MAS A TIERRA ISLAND OFF CHILE: MARCH 13, 1914
Kapitan zur See Fritz Emil von Lüdecke listened carefully as Leutnant Arnold Boker, standing rigidly at attention and breathless from his dash to the bridge, reported that he had sighted a British cruiser approaching their position. Turning his binoculars to the horizon, Lüdecke could make out the silhouette of the cruiser, black smoke from its funnels staining the morning sky. The enemy was heading straight for his position. The game was up after 21,000 nautical miles, two major sea battles and seven months of war. The German warship Dresden was trapped: her engines and boilers were worn out and her coal nearly gone, and the ship lay at anchor after three months of playing a game of hide-and-seek with the British.
Even as Lüdecke ordered the alarm to call the men to quarters, the smoke of another British ship appeared on the horizon, this one from the opposite direction. Then Lüdecke spotted the smoke of a third ship. Sharp whistle blasts ordered the crew to muster on the deck, but not at their battle stations. Dresden was, after all, off the coast of Chile in neutral waters, and was safe. The British could not take any hostile action against them.
Lüdecke watched in shock as a salvo of shells passed over Dresden and hit the steep cliffs off the starboard side. Another salvo screamed through the air, and this time the shells ripped into Dresden’s stern, mangling steel and men and sending a sheet of fire across the deck. Dresden’sgunners fired off three shots before British gunfire smashed the ship’s guns at the stern, but Lüdecke’s men were not at their stations. Most of them were piling into boats and leaping overboard, heading for shore on their captain’s orders. With three British warships closing in, this was a fight Lüdecke knew he could not win.
The British cruisers circled the helpless German ship and kept pumping shells into the burning wreck. One witness later reported that the shells burst inside Dresden “with a sound like subterranean thunder.” Flames were licking at two of the magazines, where what was left of the ammunition was stored, and Lüdecke knew he had to act. The enemy must not seize his ship. With what crew he had left, he had to open the ship’s valves, set explosive charges and sink Dresden. That meant fighting through the fires and the smashed passageways to go below into the torn and broken hull. He also had to rescue the last men trapped in the burning hulk and take off the dead and wounded from the sinking ship.
To buy time, Lüdecke hoisted a signal calling for a cease-fire and surrender negotiations, and sent Oberleutnant zur See Wilhelm Canaris, in Dresden’s pinnace, over to HMS Glasgow. Glasgow ignored the signal, as did the cruiser HMS Kent. Captain Luce of Glasgowlistened to the German officer’s protests over the violation of Chilean sovereignty and replied that his orders were to sink Dresden and leave the rest to the diplomats. As the two men argued, Glasgow closed in and continued to pump shells into Dresden, raking the hull and sending debris flying.
Then, in a massive roar that shot out of the port side of the bow, Dresden shuddered as Lüdecke’s scuttling charge detonated inside the No. 1 magazine. The forward casemate and its heavy guns blew out, and the bow was half torn off, leaving the rest of the hull open to the sea. It was 10:45 a.m.
At 11:15 a.m., Dresden’s bow slipped beneath the surface of Cumberland Bay. Striking the seabed, the bow twisted and tore free as Dresden rolled to starboard. The ship was twice as long as the bay was deep, so instead of the stern rising dramatically into the air, the cruiser settled slowly by the stern. The shivering crew huddled on the beach and cheered a final explosion from a second scuttling charge deep within the engine room. Their ship, they felt, had died an honorable death, sunk by its crew rather than falling into enemy hands at the end of a long and eventful voyage. British sailors on Glasgow cheered, their ship’s last shots insuring not just that the German cruiser sank but also exacting vengeance for the loss of British ships and sailors the last time their fleet had encountered Dresden.
THE LONG ODYSSEY OF DRESDEN
Built at the Hamburg yard of Blohm und Voss, which launched the half-completed hull in October 1907 and delivered it to the German Navy a year later, the 4,268-ton, 388-foot Kleine Kreuzer (small cruiser) Dresden was built to be a fast raider on the high seas rather than a rugged warrior built to slug it out with other warships. Modeled after the successful Confederate commerce raiders of the American Civil War, Dresden’s job was to range the oceans, seeking out the enemy’s merchant fleet and sending its commerce to the bottom. Dresden’s steam turbines and four propellers drove the cruiser at speeds up to 25.2 knots. The cruiser carried ten 4-inch guns and eight smaller semiautomatic rapid-fire 2-inch guns, and could fire torpedoes from two tubes. If all else failed, or if they needed to save ammunition, the crew could ram and sink a ship with the huge cast-steel ram built into the bow.
Troubles in the Caribbean, particularly a civil war in Mexico, where rebels fought to overthrow the despotic government of President Victoriano Huerta, sent Dresden there in December 1913. Remaining on station in the region through July, the cruiser spent considerable time in Veracruz protecting German citizens and commercial interests, particularly when the United States invaded it and seized the port and city to protect its interests. On July 20, when rebels toppled Huerta’s government, Dresden’s captain took the Mexican president, his family and staffaboard, then carried them to Jamaica, where the British government granted Huerta asylum.
A 3-D MODEL OF THE GERMAN CRUISER Dresden. Willi Kramer
Dresden was due back in Germany for a much-needed refit, and on July 26, rendezvoused with the new cruiser Karlsruhe to trade captains. Dresden’s new commander, Fritz Emil von Lüdecke, was to take the ship back to Germany, but when war broke out in Europe a few days later, he took Dresden to Brazil to attack British merchant ships. Dresden engaged several British ships, sinking some but letting others go because they carried cargo from countries not yet at war and, in one case, because the ship was loaded with women and children, and Lüdecke was an officer and gentleman of the old school with “incredible gallantry.”
As British forces in the region mobilized to find and destroy Dresden and Karlsruhe, Lüdecke headed for the Pacific, steaming through the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America in early September. There, at the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, Lüdecke received new orders to link up with Germany’s East Asia Squadron.
The East Asia Squadron, under the command of Reichsgraf Maximilian von Spec, was Germany’s only fleet in the Pacific. Based in Tsingtao, China, von Spec’s ships included the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Leipzigand Nürnberg. When the war began, von Spec ordered his squadron out to sea, realizing that the allied forces outnumbered and outgunned his ships, particularly after Japan entered the war on Britain’s side.
Von Spec’s squadron rendezvoused with Dresden at Easter Island in early October. Then they all then steamed for Chile and the island of Mas a Tierra. There, von Spec learned that a pursuing British squadron, under the command of Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, had followed Dresden into the Pacific. Spec and his captains decided to head to the Chilean mainland port of Coronel, in the hope of finding and destroying HMS Glasgow, which was coaling there. Instead, they ran into most of the British squadron.
The two forces met in battle on the afternoon of November 1, 1914. The fight started with the Germans in a better position—the British were firing into the setting sun and could not see as well. Within a few hours, von Spec’s ships had devastated Cradock’s. Cradock’s own ship, Good Hope, on fire and hit many times, exploded and sank with no survivors. HMS Monmouth also sank after a point-blank pounding from the German cruiser Nürnberg which fired seventy-five rounds into the burning ship to finish it off; there were no survivors. The Battle of Coronel was the Royal Navy’s first defeat at sea in over a century, and it filled the British with a strong desire for retribution.
After Coronel, von Spec kept his squadron in the Pacific to hunt the enemy, despite orders to return to Germany. When von Spec finally decided to move into the Atlantic, his procrastination had allowed the British enough time to create a new battle force, this one under the command of Vice-Admiral Frederick Sturdee. When von Spec and his ships arrived at the Falkland Islands to raid them, Sturdee and his fleet were waiting in ambush. The British cruisers could outrun and outgun the German ships, and in an unequal battle, Sturdee chased down and sank all but one of von Spec’s fleet. The first to die was Scharnhorst, with von Spec aboard; there were no survivors. Gneisenau sank next after a hard fight; the British pulled only 190 of the 765 crew from the water, and many of the badly wounded Germans died after being rescued. The smaller cruisers— Leipzig, Dresden and Nürnberg—ran for it, but soon Leipzig, out of ammunition, her mainmast and two funnels shot away, and sinking, stopped dead in the water. There were only eighteen survivors. Nürnberg fought until two of her boilers exploded and British shells sank her, leaving only twelve survivors.
Of all of von Spec’s squadron, only Dresden escaped the carnage, outrunning the pursuing British by sailing through bad weather that provided cover. The crew of Dresden ran with the bitter knowledge that they could do nothing to help the other German ships and that they had to try to escape to fight another day.
After returning to Punta Arenas for coal, Dresden steamed into the narrow channels of Tierra del Fuego, near Cape Horn, to hide from the British. For the next two months, British and other allied ships searched in vain for Dresden. But in early March, harassed by bad weather and with his crew restless, Lüdecke decided to return to the Pacific. He felt that they could not safely make it home by running across the Atlantic with so many ships hunting for them. His concerns were underscored on March 2, when the British cruisers Kent and Glasgow discovered Dresden in the channels of the Straits of Magellan and chased her at high speed for hours until Lüdecke outpaced them and escaped.
With only 80 tons of coal left, which was not enough to go anywhere, Dresden arrived at Mas a Tierra on March 8 with a rust-streaked hull and worn-out machinery. Lüdecke argued with Chilean authorities for more than the legal limit of twenty-four hours for a combatant to remain in a neutral port, claiming that his coal situation and the ship’s condition required more time. He also radioed passing
Mike Fletcher geared up to dive on the German cruiser Dresden, sunk off the coast of Chile. James P. Delgado
ships in vain, seeking more coal to help them escape. But he also knew that as a last resort he could land his crew and intern them with the ship for the duration of the war.
The British intercepted one of Dresden’s radio calls for coal on March 13 and raced for Mas a Tierra. At 8:40 the next morning, Kent and Glasgow, along with the auxiliary cruiser (Drama, sighted Dresden at anchor in Cumberland Bay and opened fire, despite the fact that they were violating Chile’s neutrality and breaking international law. Less than three hours later, Dresden, shattered and burning, sank. Most of the crew had made it ashore and survived the final battle. They remained in Chile until 1919 as unwilling guests of the Chileans, interned in accord with the international agreements that the British had ignored. Some of the German officers escaped and made their way home to fight again in a war that would continue for three more years. But the sinking of Dresden, following the earlier destruction of Emden in the Indian Ocean, brought an end to the naval war in the Pacific. The last of the proud East Asia Squadron of the Reichsgraf von Spec lay rusting in the deep, a legacy for the future when explorers and archeologists would venture into the sea to reconstruct her final hours.
A FABLED ISLAND
The empty sea surrounds our ship for as far as the eye can see, nearly 500 miles off the coast of Chile. Our ship gently rolls in the swell as we drive west at 16 knots. The Armada de Chile (Chilean Navy) ship Valdivia, an amphibious landing ship, is a day out from Valparaiso, en route to the Archipelago de Juan Fernandez and an island with a romantic name and a famous history, Isla Robinson Crusoe (also known as Mas a Tierra). The island is one of the world’s most inaccessible and remote places, home to some five hundred people and host to only a few hundred more each year. The tourists are mainly Chileans who come to visit the island’s unique ecosystem or who are drawn, like others before them, by one of literature’s most famous castaways, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
In addition to her other duties, Valdivia makes two trips to Isla Robinson Crusoe each year. The ship carries 177 passengers, as well as their baggage and other items and equipment that have no other way of reaching this isolated Chilean colony. Our Sea Hunterscrew of eleven hauls tons of dive equipment, cameras and other gear into the large tank bay below the main deck and into our berths. Our team has come to dive and film an episode about the Imperial German Navy’s small cruiser Dresden, eighty-eight years after she sank. We will be the first to dive down and return with detailed images and extensive footage of the wrecked warship in her grave 180 feet below the surface.
Our team includes Dr. Willi Kramer, the first German official to visit the wreck and the graves of some of Dresden’s sailors, who are buried ashore. Willi’s professional expertise is Viking and medieval sites, but he now finds himself drawn around the world to document the legacy of the First World War.
After twenty-eight hours at sea, we catch our first glimpse of Isla Robinson Crusoe, rising faintly out of the mist on the horizon. As we approach the island, the ship rolling in the swell, we’re struck by how small it is. Only 36 square miles in area and 2,800 feet above sea level at its highest peak, this island has, for all its isolation, long been a part of the world’s consciousness. It is a storied island that features in tales of explorers, pirates and privateers, buried treasure, shipwrecks, castaways and sea battles. One nineteenth-century visitor, the writer Richard Henry Dana, called it “the most romantic spot of earth” because of its unique history and its association with the fabled Crusoe.
If this is an island of dreams and romance, it is because of the three-hundred-year-old tale of Robinson Crusoe and his real-life inspiration, Alexander Selkirk. A native of Largo, which is north of Edinburgh on the rugged Fife coast, Selkirk was a troubled lad who ran away from the censure of his village and found a haven in a life at sea. He fared well, advancing in rank from ship’s boy to officer over the next several years. The lure of adventure and riches led him in 1703 to join a privateering venture into the Pacific led by William Dampier.
One man’s privateer is another man’s pirate, and Dampier’s ships and crews faced the wrath of Spain, which controlled the Pacific to the extent that the ocean was known as a “Spanish lake.” Thanks to Dampier’s incompetence, the venture ended badly, with very little gained and a number of men lost. One of Dampier’s ships, the privateer Cinque Ports, anchored at Mas a Tierra in October 1704, leaking and in bad condition. Her captain, Thomas Stradling, wanted to repro-vision before heading south and trying for home. Selkirk, his sailing master (mate), was convinced that the ship would never reach a safe port and decided that he would rather stay on the island than take his chances at sea.
The captain was more than happy to leave the quarrelsome, headstrong Selkirk behind and so set him ashore with a few tools, his gun and bedding, and his Bible. As the ship’s boat pulled away from the island, Selkirk regretted his decision and dashed into the surf, begging them to return. Stradling reportedly yelled back, “Stay where you are and may you starve!” Thus began a lonely exile that lasted four years and four months, until another English privateer, Woodes Rogers, landed for provisions. Rogers reported that “Immediately our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a man Cloth’d in Goat Skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them.”
Selkirk sailed with Rogers and returned to a life of privateering in the Pacific before reaching London in 1711, eight years after he left England. He also brought home a small fortune from his years with Rogers. Selkirk’s adventures were first recounted in Rogers’s account of A Cruzing Voyage Round the World in 1712, and then again in 1713 in a short article by journalist Richard Steele in a magazine called The Englishman. But the story took on even greater fame in 1719, when author Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, based in part on Selkirk’s adventures. The book was an immediate success; three hundred years later, it remains the second-most published book in the world, next only to the Bible, translated into most languages and available in nearly every country. Robinson Crusoe and the real-life Selkirk have also been the inspiration for other literary endeavors, paintings and movies— and, in time, for the decision by the Chilean government, in the 1960s, to change the name Mas a Tierra to Isla Robinson Crusoe.
Dresden rests beneath the waters of Cumberland Bay off Isla Robinson Crusoe. Every day, we load up one of Valdivia’s launches with dive gear and position ourselves over the wreck. Working with Willi Kramer and me, master diver Mike Fletcher breathes a complex mix of gases and descends to make the first survey the warship, relaying what he sees by video camera to the surface as we guide him through the ruined ship in the deep blue twilight below. It is far more difficult than this simple explanation—Mike is working hard, pulling 330 feet of heavy hose and electrical lines, clearing himself when they snag or catch on wreckage, and all the while using his eyes and experience along with ours to find and identify important areas of the ship, searching for clues about what happened in the final hours.
The dives are limited to 30 minutes, and then Mike has to decompress for more than twice that time to eliminate the deadly gas bubbles in his blood caused by the depth. In a series of later dives, Willi and I join Mike in surveying the wreck, slowly investigating the cruiser from bow to stern. Mike’s son Warren is also diving, filming the scene from a distance to capture as much of the wreck and the survey action as he can. Dresden lies as she sank, pointing almost due north and towards the beach, resting on the starboard (right) side. The funnels and masts have fallen away and lie on the seabed. Some of the guns have ripped free of the deck and also lie on the bottom.
The bow is heavily damaged, and the severed end of it rests upright on the seabed. One of our first conclusions is that Dresden sank heavily by the bow, hitting the bottom of the bay with enough force to break off the huge steel ram at the bow. As the ship twisted and sank, the hull cracked and the decks opened up. But the damage is so severe that we wonder if hitting the bottom was responsible for all of it. Gradually, it becomes clear that the split decks and the ripped-out hull near the bow are the result of the massive internal explosions when the Germans’ scuttling charges detonated. Despite the damage, one anchor remains on the deck, at the ready. A long string of anchor chain trails off the bow and heads off into the gloom of deeper water, where the anchor that held Dresden in place when the cruiser sank remains set in the sand.
The bridge is gone but the wood decking remains in place under the debris of broken steel, torn wiring, machinery and loose fittings. The stub of the aft mast rises up out of the deck, and the broken mainmast, lying in two pieces, rests on the deck at an angle. We see three empty cartridge shells, and I am tempted by the thought that they might just be from those three shots that Dresden’s crew managed to fire before the ship sank. But an even more interesting discovery awaits us. Nearby, still in place, is the cruiser’s auxiliary steering station, a paired set of steering wheels that stops Mike in his tracks as we all admire them.
A 4-inch gun, possibly hit by British shellfire, angles inward and points at Dresden’s deck. I count three perfectly spaced shell holes, one after the other, along the ship’s hull towards the casemate, which is partially collapsed. At least it is still here. Its partner, the forward casemate on the port side, is gone—gun, thick armor and all—disintegrated by the scuttling explosions. The level of damage is greater than we had expected. Accounts of the battle emphasize that after a few hits on the stern and on the deck guns, Dresden sank intact when the crew set off a scuttling charge deep in the hull. But what we are finding is evidence of a sustained shelling and at least two massive internal explosions. The entire aft section is heavily damaged, with the main deck gone, shell holes in the steel plates that lie inside the ship’s exposed interior, and plates bent out near the aft port casemate from an internal explosion.
Lying amidst the wreckage is a German sailor’s boot. Willi Kramer believes it to be the evidence of a dead man. Fifteen of Dresden’s crew died, thirteen in the battle and two who succumbed later from their wounds. Willi reminds us that as floating men die, their bodies relax and their boots fall off. Hundreds of boots lie around the Second World War wreck of the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, grim testimony to the majority of the crew who perished while bobbing in the cold, oil-stained waters. This solitary shoe on the deck of Dresden is a reminder of the individual cost of war, just as the broken hulk of the cruiser is a reminder of the larger costs and waste of war.
Our survey of the wreck indicates that the history books have not told the complete story. It is evident that many shots went into Dresden, even as she sank. The British cruiser commanders had orders to sink Dresden, and they made sure they did just that. The extent of the damage makes us wonder just how close they came to the German cruiser. Historical accounts and maps of the battle show Glasgow, Kent and Orama outside of Cumberland Bay, firing at Dresden from a distance of 9,000 yards, but what we are seeing argues against that. Willi and I, with John Davis, decide to go ashore and search the cliffs for some of the shells fired during the battle and which, according to the locals, are still here.
Moving along the beach, outside of town and past the cemetery with its monument to three of Dresden’s dead crew, we find our first shell hole. It is nearly perfectly round and has bored 3 feet into the cliff. Buried inside, we find the steel base of an unexploded shell. We wonder if this is one of Dresden’s, so we measure it—at 6 inches it is too big to be from Dresden, whose largest guns fired a 4-inch projectile. This is a British 6-inch shell that missed. Imbedded in the cliffs soft volcanic rock and mud, it is more than a relic of the battle. It is a piece of forensic evidence that we are using to reconstruct what happened. Plotting the angle that the shell came from, we line it up with the cape at the entrance to the bay, just where a ship would turn to enter the anchorage. This could be one of the first shots fired at 8:40 on the morning of March 14, 1914, as the British sailed into range and opened up with their guns. We find five other hits, closely spaced as if from a salvo of rapidly fired shots. One hole retains its shell; the others are empty, shells tumbled out by erosion or pulled free by souvenir hunters not realizing what a deadly trophy they had in an unexploded live shell.
Back on board Valdivia, we work with the ship’s officers to add the location of the shells to our survey map of the bay and the wreck. We also plot the range and bearing of the shellfire, based on the position and angle of the shell holes. The last five holes we found must have come from shells fired near the end of the battle, because our plots show that the British cruiser that fired them was very close to the sinking Dresden—in fact, just about where we are anchored in Valdivia, 800 feet off Dresden’s port side and just 2,500 feet away from the cliff. These last shell holes indicate that one of the cruisers sailed into the bay, broadside to Dresden, and opened up a final salvo or series of salvoes that ripped into the foundering German ship. The shots that missed drove deep into the cliff, where we found them.
The next day, we journey to the other side of the bay to search the cliffs there. We are rewarded with the discovery of more shell holes and unexploded shells, indicating that the British cruisers engaged in a deadly crossfire. In a brilliant but brutal tactical maneuver, Glasgow circled Dresden and pumped lethal rounds into the anchored German warship. Captain Luce of Glasgow had orders to sink Dresden, and he took no chances, firing at point-blank range even after the last Germans abandoned their ship.
Dresden is a ruin. Some of the destruction was caused by the shelling, some of it by the deep internal explosions caused by the scuttling charges—but some of it appears to be from a much later attempt to blast open the sunken cruiser’s stern. This damage puzzles us, because history records no attempt to salvage Dresden. Indeed, for many years, the cruiser’s decks were beyond the reach of divers. What happened to the stern—which is intact in photographs of the sinking cruiser—remains a mystery. Later, Willi Kramer finds a formerly top-secret document in the German naval archives that suggests Dresden was carrying gold coin pulled out of Germany’s Tsingtao bank accounts by von Spec. That would explain why we were not the first divers to explore the wreck. Someone has secretly blasted open the stern to get at the gold. We wonder when this was, and how the salvagers knew about the gold, given that the only record is a top-secret piece of paper. One possibility, shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is that it was the Nazis, eager to recover some of Germany’s lost riches to fund their preparations for war. We may never know.
But what is clear is that the sea has claimed Dresden after her final battle. Slumbering in the depths, the broken hulk is an undersea museum, a war grave and an evocative relic of the destruction of war. And yet, in the middle of the debris, Mike spots a small, unbroken flower vase. It is an unexpected find, this delicate survivor. It is also a reminder of the touches of home and life ashore that often accompany sailors on warships on their distant journeys, even into death.