A World War One Naval Action - Capturing the SMS Dresden!
Germany's Naval War Plans Prior to World War One.
In the years prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914, Germany carried out several strategic moves in accordance to their naval war plans for the Pacific Ocean. One of the main pillars of German strategy was to strengthen ties with Mexico and Chile, in an effort to weaken the American Monroe Doctrine that proclaimed the nonintervention of European powers in the Americas. The main objective was to have more access to commerce with Central and South America on both the East and the West coasts. This in turn gave the German fleet the necessary contacts and consular stations for the provision of both maritime intelligence and coaling stations.
When war broke out, as the German planners expected it would, these contacts would be used for commercial raiding, with the purpose of disrupting the flow of vital materials and provisions to Britain, Canada and/or the United States, whichever happened to be the principal target at that moment.
In 1907, German diplomats in Mexico were proceeding with negotiations for the acquisition of a German coaling station on Magdalena Bay, on that country’s West coast. The German navy and various German shipping firms also had formal agreements with Chile, centered at the port of Valparaiso. An important German maritime commercial line, the Kosmos, was operating out of this major Chilean port.
Japan’s unexpected entrance to the war as a British ally, threw all these plans into disarray, and had far reaching effects on the German East Asia Squadron, which in turn sealed the destiny of the SMS Dresden
A model of the SMS Dresden
SMS Dresden of the German Imperial Navy.
The epic adventures of the SMS Dresden begin!
The SMS Dresden was a light cruiser of the German Imperial Navy, commissioned in 1908. She was a more modern version of her sister ship, the SMS Emden. The principal innovation was related to her navigation speed and maneuvering capacity, due to the fact that she was the first German cruiser to be provided with Parsons type turbines that allowed her to navigate at a speed of 28 knots.
Prior to the outbreak of WW1, the Dresden was stationed in the Caribbean, at a time when the revolution in Mexico against the current dictatorship, was at its most violent period. The ship received orders to help both American and German nationals residing in Mexico at that time, for which reason she proceeded to Veracruz to take on refugees. Another important assignment assumed by the Dresden, was to take on board some of the money from the banks that were then operating in Mexico in relation to the numerous commercial ventures there. In July, 1914, the Dresden evacuated the defeated president of Mexico, Victoriano Huerta, who went into exile with his family. They were taken to Jamaica, and the Dresden then proceeded to Haiti, where she received her newly named captain, Emil Fritz Lüdecke. After this, the Dresden prepared to return to Germany and was actually under way, when the hostilities of WW1 started up.
An epic painting of the Battle of Coronel.
A dramatic painting of the Battle of the Falkland Islands.
SMS Dresden goes to war!
The Dresden received new orders, which were twofold: to practice commercial raiding against Germany’s enemies, and to meet up with the East Asia Squadron commanded by Admiral von Spee.
These orders were rigorously carried out, as the Dresden:
- Met up with Admiral von Spee at Easter Island.
- Attacked and sunk numerous British commercial ships and colliers.
- Took part in the Battle of Coronel, defeating the British Squadron under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock.
- Took part in the intended raid on the Falkland Islands.
(See my previous articles on the Battle of Coronel and on the Battle of the Falkland Islands)
After the Battle of the Falkland Islands, on the 8th December 1914, in which all the German ships were sunk except the Dresden, she made her escape, thanks to her improved turbines, which gave her more speed, and a lucky bank of mist.
A close-up view of Hewett Bay
The chase is on!
By the 9th of December, the Dresden entered Sholl Bay, 90 Kms. South of the Chilean city of Punta Arenas. On the 11th December a Chilean Navy ship steamed up to the Dresden and ordered Captain Lüdecke to leave within 24 hours in accordance with International Maritime Law for neutral countries. The Dresden requested permission to enter Punta Arenas so as to restock her reserves of coal, which were very low. This was granted, and she managed to load coal provided by the German steamer Turpin, after which she was ordered to leave, which she finally did on the 13th December.
On the 14th of December the British ships Kent, Glasgow and Bristol entered Punta Arenas, just missing the Dresden..... Once again luck had favored the fugitive German ship!
On that same day, Dresden was entering another of her hiding places, Hewett Bay, a very protected position hidden behind Hewett Point, situated off the Barbara Channel, a devious passage that connects Cockburn Channel with the main Magellan Strait further to the North, after skirting Clarence Island and Desolation Island. Hewett Bay is on the south side of some of these islands, close to the Magill Islands.
The general location of Hewett Bay
Albert Pagels, a German national, provides outstanding support!
The ship was able to stay in this location for about ten days, but had been spotted by a passing small vessel, so it was deemed necessary to move yet again. This next move was organized by a German fisherman then resident in Punta Arenas. He was a reservist with some military experience, and an ardent upholder of the Vaterland. His name was Albert Pagels, and he and his fishing boat Elfreda had already been transporting provisions to the Dresden in Hewett Bay. His knowledge of the treacherous waters of the area was to prove invaluable to the fugitive Dresden.
Pagels proceeded to guide Dresden to her new hiding place, an unknown cove off the Santa Ines Island, somewhere between the Barbara Channel and Stokes Bay. Many reference documents call it Christmas Bay, or Wienachts Bay. But as such it does not register on Chilean maps, or Google maps either. It is thought that this was the name by which the Germans referred to the place, due to the fact that the Dresden celebrated Christmas of 1914 in hiding there.
The general location of the next hiding place!
Quintupeu Fjord near Puerto Montt
One of the waterfalls at Quintupeu.
Hiding in Quintupeu Fjord!
The Dresden managed to meet up with a commercial ship, the Sierra Cordoba, which had been trying to contact the fugitive warship in order to provide coal and provisions. The two ships played hide-and-seek with the British ships, in and out of the channels until at last, on the 6th of February, 1915, the Dresden entered the Quintupeu Fjord, much further North. This beautiful inlet is located in the area of Puerto Montt, on the mainland coast just south of present day Hornopiren. The mouth is extremely narrow, so much so that the Dresden was barely able to get through. The Fjord then widens out into the most beautiful surroundings, with high sides rising steeply above the water, covered with all sorts of vegetation, including trees that are more than a thousand years old. An added attraction is the fact that crystalline waterfalls cascade down the surface of the abrupt walls, falling straight into the salt water below. This water is very pure, and was a great help to the Dresden and her crew.
In this new hiding place, the German warship received help from local German families from Puerto Montt, notably some members of the Oelkers family, who owned a shipping company. The first activity was a welcome party, celebrated with good home-made sausages and beer, while a band played lively music. There was even some dancing, as several small boats carrying more German residents joined the party.
At this secluded spot, various damaged engine parts were dismantled and then taken in secret to Puerto Montt to be repaired.
It is also during this period, that a mysterious wooden crate, said to contain the treasure rescued from the Mexican revolution before the start of the war, was sealed and covered with cement, to be lowered over the side into the waters of the Fjord. This is the basis for the legend of “the Treasure of the Dresden”! However, divers of all sorts have searched the Fjord to no avail, so the mystery continues unsolved!
A relief map showing the location of the Quintupeu Fjord.
The Dresden ventures out into the Pacific!
Towards the end of February, 1915, Dresden finally ventured into the Pacific Ocean, in search of more coal, with the idea of finding a way to sail back to Germany. She had news that a supply ship, the Gotha, was on its way from Montevideo to a rendezvous with the Dresden, bringing coal and provisions. They were supposed to meet opposite the Chilean port of Coronel, where Captain Lüdecke waited for the Gotha until the 6th of March, with no result, in spite of sending several desperate radio messages.
Unable to wait any longer, the Dresden set off again, limping in to Cumberland Bay in the Chilean Juan Fernandez Islands (Robinson Crusoe Island) on the 8th of March. By this time, the engines again needed some repairs and the ship was very low on coal. Once again, radio messages were sent to the collier, with a meeting date set for the 9th.
The Chilean Maritime Governor at Cumberland Bay ordered the Dresden to leave within the 24 hour period, to which Lüdecke replied that he could not move his ship until he received more coal.
A view of Cumberland Bay, one hundred years later.
Epilogue at Cumberland Bay!
While all this was happening, the British ships Kent and Glasgow had been hard at work trying to decipher the radio messages that they had intercepted from the Dresden. This was finally achieved by the young signals officer of the Glasgow. The two British war ships arrived at Cumberland Bay on the 14th of March, finding the Dresden still at anchor.
In spite of the fact that all three ships were in Chilean territorial waters, and in defiance of the laws of neutrality, Kent and Glasgow opened fire on the Dresden. Lüdecke ran up a flag of truce, and sent the young intelligence lieutenant, Wilhelm Canaris, to parlay. However, this was merely a way of gaining time, during which the Dresden crew disembarked, while charges were set and the ship was scuttled. The Dresden sank with her colors still flying.
The German crew of the Dresden chose to be interned in Chile, and was transferred to the Quiriquina Island, right by the Chilean Naval Base at Talcahuano, where they spent the rest of the war. Many of them never went back to Germany, but opted to stay on in Chile, where they formed families, and presumably their descendants are still here.
The wreck of the Dresden is still there, in Cumberland Bay, and in recent times has become quite popular as a tourist attraction for recreational divers. Many souvenirs have been picked up out of the waters along the years.
On 24 February 2006, a joint team of Chilean and German divers found the Dresden’s bell. This historic artifact was presented by the Chilean government to the German Armed Forces Museum at Dresden, Germany, in November 2008, almost exactly one hundred years after the Dresden was commissioned.
The Dresden's Bell
Some additional thoughts.
It is not really possible to fully understand the epic story of the Dresden’s flight, unless one also has a relatively good grasp of the characteristics of the Southern Chilean coast, in the Patagonian area. It is one of the most forbidding areas in the world, given to treacherous storms, winds of hurricane force, and as yet uncharted inlets, channels and passages. At the time of the Dresden’s flight, many of the places where she hid were down on the charts of the Admiralty in London, as dry land.
Another factor is the variety of maps and names given to different bays, coves, channels and islands, by the various pioneering expeditions that ventured through those waters. To mention a few, there is Fernando de Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook, and Captain Fitzroy, with Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle.
Each expedition made additions to the existing maps, and provided their choice of names. Some of these names have remained the same, others have been changed, and some of the names were repeated for different locations.
One exception seems to be Stewart Island, named by my Scottish Great Grandfather in his role as a Chilean Naval officer. This island had no name until it was called Stewart Island and still figures on Chilean maps (and Google maps) with that name at the present time! (See my article about the naming).
This highlights the importance of the invaluable help provided by German nationals such as Albert Pagels, who carried out what he considered his patriotic duty to the Vaterland. His knowledge of the channels, based on his personal experience, was what confounded the British pursuers, who only had their faulty charts to help them.
Albert Pagels’ grave lies in the cemetery at Punta Arenas, and is still periodically visited by German official delegations that render tribute to his sailing expertise, his patriotism and his courage.
Albert Pagels' Grave in Punta Arenas, Chile
Finally, does the name Wilhelm Canaris sound familiar?
Indeed, this is not the end of this saga of the South Pacific and the South Atlantic during World War One. There is still more to come, and as the years progress towards the Second World War, the events will finally involve my family here in Chile. So stick around and enjoy some more a dventurous tales!
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)