The Poseidon drone is estimated to be between 20-25 meters long and might weigh about 100 tons. Screenshot from Vesti Pomoriye by Covert Shores
In his annual public speech in February this year, Norway’s Chief of the military intelligence, Lieutenant General Morten Haga Lunde, showed the slide with the Poseidon drone onboard “Akademik Aleksandrov”. Lunde said he feared more accidents involving reactor-powered weapons systems in Russia.
“We should expect development and testing of new, advanced weapons systems in the areas east of Norway. Several of these will have nuclear propulsion systems,” he stressed.
Wether or not this summer’s Arctic voyage included work on the Poseidon drone or affiliated subsea installations is not known to the public. The Northern Fleet’s press service is not allowed to talk directly to foreign journalists.
The Poseidon (“Poseidon”, NATO reporting name Kanyon), previously known by Russian codename Status-6, is an autonomous, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle under development by Rubin Design Bureau, capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads.
The Poseidon is one of the six new Russian strategic weapons announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 1 March 2018.
The bus-sized Poseidon is designed to destroy coastal targets with a multi-megaton warhead.
Russia’s giant nuclear-tipped Poseidon torpedo will undergo more tests this year.
With almost an unlimited range, the Poseidon would speed toward targets on America’s coastline, exploding a 2-megaton warhead next to them.
The Poseidon will be launched from a class of specialized submarines.
Russia’s intimidating nuclear-powered torpedo is running toward new key tests this year, with a planned deployment for later this decade. The “tsunami apocalypse torpedo,” the first of its kind, is designed to travel across the world’s oceans to deliver a knockout thermonuclear blow against a coastal target or city.
Russian state television accidentally leaked the existence of the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, originally named Status-6, in 2015. A Russian Ministry of Defense document showed the weapon and described it as achieving:
“[T]he defeat of the important economic facilities of the enemy in the vicinity of the coast and causing assured unacceptable damage to the country through the establishment of zones of extensive radioactive contamination, unsuitable for implementation in these areas of military, economic, business or other activity for a long time.”
The Truth About Russia’s Apocalypse Torpedo
Initial leaks described the nuclear-powered Poseidon as a giant torpedo—or a large uncrewed submarine, take your pick—that measures 6.5 feet wide and 65 feet long and travels at speed of up to 70 knots. Nuclear power also gives the torpedo plenty of range, and experts believe the Poseidon can travel across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on its own to deliver its payload. The torpedo’s high speed will make it difficult for U.S. forces to intercept.
Early reports also suggested the Poseidon carried a 100-megaton thermonuclear warhead, which would pack twice the punch of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. When detonated near an enemy coastline, such a large warhead would inundate a coastal city or enemy port with a radioactive tsunami, contaminating the area and rendering it uninhabitable for decades to come.
Recent estimates, however, have revised Poseidon’s payload down to a (relatively) paltry 2 megatons. That may not trigger a radioactive tsunami, but it’s still powerful enough to do serious damage to a coastal target. Two megatons is the equivalent of 2,000 kilotons, while the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a mere 15 kilotons. (A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.)
Western officials are reportedly concerned about the Poseidon, per CNN, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked his defense minister for an update on the weapon’s recent “key stage” tests. According to Russian state media, the Poseidon will undergo further testing later this year.
Russia is reportedly building 30 Poseidon torpedoes, and will deploy them on four specially fitted submarines. Two submarines will reportedly serve with the Atlantic-facing Northern Fleet, while two others will serve with the Pacific Fleet. Each Belgorod-class submarine will carry six Poseidon torpedoes. Russia could also deploy the torpedoes in special capsules, where they would be activated remotely.
Russia launched the first Belgorod-class sub in 2019, and is preparing to launch another this year. In February, a commercial imaging satellite detected the sub at the port of Severodinsk, with its bow-mounted Poseidon launch tubes wide open.
While critics initially derided the Poseidon as a myth or a bluff, it’s clear now that Russia is deadly serious about putting this apocalyptic weapon into action. But will the country ultimately build 30 torpedoes and the four subs needed to carry them? That’s a good question.
While real enemies assailed German-held Europe from east, west and south, Hitler remained obsessed with the phantom threat to the Scandinavian sector of his Thousand-Year Reich throughout the course of the Second World War. The conquest of Norway and Denmark had secured the Reich’s northern flank and, of more immediate importance, the vital Norwegian port of Narvik. Set amidst the natural splendour of Norway’s northern reaches, the isolated Arctic town was strategically unremarkable apart from the dock through which tons of iron-ore were shipped to Germany and its war machine from the Swedish Gallivore mines.
The European gateway to Norway was Denmark, the first of the Scandinavian countries to have been conquered by Germany in 1940. In August 1944 365 K-Flotilla, equipped with Negers, was transferred to the country, though their tenure was brief, relieved by the reformed 361 K-Flotilla at the month’s end and returned to Suhrendorf for Marder training. The newly equipped 361 K-Flotilla arrived at Skaw on 1 September, moving onwards to Asaa 40km south of Frederikshaven ten days later. Bibers of 263 K-Flotilla were the first midgets to arrive in Norway, thirty of them landed at Kristiansand South from Travemünde on 9 October.
Over the next few weeks several K-Verbände units arrived in Denmark and Norway as well as German possessions in the North Sea. By 2 November the disposition of K-Verbände units within Scandinavia as approved by Dönitz was as follows: in northern Norway there were approximately sixty Bibers and sixty Marders in the area between Westfjord and the Lofoten Islands; sixty Molchs and thirty Bibers were based in southern Norway, mainly around Oslo and Kristiansand South (the Bibers were planned to move toward Narvik though Dönitz blocked the move); in Denmark, sixty Bibers at Aarhus and Oesterhurup were headed to the west coast of Jutland, sixty Marders and twelve Hechts were stationed at Asaa. Within German held North Sea territory there were thirty Molchs in Heligoland, thirty more at Borkum and thirty Bibers within the Ems estuary at Norden and sixty Linsens at Fedderwardsiel.
To control the far-flung K-Verbände units within Scandinavia K.z.S. Friedrich Böhme initially assumed command of units in Denmark and Norway in an almost ‘caretaker’ position, the post soon divided between K.z.S. Düwel in Aarhus, Denmark (Kommando Stab Skagerrak) and K.z.S. Beck (Kommando Stab Nord) in Oslo, Norway, while Böhme headed south to the Mediterranean. Beck and his staff surveyed the coastline that they had been charged to defend, estimating that they would require at least forty flotillas to effectively ward off an Allied attack on the labyrinthine waterways.
The deteriorating situation in Holland during December 1944 meant that the Molchs from Heligoland, Bibers from Norden and Linsens from Fedderwardsiel were all transferred for use in the Scheldt, depleting the K-Verbände presence in the northern theatre. Further losses were made when, after the threatened shortage of volunteers to man the K-Verbände weapons during January 1945, the dozen Hechts at Asaa were withdrawn to Germany and their crews transferred to the Seehund training unit before posted to Holland as part of Brandi’s 5 K-Division.
During February 1945 Düwel and his adjutant Wenzel were detached from Kommando Stab Skagerrak for duty with the Kommando Stab zbV which would soon be responsible for operations within German waterways that had been taken by Allied forces. Specifically, Düwel was asked to study operational employment of K-Verbdnde forces in the Danube, Drau and Oder. Control of his Scandinavian region was meanwhile passed directly to Heye’s General Operations branch.
The Scandinavian elements of the K-Verbände spent the rest of the war in what transpired to be needless reshuffling of units and redeployment to different defensive areas. The men were involved in constant training and equipment maintenance in preparation for the expected final battle. The tactics that the K-Verbände evolved for Norway were relatively simple. The Biber and Molch midget submarines were largely held at central depots ashore. In the case of reported invasion, they were to be brought forward to previously-prepared launching sites and put to sea to predetermined areas of operation. The Bibers and Molchs were assigned the protection of fjord and harbour entrances. Once established in a defensive line across the waterway they would await the oncoming enemy and then launch their attacks. By that stage the enemy should have suffered casualties, and so the place of the midgets would then taken by the Linsen flotillas who would compound the attack with their explosive motorboats. Should any Allied ships break through; the last line of defence was the human torpedo, Marder flotillas operating within the shallow waters of the harbours themselves. Alongside the centrally-stored Bibers there is evidence to suggest that some craft were ‘farmed out’ to outlying areas aboard Marinefahrpramm and also using the U-boat depot-ship ss Black Watch as temporary base and repair station, until the latter’s sinking on 4 May 1945 by British carrier-borne Avenger and Wildcat aircraft.
Coupled with the K-Verbände flotillas in Norway were also several Marine Einsatz Kommando units that were attached to the K-divisions, operating as loosely organised mobile commandos along the Norwegian coastline, often in conjunction with the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or SiPo) again hinting at a stronger bond with the SS organisation than otherwise noted.
By the end of hostilities in May 1945 eight flotillas, organised into four divisions and comprising approximately eighty-five officers and 2,500 men had been deployed in Norway. The command structure and stationing at the end of hostilities was thus:
1 K-Division (Kplt Woerdeman in Narvik)
K-Flot.1/265 Engeøy Island (Oblt.z.S. Ploger with 120 men and thirteen Bibers). This unit was in the process of transferring to Oslofjord when the war ended.
K-Flot.2/265 Engeøy (Oblt.z.S. Doose with eighty men and eleven Bibers, at Lødingen two Bibers were also surrendered aboard the vessel MFP233).
K-Flot.1/215 Ullvik (L.z.S. Hein with 100 men and thirty Linsens).
K-Flot.1/362 Brenvik (L.z.S. Gotthard with seventy men and twenty Marders).
MEK35 Harstad (Kaptlt. Breusch and sixty men).
2 K-Division (Oblt.z.S. Schuirmann in Trondheim)
K-Flot.1/216 Selvenes (Oblt.z.S. Krause with 100 men and thirty-six Linsens).
K-Flot.2/216 Namsos (Oblt.z.S. Thum with eighty men and twenty-four Linsens).
K-Flot.1/267 Kristiansand (Oblt.z.S. Sengbiel with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
K-Flot.2/267 Molde (Kaptlt. Sommer with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
(Two Bibers were also surrendered aboard MFP224 and two more aboard MFP241).
MEK30 Molde (Kaptlt. Gegner with eighty men).
3 K-Division (K.K. Silex in Bergen)
K-Flot.1/362 Herdla (Oblt.z.S. Koch with seventy men and twenty Marders).
K-Flot.2/362 Krokeidet (seventy men and twenty Marders).
K-Flot.2/215 Flatöy (Oblt.z.S. Schadlich with 100 men and thirty Linsens).
K-Flot 415 Sola (Oblt.z.S. Breckvoldt with 200 men and thirty Molchs).
K-Flot 1/263 Höllen/Tangvall (Oblt.z.S. Erdmann with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
K-Flot 2/263 Tangen (Oblt.z.S. Thieme with ninety men and fifteen Bibers).
4 K-Division (Kplt Velguth in Oslo)
K-Flot 1/366 Stavern (Oblt.z.S. Lehmann with sixty men and fifteen Marders).
K-Flot 2/366 Maagerö (Oblt.z.S. Heinsium with forty-five men and fifteen Marders).
Ultimately the bulk of the German forces in Norway remained unused and those K-Verbände units still in Scandinavia on 8 May 1945 surrendered without seeing action. While many of the weapons were scuttled before the arrival of British or Norwegian troops, the vast majority were handed over to the victors at their holding depots for later scrapping.
There remains little evidence of the K-Verbände presence in Scandinavia, though occasionally the skeletal remains of a Molch or Biber are discovered either at sea in the frigid fjord waters or buried on land after their dismantling in 1945. In Narvik itself rests the remains of a Marder within the maritime museum. Only the nose and the Plexiglas dome remain largely intact – that portion of the scrapped human torpedo ‘commandeered’ by a Norwegian woman who wanted to use it to plant flowers in!
Elsewhere the remains of the K-Verbände were likewise being handed over to the victorious Allies. Many craft were scuttled, including the three Seehunds at Dunkirk though these were swiftly salvaged and later repaired and recommissioned into the French Navy for extensive trials. Curiously a Seehund also now rests off Key West in United States waters. Taken as a war prize by the US Navy it was tested and crewed by its two original complement being held as POWs before being sunk in gunnery trials in the balmy Floridian waters.
The Allies soon discovered several prototype vehicles in development for use by the K-Verbände. These included many varieties of improved Sturmboot and explosive motorboats, one even propelled by a VI flying-bomb’s propulsion unit, as well as several varieties of midget submarine. There were fresh designs such as the Delphin (Dolphin), Schwertwal (Killer Whale) and large tracked Seeteufel (Sea Devil) as well as improved versions of the Biber and Seehund types. The Hai (Shark) human torpedo was found at AG Weser’s shipyard in Bremen, a huge elongated version of the Marder that stretched to 12.7m in length with increased batteries allowing a projected combat radius of 90 nautical miles. None had progressed beyond the prototype testing stage and remain historical curiosities.
Heye’s men were ushered into captivity alongside their comrades from all of Germany’s defeated services, the history of the K-Verbände soon relegated to little more than historical footnotes in works that recount Germany’s naval war between 1939 and 1945. This must be due largely to the lack of success enjoyed by the K-Verbände. While British, Italian and even Japanese midget submarine operations are often deservedly recounted for their indisputably heroic achievements, the German effort provokes far less recognition. Likewise of their explosive motorboats, human torpedoes and frogmen, the latter who enjoyed comparatively greater success than their service colleagues.
So why did Germany’s K-Verbände not achieve greater triumph? It certainly was not through a lack of fighting spirit or ardour amongst its largely volunteer members. Nor, arguably, can it solely be put down to the often-primitive machinery with which they were expected to take the fight to the enemy. The weapons made available to the K-Verbdnde ranged from the stopgap measure of the Neger human torpedo to the sophisticated design of the Seehund, a full range of craft spanning the gap between the two. Perhaps the real flaw lies in their commitment to action. While the Italian and Allied Second World War pioneers in the use of midget delivery vehicles utilised them for special actions, more akin to commando operations than conventional naval war, the Kriegsmarine quickly gravitated to the use of their K-Verbände as another weapon in the arsenal of a conventional navy, pitting the human torpedo against all that the Allies could muster. The German High Command perceived them as a defensive weapon as opposed to the specialised offensive weapons employed by the other nations. Indeed the Seehunds were deployed in the same role as conventional coastal U-boats and in fact could have had similar success if given the time to iron out design and training flaws and to allow the requisite numbers to be employed. Arguably the sole weapon within the KvB arsenal that could really have caused problems for the Allies seems to have been the Seehund. Though lacking in range, it carried the same weapon load as the Type XXIII U-boat yet only took two men to man and a fraction of the construction time. They were extremely difficult to detect using sonar and also difficult to destroy with conventional depth charges, though the crew no doubt suffered more than their boat under such attacks. If German planners had begun work a year ahead of time on the designs that would eventually lead to the Seehund they could have been deployed against the massed shipping of the D-Day invasion fleet for what could conceivably been devastating results. However, such was not the case and remains in the ‘what if’ category of alternative history. There also continues to be great misunderstanding about the nature of the men that crewed the weapons of the K-Verbände. This is probably not helped by books such as Jack Higgins’ wonderful – though fictional – The Eagle Has Landed that has men sentenced to death operating the human torpedoes from the British Channel Islands. This image of criminality has continued to dog the men of the K-Verbände, though it has a grain of fact to it. While it is possible to state that most men enlisted into the K-Verbände were either volunteers or ordinary conscripts, there remain anecdotes of some under military court sentence used in the human torpedoes, such as several of Skorzeny’s SS men. Thus the subject is not crystal clear, though the use of criminals in the K-Verbände ranks does not appear to have been deliberate policy.
There also remains the label of ‘suicide squads’ so often used in relation to the K-Verbände. To take the most obvious example, between April 1944 and April 1945 the Neger and Marder human torpedoes had mounted twelve operational sorties. Of the 264 machines involved 162 were lost, taking at least 150 pilots to their graves. Clearly, through what we have learned of the K-Verbände, they were not originally intended as suicide weapons or missions as is so often claimed. However, though perhaps not envisaged as such, they nonetheless were lethal to a majority of their volunteer operators. Moreover, to additionally confuse the issue, the following extract (also quoted elsewhere in this book) from a conference between Hitler and Dönitz further muddies the waters:
18 January – 16.00: An unexpected storm interfered with the success of the first operation by Seehund midget submarines. However, valuable experience was gained and the boats continue to operate. Because of the long distances involved, other small battle weapons can be used only as suicide weapons, and then only if the weather is suitable, as they would otherwise not even reach the area of operations. Despite these limitations, all efforts will be continued to interfere with enemy supply traffic to Antwerp.
Indeed Padfield notes in his book War Beneath the Sea that during Eberhard Godt’s interrogation (Dönitz’s subordinate and Chief Of Operations for the U-boat service) he imparted the view that the midgets were seen as ‘expendable’ – militarily cheap to produce and man.
Ultimately it could be said that if German naval strategic planning had allowed for the kind of development of midget weapon ideas and techniques necessary before the stimulus of a ‘backs to the wall’ defensive fight forced there hand, then many things could have been different for the Kriegsmarine and particularly the K-Verbände. However, the rigidity of thought and conservative nature that marked the Kriegsmarine ensured that there was no fostering of such ‘out of the box’ thinking, the results of which in Britain had allowed the creation of such weapons as the ‘bouncing bomb’, the Leigh-Light and numerous ‘funnies’ employed by the Armoured Corps. Germany by no means lacked such individual thinkers that could have developed special naval weapons, but history shows that, bereft of official support from military leaders, any such advances for the German K-Verbände remain purely conjectural.
Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity-which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an eruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil; the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal; he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.
Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.
The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history; but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.
As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.
In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war-leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to pressgang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.
It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.
Rome and Carthage as Allies
At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281-275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series 6f treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally: if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.
At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.
The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pro-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus. that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope; the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.
It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing. but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale; Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.
It was expected that the German Naval Command would take advantage of the great strategical possibilities offered by the occupation of Trondheim and Lorient to attempt to strangle the import trade of the British Isles by submarine attack and by naval raiding forces. On the 17th August 1940 the German Command proclaimed a “total blockade of the British Isles”; and, during September, simultaneous with the attempt by the German air force to gain air supremacy, the submarine campaign was intensified particularly in the waters off the west of Scotland and in the North-Western Approaches.
Our ability to carry on the war depended upon the maintenance of supplies through the West coast ports by the north-about route around Ireland. In September imports dropped to about 800,000 tons or 23 per cent. less than for May 1940 (over 1,000,000 tons). The minimum requirement had been put at 60 per cent. of the May figure, so that although the falling off was considerable the decline was as yet far from being a total blockade. In addition to that threat, the march of events in South-East Europe compelled us to accept the risk of sending reinforcements to the Middle East to the limit of our shipping capacity.
Diversion of Naval Forces from Anti-Invasion Duties to Trade Protection
At the end of October the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. A.V. Alexander, pointed out to the Defence Committee that our shipping losses in the North-Western Approaches were most serious, the tonnage lost being in excess of replacement by purchase and new construction. He added that if the existing rate of losses were to persist our reinforcement programme overseas would have to be curtailed, and it might prove impossible to maintain large forces in the Middle East.
The C.-in-C. Home Fleet, Admiral Sir C. Forbes, agreed that unless our anti-submarine craft on the North-Western Approaches were substantially increased there would be a grave danger of losing the war by the interruption of our life-line with the United States and the Empire.
That threat to our overseas trade routes caused the diversion to trade protection of more than half of the naval light forces allotted to anti-invasion duties; and the Prime Minister asked the President of the United States to sanction the purchase of fifty American destroyers as a reinforcement.
By the Spring (March 1941) the Battle of the Atlantic had spread to the whole of that ocean. In addition to their ocean-going submarines the Germans had a number of efficient surface warships and raiders in Northern Waters, and it had become necessary to convoy right across the Atlantic. Shipping was being attacked too, off the West coast of Africa. In the circumstances, heavier ships of the Home Fleet had to be dispersed to distant ports, ready to join as escort if necessary.
Reduced Anti-Invasion Naval Forces Based on Plymouth and Rosyth
The vital need to guard adequately our Atlantic trade routes was not the only cause of the reduction in immediate naval assistance to counter an attempted invasion. Owing to the threat of dive-bombing attack and to the continuous sowing of mines by German aircraft the naval authorities proposed to base the naval anti-invasion forces on ports down the Channel, such as Plymouth, rather than on the restricted East coast; and the East coast cruiser squadron on Rosyth.
The Defence Committee accordingly noted on the 31st October that the Army would have to be prepared to hold the beaches in South-East England, with such assistance as the Air Force could afford, until the arrival of naval forces strong enough to intercept the enemy’s sea passage. That “period before relief” of the troops guarding the beaches was estimated at 12 hours, i.e. the time of passage at 20 knots from Plymouth to Dover.
Erection of Beach Scaffolding as a Delaying Measure
As some compensation the Admiralty was asked to consider the erection along the most vital beaches, particularly in the North Foreland–Dungeness area, of fixed tubular steel scaffolding to check the first waves of an invasion attack. Experiments had shown such an obstacle to be unclimbable and proof against tanks. Compared with the proposed under-water nets, too, the scaffolding would last for three years instead of three months, and it could be made of lower grade steel. The scaffolding was to be erected above high-water mark as an antitank obstacle; if placed in shallow water it was proof against light craft but could be penetrated by heavy barges.
The Admiralty to have Operational Control of RAF Coastal Command
In order to be able to deploy the maximum possible force in the air for action in the North-Western Approaches, and to enable a single authority to be responsible for bringing in the convoys, the Admiralty asked that the Air Ministry should hand over “the whole of Coastal Command, R.A.F. complete”. In the opinion of the First Lord, Mr. A.V. Alexander, they could not assume full responsibility for the protection of convoys unless they had control of the operations equipment and training of the air squadrons of Coastal Command. He believed that the transfer could be effected without difficulty.
The Prime Minister thought that if they had been starting afresh in peace-time the great change proposed might be desirable; but “it would be disastrous at the present moment to tear a large fragment from the Royal Air Force”. The Committee agreed that Coastal Command should remain an integral part of the Royal Air Force for administration and training, but that for all operational purposes it should come under the control of the Admiralty. In the event of a difference of view between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry the number and type of aircraft to be allotted to Coastal Command should be fixed by the Defence Committee (Operations).
The Admiralty took over operational control of Coastal Command R.A.F. on the 15th April 1941.
The Problem of Eire
An attack upon Eire from French ports might be made either as a diversion in the event of an invasion of Great Britain or as a deliberate move to establish air and submarine bases from which to attack our vital shipping routes.
Whoever landed first in Eire would probably be attacked by the Irish; and to seize harbours and air-bases there against the will of the Government and people would involve a very gave military commitment, though it might have to be done if the threat on our Western Approaches became mortal.
The Defence Committee considered that the maintenance of a successful German landing in Eire was most improbable so long as our naval and air forces were undefeated. Should a large scale raid be attempted, and allowing for losses due to our naval and air action, up to 2 or 3 divisions might be landed from merchant ships with a proportion of tanks, and supported by a maximum of 8,000 airborne troops.
To resist such a landing the armed forces of Eire itself amounted to four brigade groups, arranged in mobile columns of about one company each, with armoured cars; and the Local Security Force, corresponding to our Home Guard, was about 90,000 strong.
Our resources in Northern Ireland were 3 Infantry divisions, one independent brigade group and 2 infantry brigades. The Ulster Volunteers or Home Guard amounted to about 38,000 by the end of May 1941; and in addition 3 Garrison, 4 Home Defence and 2 Young Soldiers battalions were available for guarding aerodromes and other Vulnerable Points.
Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.
The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight; and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.
According to one angry Spaniard:
‘Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’
It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:
‘The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea; and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’
Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.
With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.
The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.
And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:
‘At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’
Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:
‘about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired; and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors; and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’
But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:
‘There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise; among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one; so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’
This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. ; 256 pages
Dresden, flying a white flag, moments prior to her scuttling.
Before the war, Germany had devoted considerable study to the damaging blows which could be made against Britain through attacking the vital trade routes. It was, however, fully appreciated that the task of getting through to the Atlantic, and so to the other highways, would always be difficult when once hostilities had begun.
There were but two methods practicable. If one of her regular naval cruisers attempted to burst through the blockade by force, she would be handicapped from the first: she would be too blatant, too obvious. For, whilst a merchantman can become a disguised warship, it is not always possible to change the appearance of a man-of-war in order to make her resemble a passenger or cargo vessel. (It is true that during the war two or three of the British naval sloops were altered to suggest traders, but they were not a great success and did not always deceive the enemy.) When a cruiser has four, or even three funnels, war-like bow, low freeboard, and conspicuous guns, but a forebridge without any of the high decks of a liner, no amount of paint can fool a seafarer into believing her innocence. Therefore the chances of genuine cruisers running the blockade were rightly considered remote. We have seen that Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Berlin succeeded because the blockade patrols were not yet of sufficient strength, and these two raiders went hundreds of miles out of their way. But they were also dressed to conceal their true character, prepared to pretend and bluff; and this second method quite definitely was accepted by the German Admiralty as the only means of sending surface cruisers forth when the other genuine cruisers had ceased to exist.
It remains an interesting fact that not one of the latter throughout the whole four years made the slightest effort, either independently or in company, to rush the Dover Straits or get westward of Scotland. At the time when the Canadian convoy was coming over the Atlantic there certainly were both anxiety and a half-expectation at the British Admiralty that German battle-cruisers might break through and do their direst. It would have been a gamble, but certainly a justifiable risk. Transports full of soldiers are always most attractive targets in their helplessness; and it would have been of direct assistance to the German Army if some thousands of British troops could have been shelled or drowned. Whether all the battle-cruisers would have got back to Germany again is quite another consideration.
It may be stated at once that after Berlin’s meteoric career concluded at Trondhjem, not even a merchant cruiser got out from Germany to the ocean routes again until January 1916. No blockade line between Scotland and Iceland, or Scotland and Norway, can ever be absolutely impenetrable having regard to long dark nights and days of fog. The very few raiders which did pierce this steel ring certainly deserved some reward. Only when these attempts were made by exceptionally brave and determined commanding officers, who had the patience and endurance to go near the Arctic Circle, the care to make the best of nocturnal and meteorological conditions, and the luck of not being discovered lower down the North Sea, was attainment possible.
During the first months of hostilities, then, Germany’s units for waging war along the commercial sea-routes consisted of (a) those of her regular cruisers which happened to be on the China or West Indies stations, and (b) any of her ocean liners which happened to be in foreign waters. It will now be our interesting inquiry to follow one of the most amazing voyages in all records of the sea. Let us open the map at the West Indies, which are so richly endowed with colourful background and memories of maritime rovers. It will help us to vitalise the story if we try to visualise the small German cruiser Dresden, which was a sister-ship of that famous raider Emden. At the beginning of the war Dresden was six years old, and still capable of about 24 knots. Armed with ten 4.1-inch guns, she had three tall thin funnels, two tall masts (with searchlight platforms), and displaced 3544 tons. Her maximum coal capacity was 850 tons, a factor which was to have an important influence on her adventures; and her engines were turbines. Captain E. Köhler was her commanding officer.
Steaming across from Germany to the Caribbean came the cruiser Karlsruhe, a bigger vessel, of 4820 tons, with a speed of over 27 knots. She was armed with twelve 4 1-inch guns, had been built only that same year, and was under the command of Captain Lüdecke. A lean, four-funnelled, low-lying ship with a modern bow, and every line of her suggesting speed, this two-master was coming out to relieve Dresden, but the two captains were to change over. Dresden was then to return home and have a much-needed refit. This is a second factor which will presently gain greater significance. It was at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that the two cruisers met and on July 25 the respective captains took over from each other. Our immediate concern being Captain Lüdecke’s cruise in Dresden, we must postpone the career of Karlsruhe till a later chapter.
It was on July 28 that Dresden left Port-au-Prince and went on to the Danish Island of St. Thomas in order to coal her bunkers before starting for Germany. This little hilly islet of only 33 square miles, with poor soil, occupies considerable strategical importance which has become even more marked since the Panama Canal was opened. Nature has made it one of those key-positions of the sea where four important routes converge. It is the centre whence radiate the tracks to New York and Boston, the Mexican Gulf, the eastern ports of South America, and Colon for the Panama Canal. When aerial travel becomes more firmly established it will doubtless increase the value of St. Thomas still further. But in 1914 it was, as we have noticed, one of the German supply centres, and here indeed the Hamburg-Amerika Line had its offices. If it was little more than a port of call, yet its harbour is one of the finest of all the West Indies, excellently placed for raiders to come in, coal quickly, and then on putting out to sea find themselves already on the highway of commerce.
By July 30 European political affairs were advancing towards a crisis, but on the next day Dresden steamed out of St. Thomas north-eastwards for the Azores and English Channel. She had not been gone more than three hours when she picked up a wireless message from Porto Rico ordering her not to return home but carry on cruiser warfare in the Atlantic: that is to say, she was to destroy enemy commerce. She was ideally placed with the choice of routes, and no raider could wish for a better beginning. Here she was, already at sea, beyond territorial waters, bunkers full, too far from land to be spied on, but supposed to be making for mid-North Atlantic.
As a matter of fact she turned south and wisely began cruising down the track of shipping bound up from South American ports. Not many days had she to wait. It was erroneously reported that she was off New York, though in truth on August 6 she had passed the mouth of the Amazon and off Para stopped her first ship. This was the British S.S. Drumcliffe, 4072 tons, from Buenos Aires in ballast on her way to Trinidad for fuel. A boarding-party was sent to her, but Drumcliffe’s master had with him both wife and child, who would be an inconvenience aboard the cruiser if the merchantman were now destroyed; and it would be useless to take the steamer along, seeing that she was in need of coal. After the steamer’s wireless had been destroyed, and a declaration signed pledging officers and crew not to take part in hostilities against Germany, Drumcliffe was dismissed.
Just over an hour later appeared the British S.S. Lynton Grange, 4252 tons, bound for Barbados, and the same experience happened to her. But in the meantime arrived the British S.S. Hostilius, 3325 tons, bound for Barbados also, and then the extraordinary situation occurred of captain, officers, and crew all refusing to sign the German declaration, yet Captain Lüdecke at 7.40 p.m. released her because he did not think her destruction worth while. Dresden then proceeded still on her south-east course towards Rocas Reef, which lies singularly isolated, about 130 miles off Cape San Roque, and just off the position where the north-west track for Barbados and St. Thomas separates itself from that to the Cape Verdes and Canaries. It is worth while calling attention to it at this stage, as Rocas was one of the secret rendezvous for German raiders and likely to become of the greatest convenience.
After cruising about the crossways for a few days, she must needs coal, and such was the good organisation of the Supply Officer that she was now able to enter the little-known, rarely frequented harbour of Jericoacoara, a Brazilian inlet which lies just west of the 40th meridian, between Cape San Roque and Para. There she led the S.S. Corrientes, from which she took 570 tons of coal. This supply ship had been waiting in Maranham, a port which is a little further westward, but had been summoned by Dresden’s wireless and got under way at 6 a.m., August 8, meeting Dresden the same afternoon. The operation of coaling occupied August 9-10, after which the two ships in company went to the north of Rocas Reef and Fernando Noronha, having thus intentionally crossed both the north-west and north-east trade routes, but so far with no reward.
Fernando Noronha is another Atlantic island which gives picturesque background to the raiders’ story. Lying about 80 miles east of the Rocas Reef, it is only 7 miles long by 1½ wide. We can picture this volcanic settlement as a collection of gaunt rugged rocks, over which the hot tropical rains and against which the smashing thunderous seas beat. Ashore there is nothing lovely in the stunted trees, the 700 convicts of assassins and others who long to escape. But the island boasts of cable and wireless station, and in recent years since the war aeroplane flights between Europe and South America have halted here. Liners do not call, but give a wide berth to these bare rocks and shark-infested blue waters.
Now, on the day before she met Corrientes, Dresden was still further being provided for. The Hamburg-Amerika collier Baden on August 7 with 12,000 tons of coal had reached Pernambuco, which, of course, is only a few hours’ steaming from Cape San Roque and therefore excellently situated in regard to the two sea-tracks. So, having spent some more unprofitable days hovering about, Dresden sent Baden an order to rendezvous near Rocas Reef. This signal was wirelessed through Olinda, the telegraph station which is close to Pernambuco, and out came the supply ship. The perpetual anxiety of every raider’s captain was the frequent necessity of having to meet, without fail, some undefended slow-steaming ship at a rendezvous that might become compromised suddenly. There was the further inconvenience, and even danger, of having to take in supplies without adequate protection from heavy swell.
During August 13 Dresden and Baden were lashed alongside each other under the lee of Rocas Reef: but the Atlantic movement is no respecter of ships or nationalities. The two steel ships rose and fell, rolled inwards and outwards, crashing and banging severely in spite of all the fenders. Hawsers were snapped, and some actual ship damage inevitably occurred. Nor can we ignore these as negligible items. The psychological effect on officers and crew of having overwrought nerves still further strained by this monstrous jarring every few days was bound to be cumulative. Coaling ship is at all times an unpleasant evolution, and when it has to be done hurriedly under a tropical sky, with look-outs posted to report any possible enemy cruiser, and the ocean surge every moment endangering the men at work amid black dust and the din of donkey-engines, the operation each time intensifies the men’s annoyance with life.
Dresden did manage, however, to take in 254 tons, but the lighthouse-keeper at the island wanted to know who she was. The German fobbed him off with the lie that this was the Swedish ship Fylgia doing some repairs to defective engines. She sent Corrientes into Pernambuco, and presently there came two more supply ships, Prussia and Persia. We thus see that so efficiently planned was the German organisation that, notwithstanding the sudden incidence of war, there were at hand and with full cargoes, colliers perfectly placed to render necessary service. At the opening of hostilities there were 54 German and Austrian vessels in American Atlantic ports, New York alone containing nine large German liners such as the Vaterland, George Washington, Friedrich der Grosse, Grosse Kurfurst, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. On August 21 the North German Lloyd liner Brandenburg, with 9000 tons of coal and having taken in a large quantity of provisions two days previously, was permitted by the United States authorities to leave Philadelphia, under the declaration that she was bound for Bergen. Actually this Brandenburg, whose speed was only 12½ knots, was despatched by the New York German Supply Centre to a rendezvous near Newfoundland, and her presence would have been appreciated by any unit raiding the New York to England route. But Brandenburg never met a ship, held on across the Atlantic, reached Trondhjem on the last day of August and was interned by the Norwegian authorities, as we have already seen.
From Rocas Reef Dresden went south, and resumed her search for victims, being accompanied by Baden and Prussia. She got well across the north-east trade route and on August 15 captured the British S.S. Hyades, 3352 tons, Pernambuco for Las Palmas. The latter carried a cargo of grain, and was consequently sunk after the officers and crew had been taken aboard Prussia, the position of this first prize being some 180 miles to the north-east of Pernambuco. On the next day Dresden molested but released the British S.S. Siamese Prince, 4847 tons, and presently parted company with Prussia who steamed into port and landed her prisoners, but not at Pernambuco, Bahia, or any other adjacent harbour. That would never have done; not enough days would have elapsed. Prussia therefore entered Rio Janeiro, and in the meantime Dresden, after steering a false course so as to prevent the Hyades officers from providing accurate intelligence, went off towards the land-crab Island of Trinidada.
Here once more we note the Teutonic organisation and arrangements for concentration working out with extraordinary success. The only German warship in South African waters, just immediately before the war, was the little gunboat Eber. She was eleven years old, carried only two 4 1-inch guns, her displacement being 977 tons, and her speed 13 ½ knots. She was of negligible fighting value and likely to be sunk by any of the British cruisers of the Cape station. Eber wisely left Capetown on July 30, whilst the going was good, and went across the South Atlantic. Thither likewise proceeded the German S.S. Steiermark from Luderitz Bay (German South-West Africa). Now, during the night of August 18-19 Dresden was in wireless touch with Steiermark, and on arrival at Trinidada with Baden there was the assemblage of several supply ships which provided coal, stores and food. For, additional to Dresden, Eber, Baden and Steiermark, there had come the Santa Isabel which sailed from Buenos Aires on August 9, pretending she was bound for Togoland. Actually she brought out forty bullocks, oil, besides shovels and coal-bags, and a week later was met by another German steamer Sevilla which transferred to her both a wireless set and operator. It may be said at once that the useless Eber was about to hand over her guns to a crack German liner and enable the latter to go raiding. But this must be read in another chapter, since it led up to a most interesting series of events.
Dresden was now replenished with food and fuel, so that after two days she was able to go south-west and reach the trade route coming up from the River Plate. Thus she met the British S.S. Holmwood, 4223 tons on the 26th, when about 170 miles S ½ W of Cape Santa Marta Grande. The steamer was bound from Newport with Welsh coal for Bahia Blanca, and, after her crew had been placed aboard Baden, she was sunk by bombs. Already, then, the Dresden had reached as far south as the southern boundary of Brazil. But at this hour steamed up the British S.S. Katharine Park, 4854 tons, bound from Buenos Aires for New York with cargo for United States owners. She was therefore not sunk, but to her were transferred Holmwood’s crew, and she was dismissed on the understanding that officers as well as crew were not to engage in hostilities against Germany. On August 30 the Katharine Park reached Rio Janeiro, though by this time Dresden had carried on still further south till on the last day of August she reached Gill Bay (Gulf of St. George), which is some 800 miles from the River Plate.
She was under way again on September 2 and ready to resume her attacks, though the number of likely victims must necessarily be restricted to only those ships using the Magellan Straits or doubling the Horn. Captain Lüdecke was getting into cold latitudes, so sent on Santa Isabel in order to procure warm clothing, as well as materials for repairing his engines that had not been allowed their intended refit. This supply ship entered Magellan Straits and reached Punta Arenas on September 4, whence she was able to telegraph the Supply Centres of Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. She also sent a cable through to the German Admiralty at Berlin, and three days later came a reply ordering Dresden to operate with the cruiser Leipzig which was then at Guaymas (Gulf of California).
From now begins the second phase of Dresden’s voyage in which she was to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The former was becoming not too healthy now that British cruisers were steaming up and down sweeping the Brazilian coast; though in truth a raider with adequate fuel could play hide-and-seek in the wide Atlantic for months, unless she were remarkably unlucky. After Gill Bay, Dresden chose not to enter Magellan Straits: she had kept her whereabouts shrouded in mystery and used her supply ship as a link between self and civilisation, thus giving a further instance of the reliance which the German Navy had placed on their auxiliary mercantile craft.
The beginning of September saw this cruiser butting into the wild seas off Cape Horn and encountering the chilly, depressing weather, grey skies, biting blasts, of a most inhospitable area. Making a wide sweep, she put into Orange Bay, Hoste Island, whence the turbulent ocean stretches direct to the frozen Antarctic. So rarely do vessels of any sort whatsoever use this forlorn anchorage, that it has long been a custom amongst mariners to “leave their card” by writing on a board the name of their ship with date. So when liberty men from Dresden were at last allowed ashore to stretch their legs after being at sea for several weeks, they discovered ship names and wrote on a board the word Dresden with the date, September 11, 1914. It was a natural, unthinking, but imprudent action; and the record was partially yet not entirely obliterated. There remained sufficient evidence, however, for her visit to be proved later on beyond all doubt.
Dresden’s war against commerce in the Atlantic had been neither particularly brilliant nor as ruthless as were the assaults by some other raiders. She had steamed from the West Indies to Cape Horn, burnt many hundred tons of coal, cruised thousands of miles, and the net gains were two not large cargo ships. These were the last she was ever to sink in that ocean.
But the few days in Orange Bay, where she could be fairly sure of seclusion away from the world, were welcomed as an opportunity for such overhaul as was possible without dockyard assistance. And now she must so regulate her programme as to join hands with Admiral von Spee who was coming east across the Pacific, and to this end she left her anchorage on September 16. Two days later, taking Baden with her, she sighted the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s 8075-ton steamer Ortega in the Pacific bound to England from Valparaiso. The cruiser gave chase, but Captain D. R. Kinneir escaped by entering the uncharted Nelson’s Strait, and through the splendid efforts of his engine-room staff who got 18 knots out of a 14-knot ship. The sequel was that Dresden gave up the pursuit, while Ortega felt her way cautiously but riskily into Smyth’s Channel and out into the Atlantic. It is worth noting that the cruiser kept shelling this passenger liner, but that no hits were made, and there is other evidence that Dresden’s gunnery was not very good.
Still proceeding up the Pacific, the latter went into St. Quentin Bay (Gulf of Peñas) where she coaled from Baden, coasted further yet but found no more shipping, and then made a tack out away from the land to that lonely island of Mas-a-fuera. No one can say that the German Navy failed to use every geographical convenience to the extreme limit. Having entered the war without the advantage of a chain of coaling stations, she regarded all isolated rocks, islands, lonely bays, as her privilege for supplies, refits, or rendezvous. The question of infringing the rights of neutral nations was ignored: necessity was the dominating factor, and absence of that force which imposes obedience to law prevented interference.
The principle was unprincipled, the policy impolitic; for the cumulative effect of using other nations’ property without permission was to arouse indignation, which in turn was to create a hostile reaction. But for the present all was well, and the Chilean Government were five hundred miles away — too far for any immediate protest; and it was whilst at Mas-a-fuera that Dresden’s wireless gained touch with the approaching Admiral von Spee on October 3. Spee’s immediate object was to obtain a concentration of cruisers and for this purpose he selected another remote spot still further away from the American continent. Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day, 1722, but now belongs to Chile from which it is distant fifteen hundred miles. It has neither timber nor brushwood, and hither in 1774 came Captain Cook.
In 1897 Mr. Merlet of Valparaiso leased part of the island, and subsequently formed a company to exploit it. Scientifically Easter Island demands interest because of hundreds of strange colossal stone idols, some of which are 30 feet high. There is no regular connection with South America, except for a small sailing vessel which is owned by the company using the island as a ranch. Sometimes this vessel comes once a year; sometimes not so frequently, and then tarries only long enough to take aboard the wool crop. Of triangular shape, measuring only 13 miles along its base, one can think of this volcanic miniature kingdom rising suddenly out of the ocean with high cliffs and jagged rocks, against which the unfettered Pacific perpetually dashes itself into white spray. Quiet, beyond all the traffic routes, quite untouched by the world’s progress, it would have seemed the last bit of territory that could be associated with modern war.
In October 1914 its total population consisted of Mr. Edmunds (the English manager of the ranch) and a German tobacco planter in addition to 250 natives, who are Polynesians. But it so happened that in 1913 there had sailed from England the schooner yacht Mana (91 gross tons), which had brought to the island in March 1914 Mr. and Mrs. Scoresby Routledge on a scientific expedition to investigate the mysterious idols. It chanced that in October the yacht had fortunately already been sent away temporarily to South America, leaving Mrs. Routledge and one of the crew on the island. The last visit of strangers had been in June 1913, when a crew of shipwrecked mariners from the schooner El Dorado, trading between Oregon and Chile with a deck-load of timber, had sprung a leak and compelled her crew to take to the ship’s boat.
In the normal course of Easter Island chronology it might have taken about a year before news of the World War reached its inhabitants. Neither Mrs. Routledge nor Mr. Edmunds had the faintest idea that Germany was at enmity; that Britain, France, and Russia were plunged in a great struggle; but on Monday morning, October 12, 1914, the islanders were surprised to find a squadron of German vessels had anchored off the shore. They consisted of the cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Dresden. The latter had been towed here by Baden, in order to economise coal, and with the arrival of Leipzig the concentration of von Spee’s force was now complete. Besides these fighting units the islanders were able to gaze down upon colliers and storeships.
What was the meaning of this sudden irruption? The Germans said nothing about a war: they mentioned that they were cruising from the China station to Valparaiso. So unsuspecting were the handful of Easter Island white people that Mrs. Routledge entrusted the Germans with letters to post, of which incidentally all but one at length reached its destination. As for Mr. Edmunds, he innocently sold the Germans £1000 worth of meat. The visitors offered to make payment in gold, but the manager (perhaps remembering than an exploiter had once been murdered here) considered it wiser to ask and accept an order instead!
But there was an indefinable mysteriousness about this squadron, and it seemed curious that no one came ashore except very rarely. The natives became annoyed that so few presents were made. Had these Europeans no information to impart? Why were they so secretive? The Germans insisted that they had no newspapers, but at night they steamed out with no lights showing. Strange rumours began to develop, and one day an officer was foolish enough to make the remark that “in two months Germany will be at the top of the tree”. The crew had been told to keep their tongues quiet, but when the German tobacco-planter went aboard they gave him the momentous news that the Great War had begun. And that was how the tidings came to Easter Island.
Leading his squadron to sea after dusk on Sunday, October 18, with his flag in Scharnhorst, von Spee finally quitted Easter Island.1 During a whole week he had knowingly and deliberately delayed, where he had been entitled to rest only a few hours. He had flouted Chilean neutrality by using in the most leisured manner this island as his base: yet who was there of Chile to say him nay? To a belligerent who likes to defy international law, the seas afford many a free station whereon authority sits lightly if it exists at all. Will the spread of wireless stations and the extension of aviation make such proceedings nowadays impossible?
The squadron never came back, though the raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich descended on the anchorage just before Christmas. Of her cruise we shall investigate the stages in a later chapter. Whilst the sheep-shearing at Easter Island went on, the German squadron with their auxiliaries steamed south-east for Mas-a-fuera where they anchored on October 26, coaled, left the next day, and approached the vicinity of Valparaiso two days later. Now during this same month Admiral Cradock had been into Orange Bay and found the inscription proving that Dresden had called. On November 1 his inferior squadron met and was defeated by Admiral von Spee at the Battle of Coronel.
On November 6 the concentration again began to be made at Mas-a-fuera, yet once more defying neutrality, and now supplies fairly poured in. For two sailing vessels had been captured, one French with 3500 tons of coal, the other Norwegian with 2634 tons; whilst the German supply ship Sacramento had arrived from San Francisco with coal and food. Not till November 15 did von Spee sail, though Dresden and Leipzig left four days earlier and on November 13 called at Valparaiso, embarked stores, but left the next day. It was on the 16th that the British S.S. North Wales with coal was captured by Dresden and sunk, and next day the crew were transferred to the latter’s supply ship Rhakotis, who a month later landed them at Callao.
At St.Quentin Bay von Spee once more concentrated his squadron; this time the rendezvous was to see a veritable squadron also of supply ships. It was now November 21 and five days later von Spee set out for the fate that awaited him, the force consisting of his five cruisers, but also he took with him only the three supply ships Baden, Santa Isabel, and Seydlitz. Dipping their bows into the heavy seas, avoiding the Magellan Straits, and going outside the Horn the wanderers halted: for, coming towards them on December 2 was the British-owned Drummuir, 1844 tons, one of the few survivors of the sailing ships. Through four hundred years “Cape Stiff” had been the sailing ship’s deadliest enemy, the graveyard of many a sailor, the nightmare of every sailing-ship master. Drake, Anson, and a host of others had spent anxious times battering round this tempestuous corner of the globe, and now the age of sail was completing its last few voyages. As if to hurry its departure by the dominance of steam, Leipzig played her rôle by capturing Drummuir, which was taken to the back of Picton Island; next, after the sailing vessel’s cargo of coal had been transferred to the supply ships, followed the sad passing. Drummuir, representative of a fine race which revealed the Old World to the New, was towed into deep water and sent to the bottom.
That was on December 6, and in the evening von Spee’s squadron got under way for the Falklands; but then on December 8 followed the historic battle with his overwhelming defeat. Had it been a victory, the Falklands would have been transformed into a German base, the Atlantic would have been terrorised for a long time by cruiser raids, and the trade routes would have been death-traps. Finally, the squadron would have been able to essay a return to the North Sea and a conjunction with the outcoming High Sea Fleet might have led to a full-dress engagement with the Grand Fleet. But, as it was, von Spee lost to Admiral Sturdee four out of five cruisers, and two out of three remaining supply ships, so that there remained at the end of December 8 only the Dresden cruiser, and the Seydlitz. The latter had come all the way from Australia, and was one of the North German liners: she escaped, landed the Drummuir crew twelve days later, but finally was interned in February at Bahia Blanca.
We are now at liberty to devote ourselves exclusively once more to the adventures of Dresden and to observe the incredible situations, the narrow escapes, and terrible moments of suspense which were to last for weeks and weeks. She was destined to play a lonely game in the loneliest and most cheerless portion of the globe. The desperate condition in which she found herself was not merely that her admiral and sister-ships had perished, but that the whole of the German supply system had received a series of disintegrating shocks. Inasmuch as the very life of a raider depended on coal and stores, she could not do much if neither reached her. And owners were preferring to keep their ships in port just now rather than expose them to disaster, so the chances of helping herself to fuel and food in the Patagonian area were not promising. Hitherto life for these cruisers had been rather that of a speculative criminal. They had trespassed flagrantly, their supply ships had by lies and deceit used harbours of South American Republics as the sources for coal, provisions, stores of all sorts, and communication with Berlin. Such insults to the self-pride of neutral nations could not be endured for ever.
Brazil and Argentina were now beginning to tighten up regulations: in future colliers would not be allowed to leave port if there was the slightest suspicion that they were about to serve German cruisers. The Governments of Uruguay and Chile were likewise becoming less patient than before, with the result that German Supply Officers in South America were finding their task impossible. Only across the Atlantic at Canary Islands, Las Palmas, Tenerife were there always several thousand tons of German-owned coal always ready. Captain Lüdecke was compelled to do some serious thinking for the future, and the great lesson to be learned from his subsequent movements is one of moral courage. He refused to bow his head to discouragement and, on the contrary, utilised every conceivable means for outwitting fate.
Dresden was able to survive the Battle of the Falk-lands because she got away in the thick weather of the afternoon. At first Captain Lüdecke intended making for Picton Island, where von Spee was to have rendezvoused. But Lüdecke’s wireless calls could get no reply from a supply ship. Dresden needed coal, and must have it: yet how? Whence? Punta Arenas — inside the Magellan Straits — that was the only possible place. But surely British cruisers would be hovering off the eastern entrance to the Straits? Most likely they would. Then what to do? The answer was found in choosing the tricky Cockburn Channel which he entered on December 10 and came to anchor at 4 p.m. in Sholl Bay, some sixty miles south of Punta Arenas. So desperate had become the fuel problem that Captain Lüdecke had to send his men ashore to cut down trees, and they also brought off water. Forests abound in the Magellan neighbourhood, and when Darwin was thereabouts in the Beagle during 1834 he recorded: “So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out.”
Only 160 tons of the cruiser’s maximum 850 tons of coal remained, so Dresden could not have carried on much longer. That night the Chilean torpedo-gunboat Almirante Condell visited Dresden. She was a quarter of a century old and lightly armed, but she represented the law and informed Lüdecke he must not prolong his stay beyond twenty-four hours. At 10 a.m. on December 12 Dresden weighed anchor and reached that quite unpretentious little town of Punta Arenas so famous for its driving storms. He knew that the United, States collier Minnesotan, specially chartered by the German Government, was there lying; but this vessel’s master now refused to let him have a shovelful. He was not going to supply a man-of-war.
This was awkward, time was precious, and the British cruisers could not be far away. But the German Roland Line Turpin had been lying there since war began, so from her Dresden managed to obtain 750 tons of briquettes aboard by the evening of December 13, and at 10 p.m. steamed away south down the Straits. Five hours later the British cruiser H.M.S. Bristol arrived! It had been a narrow shave.
From now onwards Dresden was to live a hand-to-mouth existence in a grand game of hide-and-seek, with the most impressive scenery for background. She was hunted and searched for incessantly; false clues, all sorts of rumours, were followed up and still the German could not be located. She was like some culprit wanted by the police, and unable to show herself in public. In order to picture the strange environment we have to remember that these Magellan Straits are a bewildering labyrinth of channels and islands that even in this twentieth century still remain inadequately surveyed, and such charts as exist date back chiefly from Darwin and the Beagle epoch. Imagine a kind of Norway with valleys, gorges, snow-clad mountains, precipices, and peaks, and all nature in a savage primitive isolation. Here are channels, sometimes 4000 feet deep, running between mountains rising to 5000 feet. Anchorages are few and even thirty miles apart. To navigate except by daylight is impossible, and dangerous at that if the more unfrequented passages are attempted; for rocks are waiting to hole the ship’s bottom. Certainly there is smooth water, but the tides are strong, the light is not generally good, the atmosphere never warm, and out of the twenty-four hours it rains for eleven. Its cold and wet, its damp fogs, are comparable only with an English winter.
The deep ravines, the incessant gales of wind, and what Darwin once called “the death-like scene of desolation”; the gloomy woods inhabited by only few birds; the dark ragged clouds that drive furiously over the cones of snow and blue glaciers, overawe the mind of man. Not even the abundant firewood and many waterfalls make up for the misty sunless weather, the grey seas outside, the heartlessness of the fjords themselves. These are cliffs covered with fern and brilliant moss, and there is something majestic in the crags as well as the ravines. But down come the squally “williwaws” lashing the smooth water into foaming crests and liable to lay any sailing craft flat down. Altogether this stern, forbidding, barren region of South America’s extremity was an ideal, if strange, asylum for a turbine cruiser hiding after the most complete naval victory of modern times.
Iran has been demanding South Korea release frozen assets and the seizure also comes amid a flurry of Iranian threats aimed at the United States.
The South Korea’s government says it has dispatched military forces into the strategic Strait of Hormuz after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, seized a South Korean-flagged tanker ship earlier today. Officials in Seoul are also demanding the immediate release of the vessel, which Iranian authorities say they detained over alleged maritime pollution.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry issued the statement regarding the chemical tanker MT Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, 2021. The vessel, which Iran says is carrying 7,200 tons of “oil-based chemicals,” had been traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates when the IRGC took control of it at around 10:00 AM local time. Official pictures of the operation show multiple small Iranian boats swarming the commercial ship, which is now anchored near the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The entire crew, 20 individuals in total, including 5 Korean nationals, 11 sailors from Myanmar, two Indonesians, and two Vietnamese, has also reportedly been arrested.
The IRGC said that it had seized the ship, which has a gross tonnage of 9,797 tons, after receiving a request from the country’s Ports and Maritime Organization, which was acting on a warrant issued by the coastal Hormozgan province’s prosecutor’s office. Hormozgan is situated along the Strait of Hormuz.
The incident was further confirmed by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) body, which monitors maritime security in the region. “As a consequence of this interaction, the vessel made an alteration of course north and proceeded into Iranian territorial waters,” it said in a statement.
The Hankuk Chemi’s South Korean-based operator, DM Shipping, has denied the ship violated any environmental protocols.
It’s unclear what forces South Korea has now sent the area and what actions they may be authorized to take. In January 2020, South Korean officials announced that they would expand their Cheonghae military unit, which has previously been focused on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden in cooperation with the U.S. Navy-led Combined Task Force 151, to also cover operations in and around the Strait of Hormuz. South Korean Navy destroyers make rotational deployments in support of the Cheonghae unit, and form the core of that force, but it is unclear which of the country’s warships is in the region now.
The South Korean military is not technically part of the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct, which was established in 2019 specifically to patrol in and around the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere in the Middle East and monitor Iranian activities.
This is certainly not the first time the Iranians have seized a foreign-flagged tanker in the region. In July 2019, the IRGC notably took control of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, officially over allegedly breaking maritime rules. On the same day, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also briefly detailed the Liberian-flagged tanker Mesdar, which is owned by a British company. Iranian officials later claimed they had only stopped that ship to inform the crew of environmental and other maritime regulations.
The seizure of the Stena Impero was seen as direct retaliation for British authorities in Gibraltar detaining an Iranian tanker, then named Grace 1, earlier in that year. The U.K. government released Grace 1 in August 2019 and Iran let Stena Impero go the following month.
This latest incident comes as Iran and South Korea are currently at loggerheads over the status of Iranian funds worth $7 billion that are frozen in South Korean banks due to sanctions imposed by the United States. South Korea’s deputy foreign minister was reportedly planning to visit Tehran soon to discuss Iranian demand for the release of the funds.
It’s also worth noting that South Korea, one of the world’s top 10 oil importers, had been a major customer of Iran’s before agreeing to halt those purchases in May 2020 under pressure from the U.S. government. The IRGC detaining the Hankuk Chemi could offer a way to put pressure on both countries simultaneously, or even seek to drive something of a wedge between them, especially over the issue of sanctions.
The incident comes amid a surge in geopolitical friction between Iran and the United States. On Jan. 3, the Pentagon announced that the supercarrier USS Nimitz would return to Middle Eastern waters in response to threats from Iranian officials, including some directed specifically at President Donald Turmp, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the U.S. military’s killing of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani. An American drone strike killed Soleimani, then-head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s external operations arm, in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2020.
Trump himself reportedly directed Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller to order the carrier back to the Middle East. Just days earlier, Miller had announced that the Nimitz, which had been sailing in the Indian Ocean in support of the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia, would be heading home after a particularly lengthy deployment. That move was also said to be aimed to be a de-escalatory move after weeks of signaling to the regime in Tehran in the form of multiple long-range B-52 bomber sorties and the extremely rare public transit of the Ohio class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia through the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly seen a recent increase in the alert posture among Iranian military units, including air defense and maritime elements. However, it is unclear whether or not this in preparation to respond to any American retaliation to an attack from Iran or its regional proxies or if this is a reaction to threats from the U.S. government, real or otherwise.
Iranian-backed militant groups throughout the Middle East have issued their own calls for justice and revenge while commemorating the anniversary of Soleimani’s death. In Iraq, in particular, militias that Tehran supports have stepped up rocket and other attacks aimed at U.S. interests in that country in recent weeks.
There is also the matter of Iran resuming enriching uranium at up to 20% purity, reducing the time it would take for the regime in Tehran to produce weapons-grade level material for use in a weapon, should it choose to do so. The enrichment work is being carried out at Fordo, in a site buried within a mountain, which provides significant protection from aerial attack.
This is in clear violation of the controversial international deal that Iran made with the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, in 2015. In May 2018, Trump announced that the U.S government would pull out of that agreement and the U.S. government subsequently reimposed sanctions against Tehran.
Iran informed the United Nations about the uranium enrichment last week, after a parliamentary decision in response to the killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The details of this assassination, which Iran has blamed on Israel and claimed involved a gun in either a remote-controlled or entirely automated mount on a pickup truck, is something The War Zone has discussed in detail in the past.
Iran actions with regards to its nuclear program, as well as other activities, such as the seizure of the Hankuk Chemi, could be part of an effort to prepare the ground for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has indicated that it would be willing to rejoin the nuclear deal. The Biden offering has been billed as a “compliance for compliance” deal, which would see economic sanctions on Tehran lifted if the country accepted the restrictions outlined in the original deal, including uranium enrichment.
No matter what the IRGC’s exact reasons for seizing the Hankuk Chemi may have been, and how it might be intertwined with the large geopolitical picture, this incident, as well as South Korea’s immediate response to move military forces into the area, underscores just how complex and potentially dangerous the situation in the region is at present.
UPDATE: 6:15 PM EST
The U.S. State Department, in a statement to South Korean news outlet Yonhap, has now also called for the immediate release of the Hankuk Chemi.
“The United States is tracking reports that the Iranian regime has detained a Republic of Korea-flagged tanker,” a State Department spokesperson said, using South Korea’s official name. “The regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions. We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker.”
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) also told ABC News that it was monitoring the situation.