SMS Dresden's War: The Benefits of Protracted Evasion Over Spirit of Enterprise,1914-1915
by Dr. Christopher M. Jannings
How highly mobile German commerce raiders (light cruisers) performed at sea and met their fate is one of the more compelling and controversial stories of World War I. One such account is that of the SMS Dresden and how it successfully eluded capture or sinking at the hands of a far superior British navy and their allies in 1914-1915. This essay charts the performance of the light cruiser from its prewar position off the eastern coast of Mexico to its scuttling in Chilean national waters on March 15, 1915. It asks: In terms of carrying out cruiser warfare, what expectations did the German navy have for its overseas cruiser squadron at the beginning of the war? Was SMS Dresden under capable command and prepared to take on the role of an independent commerce raider? As the sole survivor of the German East Asian Squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, what determining factors forced its commander, Captain Franz Ludecke, to opt for a strategy of “protracted evasion” over the “spirit of enterprise?” By taking the former action, SMS Dresden successfully avoided enemy contact and forced the British navy and their allies to commit warships to the region that were best served in the North Atlantic. In the process, it continued to pose an immediate threat to British shipping interests in the Far East and South Atlantic.
The origins of German cruiser warfare evolved in the early 1900s under the supervision of Secretary of Defense, Alfred von Tirpitz (often referred to as the creator of the new German Navy). Despite his preoccupation with building a battleship fleet in the North Atlantic comparable to Great Britain’s, German naval strategists still considered cruiser warfare a viable part of its future war plans. Outside of home waters cruisers they served as defense mechanisms for the Empire’s colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Although most officers and men of the German High Seas Fleet possessed a “spirit of enterprise,” Tirpitz pointed out, “Our ships abroad could not produce any permanent effect on the course of the war…deprived as they were of the assistance of any bases of their own, they could only hold out for limited periods.”
SMS Dresden (Pre-World War I)
German military strategists confirmed from the result of wartime and economic investigations that if used correctly cruiser warfare could be employed as a
secondary weapon against England. Under ideal circumstances, resourceful captains of independent raiders could “expectedly at the beginning of operations” inflict considerable damage to the enemy’s economic capabilities. The cutting off of fuel supplies, war materials, and other vital resources would conceivably cause consternation among the enemy’s population and increase the costs of maritime insurance policies. Erich Raeder said,
In the event of war, cruiser warfare is intended to be against commerce; a war against enemy merchant vessels and against contraband carried by neutral vessels. In the wider sense it may include raids on enemy coasts, the bombardment of military establishments, the destruction of cables and wireless stations.
Predetermined expectations aside, the German Imperial Navy believed “that any essential effect upon the outcome of the war could not be attained by a war on commerce by surface raiders alone.” Subsequently, they opted to employ a Home Fleet strong enough to challenge Britain in the North Atlantic and Baltic regions, hoping to gain an upper hand there if the British Admiralty felt compelled to send significant numbers of warships overseas to combat marauding raiders.
Naval historians generally agree that whatever value or prestige colonies offered Germany ended with the coming of World War, but that warships protecting those overseas possessions could be a threat once forced to operate independently or in small groups as commerce raiders. Julian S. Corbett, British naval historian, contended that, “the great difficulty in commerce protection would be dealing with…cruisers of this class.” Peter Overlack, Australian naval historian, noted the “use of cruisers for attacking merchant shipping carrying vital raw materials and foodstuffs to Britain from the Americas, India, Australia, and the Far East.” British naval historian, Barrie Pitt, said that cruisers best served the interests of the Empire, as a means to protect its many “oversea possessions and protectorates, many centers of business interest,” and to damage enemy commerce in the event of war.
Any concerted German effort to conduct commerce raiding overseas was limited because they only had eight cruisers serving overseas before World War I. The heavy armored cruisers,
SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and light non-armored cruisers, SMS Emden,
Leipzig, and Nurnburg, commanded by Graf Spee, formed the East Asiatic Squadron.
SMS Konigsberg protected East African waters, while the SMS Dresden and SMS Karlsruhe operated in the Western Atlantic. In anticipation of war, the Admiralty in Berlin issued orders to all cruiser captains overseas to carry out “cruiser warfare unless otherwise ordered.” The areas of operation included the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Captains could not count on either reinforcements or significant supplies necessary for war. Berlin insisted that cruisers damage enemy trade by engaging equal or inferior forces, and that “naval use in home waters must be assisted by holding as many enemy forces as possible in foreign waters.”
Built by Blohm and Voss of Hamburg in 1906 and commissioned for active service in 1908, the SMS Dresden displaced at 3,544 tons (fully-loaded), 268 tons (empty), and maintained an 850-ton coal capacity. It measured 118.3 meters in length and carried a crew of 18 officers and 343 enlisted men. Sister-ship of the more famous
SMS Emden, it possessed 20-30 centimeters of armor protection on the main deck, 100 millimeters at the conning tower, and from 50 centimeters at its gun plates. Powered by two sets of Dansau driven turbines, supplied by 12 boilers and propeller shafts, SMS Dresden reached speeds of 25 knots with a range of 3,600 nautical miles at 14 knots. Main armaments consisted of 10-4.1 inch guns with a range of 12,200 meters, 8-5.2 centimeter secondary guns, two torpedo tubes submerged on each beam, and various smaller caliber machine guns. Constructed mainly to engage in commerce raiding or scouting missions for the High Seas Fleet, the ship lacked armor and heavy armaments necessary for engaging larger warships.
Born February 3, 1873 in Dreshlau, Germany, of West Prussian ancestry, Fritz Ludecke entered the Imperial Navy in 1890. After service at the Heliogard Fortress (1896-1903), the navy promoted him to Kapitanlieutenant and assigned him as a gunnery officer aboard the battleship SMS Wettin. Promoted to Korvetkapitan in 1908, he later held an administrative position at Gershunder. Other duties included two years as chief artillery officer in the First Squadron of the German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet), and three years as a staff officer to the admiral of the division. On April 12, 1912, the Admiralstab offered Ludecke command of the SMS Dresden. Maria Teresa Parker de Bassi called him a tranquil man of few words, gentlemanly, and a good sailor. Edwin P. Hoyt, described him as “a professional staff officer…a serious thoughtful officer…but had none of the aggressiveness or audacity” necessary to become a legendary captain in German naval history. Geoffrey Bennett, British naval historian, referred to him as capable but showing “no talent for cruiser warfare.”
On the eve of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Supreme Commander of German naval and military forces, issued special instructions to his overseas squadron. He declared that all officers commanding warships abroad, “must make his own decisions, in the sense of these orders…Above all things, the officers must bear in mind that his chief duty is to damage the enemy as severely as possible.” Given the later productivity of
SMS Emden and SMS Karlsruhe and Graf Spee’s decisive victory at Coronel, one can argue that the Kaiser’s captains carried out these orders well beyond expectations. However, one historian contends that light cruisers failed as commerce raiders because of poor endurance needed to cover large stretches of ocean. Others blame individual captains for focusing on military victories rather than commerce warfare. In the case of Ludecke and SMS Dresden, naval historians have given little historical credit for their protracted evasion, instead solely focusing on the number of commerce ships sunk, or lack thereof.
SMS Dresden’s war officially began after extended service on the west coast of Mexico in 1914 representing the naval might of Germany and protecting the freedoms of its citizens living there and in other Latin American countries. Before the “Guns of August” sounded, the Reichsmarineamt planned for the ship to return home for a much needed refit. “She had been continuously in service in the water longer than any German ship afloat…and she needed a good deal of work,” said one naval historian. Under the command of Captain Erich Kohler in July 1914, SMS Dresden, along with the British light cruiser,
HMS Bristol, carried embattled Mexican President, Huerta, and several German dignitaries and their families from Puerta Mexico to Kingston, Jamaica. Ten days later, ship and crew steamed for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and met
SMS Karlsruhe (captained by Ludecke). Kohler assumed command of the latter while Ludecke prepared SMS Dresden for a return voyage to Germany.
On July 28, 1914, the ship arrived in St. Thomas, Danish West Indies, coaled, and then steamed for Germany. Three hours into the cruise Berlin informed Ludecke to prepare for war. “War threatens with Great Britain, France, and Russia…Allies Austria-Hungary, probably Italy. Do not come home. Be ready to carry out Kreuzerkrieg (cruiser warfare) on mobilization order.” Acting decisively, Ludecke reversed course towards the east coast of the Americas, when the San Juan station sent a wireless message ordering him to “Go to Zone III [South Atlantic]” and to be ready to attack Latin American shipping bound for England. He once again followed orders and by 4 August “there were two enemy warships, SMS Dresden and
Karlsruhe at large somewhere in the Western Atlantic, presumably about to wreak havoc among Allied or neutral shipping.” Both proved most elusive to those British/allied warships sent to hunt them down.
The British navy and their allies began the hunt for SMS Dresden and other German commerce raiders immediately. As a precaution Canadian ports closed and the British laid a series of mine fields in the St. Lawrence Seaway and at all entrances leading to the harbors of Halifax and Vancouver. On August 11th, a news source in Ottawa, Ontario reported that no less than five British warships sought three German cruisers, SMS Dresden,
Karlsruhe, and Strasburg reported in the North Atlantic. “With all these vessels searching for the enemy, it should not take long to clear the area and again make the passage to Great Britain again secure,” declared the New York Times. In the Pacific, a dozen other warships hunted Graf Spee’s East Asiatic squadron.
HMS Rainbow and two submarines received orders to engage the SMS Leipzig (early in the war positioned off the west coast of the United States) on sight. As these events unfolded, SMS Dresden disappeared into the South Atlantic to prey on allied shipping off the coast of Brazil.
An analysis of the cruiser’s voyage reveals that Ludecke made sound command decisions, but circumstances of war limited in his ability to carry out commerce raiding. Once in Brazilian waters, his ship harassed allied merchant ships near the port of Belem, Atol dos Rocas, Ilha da Trindade, and the Rio de la Plata through much of August 1914, but few offered real value and were released without incident. One historian argued “others amongst the German raider commanders,” may have been more inclined to scuttle enemy merchant ships despite the value of their cargoes, “but not the phlegmatic Ludecke.”  True, he had not the heart of a corsair, rather was guided by humanitarian instincts and a strict set of rules learned in fleet operations, most centered on obeying prize laws.
In late August, SMS Dresden took advantage of coal supplies provided by its colliers, Santa Isabel and Baden, and entered the main seaways leading into the Rio de la Plata. Here, Ludecke promptly ordered the sinking of the British steamship,
Holmwood. Next, he encountered the Katherine Park, owned by a Scottish shipping firm but carrying American-owned cargo destined for New York, which he “could not destroy without making his masters in Berlin liable for its value.” Wishing to abide by prize laws and not causing further consternation among neutral countries, Ludecke then removed prisoners of the
Holmwood and transported them aboard the Katherine Park, “with orders to land the Britons at her first port of call, Rio de Janeiro.”
The ship proceeded southward when on 7 September 1914 Ludecke received new orders from Berlin via the Santa Isabel to round Cape Horn, link up with
SMS Leipzig, and disrupt allied trade along the West coast of Central and South America. He obeyed these orders and on 10 September, arrived at Orange Bay (Bahia de Nassau) on Hoste Island. On the 25 September Buenos Aires news reported that SMS Dresden pursued the British steamer,
Ortega, from Puerta Arenas through the Straits of Magellan. Ludecke ordered shots fired over her bow, but refused to sink an unarmed vessel, yet another example of how he intended to fight
Dresden’s war. The cruiser hunted more merchant ships in the region, but left Hoste Island in the middle of October when it received new orders to join Graf Spee’s squadron at Easter Island.
All cruisers, including SMS Dresden and Leipzig assembled there on 12 October. Hans Pochhamer, second-in-command of the
SMS Gneisenau, remembered, “that night wine was uncorked in the mess-room, and we were happy. It was not only a reinforcement coming to our squadron, but certainly a budget of news in addition…welcome to us lonely pilgrims of the sea.” Thereafter the squadron departed for the Chilean Island of Mas Afuera. After coaling, it left Mas Afuera for Valparaiso on 19 October, arriving several days later where ships re-supplied and officers conducted diplomatic affairs with German and Chilean officials. Unbeknown to Spee, Royal Navy forces commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock were stationed between Valparaiso and Punta Arenas after a prolonged chase of SMS Dresden led them around Cape Horn.
The German squadron gained an overwhelming victory at Coronel on 1 November 1914 giving the Imperial Navy much needed victory at sea not yet realized (or attempted) in the North Atlantic. Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer declared, “Great was the enthusiasm over the fact that the brave Admiral [Spee] had succeeded…a victory that dealt a severe blow to the tradition of English superiority at sea. This news filled us in the Fleet with pride and confidence.” Spee, rather than sail for home, hoped to strike another blow:
To break through for home, when the way was barred by the whole might of the Grand Fleet! I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany; we possess no other secure harbor; I must plough the seas of the world doing as much mischief as I can, till my ammunition is exhausted or till a foe superior in power succeeds in catching me.
Spee maintained an offensive attitude focusing on the benefits of military victories rather than a war on enemy commerce. Such a single-mined approach persisted despite protests from Luedecke and fellow Captains Gustav Maerker of
SMS Scharnhorst and Johannes Haun of Leipzig. Each believed it strategically incorrect to by-pass commerce warfare at the Rio de la Plata for an attack on the Falklands.
At the battle of Coronel, SMS Dresden played a minor, but effective role. With SMS Scharnhorst leading
SMS Gneisenau and Leipzig, SMS Dresden trailed several miles behind, but made up ground by the time Spee called for fire. Both SMS Dresden and
Leipzig engaged the powerfully gunned HMS Glasgow, but remained leery of her 6-inch guns and could not block her escape after Craddock’s flag ship,
HMS Good Hope, and fellow cruiser, HMS Monmouth blew up. Together with its support in battle, Spee credited Ludecke with establishing a secret coal store in the Chilean Archipelago and for reconnoitering anchorage points at Easter Island, Punta Arenas, and Valparaiso.
Historians have questioned Spee’s decision to attack the Falklands Islands more than criticized it. Spee’s options were to take the Falklands, by-pass it and head for Germany or divide his squadron and resume commerce raiding in the South Atlantic. Although Coronel was rewarding, the Battle of the Falklands proved fatal yet Spee’s final decision is considered by most historians as beyond reproach and in keeping with the finest traditions of naval warfare. SMS Dresden, not unlike the rest of the squadron, had little impact at the Falklands other than surviving and undertaking the war’s most celebrated sea chase that frustrated the British Navy for several months to follow. Naval historians like John Walter, however, fail to recognize the ship’s feat. He argued “true to form, [Dresden] was simply running away at top speed, proving capable of 25-26 knots.”
Actually, Ludecke was following orders. Spee’s final message to all light cruisers read “Part Company. Endeavor to escape.” He obliged and was able to maintain enough distance and speed to escape the Royal Navy onslaught. Hans Pochhamer, one of few survivors from
SMS Gneisenau, recalled:
I knew we were running at high speed [then aboard a British warship]. Whither? In pursuit of
Dresden we had been told, the Dresden being apparently the only ship which had managed to escape from the enemy…To share in all these efforts in the spirit and to know that the ship which held me as a prisoner was making every effort to bring down this last friend, such was the tragic conclusion of a tragic day. 
Ludecke had luck on his side but also benefited from the ship being positioned at the rear of the squadron. In other words, once Spee’s order came to reverse course and “endeavor to escape” and reach the predetermined rendezvous point at Picton Island, SMS Dresden had a significant head start not afforded other captains.
SMS Dresden reached Picton Island anticipating the arrival of the squadron, however by this time all were either sunk or enduring withering British gunfire with no prospect of escape. Here Ludecke exercised sound judgment and quality leadership skills, taking immediate action and plotting a course for Cockburn Channel, a secluded area in Sholl Bay to the south of Punta Arenas (Chilean national waters). In the days and months that followed, meticulous searches by the Royal Navy in the area forced the cruiser to move in and about different bays and inlets to avoid capture. John Walter said the ship faced other concerns as well:
Though the cruiser [Dresden] had escaped from the Royal Navy once again—owing more to luck than judgment—shortage of fuel was causing concern. Destruction or capture of so many of the German merchantmen, and the insistence of once-friendly authorities…caused the Etappe system [wireless] to deteriorate rapidly.
The likelihood of SMS Dresden falling prey to British warships thereafter seemed inevitable because of several factors, none of which can be blamed on Ludecke.
Losses of coal colliers, Baden and Santa Isabel at the Falklands, Memphis at Coronel and others at Callao, Peru, Montevideo, Uruguay, and in the Magellan Straits, greatly inhibited her movements. But Ludecke showed much bravado in the ensuing months, scratching out coal and food supplies and remaining a threat to enemy shipping in the area. A special cable from Buenos Aires to the
New York Times on 19 December 1914 stated, “The escape of the German cruiser Dresden has caused a suspension of the sailings of British ships to the Pacific.”
Naval historians argue that SMS Dresden and other light cruisers of its size accomplished little in terms of commerce raiding during World War I. Others claim they played a small role at Coronal and were a hindrance at the Battle of Falklands because of a lack of firepower. John Walter and other historians contend, “He [Spee] would have been better off if he had not had these vulnerable units to worry about.”
SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were lost because he forfeited a twenty-mile head start and turned to fight attacking British ships in order to allow the light cruisers opportunity for escape. Walter’s argument seems valid. Light cruisers like SMS Dresden,
Leipzig, and Nurnberg owned light armaments and no armor, and served little purpose when concentrated other than scouting for the main force. Had the admiral been more tactically correct and by-passed the Falklands for the River Platte or dispatched his smaller cruisers as independent raiders, one can envision a more prolonged conflict in the South Atlantic.
Spee had several likely objectives once appearing off the West coast of South America then winning the sea battle at Coronel. 1. Remain near the Chilean and Tierra-del-Fuego Islands where coal appeared plentiful and the geographical landscape offered numerous hiding places. 2. Recruit large numbers of reservists and attack the Falkland Islands. 3. Return to South Sea Islands and plan for commerce raids among the trade routes. 4. Cross the Southern Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and renew raids in the Indian Ocean. 5. Round Cape Horn, by-pass the Falkland Islands, and then attack merchant ships at the River Platte. 6. Avoid the South Atlantic altogether, reappear in the North Atlantic and (or) attack St. Vincent and the West Indies’ trade routes. British commanders predicted that Spee would attack the River Platte (#5) or by-pass the South Atlantic for northern waters (#6).
Erich Raeder, naval officer, outlined German naval options in the region, ones that affected the decision-making of both Admiral Spee and Captain Ludecke. Recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, the German Admiralty sent a series of telegrams, the first two in September and October 1914, and others to SMS Dresden in early 1915, providing details of coal arrangements in the Atlantic for a possible return to Germany. Both telegrams stated: 1. “Carry out war against trade as strictly as the prize law allows.” 2. Ship(s) could expect little success by resuming a war against commerce in the Pacific. Since the British blocked principal trade routes in the Atlantic, “war against trade is only possible with ships operating in groups.” Coal supplies, however, for vessels operating in groups was limited. 3. Spee reserved the right to end war against trade, “and break through to Germany with all ships you can collect.” 4. If he secured enough coal supplies in South America to reach the Canary or Cape Verde Islands, “it does not appear to be impossible, with luck, to see the break-through to Germany succeed.” The Admiralty suggested the best course of action to “break the lines of trade protection held by the English in the North Atlantic [with assistance from the High Seas Fleet]…intentions should be communicated early.”
If routes back to Germany were blocked, then it appears cruisers served the “Fatherland” best as independent commerce raiders.
SMS Emden and SMS Karlsruhe represent the best examples for this argument. Cruisers did suffer from a lack of armaments and armored protection, but utilized their speed and elusiveness, along with an ability to coal at sea to survive for long periods of time without bases. From 1914 to 1915, the slightest mention of a German raider roaming near trade routes disrupted British shipping, and forced the Royal Navy to send one or more ships to threatened areas, vessels already stretched beyond their cruising radiuses. To his credit, Ludecke exploited this fear to the fullest despite sinking or capturing so few merchant ships.
Dispatching ships independently seemed the best plan to follow, if indeed, Spee intended prolonged cruiser warfare overseas. It appears he did not, considering that other than
SMS Emden, none of his cruisers gained much experience as independent raiders. Certainly he had ample time before and after Coronel to contemplate a plan for his five cruisers, unless the prospect of attacking the Falklands or returning to Germany with a consolidated force precluded such action. Then again the likelihood of his success and later Ludecke’s, depended much on logistical support and luck, factors that diminished greatly once the British discovered his whereabouts off the west coast of South America. Therefore, when
SMS Dresden re-entered the Straits of Magellan in December 1914 her likelihood of success, and even survival, had diminished. The “spirit of enterprise,” if indeed it ever existed, gave way to “protracted evasion,” not because of Ludecke’s inexperience, rather lack of logistical support and access to a friendly port to make much needed engine repairs.
Ludecke benefited from twenty-four years of active service in the German Navy, but he lacked fleet experience and received no formal training in cruiser warfare before World War I. Much the same can be said of other German commerce raiders at the time, although British historians seem unwilling to mention their inexperience in the same light as Ludecke’s. Many point to his [Ludecke’s] unwillingness to resume commerce raiding after Falklands as his undoing. When in fact, he faced insurmountable odds, lacked coal, foodstuffs, and had to deal with failing engines more than a year overdue for dry dock repairs.
The problem facing SMS Dresden was not its captain’s unwillingness to resume commerce raiding, rather the British navy and their allies. First, Japan’s entry into the war “wrecked the plan of war by our cruiser squadron against enemy trade and against British war vessels, leaving our ships with nothing to do but to attempt to break through and reach home,” noted von Tirpitz.” The
Satsuma, Iwate, Nisshin, and Hirado, positioned in the Marianas and Caroline Island chains blocked passage to the Indian Ocean. Together with the
HMS Encounter, the Kurama, Tsukuba, Ikoma, Chikuma,
Yahagi, and two destroyers patrolled in the vicinity of the Fiji Islands, protecting Eastern Australian and valuable troop and supply ships headed to the Middle East. Off the Pacific Coast of Mexico waited
HMS Australia and Newcastle, along with the Japanese warships, Hizen,
Asama, and Idzumo, all determined to block German ships from taking on supplies in Mexico or escaping through the Panama Canal.
The situation in the North and South Atlantic appeared equally formidable. HMS Princess Royal,
Berwick, Lancaster, and the French warship, Conde, protected trade routes in the Caribbean and waited for German cruisers to enter there via the Panama Canal. Near St. Vincent Islands, off the West Coast of Africa, lurked a task force consisting of
HMS Warrior, Black Prince, Donegal, Cumberland, Vengeance, and
Highflyer, anticipating German cruisers to seek coal supplies in Cameroon or the Canary Islands. At the Cape of Good Hope, the Royal Navy consisted of
HMS Defence, Albion, Minotaur, Weymouth, Dartmouth,
Hyacinth, and Astoria, expecting a break through to German colonies in East Africa and the Indian Ocean trade routes. In the South Atlantic,
HMS Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon, Cornwall, Kent,
Glasgow, Bristol, and three armed merchant cruisers patrolled between Pernambuco and the Falkland Islands, all geared to protect merchant shipping at the River Platte or an attack on the Falklands.
Given the number of warships on Dresden’s trail or guarding key ports, Ludecke made the right decision when he sought refuge in South American waters Keith Middlemas said:
A game of hide-and-seek with the Andes as a background gave him the liberty of the wild fiords for weeks. Darwin’s ‘death-like scene of desolation’ did not depress him; there was no hope now, if ever, of returning to try the Atlantic passage, whereas here he could hold many ships in check while returning to original career as a commerce raider. It need be no more difficult or dangerous than the old days of the Atlantic patrol and no commander [Ludecke] was given such a background against which to play out his destiny.
Besides the threat of British and allied warships, Ludecke had other concerns as well, particularly engine problems, a damaged hull, and shortages of coal. Such concerns forced him to abandon the trade routes and seek cover in an isolated coastal region.
Once SMS Dresden’s engine power waned, its best chance for survival by October 1914 depended on consolidating with Admiral Spee’s squadron. Alone after the Battle of the Falklands, no other choice afforded Ludecke other than to remain in the region and resume commerce warfare. SMS Dresden became a ship without a home due to circumstances of war, not incompetent leadership. This meant more hiding and less fighting, courses of action (at the time) considered not keeping with the finest traditions of naval warfare. What many naval historians fail to recognize is that light cruisers like
SMS Dresden were designed specifically “to hit and run,” not to “slug it out” with armored warships possessing superior firepower and equal speed. There are other factors to consider. Ludecke honored wartime prize laws. His ship survived the longest, refused to fire on unarmed merchant ships, seize neutral cargoes, or place non-combatants (which included women and children) in unnecessary danger. These accomplishments alone say a great deal about the captain’s character, ability to lead by example, and penchant maintaining a sense of humanitarianism during a most trying experience.
Like other World War I ships, SMS Dresden required a steady supply of coal in order remain at sea for an extended period. Often, it had to rely on friendly colliers and captured prizes for re-supply of fuel. As overseas colonies fell early in the war and countries enforced strict neutrality laws, the means to gain first-rate coal became problematic. Access to quality fuel supplies was further undermined by the prowess of the British Royal Navy as they systematically hunted down or forced internment of German coal colliers acting in concert with cruisers in the South Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. John Walter said, “hard steam coal was essential, otherwise tell-tale smoke was emitted by the funnels, furnace hearths clogged, the efficiency of boilers declined, and speed dropped appreciably.” He added that fuel shortages proved “the greatest difficulty of carrying on a war against commerce” for individual raiders. The modern cruiser’s dependence on coal “and other supplies, and the necessity of thoroughly overhauling her engines and boilers at frequent intervals,” led to lengthy periods of inactivity, often in geographical areas considered unsafe for such activity. Such was one dilemma Ludecke faced throughout his eight- month odyssey at sea.
Another issue was the use of wireless communication that proved more hazardous than beneficial to SMS Dresden. It allowed Ludecke to communicate with Spee, German agents operating in foreign countries, or from Berlin, but when used in the vicinity of an enemy warship the transmission often gave away one’s approximate location. Trade routes were highly congested areas, making it easy for commerce raiders to locate enemy merchant ships. However, these areas also made it much easier for stronger opponents to use the intelligence service (and wireless) to drive belligerent warships from their areas of operation. When properly used it forced cruisers to “constantly realize that her field of operations will become known to the enemy in a very short time,” and making it unlikely for a raider to “remain at a junction of the trade routes in the vicinity of the enemy’s coasts for more than a few hours.”
Cable or wireless telegraphy was another factor that determined the fate of the SMS Dresden, as well as other German commerce raiders. They allowed merchant ships to transmit intelligence reports as soon as a raider was spotted. Advanced intelligence also made it possible for unarmed cargo ships to divert from normal sailing routes immediately after hearing of a raider’s locality. Ships warned others in an efficient manner, allowing companies to alter departure times. However, the frustration did not end there for Ludecke. It appears captured prizes or “of vessels with the crews of sunken ships on board, even in the case of remote regions,” became known worldwide in the matter of hours, forcing a raider to depart her field of operations.
Lost to history is the psychological effect the Battle of the Falklands—a devastating defeat in which officers and crew witnessed the death of many comrades and friends—placed an emotional strain on the crew of SMS Dresden. After seven months of “hide and seek” hopelessness and despair likely overcame the crew, greatly induced by lack of action and the monotony of hiding in remote bays and inlets along the coasts of South America, and little hope of returning to Germany. British warships remained a constant threat, thus Ludecke became less decisive. He soon favored a life in hiding over all out cruiser warfare or open engagement with enemy vessels, where possible loss of ship and crew was inevitable. “Protracted evasion,” although not keeping with the finest traditions of naval warfare, offered him the best opportunity to tie up considerable numbers of enemy ships and prolong the threat of cruiser warfare overseas.
Other factors limited SMS Dresden from carrying out commerce raiding. The ship and crew (due to lack of training and the dangers of doing so at sea) had no experience transporting coal captured from enemy merchant ships. It had access to few reserves (manpower) able to man prizes and sail them to neutral ports. Enemy warships in constant pursuit left the ship on alert status much of its voyage, further explaining why his ship could not resume cruiser warfare with great energy after the Falklands defeat. In addition, neutral countries in South America grew weary of German ships violating 24-hour neutrality laws, actions that led to strained relations and strict enforcement as to the number of times in a three month period that any one ship could visit a single location to purchase fuel or repair engines. Thereafter Ludecke was left few options. He could remain in South America waters, or adhere to Berlin’s requests to intern or return home by way of the mid-Atlantic (a sailing route less congested with enemy ships) with a stop in the Canary Islands where coal
might be secured. 
Why naval historians have been critical of SMS Dresden’s War is perplexing. Barry Pitt argued no one cruiser “traveled farthest—19,000 miles—survived longest, and yet, in comparison, achieved least. What happened to [SMS Dresden] was not in keeping with the behavior of other German warships.” Acknowledging that it had not been an original member of the East Asiatic Squadron, he noted,
Excellent reasons can doubtless be admired for Captain Ludecke’s conduct of
Dresden’s war—but not in a book which deals with exploits of such men as Luce, and von Schonberg, Haun, Brandt of
Mammouth and Allen of Kent, Maerker, Verner, and Admirals Graf von Spee and Sir Christopher Cradock. In that context, such explanations sound hollow and rather specious.
What Pitt fails to mention is that circumstances of war, particularly the defeat at the Falklands, forced Ludecke fight a different kind of war, one predicated on protracted evasion, to ensure the safety of his ship and crew.
From 1 August 1914 to 14 March 1915, he guided his ship with great skill from the West Indies, along the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn to Easter Island in the mid-Pacific, eastward again to Coronel and the Falklands, and back again around Cape Horn before scuttling his ship off the coast of Chile.
SMS Dresden is credited with sinking four British merchant ships totaling 13,000 tons:
Hyades, Holmwood, North Wales, and Conway Castle. It successfully outmaneuvered no less than 11 British and allied warships of various sizes over vast areas of ocean. Ship and crew survived at sea without the vestige of a base, took supplies from nineteen German auxiliaries and from three Allied vessels captured by her consorts, and gathered 10,106 tons of coal, all while avoiding capture or sinking from overwhelming British (and allied) naval forces.
One question continues to perplex historians and serves as a prime example as to why Ludecke has not been held in high regards. In late 1914, he neglected to first attack the rich trade routes at Pernambuco and the River Platte, areas scarcely populated with British warships, before hastening around Cape Horn to join Admiral Spee. British and German historians have offered their own perspectives. Lloyd Hirst explained,
It can only be supposed that her instructions restricted her to attack shipping that she happened to meet, and that at no time was she primarily engaged on trade interference…The only answer can be that her instructions were imperative, but misguided, and a similar reason exists to explain the concentration of [SMS]
Leipzig and Nurnberg…The writer, wise perhaps after the event, cannot find any justification for the orders under which [SMS]
It appears Ludecke’s orders were both imperative and misguided. Whatever the case he obeyed them and apparently by-passed more lucrative trade routes so as not to give his position or that of Spee’s away.
The outbreak of war found SMS Dresden in the most unfavorable condition, at the time prepared only for a short time and in terms of food supplies and war materials not equipped for the rigors of commerce raiding. When ordered back to proceed south along the coast of South America, Ludecke was compelled to begin cruiser warfare, but circumstances of war forced an alternative action. He reported hull damage to his ship and wear on the engines and boilers. A combination of bad weather and luck forced him to seek a safe anchorage and make repairs on his ship. “Even after improving his deficiencies to some extent the commander did not consider his vessel to be materially fit for the demands of cruiser warfare in the Atlantic,” said Raeder. No one, it can be reasonably argued, certainly not Naval Headquarters in Berlin or pursuing British vessels, could assess the capabilities of SMS Dresden better than Ludecke.
SMS Dresden’s war officially ended on March 15, 1915. Anchored at Cumberland Bay, Island of Juan Fernandez, Chile, on 14 March, and desperately in need of coal and engine repairs, Ludecke received a final signal from Berlin “His Majesty the Kaiser leaves it to your discretion to [accept internment].” He therefore had no practical alternatives but to inform the governor and await the arrival of a Chilean warship. The following morning British warships
HMS Kent and Glasgow attacked and the controversy over the sinking of the cruiser began.
One explanation came from an official telegram from Berlin received in Amsterdam on 24 March 1915. It reported that, “The
Dresden replied to their fire until all her available guns and three magazines were unserviceable…was blown up with her flag flying, while her crew gave three hurrahs for the Emperor.” London news offered a different story, reporting that after five minutes of battle SMS Dresden “hauled down her colors and displayed the white flag.” A Washington, D.C. news source received an official report from the German Legation at Santiago, Chile, on 18 March that the “cruiser Dresden was blown up by her crew after having been attacked in neutral water…the Dresden did not haul down her colors.” Regardless of interpretation,
Dresden’s war ended after eight months of protracted evasion.
Thereafter Captain Ludecke and crew boarded a Chilean warship for transport in March 1915 to the naval base at Talcahuano and then to Valparaiso, Chile. Initially housed aboard the captured German freighter,
Yorck, Chilean authorities then transferred the crew to an internment camp on Quiriquana Island (just north of Coronel), where most sat out the remainder of the war. Repatriated in 1919, Ludecke returned to Germany with little fanfare and assumed duties in administration with the Baltic Command. For one year he tidied up the affairs of the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron and supervised the decommissioning of the merchant raider,
SMS Seeadler. Promoted to captain after the Battle of Coronel, Ludecke maintained such rank until March 8, 1920 when he was promoted to the titular rank of Rear Admiral. After thirty years of service in the Imperial Navy, naval supervisors pensioned him off the next day. Unfortunately, he disappeared into private life after World War I leaving no memoirs of his wartime experiences. He died with little fanfare in 1931.
Early in World War I, German commerce raiders like the SMS Dresden operating on the high seas posed a serious threat to British and allied shipping. Captained by men ranging in ability, some enjoyed more success than others, yet all failed to survive the first year of war. Thrust into war without formal training in cruiser warfare, Captain Franz Ludecke carried out SMS Dresden’s war with skill, professionalism, and in the spirit humanitarianism despite facing insurmountable odds. He placed great importance on the welfare of his ship and crew, threatened only those merchant ships that carried materials for war, saw to the safety of prize crews, and refused to take life unnecessarily. In no way did his ship hinder the operations of the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Graf Spee. It scouted out potential bases for coaling, sunk enemy merchant ships, and later used its knowledge of Chilean territorial waters to avoid capture. Ludecke obeyed Spee’s and Berlin’s orders to the end, reached the rendezvous point at Picton Island after the battle of Falklands, and offered much needed hope for re-concentration and the continuation of cruiser warfare. Unwilling to return home to Germany after the Battle of the Falklands, the captain and crew avoided contact and resumed a war on commerce when the situation presented itself. Once hid amongst the many inlets and bays in South American waters, SMS Dresden proved a most elusive foe by carrying out “protracted evasion” rather than “spirit of enterprise.” In doing so, it remained a constant threat to British and allied merchant sheets on the high seas, tying up warships better served elsewhere, and hiding from enemies and reappearing when least expected.
. The author wishes to acknowledge all those historians and agencies for providing literature covering, or mentioning the career of
SMS Dresden, and the wartime activities of German commerce raiders, especially those of the German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron in 1914-1915.
. In military circles the term “protracted evasion” is defined as a means of evading or escaping a superior opposing force for a prolonged period of time. “Spirit of Enterprise,” as it pertains to cruiser warfare is grounded in the captain’s “strong desire” to conduct commerce raiding against enemy merchant ships.
. Tirpitz quoted in, Grand Admiral Von Tirpitz, My Memoirs Vol. 2 (New York: AMS Press, 1919, 1970), 85-86.
. Erich Raeder and Eberhard von Mantey, ed., Cruiser Warfare in Foreign Waters or Der Kreuzerkrieg in de auslandischen Gewassern, 3 vols. (Berlin: Ernst Mittler und Sohn, 1922-1937): 9.
. Raeder quoted in Geoffrey Bennett, Coronel and Falklands (New York: Birlinn Limited, 1962): 41-42.
. See Raeder, Cruiser Warfare, 9.
. See Tirpitz, My Memoirs, 85-86.
. J. S. Corbett, Official History of the Great War: Naval Operations, vol. 1, To the Battle of the Falklands (London: Longman, Green, 1920), 138.
. Peter Overlack, “The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron in 1914,”
Journal of Military History 60 (4) (1996): 659.
. Barrie Pitt, Revenge at Sea (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1960), ix; for a detailed analysis of German naval policies overseas before World War I consult Peter Overlack, “Asia in German Naval Planning Before the First World War: The Strategic Imperative,” War and Society 17, no 1 (May, 1999), 6-10.
. German Admiralty orders quoted in Bennett, Coronel and Falklands, 41.
. German Admiralty orders quoted in Bennett, 41.
. Fred T. Jane, ed. Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1914. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1914. Reprint. Newton Abbott, Devon: David & Charles, 1968).
. Source: Walter, Kaiser’s Pirates, 52.
. Edwin P. Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 143.
. Source: Walter, 52.
. Source: Maria Teresa Parker de Bassi, Tras La Estela Del Dresden. (Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Tusitala, 1987): 34.
. Edwin P. Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 143.
. Source: Geoffrey Bennett, Coronel and Falklands (Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn Limited, 1962, 2000), 72.
. Kaiser Wilhelm II quoted in Bennett, Coronel and Falklands, 42.
. Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 52
. Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg, 142-143.
. Source: New York Times, “Cruisers Ready For Huerta,” (July 16, 1914), 1; and “Huerta to Sail Tomorrow,” (July 20, 1914), 2.
. Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg, 144.
. Naval Staff Headquarters in Berlin order from July 29, 1914 quoted in Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg 145.
. Wireless communication from San Juan station quoted in Hoyt, 145.
. Source: Pitt, Revenge at Sea, x.
. Source: “Hunt in the Atlantic for German Ships,” New York Times (August 11, 1914), 2.
. For detailed accounts of the Dresden’s voyage in the South Atlantic and beyond consult, Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 53-55; Hirst, Coronel and After, 238-251; Bennett, Coronel and the Falklands, 67-72, 75-81, 101-105, and 117-119; Hoyt, Kreuzerkrieg, 142-155; Maria Teresa Parker de Bassi, Tras la Estela del Dresden, 13-72; and Raeder, Cruiser Warfare in Foreign Waters, 122-164.
. See Walter, 53.
. See Walter, 55.
. “Escapes German Cruiser: British Steamer Ortega Chased for Three Hours and Fired Upon,” New York Times (September 25, 1914), 2.
. Information on Dresden’s movement in 1914 taken from the diary of a German midshipman (name unknown) and from Commander Lloyd Hirst’s personal diary entries quoted from Hirst,
Coronel and After, 21-27.
. Captain Hans Pochhamer, Before Jutland: Admiral von Spee’s Last Voyage, Coronel and the Battle of the Falklands (London: Jerrold’s Publishers, 1931), 123.
. Source: Hirst, Coronel and After, 57-64; and Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 57.
. Source: Reinhard Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (New York: Peter Smith, 1934), 66.
. Admiral Graf Spee quoted in Bennett, Coronel and After, 101-102.
. Several published accounts detail the battle at Coronel. See Hirst, Coronel and After.
. Admiral von Spee quoted from his diary entry of 11 October 1914 in Hirst, Coronel and After, 72.
. See Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 62.
. Communication from Admiral Graf Spee sent to the captains of his light cruisers at 1320 hours on December 8, 1914 quoted in Pitt,
Revenge at Sea, 174.
. Pochhamer quoted in, Before Jutland, 228.
. Bennett, Coronel and the Falklands, 118.
. Source: Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 63.
. “Steamers Fear the Dresden,” New York Times (December 19, 1914), 2.
. Yates, Graf Spee’s Raiders: Challenges to the Royal Navy, 1914-1918 (Annapolis, MD: The Naval Institute Press, 1995) 281.
. Paul G. Halpern, Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 97.
. Source: Lloyd Hirst, Coronel and After (London: Peter Davies, 1934), 145-46.
. Copies of Admiralty telegrams in Raeder, Der Kreuzerkrieg, Vol. 1, 235-237, quoted in Hirst,
Coronel and After, 156-157.
. See Raeder, Cruiser Warfare, 7-15.
. Bennett, Coronel and the Falklands, 101-122.
. See Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 52-53.
. See Hirst, Coronel and After, 261.
. See Tirpitz, My Memoirs, 83.
. For map information consult Sir Winston Churchill, World Crisis (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1923, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1949), 250-251. Also consult Peter Overlack, “The Force of Circumstance”
Journal of Military History 60 (4) (1996): 667-668.
. See Churchill, World Crisis, 250-251.
. See Churchill, 250-251.
. Keith Middlemas, Command of the Far Seas: A Naval Campaign of the First World War (London: Hutchinson and Company, LTD, 1961), 222-223.
. See Raeder, Cruiser Warfare, 13-14, 166-167.
. Source: Keith Yates, Graf Spee’s Raiders, 288.
. Ibid., 63.
. John Walter, The Kaiser’s Pirates, 43.
. See Raeder, Cruiser Warfare, 13-14.
. Ibid. 13-14.
. See Walter, 63.
. See Raeder, Cruiser Warfare, 13-15.
. Source: Lloyd Hirst, Coronel and After (London: Peter Davies, 1934), 259.
. Pitt, Revenge at Sea, 167-68.
. See Hirst, 260-261.
. See Raeder, 166.
. Berlin signal quoted in Bennett, Coronel and the Falklands, 158.
. “Dresden’s Captain Says He Blew Her Up,” New York Times (March 25, 1915), 2.
. Source: “British Cruisers Sink the Dresden, Rescue Crew after Fight off Chile,” New York Times (March 16, 1915), 1.
. “Dresden’s Crew Blew-Up Cruiser,” New York Times (March 18, 1915), 3.
. See Yates, Graf Spee’s Raiders, 288.
. See Pitt, Revenge at Sea, 174.
Copyright © 2011 Dr. Christopher Jannings
Written by Dr. Christopher M. Jannings. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Dr. Christopher M. Jannings at:
About the author:
Dr. Christopher M. Jannings earned his MA and Ph.D. in United States history from Western Michigan University.
His teaching and research interests are grounded in military studies and the history of warfare.
Published online: 10/30/2011.