24 March 1915 – Chilean Neutrality

The remote Pacific isle of Más a Tierra belongs to neutral Chile, but that has not stopped German cruisers from using it before. In fact, Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee brought the entire East Asia Squadron here to take on coal in the calm inlets during the week before the Battle of Coronel off the Chilean coast. When Spee’s squadron was destroyed near the Falkland Islands in December, its sole survivor — the light cruiser SMS Dresden — spent three months hiding in the innumerable coastal inlets of the South American nation before seeking sanctuary here.

Fritz Lüdecke

Fritz Lüdecke, captain of the Dresden, was a stickler for the Cruiser rules of commerce war

Fregattenkapitän Fritz Lüdecke had few choices left when he dropped anchor at Columbia Bay fifteen days ago, requesting eight days’ patience. His coal stocks were low, his supplies were few, his engines were in dire need of overhaul, and his ammunition supply was quite diminished. Indeed, other than one hapless British sailing barque, his crew took no prizes all this time, for he had no crew to spare for prizes and his ship was more effective as an unseen threat than an actual raider of commerce. As long as the Dresden remained at large, the Royal Navy was forced to keep ships in the southeastern Pacific looking for her, and her mere existence elevated wartime shipping insurance rates.

But the Chilean government has had enough of British and German vessels fighting in their waters. Authorities on the island refused Lüdecke’s request, forcing him to radio home for instructions. Granted permission to intern his vessel on the 14th, Lüdecke and his crew were waiting for a Chilean vessel to arrive and take custody of their ship when the light cruisers HMS Kent and Glasgow showed up with the auxiliary cruiser Orama the next day.

Opening fire in neutral waters, Captain John Luce was acting on intelligence gleaned from Lüdecke’s radio signal for a collier (coal ship) to meet him in the Juan Fernandez Islands. But there has been no relief or refueling, so the Dresden was unable to fire her engines and run away. As she took hits on her port side (visible in the photo at top), knocking out two guns while killing four men and wounding fourteen, it became painfully clear that the sole survivor of the East Asia Squadron was doomed. Lüdecke ran up the white flag, and his men made for shore as the British guns fell silent. Several minutes later, an explosion ripped through her forward ammunition compartment, opening her bow to the sea, and the Dresden settled into her watery grave. With the short, sharp fight over, Lüdecke and 315 of his men became internees of the Chilean government housed on Quiriquana Island.

The Dresden sinking after being scuttled by her crew

The Dresden sinks after being scuttled close to shore. Due to the steep underwater incline, she lies at a depth of over 200 feet

But the incident has sparked another round of diplomatic wrangling and controversy. Today, the Chilean Foreign Minister transmits a protest to London regarding the British Navy’s choice to open fire on an interned ship, violating Chilean neutrality. Although the Admiralty asserts its rights, the British government does offer a “full and ample apology” four days later. Perhaps Sir Edward Grey feels conciliatory because the Chilean ambassador to London shares his country’s intelligence on German naval movements — as well as his country’s letter to Berlin protesting the Dresden‘s actions in Chilean territory, where German agents and ships had aided the ship’s operations for three months.

Grey, who oversees his empire’s blockade of German commerce, also values Chilean nitrates — the essential component of high explosives. In the course of the war, Chile will ship millions of tons of the stuff to Britain, where it will be turned into all sorts of munitions for the war effort. And in exchange for Chile’s understanding attitude about two dreadnoughts, some destroyers, and other vessels which they had ordered from British shipyards, but that the Royal Navy must regretfully seize for their own use, the government in Santiago is compensated with fifty airplanes and a squadron of submarines.

A view of Más a Tierra

A view of Más a Tierra Island, now called Robinson Crusoe Island, a remote and jagged volcanic peak in mid-ocean

The diplomatic affair is followed by a raft of new rules aimed at further limiting the ability of either navy to conduct commerce war from Chilean waters. In addition to decrees that prohibit combatant ships from coaling in Chile more than once every ninety days, the government decides that no belligerent vessel guilty of violating Chilean neutrality will be admitted to any port of the republic unless it is too damaged to continue travel. To crack down on espionage and prevent any further clandestine support missions, Santiago institutes new passport controls and strict monitoring of foreign nationals.

Despite the moral hazards of neutrality, Chile remains uninterested in the conflict itself. Just as the government has made every effort to appear even-handed in its diplomacy with the belligerents, government policy forbids public officials from making any statement which might be seen to support one side over the other. When the United States finally declares war in 1917, much of South America follows suit in solidarity with their northern cousins — but not Chile, which still has large outstanding trade accounts that could be disavowed by Berlin and lies far away from the sphere of action. By then, the Dresden affair has virtually been forgotten.

A map of the Royal Navy's search for the Dresden. Click here to see the full image at Naval-History.net

A map of the Royal Navy’s search for the Dresden. Click here to see the full image at Naval-History.net