The light cruiser SMS Dresden was the only German ship of Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron to escape the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The British force that hunted for her initially comprised two battlecruisers and 10 cruisers, but was reduced to four cruisers and an armed merchant cruiser after about a fortnight.
Dresden managed to evade the British ships for three months, hiding in the many inlets and bays of Tierra del Fuego. She kept in touch with Puntas Arenas by motor boat. Mr Milward, the British consul there, wrote an accurate report about Dresden’s whereabouts. However, Rear Admiral Archibald Stoddart, commanding the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic and Pacific Stations, thought that Milward had been misled by a German plan to trick British ships into a remote area in order to permit Dresden to escape.
The Naval Staff Monograph vol. xxv, a British Admiralty publication written post war for internal use, attributes the failure to find her as being because ‘the intelligence organisation, centred in London and Montevideo…proved defective.’
The Admiralty was convinced that she was hiding on the almost inaccessible Last Hope Inlet, a notion that seems to have resulted from German disinformation. The light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow were sent there to await the arrival of the armoured cruiser HMS Kent. This allowed Dresden to enter the Pacific on 14 February 1915.
Glasgow, Bristol and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Orama were ordered back to Last Hope Inlet on 3 March after a report that there had been a light cruiser there, although Captain John Luce of Glasgow realised that this was a sighting of his own ship on her previous visit.
An intercepted signal then revealed the location of a rendezvous between the German collier Gotha and Dresden. Kent was ordered there on 7 March and spotted Dresden. She saw nothing that day, but waited. The next morning was foggy, but the fog lifted in the afternoon to reveal Dresden 12 miles away, Kent pursued her, but was still eight miles from her when night fell. Kent was too short of coal to continue the chase.
Luce, whose ship was coaling at Coronel, had decided to search the island of Más a Fuera in the Juan Fernandez Islands with Glasgow and Orama. Bristol was under repair after damaging her rudder at Last Hope Inlet. An intercepted signal then revealed that Dresden was at Más a Tierra, the main island of the group. Kent was then ordered to join Glasgow and Orama there on 14 March.
The British ships found Dresden in Cumberland Bay. She was under steam, showing that she was not interned but intended to flee. The British opened fire at 8,400 yards and Dresden appeared to lower her colours after three minutes, although Fritz Lüdecke, her captain, claimed that they had been shot away and were re-hoisted. The British ceased fire and the Germans sent a boat carrying a flag of truce. The officer in charge of it, Leutnant Wilhelm Canaris, claimed that Dresden had been interned, which Luce rejected.
Another boat then approached Glasgow. It was carrying the local marine governor, who was also the lighthouse keeper. He protested the British action, but admitted that he had no means of forcing Dresden to leave Chilean waters. Luce offered compensation for the damage done to Chilean property by the British fire. In the meantime, Lüdecke had scuttled his ship by blowing up her forward magazine. Nine Germans were killed and fifteen wounded.
The survivors were interned, but Canaris managed to get back to Germany. He captained a U-boat and later rose to the rank of Admiral, becoming head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. He was executed near the end of World War II because he had conspired against Adolf Hitler.
Another survivor of Dresden was a pig: warships then sometimes carried animals in order to provide fresh meat. He was rescued from the sea by HMS Glasgow, whose crew adopted him as a mascot and named him Tirpitz after the German admiral. He later transferred to the Naval Gunnery School at Whale Island, Portsmouth, before being auctioned to raise money for the Red Cross. His head was mounted after his death and presented to the Imperial War Museum.
Both sides had breached Chilean neutrality, the Germans by staying for five days rather than 24 hours and the British by opening fire. The Chileans protested to both. The British apologised quickly, but noted that Dresden was hiding in an area where Chile had no means of enforcing its neutrality. The Germans took six months to reply. The British Official History argues that this meant that the action ‘rather increased the sympathy of the Chileans for the Allied cause as against that of the Central Powers.’
Dresden captured a total of 12,927 tons of Allied merchant shipping during her cruise. Her destruction meant that the only German surface raider still at sea was the armed merchant cruisers Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would be interned at Newport News in the USA on 11 April 1915. The armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich had been interned in the same port on 10 March 1915.
However, the Allies did not yet know that the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1915. The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in German East Africa, now Tanzania.
 J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol ii, pp. 243-44.
 Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 6.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 248-49.
 Naval Staff vol. xxv. p. 6; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 249
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 249-51 and footnote on p. 250.
 R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 285.
 P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 100.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 251.
4 responses to “The Sinking of SMS Dresden 14 March 1915”
The inlets and bays of Tierra del Fuego would have offered wonderful hideouts in the days before aerial reconnaissance and, perhaps due the areas weather, even after.
Good point. Plenty of places to hide out. There were also German businessmen in Valparaiso from whom supplies could be bought, though not ammunition.
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