The stories of the German surface raiders during the Great War
The creation of surface merchant raiders by the Imperial German Navy at the outset of the First World War, was an innovative departure from the traditional practices of naval fleet operations. These ships had originally been merchant vessels and at first sight remained so. However, they were the definitive ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, for they carried beneath their disguises, which could be dropped when a target vessel was in close range, a formidable array of weaponry which included naval guns, torpedoes and mines. Some carried their own reconnaissance seaplanes and crews. This was a bold tactical initiative for these ships, acting independently, had missions that in many respects were destined to be ill fated. Their task was to do as much damage--principally to merchant ships carrying materiel for the Allied cause—as they could without (or before) being caught by the warships that were seeking to destroy them. Inevitably some were quickly sunk, or eventually beached or scuttled, and others were forced into neutral ports where they were interned for the duration of hostilities. Some, such as the SMS Wolf, were, however, phenomenally successful, and returned to their home ports to popular acclaim as romantic latter day buccaneers. This Leonaur book is based upon writings collated by the British Admiralty after the war, which was, in turn, gathered from German sources within the history of the activities of the Imperial German Navy. The book describes each vessel and details its voyages and battles, together with interesting operational and logistic information. Included in this Leonaur edition, to enhance the text for modern readers, are many pictures not included in any of the original texts.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Commenting on the operations which led up to Coronel, the German History says:—
The operations of the Allies were undoubtedly severely hampered by the fact that they were not directed from the outset towards seeking out and engaging our Main Force. Their operations against German intelligence centres and bases in the Pacific soon developed into expeditions for territorial conquest, so that some of their naval forces were diverted from their main objective for a considerable time. They must soon have become aware, however, that the German ships were not remaining in close proximity to German bases and colonies. The operations against the Cruiser Squadron were hampered further by the necessity for protecting the transport of numerous troops, who were urgently needed owing to the situation in the European theatre of war. These smaller operations interfered with the systematic co-operation of the East Asiatic and Australian forces.
In addition, the British Naval History indicates that the plan conceived in peace time to combine the China, Australian and East Indies Squadrons to form an Eastern Fleet under the Commander-in-Chief, China Squadron, was not carried out completely in 1914, but that the Commander-in-Chief and the Commander-in-Chief, Australia, worked side by side under direct orders from the Admiralty, and that the Admiralty, here and in other theatres of war, restricted the Admirals’ freedom by concerning themselves with details.
It is evident also that the Admiralty were sometimes unable to obtain concurrence with their strategic views and were repeatedly obliged to give way to the local interests of the Australian and New Zealand Governments. The Australian Navy Board, in particular, appears to have been allowed a certain independence as regards strategic decisions.
At times, one commander-in-chief, did not even know what the other was doing; in the first particularly critical period they did not even remain in wireless telegraphy communication, although, with energetic co-operation, they might quite possibly have found the German Squadron and engaged it. After the entry of Japan into the war, the co-operation of the Allies still remained faulty, although they received many indications of Graf von Spee’s whereabouts and destination; this want of co-operation was chiefly due to the pursuit of local objectives and the lack of close cohesion of the forces under one command. The strategic position which brought disaster to the British at the Battle of Coronel was the outcome of these defects.
The plan of keeping two forces, one on the east and one on the west coast, each strong enough to engage the Cruiser Squadron, was undoubtedly right, given the possibility of doing so with the ships available. It was necessary that each force should be considerably superior to the Cruiser Squadron, the fighting efficiency of which was known; it was also necessary to have a number of fast ships available, so that when the enemy had been found they could keep in touch with him until the Main Body came up.
If the forces available were inadequate for this purpose, it would undoubtedly have been advisable to concentrate the Main Force at the Falkland Islands, detaching a few fast cruisers to watch that part of the coast where the Cruiser Squadron would probably pass; this was Admiral Jerram’s original plan and Admiral Cradock no doubt had it in mind when he proposed to assemble his forces at the Falkland Islands.
After the Battle of Coronel, the Naval Staff advised Von Spee to try to break through with all his ships and return to Germany, and that was his intention on leaving Valparaiso. The idea of attacking the Falkland Islands at the very commencement of the homeward journey brought about the destruction of his ships at the guns of Sturdee’s Squadron. There can be little doubt that that battle and the destruction of the Emden off Cocos Islands will tend to make German raiders in foreign waters avoid attacks of a military nature, and confine themselves strictly to commerce warfare. Even before the event, the officers of the Squadron were by no means unanimous on this question. The captains of the Gneisenau, Leipzig and Dresden thought it strategically unsound to approach the Falkland Islands. The History, whilst admitting that a successful landing would have weakened the British position, remarks:—
The damage to the enemy would however, be of a temporary nature only, because the Cruiser Squadron would be unable to hold the base for any length of time. It was in no way necessary in the interests of future operations to attack the Falkland Islands, and as the British wireless telegraph stations would certainly send out warning signals before they were destroyed, the whereabouts of the Cruiser Squadron would be disclosed, thus lessening the chances of breaking through for home. The chance of surprising the enemy shipping off the La Plata would also be forfeited, though it was very important both as regards damaging the enemy and procuring coal for the Squadron. Further, if enemy forces were encountered, even a successful action would result in exhausting the German supplies of ammunition long before fresh supplies could be sent from home and might also result in damage to ships and engines.
In a discussion on the general principles of cruiser warfare against trade, the German historian lays down that a commander should as far as possible avoid action with hostile forces and that this rule becomes even more binding when bases for effecting repairs are not available. It is stated that a cruiser captain must in such circumstances avoid all acts likely to assist the enemy in locating him. Such acts include attacks on shore establishments except when undertaken for some very special purpose.
The History also criticises the passivity of the High Sea Fleet at the time of the Falklands Battle and seems to suggest that the action of forces in distant waters can be synchronised with those at home to the mutual advantage of both. It says:—
The early end of the Cruiser Squadron prevented the High Sea Fleet from co-operating with it, but it would be false to assume that there was no possibility of such co-operation, especially if the war had been of short duration. The operations carried out at a great distance from home waters had affected British strategy, to an enormous degree and the continuance in the Atlantic of those operations might well have caused such distribution and movements of the Grand Fleet as to afford the High Sea Fleet opportunities for obtaining military successes, and thus exercising a direct and decisive influence on the war.
Special emphasis must, however, be laid on the fact that, if the High Sea Fleet had taken energetic action in the North Sea during the months October-December, 1914, the British would have found it difficult if not impossible, to detach ships to operate against the Cruiser Squadron. This Squadron might then have achieved further military successes, which would not have failed in their effect on the situation in home waters. Finally, if the Cruiser Squadron had executed the operation of breaking through into the North Sea in co-operation with the High Sea Fleet, an action between the British and German Fleets might have ensued and the results might have been decisive for the whole war.
The Cruiser Squadron did not meet any merchant shipping in its passage across the Pacific, but the auxiliary ship Titania captured the Helicon (1,600 tons) and the Leipzig, the Valentine (3,150 tons) and Drummuir (1,844 tons), all loaded with coal, off the South American Coast. The capture of the Drummuir turned out to be an unfortunate incident for the Germans. She was intercepted to the eastward of Cape Horn on the 2nd December and towed to Picton Island where her cargo was transferred to the supply ships Baden and Saint Isabel. This delayed the Squadron’s arrival at the Falkland Islands by three days but as she sank beneath the waves no one knew that her capture had sealed her captor’s fate.