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World War I: Vice Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee


World War I: Vice Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee

Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Maximilian von Spee - Early Career:

Born on June 21, 1861 at Copenhagen, Denmark, Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee was related to aristocratic families in the Rhineland. In 1878, he elected to enter the young Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy). Identified as a gifted officer, von Spee took part in German efforts to build an empire in Africa in 1884-1885. Serving as a lieutenant, he aided in securing territory in what would become German Cameroon (Kamerun). Two years later, von Spee returned to the area as port commander for Cameroon. Returning home due to illness in 1888, he was assigned to the training frigate SMS Moltke. In 1897, von Spee received command of the cruiser SMS Deutschland. Though an older ship, it had been heavily modernized. Serving in the Far East, Deutschland safeguarded German interests in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War before returning to Germany during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Maximilian von Spee - Prewar Years:

Promoted to captain after arriving home, von Spee took command of the battleship SMS Wittelsbach in 1905. Three years later, he was made chief of staff for forces in the North Sea. Elevated to rear admiral on January 27, 1910, von Spee saw service with the Scouting Forces of the High Seas Fleet. Viewed as a rising star, he was promoted in 1912 and given command of the prestigious German East Asia Squadron. Based at the German concession of Tsingtao, China, the squadron possessed many of the Kaiserliche Marine's most advanced cruisers. Due to Tsingtao's distance from Berlin, commanders of the squadron often were permitted great latitude in determining operations.

Maximilian von Spee - World War I Begins:

Flying his flag from the cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, von Spee was at Ponape in the Caroline Islands with the cruiser Gneisenau when he learned that World War I had begun. Pausing to assess the situation, von Spee was soon joined by the light cruiser SMS Nurnberg which was returning from Honolulu, HI. Steaming north to Pagan in the Northern Marianas, he was reinforced by the light cruiser SMS Emden and several supply ships. Effectively cut off from Germany, von Spee believed the Japanese would soon enter the war which would make Tsingtao untenable. In addition, he feared that his southern base at Rabaul was under threat by the Royal Australian Navy. Left with few alternatives, von Spee decided to attempt to return to Germany via Cape Horn.

While at Pagan, Captain Karl von Muller asked if he could take his ship, Emden, on a solo cruise through the Indian Ocean. This request was granted and von Spee departed for the Marshall Islands with three ships before detaching Nurnberg for another run to Honolulu to gather news. Reaching the Marshalls, von Spee learned that Japan had entered the war. Leaving on August 29, he sailed for Christmas Island to rendezvous with Nurnberg. Reunited in September 6, von Spee learned that forces from New Zealand had captured German Samoa. Steering in that direction, he hoped to attack the invasion force's ships. Arriving too late, he elected not to attack the occupation force as he did not believe the islands could be held. On September 22, von Spee attacked Papeete, Tahiti and sank the gunboat Zélée but failed to capture the island's coal supplies.

Maximilian von Spee - Victory at Coronel:

Moving to the Marquesas, von Spee captured French supplies before pressing on to Easter Island. There he was joined by the light cruisers SMS Dresden and SMS Leipzig. Having consolidated his forces, von Spee intended to prey upon British and French shipping on the west coast of South America. Alerted to the presence of German ships through radio intercepts, the Royal Navy directed Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock's West Indies Squadron to the area. In late October, while operating off Valparaiso, Chile, von Spee became aware of Cradock's approach. On October 31, the light cruisers HMS Glasgow and Leipzig detected each other near Valparaiso. As a result, both admirals moved towards the area in the hope of catching one of the enemy's ships.

The next day, the two forces collided off Coronel. Badly outgunned by the Germans, Cradock's force was centered on the older armored cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth and supported by HMS Glasgow and the converted liner HMS Otranto. In the resulting Battle of Coronel, von Spee won a resounding victory and sank both Good Hope and Monmouth. The defeat was the first suffered by the Royal Navy in over century and sent shockwaves through the Admiralty. In control of the waters off South America, von Spee put into Valparaiso for coal. Though buoyed by his triumph, he remained aware that his force had little chance of reaching Germany safely.

Maximilian von Spee - Defeat at the Falklands:

Remaining in the Pacific through the end of November to take on coal, von Spee rounded Cape Horn on December 1/2. After pausing at Picton Island, he steered for the British base at Port Stanley in the Falklands. Initially preferring to disperse his force into the Atlantic shipping lanes, he was convinced to attack by his subordinates. In London, the defeat at Coronel led to a rapid response as First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher assembled a squadron centered on the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to deal with von Spee. Led by Vice Admiral Frederick Doveton Sturdee, this force reached the Falklands on December 7. Supporting the battlecruisers were three cruisers and two light cruisers.

Approaching Port Stanley on December 8, von Spee's squadron came under fire from the old battleship HMS Canopus which had been beached in the harbor. Spotting the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers in the harbor, von Spee turned and attempted to escape. Though he had a fifteen-mile head start, Sturdee was able to use his battlecruisers' superior speed to run down the tired German ships and begin the Battle of the Falklands. As the British opened fire around 1:00 PM, von Spee turned to engage with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in an effort to cover the escaping light cruisers. Though his ships scored some hits on Invincible, they did little damage.

Turning away, von Spee again attempted to flee. Ordering three of his cruisers to pursue Nurnberg and Leipzig, Sturdee pressed the attack on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Firing full broadsides, Invincible and Inflexible pounded the two German cruisers. In an attempt to reply, von Spee tried to close the range, but to no avail. Taking several hits, Scharnhorst was put out of action and sank at 4:17, with von Spee aboard. Gneisenau sank a short time later as did Nurnberg and Leipzig. In the fighting, two of von Spee's sons were also lost.

Hailed as a hero in Germany, plans were made to name a new battlecruiser for the fallen admiral but work was not completed before the end of the war. In 1934, the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was named in his honor. Seeing service in the South Atlantic during the opening days of World War II, it was scuttled after the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939.

Selected Sources

  • History of War: Maximilian von Spee
  • First World War: Maximilian von Spee
  • Coronel Memorial: Maximilian von Spee

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