Education at the Memorial - Finding the elusive Count von Spee
With what seemed like an inevitable movement towards war in Europe from mid 1914, of great concern to Australia was the presence in the Pacific of the German East Asia Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee. He commanded two powerful armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; three light cruisers, SMS Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig; a torpedo boat, and, some small gunboats, but von Spee’s actual whereabouts in the vast Pacific Ocean were a mystery.
After intercepting signals from Scharnhorst on 30 July, the Royal Australian Navy responded quickly, sending the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney, and the torpedo boat destroyers HMAS Warrego, Yarra, and Parramatta north to Simpsonhafen in Papua, the harbour for German held Rabaul. In the dead of night on 11 August the destroyers prepared for a torpedo attack on German shipping, with Sydney and Australia standing by to provide support. But their preparations were in vain and an extensive search of the harbour yielded no enemy vessels.
Shortly after, after Japan entered the war allied with Britain, von Spee knew he could not take on the might of the Japanese navy, so the German fleet headed for the coast of South America. Only the Emden was left on patrol in waters to the north of Australia. Later in the year, on 9 November, she was sunk by Sydney.
The Admiralty ordered attacks on Germany’s Pacific territories to disable and capture radio-stations. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), departed from Sydney on 19 August 1914. Four Australians lost their lives in the action that followed in New Britain. A month later, in the same area, the Australian submarine, HMAS AE1, was lost with all hands in mysterious circumstances. disappeared without a trace, taking with her thirty-five British and Australian submariners.
But what of Vice Admiral Count von Spee?
After appearing off Samoa, then bombarding Tahiti, the German fleet destroyed a British cruiser squadron, sinking two armoured cruisers, in the battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, on 1 November. The Germans then rounded Cape Horn and sailed into the Atlantic. Von Spee appeared off the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914 where the Germans were finally drawn into battle and defeated. The flagship Scharnhorst went down with all hands including Count von Spee.
The German threat to the Pacific was over.