Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Wilhelm Canaris's Incredible Escape, Part I

Canaris as a Naval Cadet
In the Second World War Wilhelm Franz Canaris (1887–1945) was a German admiral and chief of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. Initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, by 1939 he had turned against the regime.  After the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944, Canaris was arrested, tortured, and eventually executed.  As a junior officer in the First World War he had a distinguished record which included one of the most daring escapes of the conflict.

Canaris was posted  in December 1911 to the light cruiser SMS Dresden. In 1913 this ship was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean in order to protect the German interests during the Second Balkan War.  On return to her home port the ship was dispatched on a voyage almost immediately (and unable to have the necessary maintenance carried out). This time the presence of the ship was required in the eastern waters off the Mexican coast. At that time civil war was raging in that country and the Dresden was deployed in the evacuation of foreigners from Vera Cruz, whose safety could no longer be guaranteed. For having taken 2000 American citizens to safety, the vessel would be decorated by President Woodrow Wilson.

It was intended that the cruiser would be relieved on 27 July 1914. Due to the tense political situation in Europe and the First World War about to break out, the ship could not depart. Hence, the light cruiser remained berthed in the harbor of Port-au-Prince on Haiti. After the declaration of war by Germany in August 1914, the Dresden was ordered to start a "cruiser war" in the Atlantic Ocean; this entailed hunting down Allied merchantmen and navy vessels.

SMS Dresden Transiting the Kiel Canal

The Dresden then headed for the South Atlantic and rendezvoused with the German East Asia Squadron under Vice Admiral Count von Spee at Easter Island. In company with Count von Spee's other ships,  the Dresden participated in the Battle of Coronel, a decisive German victory. One month later, Dresden was the only German cruiser to escape destruction at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, her turbine engines proving faster than her expansion-engined squadron mates. The ship then headed south, back around Cape Horn to the maze of channels and bays in southern Chile. Until March 1915 she evaded Royal Navy searches while paralyzing British trade routes in the area.  

On 8 March 1915, the Dresden put into Cumberland Bay on the Chilean island of Más a Tierra (today known as Robinson Crusoe Island) which was neutral territory. Due to lack of supplies and parts for the worn-out engines, the ship ceased to be operational. Six days later, on 14 March, the British light cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS  Kent  found the elusive German cruiser. After a few shots were fired, the  Dresden  ran up a white flag and sent Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris to negotiate with the British. However, this was merely a ruse to buy time so the Dresden's crew could abandon ship and scuttle her. At 11:15 a.m. the  Dresden slipped under the waves with her war ensign proudly flying.

After much diplomatic wrangling, the crew settled into the limbo of internment on Quiriquina Island, a spot of land just off the Chilean coast north of Coronel Bay. The sailors turned to gardening and chicken farming and enjoyed the support of nearby German communities and clubs. Officers lectured and warned the men not to escape, but as one man explained, "Chilean fishermen would take you to the mainland for 20 pesos and all the shouting in the world couldn't change that."

The German diplomatic and intelligence networks in Argentina and Chile hammered out escape plans for a few select personnel. The first internee tapped to take flight was the young lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris. German agents obtained a Chilean passport for him in the name of Reed Rosas, an Anglo-Chilean vendor and widower. He was ready to begin a two-month odyssey over the Andes in wintertime, then across the Atlantic to be welcomed home a hero.  End of Part I.

See Part II tomorrow in Roads to the Great War.

Sources:  Traces of War; The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914-1922, Jamie Bisher;                                Wikipedia

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