Standing Up To The Royal Navy – Maximilian von Spee I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?


Vice Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee
of the German Imperial Navy was one of the most famous naval officers of World War 1.
When the war broke out, he was outnumbered and outgunned far from home in the Pacific
Ocean. His chances of escape or survival were slim, but he led his squadron several thousand
nautical miles into the Atlantic Ocean, wreaking havoc on his enemy all the way. My Name is Indy Neidell, welcome to a new
episode of WHO DID WHAT IN WORLD WAR ONE. Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubert Reichsgraf
von Spee was born on June 22, 1861 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was the fourth son of a century
old noble family. His Father was Earl Rudolf von Spee and his ancestors and relatives accumulated
a great deal of wealth and property in the lower Rhine. Maximilian von Spee received his primary and
secondary education in Luzern. In April 1878, he joined the Imperial Navy as a cadet. The
German navy had only been founded six years earlier with the sole purpose of defending
the German coastline, though 40 years later when the war broke out, it was one of the
most modern war fleets in the world- surpassed only by the British Royal Navy. In 1882, Maximilian von Spee became Second
lieutenant at sea. From 1884 till 1885 he served in German West
Africa and in 1887 became harbour master in Cameroon, but was sent home because of rheumatism.
After his recovery, he joined the school ship Moltke, and in 1887 he went to China aboard
the SMS Deutschland. After the Boxer rebellion, an uprising in China around turn of the century,
von Spee returned home and became captain, gaining command of the SMS Wittelsbach. Later, as 2nd Admiral, he led the reconnaissance
ships of the German high fleet and from 1908 till 1910 was chief of staff at the North
Sea Naval Station. In 1910, he was promoted to rear admiral and in December 1912 took
command of the German East Asia Squadron. This squadron’s primary function
was to secure and defend Germany’s colonies and naval bases, and more generally the interests
of the German Empire in East Asia and the South Pacific. In 1913, Spee became Vice Admiral. In the four months immediately following the
outbreak of the war, multiple naval engagements took place in the Pacific between German,
Japanese, and British ships. The imperial squadron was at a disadvantage right from
the beginning, but von Spee decided to fight, always keeping an eye on the next supply station,
since the war prevented any supplies arriving from home. In August, von Spee was anchored near the
Mariana Islands, a small group of micronesian islands which were a German colony at that
time. He was there with the SMS Gneisenau and the flag ship SMS Scharnhorst, 2000 nautical
miles away from the German supply station in Tsingtao (Tshingdao). Britain and Japan
had blockaded the bay of Kiaochow, which meant that from von Spee couldn’t return to base,
so he decided to to head out into the Pacific. First, von Spee gathered his ships near the
islands of Pagan. Since there weren’t any supply stations, he decided to start a cruiser
war to secure his food and coal supplies. He didn’t engage in any battles with enemy
war ships, but instead raided enemy cargo ships for supplies. Then he headed towards
South America, thinking that it would be easier to supply his ships in the neutral harbours
there. From August 12, von Spee lost radio contact and was on his own with his squadron. The 13,000 nautical miles to the west coast
of South America were a gigantic endeavour for the East Asia Squadron. At the end of
August, they began their journey and reached Easter Island after stops in Samoa and Tahiti.
On October 3, von Spee managed to establish radio contact with the cruisers Dresden and
Leipzig. He ordered them to regroup near the Easter Islands. The Royal Navy intercepted
the radio messages from the Leipzig, but Von Spee had had the Leipzig sending the radio
messages in order to make it look like the ship was alone. It was a trap, and the British
ships under the command of Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock took the bait. On November 1, 1914 the Battle of Coronel
took place in neutral Chilean waters. The East Asia Squadron sank the antiquated British
ships Hope and Monmouth with their entire crew of 1600 men. Admiral Cradock was among
the dead. The Germans suffered three men injured. This defeat crushed the image of the invincible
Royal Navy, it being the first defeat of a British squadron in over 100 years. While
von Spee was celebrated in Germany, the British were understandably furious. They ordered
Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee and the battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible to hunt
down von Spee. Thing is, though von Spee had won, he had used up half his total supply
of ammunition, and that was tough to replace. So because they were running out of supplies,
the East Asia Squadron decided to head for the Atlantic ocean. After a short stop for
coal at Alejandro Selkirk Island, the ships made for the chilean coastal town of Valparaíso,
where they received a hero’s welcome from the local German population, and then for
the Gulf of Penas, where Von Spee anchored and was resupplied with coal by German cargo
ships. Meanwhile the British battle cruisers were lying in wait near the Falkland Islands
in the South Atlantic Ocean. The German ships head to be careful because they would likely
be spotted entering the Atlantic – and because the British intelligence service infiltrated
all harbours in the area. On November 26, von Spee’s German ships
left the harbour of St. Quentin, Chile. While rounding Cape Horn, the storms got so heavy
that the crews had to throw coal supplies over board, and an emergency decision was
made to head for Port Stanley in the Falklands. Von Spee wanted to destroy the British radio
station, take the stored coal, and take the British governor hostage. Vice Admiral Sturdee
had reached Port Stanley on December 7 to resupply, and when the Germans reached the
port the following day, they were unaware of the British presence. Sturdee spotted von
Spee’s ships and cast off. Von Spee’s decision to attack the Falkland
Islands turned out to be a calamitous mistake, costing hundreds of lives and putting an end
to the East Asia Squadron. Though von Spee tried to flee eastwards, the British sank
the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig, and Nürnberg without losing a single ship. Only 200 Germans
survived, and more than 2.200 died, including von Spee and his sons Otto and Heinrich who
served with him aboard the Scharnhorst. These casualties spelled the end of the cruiser
war for the German Imperial Navy. Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee is considered
a great commander despite his ultimate defeat, because he managed to act and maneuver his
ships brilliantly, even in a desperate and futile situation. His glory is also based
on the victory at Coronel. And actually, there is another decision of
his that wrote a piece of naval war history: The cruiser SMS Emden, which von Spee ordered
to remain in the Pacific, sank 16 enemy cargo ships in only weeks in the fall of 1914. You
can find out more about the Emden in our weekly episode from October 30, 1914. Monuments in both Chile and Germany were built
in honor of Maximilian von Spee, and also to commemorate the Battle of the Falkland
Islands. In 1934, a German heavy cruiser was named after von Spee, and the German Navy
named one of their school frigates after him as well. Numerous streets and squares throughout
Germany carry his name, although several local governments decided to rename them again,
because they got the name Von Spee during the Nazi era. What do you think? Should we remember the
generals and officers of the great wars or is it more important to remember the collective
suffering of the soldiers, who were led there by their leaders for better or worse? Tell us what you think in the comments section.
If you want to learn more about another more controversial person whose name you could
see on street signs in Germany until recently, click here to watch our episode about Paul
von Lettow-Vorbeck. See you Thursday for our regular weekly episode.

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