Dear readers, some of you may recall my recent blog, and article (Rescuing Norway’s Gold), about Nazi Germany’s quest for gold, beginning with its seizure of Austria’s gold reserves following the Anschluss of 1938.
Recently I read a book (War at Sea by James Delgado) which tells the history of naval warfare through the shipwrecks which litter the ocean floor. There I came across an interesting tale.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Imperial Germany had a naval squadron—the East Asia Squadron—stationed in the German quasi-colony of Qingdao (aka Tsingtao) in China’s Shandong Province. Outnumbered and outgunned by Allied navies in the region, notably the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, the East Asia Squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, elected to abandon the area, sail east, resupply from neutral but pro-German countries such as Chile, round Cape Horn, and try to reach Germany via the Atlantic, along the way “doing as much mischief as I can,” in von Spee’s words.
Off the coast of Chile, von Spee’s squadron met up with SMS Dresden, a German light cruiser. Since the war began the Dresden had been acting as a commerce raider in the waters off the east coast of South America, and had just entered the Pacific in search of more targets.
The newly augmented squadron soon thereafter successfully tangled with a British force off the coast of Chile, in the Battle of Coronel (November 1, 1914), sinking two British cruisers. It then proceeded to head east, around Cape Horn. Once in the south Atlantic, von Spee, instead of taking the most direct route back to Germany, elected to attack the British naval base in the Falkland Islands. His aim was to destroy its wireless station and all-important coal stocks.
He walked into a trap.
In the Battle of the Falkland Islands (December 8, 1914), a superior British naval force destroyed the entire German East Asia Squadron, with the sole exception of the Dresden and a few auxiliary vessels (von Spee and his two sons were all killed in the battle). The Dresden fled back into the Pacific once again, and low on fuel (coal), sailed into Cumberland Bay in what is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island, hoping to be interned for the duration of the war.* The British, however, still smarting over the debacle at Coronel, had other ideas. When they located the Dresden (March 14, 1915) they announced their intention of ignoring international law, and commenced shelling an enemy ship while in a neutral harbor. This shelling, and the decision by Dresden’s captain to scuttle the ship, sent her to the bottom of Cumberland Harbor in no time.
What the British did not know, however, was that the Dresden was carrying a secret cargo.
Before von Spee’s squadron departed Qingdao, it had onloaded all the gold held in the German concession. Sometime between the East Asia Squadron’s rendezvous with the Dresden in the South Pacific and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, all that gold was transferred from von Spee’s ships to the Dresden. Von Spee may have been hoping that the Dresden’s powerful turbine engines would enable her to outrun her slower British pursuers. He took a long-shot gamble, and lost.
The Dresden would remain, seemingly undisturbed, for years at the bottom of Cumberland Harbor. When author Delgado and others examined the underwater wreck in 2002, however, they made an unusual discovery. The 1915 photos of the Dresden’s sinking show the ship intact. The divers instead found the stern to be heavily damaged. Further investigation revealed that, following the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933, a “secret expedition by German and Chilean hard-hat divers had blasted open [the captain’s] cabin and retrieved the gold for Hitler.” The actual amount of gold carried by the Dresden is not known, but apparently it was enough to mount a major salvage operation halfway around the world from Germany. How much was in fact recovered is also unknown, and remains a mystery to this day.
So, the story of the Nazis’ quest for gold began well before the Anschluss of 1938.**
Incidentally, I had the honor this past May of speaking about Odd Nansen at Polhøgda, Nansen’s birthplace and childhood home. During my visit to Norway, Odd Nansen’s granddaughter Anne and her husband Preben graciously accompanied me on a ferry ride from downtown Oslo to Oscarsborg Fortress in the Oslofjord. Those who have read my article know that Oscarsborg is the site of the opening clash between Norway and Germany in World War II. I was able to personally inspect the 11-inch guns (ironically, made by Krupp) which initially disabled the German cruiser Blücher, as well as the torpedo battery which finally sank the Blücher, giving the Norwegians sufficient time to evacuate the Royal Family, the government ministers, and the nation’s all-important gold reserves. It was a wonderful day—filled with poignant World War II history.
* Formerly known as Más a Tierra, Robinson Crusoe Island is the second largest island in the Juan Fernández Islands. Administered by Chile, it was the site where Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704 for four years and four months. Selkirk had asked to be left on the otherwise uninhabited island, during a resupply stop, due to his growing concern over the seaworthiness of his ship, the Cinque Ports; the captain, tiring of his complaints, happily obliged. Selkirk’s experience is widely believed to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel of the same name (although Defoe set his Robinson Crusoe in the Caribbean). Selkirk’s decision to leave the Cinque Ports proved prescient: the ship soon thereafter foundered off the coast of Bolivia. Más a Tierra was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 to reflect the literary lore associated with the island, and to attract tourism.
** Trivia Note: The naval intelligence officer aboard the Dresden when it was attacked was Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, who would later go on to become an admiral and head of the Abwehr—Germany’s military-intelligence service. Initially a fervent Nazi, Canaris later grew disenchanted with Hitler, and used his powerful position to assist resistance movements. His double-game was discovered late in the war and he was hanged on Hitler’s order on April 9, 1945, in Flossenburg concentration camp.