- Jarrett, Hugh
- RAN operations, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Pioneer, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Melbourne I
- July 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At the outbreak of war on 4th August, 1914, the German East Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee, had its base at the fortified harbour of Tsing-tao on the Kwantung Peninsula at its southern end where it abuts into the Yellow Sea.
The squadron comprised two armoured cruisers, SMSs SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU, armed with 8-8.2 inch and 6-6 inch guns, three light cruisers, SMSs EMDEN, NURNBERG and LEIPZIG, armed with 10-4.1 inch guns and the gunboat SMS GEIER, armed with 8-4.1 inch guns. This squadron exercised an influence, in the first months of the war, second only to that of the German High Seas Fleet.
In addition, von Spee had paid off three old gunboats and used their armament and crews to man the armed merchant cruisers, PRINZ EITEL FRIEDRICH and CORMORAN II (this makes the World War II CORMORAN, ‘CORMORAN III–).
Area of Operation
The area of operations covered half the globe, a vast area in which the Royal Navy had few ships capable of combating the two armoured cruisers with any chance of success. The great distances involved complicated factors which today do not apply.
Wireless equipment in ships was quite crude and often did not have the power to cover the distances required. Communications with Admiralties in Europe was made by telegram to or from consulates or agents in friendly ports necessitating warships to detour to ports off track.
Coal-burning warships (the majority) required to take their colliers with them or have them waiting at pre-arranged ports and anchorages. The alternative was to capture ships carrying coal, which often happened.
German Possessions In The Pacific
The German possessions included the Marianas, the Carolines, Palau (or Pellew), the Marshall Islands and the Samoan Islands. Closer to Australia, they possessed the Bismarck Archipelago (including New Britain and New Ireland). The north-eastern portion of New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelm Land) was also a German protectorate.
The Caroline and Palau Islands were considered as an entity, divided for administration purposes into Western Carolines including Palau Islands with seat of government at Yap, and the Eastern Carolines with seat of Government at Ponape. Yap, 1.700 miles (approx) from Hong Kong, was a place of some importance, being connected by cable with the Celebes and thence with the Dutch East Indies to Europe, and with Shanghai and thence to Tsing-tao, and with Guam and thence to the United States. It also had a powerful wireless station, making it a vital link in the German communication network.
There were German W/T stations on Auguar, the southernmost of the Palau Islands and at Nauru lying isolated near the equator.
The Marshall Islands are 600 miles to the east of the Carolines and have numerous sheltered anchorages. The capitol, Jaluit, had no cable communications.
Samoa lies 2,400 miles from Australia and 1,650 miles to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. They differ from the coral islands, being volcanic in origin and produced copra, cattle and rubber. Western Samoa was a United States possession. There was a wireless station at Apia which radiated to Fiji, Nauru and Honolulu.
The Bismarck Archipelago and Kaiser Wilhelm Land had their seat of government at Herbertshohe (Rabaul) in New Britain, which was reputed to have a new wireless station.
This made a huge ‘haystack’ in which to search for the half dozen ‘needles’ which were the ships of the German East Asiatic Squadron.
At the start of hostilities on 4th August 1914, the German squadron was not concentrated. On 6th August, the Commander in Chief, China Station, Vice Admiral Sir T.H.M. Jerram KCB, received a report from Navy Officer, Melbourne, saying that from wireless intercepts, the probable position of SCHARNHORST at noon on 5th August appeared to be 8 degrees south, 162 degrees east, near the Solomon Islands, steering S.E. Other reports indicated EMDEN to be escorting four colliers from Tsing-tao on 3rd August steering SE. The Nord Deutsche liner YORCK left Yokohama on 4th August heavy-laden with coal and LEIPZIG was reported to have sailed from Mazatlan, Mexico, about 6th August.
Admiral Jerram was of the opinion that von Spee was searching for the French cruiser MONTCALM, or was on his way to rendezvous with colliers which had left Newcastle, NSW, on 1st August, or was on his way to South America and would concentrate his forces in the South Seas. Admiral Jerram did not feel justified in leaving his station in the China Sea, particularly as he felt AUSTRALIA, SYDNEY and ENCOUNTER were closer to the supposed position of the enemy. He was determined to intercept EMDEN if she was proceeding to Yap with its important cable and wireless station.