December 22, 2016Posted by on
The gun crew of SMS Nürnberg were relaxing, Franz was ignoring their idle banter using the moment’s respite to write in his journal: St Quentin Bay, November 24, 1914. Having finished coaling we are ready to round the Horn. The admiral has told the squadron that he would not make light of their situation, with the navies of the world allied against them a difficult task lay ahead. He and the captains would use their best endeavours to lead them safely home, if not for Christmas then the new year… .
Franz was interrupted by someone calling out, “Hey Franz, what you have written about the Battle of Coronel and our heroes welcome in Valparaiso.”
Heinie quipped, “He’s yet to tell you about my night with those Hawaiian beauties.”
“Which version Heinie? Du Arschloch!”
“Arschloch? Isn’t that something you keep talking out of Dietrich!”
The rest of the gun crew waited in quiet anticipation for yet another fight to break out between Heinie and Dietrich. Afraid to come between these two big men who spent their time insulting each other on board only to spend it ashore carousing together and fighting with anyone else on the slightest pretext.
Perhaps to prevent another fight by pacifying Heinie and Dietrich, Franz began to read aloud: “Mas a Fuera, November 10, 1914.” The crew deck fell silent as they all listened attentively.
”Auf dem weiten Meer so allein!
So einsam war sie, daß selbst Gott
schien nicht mehr da zu sein.”
A loud groan caused Franz to stop reading, it was Dietrich who exclaimed, “Alone on a wide wide sea with no God Franz? God must have been at Coronel when we humiliated the British navy, with two British armoured cruisers sunk with all hands and two other ships fleeing. If the British intend to defeat us they’ll need God on their side!”
The crew were all nodding, obviously in agreement with Dietrich. Franz read on, “We were being driven out of the Pacific, the China Station at Tsingtao was being besieged and the combined navies of the world were hunting for us. How different it had been at Valparaiso where the German citizens had greeted squadron Spee as heroes. Heinie and Dietrich had disappeared to find a welcoming German bar and free drinks, regaling us later with an unexpurgated version of their night’s activities and all the Mädchens they had bedded, too numerous to mention here and heaven forfend that any of their fathers or husbands should hear of it.”
Heinie and Dietrich both let out loud wild howls of feigned anguish and the crew burst into laughter. “When you write your book Franz, it will be the exploits of Heinie and me that make it a best seller,” Dietrich’s exclaimed, increasing the crew’s laughter.
Franz laughingly said, “I’m sure that’s true Dietrich.” When he continued reading and mentioned their admiral the crew fell silent again:
“Admiral Graf von Spee spent a much quieter night with his officers at a reception in the Valparaiso German Club, which he had insisted be a quiet affair, being more pleased with the company of his two sons than to receive a hero’s welcome. He declined a toast to ‘ the damnation of the British navy’ proposed by a landratte who clearly understood nothing of mariners. The loss of British lives at Coronel on the two ships his squadron had sunk was a heavy price to pay for their victory.
When given a bouquet of flowers to celebrate his victory, he replied that they would do nicely for his grave, aware that a vengeful British navy would be seeking his squadron to redress their ignominious defeat at Coronel. The war and victory had made the admiral a Flying Dutchman with no safe harbour or secure berth where his squadron could drop anchor. Squadron Spee now relied on him to safely lead them home on a voyage fraught with peril, as they were now the quarry. Knowing that his squadron would follow him into any battle without question, whatever the odds, and crewed by the bravest men that ever sailed any seas, the enemy would need to send a flotilla of far greater strength if they were to defeat them.”
Almost in unison the listening crew cried out in agreement.
“The Battle of Coronel had demonstrated the Admiral’s steadfastness and strength of command. When the squadron arrived at Coronel to face the enemy on the afternoon of November the first, it was the Admiral’s leadership that gave our cruisers a decisive advantage over the British squadron. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau began the battle with salvos from both ships proving their worth as previous winners of the Kaiser Prize for gunnery.”
“They weren’t competing for the Kaiser Prize against us,” someone chimed out, which was met with further murmurs of assent.
“The sun had just set when the Scharnhorst opened fire with a salvo that hit the armoured cruiser Good Hope. The unerring accuracy of the firing from the squadron Spee eventually caused a magazine on the Good Hope to explode, sinking her with all hands. The Gneisenau had badly damaged the Monmouth, completely destroying the forward gun turret causing a fire to break out, eventually she ceased firing and drifted silently into the night away from the battle. The armed British merchantman the Otranto had already slunk way and now whenever the Glasgow’s guns flashed the whole German line returned fire until she also ceased firing. An hour after the first salvo victory at Coronel was ours.
Diverted from the squadron to seek out and destroy enemy merchantmen, the Nürnberg was now racing back to join the battle. When the gunfire from the battle ceased we had nothing to guide us. In the darkness it was fate that led us to the Monmouth, we found her drifting and listing badly with steam escaping amidships. As we approached she refused to surrender and in an act of defiance tried to attack us, we had no choice but to fire on her. Even following a pause in our firing she still refused to surrender, further gunfire from us caused her to capsize and sink. Our gun crew wished that she had lowered her flag so that we could at least attempt to rescue the poor souls remaining. In the event, every soul on board the Monmouth was lost in a sea that was too high to permit us lowering boats to save anyone. Having heard us firing on the Monmouth the rest of our squadron approached expecting to find British ships, instead they found us and it was with a full compliment that a victorious squadron Spee sailed for Valparaiso.”
Stopping, Franz was met by a grim silence as the crew remembered the sinking of the Monmouth and the hands lost. Then someone cried out, “Hooray for Admiral Graf von Spee and our victory at Coronel.” The silence was broken by loud cheering, the hoorahs coming from a victorious and courageous crew who would unflinchingly follow their admiral whatever maelstrom he should lead them to.
His assignment to the SMS Nürnberg was regarded as a good omen by Franz as it was named after his home city in Bavaria. Deployed on duty to the China station at Tsingtao in 1910 Franz had recorded his voyages across two oceans in his journal, writing about the wonders of them to his mother and father. When war broke out in August 1914 the Nürnberg was assigned to Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron. Now that squadron Spee had been driven out of the Pacific, rounding Cape Horn at the beginning of December did nothing to allay the Admiral’s foreboding about the perils they faced on their voyage home.
The Nürnberg was anchored at Picton Island in the Southern Atlantic while the squadron loaded coal from the captured barque SV Drummuir. Once the Nürnberg was coaled Franz had time to relax, opening his journal he idly flicked through the pages where he had written of home; his mother’s meals, the torte she used to make, how his father always tried to be stern and how he always failed, his father’s soft heart that made him putty in the hands of his only child and his wife, what a knowledgeable man his father was whom it was useless to conceal the truth from. Franz had dedicated his journal to his father, writing to him separately, knowing that he would protect his mother from any anguish over his safety. Coming across a copy of the last letter he had posted to his mother from the naval base at Tsingtao, soulfully he read it:
War has been declared and I if worry for you, I beg you meine liebste Mutter not to worry about me. Our ship has been assigned to squadron Spee, Admiral Graf von Spee is aboard the Scharnhorst and his only two sons are serving with him. Lieutenant Heinrich is on board the Gneisenau and Lieutenant Otto is here on the Nürnberg. You can sleep soundly Mutti, the admiral treats us all like his children and will protect us from any harm come what may…
Finishing the letter, Franz dried his moist eyes and began writing: Picton Island, December 5, 1914. We have become pirates with our plight becoming increasingly desperate as we try to reach home.
On hearing the command, “Officer on deck!” he sprang to attention.
The crew were greeted by Lieutenant Otto von Spee who ordered them all to stand at ease. He wished to thank them for their unflinching duty and wanted them to know that he shared their pain in the sinking of the Monmouth, telling them that despite her refusal to surrender he understood how dreadful it was for them having to fire on a defenceless ship. Then giving them the order to stand easy he walked over to Franz, “I understand you’re writing a book Baumgartle?”
“I’m keeping a journal of my voyages aboard the Nürnberg and our time with squadron Spee Sir.”
“Well, I wish you every success when your journal is published as a book, I trust that every member of the squadron will buy a copy and read to their grandchildren of our exploits.”
“So long as they don’t read to their grandchildren about the exploits of Heinie and Dietrich Sir.”
Everyone on the deck burst out laughing. The Lieutenant smiled at Heinie and Dietrich, “Ah! Those two reprobates! If they weren’t such fine gunners, they’d spend all their time in the brig.” His remarks causing even more laughter. Turning to the rest of the crew he said, “We should be finished here by tomorrow. News travels fast on a ship and I’m sure you already know that what remains of the British squadron is reported to be at Port Stanley, maybe we’ll go and finish what we began at Coronel.”
As the lieutenant started to leave the gun crew burst into a spontaneous cheer for the von Spee family, stopping he saluted them all again before finally leaving.
“See, your book is famous before you’ve written it Franz. Heinie and me don’t mind you basking in our fame”, said Dietrich. This time the laughter of the crew was that of defiant resignation.
Falkland’s Port Stanley was a coaling station for the Royal Navy and the logical target for squadron Spee. On December the eighth Admiral von Spee dispatched the Nürnberg and the Gneisenau to reconnoitre the port and destroy the wireless station. They reported back that heavy guns were firing on them from the port and that the unmistakable tripod masts of two British battlecruisers were visible in the harbour. Unaware of the battlecruisers’ arrival at the Falklands their presence compounded Admiral von Spee’s worst fears, his squadron had inadvertently come upon their nemesis in a heavily armed British flotilla sent to hunt them down. The Admiral ordered the Nürnberg and Gneisenau to rejoin the squadron and in a bid to escape from the British flotilla ordered his ships to go to maximum steam.
On the British cruiser HMS Kent they could see the masts, funnels and smoke of the five german cruisers and now it was only a question of who could steam the fastest. The battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible soon overtook the Kent and were rapidly gaining on squadron Spee. As the battlecruisers fired on the German squadron the Kent’s men cheered and clapped, more as if they were watching a firework display than about to engage in a battle to the death. The light cruisers, Nürnberg, Leipzig and Dresden broke away from the German squadron, while the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau bravely turned to engage the battlecruisers. In the melee the Dresden escaped when both the Cornwall and Glasgow pursued the Leipzig, the Kent setting off in the general chase after the Nürnberg.
Jim was talking to the survivors from the sunken Nürnberg when ordered to report to the bridge, on entering Jim saluted and was greeted by the Captain of the Kent with, “Ah! Rischmiller, did our lifeboats manage to save many lives from the Nürnberg?”
“Few survived the icy water Captain, maybe less than ten living. I spoke to a Dietrich Wimmer who kept asking for news of his friend Heinie but I’m afraid his friend must be one of those lost Sir.”
“We did all that we possibly could Rischmiller, it’s upsetting that the sea took so many lives. I’m sure that any rejoicing at the destruction of the German squadron is tempered by thanking God for our own salvation and our prayers for all those who died today.” As if lost for a moment in his own thoughts the captain quietly mused, “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Then quickly assuming a commanding manner the captain said, “I would like you to take this away Rischmiller and make notes on any useful information it may contain. It looks like a personal journal of some description but obviously needs translating. It was found on one of the unfortunate dead sailors from the Nürnberg that our lifeboats recovered.” He handed Jim the journal saying, “Thank you Rischmiller, your services are appreciated — and Rischmiller,” he paused for a moment, “I’m sorry for the pain that this war must cause you.”
“Thank you Sir,” replied Rischmiller. He saluted the captain and left with Franz’s journal.
Returning to his quarters Jim was met by the ever inquisitive young Tommy, who on hearing that he had been to see the captain asked what he wanted.
“He talks Hun,” big Frank called out. Frank’s brothers were with the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders and with the only news being that of their retreat, concern for his brothers safety added rancour to his remark.
With a mixture of compassion and anger Jim said, “Dietrich would understand your pain Frank, he has just lost his closet friend and all his shipmates,” and he told them about his conversation with Dietrich.
Everyone suspected that that Tommy had lied about his age and the gun crew had learned to live with the tenacity of a youth. Even big Frank, who the crew always treated with caution, indulged his youthfulness. Knowing that young Tommy would keep hounding him, Jim told him about the journal he had been asked to translate.
“Does it mention Coronel?” Tommy asked eagerly.
“I don’t know! I haven’t had chance to read it yet.”
“Let’s hear what the Hun has to say,” added big Frank.
Jim knew he would get no respite from Tommy, Frank or indeed the rest of the crew who had heard their conversation until he read them something from the journal, opening it he began reading: “Mas a Fuera, November 10, 1914.
Alone on a wide wide sea :
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seeméd there to be.
We were going home, driven out of the Pacific by the combined navies of the world that were now ranged against us…”
Jim read Franz’s account of squadron Spee’s heroes welcome in Valparaiso; Admiral Spee’s reception at the German Club, the battle at Coronel, the sinking of the Monmouth, Picton Island and Lieutenant Otto von Spee’s visit to the gun crew. The escapades of Heinie and Dietrich made the crew laugh and now all of the crew members in the quarters were gathered around him listening attentively to him reading from Franz’s journal. When he stopped young Tommy cried out that there must be more.
“There’s a lot more, but it will have to wait for another time,” which brought groans of disappointment from the crew. “ Alright, I’ll read you a letter he wrote to his mother but no more,”
War has been declared and I if worry for you, I beg you my dearest mother not to worry about me. Our ship has been assigned to squadron Spee, Admiral Graf von Spee is aboard the Scharnhorst and his only two sons are serving with him. Lieutenant Heinrich is on board the Gneisenau and Lieutenant Otto is here on the Nürnberg. You can sleep soundly Mum, the admiral treats us all like his children and will protect us from any harm come what may… .
Jim continued to read the letter with some difficulty as tears were filling his eyes, pausing he looked at his shipmates but they all avoided his and each others gaze. All that is except young Tommy who was making no attempt to hide the tears streaming down his cheeks and who for once, no one was making fun of for being homesick and missing his mother. Jim ended with:
All my love Dearest Mother
Your devoted son Franz.
No one jeered at big Frank when he said that he had a frog in his throat and croaked, “Come on Tommy, let’s go topside and leave these softies here. We’ll make sure Dietrich’s OK. I’ll take him some cigarettes. Do you have any of that cake left your mum sent you?”