Battle of Callantsoog

Landing at Callantsoog by Dirk Langendijk

A Waste of Blood and Treasure: The 1799 Anglo-Russian Invasion of the Netherlands

With the Netherlands overrun by French Republican forces, the British and Russian governments sent an allied army of 48,000 men under the Duke of York to liberate the country and restore the House of Orange.

The largest operation mounted by Pitt’s ministry during the French Revolutionary Wars, the amphibious expedition involved the first ever direct cooperation between British and Russian forces, embroiled the armies in five full-scale battles, and secured the capture of the Dutch fleet. As Britain’s first major continental involvement since 1795, it played a part in shaping the early careers of many famous military commanders of the Napoleonic Wars. In the end, however, the campaign failed spectacularly. Its inglorious end provoked parliamentary outrage and led to diplomatic rupture between Britain and Russia. The Duke of York never commanded an army in the field again.

This book examines British, French, Dutch and Russian sources to reveal a fascinating tale of intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery and daring action. Spies, politicians, sailors and soldiers all play a part in the exciting story of an expedition that made (and broke) reputations and tested alliances. It recounts in lavish detail the series of battles fought to liberate a people who showed little interest in being saved and explores the story behind the triumphs and failures of this forgotten campaign.

The Secret Expedition: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799 (From Reason to Revolution)

In 1799, as part of the Second Coalition against France, an Anglo-Russian army landed in Holland to overthrow the Batavian Republic and to reinstate the Stadtholder William V of Orange. Initially called ‘The Secret Expedition’, although not really a secret for both sides, the description of the invasion reads like a novel. Five major battles were fought between armies of four different nations, with unexpected deeds of heroism and unexpected defeats. There were secret negotiations and rumors of bribery. More than enough ingredients for biased opinions, historical errors, and incorrect information copied from historians up to this day.

The aim of this book is to give a balanced, detailed, and complete account of the events taking place during the invasion: the preparations on both sides, detailed descriptions of the battles as well as the events taking place at sea and in the eastern provinces of the Batavian Republic. Also giving new opinions on questions like: What were the causes of ‘The Secret Expedition’? Did Brune indeed delay reinforcing the Batavians? What caused the frequent panics in the participating armies? Were the French veteran troops and the Batavians soldiers unreliable? How was the treaty closed?

The book is based on source material from all participating countries, including numerous firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses and contemporaries, providing the reader with a mirror to the past.

27th August 1799 – Battle of Callantsoog

The landing of an Anglo-Russian force, commanded by the Duke of York, on the Dutch coast near Den Helder in 1799. The operation was part of an unsuccessful invasion of the French-controlled Batavian Republic in an attempt to restore the House of Orange.

In 1799 the British and Russian governments determined to drive the French from Holland. Captain Home Popham was sent to Russia to help with arrangements for the expedition, and succeeded in overcoming Russian reluctance to provide and fit warships as transports. At Kronstadt he supervised the fitting out of the ships and embarkation of the troops.

Transporting, deploying, and supporting armed forces by sea required sophisticated organization and logistics. After a failure at Rochefort in 1757, the British learned to specify the joint and separate responsibilities of commanders of the navy and army and their subordinate officers. Troops and their prepared weapons were landed under the command of naval officers, after which army officers took control. The development of special landing craft with distinguishing signs facilitated the coordination and deployment of the units involved, while warships fired toward land until the troops arrived and thereafter provided logistical support.

It is probable that the artist Dirk Langendijk was present, as the drawing[see above] is inscribed by him ‘ad vivum 1799’ (from the life 1799), making this a very rare eyewitness depiction of an amphibious operation in the age of sail and it is crammed with detail and great energy as 2500 men were landed in the first wave alone. The defenders were positioned behind the dunes on the right of the image and the attacking soldiers are shown making their attack.

The initial landing was a success and in the subsequent battle of Callantsoog the Anglo-Russian troops defended their position, though the invasion itself soon stalled and the Anglo-Russian forces ultimately had to negotiate an unmolested withdrawal from the coast.

The campaign began in earnest in late August. On the 27th thirty-two thousand British and Russian troops landed near Callantsoog in North Holland, which is the peninsula that protrudes north of Amsterdam, separating the North Sea and the Ijsselmeer. The invasion was not a surprise, and the landing was opposed, but nevertheless succeeded, with the coalition forces victorious at what is known as the Battle of Callantsoog (also known as the Battle of Groot Keeten – the two are adjacent villages).

The invasion went well. Three days later the Dutch fleet, stationed at Den Helder at the tip of the peninsula, was taken by Admiral Sir Charles Mitchell. On the 10th September the coalition forces under Sir Ralph Abercromby met and defeated a Dutch-French army, under the command of the French general Guillaume Brune, at Krabbendam (also called the Battle of Zijpedijk). The 20th Foot, consisting of two battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth and Major Ross, played a major part in the capture of the village, driving the French troops out, but as they did so both Smyth and Ross were injured, and Major Bainbrigge took command of the 1st Battalion.

Five days after Krabbendam the commander of the army finally arrived to take command; it would be interesting to know what the so-far-successful Abercromby thought about the army now being led by His Royal Highness Prince Frederick, Duke of York, second son of the King, George III.  Perhaps he thanked Heaven, as the army would now become plagued by mishaps. The weather turned, and rain fell consistently. As a result the already poor road system in North Holland deteriorated further, and supplies from Den Helder failed to reach the troops. To forestall enemy foraging the Dutch flooded farmland, removing food sources and further damaging the infrastructure. The coalition troops, marooned in low-lying swampy country, began to die from disease.

The bad luck, or poor planning and logistics, was to feature in the next major confrontation of the campaign, the Battle of Bergen on September 19th. Frederick’s army was in four columns, with Abercromby in charge of the left column, which included Bainbrigge’s 20th Foot. Abercromby’s forces, however, found themselves bogged down in the bad weather and the bad roads, and failed to make the expected progress, and therefore failed to engage the enemy when planned. In contrast the Russians in the centre took the village of Bergen at 8 a.m., far earlier than planned and thus lacking any British support. Apparently the commanders had failed to synchronise clocks. The Russians were therefore forced to withdraw, and the coalition assault deemed unsuccessful. The Republican forces were given the opportunity to realign and secure the routes to Amsterdam which the coalition had been hoping to control.

The 2nd of October saw the 2nd Battle of Bergen, also known as the Battle of Alkmaar. The coalition troops were successful in capturing the town of Alkmaar, and thus securing the northern half of the peninsula, but were now already being plagued by the problems mentioned above, all of which were to get progressively worse. Realising his difficulties Frederick resolved to press on and attack Brune’s forces at Castricum, south of Alkmaar. After a day of fighting the right and central columns were eventually driven back in disarray, so chaotic that two field hospitals with their wounded, and four hundred women and children, soldiers’ families,  were allegedly forgotten about in the retreat. Abercromby’s left column fought to a stalemate in a separate battle on the beach and dunes, and it was somewhere in this engagement that Philip Bainbrigge of Ashbourne, forty-three year-old father of seven, lost his life.

Despite their previous victories, despite the occupation of Alkmaar and most of North Holland, the defeat at Castricum prompted Frederick to make the decision to retreat to his original bridgehead, thus losing all the territory gained since September.  Within a few weeks a lot of men had lost their lives for what looks like nothing, and Frederick, short of supplies, with bad weather making replenishment by sea unreliable, was suing for peace. It looks clearly like a futile adventure. However, there were two positive outcomes. One was that the capture of the Dutch fleet meant that the Batavian Government had lost over a third of their ships, much reducing its effectiveness as a threat to Britain and its navy. The second was that the logistical problems that had befallen him led Frederick, as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, to instigate reforms within that institution that were aimed at improving its efficiency, including the creation of Sandhurst for officer training in 1801.  His exploits as commander also gave us a nursery rhyme – “The Grand Old Duke of York”.

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Battle of Damme

William Longespee’s ships attacking the French ships during the battle of Damme. Artist Dariusz Bufnal

Philip II awaits his fleet.

The Battle of Damme was fought on 30 and 31 May 1213 during the 1213–1214 Anglo-French War. An English fleet led by William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury accidentally encountered a large French fleet under the command of Savari de Mauléon in the vicinity of the port of Damme, in Flanders. The French crews were mostly ashore, pillaging the countryside, and the English captured 300 French ships at anchor, and looted and fired a further hundred beached ships. The main French army, commanded by King Philip II of France, was nearby besieging Ghent and it promptly marched on Damme. It arrived in time to relieve the town’s French garrison and drive off the English landing parties. Philip had the remainder of the French fleet burned to avoid capture. The success of the English raid yielded immense booty and ended the immediate threat of a French invasion of England.

From 1211 onwards both kings were jockeying for positions in Flanders. John still hoped to reconquer Normandy, while Philip Augustus had designs on England. Both of them needed a stepping-off base in Flanders, especially access to the harbour of the Zwin, and to Flemish mercenaries. Early in 1213 the Pope, after a long altercation with John, excused his English subjects from their allegiance to him and strongly encouraged all Christian leaders to unite in efforts to depose him. This, as described by the chroniclers, gave Philip Augustus the justification he was seeking for planning an invasion of England.

Events then led up to the episode known as the Battle of Damme, perhaps better described as an important raid. In the spring of 1213, Philip Augustus moved his land forces north and invaded Flanders. He devastated Bruges and attacked Ghent, at the same time ordering a ‘large’ fleet to move north up the coast. How large this force really was is not known, but it probably consisted mainly of sailors from Poitou, who were far from home and by no means entirely dependable.

John, having decided the best form of defence was attack, sent his half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, over at the head of a considerably smaller fleet to reconnoitre and, if possible, to intercept the French. They probably sailed in mid-April, and would have reached the mouth of the Meuse (the Zwin) in a couple of days, where Longsword was surprised to find the port full of vessels. Having established that the ships were indeed French, he took the opportunity to capture or burn the larger ones anchored out in the middle of the channel leading up to Damme while the sailors had apparently gone ashore to plunder what remained of the wealth of Bruges.

Hearing the news of this disaster and concerned particularly about the fate of his pay-chests which were on board one of the ships, Philip Augustus broke his siege of Ghent and hurried to Damme, where he found the remainder of his fleet, the smaller ships, still pulled up on the mud. However, confronted with the difficulty of getting those ships away from Damme in the face of the English fleet lying in wait outside, and mistrusting the mercenaries from Poitou, who might turn traitor and change sides at any moment, he burnt the rest of his own boats rather than let them fall into English hands. As a result, he was without a fleet and had to abandon any thoughts he may have had of invading England that year.

King John Naval Campaigns

In the reign of king John whose loss of Normandy in 1205-6 had ensured the geographical separation of his territories in England and France and placed the southern coast of the Channel in the hostile hands of Philip Augustus, king of France.

The fundamental issue was the strength and power of the French monarchy. King John was determined to regain the Angevin lands seized by Philip Augustus in 1204. He found potential allies in the princes of the lands between France and Germany, many of whom – notably Ferrand, Count of Flanders, Renaud of Danmartin, Count of Boulogne, and Henry I of Brabant, whose daughter married Otto IV in May – were deeply nervous at the prospect of French domination. John’s diplomacy revived the strategy of Henry I, Henry II and Richard I, in seeking allies on the northern and eastern flanks of France. His intrigues were the more dangerous for Philip because of his family relationship with Otto IV, who claimed to be King of Germany and emperor. Philip decided to support the rival claimant to the Empire, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who enjoyed the support of Pope Innocent III. Papal diplomacy and French money created a Hohenstaufen party and plunged Germany into a civil war, which rapidly became deadlocked. Thus Otto was drawn into the web of John’s plans for the recovery of the Angevin lands in France. Philip Augustus attempted to head off the coalition by invading England, but his fleet was destroyed at the sea-battle of Damme on 30 May 1213. At one stroke, England was freed from the fear of invasion, and Ferrand, Count of Flanders, was able to turn from the French king to an English alliance. 

John’s strategy was essentially a repeat of Henry I’s of 1124: Henry had called in his ally, the emperor Henry V, to invade France from the east while he fought on the Norman frontier.

John has also been linked with the growth of the idea that a fleet could be used in war as something more than a means of transport; in particular with the notion that `a naval offensive is the best and surest defence against a threat of invasion’. In 1213 France faced him with such a threat and, as well as using the diplomatic tactic of submitting to the Pope in order to remove Philip’s justification for his actions, John dispatched a fleet under William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury to Flanders. Both John and Philip had been actively seeking the support of Flemish lords in their quarrels and at this point Philip had invaded Flanders furious at the suggestion that the Count of Flanders had made a compact with John. He had also ordered the fleet which he had assembled in the mouth of the Seine to sail instead to the Zwyn, the area of the estuary of the Scheldt adjacent to the town of Damme. The English fleet also sailed to the Zwyn and from the tone of the chronicle it would seem that the commanders had no idea that they would find the French fleet already there. Despite their surprise they sent out scouts who confirmed that this was indeed the French fleet and also that it was virtually unguarded, most of the crews and the men at arms being on shore sacking the town and the surrounding countryside. The Zwyn at Damme was already a very shallow anchorage (the town is nowadays some distance from the sea) and it seems that some of the French ships were beached. Those at anchor were boarded, the few defenders overwhelmed, and the ships sailed back to England with their valuable cargoes of victuals and arms. Those on the mudflats were burnt once the spoils had been removed. Philip and his army on discovering this disaster were left with no option but to withdraw and to abandon the idea of invading England. In the context of the whole campaign, however, this English victory had no strategic importance; the final outcome, as in 1066, was decided by a land battle, the battle of Bouvines in 1214, a triumph for Philip.

Despite Brooks’ grand claims for a change in the perception of naval warfare, the nature of the engagement and the tactics used seem very traditional. The battle of Dover, however, which occurred in 1217 substantiates the theory of a new view of the possibilities of war at sea. When civil war broke out in England between John and the barons, the king should have been able to use his control of a relatively large group of ships to his own advantage. He failed, however to ensure the loyalty of the Cinque Ports. This made it possible for the rebellious barons, convinced that John had no intention of keeping the promises enshrined in Magna Carta, to receive help from the dauphin to whom they went so far as to offer the crown. French forces got ashore at Sandwich in May 1215. By the time of the king’s death in 1216 they controlled more than half the country.

Eustace the Monk

Eustace the Monk commanded the fleet needed to bring them to England. This seafarer called a viro flagitiosissimo (a real pain) by Matthew Paris was almost a legendary figure to his countrymen. He came from near Boulogne and may have had some early connection with the religious life. He gave it up, however, when his brother died without male heirs and by c. 1205 was in the service of king John. He seems to have conducted raids in the Channel and as far as the Channel Islands with a squadron of ships based on Winchelsea. By 1211 he was forced to flee from England and took service with the dauphin and was of great use to him in his English campaigns. The ballad written of his exploits includes many dramatic and unlikely stories involving magic and phantom ships among other things but it is clear enough that he was a skilled and experienced seaman.

For an introduction to naval tactics and combat, see: F. W. Brooks, `The Battle of Damme, 1213′ in The Mariner’s Mirror 16 (1930), 264-271; James Sherborne, `The Battle of La Rochelle and the War at Sea, 1372-1375′ in The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 42 (1969), 17-29; Federico Foerster Laures, `The Warships of the Kings of Aragon and Their Fighting Tactics during the 13th and 14th Centuries AD’ in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 16 (1987), 19-29; Susan Rose, Medieval Naval Warfare 1000-1500 (London, 2002); Ian Friel, `Oars, Sails and Guns: The English and the War at Sea, c. 1200-1500′ in War at Sea in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. John B. Hattendorf and Richard W. Unger (Woodbridge, 2003), 69-79; William Sayers, `Naval Tactics at the Battle of Zierikzee’ in Journal of Medieval Military History 4 (2006), 74-90; and Kelly DeVries, `God, Leadership, Flemings and Archery: Contemporary Perceptions of Victory and Defeat at the Battle of Sluys, 1340′ in Medieval Ships and Warfare, ed. Susan Rose (Aldershot, 2008), 131-150

FRENCH SUBMARINES OPERATING OUT OF HARWICH: 1940 Part I of II

La Sibylle in 1933, just after commissioning. A slightly larger ‘600-ton’ submarine, built some years after the Circé-class, she was 651 tons on the surface and 807 tons submerged. La Sibylle and her eight sister ships, including Orphée, Amazone and Antiope, could do a fair 9.5 knots submerged, but no more than 14 knots on the surface.

Jules Verne. Known as a ravitailleur de sous-marins, literally, a ‘refuelling ship for submarines’, the 4,350-ton vessel was an integral part of the French submarine forces operating from Britain in 1940.

To ensure a more flexible use of the French ships, First Sea Lord Churchill and Admiral Pound visited Maintenon [location of French Navy High Command] in September 1939 to meet with Admiral Darlan. It was agreed that in addition to help protect the steady stream of British troops transported across the Channel, the Marine Nationale would participate in the escort of certain Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys as agreed on a case-by-case basis. In return, asdic-equipped trawlers would be provided as well as general A/S and minesweeping competence. The mistrust between the two allies ran deep, though, and, in spite of the best of intentions, it would take time before any direct co-operation between the navies started to develop.

There were few targets for the French submarines deployed in the Atlantic and, after a while, the French Admiralty (l’Amirauté) decided to offer some of their long-range submarines as convoy escort, partly to free surface ships for other tasks, partly as it was believed the convoys would attract those German raiders and U-boats that might be at sea. From November 1939 to April 1940, the 1,500-ton submarines Casabianca, Sfax, Achille and Pasteur escorted at least eight Allied Halifax convoys as well as several convoys to Freetown or South Africa. Surcouf was also used for this purpose at times and the boats were occasionally diverted to purely French convoys to their own colonies.

In early 1940, after the loss of Seahorse, Starfish and Undine, it was agreed that French submarines should augment British submarines in the North Sea, working from British ports. Hence, the 13th and 16th submarine divisions were transferred from Brest to Harwich. The first three, the 600-ton boats Antiope, La Sibylle and Amazone, supported by the depot ship Jules Verne and minelayer Pollux, arrived at Harwich in the evening of 22 March 1940 to make the core of what was to become known as the 10th Submarine Flotilla by the British and Groupe Jules-Verne by the French. Capitaine de Vaisseau Felix Raymond de Belot was in overall command of the forces.

The French submarines were to operate under British control, but as Horton was uncertain of their operational efficiency he deployed them in the less exposed areas until they had gained more experience and proven their operational capabilities. By giving them billets in the approaches to the Heligoland Bight, west of the Westwall and in the northern approaches to the Strait of Dover, Ruck-Keene’s 3rd Flotilla could be moved further north, off the Norwegian coast and into the Skagerrak. In mid-April, five more submarines, Orphée, Doris, Thétis, Circé and Calypso also arrived, as did the 1,500-ton boats Casabianca, Sfax, Pasteur and Achille. The latter four were transferred to the 9th Flotilla at Dundee at the end of their first patrols. The final French submarine to operate from British ports in this period, the minelayer Rubis, docked in Harwich on 1 May, making the total number of French submarines in Britain thirteen.

The first of the French submarines to go on patrol from Harwich was La Sibylle on 31 March. The billet was off Terschelling and the patrol, which was quite uneventful, lasted for six days. After the patrol, the British liaison officer, Lieutenant Thomas Catlow, made a confidential report to Ruck-Keene and Horton of his observations, which makes for interesting reading:

The Commanding Officer [Lieutenant de Vaisseau Alphonse Raybaud] is an extremely competent and keen officer with a firm hold over officers and men. For a southern Frenchman he has equable temperament and I never saw him panic. [. . .] I had no opportunity to see him under true action conditions due to an uneventful patrol. His only weakness to date is his inability to take his boat alongside well, one, I consider, to his considerations for his `drowned’ fore-‘planes. Takes every precaution for the safety of his submarine, but [. . .] full of dash. [. . .]

In the French navy, there is a special rating, a Petty Officer, who does a 3-year course in Pilotage. He looks after the charts and pilots the submarine under the supervision of the Captain and officers. [. . .]

The coxswain of the submarine, the Patron [. . .], has complete hold on the crew and never at any time did I hear bickering or complaints. The crew of the submarine were keen and hardworking and of a pleasant disposition generally. Their discipline is very good and they show very marked respect towards their officers and Petty Officers [but] if a rating has an idea of his own, he immediately said so to the officer or Petty Officer, the matter was discussed and the best idea carried out.

Overall, Lieutenant Catlow compared La Sibylle with a British S-class submarine. She had some external fuel tanks, though, requiring pumps to access. These pumps had limited volumes and, frequently breaking down, could make fuel a concern, even on shorter patrols. Also, she had above-water exhaust outlets and could not be trimmed down when on the surface. To obtain fully charged batteries, La Sibylle needed five to six hours on the surface.

Submerged, depth-keeping was immaculate. Diving time was well over a minute, though Catlow believed they could do it significantly faster, once they had experienced a real emergency. Should the boat take up an angle during the dive, however, Lieutenant Catlow feared stability might become a challenge as she has a large and wide casing outside the pressure hull. For some reason, the French submariners coped poorly with the deterioration of air quality inside the boat after being submerged for some time. In spite of purifiers and oxygen being fed into the submarine’s atmosphere, they were troubled by the lack of fresh air, while Catlow was barely affected.

The patrols that Lieutenant de Vaisseau Raybaud and his men made while stationed at Harwich during April and May 1940 were largely uneventful. Disaster was near, though, when Lieutenant Marcel Balastre of Antiope mistook La Sybille for a U-boat and fired three torpedoes at her, west of Terschelling on 20 May. Fortunately the torpedoes missed. On her last patrol before returning to France, numerous technical problems started to appear and a spell in the yards was obviously becoming necessary.

Orphée under Lieutenant de Vaisseau Robert Meynier made only one short patrol out of Harwich, but this was quite eventful. In the afternoon of 21 April, two days into the patrol, while about midway between Ringkobing and Dundee, two torpedoes were fired on what turned out to be U51 under Kapitänleutnant Dietrich Knorr. Two U-boats had been sighted about fifteen minutes earlier and Meynier chased one of them at full speed to ascertain whether it was alien. When close enough, he and the British liaison officer, Sub-Lieutenant Peter Banister, agreed it was `definitely not British’ and decided to attack. On a parallel course to the German, on her starboard bow, the centre and stern torpedo turrets of Orphée were turned at a firing angle of 50 degrees. Time was of the essence, lest the U-boat should dive, and there was no time to set any gyro angles, just fire as soon as the tubes had been trained in the right direction. Only two torpedoes were fired, but Meynier ascertained they were running correctly through the periscope. Just before he went down, he could also see that the German started his diesels and made a small change of course, but believed this to be just routine. In fact, U51 had problems with her port diesel engine and made several attempts to restart it at the time of the attack. Orphée was not sighted at all, just the torpedo tracks. Once these were reported, Knorr sounded the alarm and made an emergency dive while turning to port, away from the tracks. For some reason, both torpedoes exploded close to the U-boat, making it `jump’ several metres. There was no damage, though, and as nothing further was heard from the enemy submarine, U51 fell back on her general course and continued homewards. Twenty-four hours later, she was safely moored in Kiel at the Tirpitzmole, having passed through the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal during the afternoon of 22 April.

On board Orphée, two explosions were heard at about the expected time at short intervals, and it was believed erroneously that the torpedoes had hit. Concern about the second U-boat that had been sighted and a low battery made Meynier take Orphée away from the area after a brief look for wreckage through the periscope. Two days later, Orphée was back in Harwich. At the time, it was believed that a U-boat had really been sunk and Lieutenant Meynier and his crew received some attention, including in the French press, as the boat was awarded a Croix de Guerre for the assumed achievement. Orphée returned to Cherbourg on 3 June.

Doris in 1938

Another of the French boats operating out of Harwich in the spring of 1940 was Doris, a 600-ton, Circé-class coastal submarine. She had been commissioned in January 1930 after a lengthy building and work-up process and appears to have been continuously plagued by technical problems originating from being fitted with German Schneider diesels, which were unreliable and had a chronic lack of spares. Nevertheless, she was considered suitable for operating from bases in Britain as part of the 10th Flotilla.

A few days into her first patrol out of Harwich in late April, the port engine compressor broke down. This was serious as it meant the engine could not be used and Doris would only have the starboard engine available for running as well as charging. The patrol was terminated and Doris returned to Harwich on 25 April. There were no spare parts available on board Jules Verne and they had to be ordered from Toulon. This took time – all the more so, as the first crates with spares to arrive did not contain the actual parts needed.

Even so, Capitaine de Corvette Jean Favreul was asked to prepare for a sortie in early May to a billet north of the Frisian Islands, off the Dutch coast. Something was brewing and, fearing that a German invasion of the Low Countries was being prepared, VA(S) considered it necessary to have as many boats as possible guarding the area south of the Westwall.

Discussing with his flotilla commander, Favreul agreed that it would be possible to take air from the working starboard compressor and run the port engine at half power. With only one and a half engines, the submarine would be a sitting duck should they actually run into the Germans they were looking for, but the men of Doris were willing to take the risk. A series of letters left behind by the crew for their families show that they recognised their vulnerability and left Harwich with few illusions.

In the evening of the 7th and early morning of 8 May, around a dozen Allied submarines, including Doris, departed for the coast off Holland. To avoid errors with so many different Allied submarines in the area, each commanding officer was given orders not to attack any other submarine, unless it could be identified with absolute certainty as being German. Intelligence received at the Admiralty indicated that the Germans could read the British cypher-codes and thus had knowledge of the disposition of the Allied boats. This has been difficult to verify with certainty in this specific case, and there are no indications in the war diary of U9 that she was on anything but a normal patrol. It is true, though, that German intelligence to a large degree could read British naval signals at the time and could plot the position of vessels using their radios. In any case, new recyphering tables had been issued to most boats and the two that had not received new tables, Antiope and Thétis, were held back, patrolling the entries to Harwich.

Doris reached her billet off the Dutch coast between Ijmuiden and Den Helder by nightfall. She was not alone.

The 26-year-old Oberleutnant Wolfgang Lüth had taken his nimble type II U-boat through the Westwall, following the safe route Weg I the night before, towards a billet off the Dutch coast. By chance, this area overlapped partly with the southern part of the billet assigned to Doris. Due to numerous fishing boats, U9 had stayed submerged all day and only surfaced after dark at 22:27. It was starlit, with a new moon and moderate to good visibility. The fishing boats had largely returned to port, but the lights from ten or twenty of them could still be seen to the east, towards land, as U9 moved slowly southwards. About an hour and a half later the port lookout reported that what appeared to be the silhouette of a blacked-out submarine moved in front of some of the lights from the fishing boats, steering a northerly course, 3,000-4,000 metres (3,300-4,400 yards) away. Lüth turned towards the submarine (which was Doris), very carefully as he had the brighter western horizon behind him. Doris was apparently not zigzagging, but from U9 it looked as if she turned from a north-westerly course almost 180 degrees towards the south and then, a few minutes later, back again towards the north-west. Still, it does not appear Capitaine Favreul or anybody else on board ever realised that they were being stalked.

Finally, at about a quarter past midnight on the 9th, German time, Lüth had U9 in the position he wanted relative to his target and, turning towards it, fired two torpedoes: one electrical G7e running at 2 metres (6.5 feet) depth and one conventional G7a running at 3 metres (9.8 feet). The range was only about 750 metres (820 yards) and after less than a minute, there was a huge fireball. According to U9’s war diary, the G7e torpedo passed in front of its target while the G7a torpedo hit Doris just aft of the conning tower. This apparently set off a secondary explosion of one or more of the warheads in the French boat’s own dual mid-ship torpedo turret. Taking U9 over to the site of the explosion, there was nothing to be found of the other submarine except a large patch of oil.

Doris went to the bottom with forty-five men on board. There were no survivors and it is not known if anybody on board Doris saw the torpedoes approaching. The British liaison officer Lieutenant Richard Westmacot, Yeoman of Signals Harry Wilson and Telegraphist Charles Sales were lost with Doris.

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.

British Carriers at Suez 1956

Sea Hawk FGA.6 XE364 was assigned to No.899 NAS when photographed complete with a full load of rockets. The aircraft and the squadron would both take part in operations over Suez.

After the Korean War many of the Colossus class carriers were withdrawn from use and placed in reserve causing the Royal Navy to shrink yet again. HMS Glory would finish its working life at the beginning of 1956 having acted as the base ship for a swarm of helicopters acting in the relief role over a deeply snowbound Scotland. A few of the surviving fleet carriers would also go to the breakers’ yards during this fleet rundown. One of these was HMS Illustrious, being paid off in December 1954. Also destined to disappear were two of the modified Illustrious class carriers: Implacable and Indefatigable. The former was paid off in September 1954, having acted as a troop ferry ship, while the latter was also retired during the same month. Indefatigable would be retired in October 1953, its withdrawal being hastened by an explosion which caused serious damage below the island, killing eight crew and wounding a further 32. During the subsequent fire and rescue ten gallantry awards, including two George Medals, were given in recognition of the crew’s bravery.

The maintenance carriers were also decimated, HMS Perseus, having served with distinction in Korea was de-stored by the end of 1954. The original intention had been to tow the carrier to Belfast for conversion to a submarine depot vessel. Arriving in Belfast in early 1955, the carrier was worked on until work was suspended in 1957 and it was placed on the disposal list; finally being broken up in 1958. One of shortest carrier careers was that of HMS Pioneer which had been commissioned in 1945. After service as a ferry vessel in the Far East the Pioneer was finally disposed off for scrap in September 1954. HMS Unicorn would also be retired during this period having served with honour during the Korean War. Arriving at Devonport in November 1953 the vessel was paid off and sold for scrap in June 1959.

In October 1951 the dictator president of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nassar, unilaterally seized control of the Suez canal in abrogation of an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Britain access to the canal and its established bases in the area for a period of 20 years. The seizure of the assets of the Universal Suez Canal Company had been precipitated by the withdrawal of the financial support by America, Britain and the International Bank that was required for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The cause of this withdrawal was Egypt’s move towards the Eastern Bloc for the purchase of weapons and other materials. Both Britain and France were alarmed by the threatened closure of the canal as this waterway was deemed essential for the transport of oil and it gave access to the trade markets of India and the Far East.

In response, Britain, France and Israel together decided to launch an armed seizure of the canal. Planning of the operation began in late July 1956 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the French Prime Minister Guy Alicide Mollet and the British Defence Minister met in secret in the French town of Sevres near Paris. During this meeting the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was kept informed of events and decisions reached throughout the conference.

In response to Egypt’s move General Sir Charles Keightley was appointed as commander in chief of all British and French forces on 11 August for the forthcoming military operations. Supporting the General would be Air Marshall D H F Barnett as the Air Task Force Commander. The rear echelon command for the Royal Navy was supplied by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet who moved, with his staff, from Malta to Episkopi, Cyprus on 30 October. As this was a joint Anglo-French operation an ultimatum was issued to the Egyptian government to withdraw its forces, however Nassar had sabotaged the canal by sinking 49 ships along its length. Even as the Anglo-French forces were moving towards a war footing Israel had already launched its own attack on Egypt codenamed Operation Kadesh on 29 October. American disapproval of British and French actions saw the French Navy carrier group sighting units of the US Navy just north of Egypt. The Americans would make their presence felt throughout the entire operation. When the Anglo-French ultimatum expired the US Navy sailed two destroyers into Alexandria and the carrier group moved slightly closer to the area of operations. On 1 November the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet sent an urgent signal to the Admiral of the 6th US Navy asking that he and his carrier go and play somewhere else as the British had no desire to inflict damage on the ships and equipment of a close ally. Further reports of American interest were received on 3 November when submarines were detected. However, a flow of signals between the British and American navies soon saw the submarines being ordered to patrol on the surface.

The Royal Navy sent the aircraft carriers HMSs Albion, Bulwark and Eagle. Albion had just completed a full refit and had sailed from Portsmouth on 15 September 1956 with Nos.800 and 802 NAS with Hawker Sea Hawks, No.809 NAS with eight Sea Venom FAW.21s and No.849 NAS ‘C’ Flight with Douglas Skyraider Airborne Early Warning(AEW) aircraft aboard. Also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus. Flying operations would begin on 1 November when Operation Musketeer began with air attacks. Aircraft from Albion would cover the parachute drops by the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment on El Gamil airfield near Port Said on 5 November. After the airfield had been captured and made secure, helicopters from Ocean and Theseus plus Albion’s Skyraiders undertook relief missions into the airfield taking in vital supplies and flying out the wounded. The vital supplies included beer; it had been discovered that by removing the rear observer seats at least 1,000 cans of beer could be carried, a load most welcomed by the troops. Albion would return to Grand Harbour, Malta, after hostilities had ended.

HMS Bulwark sailed for Musketeer duties on 6 August and embarked Nos.804, 897 and 810 NAS with Seahawks en route. During its part in Operation Musketeer the Bulwark aircraft flew over 600 sorties in support of the various segments of the Anglo-French landings before departing the area for a much needed refit in Portsmouth. The newest carrier in the fleet, HMS Eagle, with the Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Vice Admiral Manley Power, aboard had been undertaking exercises off Malta when warned for Musketeer duties. Aboard Eagle were No.898 NAS with Seahawks, Nos.892 and 893 NAS with Sea Venom FAW.21s operating eight and nine aircraft respectively, No.830 NAS with Westland Wyverns plus No.849 NAS ‘A’ Flight operating Douglas Skyraiders in the AEW role. Eagle would be in position to undertake its share of the air cover duties during the landings of 1 November. The Sea Venoms began operations on 1 November with a surprise attack on the Egyptian airfields in the canal zone. No.893 NAS was responsible for the destruction of many of the MiG 15s on Almaza airfield near Cairo while the other Sea Venom squadrons also shot up the other airfields nearby. Alongside attacking ground targets the Sea Venoms also supplied Combat Air Patrols(CAP) over the fleet against possible retaliation that never materialised. Continued operations by the Sea Venoms were carried out against various ground targets using both cannon and rocket fire.

When the Port Said landings began on 3 November the Sea Venoms provided top cover. This was integrated into the ‘cab rank’ holding pattern from which aircraft were sent to attack targets of opportunity. It was during one of these attacks that the Commanding Officer of No.893 NAS, Lt Cdr R A Shilcock, attacked and sank an Egyptian ‘T’ boat that was attempting to close in on the fleet. During the entire period of Musketeer only one Sea Venom was lost: WW281 of No.893 NAS which crash landed on HMS Eagle during which the cross deck nylon-barrier was used for the first time. Fortunately the crew escaped, although the navigator, Flt Lt R C Odling was badly injured while the pilot Lt Cdr Wilcox suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was written off. During the ceasefire period the Sea Venoms acted as top cover for the troop withdrawals.

In the early hours of 1 November the Sea Hawks began their briefed objective of destroying the Egyptian air assets either on the ground and the air (while avoiding the possible heavy flak if possible). Surprisingly, the Egyptian Air Force did manage to get a patrol of MiG15s airborne, although, given the lack of training in combat techniques and a lack of ammunition, combat was not engaged. Fortunately, the flying time to the targets was only in the region of 30 minutes as the carriers were only 60 miles offshore. As the Sea Hawks closed in on Almaza Air Base the pilots were astonished to see the shiny silver MiGs parked in long rows on the airfield hard standing. Although the local defence gunners did their best to shoot down their attackers the Sea Hawks swept in firing their cannons at the parked aircraft. As the aircraft passed off to the north they left behind a shambles of exploding MiGs. Although the Sea Hawks had used a High-Low-High flight plan to reach and leave their targets the aircraft arrived over their carriers with little fuel available should a diversion have been needed. The successful first day attacks on the EAF air assets had the desired effect of giving the attackers air superiority, however, the anti-aircraft gunners obviously caused problems because, by day five of the attacks, many of the Sea Hawks were sporting minor repairs after being hit sometime during the campaign. Only one abort was called during Musketeer which was against Cairo West. This was fortunate because this part of the airfield was being used as the evacuation point for American citizens leaving Egypt. During Musketeer the Sea Hawk pilots flew a minimum of four sorties a day, they also paid the anti-aircraft gunners the compliment of attacking them once they had completed their missions.

No.830 NAS commanded by Lt Cdr C V Howard embarked on HMS Eagle in April 1956 with a strength of nine Westland Wyvern S.4s. When the carrier was warned that it would be needed for Operation Musketeer the Wyverns had the obligatory yellow and black stripes applied to the fuselage and wings. When offensive operations began on 1 November the Wyverns were briefed to attack the airfield at Dekheila, once a home to the Fleet Air Arm. Eighteen sorties were flown by the squadron, their remit was to strafe and bomb the airfield and its aircraft during which eighteen 1,000 lb bombs were dropped and 420 rounds Of 20 mm were fired. During this attack some light flak was encountered although none of the Wyverns were hit. The second day of operations saw the number of aircraft missions drop to 15 during which Dekheila was attacked again and military vehicles south of Cairo were attacked. On 3 November the squadron suffered its first casualty when Wyvern, WN330, piloted by Lt McCarthy was hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the bridge at El Gamil near Port Said. Fortunately the aircraft was still controllable and the pilot was able to glide his aircraft towards Eagle before ejecting and was quickly picked up by the rescue helicopter. No.830 NAS flew no sorties during the fourth day but resumed operations on day five. Instead of attacking airfield and structures the Wyverns were assigned to the support of Army units. A total of 16 individual sorties were flown during which rockets and bombs were dispensed as required. It was during these missions that the squadron’s senior pilot Lt Cdr W H Cowling was forced to eject from WN328 when the engine was hit by flak. Again the pilot was able to glide towards Eagle before ejecting safely being rescued quickly by the carrier’s rescue helicopter. Overall, three strikes were launched from Eagle during which the squadron dropped seventeen 1,000 lb bombs, fired 176 rockets with 60 lb warheads and 2,250 rounds of 20 mm cannon ammunition were fired, all being used during that day’s 473 sorties. The final day of operations on 5 November saw the squadron flying 17 individual sorties during which they were employed on ‘cab rank’ duties for which they all sported long-range fuel tanks and bombs or rockets. During Musketeer the squadron lost two aircraft while others suffered minor damage to their tailplanes and engine installations. Aircraft deployed by No.830 NAS included WL888, WN325, WN326, WN328, WN330, WN336, WP337, WP338 and WP341. Although No.830 NAS would receive two replacement Wyverns its life was short as the squadron was disbanded in January 1957.

As mentioned before, also sent to support the Suez operations were the carriers HMS Ocean and Theseus, both veterans of the Korean war. Ocean, having returned to Devonport for refit, had been used as a troop ferry during 1955, moving troops and their equipment to Cyprus. When the Suez crisis started to develop Ocean in company with Theseus transported the 16th Parachute Brigade to Cyprus. As the helicopter was now the favoured transport the carrier was quickly returned to Britain for conversion for their operation. During October 1956 with No.845 NAS and Whirlwinds aboard, and in company with Theseus, she undertook commando assault exercises in the English Channel. At the completion of these exercises No.845 NAS had transferred to Theseus while Ocean had embarked the Joint Service Experimental Helicopter Unit. Both vessels arrived in Grand Harbour, Malta, at the close of October 1956.

During the attack on Port Said the troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando were landed by helicopter. This was the first time that vertical replenishment had been used in action, this method of deploying troops and materials meant that 415 men and 23 tons of stores were landed in one and a half hours. After this last military adventure Ocean would return to Britain where it would enter Devonport to be converted for the training role. Theseus had also undergone a quick conversion for the operation of helicopters. It too would be involved in the Port Said landings although its career would end when it returned to Britain in December 1956.

Hostilities ceased at midnight of 6 November after pressure was put on both British and French governments by the United States acting through the United Nations, whose Security Council recommended the placement of an Emergency Force to safeguard the canal and ensure the withdrawal of the combatants. Much to the chagrin of the British and French, who had been making good progress along the canal, they were forced to withdraw. During this short sharp conflict the Fleet Air Arm had lost two Hawker Sea Hawks, two Westland Wyverns and a pair of Whirlwind helicopters. The final fallout of this debacle was the resignation of the British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who resigned from office in January 1957.

The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units I

Frogmen at a display for Grossadmiral Dönitz (second right) showing an interested admiral – possibly Heye – his watertight Junghans diver’s watch/compass.

Development, Training, Structure

As with other light naval units, the MEKs were formed late in the war. As commandos and naval sabotage troops they operated behind enemy lines close to the coast, attacking harbour installations, bridges, ships, supply depots, ammunition dumps and other worthwhile targets.

The idea was never discussed at OKM until 16 September 1943, the motive for the deliberations being the operations by their British counterparts. During the period from February to July 1942, British forces had launched three commando raids of this kind between Boulogne and Le Havre and collected important intelligence on German defences. In the course of these raids a number of enemy personnel had been captured and paperwork confiscated by the Wehrmacht. This led to certain conclusions being drawn regarding the development, structure of commando units and the tactics of their operations. The evaluation laid the foundations for the equivalent German squads (MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos).

The first MEK came into being at Heiligenhafen on the Baltic at the end of 1943. The training camp was barracks immediately behind the beach. Later, as the company grew in size, the artillery barracks was used as a training ground. Oblt (MA) Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn was the first commando leader. In the summer of 1942 he had been a member of an assault squad which crossed the Strait of Kerch in the Crimea to attack Soviet positions on the Kuban Peninsula. Before his move to the K-Verband, Prinzhorn had been an instructor at the Kriegsmarine flak training school. By the end of 1943 the first thirty officers and men of all ranks were installed at Heiligenhafen, and the training lasted into the spring of 1944. It followed the British commando-training manual very closely, a fact to be kept strictly secret. Each man was required to sign a pledge to this effect. There was no leave and it was not permitted to leave the confines of the camp. All civilian contacts had to be broken off.

The instructors were infantrymen and engineers with frontline experience particularly against the Soviets. Training in sniping and explosives handling was made as realistic as possible. Sports, swimming and judo instructors taught methods of unarmed combat and how to overwhelm enemy sentries silently: experts gave instruction in motor vehicles and radio, specialists taught the use of life-saving devices and oxygen breathing gear, linguists passed on their knowledge of the vernacular used by enemy soldiers. Each man had to be an all-rounder. Candidates who flunked the course were returned to their unit without ever having really understood the purpose of what had been taught at Heiligenhafen. After completing training, the successful men were distributed between the various MEKs.

The authorized strength of an MEK was one officer, 22 men and 15 vehicles (3 radio cars, two amphibious and one catering vehicle, the other vehicles being for transport, equipment and ammunition). Rations and ammunition was to be sufficient for six weeks. In January 1944 Kptlt (S) Opladen’s men were instructed in their missions and the first three units (MEK 60 – Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn, MEK 65 – Oblt Richard and MEK 71 – Oblt Wolters) transferred to waiting positions in Denmark and France. Subsequently each MEK, depending on its assignment, received an influx of personnel for special missions, e.g. one-man torpedoes, midget submarines, Linsen and assault boat pilots, canoeists and frogmen. An MEK might eventually be 150 strong.

MEKs existed before the K-Verband did. They had been set up by the Hamburg Abwehr office, to which they were accountable. These units were: MAREI (Kptlt (S) Opladen) and MARKO (Oblt Broecker). Both units were absorbed into the K-Verband as MEK 20.

As time went on other MEKs were formed. MEK 30 (Kptlt Gegner); MEK 35 (Kptlt Breusch, November 1944–March 1945, Kptlt Wolfgang Woerdemann, March 1945–End); and MEK 40 (Kptlt Buschkämper, August 1944–March 1945, Oblt Schulz, March 1945–End). This unit was formed at Mommark in Denmark on the island of Alsen (Gelbkoppel) with 150 men for special assignments.

Others were:

MEK 70 – nothing known

MEK 75 – KptzS Böhme

MEK 80: Kptlt Dr Krumhaar (March 1944–End)

MEK 85: Oblt Wadenpfuhl (January 1945–End)

MEK 90: Oblt Heinz-Joachim Wilke

There are said to have been other MEKs, e.g. MEK Werschetz and MEK zbV. Leaders of these units may have been Oblt Rudolf Klein, Lts Alexander Spaniel and Wilhelm Pollex amongst others.

The training of MEK men was carried out at a training establishment at Kappeln and Heiligenhafen. Hand-to-hand infantry fighting training was held at Bad Sülze/Rostock, Stolp and Kolberg in Pomerania. Kappeln had the following officer corps:

Commander: KKpt Heinrich Hoffmann

Chief at Staff: Kptlt Erich Dietrich

Adjutant: Lt Günther Schmidt

National Socialist Leadership Officer (after 20.7.1944): Lt Gustav Weinberger

Medical Officer: Kptlt Dr Rudolf Neuman

Company chiefs: Kptlt Friedrich Adler; Oblts Werner Schulz, Hermann Ibach, Eckehard Martienssen, Hans-Günter Beutner; Lt Gerhard Zwinscher

Training Officer: Oblt Hans Diem

At Heiligenhafen the training staff was:

Commander: Kptlt Friedrich Jütz

Camp commandants: Kptlt Heinrich Schütz, Oblt Eberhardt Sauer

Instructors: Oblt Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn; Lts Erich Kohlberg, Hainz Knaup, Herbert Vargel, Kurt Wagenschieffer, Hermann Baumeister; Oberfähnriche Georg Brink and Anton Ibach.

MEK Operations in the West

In June 1944 the Allies at Caen in Normandy succeeding in crossing the Orne and Orne-Sea Canal to the east, and built a bridgehead posing a severe threat to German units. The Allies ‘pumped’ 10,000 men into this bridgehead. Their supplies were brought up over two intact bridges. Their AA defences were so strong that no attack by the impoverished Luftwaffe stood any chance of success. German engineers were unable to reach the bridges cross-country.

On Thursday 22 June 1944 the Battle for Caen began. It was General Montgomery’s intention to encircle Caen by crossing the high land with its dominant landmark Hill 112 south-west of the city and then the River Odon. This important sector was being stubbornly defended by 12 SS-Panzer Division Hitler Jugend led by SS-Oberführer Kurt ‘Panzermeyer’ Meyer. The demolition of the strategically important bridges was to be the proving test for MEK 60. Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn was given a platoon of frogmen from Venice. As the result of a road traffic accident, this platoon had been reduced in size from ten men to six. Its leader, LtzS Alfred von Wurzian, had been forbidden to take part in the operation because he was too valuable as an instructor.

The assignment was to destroy two bridges at Benouville which British airborne troops had captured in the early hours of the Invasion. The commandos consisted of two groups of three frogmen: Group One – Feldwebel Kurt Kayser, Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider and Obergefreiter Richard Deimann; Group Two – Oberfähnrich Albert Lindner, Fähnrich Ulrich Schulz and a third man whose name has not been remembered.

The operation was scheduled to begin from Franceville at 2300 on the night of 14 August 1944. Each group was to take a torpedo – actually a time bomb package inside a torpedo-shaped container – to a specific bridge. Things started badly and got worse. When the 800 kg torpedoes were let down to the surface of the river on pulleys, they sank at once. No allowance had been made for the changed specific gravity in fresh water. Floats were improvised from empty fuel barrels to salve the torpedoes. The frogmen now entered the water, two to tow, one to steer, a torpedo.

Prinzhorn’s group, which was to attack the further bridge over the Orne, passed carefully below the enemy-held first bridge. It was another 12 kilometres to the main bridge, which all believed to be the crucial structure. Here they were to anchor their torpedo to the central pillar. After strenuous effort they attained their objective, moored the torpedo about a metre above the bottom on the central pillar and set the timer. Four hours later they were back at MEK. Too soon, as Prinzhorn was to discover. A revision of the map had brought to light the sorry fact that a third bridge, the real objective, had been omitted. The explosive had been set below the wrong bridge. It detonated punctually at 0530 hrs.

Events were equally dramatic for Lindner’s group. Towing the torpedo was sheer torment. Suddenly the third man lost his nerve as they swam past the enemy on the bankside. He could not be convinced to go on and swam to shore. The two midshipmen proceeded with the operation alone. After passing a wooden hindrance designed to intercept drifting mines they reached the first bridge, anchored the torpedo and set off for MEK on foot. When this bridge also blew up at 0530, the British scoured the area for the saboteurs. Once Lindner and Schulz had to hide up in a latrine trench to avoid capture. It was the following evening before they reached the canal, where a weaker current allowed them to swim back. The third man had attempted to make his way back independently, had been shot by the British and died of his wound in captivity.

At the end of August 1944 the Allies had pushed onwards and eastwards. They took Honfeur near Le Havre with its formerly German coastal battery Bac du Hode sited on the south bank of the Seine between Honfleur and Trouville. This battery now menaced the German garrison in Le Havre. A Naval artillery assault squad had set out cross-country to retake the battery and had been wiped out in a firefight with the British. MEK 60 now received orders to destroy the battery. After Prinzhorn had been frustrated by engine breakdown in an attempt to cross the Seine aboard an infantry assault boat, he obtained two Linsen speedboats from K-Verband. These were fitted with double noise-suppressors and could make eight knots at slow ahead.

On the night of 26 August 1944 the operation began. Aboard the Linsen were Prinzhorn, seven MEK men and a naval artillerist who knew the locality well. At 0050 the agreed light signals flashed out from Le Havre, and they paddled their rubber dinghies through a minefield to land. They came ashore too far west and had to negotiate the beach area on foot. By 0230 they were within 100 metres of the battery. The men slipped past the sentries and got into the bunkers. Hastily they set their explosives on the three heavy guns and in the magazine and fled. Four minutes later the charges exploded and the battery was destroyed.

At the end of August 1944 the German military resistance in France collapsed. Within a few days, fast Allied units had broken through northern France and into Belgium. Antwerp fell after a short battle and would not serve the British as a useful port for supplies. Although Antwerp lay well inland at the eastern end of the Scheldt, it was tidal and this influenced the port operations to a considerable extent. Besides an open harbour the city had a large network of docks. The Kruisschans Lock ensured that the water in the main harbour remained at a constant height. All ships arriving and departing had to pass through it.

MEK 60, now re-located in the Low Countries, was called upon again. Its task this time was to destroy the two principal locks – Kruisschans and Royers. Putting them out of commission would seriously disrupt Allied supply, reducing unloading capacity by five-sixths while it lasted.

After assessing the situation, it was clear that only an attack by frogmen held out any hope for success. The enemy had sealed off the last kilometre of the lock approaches with net barriers. The difficult currents in the Scheldt made it impossible for swimmers to do the whole journey there and back swimming. It was therefore decided to transport the frogmen to the lock entrance aboard Linsen boats. Both river banks were held by the enemy, but it was essential that the passage remained undetected. A dark, overcast night, or fog would be best. Moreover a foodtide was needed, the noise made by the engines pitted against the strong ebb would be too great. This would also ensure that the frogmen saboteurs would arrive at the lock gates at high water, enabling them to work below the walkway, beneath the feet of enemy sentries.

To blow up the 35-metre wide lock gate, K-Verband had developed a torpedo-mine. The necessary tonne of underwater explosive was to be carried in an elongated aluminium container the filling of which mostly ammonia gas – was calculated to ensure that the torpedo mine would float with 30 to 40 grams negative buoyancy just below the surface, where it would be easily manoeuvrable in calm water. Two men would swim towing the torpedo while the third steered it from astern. At the appropriate time the mine would be flooded by opening a pressure valve, sinking to the river bed: a button would start the timer running for the detonator.

The operation began on the night of 15 September 1944. The pilots of the two Linsen were Prinzhorn and Oblt Erich Dörpinghaus of K-Flotilla 216. With motors suppressed for noise the boats set off towing the torpedo mines. Visibility was barely 30 metres and both Linsen were soon lost to sight in the murk. The boats motored slowly upstream and separated in search of their individual locks. At the ten kilometre mark Dourpinghaus’ crew began peering through the gloom and thought they could make out the lock entrance.

While Dörpinghaus moored his Linse to a convenient post the three frogmen, Fieldwebel Karl Schmidt, Mechanikermaat Hans Greten and Maschinenmaat Rudi Ohrdorf slipped into the water and prepared the torpedo mine. With great effort they swam the last kilometre underwater towing their elongated charge. Suddenly Schmidt’s clothing snagged on a submerged object and tore. Now he had to wage a constant battle against buoyancy loss. The first major obstacles they overcame were a net barrier then a steel-mesh net: two more hindrances and they were at the quay wall. They moved along it until striking their heads against the lock gate, their objective.

They flooded the torpedo mine and accompanied its descent to the bottom, about 18 metres below. After activating the detonator they surfaced and swam off. Returning to the Linse Schmidt became so exhausted that he had to be towed by boat hook. Some 75 minutes later they were back with Dörpinghaus. Once the Linse set off a motor boat approached them suddenly from the fog. Dörpinghaus put the Linse to full ahead and quickly lost sight of the stranger. It was in fact Prinzhorn’s boat, his men not having succeeded in finding the Royers lock gate. At 0500 a tremendous explosion shook Antwerp harbour. The lock gate was wrecked and the passage of seagoing vessels had to be suspended for several weeks until the damage had been repaired.

In September 1944 the Allies concentrated on capturing the Dutch towns of Arnhem and Nijmegen by means of strong airborne operations.2 This was to be the springboard for the Allied advance to the north and west into the heartland of Germany. Whereas at Nijmegen 82 US Airborne Division had taken intact the bridges over the Waal (the main tributary of the Rhine delta), the British 504th Parachute Regiment had run into stiff opposition at Arnhem, and only on the north bank of the Waal had they been able to establish a bridgehead. On the road to Arnhem they were in possession of an area about three kilometres deep, but south of Elst their progress had been stopped by SS panzer units.

In order to destroy the important bridges, men from MEK 60 (Oblt Prinzhorn) and MEK 65 (Oblt Richard) were to form a special operational team to included Linsen and frogmen. After a thorough evaluation both officers concurred that 3 tonnes of explosives would be required for each of the mighty bridge pillars. This would need to be brought up in two 1.5-tonne torpedo-mines, each loaded with 600 kg of the special dynamite Nebolith. The pillars were over 11 metres tall and almost four metres in diameter. They would have to be forced upwards out of the jambs in which they were embedded, and only two simultaneous, violent explosions on opposite sides of the pillars could provide the necessary turning movement.

Two torpedo mines had to be joined for each tow: at the destination they would be separated and a packet of explosives placed either side of a pillar. Three bridges, one railway and two road bridges, were to be attacked. Two frogmen were sent to reconnoitre the length of the approach. They reported that the current was too strong for swimming in the return direction and they had had to walk back. An Abwehr liaison officer now arrived on the scene. Hauptmann Hummel was also known by the name Helmers and had been active as a commando leader at Valdagno and Venice. He mounted a major reconnaissance with two assault boats from Jagdkommando Donau crewed by Lt Schreiber, Bootsmaat Heuse and two junior NCOs, Krämer and Kammhuber. The loud engine noises betrayed them, and in an exchange of fire Heuse was killed. The British were now alerted and set up a foodlight barrier. The bridges were illuminated, the sentries reinforced and searchlight beams roved the region.

It seems probable that Hauptmann Hummel was the Hauptmann Hellmer mentioned in Skorzeny’s memoirs who not only led the operations but swam a reconnaissance himself:

The bridgehead extended for about seven kilometres either side of the bridge. The left bank of the Waal was occupied completely by the British. One night Hauptmann Hellmer swam the required reconnaissance alone … fortified by good luck, he swam between river banks occupied both sides by the enemy, and then returned to his own men.

On the night of 29 September twelve frogmen entered the Waal about ten kilometres upstream from Nijmegen and began towing the torpedo mines towards the bridges. The first group consisted of the experienced Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider (MEK 60, Orne bridges operation) and senior privates Olle, Jäger and Walschendorff. The team was almost at the railway bridge, their objective, when they discovered about 200 metres before it a pontoon bridge, complete but for the central section, which was in the process of erection across the breadth of the river. They passed by the sentries unnoticed, and between the pontoon bridge and the railway bridge Brettschneider gave the signal to separate the explosive packets. The lines fore and aft were cut, the only tie being the long line which had to go round the pillar. Once all was set the swimmers set out on the walk back to base. An hour later the mines exploded – but the bridge held.

The two other groups towing four mines towards the road bridges fared no better. These eight men were: Obermaat Orlowski, Bootsmann Ohrdorf, Bootsmann Weber, Fieldwebel Schmidt, Steuermannsmaat Kolbruch, Obergefreiter Dyck and Gefreiten Gebel and Halwelka. One group drifted into a jetty, drawing the immediate fire of a British sentry. The attempt to link up the mines between the bridge columns failed because of the strong current. One of the men managed to open a valve and so sink the mine which exploded an hour later, blowing a hole of 25 metres diameter in the bridge. Of the twelve frogmen in the three groups only Brettschneider and Jäger reached the German lines at Ochten. The other ten were taken prisoner by the Dutch Resistance who were covering the south bank of the Waal.4

This action did not close the Nijmegen chapter. On 15 and 16 October 1944 two Marder one-man torpedoes and two Linsen set out with six torpedo-mines in tow. This force turned back nine kilometres short of the road bridge on account of technical problems. A second attempt with two operational and one reserve Linse on the night of 24 October was also called off after the mines sank one kilometre into the tow and exploded harmlessly five hours later. Subsequently paratroop-engineers made a bold attempt to destroy the road and pontoon bridges. The idea was to use mines to blow a channel through the Waal net barriers after which a float loaded with explosives would be moored to the bridge to blow a hole in the roadway overhead. The attack began on 20 November. Thirty-six mines were set adrift in the water between 1815 and 2000. Echo measuring devices would confirm the explosions in the net and the cable tension. The first operation failed because of a storm, and was repeated with eleven mines. At 0530 the float followed through and at 0657 an explosion occurred. Luftwaffe air reconnaissance photographs showed that a torpedo net had disappeared while large sections of the second and third barriers were no longer visible. The road bridge, though damaged, held however.