The Wehrmacht into the Mediterranean Theatre

Concentration of force and effort were not dominant characteristics of Hitler’s Reich. The Führer had initially reacted to Italy’s debacle in North Africa and its frustrated invasion of Greece with the amused malice the Germans call Schadenfreude. His interests in the Mediterranean involved encouraging support for Germany’s Atlantic ambitions on the part of Vichy France and Falangist Spain, and attracting Balkan support for the developing attack on the Soviet Union. Neither end was best served by Italian-initiated upheavals that challenged the status quo by open-ended claims to enlarged spheres of influence. They were served even worse, however, by open-ended military catastrophe.

The Italian defeat in Greece created opportunities for Britain to negotiate a Balkan front of its own, supporting it by stationing planes on Greek bases. The oil fields of Romania were only the most obvious potential target. If the Italians were driven from North Africa, the stresses on British shipping would be reduced by the reopening of the Mediterranean. The French North African colonies might reconsider their allegiance to Vichy. An Italy subject to air and naval strikes would face the consequences of a loss of prestige that could potentially lead to the collapse of the Fascist system itself.

Hitler grew correspondingly determined to take action. As early as July 1940, the High Command had suggested dispatching a panzer division to North Africa. Spanish veteran Wilhelm von Thoma, sent to evaluate the situation, reported any serious mobile operations would require at least four divisions for an indefinite basis. In the run-up to Barbarossa, that proposal had no chance. As the Italian situation continued to deteriorate, the commitment of ground forces in the Mediterranean basin nevertheless seemed necessary.

The General Staff responded by projecting a large-scale mechanized offensive in the Balkans, to be mounted in the spring of 1941—quick in, quick out. Hitler entertained hopes that its threat would be sufficient: that the Greek government would reject British support and Yugoslavia would align itself with the Axis. Hitler sweetened the latter prospect by offering to exchange Yugoslavia’s copper, zinc, and lead for modern weapons. The former prospect grew increasingly remote, particularly as Greece observed the steady movement of German planning missions and combat aircraft—specifically the ground-support specialists of VIII Air Corps—into Bulgaria and Romania. When Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis in November 1940, allowing German troops transit rights across their territory, the question regarding war became not if but when. Even then it was not until the first arrival of British ground troops in Greece on March 7 that the German redeployment began in earnest.

From the beginning, the Balkan operation had been planned around the panzers. This flew in the face of Great War experience, of unpromising terrain, limited road networks, undeveloped infrastructures, and just about every other common-sense reservation that prudent staff officers could conceive. In another context, however, the projected force structure reflected, more clearly than at any time since the occupation of Austria, Hitler’s conception of the ideal relationship between diplomacy and force. He sought to expand the basis for war in the eastern Mediterranean, to secure the southern flank of his forthcoming attack on the USSR, and to sequester Balkan economic resources for German use. None of those ends was best achieved by the use of force as a first option, and Hitler was correspondingly willing to keep talking. But time was an enemy when wasted. Even at the last minute, the panzer divisions could be turned loose to crush both local opposition and the burgeoning British presence in Greece—immediately and unmistakably, not least to discourage intervention by the Soviet Union, perhaps Turkey as well.

The actual deployment underwent a series of changes that both illustrated German skill in operational planning and reinforced confidence in the skill’s applicability to the wider Russian stage. The final dispositions put a worked-in command and staff team on the Greek frontier: List’s 12th Army and Kleist’s renamed Panzer Group 1. With three panzer divisions and two motorized ones plus Grossdeutschland and two similarly configured claimants to elite status, the SS Leibstandarte and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Brigade, Kleist was expected to overrun Greece from a standing start.

On March 27 the situation changed utterly. A coup deposed the Yugoslav government. Hitler responded with Operation Punishment: the destruction of Yugoslavia with “merciless harshness.” Kleist swung his group 90 degrees and, beginning on April 8 as the Luftwaffe eviscerated Belgrade, drove into Yugoslavia’s side with the force of a knife thrust. Breaking through initially stubborn resistance and scattering two Yugoslav armies, the group drove north as another panzer corps came south from Hungary into Croatia. Belgrade was the objective. What remained of it capitulated on April 12. The Yugoslav army, its morale shaken by recent political events, divided along ethnic lines. Lacking modern equipment, it never had much of a chance. In a week the panzers had shattered its fighting spirit and its fighting power alike by speed and shock, in terrain regarded as less suitable even than the Ardennes for mobile warfare, and without breaking a military sweat. The major challenge to the rear echelons was coping with the thousands of Yugoslavs trying to surrender. On April 14 the Yugoslav government called for terms.

A country was dismembered; a stage was set for more than a half century of civil war; and the panzers were responsible. Kleist’s divisions were pulled into reserve as quickly as possible for redeployment to the Russian frontier, with a collective sense of a job well done that suggested favorable prospects for the future. The new divisions and the new commanders had performed well compared to the standards of 1940. A continuing tendency to outrun the infantry had no significant tactical consequences; the tanks alone spread demoralization wherever they went. Logistics posed occasional problems, but the fighting ended before they metastasized. Total German casualties were 150 dead, 400 wounded, and 15 missing. Nothing emerging from Yugoslavia, in short, inspired any last-minute second thoughts about another operation against a Slavic army and culture.

Kleist’s turn to Yugoslavia left a suddenly diminished 12th Army the task of dealing with Greece. The initial German commitment to a Balkan blitz is indicated by an order of battle that even without the panzer group included a motorized corps headquarters, the first-rate 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions, and the Leibstandarte motorized brigade of the Waffen SS—with Richthofen’s Stukas flying close support. The Viennese tankers overran a Greek motorized division, seized Salonika, and took 60,000 prisoners, all in four days. The 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte, and the Stukas on the Germans’ other flank scattered an entire Yugoslav army, and then turned south into the plains of Thessaly. It took until April 12 to break through Greek, Australian, and New Zealand resistance and the British 1st Armored Brigade and cut off the strong Greek forces reluctant to retreat from Albania. But yet again, once through the forward defenses, the panzers set the pace. Never out-fought, the Greek army was increasingly overmatched. On April 21 the British decided to evacuate.

From the perspective of the Anzacs and the tankers, the rest of the campaign was a long fighting retreat, enduring constant air attack and bloodying the Germans where they could. For the panzers it was more of a mop-up, with the lead role played by 5th Panzer Division. Transferred from Kleist’s group after the fall of Yugoslavia, it was bloodied at Thermopylae where a rear guard knocked out 20 of its tanks as they moved through the still- narrow pass. Recovering, the division pursued the British south, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, and took more than 7,000 prisoners on the beaches of Kalamata, men left behind when the ships were withdrawn.

The Balkan Operation also laid the groundwork for a legend. On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander in chief of German troops in Libya. It was a fancy title for a force composing only one of the new panzer divisions, the still-organizing 15th, a scratch brigade grandiloquently titled 5th Light Division (later upgraded as the 21st Panzer Division), and another mixed bag that became the 90th Light Division. Renamed the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) it would make two years of history.

Hitler seems initially to have made his choice of commander as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to a budding genius. German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as a minimum-scale holding operation. No senior panzer general suggested Rommel might be more useful against Russia; no one requested him as a corps commander in a mobile force needing a half dozen new ones. Instead he was dispatched to a sideshow that he would move to history’s center stage by a spectacular succession of battlefield victories—the first of them enabled by the drawdown of British forces in the desert in favor of the campaign in Greece.

There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. For a quarter century after World War II, Rommel was considered a paragon of mobile war at the tactical and operational levels. In the next quarter century, military historians and professional soldiers have judged him with a sharper pencil. Nevertheless there remains an Erwin Rommel for every military writer’s taste. There is the muddy-boots general leading from the front, inspiring his men by sharing their hardships as he led them to victory. There is the brilliant opportunist, master of forcing mistakes and exploiting them, dancing rings around British generals with courage and character but no imagination. There is the master of war on a shoestring, using Germany’s military leftovers to frustrate and challenge the major land effort of a global empire. There is the soldier, making war by the rules, upholding the army’s honor albeit serving a criminal regime. And there is the maverick, defying his superiors, his allies, and the Führer himself to fight and win his way.

In Britain these images ameliorate two years of humiliation. In the United States they play into idealized concepts of what a real general should be. There is, however, another side to the scale. That one depicts a general whose leadership style generated as much confusion as success. It presents a commander consistently overreaching his operational capacities, and correspondingly indifferent to issues of logistics and sustainability. It highlights an extensive, long-term network of connections between Rommel and Hitler—not least a publicity machine that critics describe as creating a myth from lucky breaks and obliging enemies. What emerges is a good corps commander, challenged beyond his talent by the problems of war-making at higher levels.

The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.

The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.

Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.

Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.

Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets—most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.

That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.

Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.

British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”

British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.

The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.

Encirclement was, however, likely to prove chimerical. There were no obvious terrain features or cultural sites with deep meaning to encourage last stands. Even Cairo was not Verdun. The wide-open terrain and the Germans’ always limited “desert sense” facilitated breakouts, the most familiar examples being the French at Bir Hacheim and 201 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge. The British were even more completely motorized than the Germans, and correspondingly able to outrun them. The “Gazala gallop” of May 1942 may not have been heroic, but it did preserve much of 8th Army to fight again at El Alamein.

British defense systems were also far more formidable than anything encountered even in France during Case Red. The often-derided “boxes” developed as fixed position at mid-campaign usually featured elaborate minefields to disable vehicles, complex barbed wire systems to frustrate infantry, and defenders ready to fight to the limit, like 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh and 150th Brigade’s stand in the Cauldron during Gazala. Losses in both men and vehicles incurred while overrunning these positions were likely to be high and, given the theater’s low priority for replacements, permanent.

If the Afrika Korps did not want to conquer itself to death, an alternate approach must be developed. Rommel would respond by taking flexible movement to the operational level. His first major offensive, in April 1941, was undertaken despite a direct order to the contrary. Once the vulnerability of the thinly manned British positions was exposed, the battle became an exercise in deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or were deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sandstorms slowed rates of march. But the German tanks, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry wove tactical tapestries that baffled their counterparts.

Rommel seemed to appear everywhere he was needed, driving and inspiring. Benghazi fell on April 3. With the British reeling backward and the fortress of Tobruk besieged, Rommel set the next objective as the Suez Canal. His spearheads reached the Egyptian frontier. When the massive counterattack of Operation Crusader rolled the Germans back in turn, Rommel checked the drive, and then swung completely behind the British. This “dash to the wire” overextended his forces so badly that his own staff called it off while Rommel was out of touch at the front.

This time the pendulum swung all the way back to Rommel’s original starting point around El Agheila. Two weeks later he counterattacked, taking the British by surprise and forcing them back 350 miles to the partially prepared Gazala line. Both sides reinforced as best they could, but again it was Rommel who struck first. On May 26, 1942 his last great offensive began. A month later the port of Tobruk and its 30,000 man garrison were in German hands. Eighth Army, what was left of it, had retreated to the El Alamein line. In Cairo, rear-echelon commandos were burning documents. In London, Churchill faced—albeit briefly—a vote of no confidence on the House of Commons.

Gazala was by any standards a striking victory. But by most standards the Axis troops were fought out. Men and equipment were worn to breaking points, depending on captured fuel and supplies for momentum. Down to fifty tanks at the sharp end, Luftwaffe support left behind in the wake of the ground advance, Rommel was nevertheless convinced that only by attacking could his force sustain the initiative. To halt was to be attacked by massively superior forces, and another backward swing of the desert pendulum might well be the final one. Better to try ending the process altogether: roll the dice, take the British off balance, and regroup in Cairo.

“Attack” had worked for Rommel in North Africa as it had in France. It had been the armored force’s mantra since the beginning. It was a keystone of the German approach to war-making. This time under a new commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, 8th Army held. At Ruweisat Ridge on July 1, the panzers broke in. For the first time in the desert, they failed to break through. An end run was stopped cold at Alam Halfa by a mixture the Germans had patented: combined-arms tactics in a context of air supremacy. By this time Rommel’s health had declined sufficiently that he returned to Germany, partly to recover and partly to lobby for more of everything. Rommel informed his doctor, “Either the army in Russia succeeds in getting through . . . and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or . . .” He accompanied his unfinished sentence with a dismissive gesture suggesting defeat.

The stalemate at El Alamein is frequently described as the final, fatal consequence of either Rommel’s fundamental ignorance of logistics or his culpable carelessness in supervising them. He thus epitomizes a senior officer corps whose tactical and operational proficiency manifested tunnel vision, with caste pride, misunderstood professionalism, or exaggerated vitalism relegating administration to those unsuited to command troops in combat.

When Halder asked Rommel what he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal, Rommel replied that another two panzer corps should do. When Halder asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force, Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem. Rommel was being neither arrogant nor insouciant. He was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. Even Halder declared after the war that quartermasters must never hamper the operational concept. Rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged focusing on the operational level of war. Planning in turn revolved more than ever around operational considerations; the logisti cians were called in afterward.

Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also understood that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the Mediterranean, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. From his arrival, Rommel successfully cultivated Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of Italian fighting formations. The Ariete Armored Division was close enough in effectiveness to its German stablemates to be virtually the Afrika Korps’ third panzer division for much of the campaign. Italian infantry, artillery, and engineers time and again were the fulcrum on which the lever of Rommel’s mobile operations depended.

The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war in tactical and operational contexts as is frequently assumed. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of guerra di rapido corso (fast-moving war). Strategically, however, their generals considered Rommel’s focus on Cairo and the Suez Canal as culpable overextension. The Wehrmacht High Command understood the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. North Africa was an outpost, best secured by a flexible defense.

On the other hand, Hitler had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects ever since Pearl Harbor. The German navy was calling for systematic cooperation with Japan in a campaign designed to produce a junction in the Indian Ocean that would bring about the final collapse of the British Empire. For Hitler, the war’s globalization only confirmed his decision for a 1942 campaign against the Caucasian oil fields. Hitler saw the Japanese conquests in Asia as weakening Britain’s imperial position sufficiently that the presence of Axis troops in the southern foothills of the Caucasus would convince Britain to negotiate, and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of the United States, which Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat, could be developed and deployed.

If America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with grand-strategic encirclement, the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians like Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian landmass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.

Rommel had a complementary strategic vision. He believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best approach in North Africa involved maintaining the offensive at operational levels, taking advantage of German leadership and fighting power to demoralize the British, keep them off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. That was a common mind-set among Germany’s panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages. Rommel, though anything but an “educated soldier” in the traditions of the German General Staff, took the concept one level higher. He realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. Yet he was also convinced that through operational art he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a strategic double envelopment that would secure the oil fields of south Russia and drive across Iraq and Persia, breaking permanently Britain’s power in the Middle East.

The prospect of Rommel at the head of a full-blooded Axis drive into the Middle East continues to engage counterfactual historians. It is a staple chapter in the alternative histories that show Germany winning World War II. But a crucial prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. The Germans could make no significant contributions. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses that its construction and repair facilities could not replace. Air power was no less vital, and here too the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose effectiveness was steadily declining. Obsolescent aircraft, lack of fuel, and indifference at senior levels proved a fatal trifecta. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.

Any Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean would require a port. Alexandria, even if captured relatively undamaged, would be no more than the starting point for an increasingly long line of communication over terrain even more formidable, and less developed, than Russia. The survivability of German and Italian trucks in the mountains of Syria and the deserts of Iraq was likely to be less than on the Rollbahns of the Soviet Union. The Middle East lacked anything like a comprehensive, developed railway network. The problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerilla/bandit country would have daunted the most brutal Nazi specialists in genocide.

The final damping factor of a Middle East campaign was its dependence on a successful drive through southern Russia to the Caucasus. Should Rommel’s panzer strength be doubled, without regard for the demands of the Russian front, or for how the additional tanks and trucks would be supplied, the offensive through Egypt would nevertheless remain a secondary operation. If German tanks did not appear in the southern passages of the Caucasus by early winter, any successes Rommel might achieve were likely to prove all too ephemeral. And yet the question remains: What might Rommel have achieved with a couple of additional panzer divisions, a little more gasoline . . . ?

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Early Reichswehr Mobile Force Doctrine

Ernst Volckheim (11 April 1898 – 1 September 1962) was one of the founders of armored and mechanized warfare. A German officer in the First and Second World War, Volkheim rose to the rank of colonel, during World War II in the German Army. Little known outside of professional military and historical circles, Volkheim is considered the foremost military academic influence on German tank war proponent, Heinz Guderian, because both Volkheim’s teaching as well as his 1924 professional military articles place him as one of the very earliest theorists of armored warfare and the use of German armored formations including independent tank corps.

An aristocrat and a Prussian Guardsman, General Hans von Seeckt fit none of the stereotypes associated with either. Educated at a civilian Gymnasium rather than a cadet school, he had traveled widely in Europe, visited India and Egypt, and was well read in contemporary English literature. During the war he had established a reputation as one of the army’s most brilliant staff officers. Having made most of that reputation on the Eastern Front, he was untarnished by the collapse of the Western Front, and a logical successor to national hero Paul von Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1918. In March 1920 he became head of the army high command in the newly established Weimar Republic.

Seeckt disliked slogans; he disliked nostalgia; he rejected the argument, widespread among veterans, that the “front experience,” with its emphasis on egalitarian comradeship and heroic vitalism that was celebrated by author-veterans like Ernst Jünger and Kurt Hesse, should shape the emerging Reichswehr. Instead he called for a return to the principle of pursuing quick, decisive victories. That in turn meant challenging the concept of mass that had permeated military thinking since the Napoleonic Wars. Mass, Seeckt argued, “becomes immobile. It cannot win victories. It can only crush by sheer weight.”

Seeckt’s critique in part involved making the best of necessity. The Treaty of Versailles had specified the structure of the Reichswehr in detail: a force of 100,000, with enlisted men committed to twelve years of service and officers to twenty-five. It was forbidden tanks, aircraft, and any artillery above three inches in caliber. As a final presumed nail in the coffin of German aggression, the Reichswehr’s organization was fixed at seven infantry and three cavalry divisions: a throwback to the days of Frederick the Great. Whatever might have been the theoretical hopes that the newly configured Reichswehr would be the first step in general European disarmament—when, presumably, the extra cavalry would give tone to holiday parades—Germany’s actual military position in the west was hopeless in any conventional context. In the East, against Poland and Czechoslovakia, some prospects existed of at least buying time for the diplomats to seek a miracle. Seeckt’s Reichswehr, however, faced at least a double, arguably a triple, bind. It could not afford to challenge the Versailles Treaty openly. It badly needed force multipliers. But to seek those multipliers by supporting clandestine paramilitary organizations depending on politicized zeal was to risk destabilizing a state that, though unsatisfactory in principle, was Germany’s best chance to avoid collapsing into permanent civil war.

Seeckt’s response was to develop an army capable of “fighting outnumbered and winning.” Among the most common misinterpretations of his work is that it was intended to provide cadres for a future national mobilization. Almost from the beginning the Reichswehr developed plans for eventual expansion. These plans, however, were based on enlarging and enhancing the existing force, not submerging it in an army prepared to fight the Great War over again. The manuals issued in the early 1920s, in particular the 1921 field service regulations titled Fuehrung und Gefecht der Verbundeten Waffen (Leadership and Employment of Combined Arms) emphasized the importance of the offensive. The Reichswehr, Seeckt insisted, must dictate the conditions of battle by taking the initiative. It was on the offensive that the superiority of troops and commanders achieved the greatest relative effect. The leader’s responsibility was above all to maintain pace and tempo. He must make decisions with minimal information. Boldness was his first rule; flexibility his second. Doctrine and training alike emphasized encounter battles: two forces meeting unexpectedly and engaging in what amounted to a melee—a melee in which training and flexibility had a chance to compensate for numerical and material inferiority. Even large-scale attacks were envisaged as a series of local combats involving companies, squads and platoons finding weak spots, creating opportunities, cooperating ad hoc to exploit success.

General-audience writings like Friedrich von Taysen’s 1921 essay on mobile war also stressed what was rapidly becoming a new—or rediscovered—orthodoxy. Machines, Taysen declared, were useless unless animated by human energy and will, when they could contribute to the rapid flanking and enveloping maneuvers that alone promised decision in war. Two years later he restated the importance of fighting spirit and warned against allowing infantry to become addicted to armor support.

Taysen’s soaring perorations on “Germanic limitlessness” and “living will” were a far cry from Seeckt’s practical approach. They nevertheless shared a common subtext: the centrality of mobility in both the figurative and the literal senses. The Reichswehr had to be able to think faster and move faster than its enemies at every stage and in every phase. Paradoxically, the banning of cutting-edge technology facilitated cultivating those qualities by removing the temptations of materially focused faddism. Elsewhere in Europe, J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell-Hart depicted fully mechanized armies with no more regard for terrain than warships had for the oceans they traversed. Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard predicted future wars decided by fleets of bombers. French generals prepared for the “managed battle” structured by firepower and controlled by radio. The Red Army shifted from an initial emphasis on proletarian morale to a focus on synergy between mechanization and mass as ideologically appropriate for a revolutionary state.

In sober reality, not until the end of the 1920s would the technology of the internal combustion engine develop the qualities of speed and reliability beyond the embryonic stages that restricted armored vehicles to a supporting role. Aircraft as well were limited in their direct, sustained contributions to a ground offensive. Wire-and-strut, fabric-covered planes with fragile engines, even the specialized ground-attack versions developed by the Germans, were terribly vulnerable to even random ground fire. Artillery, despite the sophisticated fire-control methods of 1918, was a weapon of mass destruction. In that context the Reichswehr cultivated its garden, emphasizing human skills—a pattern facilitated because much of the process of maintaining effectiveness involved preventing long-service personnel from stagnating as a consequence of too many years spent doing the same things in the same places with the same people.

The cavalry in particular emerged from its wartime shell. The treaty-prescribed order of battle gave it an enhanced role faute de mieux. The mounted arm was forced to take itself seriously in the tasks of securing German frontiers and preserving German sovereignty. Further incentive was provided by tables of organization, internal organizations that authorized one cavalry officer for two of his infantry counterparts. There were fewer opportunities to withdraw into nostalgic isolation—everyone had to pull his professional weight. As early as spring 1919, a series of articles in Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s leading professional journal, dealt with the army’s projected reconstruction and included two articles on cavalry. Maximilian von Poseck, the arm’s Inspector-General, argued that in the east, large mounted units had been effective for both reconnaissance and combat, and mobile war was likely to be more typical of future conflict than the high-tech stalemate of the Western Front.

The Reichswehr’s cavalry cannot be described as taking an enthusiastic lead in Germany’s military mechanization. Its regimental officers initially included a high percentage of men who had spent their active service in staffs or on dismounted service, and who were now anxious to get back to “real cavalry soldiering.” In the early 1920s Seeckt consistently and scathingly criticized the mounted arm’s tactical sluggishness, its poor horsemanship, and its inaccurate shooting, both dismounted and on horseback. Too much training was devoted to riding in formation—a skill worse than useless in the field, where dispersion was required. Horses did not immediately become “battle taxis.” Lances were not abolished until 1927—a year earlier, let it be noted, than in Britain. Neither, however, did the cavalry drag its collective feet, or pursue horse-powered dead ends with the energy of their European and American counterparts. After 1928, through judicious juggling of internal resources, each Reichswehr cavalry regiment included a “Special Equipment Squadron” with eight heavy machine guns and, eventually, two light mortars and two light cannon—a significant buildup of firepower, achieved without doing more than slightly bending treaty requirements.

The cavalry also benefited from the absence of institutional rivals. There was no air force to attract forward thinkers and free spirits. Germany had no tank corps, no embryonic armored force, to challenge the horse soldiers’ position and encourage the narrow branch-of-service loyalties that absorbed so much energy on the mechanization question in France, Britain, and the United States. Instead, German cavalrymen were likely to find motor vehicles appealing precisely because they were deprived of them.

German and German-language military literature of the 1920s projected the development of a genuine combined arms formation. While details varied, the core would be three horse-mounted brigades—a total of six regiments, each with a machine-gun squadron. These would cooperate with an infantry battalion carried in trucks, a cyclist battalion, and an independent machine-gun battalion, also motorized. Fire support would be provided by a battalion each of horse-drawn and motorized artillery. With a detachment of around a dozen armored cars, a twelve-plane observation squadron, an antiaircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and signal, medical, and supply services, this theoretical formation combined mobility, firepower, and sustainability to a greater degree than any of its forerunners or counterparts anywhere in Europe.

In the delaying missions that were generally recognized as probable in a future war’s initial stages, the division could keep an enemy off balance by its flexibility, with its brigades controlling combinations of other units in the pattern of the combat commands of a US armored division in World War II. Offensively the division could operate independently on an enemy’s flank, and behind the kind of rigid front line projected throughout Europe by French- influenced doctrines, disrupting movement by hit-and-run strikes or, in more favorable circumstances, developing and exploiting opportunities for deeper penetration.

Though their concepts could be tested temporarily in maneuvers, these divisions were impossible to create under the original provisions of Versailles. The initial direct impulses for motorization and mechanization instead came from a source no one would have been likely to predict. The Versailles Treaty allocated each infantry division a Kraftfahrabteilung, or motor battalion. As this organization developed it was not the orthodox supply formation most probably envisaged by the Allied officials who structured the Reichswehr, but rather a general pool of motor transport. The hundred-odd men of a motor company had access to two dozen heavy trucks and eleven smaller ones, six passenger cars, four buses, seventeen motorcycles, and two tractors. Treaty interpretation even allowed each battalion a complement of five wheeled armored personnel carriers. These Gepanzerter Mannschaftstransportwagen resembled those used by the civil police, without the twin machine-gun turrets, and could carry a rifle squad apiece. With that kind of vehicle pool on call, it was a small wonder that as early as 1924, units conducted on their own small-scale experiments with organizing motorcycle formations, and provided dummy tanks for maneuvers. The motor battalions were also responsible for the Reichswehr’s antitank training—a logical assignment since they controlled the only vehicles able to provide hands-on instruction.

The motor transport battalions’ practical support for operational motorization was not necessarily a straw in the Reichswehr’s institutional wind. A front-loaded, offensively minded Prussian/German army had traditionally regarded logistics as unworthy of a real soldier’s attention. Under the Kaiser, train battalions had been a dumping ground and a dead end for the dipsomaniac, the scandal-ridden, the lazy, and the plain stupid—the last stage before court-martial or dismissal.

In January 1918, as part of the preparation for the great offensive, Ludendorff ’s headquarters issued the Guide for the Employment of Armored Vehicle Assault Units. It described their main mission as supporting the infantry by destroying obstacles, neutralizing fire bases and machine-gun positions, and defeating counterattacks. Because tanks by themselves could not hold ground, the document emphasized the closest possible cooperation with infantry. Tank crews were expected to participate directly in the fighting, either by dismounting and acting as assault troops, or by setting up machine-gun positions to help consolidate gains. In fact the tanks and infantry had, for practical purposes, no opportunity to train together—a problem exacerbated by the continued assignment of tank units to the motor transport service. In action, the tanks’ tendency to seek open ground and easy going clashed fundamentally with the infantry’s doctrine of seeking vulnerable spots. Nothing happened to change the infantry’s collective mind that tanks were most effective against inexperienced or demoralized opponents.

The widespread and successful Allied use of tanks in the war’s final months made a few believers. In the first months after the armistice, before the Republic’s military structure was finally determined, critics suggested the German army had seriously underestimated the tanks’ value. After Versailles made the question moot in practical terms, theoretical interest continued.

Much of this was conventional, repeating wartime arguments that tanks were most effective in creating confusion and panic, in the pattern of antiquity’s war elephants. Positive theory on the use of tanks closely followed contemporary French concepts in projecting a first wave of heavy tanks acting more or less independently, followed by a second wave of lighter vehicles maintaining close contact with the infantry. But in contrast to the French, who saw tanks as the backbone of an attack, the Reichswehr’s infantry training manual of 1921 warned against the infantry laming its offensive spirit by becoming too dependent on armor.

These positions were in good part shaped by the tanks’ existing technical limitations. In particular they were considered too slow and too unreliable to play a central role in the fast-paced offensive operations central to Reichswehr tactics. At the same time, German military thinkers and writers, Seeckt included, recognized that even with their current shortcomings, tanks had a future. The trailblazer here was Ernst Volckheim. He had been a tank officer during the war, and afterward returned to his parent branch. In 1923 he was assigned to the Reichswehr’s Inspectorate for Motor Troops. That same year he published an operational history of German tanks, affirming armor’s continuing technological development and its corresponding importance in any future war. “If tanks were not such a promising weapon,” Volckheim dryly asserted, “then certainly the Allies would not have banned them from the Reichswehr!”

Above all, Volckheim argued, tanks were general-service systems, able to engage any objective and move in many different formations. In that way, they resembled the infantry more than any other branch of service. The tanks’ future correspondingly seemed to lie with emphasizing their basic characteristics: speed, reliability, and range. In contrast to a general European predilection for light tanks that focused on improving their mobility, Volckheim saw the future as belonging to a medium-weight vehicle built around its gun rather than its engine. In a future war where both sides had tanks, speed might provide some initial tactical opportunities. The tank with the heaviest gun would nevertheless have the ultimate advantage.

The next year Volckheim published two more books on tank war. One repeated his insistence that tanks would develop to the point where infantry would be assigned to support them—a hint of the rise of the panzer grenadier that was near-heresy in an army focused on infantry as the dominant combat arm. Volckheim’s second book went even further, projecting the future main battle tank by asserting that technology would eventually produce a family of armored vehicles specially designed for particular purposes. Equipped with radios, exponentially faster, better armed, and with more cross-country ability than anything even on today’s drawing boards, they would in fact be able to operate independently of the traditional arms—an echo of the theories of Volckheim’s British contemporary, J. F. C. Fuller. He admired as well the designs of American J. Walter Christie, which could be switched from wheels to tracks as needed.

Volckheim was also an officer for the working day. First detached to the Weapons Testing School at Doeberitz, in 1925 he was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to teach tank and motorized tactics at the infantry school at Dresden. From 1923 to 1927 he also published two dozen signed articles in the Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s long-standing semiofficial professional journal. Most of them dealt with tactics of direct infantry support by setting problems and presenting solutions. An interesting subtext of these pieces is the scale of armor Volckheim’s scenarios usually presented: an armor regiment to a division, a battalion supporting a regiment.

Volckheim also addresses the subject of antitank defense—a logical response to the Reichswehr’s force structure—and some of the best were published in pamphlet form. Volckheim recommended camouflage, concealment, and aggressive action on the part of the infantry, combined with the forward positioning of field guns and light mortars to cover the most likely routes of advance. Unusual for the time, Volckheim also recommended keeping tanks in reserve, not merely to spearhead counterattacks but to directly engage enemy armor as a primary mission.

Volckheim, with the cooperation of Militär-Wochenblatt’s progressive editor, retired general Konstantin von Altrock, made armored warfare an acceptable, almost fashionable, subject of study in the mid-1920s Reichswehr. Initially most of the material published in MW translated or summarized foreign work. By 1926 most of the articles were by German officers, both from the combat arms and—prophetically—from the horse transport service as well. Fritz Heigl’s survey of world developments, Taschenbuch der Tanks (Tank Pocketbook), whose first edition appeared in 1926, was widely circulated. Its successors remain staples of chain bookstore and internet marketing.

The Reichswehr’s Truppenamt, often described simply as the successor to the treaty-banned General Staff, was actually formed from its predecessor’s Operations Section. Reorganized into four bureaus—operations, organization, intelligence, and training—and more streamlined than its predecessor, the Truppenamt shed responsibility for the kind of detailed administrative planning that had increasingly dominated the prewar General Staff. That was just as well, for while the methods might be transferable, the fundamental reconfiguration of Germany’s security profile demanded fresh approaches.

On the specific subject of armored warfare, the intelligence section monitored foreign developments in tactics and technology systematically enough to issue regular compilations of that material beginning in 1925. German observers took careful notes on postwar French experiences with combining horses and motor vehicles, new material such as half-tracks, and patterns of armor- infantry cooperation. They noted as well the British maneuvers of 1923 and 1924, observing in particular the appearance of the new Vickers Medium, whose turret-mounted 47mm gun, good cross-country mobility, and sustainable speed of around 20 miles per hour made it the prototypical modern tank. English was the fashionable foreign language in the Reichswehr, and Britain was an easier objective for short-term visits. And German officers regularly visited a United States whose army was more willing than any European power to show what they had. In objective terms that was not very much, and most of it existed as prototypes and test models. But the German army offered three months of subsidized leave as an incentive to improve language proficiency, and America offered attractive possibilities for travel and culture shock.

In 1924 Seeckt ordered each unit and garrison to designate an officer responsible for acting as an advisor on tank matters, conducting classes and courses on armored warfare, and distributing instructional materials. These included copies of Volckheim’s articles, Heigl’s data on foreign tanks, and similar material issued by the Inspectorate of Motor Troops. The armor officer had another duty as well: to serve as commander of dummy tank units in the field. Seeckt ordered that representations of state-of-the-art weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, be integrated into training and maneuvers. Tanks in particular must be represented as often as possible in exercises and maneuvers, to enable practicing both antitank defense and tank-infantry cooperation in attacks. Troops were to practice both tactical motor movement and firing from the treaty-sanctioned troop transports. Reports from the annual maneuvers were to include “lessons learned” from operating with mock armored vehicles.

By the mid 1920s the Truppenamt was moving doctrinally beyond the concept of tanks as primarily infantry-support weapons and organi zationally by considering their use in regimental strength. In November 1926, Wilhelm Heye, who the previous month had succeeded Seeckt as Chief of the Army Command, issued a memo on modern tanks. Heye wore an upturned mustache in the style of Wilhelm II, but that was his principal concession to Germany’s military past. Like Seeckt, he had spent a large part of the Great War as a staff officer on the Eastern Front. In 1919 he had been in charge of frontier security in East Prussia, and from 1923 to 1926 commanded the 1st Division in that now-isolated province. Heye argued that technical developments improving tanks’ speed and range had repeatedly shown in foreign maneuvers, especially the British, the developing potential of mechanization. Operating alone or in combined-arms formations, tanks were not only becoming capable of extended operations against flanks and rear, but of bringing decisive weight to the decisive point of battle, the Schwerpunkt.

During the same year, Major Friedrich Rabenau prepared a detailed internal memorandum for the Operations Section. Rabenau was an established critic of the heroic vitalist approach to modern war and its emphasis on moral factors such as “character.” He went so far as to argue that future armies would depend heavily on a technically educated middle class and technically skilled workers. Now he synthesized developments in mobility with the concepts of the Schlieffen Plan. Schlieffen’s grand design, Rabenau argued, had failed less because of staff and command lapses than because its execution was beyond the physical capacities of men and animals. Comprehensive motorization would enable initial surprise, continuing envelopment, and a finishing blow on the enemy’s flanks and rear. Rabenau’s ideas, widely shared in the Operations Section, percolated upwards. A directive in late 1926 asserted that not only could tanks be separated from foot-marching infantry, they could best be used in combination with other mobile troops—or independently. In 1927, section chief General Werner von Fritsch went on record to declare that tanks, in units as large as the British brigades, would exercise a significant influence at operational as well as tactical levels.

German WWI Anti/Tank Experience

Mauser Tankgewehr M1918

German troops using the minenwerfer as an anti-tank gun in October 1918

September 15, 1916, began as a routine day for the German infantrymen in the forward trenches around Flers on the Somme—as routine as any day was likely to be after two and a half months of vicious, close-gripped fighting that bled divisions white and reduced battalions to the strength of companies. True, an occasional rumble of engines had been audible across the line. But the British had more trucks than the Kaiser’s army, and were more willing to risk them to bring up ammunition and carry back wounded. True, there had been occasional gossip of something new up Tommy’s sleeve: of armored “land cruisers” impervious to anything less than a six-inch shell. But rumors—Scheisshausparolen in Landser speak—were endemic on the Western Front. Then “a forest of guns opened up in a ceaseless, rolling thunder, the few remaining survivors . . . fight on until the British flood overwhelms them, consumes them, and passes on. . . . An extraordinary number of men. And there, between them, spewing death, unearthly monsters: the first British tanks.”

Improvised and poorly coordinated, the British attack soon collapsed in the usual welter of blood and confusion. But for the first time on the Western Front, certainly the first time on the Somme, the heaviest losses were suffered by the defenders. Reactions varied widely. Some men panicked; others fought to a finish. But the 14th Bavarian Infantry, for example, tallied more than 1,600 casualties. Almost half were “missing,” and most of them were prisoners. That was an unheard-of ratio in an army that still prided itself on its fighting spirit. But the 14th was one of the regiments hit on the head by the tanks.

Shock rolled uphill. “The enemy,” one staff officer recorded, “employed new engines of war, as cruel as effective. . . . It is necessary to take whatever methods are possible to counteract them.” From the Allied perspective, the impact of tanks on the Great War is generally recognized. The cottage industry among scholars of the British learning curve, with descriptions of proto-mechanized war pitted against accounts of a semi-mobile final offensive based on combined arms and improved communications, recognizes the centrality of armor for both interpretations. French accounts are structured by Marshal Philippe Petain’s judgment that, in the wake of the frontline mutinies of 1917, it was necessary to wait for “the Americans and the tanks.” Certainly it was the tanks, the light Renault FTs, that carried the exhausted French infantry forward in the months before the armistice. Erich Ludendorff, a general in a position to know, declared after the war that Germany had been defeated not by Marshal Foch but by “General Tank.”

In those contexts it is easy to overlook the salient fact that the German army was quick and effective in developing antitank techniques. This was facilitated by the moonscape terrain of the Western Front, the mechanical unreliability of early armored vehicles, and such technical grotesqueries as the French seeking to increase the range of their early tanks by installing extra fuel tanks on their roofs, which virtually guaranteed the prompt incineration of the crew unless they were quick to abandon the vehicle. Even at Flers the Germans had taken on tanks like any other targets: aiming for openings in the armor, throwing grenades, using field guns over open sights. German intelligence thoroughly interrogated one captured tanker and translated a diary lost by another. Inside of a week, Berlin had a general description of the new weapons, accompanied by a rough but reasonably accurate sketch.

One of the most effective antitank measures was natural. Tanks drew fire from everywhere, fire sufficiently intense to strip away any infantry in their vicinity. A tank by itself was vulnerable. Therefore, the German tactic was to throw everything available at the tanks and keep calm if they kept coming. Proactive countermeasures began with inoculating the infantry against “tank fright” by using knocked-out vehicles to demonstrate their various vulnerabilities. An early frontline improvisation was the geballte Ladung: the heads of a half dozen stick grenades tied around a complete “potato-masher” and thrown into one of a tank’s many openings—or, more basic, the same half dozen grenades shoved into a sandbag and the fuse of one of them pulled. More effective and less immediately risky was the K-round. This was simply a bullet with a tungsten carbide core instead of the soft alloys commonly used in small arms rounds. Originally developed to punch holes in metal plates protecting enemy machine-gun and sniper positions, it was employed to even better effect by the ubiquitous German machine guns against the armor of the early tanks. K-rounds were less likely to disable the vehicle, mostly causing casualties and confusion among the crew, but the end effect was similar.

As improved armor limited the K-round’s effect, German designers came up with a 13mm version. Initially it was used in a specially designed single-shot rifle, the remote ancestor of today’s big-caliber sniper rifles but without any of their recoil-absorbing features. The weapon’s fierce recoil made it inaccurate and unpopular; even a strong user risked a broken collarbone or worse. More promising was the TuF (tank and antiaircraft) machine gun using the same round. None of the ten thousand TuFs originally projected were ready for service by November 11—but the concept and the bullet became the basis for John Browning’s .50-caliber machine gun, whose near-century of service makes it among the most long-lived modern weapons.

When something heavier was desirable, the German counterpart of the Stokes mortar was a much larger piece, mounted on wheels, capable of modification for direct fire and, with a ten-pound shell, lethal against any tank. The German army had also begun forming batteries of “infantry guns” even before the tanks appeared. These were usually mountain guns or modified field pieces of around three-inch caliber. Intended to support infantry attacks by direct fire, they could stop tank attacks just as well. From the beginning, ordinary field pieces with ordinary shells also proved able to knock out tanks at a range of two miles.

In an emergency the large number of 77mm field pieces mounted on trucks for antiaircraft work could become improvised antitank guns. These proved particularly useful at Cambrai in November 1917, when more than a hundred tanks were part of the spoils of the counterattack that wiped out most of the initial British gains. They did so well, indeed, that the crews had to be officially reminded that their primary duty was shooting down airplanes. As supplements, a number of ordinary field guns were mounted on trucks in the fashion of the portees used in a later war by the British in North Africa.

If survival was not sufficient incentive, rewards and honor were invoked. One Bavarian battery was awarded 500 marks for knocking out a tank near Flers. British reports and gossip praised an officer who, working a lone gun at Flesquieres during the Cambrai battle, either by himself or with a scratch crew, was supposed to have disabled anywhere from five to sixteen tanks before he was killed. The Nazis transformed the hero into a noncommissioned officer, and gave him a name and at least one statue. The legend’s less Homeric roots seem to have involved a half dozen tanks following each other over the crest of a small hill and being taken out one at a time by a German field battery. The story of “the gunner of Flesquieres” nevertheless indicates the enduring strength of the tank mystique in German military lore.

Other purpose-designed antitank weapons were ready to come on line when the war ended: short-barreled, low-velocity 37mm guns, an automatic 20mm cannon that the Swiss developed into the World War II Oerlikon. The effect of this new hardware on the projected large-scale use of a new generation of tanks in the various Allied plans for 1919 must remain speculative. What it highlights is the continued German commitment to tank defense even in the war’s final months.

That commitment is highlighted from a different perspective when considering the first German tank. It was not until October 1916 that the Prussian War Ministry summoned the first meeting of the A7V Committee. The group took its name from the sponsoring agency, the Seventh Section of the General War Department, and eventually bestowed it on the resulting vehicle. The members were mostly from the motor transport service rather than the combat arms, and their mission was technical: develop a tracked armored fighting vehicle in the shortest possible time. They depended heavily on designers and engineers loaned to the project by Germany’s major auto companies. Not surprisingly, when the first contracts for components were placed in November, no fewer than seven firms shared the pie.

A prototype was built in January; a working model was demonstrated to the General Staff in May. It is a clear front-runner for the title of “ugliest tank ever built” and a strong contender in the “most dysfunctional” category. The A7V was essentially a rectangular armored box roughly superimposed on a tractor chassis. It mounted a 57mm cannon in its front face and a half dozen machine guns around the hull. It weighed 33 tons, and required a crew of no fewer than eighteen men. Its under-slung tracks and low ground clearance left it almost no capacity to negotiate obstacles or cross broken terrain: the normal environment of the Western Front. An improved A7V and a lighter tank, resembling the British Whippet and based on the chassis of the Daimler automobile, were still in prototype states when the war ended. A projected 150-ton monster remained—fortunately—on the drawing boards.

Shortages of raw material and an increasingly dysfunctional war production organization restricted A7V production to fewer than three dozen. When finally constituted, the embryonic German armored force deployed no more than forty tanks at full strength, and more than half of those were British models salvaged and repaired. Material shortcomings were, however, the least of the problems facing Germany’s first tankers. By most accounts the Germans had the best of the first tank-versus-tank encounter at Villiers Bretonneaux on April 24, 1918. British tankers, at least, were impressed, with their commanding general describing the threat as “formidable” and warning that there was no guarantee the Germans would continue to use their tanks in small numbers.

In fact, the German army made no serious use of armor in either the spring offensive or the fighting retreat that began in August and continued until the armistice. In the ten or twelve times tanks appeared under German colors their numbers were too small—usually around five vehicles—to attract more than local attention. The crews, it is worth mentioning, were not the thrown-together body of men often described in British-oriented accounts. They did come from a number of arms and services, but all were volunteers—high-morale soldiers for a high- risk mission: a legacy that would endure. Europe’s most highly industrialized nation nevertheless fought for its survival with the least effective mechanized war instruments of the major combatants.

In public Erich Ludendorff loftily declared that the German high command had decided not to fight a “war of material.” His memoirs are more self-critical: “Perhaps I should have put on more pressure: perhaps then we would have had a few more tanks for the decisive battles of 1918. But I don’t know what other necessary war material we should have had to cut short.” For any weapon, however, a doctrine is at least as important as numbers. In contrast to both the British and the French, the German army demonstrated neither institutional nor individual capacity for thinking about mechanized war beyond the most immediate, elementary contexts.

Stuka in Poland

It was no coincidence that the Ju 87 was selected to carry out the first aerial attack of World War II in Europe. The easternmost province of Germany, East Prussia, was cut off from the rest of the Fatherland by the Polish Corridor. “This hotly disputed strip of territory, which afforded the

landlocked Poles access to the Baltic Sea,” said Weal, “was another product of the Treaty of Versailles, and a contributory factor in Hitler’s decision to attack Poland.” A single railway across the Polish Corridor connected East Prussia directly to Berlin. The weakest point of the rail line was a bridge over the Vistula River near the town of Dirschau (Tczew). The Poles understood the bridge’s significance – and they had preemptively rigged it with explosives, ready to detonate should the Germans ever attack. Thus, the bombing target was not the bridge itself, but the detonation site located at the nearby Dirschau station. By destroying the detonation site, Germany could prevent the Poles from destroying the bridge, and thus preserve East Prussia’s lifeline to the Reich proper.

At exactly 4:26 a.m. on September 1, 1939, three Stukas from III./StG 1, led by pilot Bruno Dilly, lifted off from their air base in East Prussia en route to the Dirschau station. With their 250kg bombs attached firmly to their wings, the Stukas climbed in unison before separating, one by one, into their signature dive patterns. Within minutes, each pilot delivered his bombs with pinpoint accuracy onto the Dirschau station. Although the first dive-bomb run of World War II was a tactical success, it did not preserve the railway bridge. Undaunted, Polish Army engineers managed to destroy the bridge before the first German troop trains could arrive.

The same day, elements from I./StG 2 launched a raid on the enemy airfield at Krakow, only to find it deserted. As it turned out, most Polish Air Force units had vacated their peacetime airbases and relocated to secret, carefully secluded fields in the near countryside. After returning from their unfruitful mission at Krakow, these same Stukas spotted one of the secret airfields near Balice, just as a pair of PZL P.11c fighters were scrambling from the runway. The lead Stuka, piloted by Frank Neubert (who went on to earn the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross) shot down the P.11 piloted by Captain Mieczylaw Medwecki, making Neubert’s kill the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air combat victory of World War II. According to Neubert, his shot caused the P.11 to “suddenly explode in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball – the fragments literally flew around our ears.”

Later on September 1, the Luftwaffe’s vanguard Stukas engaged the Polish Navy at Hela in the first of several attacks on that naval base. In this engagement, four Stukas plummeted from 7,000m to attack the enemy’s naval stronghold. However, Hela was defended by one of the largest anti-aircraft batteries in Poland, and the diving Stukas got their first taste of enemy fire. Bracketed by the intense anti-aircraft fire, two of the four Stukas were downed by Polish guns – the first Ju 87s lost to enemy fire. Two days later, the Stukas were in action again over Gdynia, where they sank the Polish destroyer Wicher and the minelayer Gryf.

After disrupting the enemy’s air and naval defenses, the Stuka could now perform its primary role in the Blitzkrieg campaign: to act as “flying artillery,” disrupting the enemy ground forces and clearing a path for the oncoming Panzer and mechanized formations. Around noon on September 1, aerial reconnaissance reported a large concentration of Polish horse cavalry massing along the northern flank of the German XVI Armeekorps near Wielun. Major Oskar Dinort, the Gruppenkommandeur of I./StG 2 (and the first Stuka pilot to win the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves), recalled how his Stukas met the Polish horsemen on that fateful day:

We cross the border at a height of 2500 meters. Visibility is far from good; hardly a kilometer. Although the sun is now shining, everything is swimming in an opalescent haze. Suddenly a group of buildings – either a large estate or a small village. Smoke is already rising. Wielun – the target!

I stuff my map away, set the sights, close the radiator flaps; do all those things we’ve already done a hundred times or more in practice, but never with a feeling so intense as today. Then bank slightly, drop the left wing and commence the dive. The air brakes screech, all the blood in my body is forced downwards. 1200 meters – press the bomb release. A tremor runs through the machine. The first bomb is on its way.

Recover – bank – corkscrew – and then a quick glance below. Bang on target, a direct hit on the road. The black snake of men and horses that had been crawling along it has now come to a complete standstill. Now for that large estate, packed with men and wagons. Our height scarcely 1200 meters, we dive to 800. Bombs away! The whole lot goes up in smoke and flames.

By mid-afternoon, the Wehrmacht confirmed that as a farm complex just north of Wielun housed the entire headquarters of the Polish Wolynska brigade. In response, 60 Ju 87s belonging to the I and II./StG 77 destroyed the headquarters outpost and the Germans occupied Wielan that night.

In the following days, the Stuka squadrons performed over 300 bombing runs on civilian and military targets as the Wehrmacht sped towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. In the European tradition of conventional warfare, it was understood that once the enemy’s capital had fallen, the game was over. The Poles obviously understood this as well as the Germans did. Indeed, the 24 infantry brigades and six mounted brigades defending Polish borderlands put every ounce of strength they had into preventing the Nazis from reaching Warsaw. Yet, Poland’s defenses gradually eroded under the relentless bombardment (and the terrifying wails) of the Stuka dive-bomber.

As the Poles retreated towards Warsaw, however, many of their number invariably became separated from the main retreat. One such contingent included six Polish divisions that were trapped between Radom and their fallback point near the Vistula River. As the Panzer forces surrounded the beleaguered Poles, more than 150 Stukas arrived overhead to pound the enemy troops into submission. After four days of enduring the relentless 50kg fragmentation bombs, and hearing the dreadful scream of the Jericho Trumpet, the encircled Polish units finally gave up.

A few days later, the Stukas participated in the battle of Bzura. The Polish Poznan Army (consisting of four infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades) had moved southeast across the Bzura River, trying to reach the Vistula in attempt to break through the frontline screen of the German 8.Armee. The ensuing battle of Bzura, which was essentially an “air-versus-ground engagement,” effectively broke the back of the remaining Polish resistance. During this battle alone, the Stukas dropped over 388 metric tons of ordnance on the beleaguered Polish defenders.

Following the collapse of Poland’s defenses, the Stuka units turned their attention to Warsaw proper. The enemy capital, however, with its few remaining air defense batteries, put up a valiant last stand against the invading Stukas and other Luftwaffe aircraft. In fact, one Ju 87 pilot recalled how tight the Polish defenses were around the capital city:

I had just recovered from the dive and was corkscrewing back up to altitude when the Polish 40mm flak caught me fair and square in its crossfire. The ‘red tomatoes’ which this dangerous weapon spewed out were flying around my ears. Suddenly there was an almighty crash in the machine. There I was, 1200 meters over the middle of Warsaw, and I could immediately tell that the machine was no longer maneuverable.

My gunner reported that the elevator had been shot off and there were only a few scraps left fluttering in the wind. Quick decision: the airfield just south of Warsaw was already in German hands…I had to make it. The machine was steadily losing height, but I slowly coaxed it along, gently slide-slipped and got safely down on the first attempt.

But despite the Poles’ best efforts against the Luftwaffe, the air defenses around the city eventually collapsed. Warsaw fell to the Germans on September 27, 1939 – less than one month after the start of the invasion. Throughout the campaign, only 31 Stukas had been lost to enemy fire.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands I

The night was clear and the visibility exceptional even at two in the morning when officers on Scharnhorst’s bridge first made out the dark masses of the Falkland Islands on the northern horizon. The early summer dawn three hours later promised a rare, cloudless day, the first in weeks. At 5:30 a.m., Admiral von Spee signaled Gneisenau and Nürnberg to leave the squadron and proceed to reconnoiter Port Stanley. The admiral, with Scharnhorst, Dresden, and Leipzig, would remain to the south, while his three colliers waited off Port Pleasant, a bay twenty miles southwest of Port Stanley. As the sun came up, Captain Maerker and Commander Hans Pochhammer of Gneisenau got a better look at the coast, whose capes, bays, and hills they identified with the aid of compass, binoculars, and maps. On deck, a landing party was assembling; Pochhammer looked down from the bridge at the men in white gaiters carrying rifles, one oddly bringing his gas mask. As promised, the summer morning was near perfect: the sea was calm, with only a slight breeze from the northwest gently rippling the surface; the sky was high, clear, and azure. Port Stanley was hidden from the south by a range of low hills, but by seven o’clock, as they came closer, Maerker and Pochhammer could see their first target, the radio mast on Hooker’s Point. They also noticed, near the place where the Cape Pembroke lighthouse stood at the tip of a sandy, rock-strewn peninsula, a thin column of smoke. It appeared to rise from the funnel of a ship.

The British squadron began to coal early that summer morning. By 4:30 a.m., the collier Trelawny was secured to the port side of Invincible and at 5:30 a.m. all hands had been summoned to begin coaling. By two hours later, when the crew was piped to breakfast, 400 tons had been taken aboard. Coaling never resumed that day. Just after 7:30 a.m., a civilian lookout in the observation post on Sapper Hill saw two columns of smoke on the southwestern horizon. He raised his telescope, then picked up his telephone and reported to Canopus: “A four-funnel and a two-funnel man of war in sight steering northwards.” (Nürnberg had three funnels, but because of the angle of the approaching ship, the spotter missed one.)

At 7:45 a.m., Canopus received the Sapper Hill message. Because there was no land line between the grounded Canopus and Sturdee’s flagship in the outer harbor, Captain Grant could not pass along the message by telephone. And because Invincible was out of sight, hidden from him by intervening hills, he could not signal visually. Glasgow, however, was anchored in a place from which she could see both Canopus and Invincible. Accordingly, Canopus hoisted the signal “Enemy in sight.” Glasgow saw it and, at 7:56 a.m., Luce raised the same flags on his own mast. There was no response from Invincible, busy coaling and surrounded by a haze of coal dust. Impatiently, Luce, still in his pajamas, snapped at his signal officer, “Well, for God’s sake, do something. Fire a gun, send a boat, don’t stand there like a stuffed dummy.” The firing of a saluting gun and its report echoing through the harbor attracted attention. By training a powerful searchlight on Invincible’s bridge, Glasgow passed the message. Meanwhile, Luce said to his intelligence officer, “ ‘Mr. Hirst, go to the masthead and identify those ships.’ Halfway up,” Hirst said, “I was able to report, ‘Scharnhorst or Gneisenau with a light cruiser.’ ”

Spee had achieved complete surprise. Sturdee, not imagining the possibility of any threat to his squadron, had made minimal arrangements for its security. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was slowly patrolling outside the mouth of the harbor. The armored cruiser Kent, assigned to relieve Macedonia and the only warship that could get up full steam at less than two hours’ notice, was anchored in Port William. Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon, and Cornwall also were anchored in Port William; Bristol and Glasgow were in the inner harbor where Canopus was grounded. By eight o’clock, only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling and Carnarvon’s decks still were stacked with sacks of coal. Kent, Cornwall, Bristol, and Macedonia had not yet begun to replenish their bunkers; they would fight that day with what remained from Abrolhos. Bristol had closed down her fires for boiler cleaning and opened up both engines for repairs, and Cornwall had one engine under repair. In Cornwall’s wardroom, her officers, many already in civilian clothes, were breakfasting on kippers, marmalade, toast, and tea and making plans for a day of shooting hares and partridges on the moors behind the town.

The sound of Glasgow’s gun found Admiral Sturdee in the act of shaving. An officer raced to the admiral’s quarters, burst in, and announced that the Germans had arrived. Later, Sturdee was reported to have replied, “Send the men to breakfast.” After the war, Sturdee gave his own version of the moment: “He [Spee] came at a very convenient hour because I had just finished dressing and was able to give orders to raise steam at full speed and go down to a good breakfast.” It was said of Sturdee that “no man ever saw him rattled.” Nevertheless, while the admiral may have been pleased by the luck that had brought the enemy so obligingly to his doorstep, he may also have wondered whether perhaps the greater luck was on Spee’s side. The situation of the British squadron was awkward; Kent was the only warship ready to fight. It was possible that Spee might boldly approach Port Stanley harbor with his entire squadron and unleash a storm of 8.2-inch shells into the crowd of ships at anchor. In the confined space of the harbor, some British ships would mask the fire of others and Sturdee would be unable to bring more than a fraction of his superior armament to bear. Accurate salvos from Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might damage, even cripple, the battle cruisers. Even once the British ships raised steam, Spee still might stand off the harbor entrance and subject each vessel to a hail of shells or a volley of torpedoes as it emerged. With these apprehensions in every mind, all eyes were on the flagship to learn what steps Sturdee intended to take.

At 8:10, signal flags soared up Invincible’s halyards. Kent, the duty guard ship, was ordered to weigh anchor immediately and proceed out through the mine barrier to protect Macedonia and keep the enemy under observation. The battle cruisers were told to cast off their colliers so as to leave themselves freer to fire even while they were still at anchor. All ships were ordered to raise steam and report when they were ready to proceed at 12 knots. Carnarvon was to clear for action, to sail as soon as possible, and to “engage the enemy as they come around the corner” of Cape Pembroke. Canopus was to open fire as soon as Gneisenau and Nürnberg were within range. Macedonia, unfit for battle against warships, was ordered to return to harbor. Having issued his orders, Sturdee went to breakfast.

At 8:20 a.m., the observation station on Sapper Hill reported more smoke on the southwestern horizon. At 8:47, Canopus’s fire control station reported that the first two ships observed were now only eight miles off and that the new smoke appeared to be coming from three additional ships about twenty miles off. Meanwhile, bugles on all the ships in the harbor were sounding “Action,” the crews were busy casting off the colliers, smoke was pouring from many funnels, and the anchorage was covered with black haze. The engine room staffs aboard Cornwall and Bristol hurried to reassemble their dismantled machinery.

Sturdee’s breakfast was short. He was on deck at 8:45 a.m. to see Kent moving down the harbor to take up station beyond the lighthouse. “As we got near the harbor entrance,” said one of Kent’s officers, “I could see the smoke from two ships on our starboard over a low-lying ridge of sand.” It would be another hour before the battle cruisers and Carnarvon could weigh anchor, and still longer before Cornwall and Bristol were ready.

At the Admiralty, few details were known and the worst was feared. At 5:00 p.m. London time, Churchill was working in his room when Admiral Oliver, now Chief of Staff, entered with a message from the governor of the Falkland Islands: “Admiral Spee arrived at daylight this morning with all his ships and is now in action with Admiral Sturdee’s whole fleet which was coaling.” “These last three words sent a shiver up my spine,” said Churchill. “Had we been taken by surprise and, in spite of our superiority, mauled, unready, at anchor? ‘Can it mean that?’ I said to the Chief of Staff. ‘I hope not,’ was all he said.”

“As we approached,” said the commander of Gneisenau, “signs of life began to appear. Here and there behind the dunes, columns of dark yellow smoke began to ascend . . . as if stores [of coal] were being burned to prevent them falling into our hands. In any case, we had been seen, for among the mastheads which could be distinguished here and there through the smoke, two now broke away and proceeded slowly east towards the lighthouse. . . . There was no longer any doubt that warships were hidden behind the land. . . . We thought we could make out first two, then four, then six ships . . . and we wirelessed this news to Scharnhorst.”

The Germans, up to this point, had little premonition of serious danger. Then Gneisenau’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Johann Busche, staring through his binoculars from the spotting top on the foremast, believed that he saw something ominous: tripod masts. When he reported this to the bridge, Captain Maerker curtly dismissed the observation. Tripod masts meant dreadnoughts, Busche was told, and there were no dreadnoughts in the South Atlantic. Maerker continued to take Gneisenau and Nürnberg closer to their initial bombardment position four miles southwest of Cape Pembroke. He did not bother to pass Busche’s report along to Admiral von Spee.

As Gneisenau and Nürnberg drew closer, the 12-inch guns of Canopus, invisible to the German ships, were being elevated and trained on them by guidance from the shore observation post. When Maerker’s two ships were near Wolf’s Rock, six miles short of Cape Pembroke, they slowed their engines, turned, and glided to the northeast, swinging around to present their port broadsides to the wireless station. But Canopus, sitting on her mudbank, spoke first. As soon as her gunnery officer, ashore in the observa-tion post, judged the range to be down to 11,000 yards, he gave the signal. At 9:20 a.m., both 12-inch guns in the battleship’s forward turret fired. The reverberating roar shook the town and the harbor and produced shrill cries from circling flocks of seabirds. The shots fell short, but the Germans hoisted their battle flags, turned, and made away to the southeast. As they did so, Canopus tried again with another salvo at 12,000 yards. Again the shots were short, but this time by less, and some observers believed that one of the shells ricocheted, sending fragments into the base of a funnel on Gneisenau. With the Germans moving out of range, Canopus had played her part. She had saved the wireless station, the anchored ships, and the town from bombardment, and had provided Sturdee’s squadron with time to leave the harbor. Captain Grant ordered a cease-fire.

Captain Maerker had just signaled Spee that Gneisenau was about to open fire when he received a shock. Without warning, two gigantic mushrooms of water, each 150 feet high, rose out of the sea a thousand yards to port. This was heavy-caliber gunfire, although the guns themselves could not be seen. Immediately, Maerker hoisted his battle ensigns and turned away, but not before a second salvo spouted up 800 yards short of his ship. Before abandoning his mission, Maerker considered a final attempt to harm the enemy. The first British cruiser coming out of the harbor was recognized as a County-class ship (it was Kent) and Maerker, believing that she was trying to escape, increased speed to cut her off outside the entrance to Port William. Scarcely had he settled on a closing course, however, when he received a signal from Scharnhorst. This was not the unopposed landing Spee had planned. He had no wish to engage British armored cruisers or old battleships with 12-inch guns and he ordered Maerker to suspend operations and rejoin the flagship: “Do not accept action. Concentrate on course east by south. Proceed at full speed.” Spee retreated because, although he now knew that a 12-inch-gun ship or ships were present, he was certain that they were old battleships that his squadron could easily outrun. Maerker turned and made off at high speed toward the flagship twelve miles away.

By 9:45 a.m., Glasgow had come out of the harbor and joined Kent. The light cruiser’s captain, John Luce, carrying memories of Coronel, was eager to attack the Germans by himself, but he was ordered to remain out of range, trail the enemy, and keep Admiral Sturdee informed. At 9:50 a.m., the rest of the squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down the harbor. First came Carnarvon with Stoddart aboard, then Inflexible, Invincible, and Cornwall; only Bristol, still reassembling her engines, and Macedonia were left behind. At 10:30 a.m., as the last of the line of British ships cleared the Cape Pembroke lighthouse, five retreating plumes of smoke could be seen on the southwestern horizon. Three hours had passed since the enemy first came in sight, and Sturdee could be thankful for the fine weather. Had there been fog or mist, he might have had less than half an hour’s notice of Spee’s arrival. Instead, the sun was shining from a blue, cloudless sky, and a light northwesterly breeze scarcely ruffled the sea: ideal conditions for a long-range action. Everyone on both sides who survived the battle recalled the extraordinary weather: “The visibility of the fresh, calm atmosphere surpassed everything in the experience of sailors,” recalled Pochhammer of Gneisenau. “It was a perfect day,” wrote an officer on Inflexible, “very rare in these latitudes and it was a beautiful sight . . . when the British ships came around the point and all flags (we had five ensigns flying to make sure not all should be shot away) with the sun on them.” Aboard Invincible, a sublieutenant was “struck by the magnificent weather conditions and, seizing my camera, climbed up the mast into the main top. The air was biting cold as I . . . stood and watched the enemy . . . away to the southwest, five triangles of smoke on the horizon. It was a brilliant sunny day, visibility at its very maximum. And there they were, the squadron that we thought would keep us hunting the seas for many weary months . . . providentially delivered into our hands.”

The battle cruisers, their speed climbing to 25 knots, crept inexorably to the head of the line, passing Carnarvon, overtaking Kent, then alone with only Glasgow before them. From the flagship’s bridge, Sturdee, watching the smoke from the five fleeing ships, knew that, barring some wholly unforeseen circumstance, Spee was at his mercy. His force was superior; Invincible and Inflexible, just out of dry dock, could steam at 25 knots; Spee’s armored cruisers, after five months at sea, would be fortunate to manage 20. Thus, Sturdee could bring Spee’s armored cruisers within range of his 12-inch guns in less than three hours and then would have six hours before sunset to complete their destruction. The weather was beyond his control, but so far there was nothing to indicate any change in the prevailing near perfect conditions. Up Invincible’s halyard soared the signal “General Chase.”

Lieutenant Hirst of Glasgow afterward recalled: “No more glorious moment in the war do I remember than when the flagship hoisted the signal ‘General Chase.’ . . . Fifteen miles to the eastward lay the same ships which we had fought at Coronel and which had sent brave Admiral Cradock and our comrades to their death.” Glasgow, out in front and off to the side, had a splendid view of the British battle cruisers as they charged ahead, their bows cleaving the calm, blue sea with white bow waves curling away, their sterns buried under the water boiling in their wakes, their 12-inch-gun turrets training on the enemy with the barrels raised to maximum elevation. Above, on the masts and yards, Royal Navy battle ensigns stood out stiffly, the white color of the flags in stark contrast to the black smoke pouring from the funnels. There was no hurry; the admiral had a clear, empty ocean in front of him. Just as Spee at Coronel had been able to use his advantage of greater speed and heavier guns to destroy Cradock, so Sturdee would be able to use his own greater power and speed to destroy Spee. Each British battle cruiser carried eight 12-inch guns, firing shells weighing 850 pounds. The German armored cruisers carried eight 8.2-inch guns, each firing a shell of 275 pounds. Sturdee could use his speed to set the range; then, keeping his distance, use his big guns to pound Spee to pieces.

According to Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau, it was not until the chase was under way that the Germans were certain of the identity of the two big ships that had emerged from the harbor. “Two vessels soon detached themselves from the number of our pursuers; they seemed much faster and bigger than the others as their smoke was thicker, wider, more massive,” Pochhammer said. “All glasses were turned upon their hulls.” It was not long before the spacing of the three funnels and the unmistakable tripod masts forced the German seamen to confront “the possibility, even probability, that we were being chased by English battle cruisers . . . this was a very bitter pill for us to swallow. We choked a little . . . the throat contracted and stiffened, for it meant a life and death struggle, or rather a fight ending in honorable death.”

Meanwhile, Sturdee calmly set about making his tactical arrangements. He had difficulty seeing the enemy because of the volume of smoke belching from the battle cruisers’ funnels, but Glasgow reported the Germans twelve miles ahead, making 18 to 20 knots. Knowing that Spee could not escape, Sturdee decided to postpone an immediate engagement. He ordered Inflexible to haul out on Invincible’s starboard quarter, stationed Glasgow three miles ahead of Invincible on the port bow, and instructed Kent to drop back to his port beam. Soon, with the battle cruisers and Glasgow making 25 knots, he found that he was leaving his own armored cruisers behind. At eleven o’clock, the admiral signaled Carnarvon and Cornwall, five miles behind the battle cruisers, asking what their maximum speed was. Carnarvon replied 20 knots (actually, it was 18) and Cornwall 22. Not wanting his squadron scattered too widely, Sturdee reduced the speed of the battle cruisers from 25 to 24 knots and then to 20 knots to allow the squadron to come closer. These changes, in effect, nullified the signal for General Chase. Never-theless, so confident of the day’s outcome was Sturdee that, at 11:32 a.m., he signaled, “Ships’ companies have time for next meal.” Men who had begun the day shifting sacks of coal and were covered with grime now had an opportunity to wash and change clothes. “Picnic lunch in the wardroom,” wrote one of Invincible’s officers. “Tongue, bread, butter, and jam.” No one remained below, however, and soon the upper decks were lined with officers and men, sandwiches in hand, watching the five German ships on the horizon.

[Meanwhile, around 11:00 a.m., just as the British light cruiser Bristol came out of the harbor, the signal station on Mount Pleasant reported sighting three new ships—“transports or colliers”—about thirty miles to the south. There had been unfounded rumors that German nationals were gathering at South American ports to occupy and garrison the Falklands, and Sturdee ordered Bristol and Macedonia to intercept and destroy these ships. Two of the ships, which turned out to be the colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, were overtaken; their crews were taken off and both vessels were sunk by gunfire. Later, once the German squadron for which the coal had been intended had been sunk, the British regretted having destroyed such valuable cargo. The third German ship, the collier Seydlitz, escaped and was interned in Argentina.]

Aboard the German ships, the mood was somber. “Towards noon, the two battle cruisers . . . were about 18,500 yards away. Four other cruisers were observed,” said Pochhammer. “We took our meal at the usual time, eleven forty-five, but it passed off more quietly than usual, everybody being absorbed in his own thoughts.” As the meal finished, the thunder of heavy guns sounded across the water. “Drums and bugles summoned us to our battle stations. A brief handshake here and there, a farewell between particularly close friends, and the mess room emptied.” Soon after noon, Sturdee became impatient. It was evident that Stoddart’s flagship, Carnarvon, still six miles astern and unable to force more than 18 knots out of her engines, could not catch up. As Cornwall could manage 22, she was ordered to leave Carnarvon and come on ahead. Even this seemed too slow and Sturdee decided to begin his attack with the two battle cruisers. At 12:20 p.m., Captain Richard Phillimore came aft on Inflexible and told his men that the admiral had decided “to get along with the work.” The crew cheered and the battle cruisers again moved up to 25 knots.

Admiral von Spee, less than ten miles ahead, was heading southeast at 20 knots. Gneisenau and Nürnberg were 2,000 yards ahead of Scharnhorst, Dresden was on the flagship’s port beam, and Leipzig lagged behind. Gradually, this speed increased to 21 knots, except for Leipzig, which continued to fall behind. By 12:47 p.m., Sturdee had closed the range to Leipzig to 17,500 yards, and he hoisted the signal “Engage the enemy.”

At 12:55 p.m., there was flash, thunder, and smoke. The first shot was claimed by Captain Phillimore of Inflexible (known in the service as Fidgety Phill), who had opened fire at Leipzig with his A turret, a two-gun salvo at the range of 16,500 yards. This was 4,000 yards farther than any British dreadnought had ever fired at a live target, and from his post high in Inflexible’s foretop, her gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner, saw the shells fall 3,000 yards astern of the German squadron. Again Inflexible fired and Verner experienced “the roar from the forward turret guns and heavy masses of dark, chocolate-colored cordite smoke tumbling over the bow; a long wait and tall white ‘stalagmites’ growing out of the sea behind the distant enemy.” Soon after, Invincible opened fire with a two-gun salvo from her A turret, and high fountains of water rose from the sea a thousand yards short of the target. Within fifteen minutes, however, when the range was down to 13,000 yards, the tall splashes began straddling Leipzig. One salvo raised towering columns of water so close to the small ship that both sides lost sight of her and thought she had been hit.

Leipzig’s plight forced Spee to make a decision. Looking back, he could see the high bow waves of the battle cruisers, the clouds of black smoke pouring from their funnels, the jets of orange flame shooting out through smoke, and, after an agonizing wait, the towers of water rising soundlessly alongside the hapless light cruiser. The admiral made his choice. At 1:20 p.m., Invincible observed the German squadron splitting up: the three light cruisers were turning to starboard, to the southwest, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were turning to port, east-northeast, directly into the path of the onrushing battle cruisers. Spee had realized that the British combination of 12-inch guns and higher speed gave his squadron no chance in a prolonged chase and that it was only a matter of minutes before the lagging Leipzig received a crippling blow. In order to give his three light cruisers a chance to escape, he chose to hurl his armored cruisers against the British battle cruisers. “Gneisenau will accept action. Light cruisers part company and try to escape,” the admiral signaled. The German light cruisers immediately turned to starboard, their wakes curling away from Scharnhorst.

Sturdee had foreseen that the German squadron might do this. In three typewritten pages of instructions issued at Abrolhos Rocks, he had instructed that if, in an action, the East Asia Squadron divided itself, the British battle cruisers would see to the destruction of the German armored cruisers, while the British armored cruisers dealt with the German light cruisers. Therefore, as soon as Luce in Glasgow saw the German light cruisers turn away, and without any signal from Sturdee, he immediately left his position ahead of the battle cruisers and made for the fleeing German ships. Kent and Cornwall followed Luce in this new chase while Carnarvon, now ten miles astern and too slow to have any chance of overtaking the enemy light cruisers, continued in the wake of the battle cruisers.

As his light cruisers swung away to the southwest, Spee led Scharnhorst and Gneisenau around hard to port, to the northeast toward Invincible and Inflexible. The main action between the battle cruisers and the armored cruisers now began with the two admirals jockeying for position. Spee’s hope was to get as close to the enemy as he could with his shorter-range guns, just as Cradock had tried to do with Good Hope and Monmouth at Coronel. Sturdee understood this maneuver and, four minutes after Spee had turned toward him, he deliberately turned 90 degrees to port, parallel with the enemy. Sturdee was resolved to fight at his own range, beyond the reach of the German 8.2-inch guns (13,500 yards), but within range of his own 12-inch (16,400 yards). He meant to use against Spee the same tactics that Spee had used against Cradock.

The two squadrons now were running parallel toward the northeast, with Invincible training on Scharnhorst, and Inflexible on Gneisenau. At 1:30 p.m., the German cruisers, their guns elevated to achieve maximum range, opened fire. Their first salvos were short; then, with the range diminishing to 12,000 yards, the third salvo straddled Invincible and five columns of water shot up around her. Soon, all four ships were firing broadsides, which included their rear turrets. “The German firing was magnificent to watch,” said an officer on Invincible, “perfect ripple salvos all along their sides. A brown-colored puff with a center of flame marking each gun as it fired. . . . They straddled us time after time.” Scharnhorst, especially, lived up to her reputation as a crack gunnery ship, and at 1:44 p.m., she hit Invincible. The shell burst against the battle cruiser’s side armor, causing a heavy concussion but failing to penetrate.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands II

From the beginning, Sturdee’s intention to fight at a range beyond the reach of Spee’s guns had been frustrated by the Germans’ having the lee position. The dense smoke from the battle cruisers’ funnels was blowing toward the enemy, obscuring the British gun layers’ view of their targets. In addition, the discrepancy between the range of the British 12-inch and the German 8.2-inch guns was only about 3,000 yards, a narrow margin for Sturdee to find and maintain. For a few moments when the range dropped below 12,000 yards, the Germans fired rapidly and effectively. Then, at two o’clock, to ensure that a lucky German shot did not cripple one of his battle cruisers, Sturdee edged his ships away to port and opened the range to 16,000 yards, where Spee could not reach him. At the same time, he reduced speed to 22 knots to lessen the effects of funnel smoke. For the next fifteen minutes, there was a lull in the action and the two squadrons gradually drew apart.

In this first phase, despite the disparity in strength, the battle had been far from one-sided. In contrast to the rapidity and accuracy of German fire, British gunnery had been an embarrassment. During the first thirty minutes of action, the two battle cruisers fired a total of 210 rounds of 12-inch ammunition. Inflexible had scored three hits on Gneisenau, one below the waterline and another temporarily putting an 8.2-inch gun out of action, while Invincible could claim only one probable hit on Scharnhorst. At this rate the battle cruisers would empty their magazines without sinking the enemy. The primary cause of this bad shooting was smoke. The wind blowing from the northwest carried dense funnel smoke and clouds of cordite gas belching from the gun muzzles down toward the enemy, almost completely blinding Invincible’s gunners in the midships and stern turrets. The only clear views were those over the bow from A turret and that of the gunnery officer high in the foretop. Inflexible’s situation was even worse: she was smothered and blinded not only by her own smoke but also by Invincible’s smoke blowing across her line of vision. This excuse notwithstanding, the performance of the battle cruisers caused deep misgivings. “It is certainly damned bad shooting,” a friend said to Lieutenant Harold Hickling of Glasgow. “We were all dismayed at the battle cruisers’ gunnery, the large spread, the slow and ragged fire,” Hickling added later. “An occasional shot would fall close to the target while others would be far short or over.” An officer in Invincible’s P turret was alarmed to observe that “we did not seem to be hitting the Scharnhorst at all.” Said Hickling, “At this rate, it looks as if Sturdee, not von Spee, is going to be sunk.”

Excessive smoke was not the only cause of the slow, inaccurate gunfire of the battle cruisers. A British officer in the spotting top of Invincible, Lieutenant Commander Hubert Dannreuther, who happened to be a godson of the composer Richard Wagner, found that his excellent, German-made stereoscopic rangefinder was rendered useless not only by smoke, but also by the vibration caused by the ship’s high speed, and by the violent shaking of the mast whenever A turret fired. In Invincible’s P turret, conditions were impossible. The gun layers could see nothing except enemy gun flashes through enveloping clouds of smoke, and every time Q turret, across the deck, fired over them, everyone in P turret was deafened and dazed by the blast. On Inflexible, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner in the battle cruiser’s foretop was almost the only man aboard his ship who could judge the location of the enemy, and he, handicapped by the smoke from the flagship ahead, had great difficulty observing what damage his gunners were causing.

From afar, however, the battle appeared as a dramatic tableau. “With the sun still shining on them, the German ships looked as if they had been painted for the occasion,” said an officer on Kent, coming up astern. “I have never seen heavy guns fired with such rapidity and yet such control. Flash after flash traveled down their sides from head to stern, all their 5.9-inch and 8.2-inch guns firing every salvo. Of the British battle cruisers, less could be seen as their smoke drifted across their range. Their shells were hitting the German ships. . . . Four or five times, the white puff of a bursting shell could be seen on Gneisenau. . . . By some trick of the wind, the sounds were inaudible and the view was of silent combat, the two lines of ships steaming away to the east.”

In fact, the few large British shells that managed to hit were inflicting serious damage. “A shell grazed the third funnel and exploded on the upper deck above . . . ,” said Gneisenau’s Commander Pochhammer. “Large pieces of shrapnel ripped down and reached the coal bunkers, killing a stoker. A deck officer had both his forearms torn off. A second shell exploded on the main deck, destroying the ship’s boats. Fragments smashed into the officers’ mess and wounded the officers’ little pet black pig. Another hit aft entered the ship on the waterline, pierced the armored deck and lodged in an ammunition chamber . . . [which] was flooded to prevent further damage. . . . These three hits killed or wounded fifty men.”

Suddenly, Spee made another move: he turned and made off to the south, hoping that the pall of smoke over the British ships would obscure his flight and that in that direction he might find a cloud bank, a rain squall, a bank of fog. Said Pochhammer: “Every minute we gained before nightfall might decide our fate. The engines were still intact and were doing their best.” Because of the smoke surrounding their ship, it took a few minutes for Invincible’s officers to realize what was happening; by then, Spee had opened the distance to 17,000 yards. Once Sturdee understood, he swung his battle cruisers around and chased at 24 knots. He still had sufficient time and the afternoon remained bright. This second pursuit lasted forty minutes, during which the range was reduced to 15,000 yards; then the battle cruisers turned to port to free their broadsides. At 2:45 p.m., the British battle cruisers recommenced the cannonade.

Eight minutes after Sturdee opened fire, Spee abandoned his southerly flight, and for the second time took his two armored cruisers around to the east to accept battle. The German ships turned in unison and once again broadside salvos of 12-inch and 8.2-inch shells thundered from the opposing lines. Spee now was trying to come closer. The British were within range of his 8.2-inch guns, but he was maneuvering to close to 10,000 yards, where his secondary armament of 5.9-inch guns could come into play. Gradually, the two lines drew nearer; by 3:00 p.m., the range had diminished to just over 10,000 yards and, at extreme elevation, the port German 5.9-inch batteries opened fire. Invincible suffered more heavily as German gunners concentrated on her; for the next fifteen minutes, Sturdee’s flagship was hit repeatedly by both 8.2-inch and 5.9-inch shells. One 8.2-inch shell plunged through two decks and burst in the sick bay, which was empty. Somehow, on the British ships, this kind of luck seemed to hold; the ship was pummeled, but there were almost no casualties. When the canteen was wrecked, crew members cheerfully gathered up the cigarettes, cigars, chocolate, and tins of pineapple scattered across the deck. Not all the German shells exploded. One 8.2-inch shell cut the muzzle of a forward 4-inch gun, descended two decks, and came to rest unexploded in the admiral’s storeroom, nestling between his jams and a Gorgonzola cheese. An unexploded 5.9-inch shell passed through the chaplain’s quarters, entered the paymaster’s cabin, where it tumbled dozens of gold sovereigns from his money chest over the deck, and then passed harmlessly out the ship’s side.

The action was now at its most intense. The fire of the battle cruisers had become more accurate and both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were blanketed by huge waterspouts. Now German spotters, like the British, were greatly hampered and could not see whether they were hitting. “The thick clouds of smoke from the British funnels and guns obscured our targets so that, apart from masts, only the sterns were visible,” said Pochhammer. “Again we tried to shorten the distance but this time the enemy was careful not to let us approach and we knew that we were in for a battle of extermination.” Time after time, Scharnhorst shuddered as 12-inch shells pierced her deck armor and exploded in her mess decks and casements. One 12-inch shell hit a 5.9-inch gun, exploded, and tumbled gun and gun crew into the sea. Gneisenau was also suffering. A huge explosion smashed the starboard engine room; water flooded in and, when the pumps became unworkable, the compartment was abandoned. Splashes from 12-inch shells landing in the sea nearby were throwing huge volumes of water over the decks, sometimes extinguishing fires set by previous, more accurate shells.

By 3:15 p.m., the action had been under way for two and a quarter hours. From the spotting tops, the scene remained the same: a cloudless sky, a calm surface ruffled by a breeze, and, from the two groups of ships, clouds of black smoke punctured by the orange flashes of guns. On Invincible’s bridge, Sturdee sensed that time was passing, the afternoon waning, the matter dragging out. The smoke interference plaguing his gun layers was now so intolerable that the admiral led his battle cruisers around to port, back across their own wakes, navigating an arc from which they emerged at 3:30 p.m. on a southwesterly course with Inflexible leading. This placed the battle cruisers on the windward side of the German ships and for the first time they had a clear view of their targets. With Inflexible now in front, Verner was at last able to observe the enemy and the effects of his own ship’s gunnery. By 3:35 p.m., he said, “for the first time I experienced the luxury of complete immunity from every form of interference. . . . I was now in a position to enjoy the control officer’s paradise: a good target, no alterations of course, and no ‘next-aheads’ or own smoke to worry one.” During the turn, two of Scharnhorst’s 8.2-inch shells struck Invincible’s stern, wrecking the electric store and the paint shop, and a 5.9-inch shell exploded on the front plate of A turret between the two guns, which dented, but did not pierce, the armor. These hits on the British battle cruisers did nothing to reduce their fighting value.

Spee countered Sturdee’s turn by suddenly turning again himself, this time back to starboard, heading northwest as if to parry Sturdee by crossing his bows. In fact, Spee’s reason for swinging his ships was that so many guns on the Scharnhorst’s port side were out of action that he wished to bring his other broadside to bear. And, indeed, once the turn freed her disengaged side, the fresh starboard batteries opened a brisk fire. Gneisenau, not nearly so badly damaged and still firing all of her 8.2-inch guns, followed the flagship around and engaged Invincible. British shells crashed into the sea near the German ship and drove torrents of seawater across the ruins of her upper deck. Fire parties found themselves struggling to keep their feet in this surging flood. Worse, a hit on Gneisenau below the waterline flooded two boiler rooms, reducing her speed to 16 knots and giving her a list to port that made her port 5.9-inch guns unusable.

At this moment, when the two squadrons were trading blow for blow, an apparition appeared four miles to the east. A white-hulled, full-rigged, three-masted sailing ship, flying the Norwegian flag and bound for the Horn with all canvas spread, was, in the words of a British officer, “a truly lovely sight . . . as she ran free in the light breeze, for all the world like a herald of peace.”

Scharnhorst, still plunging ahead through a forest of waterspouts, now had been struck by at least forty heavy shells. And there was no respite; with implacable regularity, orange flames glowed from Invincible’s turrets and a few minutes later more 850-pound shells burst on Scharnhorst’s deck or plunged through to the compartments below. What surprised the British was the volume of fire still coming back from a ship as badly battered as Scharnhorst. Her upper works were a jungle of torn and twisted steel; her masts and her third funnel were gone and the first and second funnels were leaning against each other; her bridge and her boats were wrecked; clouds of white steam billowed up from the decks; an enormous rent was torn in her side plating near the stern; red and orange flames could be seen in her interior; and she was down three feet at the waterline. Yet still her battle ensign fluttered from a jury mast above the after control station and still her starboard batteries fired. From Invincible’s spotting top, Dannreuther reported, “She was being torn apart and was blazing and it seemed impossible that anyone could still be alive.” On Inflexible, Verner, astounded by the continuing salvos from the German armored cruisers, ordered his crews to fire “rapid independent,” with the result that at one point, P turret had three shells in the air at the same time, all of which were seen to land on or near the target. Yet the German fire continued. “We were most obviously hitting [Scharnhorst,] but I could not stop her firing. . . . I remember asking my rate operator, ‘What the devil can we do?’ ”

At about this time, a shell splinter cut the halyard of Spee’s personal flag on Scharnhorst and Captain Maerker on Gneisenau noticed that the admiral’s flag no longer flew from the flagship’s peak. If Spee was dead, Maerker would be in command of the squadron. He signaled: “Why is the admiral’s flag at half mast? Is the admiral dead?”

Spee replied, “No, I am all right so far. Have you hit anything?”

“The smoke prevents all observation,” Maerker said.

Spee’s last signal was characteristically generous and fatalistic. “You were right after all,” he said to Maerker, who had opposed the attack on the Falklands.

Nevertheless, for another half hour, Scharnhorst’s starboard batteries boomed out. Then, just before four o’clock, she stopped firing. Sturdee signaled her to surrender, but there was no reply. Instead, slowly and painfully, the German cruiser’s bows came around. Listing to port, with three of her four funnels and both her masts shot away, her bow so low that waves were washing over the forecastle, Scharnhorst staggered across the water toward her enemy. As she did so, Spee sent his last signal to Gneisenau: “Endeavor to escape if your engines are still intact.” At just that moment, Carnarvon arrived on the scene and opened fire with her 7.5-inch and 6-inch guns. These blows were gratuitous. With water pouring into her bow, Scharnhorst rolled over on her side. Then, at 4:17 p.m., her flag still flying, her propellers turning in the air, the armored cruiser went down, leaving behind a cloud of steam and smoke. Every one of the 800 men on board, including Admiral von Spee, went down with her. Sturdee’s battle cruisers, still under fire from Gneisenau, did not stop to look for survivors, and fifteen minutes later, when Carnarvon passed over the spot, her crew saw nothing in the water except wreckage.

Once her sister was gone, Gneisenau was subjected to an hour and a half of target practice by the two British battle cruisers. Salvos of 12-inch and smaller shells smashed into the ship, shattering her funnels, masts, and superstructure and flooding a boiler room and an engine room. The Germans still fired back, aiming mainly at Invincible and hitting the British flagship three times in fifteen minutes. One of these hits struck and bent the armored belt at the waterline; the result was the flooding of one of the battle cruiser’s compartments. But this success could not reverse the conclusion. The British ships, steaming in a single ragged line, were firing at a range of 10,000 yards, but so dense was the smoke that they still had difficulty in observing their own gunfire. At 4:45 p.m., no longer able to contain his frustration, Inflexible’s Phillimore abruptly turned out of line, reversed himself to port, and ran through the smoke clouds out into the sunlight. Gneisenau lay 11,000 yards away on his starboard beam. Now with a clear and slow-moving target at relatively close range, Inflexible opened a devastating fire. Phillimore had no order from Sturdee to make this turn, but the admiral understood and later approved. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Sturdee ordered reforming of the original battle line with his flagship leading. Much to Verner’s disgust, he found himself once again blinded by Invincible’s smoke.

For the Germans, there was no chance of escape; Maerker faced a choice between surrender and annihilation. He made his choice and held his ship on a convergence course with Invincible, ordering stokers from the wrecked boiler and engine rooms to fill out the ammunition parties feeding the starboard batteries. Even at the end, according to the gunnery officer, “the men with their powder-blackened faces and arms, [were] calmly doing their duty in a cloud of smoke that grew ever denser as the firing continued; the rattling of the guns running backwards and forwards; the cries of encouragement from the officers, the monotonous sound of the order transmitters, and the tinkle of the salvo bells. Unrecognizable corpses were thrust aside; on the walls were splashes of blood and brains.” Below, seawater was pouring into an engine room, a boiler room, and a dynamo room and over the sucking and swirling sounds of water came the cries of trapped and drowning men. Dense clouds of smoke and steam swirled through total darkness. As the dead and wounded grew in number, the size of the ammunition parties dwindled. The wireless station was destroyed and the wireless officer’s head blown off. In the medical dressing station, the ship’s doctor and the ship’s chaplain were killed.

It was time to end it. Sturdee brought his ships in and pounded Gneisenau from 4,000 yards. The vessel was a place of carnage. Her bridge and foremast were shot away, her upper deck a mass of twisted steel, half her crew dead or wounded. One of Carnarvon’s shots had buckled Gneisenau’s armored deck, jamming it against the steering gear and forcing the ship into a slow, involuntary turn to starboard. Yet despite this devastation, the armored cruiser’s port guns and fore turret continued to fire spasmodically. At 4:47 p.m., she ceased firing and no colors were seen, but it was uncertain whether she had struck—several times her colors had been shot away, and each time they had been hoisted again. At 5:08 p.m., her forward funnel crashed over the side. By 5:15 p.m., Gneisenau had been silent long enough for Sturdee to order “Cease Fire,” but before the signal could be hoisted, a jammed ammunition hoist on Gneisenau came free, shells again reached the cruiser’s fore turret, and a final, solitary shot was fired at Invincible. Grimly, the battle cruisers returned to work. A last British salvo was fired and she halted, rocking in the swell, water flooding in through the lower starboard gun ports. At 5:50, Sturdee repeated his signal to “Cease Fire.” Still, the German cruiser’s flag remained flying.

At 5:40 p.m., Maerker had given orders to scuttle the ship. The stern torpedoes were fired and the submerged tubes left open to the sea while explosive charges were fired in the main and starboard engine rooms. With thick smoke clinging to her decks and water gurgling and gushing through the hull, the ship rolled slowly over onto her starboard side. Gneisenau went down differently from Scharnhorst, submerging so slowly that men on deck were able to muster and climb down the ship’s sides as she heeled over. Survivors estimated that about 300 men were still alive at that time. Emerging on deck, the men, coal blackened from the bunkers and the engine rooms, carried the wounded with them and began putting on life belts. As the ship slowly heeled over, Captain Maerker ordered three cheers for the kaiser and there was a thin chorus of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” When the order “All men overboard” came, the men slid down the side and jumped into the water. At 6:00 p.m., Gneisenau sank and British seamen, watching from Inflexible, began to cheer until the captain ordered silence and commanded his men to stand at silent attention as their enemy went down.

When their ship went down, between 200 and 300 survivors were left struggling in the water. A misty, drizzling rain was falling, the sea was beginning to roughen, there was a biting wind, and the temperature of the water was 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The British battle cruisers, 4,000 yards away, carefully closed in on the survivors, attempting to repair and launch their own damaged boats, steaming slowly, lowering boats, and throwing ropes. All around the ships, rising and falling on the swell, men floated, some on hammocks, some on spars, some dead, some still alive and struggling, then drowning before a boat could reach them. A few German sailors were able by their own efforts to swim to the high steel sides of a British ship and be pulled in by ropes. Some were so numbed by the shock of cold water that they could not hold on to anything and drowned within sight of the rescuing boats and ships. Some were alive but too weak and, before they could be brought in, drifted helplessly away into the dark. The wind brought awful cries from the men in the water. “We cast overboard every rope end we had . . . ,” said a young English midshipman, “trying to throw to some poor wretch feebly struggling within a few yards of the ship’s side. If we missed him, the swell would carry him out of reach. We could do nothing but try for another man. . . . Some of the Germans floated away, calling for help. It was shocking to see the look on their faces as they drifted away and we could do nothing to save them.” Every effort was made; when Carnarvon with Stoddart on board reacted slowly in joining the rescue work, Sturdee dropped his mask of imperturbability. “Lower all your boats at once,” he signaled imperatively, and Carnarvon lowered three boats, which picked up twenty Germans. By 7:30 p.m., the rescue work was completed. Of Gneisenau’s complement of 850 men, Invincible had brought aboard 108, fourteen of whom were found to be dead after being lifted on deck. Inflexible picked up sixty-two, and Carnarvon twenty. Heinrich von Spee, the admiral’s son, did not survive.

One of those saved was Commander Pochhammer, second in command of Gneisenau. After the war, he recalled:

The ship inclined more and more. I had to hold tight to the wall of the bridge to avoid sliding . . . then Gneisenau pitched violently and the process of capsizing began. . . . I felt the ship giving way under me. I heard the roaring and surging of the water come nearer. . . . The sea invaded a corner of the bridge and caught me. . . . I was caught in a whirlpool and dragged into an abyss. The water eddied and murmured around me and droned in my ears. . . . I opened my eyes and noticed it was brighter. . . . I came to the surface. The sea was heaving. . . . I saw . . . [our ship] a hundred yards away, her keel in the air[;] the red paint on her bottom glistened in the sunset. In the water around me were men who gradually formed large and small groups. . . . Albatrosses with three to four yards wingspan surveyed the field of the dead and avidly sought prey. . . . It was a consoling though mournful sight to see the first of the English ships approaching . . . to see her brought to a standstill as near to us as appeared possible, her silent crew ranged along the side, throwing spars to help support us and making ready to launch boats. One boat was put in the water, then re-hoisted because obviously it was damaged and leaked. . . . The wind and the swell were slowly driving the English away from us. Eventually, two boats were launched . . . a smaller one . . . [came] in our direction, a sort of dinghy, four men were rowing . . . a young midshipman in the bow. A long life line was thrown to me . . . [but] I lacked strength to climb into the boat. The boat was half full of water. Eventually, the little boat bobbed alongside the giant, whose flanks had a dirty, yellow color. . . . I was quite unable to climb the rope ladder offered to me. A slip knot was passed under my arms . . . and then, all dripping, I found myself on a ship of His Britannic Majesty. From the hat bands I saw it was the Inflexible.

Wrapped in blankets, given a hot-water bottle and brandy, and placed in a bunk in the admiral’s quarters, Pochhammer was treated as a guest of honor. Even in the cabin, the German officer was cold; British warships, he discovered, were not heated by steam but by small electric stoves. Captain Phillimore came to see him and invited him to dinner in the officers’ wardroom. There, Pochhammer, who spoke English, was offered ham, eggs, sherry, and port. Gradually, other rescued German officers appeared. That evening, as the senior surviving officer of the East Asia Squadron, he was handed a message from Admiral Sturdee: “Flag to Inflexible. Please convey to Commander of Gneisenau: The Commander-in-Chief is very gratified that your life has been spared and we all feel that the Gneisenau fought in a most plucky manner to the end. We much admire the good gunnery of both ships. We sympathize with you in the loss of your admiral and so many officers and men. Unfortunately the two countries are at war. The officers of both navies who can count friends in the other have to carry out their country’s duty, which your admiral, captain and officers worthily maintained to the end.” Commander Pochhammer replied to Sturdee: “In the name of all our officers and men I thank Your Excellency very much for your kind words. We regret, as you, the course of the fight as we have learned to know during peacetime the English Navy and her officers. We are all most thankful for our good reception.” That night, falling asleep, Pochhammer felt the vibrations as Inflexible moved at high speed through the South Atlantic.

The pursuit of the German light cruisers continued through the afternoon into darkness. For over two hours, from 1:25 p.m. to 3:45 p.m., in a straightforward stern chase, Glasgow, Kent, and Cornwall raced south after Leipzig, Dresden, and Nürnberg. The pursuing British ships—two armored cruisers and a light cruiser—were overwhelmingly superior in armament: Kent and Cornwall each carried fourteen 6-inch guns and Glasgow had two 6-inch and ten 4-inch; if the British could catch the Germans, the outcome was certain. In this situation, however, success depended more on speed than on guns and, except in the case of Glasgow, the margin of speed was narrow.

When the three German light cruisers broke away to the south, they were ten to twelve miles ahead of their pursuers. Had their design speed still been applicable—Nürnberg’s and Dresden’s were over 24 knots, Leipzig’s 23—their chance of escape would have been excellent. Nominally, Glasgow, designed to reach 26½ knots, could catch them, but one ship could not possibly have overtaken and overwhelmed three. Here, however, design speeds did not apply. The German ships had been at sea for four months with no opportunity to clean their hulls, boilers, and condensers. Beyond decreased efficiency and slower speeds, any attempt to force these propulsion systems to generate sustained high speeds could actually pose a threat. Under the extreme pressures reached in a high-speed run, boilers and condenser tubes contaminated by the processing of millions of gallons of salt water might leak, rupture, even explode.

Glasgow quickly developed 27 knots and drew ahead of Cornwall and Kent. By 2:45 p.m., Luce, who was the senior officer on the three British cruisers, found himself nearly four miles ahead of his own two armored cruisers and within 12,000 yards of Leipzig. He opened fire with his bow 6-inch gun. One shell hit Leipzig, provoking her to turn sharply to port to reply with a 4.1-inch broadside. The first German salvo straddled Glasgow and when the next salvo scored two hits, Luce pulled back out of range. This reciprocal maneuver was repeated several times, but each time Leipzig turned to fire, she lost ground, giving the two slower British armored cruisers opportunity to creep up.

At 3:45 p.m., the German light cruiser force divided. Dresden, in the lead, turned to the southwest, Nürnberg turned east, and Leipzig continued south. Luce had to make a choice. For over an hour, his Glasgow, in front of Kent and Cornwall, had been firing at Leipzig, the rearmost of the German ships. The leading German ship, Dresden, already had a start on him of sixteen miles. The sky was clouding over; rain squalls were in the offing; at the earliest, if he pursued the distant Dresden, Luce could not come up within range until 5:30 p.m. He therefore decided to make sure of the two nearer, slower German ships and to let Dresden go. As the sky became overcast, then turned to mist and drizzle, Dresden grew fainter in the distance and eventually faded from sight.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands III

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Inflexible standing by to pick up survivors from the German cruiser SMS Gneisenau after the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

The three pursuing British ships now followed two Germans: Glasgow and Cornwall pursued Leipzig to the south, while Kent went after Nürnberg to the east. Cornwall began hitting Leipzig with her fourteen 6-inch guns, while Leipzig gamely hit back at Cornwall with her ten 4.1-inch guns. Cornwall, shielded by her armor, thrust on without hesitation to give and take punishment. Using Sturdee’s tactics, she closed the enemy at full speed, firing her forward guns, then, as soon as Leipzig began to hit back, turned sharply to starboard to bring her broadside to bear. And while Cornwall was drawing Leipzig’s fire, Glasgow closed in from a different direction to hammer the enemy with her own 6-inch and 4-inch batteries. For nearly an hour, these tactics continued. Leipzig, hit time after time, was doomed, but her gunfire remained expert. She fired rapidly, hitting Glasgow three times and Cornwall ten.

At 6:00 p.m., with the range down to 7,000 yards, Cornwall began firing special high-explosive shells. The effect was immediate. A large fire broke out forward on Leipzig and her gunfire became sporadic. Nevertheless, the German light cruiser continued to fire back until 7:05 p.m., by which point her mainmast and two of her funnels were gone and she had become an inferno of flashes and dark smoke. At this point, Cornwall ceased fire, expecting the enemy to strike her colors. Leipzig did not strike. Accordingly, Cornwall closed to 5,000 yards and fired more salvos. When the two British cruisers drew in to see whether she had struck, she was seen to be a wreck, but her flag was still flying on the remains of her foremast. Luce waited. He was about to signal, “Am anxious to save life. Do you surrender?” when Leipzig fired another—and as it turned out, final—shot.

What happened next was the result of a grim misunderstanding. Leipzig had fired her last shot. Captain Haun was ready to abandon and scuttle his ship; her seacocks had been opened and Haun had ordered all hands on deck with their lifesaving gear. A hundred and fifty men gathered amidships, hoping to be saved. But the German ensign was flying. Luce, for his part, was ready to accept Leipzig’s surrender, but with the flag still flying she was considered an active enemy. The difficulty was that the fires burning around the base of the mast where the flag was flying prevented anyone from lowering it. Haun already had told his men, “If anyone can reach the ensign, they can haul it down, for we shall sink now”; one sailor had made a dash through the inferno and collapsed, burning, before he reached the mast. The British waited for a reply that did not come, and at 7:25 p.m., Luce ordered both Glasgow and Cornwall to resume firing. The effect on the groups of men gathered on Leipzig’s open deck was appalling. The shells burst in the middle of the groups; a few minutes earlier, when the light cruiser had fired its last shot, there had been 150 men left. Now fifty remained.

At 8:12 p.m., Leipzig, listing and seeming about to capsize, fired two green distress lights. Luce took these as a signal of surrender, ordered another cease-fire, and cautiously approached within 500 yards. At 8:45 p.m., Luce ordered boats put in the water. Glasgow and Cornwall each lowered two boats as fast as they could be made seaworthy. Among those still alive on Leipzig was Captain Haun, who, when the British again stopped firing, sat calmly sharing his cigarettes. When he saw the rescue boats approaching, Haun ordered the survivors into the water. Then, still smoking, he walked forward and disappeared. The boats were within forty yards of the stricken ship and the boat crews saw German seamen jumping into the water when Leipzig sank. Heeling over to port, a mass of flames and smoke, she disappeared at 9:23 p.m., eighty miles from the point where Gneisenau had gone down. Glasgow’s boats picked up seven officers and ten men; Cornwall, one man. The high proportion of officers saved was due to the whistles they carried for use in the water.

Leipzig had hit Cornwall eighteen times, but because of her armor plate, the British cruiser had not lost a single gun or man. Glasgow was hit twice; one man was killed and four wounded. Because Glasgow’s magazines were empty of 6-inch shells, the two British ships returned to Port Stanley.

At 4:15 that afternoon, Kent had just begun firing at Leipzig when Nürnberg left her sisters and steamed away to the east. Kent followed Nürnberg. The two ships were different in almost every way. Kent was an armored cruiser with heavier guns, but she was old and had been recommissioned only sixty-seven days before. Three-fifths of her crew were from the naval reserve. When she left Portsmouth for the South Atlantic on October 12, half her crew became seasick in the Bay of Biscay. By November 13, the ship’s doctor was writing in his diary, “We are a crippled old ship, rushed out before our engine room was really efficient. We are now unable to condense water quickly enough and cannot steam more than ten knots. So we crawl south.” Kent joined Stoddart’s squadron at the Abrolhos Rocks before Sturdee’s arrival and went out to fire her 6-inch guns at a target 5,000 yards away. “Our shooting was rotten,” her doctor summarized. Nürnberg, on the other hand, was a modern light cruiser with a professional crew. Her armament was inferior but her shooting was excellent. On paper, both ships were listed as capable of 23 knots, but Kent, having repaired her old engines and by some nautical miracle, would actually exceed that. By 11:00 on the morning of the Falklands battle, she reached 23 knots; by 4:00 p.m. she was moving at 24, partly because she was light, having loaded no coal since Abrolhos. Kent’s speed also owed something to the frenzied efforts of the crew, who, to make up for the shortage of coal, fed everything made of wood aboard the ship into the furnaces: gunnery targets, ship’s ladders and doors, the officers’ wardroom furniture, the crew’s mess tables, benches, the chaplain’s lectern and the paymaster’s desk; at the end, timbers were being ripped from the decks.

As the afternoon wore on, the weather turned to mist and drizzle. Nevertheless, the race went on and Kent began to catch up. At 5:00 p.m., when Kent was 11,000 yards astern, Nürnberg opened fire. Nine minutes later, Kent fired back with her bow 6-inch gun. For some time no apparent damage was done to either ship. Then, at 5:35, just as Kent had begun to despair of a decisive action before dark, Nürnberg abruptly slowed to 19 knots. Two of her careworn, salt-contaminated boilers had burst and, although outwardly she still appeared undamaged, she was unable to flee. With the range reduced to 4,000 yards, Captain von Schönberg took his ship around for her last fight, broadside to broadside. Kent, willing to accept hits on her armor, bored in, using her heavier guns. Most of Nürnberg’s 4.1-inch shells failed to penetrate, exploding against the armored sides of Kent. One shell, however, burst in a gun position, killing or wounding most of its crew. Shortly before 6:00 p.m., another hit wrecked Kent’s wireless room; thereafter, the ship could receive wireless messages, but could not transmit.

Meanwhile, Nürnberg was on fire, her funnels were torn and twisted, her mainmast was gone, and only two guns on the port side were firing. Still, she refused to surrender. By 6:25 p.m., she was dead in the water; after 6:35, she fired no more shots. Kent then ceased fire and stood off awaiting surrender, but the German colors remained flying. The British fired again and at 6:57 p.m., the colors were hauled down. Nürnberg, now a burning wreck, lowered wounded men into her one surviving boat, which promptly sank. Kent closed in through the mist and saw the flames dancing above the light cruiser’s deck and shooting out from portholes and jagged holes in the hull. The rain pattering on the decks and hissing into the fires had little effect because it was accompanied by gusts of wind that fanned the flames more than the rain quenched them. As Kent launched two hurriedly patched boats, Nürnberg’s captain gathered the survivors, thanked them, called for three cheers for the fatherland, then marched to his conning tower to await the end. With Nürnberg settling by the bow, Kent’s searchlight picked up a German seaman, standing high in the air on her upraised stern, waving a German ensign lashed to a pole. At 7:27 p.m., Nürnberg turned on her side and sank. Those on Kent’s deck heard faint cries from the water and the British ship steamed slowly toward them, throwing ropes over the side and using searchlights to assist the searching boat crews. The sea was growing rougher, the water was intensely cold, and albatrosses arrived to attack the living and dead floating in their life jackets. Nevertheless, until 9:00 p.m. Kent’s boats continued to search. Of 400 men in Nürnberg’s crew, twelve were picked up alive; five of these later died. Otto von Spee was never found and became the third member of his family to die that day.

Kent had been hit thirty-seven times by 4.1-inch shells, but her armor had not been pierced. Her casualties were four killed and twelve wounded. That night, Kent’s officers ate boiled ham and went to bed. Next morning, they found their ship surrounded by deep fog and their captain uncertain as to where he was. The ship was critically short of coal and with her radio out of action, they could hear other ships calling “ ‘Kent! Kent!’ . . . but we could not transmit”; the result was that for twenty-four hours, Admiral Sturdee and the rest of the British squadron remained ignorant of her fate. The following afternoon, Kent limped into Port Stanley.

Sturdee, hearing nothing from Kent and fearing the worst, had taken Invincible, Inflexible, and Bristol to the southwest at 18 knots, making for Kent’s last known position. She might be sunk; her men still might be alive in the sea. He found nothing; the following afternoon a message from Macedonia announced that Kent was making for Port Stanley and that she had sunk Nürnberg. Sturdee still wanted Dresden, but by 10:30 a.m. on December 10, when he was within fifty miles of Staten Island at the eastern end of Tierra del Fuego, the fog was so thick that continuing the search was useless. With his battle cruisers short of coal, Sturdee abandoned the hunt and returned to the Falklands, arriving in Port William at 6:30 a.m. on the eleventh. There, with a strong west wind chopping the waters of the bay, he found the other ships of his squadron anchored and coaling. As soon as her anchor was dropped, Invincible’s divers went down and found a hole in her hull six feet by seven feet.

That night, Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau was invited by Sturdee to a dinner party aboard the flagship. As the guest of honor, he was placed at the British admiral’s right hand and, during the meal, responded to questions about the battle. At the end of the dinner, glasses of port were passed around and Sturdee informed his guest that he was about to propose the traditional toast of “The King” but that he would understand if Pochhammer preferred not to drink. The German commander replied that, having accepted Sturdee’s invitation to dinner, he would conform to the Royal Navy’s established custom, which he knew well from prewar days. Back in Germany after the war, however, Pochhammer gave a different version of the incident. When Sturdee proposed the toast, he said later, he considered it “outrageous” and had “an overwhelming desire to throw my glass of port on the deck. My glass almost shivered in my hand, so angry did I feel. For a moment, I meditated throwing the contents in the face of this high personage [Sturdee].” Eventually, in fact, Pochhammer placed the glass back on the table without raising it. An awkward silence followed until Phillimore of Inflexible resumed conversation. In general, British hospitality was extended to all German officers. What particularly impressed Verner was the German officers’ “emphatic and unanimous statement that when they received the news that Great Britain had allied herself with France, they could hardly believe their senses. In their own words it was to them ‘absolutely incredible’ that Englishmen could ever become the Allies of so degenerate a race as the French.” From Macedonia, which left Port William with the German pris-oners on board on December 14, a German lieutenant wrote home, “There is nothing at all to show that we are prisoners of war.”

At 3:00 a.m. on the thirteenth, Sturdee was awakened and handed a report from the Admiralty: the British consul in Punta Arenas had reported that Dresden had arrived in that harbor on the afternoon of the twelfth and was coaling. The original message had been sent thirty-six hours before and only Bristol was ready for sea, but at 4:00 a.m. she sailed. At 8:30 a.m., Inflexible and Glasgow followed. Bristol arrived at Punta Arenas on the afternoon of the fourteenth to find that Dresden had departed at 10:00 the night before. Invincible remained at Port William for three days, making temporary repairs. She had been hit twenty-two times; twelve of these hits were by 8.2-inch shells. Two bow compartments were flooded. Most serious was the nasty hole on the waterline, which flooded a coal bunker alongside P turret, giving the ship a 15-degree list to port. This hole was beyond the capacity of the ship’s company to repair so the bunker was left flooded and all surrounding bulkheads were shored up. Remarkably, despite the physical damage to the ship, not one of Invincible’s crew of 950 had been killed and only two were slightly wounded. Inflexible, obscured so long by the flagship’s smoke, had received only three hits. Splinters had killed one man and wounded three others.

On December 15, Invincible, with Sturdee on board, steamed out of Port Stanley. On the twentieth, she anchored in the river Plate to coal, then coaled again at Abrolhos on December 26. On January 11, the battle cruiser reached Gibraltar and went into dry dock. Sturdee and his staff departed from there for England on January 28 on board the liner India. Leaving Invincible, the admiral shook hands with all the officers while the crew, lining the rails, gave him three cheers. Sturdee was enormously pleased with himself. The night after the battle, he had turned to Invincible’s captain and said, “Well, Beamish, we were sacked from the Admiralty, but we’ve done pretty well.”

How well, in fact, had he done? Sturdee’s assignment had been to destroy a far weaker enemy, one who had neither the strength to defeat him nor the speed to escape. Why had it taken so long—three and a half hours to sink Scharnhorst and five to sink Gneisenau? The two battle cruisers had fired as many as 600 shells apiece, the greater part of their 12-inch ammunition, to sink the two armored cruisers. There were many reasons for what at first sight seemed inefficient ship handling and inept gunnery in the British squadron. Before the war, few British naval officers had appreciated the inherent inaccuracy of naval guns at long range. The only time that Lieutenant Commander Dannreuther, the gunnery officer of Invincible, had been allowed to fire at ranges in excess of 6,000 yards was during the practice authorized by Sturdee on the way south to the Falklands—and he had been gunnery officer of the battle cruiser since 1912. Nor had peacetime practice disclosed the difficulties of shooting accurately from a rapidly moving platform at a rapidly moving target. Further, no one had considered that when ships were traveling at high speed, the intense vibration created by engines and propellers might rattle and blur the gun layers’ and trainers’ telescopes. Nor had prewar maneuvers revealed the obscuring effects of billowing funnel smoke at high speed. As the war went on, the expected rate of shells fired to hits achieved became 5 percent. That was approximately the ratio in the Falklands, but at this early time in the war, everyone expected better and therefore it seemed a failure.

Nevertheless, Sturdee had in large part fulfilled the task entrusted to him. His achievement, within four weeks of leaving the Admiralty, was hailed, not least by the inhabitants of the Falklands. “It really is a spanking victory,” wrote the governor’s aide-de-camp. “Last night His Excellency had all the Volunteers and most of the so-called leading people of Port Stanley up to Government House for a drink to the King and the Royal Navy.” The king himself sent congratulations and, on December 11, Sturdee received signals from Jellicoe on behalf of the Grand Fleet and from the French and Russian admiralties. Beatty, tired of constant criticism of the navy, said, “It has done us all a tremendous amount of good. . . . I hope it will put a stop to a lot of the unpleasant remarks . . . that the British Navy has been an expensive luxury and is not doing its job.” Beresford sent his “warm congratulations on the splendid achievement of my old friend and chief of staff . . . how clever of him to find out the enemy so quickly.”

[On the matter of promptitude, Sturdee subsequently gave no credit to Luce for the timely arrival of the British squadron at Port Stanley. Indeed, when Luce reminded him of their discussion at Abrolhos Rocks, Sturdee reacted coldly. Yet if Luce had not persuaded the admiral to leave Abrolhos a day before he meant to, Spee would have reached the Falklands first. What might have happened then, no one can say.]

Fisher was overjoyed at the victory, but not at all pleased with Sturdee. The triumph was, in fact, Fisher’s greatest of the entire war and praise was heaped on the First Sea Lord, because of the victory and because it vindicated his conception of the battle cruiser. This was what battle cruisers had been designed to do: to hunt down enemy armored cruisers “like an armadillo and lap them up.” Gleefully, he called the battle “the only substantial victory of ours in the war (and as Nelson wished, it was not a victory, it was annihilation). . . . And the above accomplished under the sole direction of a septuagenarian First Sea Lord who was thought mad for denuding the Grand Fleet of our fastest battle cruisers to send them 14,000 miles on a supposed wild goose chase . . . and how I was execrated for inventing the battle cruisers.” On December 10, Fisher wrote to Churchill, “We cannot but be overjoyed at the Monmouth and Good Hope being avenged! But let us be self-restrained—not too exultant—till we know details! Perhaps their guns never reached us! (We had so few casualties!) We know THEIR gunnery was excellent! Their THIRD salvo murdered Cradock! So it may have been like shooting pheasants: the pheasants not shooting back! Not too much glory for us, only great satisfaction. . . . Let us wait and hear before we crow! Then again, it may be a wonder why the cruisers escaped—if they have escaped—I hope not. . . . How Glasgow must have enjoyed it!” Churchill wrote back: “This was your show and your luck. I should have only sent one greyhound [battle cruiser] and Defence. This would have done the trick. But it was a niggling coup. Your flair was quite true. Let us have some more victories together and confound all our foes abroad—and (don’t forget) at home.” Delighted, Fisher replied, “Your letter pleasant. . . . It is all too sweet for words. . . . It is palpably transparent.”

Despite these glowing words, the First Lord and the First Sea Lord soon found themselves in acute disagreement. The subject was Sturdee. Fisher was furious that Dresden had not been destroyed and, in a vindictive spasm, declared that Sturdee should not leave South American waters until the fugitive light cruiser had been hunted down. As Invincible and Inflexible had to come home, this would have meant transferring Sturdee to Carnarvon, an inferior command for a vice admiral and a public slap on the heels of his recent triumph. When Churchill vetoed this proposal, Fisher went into a sulk. Dresden’s escape, the First Sea Lord said, was “criminal ineptitude.” After the battle, Fisher complained, Sturdee had swept a limited area for only a single day, then abandoned the search. Fisher felt that it must have been obvious where Dresden was headed and that immediately after the action, Sturdee should have sent at least one ship to Punta Arenas. On December 13, when Sturdee was informed that Dresden was back at Punta Arenas intending to coal, the Admiralty ordered him to destroy her before she could be interned by the Chilean government. Once again, Dresden escaped before Sturdee’s cruisers could arrive. On all these counts, Fisher’s wrath boiled high. In three blunt messages, he asked Sturdee to “report fully reason for course you have followed since action.” Highly irritated, Sturdee retorted, “Their Lordships selected me as Commander-in-Chief to destroy the two hostile armored cruisers and I endeavoured to the best of my ability to carry out their orders. I submit that my being called upon in three separate telegrams to give reasons for my subsequent action was unexpected.” Fisher would have none of this. “Last paragraph of . . . your signal . . . is improper and such observations must not be repeated,” he thundered, adding, “Their Lordships await your written report and dispatches before coming to any conclusion.”

In Fisher’s view, he himself was primarily responsible for the Falklands victory and Sturdee was simply lucky. Fisher, as First Sea Lord, had designed the ships and had sent them out on time. Now here was Sturdee, praised in every newspaper, returning to London to receive public acclaim for an easy victory won with Fisher’s greyhounds. Here, too, was Sturdee, offered command of the eight dreadnoughts of the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. And eventually, in the 1916 honors list, Sturdee was to be named a baronet, the first promotion to an hereditary knighthood for a naval officer since Trafalgar. Jealous and infuriated, Fisher continued to characterize Sturdee’s tactics as “dilatory and theatrical.” After the battle, when Sturdee passed through London and reported to the Admiralty on his way to Scapa Flow, he was kept waiting for several hours before the First Sea Lord would see him. The interview lasted five minutes, during which, according to Sturdee, Fisher displayed no interest in the battle except to criticize his failure to sink Dresden.

Captain Herbert Richmond, a staff officer who disliked Sturdee, agreed wholeheartedly with Fisher. It was “an irony,” he said, “that Sturdee, the man who more than anyone else is responsible for the loss of Cradock’s squadron, should be . . . made a national hero. . . . The enemy . . . [ran] into his arms and [saved] him the trouble of searching for them. He puts to sea with his . . . greatly superior force and has only to steer after them and sink them which he not unnaturally does. If he didn’t he would indeed be a duffer. Yet for this simple piece of service, he is acclaimed as a marvelous strategist and tactician. So are reputations made!” Fisher, whose hates were inscribed on granite, never forgave. “No one in history was ever kicked on to a pedestal like Sturdee,” he wrote in 1919. “If he had been allowed to pack all the shirts he wanted to take, and if Edgerton . . . [the port admiral at] Plymouth had not been given that peremptory order, Sturdee would have been looking for von Spee still.”

Meanwhile, Dresden had disappeared. After the battle, she had rounded Cape Horn, passed through the Cockburn Channel, and anchored at Scholl Bay in the wildest region of Tierra del Fuego. On December 11, with her coal bunkers empty, she made her way sixty miles north to Punta Arenas, where she was allowed to coal and from where her presence was reported to Sturdee at Port Stanley. Captain Lüdecke’s next refuge was in lonely Hewett Bay, 130 miles down the Barbara Channel, which offered many avenues of escape into the Pacific Ocean. Thereafter, the fugitive ship spent weeks hiding in the maze of channels and bays that divided the desolate islands on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego.

The British began a methodical search. There were dozens of possible hiding places and Glasgow and Bristol looked into most of them, searching the Magellan Straits and the islands and channels around Cape Horn, ferreting through uninhabited bays, sounds, and inlets. Inflexible steamed up the coast of Chile, into the Gulf of Penas and Bahía San Quintín, where Spee had coaled before rounding the Horn. Glasgow and Bristol passed through the Darwin Channel and into Puerto Montt, searching the Chilean coastal fjords along the way, then rendezvoused with Inflexible off Cape Tres Montes. On December 19, Inflexible, having gone up the coast as far as Coronel, was withdrawn from the search and ordered home to England. She returned, ultimately, not to the North Sea, but to the Dardanelles.

All summer—this was the southern hemisphere—Kent and Glasgow continued hunting Dresden through narrow channels lined by mountains, glaciers, and forests. “Occasionally,” wrote Glasgow’s Hirst, “at the head of some magnificent gorge, the lower slopes of a glacier show pale green shades against the snow. . . . The water has all the glassy calm of a Scottish loch, but a tide line of streaky bubbles shows on either side and occasionally we meet twisted tree trunks. . . . The majestic silence leaves a deep impression unrelieved by any cheering signs of human habitation. As night closes in and the vault darkens, the ship seems proceeding slowly up the aisle of a cathedral . . . deep bays become transepts and choir and a fringe of low islands ahead lining the channel draped in snow are the surpliced priests. Solitude reigns eternal in this abyss of waters.” But solitude did not mean peace for the British crews. Approaching an unknown headland, the men were at action stations, their guns training slowly, as the ship steamed cautiously around bare rock cliffs, the far side of which they could not see. They were playing hide-and-seek and the enemy might pounce on them from behind any headland with guns firing at point-blank range and torpedoes in the water. They found only uninhabited landscapes, flocks of aquatic birds, and myriads of fish and other sea creatures.

In mid-February, Dresden began moving north up the coast of Chile, keeping 200 miles out to sea to avoid detection. Her luck was waning, however, and on March 8, an afternoon fog burned off and Kent and Dresden suddenly sighted each other, 11,000 yards apart. For five hours, Kent struggled to get within range: at one point flames thirty feet high were coming out of her funnels; at another, most of the crew was ordered aft to sit over the propeller to make it “bite” harder. It was not enough: once again, Dresden drew off and disappeared. During the chase, however, Kent intercepted a signal from Dresden telling a collier to meet her at Más á Tierra in the Juan Fernández Islands. The following day, Dresden arrived in Cumberland Bay on Más á Tierra and anchored 500 yards from shore. Twenty-four hours passed and the Chilean government declared that, in accordance with international law, the German ship must consider herself interned. Captain Lüdecke argued that his engines were disabled and that international law permitted him to stay eight days for repairs. As the island had no wireless communication with the mainland, the governor could do nothing except to send a lobster boat to inform his government. Dresden, of course, down to forty tons of coal, was waiting for her collier.

On the basis of the intercepted message, Kent summoned Glasgow and together the two ships steamed toward Más á Tierra. At dawn on March 14, the two British cruisers rounded Cumberland Point. There at last, half hidden against the volcanic walls rising 3,000 feet behind her, they saw Dresden. She was at anchor, her flag flying, smoke wisping up from her funnels. As Glasgow approached, Dresden trained her guns. Luce, deciding that this was not the behavior of an interned ship and justifying his own action by Dresden’s repeated violations of Chilean neutrality, opened fire. The Germans fired back. At this point, the Chilean governor, who was in a small boat headed out to meet the British ships, found himself on a battlefield with shells falling near his boat. He hurried to safety. Within four minutes, the battle was over and Dresden, on fire and with a hole at her waterline, hoisted a white flag. A steamboat flying a parley flag from Dresden brought Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris to complain that the German light cruiser was in Chilean territorial waters and therefore under Chilean protection.

[Canaris later became an admiral and chief of Hitler’s military intelligence. In 1944, he was involved in an anti-Hitler conspiracy, for which, in the final weeks of World War II, he was hanged by the Gestapo.]

Luce called out to him that the question of neutrality could be settled by diplomats and that meanwhile, unless Dresden surrendered, he would blow her out of the water. During this time, Captain Lüdecke had been busy with preparations to scuttle his ship and when the parley boat returned, Dresden’s company, many of them still half dressed, scrambled into their boats and made for the shore. The sea valves were opened and the German crew gathered on the beach to watch their ship sink. For twenty minutes, they were anxious as the vessel showed no signs of going down. Then, suddenly, she rolled over to port, water pouring down her funnels, and sank. On shore, the Germans sang their national anthem.

One midshipman and eight sailors from Dresden had been killed and three officers and twelve men were wounded. The ships’ doctors from Glasgow and Kent went ashore and amputated the right leg of Dresden’s second in command. One British doctor, feeling that Lüdecke, the captain, was rude, retaliated by writing in his journal that Lüdecke had a “villainous-looking face” and “a great pendulous nose.” Now that Dresden had disappeared, the Chilean governor switched his protest of violated neutrality to the British, who, he said, had caused property damage: two British shells had come ashore without exploding and other shell fragments had ricocheted. Luce resolved the matter by taking ashore a bag of gold sovereigns and asking the inhabitants to line up and make their claims. The wrecking of a lobster shed was settled for £60. A claim on behalf of a cow, said to be so frightened by a falling shell that she might never again produce milk, was liquidated for £15. The governor then gave Luce a certificate declaring that all claims against the British navy had been settled.

Dresden was the last survivor of the German overseas cruisers scattered around the world at the outbreak of war. She had traveled farthest—19,000 miles—and survived longest, yet she had done the least damage. Over seven and a half months, she sank only four British merchant ships, totaling 13,000 tons. From the time of her escape from the Falklands on December 8 until she was destroyed on March 15, Dresden sank two sailing ships. Of the five German captains who reached the Falklands with Admiral von Spee, only Lüdecke survived the battle and the war.

It was only a matter of weeks before the oceans were entirely clear. Early in March, the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich, which had captured ten vessels in the preceding two months, arrived at Newport News, Virginia, with a number of prisoners to put ashore. The ship claimed the right of refit and engine repairs, but while she was in port it became public knowledge that one of her victims had been an American vessel. The American government interned her. This left only the German armed merchant cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm still at large. She gave up in April and voluntarily came in to Newport News to be interned.

During the search for Dresden, the British were also hunting for Karlsruhe, last reported in October off the coast of Brazil. In her raids along the South Atlantic trade route, Karlsruhe sank sixteen British ships before she met a sudden end off the coast of Barbados. Her fate was shrouded in mystery until March 1915. The first clue came when some of her wreckage washed ashore 500 miles away. Her survivors eventually found their way back to Germany and reported that on November 4, 1914, she had suffered an internal explosion and foundered with the loss of 261 officers and men. This German disaster occurred three days after Coronel, but for the next four months, the British Admiralty did not know.

The Siege of Tsingtau 1914: Aircraft

Launching a Maurice Farman two-seater from the Wakamiya during the Siege of Tsingtau.

“Plüschow in front of the city wall of Haizhou in the province of Jiangsu, on November 6, 1914. On that day he had escaped the besieged Tsingtao by his plane, and after a flight of ca. 200 km to the southwest, landed at Haizhou, because the plane had no fuel anymore.”

Both sides had elements of an air component; the Japanese Navy had the Wakamiya Maru with its complement of four Maurice Farman floatplanes, whilst the army detachment, initially consisting of three machines, deployed from an improvised airstrip near Tsimo on 21 September. Japanese aviation was, as was the case in every other nation, a recent phenomenon in terms of powered aircraft. Previous interest in aeronautics had centred on the use of balloons for reconnaissance, the first Japanese military balloons were sent aloft in May 1877, and an advanced kite type was designed and constructed in 1900 and successfully used during the Russo-Japanese War. A joint committee, with army, navy and civil input, was created on 30 July 1909 to investigate and research the techniques and equipment associated with ballooning; the Provisional Military Balloon Research Association or PMBRA.

Nominated by the Japanese Army to serve on the PMBRA were two officers with the rank of captain, Tokugawa Yoshitoshi and Hino Kumazo. Both had some experience with aviation. Hino designed and constructed a pusher type monoplane with an 8hp engine that he unsuccessfully, the engine was underpowered, attempted to get off the ground on 18 March 1910. Tokugawa was a member of the balloon establishment during the Russo-Japanese War. Both were sent to Europe in April 1910 to learn to fly at the Blériot Flying School at Étampes, France. Having passed the rudimentary course, they purchased two aeroplanes each and had them shipped to Japan; Tokugawa obtained a Farman III and a Blériot XI-2bis in France whilst Hino purchased one of Hans Grade’s machines and a Wright aircraft in Germany.

The first flights of powered aeroplanes in Japan occurred on 19 December 1910 at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Tokugawa flew the Farman III, powered by a 50hp Gnome engine, for 3 minutes over a distance of some 3000m at a height of 70m. Hino followed him immediately afterwards in the Grade machine, powered by a 24hp Grade engine, which flew for just over a minute and covered a distance of 1000m at a height of 20m.

A naval member of the PMBRA, Narahara Sanji, started on designing and constructing an aeroplane, with a bamboo airframe and a 25hp engine, during March 1910. Because of the low powered engine the machine failed to lift off when this was attempted on 24 October 1910, but with a second machine, the ‘Narahara Type 2’ powered by a Gnome engine similar to that used in the Farman III, he managed a 60m flight at an altitude of 4m on 5 May 1911. This flight, at Tokorozawa, in Saitama near Tokyo, the site of Japan’s first airfield, is considered to be the first Japanese civilian flight as Narahara had left the navy when he made it. It was also the first flight by a Japanese-manufactured aeroplane.

The first military flight by a Japanese-manufactured machine took place on 13 October 1911, when Tokugawa flew in a ‘PMBRA Type (Kaisiki) 1’ of his own design, based on the Farman III at Tokorozawa. These pioneers, whilst they had made astonishing progress, did not however possess the necessary research and technological resources to take Japanese aviation further. Because of this the Japanese decided to import aviation technology from Europe, though the navy established the Naval Aeronautical Research Committee in 1912 to provide facilities to test and copy foreign aircraft and train Japanese engineers in the necessary skills. Via this system, the foundations of a Japanese aviation industry were being laid; in July 1913 a naval Lieutenant, Nakajima Chikuhei, produced an improved version of the Farman floatplane for naval use. Nakajima Aircraft Industries, founded in 1917 after Nakajima resigned from the navy, went on to massive success.

The French were the world leaders in military aviation, with 260 aircraft in service by 1913, whilst the Russians had 100, Germany 48, the UK 29, Italy 26 and Japan 14. The US deployed 6.55 It comes as no surprise then to note that during the campaign against Tsingtau all the aeroplanes deployed by both Japanese services were French. Four Maurice-Farman MF7 biplanes and one Nieuport 6M monoplane formed the Army’s Provisional Air Corps, flying eighty-six sorties between them, whilst the navy deployed one Maurice-Farman MF7 floatplane and three Henri-Farman HF7 floatplanes. The navy planes flew 49 sorties and dropped 199 bombs.

A floatplane from the Wakamiya Maru flew over Tsingtau on 5 September, causing something of a surprise to the defenders, on a reconnaissance and bombing mission, releasing three bombs that caused no harm. It wasn’t the first aerial bombing ever – that had taken place during the 1911–12 Italo-Ottoman War – but it was a total surprise to the defenders. The reconnaissance element of the mission was more useful, being able to ascertain that Emden was not in harbour but that there were several other warships present. It was to be the first of several visits by both army and navy aeroplanes, against which the Germans could offer little defence, though the fact that the defenders had their own air ‘component’ was to result in what was probably (there are other contenders) the first air-to-air combat in history. Indeed, despite the remoteness of the campaign from the main theatre, this was only one of a number of such ‘firsts’.

Aviation on the German side was represented by one man and one machine; Kapitänleutnant Gunther Plüschow and his Rumpler Taube. Plüschow had served in the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, at the time under the command of Vice Admiral Carl Coerper, as a junior officer aboard SMS Fürst Bismarck in 1908. Assigned to the Naval Flying Service in autumn 1913, he arrived on 2 January 1914 at Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin to commence pilot training, and, having first taken to the air only two days previously, acquired his licence on 3 February 1914. The Naval Air Service, which had been created in 1912 and divided between aeroplane and airship sections the following year, was, in 1914, something of a misnomer; naval aviation was in a greatly underdeveloped state with sole assets consisting of two Zeppelin airships, four floatplanes and two landplanes. This was largely due to Tirpitz, who, despite his later assertions that, prior to 1914, he saw the aeroplane as the weapon of the future as against the airship, was not prepared to, as he saw it, divert funds from the battle-fleet in order to develop the technologies and techniques required.

Having not seen it for some six years Plüschow arrived in Tsingtau by train on 13 June – an extremely long and undoubtedly tedious journey across the Siberian steppe – whilst two Rumpler Taube aeroplanes with 100hp engines, especially constructed for service in China, travelled by sea arriving in mid-July 1914. The second machine was to be piloted by an army officer assigned to the III Naval Battalion, Lieutenant Friedrich Müllerskowski, and the arrival of the two aviators and their machines took the total ‘air force’ available in the territory to three men and aircraft. The third aviator was Franz Oster, a former naval officer who had settled in Tsingtau in 1899, but returned to Germany in 1911 and learned to fly. He returned to the territory in 1912, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) complete with a Rumpler Taube equipped with a 60hp engine. During his sojourn in Ceylon he attempted a flight at Colombo Racecourse in a Blériot Monoplane on 30 December 1911 that ended in near disaster; the machine was wrecked and Oster was hurt. He nevertheless, after having returned to the territory and replaced the engine in his Taube with a 70hp Mercedes unit, made a series of flights from the Tsingtau racecourse, the first being on 9 July 1913.

Plüschow and Müllerskowski took charge of reassembling the two aeroplanes delivered by sea and the former successfully made several flights from the extremely small and dangerous landing ground at the racecourse on 29 July 1914. A further two days were needed to get the second aeroplane constructed, and on the afternoon of 31 July Müllerskowski set off on his first flight. It ended in disaster; after only a few seconds in flight, and from an altitude estimated to be 50m, the machine lost control and plunged over a cliff onto the rocks below. Müllerskowski was seriously, though not mortally, wounded and the Taube completely wrecked.

Whether it was just bad luck or whether there were atmospheric conditions pertaining at the time that made flying problematical we cannot know, but it would seem to have been a combination of the two that afflicted Plüschow on 3 August. Having taken off successfully and flown a reconnaissance mission over the territory, his first ‘important’ sortie, he was experiencing difficulty in attempting to land when his engine failed and he crash-landed into a small wood. He was unhurt but the Taube was badly damaged and, upon accessing the spare wings and propellers sent out with the aeroplanes, he discovered that the replacement parts had rotted away or suffered moistureinduced damage during the voyage. He was fortunate that the engine, for which replacement parts could only have been extemporised with difficulty, was still serviceable and that there were skilled Chinese craftsmen available; the latter fashioned him a new composite propeller from oak. Despite this device having to be repaired after every flight, having been assembled with ordinary carpenter’s glue it exhibited a disconcerting tendency to revert to its component parts under the strain of operational usage, it remained serviceable throughout the rest of the campaign.

Plüschow’s machine was out of action until 12 August, but on the 22 August an attempt was made to augment it with Oster’s aeroplane; he attempted to lift off from the racecourse in his older craft but stalled and crashed, occasioning damage necessitating several days of repair though remaining unhurt personally. Another attempt was made on 27 August with the same result, though this time the damage was more severe with the aeroplane ‘completely destroyed’ to such an extent that ‘reconstruction was no longer viable’. It seems however that Oster did not concur as the diary entry for 13 October 1914 made by the missionary Carl Joseph Voskamp, records Oster once again, and apparently finally, attempting and failing to take off, and notes that this might be due to unfavourable atmospheric conditions.

Plüschow and his Taube, by default the sole representatives of German aviation, could not of course provide anything much in the way of air defence against the Japanese. Nor could they achieve a great deal in the way of keeping open communications with the world outside the Kiautschou Territory. What was possible though, within the operational capabilities of man and machine, was reconnaissance, and the clearing up somewhat of the weather on 11 September allowed an aerial sortie to take place two days later. Plüschow flew northwestwards to investigate rumours of the Japanese landing and advance, and discovered their forces in some strength at Pingdu; the marching elements of the Japanese force reached Pingdu between 11 and 14 September. He also received his ‘baptism of fire’ from the infantry, returning with around ten bullet holes in his plane and resolving not to fly below 2000m in future in order to preserve his engine and propeller.

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Reconnaissance duties devolved then on to the air component, represented by Plüschow and his Taube. There was also a balloon detachment consisting of two observation-balloon envelopes and the necessary ground infrastructure. The German observation balloons of 1914 were known as Drachen, a name commonly adopted for all sausage-shaped kite-balloons, and had been developed by Parseval-Sigsfeld. Adopted for use in 1893, they represented a significant investment in terms of equipment and manpower for the Tsingtau garrison, the standardised balloon section in 1914 consisting of 1 balloon (plus 1 spare envelope), 4 observers, 177 enlisted ranks, 123 horses, 12 gas wagons, 2 equipment wagons, a winch wagon and a telephone wagon. The balloon had made several ascents from Tsingtau during the course of the conflict, but the observer had been unable to see anything of value. In order to attempt to remedy this the device was moved closer to the front and another ascent made on 5 October. It was to be the last such, as the Japanese artillery immediately found its range with shrapnel shell and holed it in several places. A ruse involving the spare balloon was then tried; it was sent up to draw the attackers’ fire and so reveal the position of their guns. According to Alfred Brace:

It contained a dummy looking fixedly at the landscape below through a pair of paste-board glasses. But there happened to arise a strong wind which set the balloon revolving and finally broke it loose and sent it pirouetting off over the Yellow Sea, the whole exploit, I learned afterwards, being a great puzzle to the British and Japanese observers outside.

Plüschow flew reconnaissance flights every day that the weather, and his propeller, permitted, sketching the enemy positions and making detailed notes. He achieved this by setting the engine so as to maintain a safe altitude of over 2000m, and then steering with his feet, the Taube had no rudder and horizontal control was achieved by warping the wings, whilst peering over the side of his cockpit. The Japanese had extemporised a contingent of antiaircraft-artillery – the ‘Field-Gun Platoon for High Angle Fire’, with the necessary angle achieved by dropping the gun-trail into a pit behind the weapon – and although the shrapnel barrage thus discharged proved ineffective it was deemed by Plüschow to be troublesome nevertheless. Where he was at his most vulnerable was on landing, and a battery of Japanese artillery was tasked specifically with destroying the Taube as it descended to the racecourse, which of course was a fixed point at a known range. Little more than good luck, and what he called ‘ruses’ such as shutting off the engine and swooping sharply to earth, saw him through these experiences, but remarkably both man and machine came through without serious injury.

Whatever inconveniences Plüschow and the fortress artillery might inflict upon the force massing to their front, they could do nothing to prevent the landing of men and materiel at Wang-ko-chuang and Schatsykou, nor could they prevent the deployment of these once landed. The previous efforts by the navy in terms of minelaying did though still pay dividends, as when the Japanese ‘aircraft carrier’ was badly damaged. As the report from the British Naval Attaché to Japan put it in his report of 30 November:

[…] a few minutes after 8 a.m. [on 30 September] the ‘Wakamiya Maru’ struck a mine in the entrance of Lo Shan Harbour, and had to be beached to prevent her sinking; her engines were disabled owing to breaking of steam pipes, No. 3 hold full, and one man killed – fortunately no damage done to aeroplanes though it is feared that a spare engine may be injured. […] As the Aeroplane establishment is all being moved ashore at this place this accident will not affect the efficiency of the Aeroplane Corps.

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In order to achieve the enormous amount of digging that the plan required, the organic engineering component of the 18th Division, the 18th Battalion of Engineers, was augmented by two more battalions; the 1st Battalion of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Koga) and the 4th Battalion of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama). The infantry that would man the siege works were also provided with weaponry specifically suited to trench warfare; two light platoons and one heavy detachment of bomb-guns (mortars).

In order to gain detailed knowledge of the defences the naval and army air components were tasked with flying reconnaissance missions over the German positions. They also flew bombing missions, which caused little damage, and attempted to discourage their single opponent (though they were initially uncertain how many German aircraft they faced) from emulating them; the latter with some degree of success. Plüschow records that he was provided with extemporised ‘bombs’ made of tin boxes filled with dynamite and improvised shrapnel, but that these devices were largely ineffectual. He claimed to have hit a Japanese vessel with one, which failed to explode, and to have succeeded in killing thirty soldiers with another one that did. It was during this period that he became engaged in air-to-air combat, of a type, with the enemy aeroplanes. Indeed, if Plüschow is to be believed, he succeeded in shooting down one of the Japanese aeroplanes with his pistol, having fired thirty shots. It would appear however that even if he did engage in aerial jousting of the kind he mentions the result was not as he claimed; no aircraft were lost during the campaign. The Japanese did however do their utmost to prevent him reconnoitring their positions, as they were in the process of emplacing the siege batteries and, if the positions became known, they could expect intense efforts from the defenders to disrupt this process. Experience showed the Japanese that the time delay between aerial reconnaissance being carried out and artillery fire being concentrated on the area so reconnoitred was around two hours.

Indeed Watanabe insisted that his batteries were emplaced during the hours of darkness, despite the inconvenience this caused, and carefully camouflaged to prevent discovery. That the threat from Plüschow, albeit indirect, was very real had been illustrated on 29 September; he had overflown an area where the British were camped and noted their tents, which were of a different pattern to the Japanese versions. This had resulted in heavy shelling, causing the camp to be moved the next day to the reverse slopes of a hill about 1.5km east of the former position. He also posed a direct threat though perhaps of lesser import; on 10 October he dropped one of his homemade bombs on the British. It failed to explode, but the unit concerned moved position immediately – such an option was not available to 36-tonne howitzers that required semi-permanent emplacement.

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The Japanese Navy began sending in vessels to shell the city and defences again. On 25 October the Iwami approached, though staying outside the range of Hui tsch’en Huk. By listing the ship to increase the range of her main armament, Iwami was able to fire some thirty 305mm shells at Hui tsch’en Huk, Iltis Battery and Infantry Work I. The next day the vessel returned in company with Suwo and the two vessels bombarded the same targets. On 27 October Tango and Okinoshima replaced them, and the same ships returned the next day to continue the assault. Because of the distance involved, some 14.5km, this fire was inaccurate in terms of damaging the specific installations in question, but nevertheless was destructive of the nerves of the trapped garrison. It was particularly frustrating in terms of the gunners at Hui tsch’en Huk who were unable to effectively reply.

In addition to this display of naval force, Japanese air power had been much in evidence over the period, their operational activity increasing with sorties over the German lines and rear areas.

Almost every day these craft, announcing their approach by a distant humming, came overhead, glinting and shining in the sun as they sailed above the forts and city. At first they were greeted by a fusillade of shots from all parts of the garrison. Machine guns pumped bullets a hundred a minute at them and every man with a rifle handy let fire. As these bullets came raining back upon the city without any effect but to send Chinese coolies scampering under cover, it was soon realised that rifle and machinegun fire was altogether ineffective. Then special guns were rigged and the aeroplanes were subjected to shrapnel, which seemed to come nearer to its sailing mark each day but which never brought one of the daring bird-men down. One day I saw a biplane drop down a notch after a shell had exploded directly in front of it. I looked for a volplane [glide with engine off] to earth, but the aviator’s loss of control was only momentary, evidently caused by the disturbance of the air. During the bombardment these craft circled over the forts like birds of prey. They were constantly dropping bombs, trying to hit the ammunition depots, the signal station, the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth, the electric light plant, and the forts. But […] these bombs were not accurate or powerful enough to do much damage. A few Chinese were killed, a German soldier wounded, tops of houses knocked in, and holes gouged in the streets, but that was all. The bombs fell with an ominous swish as of escaping steam, and it was decidedly uncomfortable to be in the open with a Japanese aeroplane overhead. We are more or less like the ostrich who finds peace and comfort with his head in the sand: In the streets of Tsingtau I have seen a man pull the top of a jinrickisha over his head on the approach of a hostile aeroplane and have noticed Chinese clustering under the top of a tree.

They also managed an aviation first on the night of 28–9 October when they bombed the defenders’ positions during the hours of darkness. Attempts to keep Plüschow from effectively reconnoitring were largely successful, even though the efforts to dispose of him or his machine permanently were ineffective. However, because problems with the Taube’s homemade propeller kept him grounded on occasion, and because the Japanese positions were worked on tirelessly, when he did take to the air he found the changes in the enemy arrangements – ‘this tangle of trenches, zigzags and new positions’ – somewhat bewildering and difficult to record accurately. Precision in this regard was not assisted by the Japanese attempts to shoot him down or otherwise obstruct him.

The artillery coordinating position on Prinz-Heinrich-Berg reported itself ready for action on 29 October and Kato sent four warships in to continue the naval bombardment whilst acting under its direction. Between 09:30hr and 16:30hr Suwo, Tango, Okinoshima and Triumph bombarded the Tsingtau defences, adjusting their aim according to the feedback received from the position via radio. They withdrew after discharging some 197 projectiles from their main guns, following which SMS Tiger was scuttled during the hours of darkness.

Plüschow managed to get airborne on the morning of 30 October and was able to over-fly the Japanese positions before the enemy air force could rise to deter him. This might have been lucky for him as one of the aeroplanes sent up had been fitted with a machine gun. He was able to report the largescale and advanced preparations of the besieging force, information that the defence used to direct its artillery fire. This was repaid when Kato’s bombarding division returned at 09:00hr to recommence their previous day’s work. Despite the communication channel working perfectly, and the absence of effective return fire from Hui tsch’en Huk – they had established the maximum range of this battery was 14.13km and accordingly stayed just beyond its reach – the firing of 240 heavy shells again did little damage.

The 31 October was, as the defenders knew well, the birthday of the Japanese Emperor and by way of celebration Kamio’s command undertook a brief ceremony before, at about 06:00hr, Watanabe gave the order for the siege train to commence firing, or, as one of the correspondents of The Times put it: ‘daylight saw the royal salute being fired with live shell at Tsingtau’. The Japanese fire plan was relatively simple.

On the first and second days, in addition to bombardment of the enemy warships, all efforts would be made to silence the enemy’s artillery so as to assist the construction and occupation of the first parallel.

From the third day up until the occupation of the second parallel (about the fifth day) the enemy artillery would be suppressed, his works destroyed and the Boxer Line swept with fire in order to assist in the construction of the second parallel.

Following the occupation of the second parallel, the majority of the artillery fire would be employed in destroying the enemy’s works, whilst the remainder kept down hostile infantry and artillery that attempted to obstruct offensive movement in preparing, and then assaulting from, the third parallel.

After the Boxer Line had been captured, the artillery would support the friendly troops in securing it from counter-attack and then bombard his second line; Iltiss, Moltke and Bismarck Hills.

There were, roughly, twenty-three Japanese artillery tubes per kilometre of front, a density that was comparable to that attained during the initial stages of the war on the Western Front, though soon to be dwarfed as artillery assumed the dominant role in positional warfare. The land-based artillery was augmented, from about 09:00hr, by the naval contribution as Kato once again sent his heavy ships into action.

The combined barrage soon silenced any German return fire because, even though they had refrained from pre-registering their siege batteries, the Japanese knew where the fixed defensive positions were and shortly found their range; fire was also brought to bear on any targets of opportunity. The German batteries were suppressed less by direct hits than by their positions being submerged in debris from near misses. This was to prove of some importance for the defenders were able in several cases to return their weapons to service, largely due to the relative antiquity and thus lack of sophistication of much of the ordnance, without the need for extensive repairs. Indeed, despite the crushing superiority enjoyed by the attackers, the defensive fire was to continue to some degree throughout the day and into the night. The most obvious sign of the effects of the bombardment, at least to those observing from a distance, were the huge plumes of smoke caused by hits on the oil storage tanks adjacent to the Large Harbour. Two of these, owned by the Asiatic Petroleum Company – the first Royal Dutch/Shell joint venture – and Standard Oil respectively, had been set afire early on and their contents in turn caused other fires as they flowed around the installations, these proving beyond the capacity of the local fire brigade to control. In fact the destruction of the Standard Oil installations was accidental. The General Staff History records that a note had been received via the Japanese Foreign Office from the US government asking that they be spared. Accordingly the objective was struck out of the plan but to apparently no effect, perhaps demonstrating the relative inaccuracy of the fire.

There were a number of independent observers of the operations at this stage; correspondents from various journals and foreign military observers had arrived in the theatre in late October. Though the Japanese were intensely secretive they could not conceal the fact of their bombardment or the plainly visible results.

The thunder of the great guns broke suddenly upon that stillness which only dawn knows, and their discharges flashed readily on the darkling slopes. The Japanese shooting, it is related, displayed remarkable accuracy, some of the first projectiles bursting upon the enormous oil tanks of the Standard Oil Company and the Asiatic Petroleum Company. A blaze roared skywards, and for many hours the heavens were darkened by an immense cloud of black petroleum smoke which hung like a pall over the town. Shells passing over these fires drew up columns of flame to a great height. Chinese coolies could be seen running before the spreading and burning oil. Fires broke out also on the wharves of the outer harbour.

Many of the Japanese shells, no doubt due to the lack of pre-registration, were over-range and landed in Tapatau and Tsingtau, though the former received the worst of it. It has been estimated that at least 100 Chinese were killed during this period and a deliberate targeting exercise carried out later in the day on the urban areas. The bombardment continued with varying levels of frequency throughout the daylight hours of 31 October, and at nightfall the Japanese gunners switched to shrapnel – by bursting shrapnel shell over the defenders’ positions they made it difficult, if not impossible, for repairs to be carried out. Such fire also covered the forward movement of the Japanese engineers as they extended their saps towards the Boxer Line and began constructing the parallel works some 300m ahead of the advanced investment line.

At daylight on 1 November the high-explosive barrage resumed, again concentrating primarily on the German artillery positions though many of these were now out of action. The secondary targets were the defences in the Boxer Line, particularly the infantry works and the extemporised defences between them. The ferro-concrete redoubts withstood the bombardment without any serious damage, and, though they were scarred and badly battered externally, none of the projectiles penetrated any vital interior position. The communication trenches and other intermediate field works were however obliterated and this, together with the destruction of much of the telephone system, isolated the personnel manning the works, both from each other and from the command further back. The targeting of the signal station further hindered communication of every kind, and with the bringing down of the radio antenna even one-way communication from the outside world was terminated. Shutting this down was probably a secondary objective; the primary reason for targeting the signal station was to prevent it jamming and otherwise interfering with Japanese wireless communications which had become a problem.

After nightfall the sappers returned to their task of advancing the siege works whilst infantry patrols went forward to reconnoitre and probe the defences. One such probe crossed the Haipo and a four-man party entered the ditch near Infantry Work 4, which was under the command of Captain von Stranz, and began cutting the wire. They remained undetected for some time, indicating the lack of awareness of the defenders who stayed under cover, but were eventually heard and forced to retire with the loss of one man after machine-gun fire was directed at them. A second patrol took their place a little later and, under the very noses of the defence, completed the wire-cutting task before they too were detected.

The defenders conceived that an assault in strength was under way and called down artillery fire in support from Iltis Battery and moved a reserve formation made up of naval personnel, whose ships had been scuttled, towards the front. The Japanese patrol withdrew, leaving the defenders under the erroneous impression that they had defeated a serious attempt at breaching the line, rather than, as was the case, an opportunistic foray. However, what the probe had revealed to the attackers was that the defenders were remaining largely inside the concrete works, leaving the gaps between them vulnerable to infiltration. This was confirmed by the experiences of a separate patrol that reconnoitred near Infantry Work 3, also known as the ‘Central Fort’ to the Japanese; the knowledge gained being of some potential worth. Also of value was an understanding of the nature of the barbed-wire obstacles. These were permanent fixtures, with extra heavy wire holding barbs ‘so closely together that it would be difficult to get a pair of pliers in a position to cut it’. It did prove possible to cut the wire, but the stakes it was strung on, made from heavy duty angle-iron secured to a square baseplate some 300mm per side and sunk into the ground to a depth of about half a metre, proved almost impossible to dislodge. Initial intelligence had indicated that the wire was charged with 30,000 volts, but direct examination showed this not to be the case.

Apart from repelling the Japanese attack, as they thought, the defenders spent the night of 1–2 November destroying further equipment that might be of use to the besiegers. Chief amongst this was Kaiserin Elisabeth; shortly after midnight, having fired off her remaining ammunition in the general direction of the Japanese, the vessel was moved into deep water in Kiautschou Bay and scuttled. Explosive charges extemporised from torpedo warheads ensured that the ship was beyond salvage even if the wreck was located. The Austro-Hungarian cruiser was only one of several vessels scuttled that night, including the floating dock, which was seen to have disappeared the next morning. Only the Jaguar remained afloat at sunrise at which point the rapid rate of advance of the attackers, up to the edge of the Haipo River between Kiautschou Bay and the area in front of Infantry Work 3, was revealed to the Germans.

Revealed to the Japanese, by their action during the hours of darkness, was the precise position of the Iltis Battery and this was promptly targeted and put out of action by counter-battery fire. The remorseless battering by the siege train also resumed, and the German inability to respond effectively due to the accuracy of Japanese return fire began to be exacerbated by a shortage of ammunition. The Japanese bombardment, though intense, was perhaps not as destructive as it could have been. What seems to have mitigated the effect to some extent was the high rate of dud shells. One press correspondent that entered Tsingtau after the conclusion of operations noted the proliferation of ‘giant shells, some three feet long and a foot in diameter, [that] were lying about on side-walk and street still unexploded’. Burdick, working from contemporary German estimates, calculates that between 10 and 25 per cent of the Japanese ordnance failed to explode. This shortcoming, being attributable to faulty manufacture, played a major role in sparing the defenders a worse ordeal than they had to endure anyway.

Also sparing the defenders to some extent on 2 November was the onset of rain, which affected the assailants more than the defence inasmuch as the attackers’ diggings became waterlogged and collapsed in some cases. Further alleviation was attributable to the reduction of the rate of fire of the 280mm howitzers. Their temporary emplacements suffered from the immense recoil and had the potential to render firing both dangerous and inaccurate. The remainder of the siege train concentrated its fire on the Boxer Line, particularly in an attempt to destroy the wire and obstacles in the trench and thus mitigate the need to resort to manual methods with their inevitable human cost. The power station was also targeted, with the result that the chimney was brought down in the evening, thus rendering the city dependent on primitive forms of lighting.

The 3 and 4 November saw further progress in the advancement of the siege works and continuing bombardment, though useful targets for this were now at a premium as little of the defences remained other than the concrete Infantry Works. The defenders had begun destroying their batteries on 2 November as they ran out of ammunition, and in any event returning the Japanese fire was a hazardous business due to the rapidity and accuracy of the response. The lack of defensive fire allowed some reorganisation of the siege artillery and several of the batteries were moved forward and swiftly re-emplaced with the minimum of disruption. On the far right of the Japanese line the sappers attached to 67th Infantry Regiment had advanced their works to within a short distance of the Haipo River, and thus close to the city’s water pumping station situated on the eastern bank. The decision was taken by 29th Infantry Brigade to attempt to take the station on the evening of 4 November and a company sized unit, comprising infantry and engineers, was assembled. It had not been bombarded by the siege artillery; the idea seemingly being to preserve it for future use by the occupying force. So the engineers cut through the defensive wire with Bangalore Torpedoes, thus allowing the infantry to surround the place, whilst a box artillery barrage insulated it from any attempted relief.

Despite its relative isolation the pumping station was actually a wellfortified strongpoint. The machinery rooms, stores and personnel quarters were located underground and well protected by ferro-concrete. The whole was surrounded by a bank of earth some 6m in height, itself protected by a ditch, about 12m wide and 2m deep at the counterscarp, that was filled with barbed-wire obstacles. The leader of the platoon investigating the area, 2nd Lieutenant Yokokura, later reported that the personnel manning the station had locked themselves inside behind ‘iron doors’ and were still working the pumps, but when they realised that the enemy were upon them they opened the doors and surrendered. The haul amounted to one sergeant major, twenty rank and file, two water works engineers and five Chinese, together with twenty-five rifles. The station was immediately fortified against any counter-attack and with its loss Tsingtau was without a mains water supply and thus dependent on the several, somewhat brackish, wells within the city.

Elsewhere along the line the nocturnal ‘mole warfare’ techniques advanced the saps and trenches ever nearer to the ditch in order to construct the third parallel – the final assault line. This progressed everywhere apart from the British sector of front, where enemy fire prevented the final approach being made. As Barnardison reported:

On 5 November I was ordered to prepare a Third Position of attack on the left bank of the river. This line was to a great extent enfiladed on both flanks by No. 1 and 2 Redoubts, especially the latter, from which annoying machine-gun fire was experienced. The bed of the river […] had also to be crossed, and in doing so the working parties of the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers suffered somewhat severely, losing 8 non-commissioned officers and men killed and 24 wounded. The 36th Sikhs had only slight losses. Notwithstanding this a good deal of work was done, especially on the right flank. I considered it my duty to represent to the Japanese Commander-in-Chief the untenable nature, for permanent occupation, of the portion of the Third Position in my front, but received a reply that it was necessary for it to be held in order to fit in with the general scheme of assault.

Though most diplomatically phrased, it is possible to distinguish in the final sentence of this quotation a hint of asperity in the relations between the Allies. Indeed, though suppressed for political reasons at the time, the British military contribution did not impress the Japanese in any way, shape or form. Reports from the front revealed the perception that the British were reluctant to get involved in the fighting and ‘hard to trust’. More brutal opinions had it that they were no more than ‘baggage’ and ‘decoration’ on the battlefield. The nature of these observations filtered through to the Japanese press, one report stating that: ‘Only when nothing happened were British soldiers wonderful and it was like taking a lady on a trip. However, such a lady can be a burden and lead to total disaster for a force when the enemy appears.’

Daylight on 5 November saw three Japanese aeroplanes overfly the German positions dropping not explosive devices, as might have been expected, but rather bundles of leaflets carrying a message from the besiegers:

To the Respected Officers and Men of the Fortress.

It would act against the will of God as well as humanity if one were to destroy the still useful weapons, ships, and other structures without tactical justification and only because of the envious view that they might fall into the hands of the enemy.

Although we are certain in the belief that, in the case of the chivalrous officers and men, they would not put into effect such thoughtlessness, we nevertheless would like to emphasise the above as our point of view.

On the face of it this message seemed to clearly indicate that the besiegers, perceiving that they would shortly be in occupation of the city, desired that as much of it be preserved as was possible. If so they adopted a rather contradictory attitude inasmuch as shortly after dispensing it a naval barrage, delivered by Mishima, Tango, Okinoshina and Iwami from Hai hsi Bay to the west of Cape Jaeschke, was directed onto the urban area of Tsingtau. Backed by the land batteries, this bombardment caused great damage to the city, though one shot, apparently misaimed, struck one of the 240mm gun positions at Hui tsch’en Huk, destroying the gun and killing seven of the crew. Without a mains water supply the possibility of fire-fighting in Tsingtau was greatly reduced and several buildings were burned down, though because of the relative spaciousness of the city fires did not jump easily from building to building and so there was no major conflagration. Tapatau, the Chinese quarter, was not constructed on such generous proportions, though the relatively smaller size of the dwellings and their less robust structural strength meant they collapsed rather than burned, and it too was spared an inferno. Because the German artillery was now virtually silent the sapping work continued during daylight hours without fear of interruption, and the third parallel was completed during the day close up to the defensive ditch. Unable to effectively counter these moves the defenders, also ignoring the Japanese plea as contained in their airdropped leaflet, began putting their coastal artillery batteries out of action, which in any event, other than Hui tsch’en Huk, had proved mostly ineffective. It was clear to all that the end was not far off, and only the ferro-concrete infantry works remained as anything like effective defensive positions, though a report from one to Meyer-Waldeck ‘reflected the universal condition’:

The entire work is shot to pieces, a hill of fragments, without any defences. The entire trench system is knocked out; the redoubt still holds together, but everything else, including the explosives storage room, is destroyed. Only a single observation post is in use. I shall hold the redoubt as long as possible.

Given the impossibility of offering effective resistance to the besiegers, Meyer-Waldeck was under no illusions as to the length of time left to the defence force. Evidence for this may be adduced from his ordering Plüschow to make a getaway attempt the following day. He was to carry away papers relating to the course of the siege and several symbolic items such as the fastenings from the flagpole, as well as private letters from members of the garrison.

The attackers saw the elusive Taube take to the air the next morning, and, according to Plüschow himself, make a last circuit of Tsingtau before setting off southwards; ‘never,’ as the Japanese General Staff history put it, ‘to come back’. Though the Japanese artillery made what was to turn out to be their final efforts to shoot him down, hostile aircraft did not attempt to follow and he made good his escape towards neutral China, eventually reaching Tientsin where he was reunited with the crew of S-90. As he left his ground crew destroyed any remaining equipment, but his place over the city was soon taken by the Japanese aeroplanes who sortied in force, dropping numerous bombs onto the defenders’ positions, as a less than effective adjunct to the efforts of the artillery. As the bombardment from land and air went on the Japanese infantry began to move into their final assault positions in the third parallel. The British however, still troubled by the fire from the German machine guns, only occupied their sector with a thin outpost line. The Governor, noting the proximity of the attackers and expecting an imminent assault, ordered a general alert for the afternoon.

Kamio now had all his infantry where he wanted them, with the exception of the British contingent, and all his equipment in place. His orders for the night of 6–7 November did not however call for a general assault, but rather stipulated small scale, though aggressive, probing of the Boxer Line to test for weak spots, together with the usual artillery barrage. He emphasised flexibility and the exploitation of success. As darkness fell the sappers dug forward from the third parallel and, using mining techniques, burrowed through the counterscarp before blowing several breaches in it. This allowed the infantry direct access to the ditch without the need to leave the entrenchments. It was also discovered that the ditch in front of Infantry Works 1 and 2 differed somewhat from the saw-tooth version already noted, being a conventional channel in section. It was also found to be subject to flanking fire from the Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).

Wire that had remained intact following the previous attention of the artillery was cut or covered, allowing more or less unrestricted access within the ditch, and patrols moved across it and out onto the German side as darkness fell. At around 23:00hr a firefight broke out around Infantry Work 2 as a patrol from the 56th Infantry Regiment attempted to infiltrate and bypass it. The defenders were more alert than they had been on 1 November and sallied out to meet them. Eventually, after about an hour of fighting, the Japanese retreated and called down an artillery barrage onto the defenders for their pains.

More or less concurrently Infantry Work 3 (Central Fort) under the command of Captain Lancelle was the object of similar tactics. The results were however rather different. Engineers from the 4th Independent Battalion, preceding units from the 56th Infantry Regiment, discovered that they met with no resistance whatsoever when they began cutting two ‘roads’ through the entanglements in both the inner and outer ditches in front of the fortification. Accordingly this work was completed expeditiously, and the information on the apparent passivity of the defenders in that sector passed up the chain of command. Major General Yamada, commander of the 2nd Central Force, immediately decided to attempt an assault to take the work, but sought the sanction of Kamio before so doing. The division commander concurred, so a company sized unit under Lieutenant Nakamura Jekizo of the 56th Infantry Regiment crossed the ditch at about 01:00hr.

The plan required some courage on the part of the participants, who were all volunteers. They comprised twenty engineers and six infantry NCOs who were armed with hand grenades, whilst further infantry units, complete with mortars, stood ready in immediate support. The whole regiment was also awaiting developments and was ready to advance at a few minutes’ notice. Formed into two detachments, the raiders used ladders to climb into the ditch away from the breach and, unseen, safely reached the German parapet which they scaled before moving to reform. The plan called for a stealthy advance until the occupants of the redoubt opened up on them, and then a charge forward throwing the grenades in an attempt to disable the defenders and damage the machine guns. This procedure was modified when it became apparent that the fortification was, effectively, unguarded and Nakamura instead sent his men left and right around it to the rear (or ‘gorge’ in fortification terms) where they occupied the shelter trenches.

Detailing ten grenadiers and an NCO to resist any German potential counter-attack, he used the rest of his men to block the redoubt’s exits and then sent for reinforcements. Before these could arrive however the Japanese were detected by defence posts on the flanks of the fortification, whereby a hot fire with machine guns was opened. Several volleys of grenades stemmed that, and in the meantime the redoubt’s telephone wires were cut and access was forced into the signal room where, after the occupants were overcome, the power was cut. This plunged the whole work into darkness and prevented any further telephoning or signalling.

By this time two platoons of reinforcements had begun to arrive; half of them formed a defensive line behind the redoubt whilst the rest broke into it. It was claimed that they found the occupants in bed, but whatever the truth of the matter Lancelle immediately surrendered the work complete with its complement of about 200 men to Nakamura. It had taken forty minutes and been, to quote Burdick’s words, ‘ridiculously easy’. It was undoubtedly a famous and daring victory, and Nakamura was awarded the Order of the Golden Kite (4th class) which he undoubtedly deserved.

In practical terms however, there was now a large and growing gap in the very centre of the Boxer Line, and word quickly got to Meyer-Waldeck who ordered his reserves to counter-attack under cover of a German barrage. Whilst such a move was theoretically sound, it was, practically, almost impossible. There was simply not enough artillery left to provide an effective bombardment, and precious little manpower, particularly in comparison with that available to the attackers, to seal the breach. The effort was made, but the counter-attackers, including a contingent of Austro-Hungarian sailors landed from Kaiserin Elisabeth, were simply too weak to throw back the rapidly reinforcing Japanese.

The Boxer Line, being a linear defence, was vulnerable to being ‘rolled up’ from the flanks once breached at a given point. The Japanese having made the breach now proceeded to widen it by moving against Infantry Works 2 and 4 on either side. Both works held out for some hours, assisted by the Jaguar, the last German warship afloat, which fired away her remaining ordnance in support. The outcome however could be in no doubt and both works surrendered after about three hours of resistance. The Boxer Line was now useless, for with no defence in depth the penetration meant the route to Tsingtau was now as good as wide open. The Japanese infantry surged through the gap and began a general advance on Tsingtau and various strategic points, such as Iltis and Bismarck Hills. The batteries on the former fought the attackers for a time before surrendering, whereas the artillerymen on the latter, having fired away the last of their ammunition, set charges to destroy their guns and vacated the position at about 05:00hr. This final destruction of land-based artillery had its counterpart on the water; Jaguar, after attempting to repulse the infantry attack, had been scuttled in Kiautschou Bay.

At 06:00hr Meyer-Waldeck held a meeting at his headquarters in the Bismarck Hill Command Post where the latest information was assimilated. It had long been an unwritten rule of siege warfare that a garrison could honourably surrender following a ‘practical breach’ being made in their defences. The Japanese, using classic siege warfare methodology, had now achieved just such a breach. Whether the Governor was aware of the ‘rule’ is unknown, but he had now only two options; surrender or a fanatical ‘fight to the last man and last bullet’ scenario. Meyer-Waldeck was no fanatic. Brace put it thus:

If the governor had permitted the unequal struggle to go on his men would have lasted only a few hours longer. It would be an Alamo, and the name of the German garrison would be heralded throughout history as the heroic band of whites who stood against the yellow invasion until the last man. On the other hand the governor had with him a large part of the German commercial community of the Far East which Germany had built up with such painstaking care.

The Governor ordered the white flag hoisted on the signal station and over the German positions and composed a message to Kamio: ‘Since my defensive measures are exhausted I am now ready to enter into surrender negotiations for the now open city. […] I request you to appoint plenipotentiaries to the discussions, as well as to set time and place for the meeting of the respective plenipotentiaries. […]’ The carrier of this message was Major Georg von Kayser, adjutant to Meyer-Waldeck’s Chief-of-Staff, naval Captain Ludwig Saxer – the latter being the Governor’s appointee as German plenipotentiary. Despite Barnardiston’s contention that all firing ceased at 07:00hr Kayser had difficulty getting through the lines in safety, but he was eventually allowed to proceed under his flag of truce to the village of Tungwutschiatsun, some 4km behind the Japanese front line, more or less opposite the celebrated Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).81 It was agreed that a general armistice would come into play immediately, and that formal negotiations for the capitulation would commence that afternoon at 16:00hr in Moltke Barracks.