- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Modern Era»
- Twentieth Century History»
- World War I
A World War One Escape - The Epic Adventures of Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris.
The Andes Mountains, a formidable barrier.
Talcahuano Naval Base
Setting the scene.
On the 14th March, 1915, SMS Dresden was scuttled in Cumberland Bay in the Juan Fernandez Islands, by order of her Captain, Emil Fritz Lüdecke, rather than surrender to the British Navy ships that had the Dresden cornered.
After that, the Dresden’s crew was interned on Quiriquina Island by the Chilean authorities. Their place of confinement was a short distance from the important Talcahuano Naval Base. The vigilance was rather relaxed, and several of the officers frequently obtained permission, on parole, to visit nearby Concepcion, where a relatively numerous German community resided.
Bay of Concepcion Chile
Main Plaza at Concepcion around 1914
The Cathedral at Concepcion, 1914
Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, the SMS Dresden's Intelligence Officer.
This promising young officer had already done a tour of duty in Latin America, on another ship, and spoke Spanish, English and French quite fluently. His stay in the Talcahuano area allowed him to improve his fluency in Spanish even more, and his visits to Concepcion allowed him to establish numerous important contacts. The scene was set, therefore, for an escape!
German intelligence networks in Argentine and Chile.
The German community in Argentine had been increasing steadily in number since the 1880s, as a result of the political unrest and poor living conditions in the Vaterland. This growth in German nationals had been followed by a constant increase in the respective consulates and vice-consulates, with their corresponding office staff, which had sprung up to satisfy the diverse needs of all these people.
These institutions supplied another need as well, that of personnel involved in intelligence activities. At the start of WW1, the intelligence networks were in working order, and actively promoting the German cause.
The same was true of the German immigrants in Chile, where the government actually issued a law, called “Ley de inmigración selectiva” (Law of selective immigration), in 1845. The plan was to receive people whose native culture provided them with good work ethics, and to settle them in the region between Valdivia and Puerto Montt. This was done very successfully with various Central European nationals, of which the majority were German.
German merchants also settled in Valparaiso and were part of the development of the saltpeter mines in the extreme North, and of the development of the Kosmos shipping line that played an important role in providing German warships with coal and provisions during WW1.
The German intelligence networks in Chile were set up in a similar way to the ones in Argentine, and with this last element firmly in place, the scene was set for all manner of irregular activities that were beneficial to the German cause. We have already referred to an excellent example in the person of Albert Pagels, and his heroic efforts to help the doomed SMS Dresden. (See the article previous to this one, about the flight and capture of the Dresden).
The Farmland around Osorno.
A Foot Bridge within the city of Osorno
The adventure starts!
Agents of the German Embassy in Buenos Aires obtained an authentic Chilean passport in the name of one Reed Rosas, a widow who was a humble salesman of Anglo-Chilean descent.
In August of 1915, Wilhelm Canaris started out on his trip back home, by taking a train from Concepcion to Osorno, over 500kms away. There he was received by the 48 year old German consul, who was an enterprising merchant and a bit of an adventurer. With the help of this official, Canaris was able to stay with a family on the outskirts of Osorno, before transferring to another family on a farm in the vicinity of Puyehue. This meant that Canaris was working his way ever closer to the border between Chile and Argentine.
Countryside near Puyehue.
The mountain passes over the Andes Range.
There is a whole history of adventurous crossings of the Andes passes, as there are many of them, of varying degrees of altitude, ruggedness and difficulty. It is a geographical fact that towards the Southern end of continental Chile, the range of mountains thins out somewhat, leaving gaps between the high peaks that make the crossings more accessible.
Many of these passes cannot be kept open during the winter months, but Canaris had avoided this obstacle due to the fact that by the time he arrived at the farm in the Puyehue area, Winter was receding and Spring was on its way.
Map of the Lakes and Passes
Lieutenant Canaris enters Argentine, and so on to Europe!
He seems to have crossed the formidable Andes by what is now the Cardenal Samoré Pass, which was originally called Puyehue Pass. This Pass is marked on the map shown above, and you can also see the Puyehue Lake. The Nahuel-Huapi Lake is on the Argentine side.
At that time, the pass had been hewn by hand out of the virgin vegetation, with machetes, and what existed was no more than a track for mule caravans. Canaris finally entered Argentine by this route, alone and on horse back.
He arrived at one of the tips of the big, sprawly, irregular-shaped Nahuel-Huapi Lake, where he was received by another German immigrant, a relative of the family at Puyehue, and he was then ferried by boat to the little Argentine town of San Carlos de Bariloche, which is now a thriving tourist center.
He spent a few days at the hacienda of the Baron von Bulow, and then moved on to the start of the railway that crosses the flat-lands (pampas), at a place called Ingeniero Jacobacci.
(The distance from Bariloche to Ingeniero Jacobacci is about 200kms. The distance from Ingeniero Jacobacci to Buenos Aires is about 700kms.more. Argentine is a really big country.)
He crossed the width of Argentine by train, and once he had arrived at the coast, managed to continue on to Buenos Aires, where he embarked on a Dutch cargo ship that took him to Rotterdam, and from there he finally arrived in Germany!
A track through the virgin forest.
San Carlos de Bariloche - Ingeniero Jacobacci, Argentine
Ingeniero Jacobacci - Atlantic Ocean, Argentina
After this epic achievement, Wilhelm Canaris was promoted to the rank of Captain, and spent some time at sea. However, he was found to be eminently suited for intelligence work, and sent as Naval attaché to Spain, where he not only made use of his by then totally fluent Spanish, he also continued to use the passport in the name of Reed Rosas, whenever he undertook his undercover activities. If anybody expressed some interest, he would tell them that he came from a small Chilean town called Osorno!
The scene is then set for the years before WW2, and his subsequent participation as head of the Abwehr under Adolf Hitler. In this role, he was the officer in charge of all the German intelligence networks that sprouted in Europe, and very abundantly in the Americas, including the US and all Latin America. He is known in historical records as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
But that’s another story, which definitely includes my family!
Three Chilean Historical Monuments, Osorno
Personal thoughts about Osorno and the surrounding area.
I lived in Osorno in the years 1951-1952, when my father went there to open a branch of Gibbs and Co., and to direct this branch as General Manager. It was a small, slow place, where most of the inhabitants were extremely well off, although they didn't come to town very often, living mostly on their huge farms that covered the countryside.
German was spoken almost more frequently than Spanish, and I attended the German School, as there was no British school there. My classmates left over the weekend, to go back to their farm life, and generally used their personal small airplanes, which they landed on their own air strips at home.
The place was more modern than it would have been in 1915, when Canaris was there, but not all that different in atmosphere. In one of the streets that followed up from the plaza, there was a row of wooden two-story houses, with the typical architecture of the XIX century German immigrants. These houses were there when I was there, and they were certainly there in 1915. They have now been declared National Historical Monuments, and I have been able to find some photos. I actually went to my first teenage dances in some of these houses, as two of my classmates lived in a couple of them.
The countryside is very rich in vegetation, with wonderful pasture land, all cleared from the virgin forests by the sweat and grind of these German immigrants. The scenery is beautiful, but must have still been very wild and sort of impenetrable with thick forests, when Canaris made his way over to Bariloche.
Three Views of the "Follert House" a Chilean National Historical Monument, Osorno
Some present day scenes of Osorno.
I have few historical photos, so I’m including some modern ones, which you would mentally have to transpose to all those years ago.
The Cathedral is, to my mind, very Germanic in structure. It is relatively new, as it was destroyed for the fifth time during the 1960 earthquake, but it has a definite air of European architecture.
The building that houses the present day museum is also very European and is preserved as a historical monument.
Osorno, seen from the Lookout.
The Cathedral of St.Mathew, Osorno
The Cathedral, A View of the interior
"The Monument of the Bull", on the Plaza in Osorno.
The Osorno Volcano, an important element of this wonderful scenery.
A clear view of one of the traditional houses in Osorno
This then is the ambiance in which Canaris, aka Reed Rosas, sheltered all those years ago, after the loss of the SMS Dresden.
His experiences in both Chile and Argentine prepared him magnificently for his future role as spy master and weaver of spy webs! But that is still to come! Stay around; you might be interested in the adventures that follow this same topic!
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)