The Elusive Dresden II

Dresden’s war against commerce in the Atlantic had been neither particularly brilliant nor as ruthless as were the assaults by some other raiders. She had steamed from the West Indies to Cape Horn, burnt many hundred tons of coal, cruised thousands of miles, and the net gains were two not large cargo ships. These were the last she was ever to sink in that ocean.

But the few days in Orange Bay, where she could be fairly sure of seclusion away from the world, were welcomed as an opportunity for such overhaul as was possible without dockyard assistance. And now she must so regulate her programme as to join hands with Admiral von Spee who was coming east across the Pacific, and to this end she left her anchorage on September 16. Two days later, taking Baden with her, she sighted the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s 8075-ton steamer Ortega in the Pacific bound to England from Valparaiso. The cruiser gave chase, but Captain D. R. Kinneir escaped by entering the uncharted Nelson’s Strait, and through the splendid efforts of his engine-room staff who got 18 knots out of a 14-knot ship. The sequel was that Dresden gave up the pursuit, while Ortega felt her way cautiously but riskily into Smyth’s Channel and out into the Atlantic. It is worth noting that the cruiser kept shelling this passenger liner, but that no hits were made, and there is other evidence that Dresden’s gunnery was not very good.

Still proceeding up the Pacific, the latter went into St. Quentin Bay (Gulf of Peñas) where she coaled from Baden, coasted further yet but found no more shipping, and then made a tack out away from the land to that lonely island of Mas-a-fuera. No one can say that the German Navy failed to use every geographical convenience to the extreme limit. Having entered the war without the advantage of a chain of coaling stations, she regarded all isolated rocks, islands, lonely bays, as her privilege for supplies, refits, or rendezvous. The question of infringing the rights of neutral nations was ignored: necessity was the dominating factor, and absence of that force which imposes obedience to law prevented interference.

The principle was unprincipled, the policy impolitic; for the cumulative effect of using other nations’ property without permission was to arouse indignation, which in turn was to create a hostile reaction. But for the present all was well, and the Chilean Government were five hundred miles away — too far for any immediate protest; and it was whilst at Mas-a-fuera that Dresden’s wireless gained touch with the approaching Admiral von Spee on October 3. Spee’s immediate object was to obtain a concentration of cruisers and for this purpose he selected another remote spot still further away from the American continent. Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day, 1722, but now belongs to Chile from which it is distant fifteen hundred miles. It has neither timber nor brushwood, and hither in 1774 came Captain Cook.

In 1897 Mr. Merlet of Valparaiso leased part of the island, and subsequently formed a company to exploit it. Scientifically Easter Island demands interest because of hundreds of strange colossal stone idols, some of which are 30 feet high. There is no regular connection with South America, except for a small sailing vessel which is owned by the company using the island as a ranch. Sometimes this vessel comes once a year; sometimes not so frequently, and then tarries only long enough to take aboard the wool crop. Of triangular shape, measuring only 13 miles along its base, one can think of this volcanic miniature kingdom rising suddenly out of the ocean with high cliffs and jagged rocks, against which the unfettered Pacific perpetually dashes itself into white spray. Quiet, beyond all the traffic routes, quite untouched by the world’s progress, it would have seemed the last bit of territory that could be associated with modern war.

In October 1914 its total population consisted of Mr. Edmunds (the English manager of the ranch) and a German tobacco planter in addition to 250 natives, who are Polynesians. But it so happened that in 1913 there had sailed from England the schooner yacht Mana (91 gross tons), which had brought to the island in March 1914 Mr. and Mrs. Scoresby Routledge on a scientific expedition to investigate the mysterious idols. It chanced that in October the yacht had fortunately already been sent away temporarily to South America, leaving Mrs. Routledge and one of the crew on the island. The last visit of strangers had been in June 1913, when a crew of shipwrecked mariners from the schooner El Dorado, trading between Oregon and Chile with a deck-load of timber, had sprung a leak and compelled her crew to take to the ship’s boat.

In the normal course of Easter Island chronology it might have taken about a year before news of the World War reached its inhabitants. Neither Mrs. Routledge nor Mr. Edmunds had the faintest idea that Germany was at enmity; that Britain, France, and Russia were plunged in a great struggle; but on Monday morning, October 12, 1914, the islanders were surprised to find a squadron of German vessels had anchored off the shore. They consisted of the cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Dresden. The latter had been towed here by Baden, in order to economise coal, and with the arrival of Leipzig the concentration of von Spee’s force was now complete. Besides these fighting units the islanders were able to gaze down upon colliers and storeships.

What was the meaning of this sudden irruption? The Germans said nothing about a war: they mentioned that they were cruising from the China station to Valparaiso. So unsuspecting were the handful of Easter Island white people that Mrs. Routledge entrusted the Germans with letters to post, of which incidentally all but one at length reached its destination. As for Mr. Edmunds, he innocently sold the Germans £1000 worth of meat. The visitors offered to make payment in gold, but the manager (perhaps remembering than an exploiter had once been murdered here) considered it wiser to ask and accept an order instead!

But there was an indefinable mysteriousness about this squadron, and it seemed curious that no one came ashore except very rarely. The natives became annoyed that so few presents were made. Had these Europeans no information to impart? Why were they so secretive? The Germans insisted that they had no newspapers, but at night they steamed out with no lights showing. Strange rumours began to develop, and one day an officer was foolish enough to make the remark that “in two months Germany will be at the top of the tree”. The crew had been told to keep their tongues quiet, but when the German tobacco-planter went aboard they gave him the momentous news that the Great War had begun. And that was how the tidings came to Easter Island.

Leading his squadron to sea after dusk on Sunday, October 18, with his flag in Scharnhorst, von Spee finally quitted Easter Island.1 During a whole week he had knowingly and deliberately delayed, where he had been entitled to rest only a few hours. He had flouted Chilean neutrality by using in the most leisured manner this island as his base: yet who was there of Chile to say him nay? To a belligerent who likes to defy international law, the seas afford many a free station whereon authority sits lightly if it exists at all. Will the spread of wireless stations and the extension of aviation make such proceedings nowadays impossible?

The squadron never came back, though the raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich descended on the anchorage just before Christmas. Of her cruise we shall investigate the stages in a later chapter. Whilst the sheep-shearing at Easter Island went on, the German squadron with their auxiliaries steamed south-east for Mas-a-fuera where they anchored on October 26, coaled, left the next day, and approached the vicinity of Valparaiso two days later. Now during this same month Admiral Cradock had been into Orange Bay and found the inscription proving that Dresden had called. On November 1 his inferior squadron met and was defeated by Admiral von Spee at the Battle of Coronel.

On November 6 the concentration again began to be made at Mas-a-fuera, yet once more defying neutrality, and now supplies fairly poured in. For two sailing vessels had been captured, one French with 3500 tons of coal, the other Norwegian with 2634 tons; whilst the German supply ship Sacramento had arrived from San Francisco with coal and food. Not till November 15 did von Spee sail, though Dresden and Leipzig left four days earlier and on November 13 called at Valparaiso, embarked stores, but left the next day. It was on the 16th that the British S.S. North Wales with coal was captured by Dresden and sunk, and next day the crew were transferred to the latter’s supply ship Rhakotis, who a month later landed them at Callao.

At St.Quentin Bay von Spee once more concentrated his squadron; this time the rendezvous was to see a veritable squadron also of supply ships. It was now November 21 and five days later von Spee set out for the fate that awaited him, the force consisting of his five cruisers, but also he took with him only the three supply ships Baden, Santa Isabel, and Seydlitz. Dipping their bows into the heavy seas, avoiding the Magellan Straits, and going outside the Horn the wanderers halted: for, coming towards them on December 2 was the British-owned Drummuir, 1844 tons, one of the few survivors of the sailing ships. Through four hundred years “Cape Stiff” had been the sailing ship’s deadliest enemy, the graveyard of many a sailor, the nightmare of every sailing-ship master. Drake, Anson, and a host of others had spent anxious times battering round this tempestuous corner of the globe, and now the age of sail was completing its last few voyages. As if to hurry its departure by the dominance of steam, Leipzig played her rôle by capturing Drummuir, which was taken to the back of Picton Island; next, after the sailing vessel’s cargo of coal had been transferred to the supply ships, followed the sad passing. Drummuir, representative of a fine race which revealed the Old World to the New, was towed into deep water and sent to the bottom.

That was on December 6, and in the evening von Spee’s squadron got under way for the Falklands; but then on December 8 followed the historic battle with his overwhelming defeat. Had it been a victory, the Falklands would have been transformed into a German base, the Atlantic would have been terrorised for a long time by cruiser raids, and the trade routes would have been death-traps. Finally, the squadron would have been able to essay a return to the North Sea and a conjunction with the outcoming High Sea Fleet might have led to a full-dress engagement with the Grand Fleet. But, as it was, von Spee lost to Admiral Sturdee four out of five cruisers, and two out of three remaining supply ships, so that there remained at the end of December 8 only the Dresden cruiser, and the Seydlitz. The latter had come all the way from Australia, and was one of the North German liners: she escaped, landed the Drummuir crew twelve days later, but finally was interned in February at Bahia Blanca.

We are now at liberty to devote ourselves exclusively once more to the adventures of Dresden and to observe the incredible situations, the narrow escapes, and terrible moments of suspense which were to last for weeks and weeks. She was destined to play a lonely game in the loneliest and most cheerless portion of the globe. The desperate condition in which she found herself was not merely that her admiral and sister-ships had perished, but that the whole of the German supply system had received a series of disintegrating shocks. Inasmuch as the very life of a raider depended on coal and stores, she could not do much if neither reached her. And owners were preferring to keep their ships in port just now rather than expose them to disaster, so the chances of helping herself to fuel and food in the Patagonian area were not promising. Hitherto life for these cruisers had been rather that of a speculative criminal. They had trespassed flagrantly, their supply ships had by lies and deceit used harbours of South American Republics as the sources for coal, provisions, stores of all sorts, and communication with Berlin. Such insults to the self-pride of neutral nations could not be endured for ever.

Brazil and Argentina were now beginning to tighten up regulations: in future colliers would not be allowed to leave port if there was the slightest suspicion that they were about to serve German cruisers. The Governments of Uruguay and Chile were likewise becoming less patient than before, with the result that German Supply Officers in South America were finding their task impossible. Only across the Atlantic at Canary Islands, Las Palmas, Tenerife were there always several thousand tons of German-owned coal always ready. Captain Lüdecke was compelled to do some serious thinking for the future, and the great lesson to be learned from his subsequent movements is one of moral courage. He refused to bow his head to discouragement and, on the contrary, utilised every conceivable means for outwitting fate.

Dresden was able to survive the Battle of the Falk-lands because she got away in the thick weather of the afternoon. At first Captain Lüdecke intended making for Picton Island, where von Spee was to have rendezvoused. But Lüdecke’s wireless calls could get no reply from a supply ship. Dresden needed coal, and must have it: yet how? Whence? Punta Arenas — inside the Magellan Straits — that was the only possible place. But surely British cruisers would be hovering off the eastern entrance to the Straits? Most likely they would. Then what to do? The answer was found in choosing the tricky Cockburn Channel which he entered on December 10 and came to anchor at 4 p.m. in Sholl Bay, some sixty miles south of Punta Arenas. So desperate had become the fuel problem that Captain Lüdecke had to send his men ashore to cut down trees, and they also brought off water. Forests abound in the Magellan neighbourhood, and when Darwin was thereabouts in the Beagle during 1834 he recorded: “So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out.”

Only 160 tons of the cruiser’s maximum 850 tons of coal remained, so Dresden could not have carried on much longer. That night the Chilean torpedo-gunboat Almirante Condell visited Dresden. She was a quarter of a century old and lightly armed, but she represented the law and informed Lüdecke he must not prolong his stay beyond twenty-four hours. At 10 a.m. on December 12 Dresden weighed anchor and reached that quite unpretentious little town of Punta Arenas so famous for its driving storms. He knew that the United, States collier Minnesotan, specially chartered by the German Government, was there lying; but this vessel’s master now refused to let him have a shovelful. He was not going to supply a man-of-war.

This was awkward, time was precious, and the British cruisers could not be far away. But the German Roland Line Turpin had been lying there since war began, so from her Dresden managed to obtain 750 tons of briquettes aboard by the evening of December 13, and at 10 p.m. steamed away south down the Straits. Five hours later the British cruiser H.M.S. Bristol arrived! It had been a narrow shave.

From now onwards Dresden was to live a hand-to-mouth existence in a grand game of hide-and-seek, with the most impressive scenery for background. She was hunted and searched for incessantly; false clues, all sorts of rumours, were followed up and still the German could not be located. She was like some culprit wanted by the police, and unable to show herself in public. In order to picture the strange environment we have to remember that these Magellan Straits are a bewildering labyrinth of channels and islands that even in this twentieth century still remain inadequately surveyed, and such charts as exist date back chiefly from Darwin and the Beagle epoch. Imagine a kind of Norway with valleys, gorges, snow-clad mountains, precipices, and peaks, and all nature in a savage primitive isolation. Here are channels, sometimes 4000 feet deep, running between mountains rising to 5000 feet. Anchorages are few and even thirty miles apart. To navigate except by daylight is impossible, and dangerous at that if the more unfrequented passages are attempted; for rocks are waiting to hole the ship’s bottom. Certainly there is smooth water, but the tides are strong, the light is not generally good, the atmosphere never warm, and out of the twenty-four hours it rains for eleven. Its cold and wet, its damp fogs, are comparable only with an English winter.

The deep ravines, the incessant gales of wind, and what Darwin once called “the death-like scene of desolation”; the gloomy woods inhabited by only few birds; the dark ragged clouds that drive furiously over the cones of snow and blue glaciers, overawe the mind of man. Not even the abundant firewood and many waterfalls make up for the misty sunless weather, the grey seas outside, the heartlessness of the fjords themselves. These are cliffs covered with fern and brilliant moss, and there is something majestic in the crags as well as the ravines. But down come the squally “williwaws” lashing the smooth water into foaming crests and liable to lay any sailing craft flat down. Altogether this stern, forbidding, barren region of South America’s extremity was an ideal, if strange, asylum for a turbine cruiser hiding after the most complete naval victory of modern times.