On this day in 1915, the British ships Kent and Glasgow corner the German light cruiser Dresden in Cumberland Bay, off the coast of Chile. After raising the white flag, the Dresden‘s crew abandoned and scuttled the ship, which sank with its German ensign flying.
Dresden, a 3,600-ton light cruiser, was one of the fastest ships in the German Imperial Navy, capable of traveling at speeds of up to 24.5 knots. The sister ship of the Emden, it was one of the first German ships to be built with modern steam-turbine engines. The British navy possessed faster ships, but luckily for Dresden, it had never had to face one. In continuous service since its introduction in 1909, Dresden traveled over 21,000 miles between August 1, 1914 and March 1915, more than any other German cruiser in action during the early months of World War I.
When war broke out in the summer of 1914, Dresden was patrolling the Caribbean Sea, safeguarding German investments and German citizens living abroad in the region. On July 20, during a bitter civil war in Mexico, Dresden gave safe passage to the fleeing Mexican president, Victoriano Huerta, transporting him and his family to Jamaica, where they received asylum from the British government. Shortly thereafter, news from Europe arrived of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia and the imminent possibility of war, and the German Admiralty put its fleet on alert.
By the first week of August, the great nations of Europe were at war. The Dresden was ordered to head to South America to attack British shipping interests there; it sunk several merchant ships on its way to Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Chile, and eluded pursuit by the British naval squadron in the region, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. In October, the ship joined Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron at Easter Island in the South Pacific. On November 1, Spee’s squadron, including Dresden, scored a crushing victory over the British in the Battle of Coronel, sinking two cruisers with all hands aboard—including Cradock, who went down with his flagship, Good Hope.
Five weeks later, the speedy Dresden was the only German ship to escape destruction at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on November 8, when the British light cruisers Inflexible and Invincible, commanded by Sir Doveton Sturdee, sank four of Spee’s ships, including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Nurnberg. As a crew member of Dresden wrote later of watching one of the other ships sink: Each one of us knew he would never see his comrades again—no one on board the cruiser can have had any illusions about his fate. Dresden escaped under cover of bad weather south of the Falkland Islands.
For the next several months, Dresden consistently avoided capture by the British navy, sinking a number of cargo ships and seeking refuge in the network of channels and bays in southern Chile. On March 8, the ship put into an island off the Chilean coast, in Cumberland Bay; its captain, Fritz Emil von Luedecke, had decided the ship needed serious repairs in the wake of such heavy and extended use. Six days later, after picking up one of the many pleas for fuel sent by Luedecke in the hopes of reaching any passing coal ships in the area, Kent and Glasgow found Dresden. When Kent opened fire, Dresden sent a few shots back, but soon raised the white flag of surrender. After a German representative negotiated a truce with the British sailors to stall for time, Luedecke ordered his crew to abandon the ship and scuttle it. Dresden sank slowly at first, then sharply listed to the side. Amid cheers from both the British on board their two ships and the German sailors that had escaped onto land, Dresden disappeared beneath the water, its German ensign flag flying, thus ending the five-year and 21,000-mile career of one of Germany’s most famous World War I commerce-raiding ships.