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Maximilian von Spee
Maximilian von Spee
Born (1861-06-22)June 22, 1861
Died December 8, 1914(1914-12-08) (aged 53)
Place of birth Copenhagen, Denmark
Place of death Off the Falkland Islands
Allegiance  German Empire
Service/branch  Kaiserliche Marine
Years of service 1878–1914
Rank Vice-Admiral

Boxer Rebellion
World War I

Vice Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee (22 June 1861 – 8 December 1914) was a German admiral remembered for his activities during the First World War and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, in which he was killed in action.

Life before the World War

Although he was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, the counts von Spee belonged to the prominent families of the Rhenish nobility. He joined the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) in 1878. In 1887–88 he commanded the Kamerun ports, in German West Africa. He was first officer of the battleship SMS Brandenburg when it was sent to East Asia in 1899 during the Boxer Rebellion. Before World War I he held a number of senior positions relating to weapons development, before being appointed Chief of Staff of the North Sea Command in 1908, rising to Rear Admiral on 27 January 1910.

He was given command of the German East Asia Squadron in 1912 with the rank of Vice-Admiral, based at Tsingtao within the German concession in China. The armored cruisers of his squadron were among the newest in the fleet. However, his ships would soon be made obsolete by the creation of the battlecruiser.

First World War

From the outbreak of the First World War his command concentrated on destroying Allied commercial and troop shipping, with considerable success. However, Spee was wary of the Allies' strength, especially the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Royal Australian Navy—in fact he described the latter's flagship, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, as being superior to his entire force by itself. It became increasingly clear to Spee and the German High Command that Spee's small squadron of obsolete cruisers could not hope to defend Germany's far east possessions and would eventually be destroyed by the Royal Navy. Consequently to avoid being trapped at Tsingtao, von Spee planned a return of his squadron to Germany, sailing through the Pacific, rounding Cape Horn, and then forcing his way north through the Atlantic.[1] However, Spee's desire to get his crews home was only half hearted; he did not believe he had much hope of success and therefore determined to inflict as much chaos as possible upon the allies.

Admiral von Spee’s admiralty superiors left him complete freedom of action; "with remarkable wisdom and forbearance they realized in Berlin that any orders would tie his hands in a predicament only he fully understood."[2] However, they also wrote him out of their long-term calculations and hoped he would strike a major blow before he and his ships met their fate. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at London, wrote: "He was a cut flower in a vase, fair to see yet bound to die."[3]

At the beginning of hostilities the East Asia squadron was dispersed on routine inspection missions at Pacific colonies, with the armored cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau at Ponape in the Caroline Islands. The fleet rendezvoused at Pagan Island in the northern Marianas for staff meetings and coaling. Since he was cut off from essential information,[4] Admiral von Spee sent the light cruiser SMS Nürnberg to Honolulu in the United States Territory of Hawaii to obtain the latest newspapers and wire dispatches from the German consul. Nürnberg rejoined the fleet at Christmas Island.[5] Having thus learned of the occupation of German Samoa by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, who at the request of Great Britain had performed their “great and urgent imperial service,”[6] von Spee rushed toward Samoa with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau intent on doing damage to British and Dominion ships at anchor. He arrived off Apia on 14 September 1914, three days after the departure of the Allied cruisers and transports. The admiral was informed that approximately 1,600 New Zealand volunteers were on Upolu, poorly trained and miserable in their woolen winter-weight uniforms, and that he could easily recapture the colony. He determined that a landing would only be of temporary advantage in an Allied dominated sea and headed for Papeete, Tahiti to fire at French shipping, then rejoined the other ships of his fleet and moved toward South America.[5]

At the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914, Spee's force engaged and sank two British armored cruisers commanded by Sir Christopher Cradock; HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth. Both of the British ships were outclassed in both gunnery and seamanship.[7]

After Coronel at a reception with the German community at Valparaiso, Admiral von Spee was presented a bouquet of flowers for the naval victory. In his thank-you response he stated that it would do nicely for his grave. He understood only too well that the ultimate loss of his command to an overwhelming adversary was inevitable.[5]

Battle of the Falkland Islands

On 8 December 1914, Spee's force attempted a raid on the coaling station at Stanley in the Falkland Islands, unaware that the previous month the British had sent two modern fast battlecruisers HMS Inflexible and HMS Invincible to protect the islands and avenge the defeat at Coronel, and there were also five cruisers, HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall, HMS Kent, HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow, at the Stanley naval base. In the ensuing Battle of the Falkland Islands, Spee's flagship, Scharnhorst, together with Gneisenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig were all lost, together with some 2,200 German sailors, including Spee himself and his two sons; his eldest son, Lt. Otto von Spee, who served aboard the Nürnberg, and Lt. Heinrich von Spee who served on the Gneisenau.[8] The admiral went down with his flagship, the Scharnhorst, along with all hands. Only SMS Dresden and the auxiliary Seydlitz managed to escape, but Seydlitz was interned and Dresden was eventually discovered in the Juan Fernández Islands and scuttled by her crew during the Battle of Mas a Tierra.

After the First World War, the German naval officer and spy, Franz von Rintelen, interviewed Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of British Naval Intelligence, and was informed that the Spee Squadron had been lured onto the guns of the British battlecruiser squadron by means of a fake telegram sent in a German naval code that British cryptographers had broken and which "ordered" the German ships to the Falkland Islands to destroy the wireless station there.[9]


In 1917 a Mackensen-class battlecruiser was named Graf Spee in his honour, but construction of the ship had not been completed by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, and it was subsequently broken up.

In 1934 Germany named the new "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee after him. Coincidentally, in 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled by her crew after the Battle of the River Plate, off the coast of Uruguay, only a few hundred miles from where Admiral von Spee and his squadron had met their end in the same month a quarter of a century earlier.

Between 1959 and 1967 the Federal German Bundesmarine operated a training frigate named after him.


Spouse: Margareta Baroness von der Osten-Sacken (1867–1929)

Children (two sons, one daughter):

  • Otto von Spee (10 July 1890 at Kiel – 8 December 1914, South Atlantic, off Falkland Islands, aboard SMS Nürnberg)
  • Heinrich von Spee (24 April 1893 at Kiel – 8 December 1914, South Atlantic, off Falkland Islands, aboard SMS Gneisenau)
  • Huberta von Spee (11 July 1894 at Kiel – 18 September 1954, Bonn)


Regarding personal names: Graf is a title, translated as Count, not a first or middle name. The female form is Gräfin.

Notes and references

  1. Gray, Amerika Samoa, p. 184
  2. van der Vat, Gentlemen of War, p. 34
  3. van der Vat, p. 35
  4. immediately after hostilities commenced, Great Britain severed all German undersea cables routed through British controlled areas
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Gray, p. 185
  6. "New Zealand goes to war: The Capture of German Samoa". Retrieved 2008-10-20. 
  7. Admiral von Spee's Coronel action report on 2 November 1914 can be found in the World War One archive at Brigham Young University as: Spee, Maximilian von (1914). "Report on the action off Coronel, Chile". Retrieved 2006-04-18. 
  8. Lt. Otto von Spee, age 24, served aboard Nürnberg; Lt. (j.g.) Heinrich von Spee, age 21, served on Gneisenau
  9. Franz von Rintelen (in ENGLISH). The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer (October 31, 1998 ed.). Routledge. pp. 326. ISBN 0-7146-4792-6.
  • Gray, J.A.C. Amerika Samoa, A History of American Samoa and its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute. 1960.
  • Van der Vat, Dan. Gentlemen of War, The Amazing Story of Captain Karl von Müller and the SMS Emden. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1984. ISBN 0-688-03115-3
  • World War I Naval Combat - Despatches
  • Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1922). "Spee, Count Maximilian von". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York. 

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