Maximilian von Spee

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Maximilian von Spee
Maximilian von Spee
Born 22 June 1861
Copenhagen, Denmark
Died 8 December 1914(1914-12-08) (aged 53)
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 with his two sons.[1]

Early career[edit]

The aviso SMS Hela, which Spee commanded in the early 1900s

Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubert von Spee was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 22 June 1861, though he was raised in the Rhineland in Germany, where his family had an estate. He joined the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) in 1878 and initially served in the main German naval base at Kiel.[2][3] He was commissioned an officer at the rank of Leutnant zur See (Lieutenant at Sea), and was assigned to the gunboat SMS Möwe, which was sent to western Africa. During this voyage, the Germans signed treaties with local rulers in Togo and Cameroon, creating the colonies of Togoland and Kamerun, respectively.[4] In 1887, Spee was transferred to Kamerun where he commanded the port at Duala. He contracted rheumatic fever while there, and had to be sent back to Germany to recover, though he occasionally suffered from rheumatism for the rest of his life.[2][3]

In 1897, Spee was stationed in Germany's East Asia Squadron after it seized the concession at Kiautschou Bay, with its port at Tsingtao.[4] During the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, Spee saw action at Tsingtao and on the Yangtze.[3] Between 1900 and 1908, Spee held command of several ships, including the aviso Hela, the minelayer Pelikan, and finally the pre-dreadnought battleship Wittelsbach. He was also promoted to the rank of Kapitän zur See (Captain at Sea) during this period. In 1908, he was assigned as the chief of staff to the commander of the North Sea Station, and in 1910 he was promoted to the rank of Konteradmiral (KAdm—Rear Admiral).[2][4]

East Asia Squadron[edit]

Spee's flagship, the armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst

In late 1912, Spee was given command of the East Asia Squadron, replacing KAdm Günther von Krosigk on 4 December. Spee raised his flag on the armored cruiser Scharnhorst, and departed on a tour of the southwest Pacific along with Scharnhorst‍ '​s sister ship Gneisenau, during which Spee made visits to several ports, including Singapore and Batavia.[5] Spee was promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral) the following year.[3] Over the following year and a half, Spee met with the leaders of several East Asian countries. From 1 April to 7 May 1913, Scharnhorst took Spee to Japan to meet the Taishō Emperor.[5] Later in the year, Spee met with Chulalongkorn, the King of Siam. In May 1914, Spee took Scharnhorst and the torpedo boat S90 on a visit to Port Arthur and then to Tianjin; Spee continued on to Beijing, where he met with Yuan Shikai, the first President of the Republic of China. He came back aboard Scharnhorst on 11 May and the ship returned to Tsingtao.[6]

Spee thereafter began preparations for a cruise to German New Guinea; Scharnhorst departed on 20 June. The two armored cruisers proceeded to Nagasaki, Japan, where they coaled in preparation for their tour. While en route to Truk in the Caroline Islands, they received news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.[7] On 17 July, the East Asia Squadron arrived in Ponape in the Carolines. Spee now had access to the German radio network and he learned of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia and the Russian mobilization against Austria-Hungary and possibly Germany. On 31 July, word came that the German ultimatum that Russia demobilize its armies was set to expire; Spee ordered his ships' crews to prepare for war. On 2 August, Wilhelm II ordered German mobilization against Russia and its ally, France.[8]

World War I[edit]

Map showing the route of the East Asia Squadron

The East Asia Squadron consisted of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers Emden, Nürnberg, and Leipzig.[9] At the time, Nürnberg was returning from the west coast of the United States, where Leipzig had just replaced her, and Emden was still in Tsingtao.[10] Spee recalled his ships to consolidate his forces; Nürnberg arrived on 6 August and the three cruisers plus their colliers moved to Pagan Island in the Marianas, at that time a German colony.[10] Emden and the liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich, which had been converted into an auxiliary cruiser, joined the squadron there on 12 August.[10] The four cruisers, accompanied by Prinz Eitel Friedrich and several colliers, then departed the central Pacific, bound for Chile. On 13 August, Commodore Karl von Müller, captain of the Emden, persuaded Spee to detach his ship as a commerce raider. On 14 August, the East Asia Squadron departed Pagan for Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.[11]

To keep the German high command informed, on 8 September Spee detached Nürnberg to Honolulu to send word through neutral countries. Nürnberg returned with news of the Allied capture of German Samoa on 29 August. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed to Apia to investigate the situation.[12] Spee had hoped to catch a British or Australian warship by surprise, but upon his arrival on 14 September, he found no warships in the harbor.[13] On 22 September, Scharnhorst and the rest of the East Asia Squadron arrived at the French colony of Papeete. The Germans attacked the colony, and in the ensuing Battle of Papeete, they sank the French gunboat Zélée. The ships came under fire from French shore batteries but were undamaged.[14] Fear of mines in the harbor prevented Spee from seizing the coal in the harbor.[15]

Battle of Coronel[edit]

Main article: Battle of Coronel

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.[16]

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.[17]

Battle of the Falkland Islands[edit]

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.[18] 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, who claimed 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.[19]


In September 1917, the second Mackensen-class battlecruiser was named Graf Spee, and was christened by Spee's widow Margarete.[20] Construction of the ship had not been completed by the time of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, and she was broken up for scrap by 1921.[21] In 1934 Germany named the new heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee after him; as with the earlier vessel, a member of Spee's family christened the ship, this time his daughter.[22] In December 1939, Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled by her crew after the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of Uruguay.[23] 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)


  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Graf is a title, translated as Count, not a first or middle name. The female form is Gräfin.
  2. ^ a b c Stewart, p. 283
  3. ^ a b c d Tucker & Roberts, p. 1108
  4. ^ a b c Callo & Wilson, p. 290
  5. ^ a b Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol.7, p. 109
  6. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol.7, p. 110
  7. ^ Hough, pp. 11–12
  8. ^ Hough, p. 17–18
  9. ^ Halpern, p. 66
  10. ^ a b c Staff, p. 29
  11. ^ Hough, p. 23
  12. ^ Strachan, p. 471
  13. ^ Staff, pp. 29–30
  14. ^ Staff, p. 30
  15. ^ Halpern, p. 89
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Gray, p. 185
  18. ^ Lt. Otto von Spee, age 24, served aboard Nürnberg; Lt. (j.g.) Heinrich von Spee, age 21, served on Gneisenau
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz Vol.3, p. 238
  21. ^ Gröner, p. 58
  22. ^ Williamson, p. 39
  23. ^ Bidlingmaier, p. 93


  • Bidlingmaier, Gerhard (1971). "KM Admiral Graf Spee". Warship Profile 4. Windsor: Profile Publications. pp. 73–96. OCLC 20229321. 
  • Gray, J.A.C. (1960). Amerika Samoa, A History of American Samoa and its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. OCLC 498821. 
  • Gröner, Erich (1990). German Warships: 1815–1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-790-6. 
  • Hildebrand, Hans H.; Röhr, Albert & Steinmetz, Hans-Otto (1993). Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe (Volume 3) (in German). Ratingen: Mundus Verlag. ISBN 3-78220-211-2. 
  • Hildebrand, Hans H.; Röhr, Albert; Steinmetz, Hans-Otto (1993). Die Deutschen Kriegsschiffe (Band 7) [The German Warships (Volume 7)]. Ratingen: Mundus Verlag. OCLC 310653560. 
  • Hough, Richard (1980). Falklands 1914: The Pursuit of Admiral Von Spee. Penzance: Periscope Publishing. ISBN 978-1-904381-12-9. 
  • Stewart, William (2009). Admirals of the World: A Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present. Jefferson: McFarland & Co. ISBN 9780786438099. 
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  • van der Vat, Dan (1984). Gentlemen of War, The Amazing Story of Captain Karl von Müller and the SMS Emden. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-688-03115-3.