route to Abrolhos. You should keep at least one County class and Canopus with your flagship until Defence joins. When you have superior force you should at once search Magellan Straits with squadron, keeping readiness to return and cover River Plate, or, according to information, search as far as Valparaiso northwards, destroy the German cruisers, and break up the German trade.”
On October 5, the Admiralty sent Cradock a follow-up telegram: “It appears from information received that Gneisenau and Scharnhorst are working across to South America. Dresden may be scouting for them. You must be prepared to meet them in company. Canopus should accompany Glasgow, Monmouth and Otranto and should search and protect trade in combination.”
Cradock replied: “Without alarming, respectfully suggest that, in event of the enemy’s heavy cruisers and others concentrating West Coast of South America, it is necessary to have a British force on each coast strong enough to bring them to action. For, otherwise, should the concentrated British force sent from South-East Coast be evaded in the Pacific, which is not impossible, and thereby get behind the enemy, the latter could destroy Falkland, English Bank, and Abrolhos coaling bases in turn with little to stop them and with British ships unable to follow up owing to want of coal enemy might possibly reach West Indies.”
The Admiralty concurred in Cradock’s decision to concentrate Canopus, Good Hope, Glasgow, Monmouth, and Otranto for combined operations. Cradock knew that with Canopus, a pre-dreadnought battleship, his unit speed could not exceed 12 knots. This was a severe handicap since Spee’s ships were capable of reaching 20 knots. Cradock complained to the Admiralty: “I consider that owing to slow speed of Canopus it is impossible to find and destroy enemy’s squadron. Have therefore ordered Defence to join me after calling for orders at Montevideo. Shall employ Canopus on necessary work of convoying colliers.”
“I Shall Not See You Again”
The man receiving and sending these telegrams had a wealth of seagoing experience. Kit Cradock had joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13. He subsequently participated in the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion. In 1900, he led a combined British, German, Japanese and Italian naval force against the Boxer-held Taku Forts on the Peiho River. Fighting was intense, but he managed to capture the forts.
Like Spee, Cradock was a man of refined tastes and interests. He enjoyed hunting and also found the time to write three books, the last of which, Whispers from the Fleet, served as a guide book for young naval officers. By late October 1914, Cradock was out at sea again. He had under his command the flagship Good Hope, along with another heavy cruiser, Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, and the armed merchant cruiser Otranto. Cradock knew that Spee had a superior force, but he was determined to fight.
Cradock’s force could have been stronger if he had Canopus, mounting 12-inch guns. But Canopus was suffering from a leaking piston-rod and could make only 12 knots. The admiral knew that he could not catch Spee with the lagging vessel in hand, so he left her behind.
Cradock was well aware that he might be defeated. While he was at the Falklands, he told the governor there, Sir William Allardyce: “I shall not see you again. I will send my medals and decorations ashore to you for safe-keeping. If the Germans do come here and occupy these islands, will you bury them? Then when the war is over I would be grateful if you would send them home to my people.”