War History: Admiral Graf von Spee’s WW1 sunken flagship found off Argentina’s coast
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Marine Archeologist Mensun Bound was the leader of the mission which discovered the flagship of Admiral Graf von Spee’s squadron, was born in the Malvinas (Falkland Islands), and since a child, has been obsessed with the sea, its mysteries, myths and the great Battle of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands), a decisive naval action at the start of the Great War of 1914.
In his words, he will tell us how the mighty Scharnhorst was finally discovered, “lawnmowing” the bottom of the sea, as well as the many years he has been after this feat, which will continue until other vessels are located, particularly the Gneisenau, sister ship of the Scharnhorst.
Mensun has also searched extensively about the life and character of the great German admiral, who lost two sons, naval officers, in the Battle, and gives us a vivid picture of events and strategies leading to the Battle and its consequences.
“The problem was that the British didn’t know where they were following the Battle. When it was all over, the navigating officers from the ships got together to try to work out the position. They would look unprofessional if they had to admit they did not know where precisely the Battle had been fought. There was not much to go on. No log lines were out to give them the distance covered. They had been zig-zagging everywhere. Compass deviation was exceptionally significant from the vibration and heat; of course, the ship shuddered every time it discharged the main guns or was hit by incoming projectiles. And there was deep cloud cover that prevented any sun-sights with the sextant. Obviously, there was no radar at that time.
Our search box was vast – 40 X 30 nautical miles (4500 km2). It had taken me five long months in ripping Cape Horn seas to cover this area in 2014/2015 using technologically old, towed, side-scan systems. With Ocean Infinity’s fleet of the latest Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), we divided the area up into six search zones, one per AUV.
It meant we could cover the whole area in several days. In the event, the first AUV down (i.e. dive no. 1), covering the northeast corner, found the Scharnhorst on the second day. We didn’t know this until later because we do not monitor what is happening in real time. During the mission, the data is banked, and then, once the AUV is back in the hangar, we download the data, which is then converted into a legible format for analysis.
The grand irony is that we found the Scharnhorst by accident. The search is conducted along a series of parallel lines – ‘mowing the lawn it is called – and at the end of every line, the AUV passes outside the search box to perform its turn into the following line. It was on the turn that the AUV passed over the Scharnhorst.
Because I had given talks to the team about the Battle of the Falklands, everybody was well-informed, and the sense of anticipation was electric.
Usually, we are chasing shadows on the seabed, but when the Scharnhorst first appeared in the data flow, there was no doubt that this was a stonking great ship. You could see the impact crater about her from where she had ploughed into the seabed. But who was she? We sent down an unmanned remote-operated vehicle to explore her in real-time.
We never descend directly on our targets. We always approach from the side. We immediately entered a debris field that said ‘battle’. And suddenly, she just came out of the gloom before us. Great guns poking in every direction. We could even read the word “KRUPP” – the name of the famous German metal works – on one of the barrels. But was it the flagship, Scharnhorst, or her sister ship, Gneisenau? The crest had gone from her bow, so identifying her as the Scharnhorst came down to counting portholes.”
Admiral Maximilian von Spee, the best for the best squadron
At the outbreak of World War I, Germany had a powerful cruiser fleet in the Pacific. It was known as the East Asiatic Squadron. Its commander was Admiral Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubertus Reichsgraf von Spee, a resolute Prussian warrior-aristocrat of 53 years who was esteemed for his integrity and professionalism by all who knew him, friend and foe alike. To those under him, he was a father figure, a disciplinarian certainly, but a leader who looked after his men and inspired in them loyalty, courage and devotion to the navy. With him, on other ships of the squadron, were his two sons, Count Otto and Count Heinrich.
His command ships were the armoured Scharnhorst (flag) and Gneisenau and the light cruisers Nürnberg, Leipzig and Emden. Later he would be joined by the Dresden. For firepower, speed and efficiency they were, as a consolidated force, a daunting fighting machine; in all of the Pacific basin, only the Japanese were stronger. Their purpose in war was to protect the German colonies, wage war, and draw enemy capital ships away from the main theatre of war (in this case, Europe) where they were most needed.
Whereas Britain tended to deploy her older assets on far-ocean sea-keeping duties, Germany, by contrast, deployed their best on those same stations, and the best was the East Asiatic Squadron. The ships of this flotilla were not only fast and well-gunned but were also led by specially selected officers and crewed by veterans. This was more than just imperial posturing. It was a matter of strategic necessity because, if it came to war with Britain, a squadron such as this, lost within the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, could do untold damage to British ships that carried within their holds the food and raw materials upon which the island-nation depended for its survival.
They would, however, be alone in an overwhelmingly pro-British theatre, and their chances of ever reaching home were highly remote. For the East Asiatic Flotilla Commander, internment was not an option. They were expected to fight to the last and, when it came to an end, to die with honour. This squadron was the best; thus, it followed that whoever was appointed to its command must also be the best. In November 1912, at age 51, the honour of leading this illustrious body of ships was conferred upon Rear-Admiral Graf von Spee. From the Kaiser down, everybody agreed that he was the right man.
Von Spee was a quiet man with a considerable presence. I have seen his service record in the archives in Germany, demonstrating his professionalism at every level. The men of his squadron had won the Kaiser’s award for naval gunnery two years in a row, and if there was anybody who could draw the best out of his crew in a fighting situation, it was von Spee.
The nature of his position demanded that he be a somewhat distant figure, and certainly, von Spee took few into his confidence. He had a distaste for social frivolity, and even when taking it easy with a cigar in the wardroom, he never wholly relaxed, comporting himself always with high but not unfriendly dignity, preferring serious conversation to jocularity. Some have interpreted this as shyness, which may be true, but it is also clear that once he reached flag rank, he did not want to blur his professional relationships with familiarity.
And it worked; in all the hundreds of documents, letters and memoirs that have survived, it is clear that his men were devoted to him and even that a certain mystique had gathered about his person. Of close friendships, he had few, and these were the men who had risen with him through the service and shared his values. His only real confident within the East Asiatic Squadron was Captain Maerker of the Gneisenau. He was the Collingwood to the Count’s Nelson.
The Admiral’s greatest enjoyment when at anchor was a game of bridge with Maeker and his two sons, Otto and Heinrich. Apart from his family and religious faith, von Spee’s only other serious interest outside navy matters was natural history and geology, which were all topics upon which he could discourse with the kind of knowledge that only came from extensive study.
A fellow admiral wrote of von Spee that he was not an inspirational speaker, but what he had to say was always lucid and precise and delivered without reference to notes. The same person spoke of his devotion to the Catholic faith, his austere tastes, the order he conducted himself and the strict discipline he expected of everybody within his command.
Although von Spee was never tested to the extent of Nelson, one can see parallels between the two in terms of their professionalism, fleet handling and fighting prowess, the most apparent divergence between them being that von Spee was, mercifully, not possessed of any of Nelson’s flamboyance, vanity and exaggerated self-regard.
With war von Spee carried a heavy burden, small wonder that, soon after the commencement of hostilities, he wrote, ‘I am the loneliest person in the world’.
Background to the Battle
“The defeat inflicted on the British by Admiral Von Spee at Coronel was the most significant victory in German naval history. For the British, it was their greatest defeat at sea since the war in 1812. A month later, the Battle of the Malvinas (Falklands) was Britain’s most significant naval victory since Trafalgar. It was also the only all-cruiser battle there has ever been and the last battle at sea in which the commanders did not have to worry about mines, submarines or aircraft or missiles coming at them from over the horizon.
Following Coronel and a string of other mishaps in Britain, confidence in the Royal Navy plummeted. The British worshipped the Navy and could not believe this had happened.
At the time, the First Lord of the Admiralty was none other than Winston Churchill, a very different man from the figure he became in World War II. In 1914 he was young, ambitious and arrogant. He had no experience in fighting ships. Indeed his only experience in military command had been as a lieutenant many years before in Sudan and South Africa.
Yet, at age 37, he had his finger on the trigger of the most destructive weapon the world had ever known – the Royal Navy. The role of the First Lord of the Admiralty was political. The professional administration of the Navy was left to the First Sea Lord and his admirals, who understood ships. But for Churchill, that wasn’t enough. By force of personality and muscular use of words, as well as by getting rid of all who opposed him and replacing them with “Yes-men”, he dominated the Royal Navy. The result was one mistake after another, culminating in the defeat at Coronel.
On the eve of Coronel Jackie Fisher, the mad genius who single-handedly created the dreadnought navy, was recalled to the Admiralty as First Sealord. He was appalled at what had been allowed to happen at Coronel and immediately detached two dreadnought battle cruisers and a posse of lesser ships to hunt down and destroy Germany’s East Asian squadron. Not only could the new task force out-range and out-gun Von Spee, but they could also outrun him. Find Von Spee’s fleet, and it was game over.
You have to remember that Britain was an island that depended on a constant flow of supplies and materials that had to be brought in by ships. Without it, Britain would be on its knees in weeks. Von Spee’s role was not really to fight battles at sea but rather to wage economic warfare by the destruction or confinement to the port of merchant ships. In this Von Spee had already been highly successful. British merchant ships were bottled up everywhere around South America.
Propagandists on both sides at the time (and indeed commentators since) made much of the fact that there were no survivors from the sunken ships at Coronel or the Scharnhorst at the Malvinas / Falklands. At Coronel, they were fighting at night and in a storm. Indeed Admiral Von Spee did not know for sure that he had sunk the British flagship, Good Hope, and the captain of the ship that sank HMS Monmouth afterwards wrote that he did not know the state of battle, all he knew was that there were other British ships somewhere in the darkness. If he stopped for survivors, he would be a sitting duck for anything that might come at him out of the night with torpedoes flying. Besides, any boats he put down in that storm would have been swamped immediately. As for the Scharnhorst, Sturdee could not stop to pick up survivors as he had to race over to assist HMS Inflexible in its slug-fest with the Gneisenau.
Although Inflexible, with its superior weight of shot, was winning, Sturdee knew that all it took was one lucky shot to turn the tide of battle.”
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