The Battle of Coronel

Coal supplies were so important in World War I that an important battle was fought off the major coaling station of Coronel, Chile. On 1 November 1914 German Admiral von Spee defeated a British squadron under Sir Christopher Craddock. The British Navy was sorely in need of revenge.

Wireless intercept played a major part in the next chapter of this duel between these warring nations.

After the Battle of Coronel, intercepts of messages from von Spee’s squadron to supply ships on the west coast of South America were sent to the Australian Decryption Unit.

One of these messages made reference to a rendezvous off the coast of Brazil. The British decided that since von Spee had probably used up most of his ammunition at Coronel, the most logical course for him would be to round the Horn, come up through the Atlantic and make for Germany.

Battle of the Falklands

On this assumption, the British detached the battle cruisers INVINCIBLE and INFLEXIBLE from Devenport, Tasmania, and sent them to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. They arrived on 7 December 1914, one day ahead of the German squadron. Taken by surprise, the German unit was destroyed and von Spee went down with his ship. (The notorious GRAFF SPEE of World War II, a battleship that did much damage to British vessels, was named for this famous admiral).

Cryptology Gains Importance

After the Battle of the Falkland Islands, one German cruiser, DRESDEN, managed to slip away and stay under cover in the Magellan Islands. While she played cat and mouse with the British ships who sought her, messages were intercepted between the DRESDEN and her collier GOTHA.

It was the officers on HMS GLASGOW, in company with HMS KENT and the armed merchant cruiser ORMA, who spent many hours every day trying to figure out the meaning of the intercepted messages between the Germans. Finally, the GLASGOW’s signal officer came up with the solution. The decrypted message from the DRESDEN read “AM SHORT OF COAL, PROCEEDING JUAN FERNANDEZ ARRIVE 9 MARCH.”

Now the British had their bearings and made with all possible speed to Cumberland Bay. At 37S-80W they encountered the DRESDEN and fired several rounds. The DRESDEN did not return fire. Instead, a LT Canaris came out to the GLASGOW and asked for time to get their crew ashore. That done, the DRESDEN was seen to be rocked by two large detonations. A few seconds later she was bow under and stern high in the air.

The U-Boat Story

German Type U 151 submarine, 155 pictured.

When the giant mercantile submarine DEUTSCHLAND first arrived in American home waters in July 1916, she came on a peaceful mission.

The DEUTSCHLAND left Germany 14 June 1916 and arrived in Baltimore on 9 July. She was manned by eight officers and 26 enlisted men; the Captain, three deck officers, four engineer officers, six quartermasters, four electricians, 14 engineers, one steward and one cook.

She was fully equipped with a wireless station housed in a soundproof forward trimming room. Two hollow, hinged masts, housed in recesses in a starboard superstructure, raised and lowered by a special motor-drum arrangement, provided an antenna length of 160 feet, at a height about 43 feet above deck.

Cargo of the DEUTSCHLAND on that first trip included 750 tons dyestuffs and chemicals, valued at one million dollars, discharged at Baltimore. Cargo for the return trip: 410 tons crude rubber, 376 tons nickel, and 90 tons tin, also valued at a million dollars. The goods were billed to Bremen, but no consignee was stated. The DEUTSCHLAND made ready for another trip with a cargo of dyestuffs and chemicals one week after returning to Germany. She arrived in New London on 1 November, unloaded her cargo, plus securities valued at about nine million dollars.

The DEUTSCHLAND also delivered new ciphers/codes to the German Ambassador von Bernstorff on each trip.

By February 1917 it was fairly clear that the United States was going to enter the war on the Allied side, and the German Admiralty proceeded to rebuild the seven large submarines of the DEVTSCHLAND class, originally designed for mercantile use, into war machines known as U-Boats. In February 1917, DEUTSCHLAND was ready for war.

In June 1917, the Commander of German U-Boats, Kommodore Bauer, drew up a far-sighted plan to use the U-151 (DEUTSCHLAND type) as headquarters for U-Boats in the Atlantic, west of Ireland. If fitted with radio-direction finding equipment and given a team of cryptographers, they would be able to decipher British convoy radio traffic, convey up-to-date instructions to the U-Boats, and even refuel and resupply the combat boats.

The idea was tried in the U-66 early in June 1917, when she carried special radio equipment and trained personnel. But, she was not able to communicate with headquarters ashore. The idea was sound and was to be developed to deadly effect in another war, but in 1917-18, the state of radio communication was still crude, and the equipment was unreliable, so there was no attempt made to coordinate the work of other U-boats by the shore-based personnel.

By NCVA: David White