Ghost Ship


The German light cruiser SMS Dresden at Juan Fernandez Island, 14 March 1915. The white flag of surrender is flying from the foremast.

Following the almost complete destruction of Spee’s East Asia Squadron, Sturdee’s two battle cruisers were ordered to return home immediately. That left Stoddart’s cruisers to patrol the South Atlantic and the south-eastern coast of South America, although these would be joined shortly by other warships, including the battle cruiser Australia. The survival of the Dresden, however, and to a lesser extent that of the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich, caused Stoddart and the Admiralty serious concern. The root of the problem was that no one seemed to have any idea where Dresden might be lurking and British traffic along the Chilean coast was at a virtual standstill. The southern portion of that coastline consisted of such a labyrinth of bays, inlets, fjords, headlands, capes and islands that searching for a single ship was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Stoddart was looking but having no success at all. At the Admiralty some thought that Dresden might be in hiding elsewhere, perhaps even in the East Indies, an alternative that would place the Australian and New Zealand trade routes at risk. At a time when British warships were being withdrawn to home waters, this would not be a welcome addition to available resources. Fisher, never one to lose an opportunity to plunge a knife into an enemy’s back, took full advantage of Dresden’s escape. ‘If the Dresden gets to the Bay of Bengal by means of colliers arranged with Berlin, we shall all owe a lot to Sturdee,’ was his vindictive comment.

In fact, the answer was a lot simpler. She changed her position regularly and was living a sort of hand-to-mouth existence on fuel supplies and rations supplied locally by an efficient organisation known as the Etappendienst (roughly, Service Organisation), which had been set up throughout South America on the outbreak of war to keep German ships supplied. In Chile there were some 28,000 immigrants of German origin, most living in small agricultural settlements close to the coast, but others were prominent members of the diplomatic, banking and business circles in cities like Santiago and Valparaiso and were eagerly recruited into the Etappendienst’s intelligence section. There were also some 4,000 former citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as many of them hailed from Dalmatia and had little liking for the Vienna establishment, they were not considered to suitable material for recruitment. Against this, there were a number of neutral ship owners and masters only too happy to pocket German gold in exchange for partisan favours.

The British residents in Chile were at something of a disadvantage in these matters as they were smaller in numbers and more widely dispersed, the only community similar to that of the German settlements being a tiny Welsh community over the border in Argentine Patagonia. However, the Etappendienst made little attempt to conceal its own activities and carried out its work in so brazen a manner that British intelligence was able to accumulate so much evidence that by the end of November 1914 it became possible to lodge the strongest possible diplomatic protests. Non-German public opinion in Chile was outraged and the government had no wish to be seen as hostile to the United Kingdom. This placed a brake on the activities of the Etappendienst but was unable to halt them altogether.

Aboard the Dresden, Captain Ludecke wondered just how much the Berlin Admiralty expected him to achieve. Her presence was clearly affecting the movements of Allied shipping, which was not inclined to leave the safety of neutral harbours. This in itself meant that he was unable to prey on it, which was frustrating in the extreme. Again, while the Etappendienst could supply provisions and a limited quantity of coal, replenishing the cruiser’s magazine with 4.1-inch shells was beyond its powers. In fact, Ludecke had almost no main armament ammunition left, and certainly not enough for a prolonged engagement.

Following Dresden’s escape from the Battle of the Falklands, Ludecke had brought her round the Horn into the Pacific at midnight on 8 December. On the afternoon of 9 December he anchored her in Sholl Bay, Tierra del Fuego, to cut sufficient wood to replenish his fuel. Two days later a Chilean destroyer arrived and reminded him that as a combatant he had exceeded the twenty-four hours that belligerent warships were allowed to remain in neutral waters. He therefore up-anchored and proceeded to Punta Arenas, where he arrived on 12 December. The local authorities told him he could stay as long as was necessary to refill his coal bunkers, contravening government orders that Dresden was not to be allowed into the port on any account. In the event, Ludecke cut short his stay and put to sea again at midnight on 13 December.

That was the last most people heard of Dresden for many weeks. For the next fortnight she hid in Hewitt Bay, then moved to Weihnacht Bay. On 19 January 1915 a supply ship, the Sierra Cordoba, joined her there. In Ludecke’s opinion, she was not carrying sufficient coal for him to resume the role of a surface raider. In fact, the Etappendienst had despatched no less than five colliers that would enable him to strike wherever he wanted. These were the Gladstone, Josephina, Eleana Woorman, Bangor and Gottia, but for a variety of reasons none of them would reach him. The crew of the Gladstone disliked the risks involved in their work and mutinied even before they had rounded the Horn; Josephina was captured by the Cornwall near the Falkland Islands; Eleanore Woorman tried to run for it when challenged by the Australia and was sunk by gunfire in the same area; while Bangor and Gottia sailed, respectively, from Baltimore and Buenos Aires too late to play a part in subsequent events. On 21 January 1915 Ludecke received a signal from Berlin suggesting that he should try returning to Germany by following the same route as sailing vessels. One suspects the Kaiser’s involvement in the suggestion, which was hopelessly adrift from reality. The fact was that numerous sailing vessels of different nationalities would be encountered along the way Dresden would be identified, reported and tracked down. Ludecke replied that his engines were now in such a poor state that they would be unable to produce anything like the speed required to break through the Royal Navy’s North Sea blockade.

On 6 February Ludecke steamed Dresden into Quintepeu Fjord in the Gulf of Ancud. As the ship slipped through the narrow entrance to the fjord between towering cliffs that soared 1,500 feet above the level of the water, the rattle and clatter from her over-worked machinery filled the space with harsh echoes. When daylight began to fade a flotilla of sailing craft, assembled by the Etappendienst and led by a prominent German-Chilean merchant, Senor Enrique Oelkers, entered the fjord and berthed alongside the cruiser. Entire families had brought with them supplies, coal and some good things that had become just memories to Dresden’s seamen, including beer, sausages and strudel. Musical instruments were produced and a party followed. Oelkers had brought along several mechanics and they set to immediately, doing what they could to effect necessary repairs in the engine room. Some parts that could not be repaired on the spot were shipped to Puerto Montt and Calbuco, where facilities for their restoration existed.

On 14 February the pleasant interlude came to an end. Repaired and refuelled, Dresden and Sierra Cordoba pushed out into open water through a howling blizzard, leaving behind a persistent legend that they left a wooden box of Mexican treasure, waterproofed in tar. It has yet to be found and perhaps it is as well to remember that sailors’ yarns do not always dovetail exactly with naval history. Having reached a point some 200 miles off the Chilean coast, Ludecke turned north in search of prey. His search went unrewarded until 27 February when, 560 miles south-west of Valparaiso, he captured and scuttled the British barque Conway Castle, bound for Australia with 2,400 tons of barley aboard.

The fruitless efforts of Stoddart’s cruisers to locate Dresden had been watched with such amusement by the Etappendienst that its operatives decided to introduce a little wry humour. They spread reports that Dresden could be found in Last Hope Inlet, the furthest inland of a tangle of fjords reaching northwards from Smyth’s Channel. The inlet was searched twice, the only result being that Bristol damaged her rudder on an uncharted shoal and had to be dry-docked briefly.

At the end of February Ludecke sent Sierra Cordoba into Valparaiso to replenish her coal supply. At this stage he felt reasonably secure, but the truth was that Dresden was nearing the end of her career. Glasgow’s signals officer, Lieutenant Charles Stuart, intercepted a message from the Etappendienst to the Dresden. During the war’s early days a copy of the German signal code had been captured by the Imperial Russian Navy in the Baltic and passed to the British Admiralty. The Admiralty’s Room 40 OB had cracked the code in December and was able to inform Stoddart that the Etappendienst’s message instructed Dresden to meet her collier at a point 300 miles west of Coronel on 5 March. Kent was promptly ordered into the area but did not reach it until 7 March. There was nothing to be seen and the following morning a heavy fog restricted visibility. During the afternoon the fog lifted, revealing Dresden lying some 12 miles to the west. Captain Allen immediately gave chase, working Kent up to a speed of 21 knots. Dresden, however, was known to be the fastest ship in her class and had benefited from the recent attention of Senor Oelkers and his mechanics. Despite the fact that Kent’s funnels were glowing red hot and trailing sparks she began to pull away steadily until by 20.00 she was hull down and all that Allen could see of her was her masts and funnel tops. Within an hour she had disappeared completely.

It was decided to shift the search to the remote Juan Fernandez Islands and in particular the island of Mas a Tierra. Three ships were involved – Luce’s Glasgow, Allen’s Kent and an armed transport, the Orama. At this point Stuart intercepted another message for Dresden. When decoded it instructed her to meet another collier at the group’s principal island, Mas a Fuera, also known today as Robinson Crusoe Island because for five years it had been the home of Alexander Selkirk, upon whose adventures Defoe had based his story.

Ludecke anchored Dresden in the island’s Cumberland Bay on 9 March. There was no sign of a collier and he had less than 100 tons of fuel in his bunkers. He received a signal from Berlin granting permission for him to accept internment. The island’s governor was informed that he would await the arrival of a Chilean warship so that the necessary formalities could be concluded and sent four of his officers off to Valparaiso in a local sailing ship so that they could retain their freedom.

When the British ships approached the bay on 14 March Dresden was still flying the German ensign and had therefore not been interned by the Chilean authorities. Glasgow opened fire at 8,400 yards, scoring hits with her first two salvos. Kent joined in and Dresden, unable to manoeuvre on account of still being anchored, replied to the best of her ability. This was not great as she had so little ammunition left and after three minutes’ firing Ludecke sent up a white flag to join his ensign. As this clearly indicated a wish to parley and discuss surrender terms, Luce also gave the order to cease firing.

A boat pulled away from Dresden to come alongside Glasgow. A smart lieutenant climbed to the deck, punctiliously saluted the quarter deck and the officer of the watch, and introduced himself as Wilhelm Canaris. He was taken to Luce’s cabin where he argued courteously for the best terms possible. For his part, Luce could only demand complete surrender as an alternative to sinking. It hardly mattered that no agreement was reached as Canaris had simply been sent to buy time while Ludecke and his crew opened their sea cocks, underwater torpedo tube doors and condensers to let in the sea. When it became obvious that this would take too long to sink the ship, explosive charges were rigged to blow out the bottom of her forward magazine.

As Canaris left it was observed that the German crew were leaving their ship and heading for the shore. Next, the Chilean governor arrived, outraged that the British had flagrantly disregarded his country’s neutrality and engaged in a battle against a vessel that was under the protection of his country’s flag, to say nothing of damage caused to Chilean property. The last claim was dubious in the extreme as Luce had ensured that the small settlement in the bay was well out of the line of fire. There could, however, be no doubt that in terms of international law he had acted improperly. A suitable apology accompanied by a bag containing £500 in gold as compensation for the ‘damage’ seemed to dilute the governor’s sense of outrage somewhat. At 10.45 a huge explosion erupted aboard the Dresden and she began to sink, slowly at first, then rolled over and disappeared.

During the short action eight of Dresden’s crew had been killed and sixteen wounded. Luce sent the latter to Valparaiso in Orama so that they could receive hospital treatment and did not request their internment. Four days after the sinking the British left following the arrival of a Chilean warship to transport the 300 officers and men of Dresden’s crew to internment on Quiriquina Island in Talcahuano Bay. The Etappendienst engineered the escape of several, the most prominent being Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris who managed to make his way back to Germany, part of the journey allegedly being made through the United Kingdom. This would not have been too difficult as he was fluent in four languages, including English and Spanish, and was given every possible assistance by German merchants in Chile. Having reached England, it would not have been difficult for him to obtain a passage to Holland, Norway or Sweden, all of which were neutral and maintained communications with Germany. He subsequently served as a U – boat commander in the Mediterranean, ending the war with eighteen kills to his credit. In due course he rose to the rank of Admiral and during the Second World War he served as Chief of the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Service. On several occasions his position enabled him to frustrate the designs of Hitler and his Nazis, whom he hated. He was arrested in the wake of the July Bomb Plot against Hitler, imprisoned and humiliated, then hung just weeks before the war ended. During his time in office he kept a model of the Dresden on his desk as a reminder of a more honourable era.

As for Dresden herself, she remained alone on the bed of Cumberland Bay for many years. With the advent of scuba diving as a hobby she began to receive occasional visitors and was then used by the Chilean Navy for diver training. In recent years a team of Chilean and German divers recovered the ship’s bell which, in November 2008, was presented by the Chilean government to the German Armed Forces Museum in Dresden. The ship’s story caught the imagination of the novelist C.S. Forester and provided the inspiration for his book Brown on Resolution, which also deals with the fate of a German cruiser that has escaped from the Battle of the Falklands.

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