German Naval Raiders in the South Pacific – Von Spee’s Squadron

Cruiser warfare, or guerre de course, is a long-established naval strategy employed by weaker maritime nations during conflicts with naval powers. The strategy for Imperial Germany, with a navy weaker than that of Britain’s Royal Navy, was to use raiders to attack commerce around the globe, and thus disperse and weaken Britain’s Grand Fleet. On the outbreak of war in 1914 Von Spee’s, squadron was scattered across the Pacific. While the Scharnhorst, Gniesenau and Nürnberg rendezvoused at Ponape in the (German) Caroline Islands, Leipzig was operating off the west coast of Mexico and Emden was stationed at Tsingtao, the German naval base in China.

Emden, Prinz Eitel Friedrich and Cormoran (the former Ryazan) departed Tsingtao on 6 August to rendezvous with von Spee’s squadron.

Emden and the pair of HSKs arrived at Pagan in the Marianas on 13 August. Following representations by her Commanding Officer, Karl von Müller, Emden was dispatched to the Indian Ocean on a raiding cruise. During the next three months Emden was to account for 16 victims – 14 merchant and two warships (the Russian light cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet) before being sunk by HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands on 9 November.

At the Marshall Islands, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich and Cormoran were detached to wage war along the Australian trade routes. Neither ship was to have any success in this area. After narrowly avoiding the Australian light cruiser HMAS Encounter in New Guinea waters, Cormoran was interned at Guam and was scuttled there when the United States entered the war in 1917.

Nürnberg was detached by von Spee to Honolulu to dispatch coded signals and then to destroy the cable station at Fanning Island. This cruiser then escorted the squadron’s supply ships while Scharnhorst and Gniesenau proceeded to attack Samoa and Tahiti. Von Spee arrived off Apia on 14 September expecting to encounter the transport ships of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, which had seized German Samoa on 30 August.

Hoisting the Union Jack in Samoa 1914
Hoisting the Union Jack in Samoa 1914

The occupation of Samoa could easily have ended in a naval disaster. The transports Monowai and Moeraki were escorted by only three weak cruisers, HM Ships Philomel (only recently allocated to the New Zealand Naval Forces) and sister ships Psyche and Pyramus, to Noumea. It was fortunate then that von Spee was well to the north, for it is likely that the New Zealand Expeditionary Force would have been overwhelmed if it had encountered any sizable enemy naval force. In Noumea, the escort was strengthened by the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the French armoured cruiser Montcalm and the light cruiser HMAS Melbourne.

Fortunately, when von Spee’s squadron arrived off Apia, the transports and their escorts had departed – von Spee sailed away from Samoa empty-handed. Fearful of the new battlecruiser Australia, von Spee ignored the German war plan of destroying coaling facilities at Newcastle in Australia and Westport in the South Island. Instead, he headed east. There had been local concerns in New Zealand that the Kreuzergeschwader would bombard the West Coast coalfields – which were indeed an option for the East Asiatic Squadron. But the Australian ‘fleet unit’ with its powerful flagship, the Australia, deterred any thought of operations in Australian and New Zealand waters.

Arriving off Papeete on 22 September, Scharnhorst and Gniesenau shelled the town and sank the French gunboat Zelee. At Easter Island, von Spee concentrated the Kreuzergeschwader. There he was joined by the Leipzig (which had sunk four victims) and the light cruiser Dresden, which had been operating off the east coast of South America. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich joined the squadron further east at Mas Afuera in the Juan Fernandez Islands.

It was an encounter that proved the pre-war concept of the battlecruiser, able to out-pace and out-gun enemy armoured cruisers.

On 1 November off the Chilean port of Coronel, von Spee met Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock’s inferior squadron of two armoured cruisers, a light cruiser and an armed merchant cruiser. In the ensuing battle, the armoured cruisers HM Ships Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands while the light cruiser Glasgow and armed merchant cruiser Otranto escaped to the south.

The British were determined on retribution. Despite the risk of weakening the Grand Fleet, the battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal was dispatched to the Caribbean (where the newly-opened Panama Canal gave the German ships an option for reaching the Atlantic). Two others battlecruisers, HMS Invincible and Inflexible were sent to the South Atlantic.

On 8 December Scharnhorst, Gniesenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig were all sunk by Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee’s battlecruisers and cruisers off the Falkland Islands. It was an encounter that proved the pre-war concept of the battlecruiser, able to out-pace and out-gun enemy armoured cruisers. [Later, however, battlecruisers were to show their vulnerability in the battles in the North Sea.] From the Battle of the Falklands, only Dresden and the supply ship Seydlitz escaped. Admiral von Spee died in the battle; his name was later to be given to one of the innovative ‘pocket battleships’ built by a resurgent Germany in the 1930s.

Admiral von Spee died in the battle; his name was later to be given to one of the innovative ‘pocket battleships’ built by a resurgent Germany in the 1930s.

Prinz Eitel Friedrich was then still off the coast of Chile making decoy radio transmissions on behalf of the Kreuzergeschwader. The Prinz Eitel Friedrich subsequently accounted for eleven victims and was interned at Newport News, USA on 8 April 1915.

The captain of Dresden, Commander Fritz Lüdecke, had ambitiously planned to sail westward across the South Pacific but lack of coal and machinery problems were to decide the cruiser’s fate off the west coast of South America. After sinking four victims, the Dresden was eventually scuttled on 14 March 1915 at Mas a Tierra in the Juan Fernandez Islands following a long hunt and a short action with the
cruisers HMS Glasgow and Kent.

The last of the German warship raiders, the light cruiser Königsberg, was trapped in the Rufiji River delta in German East Africa – after sinking HMS Pegasus. On 11 July 1915 HM Ships Severn and Mersey (both monitors – shallow draft big-gunned ships specially built for river and coastal operations) sank the Königsberg in the river.

At that point, the Royal Navy had filled its traditional role and swept the wide oceans clear of enemy raiders – the Kaiserliche Marine surface fleet had ceased to exist outside of European waters. From 1915 onwards, the naval war had three themes: the clash of battle fleets in the North Sea; the protection of shipping in the Atlantic and Mediterranean; and support and resupply for the Army in all the theatres of war.