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

Friday, July 31, 2020

Wilhelm Canaris's Incredible Escape, Part II

Part I of this article appeared in yesterday's, Roads to the Great War.

Security around the internees' bungalows on Quiriquina Island was not very tight, and the Chilean Navy overseers event permitted certain German officers to travel to the city of Concepción on occasion.  Canaris slipped away from his guards on 4 August 1915, disguised as a peasant and traveled by train to Osorno about 320 miles away.

South American Portion of the Escape Route (Approx. 2,400 km)

Canaris was met in Osorno by Carlos Wiederhold Piwonk, a successful merchant and explorer who also happened to be the German consul. The 48-year-old Wiederhold was eminently qualified to coach Canaris on a trans-Andean escape route, having blazed the trail in 1894–95, machete in hand, through mountain passes and vine-choked valleys, across wild rivers and immense lakes, over unmapped, unpopulated territory to mark a road to transport his fruits and merchandise to more prosperous markets in Argentina. In the process Wiederhold established trading posts tat seeded settlements and towns as far east as San Carlos de Bariloche on Argentina's remote southwest frontier.  Even though Wiederhold had been born in Chile, he personified the declaration by the director of the German South American Institute that "Germany's main asset is the German in South America.

Wiederhold arranged for Canaris to be sheltered in the mansion of the von Geyso family on the outskirts of Osorno then relayed the fugitive to the Eggers family in Puychue.  From there Canaris allegedly set out alone on horseback across the the Andes in the last weeks of the austral winter, following trails cleared by Wiederhold's mule caravans. Another member of the Eggers family met Canaris on the other side of the cordillera alongside Lake Hauel Huapi and carried him by boat to San Carlos de Bariloche.  

After several days on the estate of Baron Luis von Bulow, a wealthy German in San Ramon, Canaris traveled on to the rail head at Ingeniero Jacobacci and took a train to Puerto San Antonio, then continued to Buenos Aires. He boarded a Dutch steamer, SS Frisia, which transported him to Rotterdam via Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Pernambuco, Lisbon, Vigo, Falmouth, and Pile—each port increasing Canaris's risk of detection. He finally arrived in Rotterdam at the end of September.

Canaris After the War: Promoted and an Iron Cross Recipient

Exactly two months later on 4 October 1915 he reported back in Hamburg  Canaris was then sent to join the intelligence service for U-boat operations in the Mediterranean. For the next year he worked as an undercover agent in Italy and Spain before becoming a commander of a U-boat in 1917.  He was credited with a number of sinkings, even coming to the attention of the Kaiser. As a result of his espionage exploits in Spain, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. After the armistice in 1918 Canaris joined the Freikorps and took part in the Kapp Putsch. Later he was involved in secretly building submarines for the German Navy. He resumed his naval career and became increasingly involved with military intelligence.  Canaris was eventually appointed to head the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence in 1935.

Sources:  Traces of War; The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914–1922; Wikipedia


  1. Excellent learning more about Canaris. One has to admire his body of work. He had integrity.

  2. His repatriation back to Germany is a captivating story. Senior Rojas, as he was known, speaking fluent Spanish, charmed the other shipboard passengers, many of whom were British. When dispatched to the Mediterranean he set up a clandestine network of fishing vessels in eastern Spain to resupply U boats at sea, before becoming a U boat skipper himself. He remained throughout the rest of his life enamored with the Spanish lifestyle and culture, spending time there whenever he could.

  3. Would anyone be able to help me understand how Canaris helped conceal the location of the Dresden from the British ships hunting the German cruiser? It sounds like he knew people in South America who fed disinformation to the Entente...