The Battle of the Falklands 1914: The Mysterious Order for Admiral von Spee

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    Geoffrey Brooks

    PART ONE – Cause for War

    On 21 July 1908 the British Government issued a proclamation under Letters Patent signed by H.M.The King as follows:

    “Whereas the group of islands known as South Georgia, the South Orkneys, the South Shetlands, the South Sandwich Islands and the territory known as Graham’s Land situated in the South Atlantic to the south of the 50th parallel South of latitude lying between the 20th and 80th degrees of West longitude are part of our dominions and it is expedient that provision be made for their government as Dependencies of our Colony of the Falklands…”(footnote 1)

    The islands and territories claimed by Great Britain based solely on its occupation of the Falkland Islands were part of the Argentine province of “Tierra del Fuego, Antartida e Islas del Atlantico Sur” since its foundation on 12 October 1884.

    The 1908 Letters Patent have been the root cause of all the bitterness towards Great Britain to the present time for “The most extraordinary thing about this unprecedented declaration of sovereignty…is that it had been done so unscrupulously.” (footnote 2)

    As seen by the Governments of Argentina and Chile, the threat of military action, particularly against Argentina, was formulated in two passages of the quoted citation:

    (1) The term “group of islands” covered separate islands in the South Atlantic strewn over a quarter of a million square miles of sea. There was nothing to prevent the British Government from including Cape Horn and other coastal islands of Argentina and Chile within so wide a term “group of islands” as and when the time appeared ripe prior to their attack.

    (2) Furthermore that was no territory known as “Graham’s Land” in the South Atlantic to the south of the parallel of 50 degrees South, although there was and is a British territory known as “Graham Land” in Antartica.(footnote 3)

    To state the obvious. Letters of Patent are drawn up by well-qualified cartographers who can read a map, and put into English by lawyers who know how to spell the names of places. Geographical errors and spelling mistakes do not occur in Letters Patent to be signed by H.M.The King. A document faulty in such respects is faulty deliberately. Accordingly the suspicion arose in the minds of the Argentines that Graham’s Land was the British name for the new British territory of Patagonia.

    The 1908 Letters Patent were a cause for war against Great Britain, but Argentina could not take on the world’s foremost naval Power at sea. The only way to remedy the situation was to expel all British nationals, man, woman and child, from the Falklands permanently. Therefore the Argentines bided their time in the hope that the opportunity might arise to fulfill this aim.

    In Part Two, The True Purpose of the Attack on the Falklands by the German East Asia Squadron

    Footnotes to Part One
    (1) Falkland Islands Gazette 1 September 1908.
    (2) Laurio H. Destafani, Rear-Admiral, Arg Navy (Reserve), Malvinas, Georgias y Sandwich del Sur, Edipress S.A. Buenos Aires 1982, p.104.
    (3) In the face of the heaviest pressure from the Governments of Argentina and Chile, in the Falklands Gazette of 2 July 1917 the British Government amended the phrase “group of islands” to read “groups of islands”. The term “Graham’s Land” was rewritten “Graham Land” and its geographical position changed from “to the south of the 50th degree of latitude South” to “south of the 58th degree of latitude South.”

    Geoffrey Brooks

    PART TWO – The Preparations for the Attack on the Falklands Islands

    On 3 November 1914, the German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nürnberg entered the roadstead at Valparaiso to receive the adulation of the large Chilean-German colony following the victory at the Battle of Coronel two days previously. That afternoon Admiral von Spee was closeted in the German consulate with the Minister, von Erckert, and the Consul-General Dr Gumprecht, and to judge by his lugubrious demeanour subsequently it must have been then that von Spee had been given his secret orders.

    No archived document has ever come to light anywhere as to what these orders were. The Kaiser knew less than anyone, for in a Note he appended to the official report furnished by KKpt Hans Pochhammer, First Officer of Gneisenau and the senior surviving German officer:

    “It remains a mystery what made Spee attack the Falkland Islands. See Mahan’s Naval Strategy”.(footnote 1)

    Churchill at least knew that von Spee’s intention had been to invade and occupy the Falklands, but wrote that he could not understand what the Germans wanted it for. (footnote 2)

    The Argentines knew nothing about it whatsoever, for nowhere in the Historical Record of the Argentine Ministry for Foreign Affairs, nor in its declassified archives, is there ever a mention of the Battle of the Falklands, despite this being a zone to which the Argentines could not be indifferent. The only contemporary report to have evaded total censorship appeared in the 17 December 1914 edition of the daily newspaper La Prensa, whose correspondent at Punta Arenas, Chile, reported thaqt he had interviewed members of the crew of SMS Dresden, whose declarations coincided with those from other sources:

    “It would appear that the purpose of the German warships was to take possession (apoderarse) of the Malvinas Islands, destroying the radio-telegraphy station beforehand.” (footnote 3)

    According to KKpt Hans Pochhammer, while being entertained to dinner in the wardroom of HMS Invincible on 11 December 1914, Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee “made the extraordinary statement that we had had the intention to occupy the Falkands. How we were going to do that without occupation troops he kept to himself.” (footnote 4)

    It is therefore certain that the British at least knew that the German intention was not a “hit and run raid”, but an invasion and occupation.

    At five in the morning of 3 December 1914 the German squadron anchored at the eastern end of Chile’s Picton Island in the Beagle Channel. The German armada was made up of the following ships:
    – The armoured cruisers Scharnhorst (flagship) and Gneisenau
    – The small cruisers Nürnberg, Leipzig and Dresden
    – The 1913-built HAPAG collier Baden, 7676 tons
    – The 1914-built Hamburg-Amerika collier Santa Isabel, 5199 tons
    – The 1903-built Norddeutscher-Lloyd passenger ship Seydlitz, 7942 tons. This ship had left Sydney, Australia on 3 August 1914 and arrived at Bahia Blanca, the major Argentine naval base. From there she made the long voyage around the Horn to Valparaiso to ship Gemran volunteers and reservists who had sought to join the German cruisers there but were surplus to requirements.(footnote 5) She was 440 feet x 55 feet in dimension, one funnel two masts, reported speed 14 knots. She had accommodation for 2,500 persons, this being equivalent to the population of the Falklands at that time.
    – It has puzzled naval historians why Admiral von Spee allowed his crews four days to go hunting and exploring Picton Island, thus delaying his attack until 8 Deecmber. The reason is that he was forced to await the arrival north of the Falklands of two auxiliaries loaded with cement, rolls of barbed wire, trench-making machinery, provisions and a labour force. German naval intelligence despatched the Mera from Montevideo on 4 December 1914, and the Elinore Woermann from La Plata the same day, their expected arrival on the Patagonian side of the Falklands being late on 7 December.(footnote 6)

    The ten-ship armada to invade and occupy the Falkland Ilands was ready to converge on them on the late evening of 7 December 1914. The secret orders, as one might expect, had been drawn up by diplomats, which explains all the secrecy to this day.

    It was German policy of the time to close down British colonies in the same way as British Empire naval forces had done to German colonies in the Pacific. For his book Historia Completa de las Malvinas, the retired diplomat Jose Luiz Muñoz Aspiri had been granted restricted access to the Ministry archives. He mentioned two documents he copied there:

    (i) Former ambassador Candioti ratified the truth of the information regarding German policy. “It was communicated to me that in Germany, where I had consular duties at that time, they had drawn up a special map indicating the British colonial territories which were to be returned to their rightful owners, and it included the Malvinas.”

    And author Aspiri also quoted a letter dated 4 July 1953 from Consul Adolfo Blanc to the effect that:

    (ii) “According to statements received at that time, here and in England, von Spee had received instructions from the Chancellery and German Admiralty to proclaim Argentine sovereignty over the archipelago as soon as he anchored at Port Stanley.”

    In the Third and final Part, the role and fate of the five support ships.

    Footnotes to Part Two
    (1) Capt.von Rintelen: The Dark Invader – Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer, Penguin Books, 1937.
    (2) Churchill, Winston, The World Crisis 1911-1918, London 1923-1931
    (3) Ernesto de la Guardia: La primera batalla de las Malvinas in Todo es Historia, edition 335, Buenos Aires, June 1995.
    (4) Pochhammer, KKpt Hans, El último viaje del Conde Spee, Argentine Navy Office translation, Buenos Aires, 1924 p.221
    (5) ibid, p.174 and 181
    (6) Hirst, Lloyd: Coronel and After, publ. Peter Davies, London 1934.

    Geoffrey Brooks

    PART THREE – The German Auxiliaries in the Falkland Islands, December 1914.

    Port Stanley lies approximately 550 sea miles north-east of Picton Island. To cover this distance and arrive off Port Stanley on the morning of 8 December, the German armada of eight ships sailed at midday on 6 December 1914. The hills of the Falklands were sighted at first light, 0200 hrs on 8 December, and at 0500 hrs the cruisers picked up speed leaving the three auxiliaries far astern. At about 1100 hrs, after the German cruisers had seen their danger and bore south-east to escape Admiral Sturdee’s battle-cruiser squadron, two smaller British warships were seen leaving Port William and heading for the three German auxiliaries about ten miles off Pt. Pleasant. (footnote 1)

    Baden and Sta Isabel changed course away from the coast to flee south-east, while Seydlitz turned about and ran south-west at full speed and escaped.

    After eleven days’ thoughtful reflection on what he ought to leave out about the German auxiliaries, Admiral Sturdee submitted his despatch. His report states:(footnote 2)

    “Information was received from (the light cruiser) HMS Bristol at 11.27 am that three enemy ships had appeared off Pt Pleasant, probably colliers or transports. Bristol was therefore directed to take (armed merchant cruiser) Macedonia under orders and destroy the transports.”

    At the foot of the despatch, in a section headed Action Against the Enemy’s Transports, Admiral Sturdee wrote:

    Macedonia reports that only two ships, steamships Baden and Sta Isabel, were present. Both ships were sunk after removal of crew.”

    In fact, Bristol pursued Baden, Macedomia pursued Sta Isabel, and since there was no third British cruiser available they had to let the Seydlitz go. It was quite improper of Sturdee to suggest that it had never been there.

    Pochhamer wrote (footnote 3):

    “The fast Seydlitz escaped. The officers of the armed merchant cruiser Macedonia told me they thought she must be a powerful auxiliary cruiser because of her speed.”

    Seydlitz put into San Antonio Oeste on 9 December where she was immediately interned by the Argentines as an auxiliary cruiser. From Pt Pleasant south-about to San Antonio Oeste is at least 800 nautical miles and so she must have been capable of 20 knots to have got there so quickly.

    The German freighters Mera and Elinore Woermann which had sailed from the River Plate on 4 December with entrenching materials both returned there on 11 December.

    Baden and Sta Isabel were detained by Bristol and Macedonia at 1445 hrs in the afternoon at 52º30’S 57ºW, about 60 sea miles from Port Stanley. Pochhammer stated that their crews had told him they were obliged to abandon ship “within ten minutes” and “the men in the boats felt the passage of the shells fired close over their heads: the British were over-hasty in sinking our auxiliaries and their valuable cargoes.”

    What “valuable cargoes” these two colliers might have had aboard is not mentioned, but it is interesting to note that Baden was not sunk until 1935 hrs, five hours after being stopped, and Sta Isabel was sunk at 2130 hrs almost seven hours after being stopped. What interested the British so much in these two mundane steamers, and why they sank them so close to Port Stanley two new, priceless colliers when they were in great need of colliers elsewhere, has never been revealed.


    (1) Pochhammer, op cit, p.182-187.
    (2) Published as a Supplement to the London Gazette, No.29087 3 March 1915
    (3) Pochhammer, op cit, p.227.

    Geoffrey Brooks


    As regards the “valuable cargo” aboard the two colliers, I note from Pochhammer’s book at page 110 the following item which may be revelant:

    Former KKpt Pochhammer wrote that on 26 September 1914 when von Spee’s squadron arrived at the Marquesas Islands, he confiscated in the name of the Kaiser all valuables from the Governor’s office (the police station). The Treasury included 10,000 silver francs. Many had “a shield on one side and the inscription Republique Française: some bore the image of Napoleon as First Consul and others as Napoleon Emperor. There was also a stamp collection.

    The colliers Baden and Santa Isabel were both present in the Marquesas at this time and it may be that the treasure trove was locked in the safe of one of them and the key retained aboard one of the armoured cruisers. No doubt the French told the British of their loss, and the hopes or prior knowledge of the latter that the coins would still be aboard one of the colliers may explain the British haste to get the captured crews away, and believing that the colliers had been sunk. The deception appears to have been successful for Pochhammer himself thought they had been.

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