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Captain Karl Spindler
Remembering an exceptional Koeningswinter citizen who has gone into the history of sea warfare
by Frieder Berres, translated by Tom Fitzsimmons
Men like Spindler are admiringly termed "sea-heroes" in the literature of naval history. The term is used for members of a navy who accomplish exceptional deeds at sea and who have made history by those deed. Particularly impressive are the performances of individual crews and their commanders who operate alone. One thinks of the numerous submarine commanders from the last world war. But remarkable performances of this kind had already been furnished as early as the First World War.
Besides Otto Weddingen, who could sink three British cruisers with his submarine U 9 within a short time (leading to a gross overestimation of the technical and strategic potential of the submarine as a weapon) above all the name Felix, Count von Luckner (1881-1966), comes to mind. He was an idol of the youth of that time, and that for many reasons. He ran away from home at a tender age, became acquainted with the world of the Wind-jammer and eventually achieved the ranks of ship's officer and captain in the merchant fleet. In the First World War he and several other officers of the merchant marine entered into the service of the Imperial Navy as commanders of auxiliary cruisers, with which they carried out maneuvers meant to distract and mislead the enemy. Count Luckner in his book, "Seeteufel" ("Sea Devil"), fully recounted among other things the history of the auxiliary cruiser which he called "Seeadler ("The Sea Eagle").
Koenigswinter's Captain Karl Spindler is on that same level, even though he is entirely unknown today. He was also an officer in the merchant marine. Indeed his assignment at that time did not run to performing distracting maneuvers, but to break through the English blockade of the North Sea with his ship in order "to supply Irish freedom fighters with firearms and munitions in their struggle against the English oppressor", as a German language newspaper of San Francisco reported in its edition of May 8, 1931. "Because of this great deed," the newspaper continues, "something rare in the history of mankind has happened and a member of one people - the Germans - is regarded by another people - the Irish - as a national hero." Those are indeed stirring words. It is also remarkable that such praise was not composed in Germany, but in the United States of America, which was allied against Germany in the First World War.
A short review of the situation of the war at sea during World War I and that of the freedom fighters of Ireland is necessary in order to understand Spindler's assigned journey into blockade breaking.
The sea war and arms aid for the Irish during the First World War
The history of the Imperial Navy during World War I was conventionally described as "glorious", but as for lone action - there are few successful examples. Admittedly, the foreign squadron (East Asian Squadron) under Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee was victorious at the naval battle of Coronel; however just a month later (December 8, 1914) at the Falkland Islands the same squadron was completely destroyed by the British. The actual main fleet in the North Sea was more or less condemned to idleness. For instead of the expected blockade at the mouths of the Elb, Weser and Ems, the British Home Fleet sealed-off access to Germany from far outside in the Atlantic. Because of their shorter effective radius of action, units of the German Fleet could not be brought to bear against the British Home Fleet which, apart from that, was much stronger. The few naval engagements in the North Sea at Helgoland (Aug. 1914) and off the Doggerbank (Jan. 1915) ended unfavorably if not disgracefully. Also the famous Skagerrak battle (May 31/June 1, 1916) despite heavy losses inflicted on the British Home Fleet, was all the same a strategic and tactical defeat. The Fleet commander at these naval battles was Admiral Scheer, who was also Spindler's senior military commander.
February,1915 saw the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. This brought the waters around Great Britain into a kind of naval warfare in which all ships - even neutral freighters and passenger liners - would be attacked without warning. After the British passenger liner "Luisitania" was sunk on May 7, 1915, causing the death of many Americans, total submarine warfare was abandoned because of the threat of war with America. The decision in February, 1917 to once again adopt this means of conducting naval warfare was followed in April of the same year by the entrance of America into the War, after which the tide of victory turned in favor of the Allies.
At this time several auxiliary cruisers disguised as freighters or trawlers of neutral countries and entrusted with special assignments broke into the open sea; they made history, but did not alter the course of history. Their opponents had to search the world's seas for these solitary warriors on the water. Radar was not yet invented nor was air reconnaissance possible.
The second aspect of Captain Karl Spindler's assignment was the fight for freedom of the Irish against the British oppressor. It had a long history, that reckoned as far back as the middle of the 16th Century. The reason for the voyage of the "Libau", for the name of Blockade-runner, and for the honors given to Captain Spindler in the United States is the fact that many Irishmen had found a new home in the United States to escape an omnipresent British rule in Ireland. Moreover a famine of unimaginable extent had engulfed the island of Ireland in the years 1845-184. The cause was an attack on the potato plant by an unknown fungus which rapidly spoiled the tubers, the principal food of the ordinary people of rural Ireland at that time. As a consequence of this the wealthy and Protestant English landlords, who owned the pastures and crop lands of Ireland, had harshly evicted many Irish Catholic tenant farmers from their holdings, because they could not pay their rent. Almost one million Irish people starved to death under terrible conditions during the time of the 'Great Famine'. During the same period an additional five million emigrated. All in all, at the time of the First World War a minimum of ten million inhabitants of Irish descent were living in the United States, especially in large communities in New York City and San Francisco. Ties to their homeland were strongly impressed on them and the memory of the Great Famine and the Exodus survived widely in the consciousness of these later generations.
The reservoir of nationalist and republican power in Ireland was the Sinn Fein party founded in1905. Sir Roger David Casement, one of the leaders of Sinn Fein, remained in Germany at the beginning of the First World War. He was there with the intention of proposing that the Imperial Government lead a liberating blow against England. The Irish living in America established contact with the Imperial government through the German ambassador in Washington, Count Bernstorff. Many Irishmen saw in the outbreak of the War an opportunity for a popular uprising. Germany was interested in this, because an uprising could tie-up troop contingents from another theater. It is true that a request to the Imperial Government for a troop consignment was rejected, but the government was open to providing support by supplying a stand of arms and munitions. The assignment of the "Libau" was to bring these arms and ammunition to Ireland.
We are well informed about the voyage of the "Libau". The "Sea Devil" was not the only captain of an auxiliary cruiser who collected his experiences into a book. Spindler did that too. The book he wrote was entitled "The Mysterious Ship" and was published in 1920 in several printings by Scherl Publishers GmbH, Berlin. Also amazing is Spindler's English language-version of the voyage of the blockade runner with the title "The Mystery of the Casement Ship", which was published in 1931 by Crib Publishers, Berlin. In the foreword he refers to his ten years previously-published book, "The Mysterious Ship" and says that it was translated into French, Italian and Spanish. The "Order of German Medals Mint of the World War" wrote in a letter of June 7, 1931 to Spindler's sister, Mrs. Gerta Baecke in Berlin-Zehlendorf, "that the blockade break-through by Count Luckner's S.M. Auxiliary Cruiser, 'Sea Eagle" was in part made possible by what had been learned from the experiences of her honorable brother". Also taking into consideration that Admiral Scheer dignified Spindler's German language edition with a very positive review ("The description of his own merit, of the energy of the Captain are avoided...to be excessively underemphasized.... Such personalities as Captain Spindler and his crew are typical of German seamanship."), the description above of Spindler as a sea-hero is not exaggerate.
Who was this Karl Spindler? Because descendants of this Spindler family - one of many in Koenigswinter - no longer live here, the history of his life cannot be laid-out in all its details today. It is definitely known that the later Captain Spindler was born in Koenigswinter on May 29, 1887, the son of stone quarry operator Hubertus Spindler and his wife Elise (maiden name Fuchs). He was not the child of poor people. The present Hubertus Street is named for his father, one of two "stone barons" in Koenigswinter. The great pride of the elder Spindler was the impressive Villa Hubertus on the corner of Rhine Avenue, which was demolished in 1970/71. Here Karl Spindler would have spent his youth. When and where he joined the navy , is not known for certain. He did not go into the Imperial Navy, but into the Merchant Marine. Spindler mentioned that before the War he was on a Lloyd fast steamer, but he did not give the name of the ship. At that time he dreamed of someday becoming a captain of a ship.
Obviously he was already that, if only of a small ship, soon after the outbreak of the War. He was assigned to the Imperial Navy and made commander of the outpost boat "Polarstern" ("Polar Star"), one of several ships of the Second Half Flotilla of the North Sea Outpost Flotilla, based in Wilhelmshaven. Nothing is known about the size and crew strength of the "Polarstern". - On March 21, 1916 Spindler's frustration with monotonous North See patrol duty came to an end.
The "Libau" operation begins
On that day the then Naval Reserve Lieutenant Karl Spindler together with the other outpost boat commanders received orders to appear before the Flotilla commander.
Spindler was not yet 29 years old and got the assignment for a undisclosed special mission; he was to select five petty officers and 16 crew members out of the crews of six outpost boats of the Flotilla. These were not to be older than a certain age, and were to be unmarried. They learned nothing about the nature of the special assignment, but from that moment forward they were to pledge themselves to absolute secrecy.
A short while afterwards Spindler traveled with his crew to Hamburg and at a shipyard there, took over the "Libau". The ship originally bore the name "Castro" and belonged to a British shipping company of Hull. At the beginning of hostilities it was taken as a prize by a German torpedo boat. The "Libau" departed Hamburg for Luebeck with one detour via Wilhelmshaven through the Emperor William Canal (today the Northeast Sea Canal) to the quay of a ships outfitter. During this journey crates of (up to then) unknown contents which were stowed in the hold were opened. They contained original Norwegian seaman's clothing, which was so authentic that even the buttons were imprinted with the name of a Norwegian company After a "masquerade ball" the warship crew was transformed into the crew of a merchant vessel - outwardly. Any difficulties with incorrect sizes were taken care of with padding. It took some time until the crew members had given up the verbal and non-verbal military courtesies of salutes, heel-clicking and smart "Yes sirs", and got used to the maritime Jantjes jargon for talking among themselves and with their Captain.
In between times Spindler was in Berlin. Here he met Sir Roger Casement and his pair of companions Monteith and Beverly and finally learned the purpose of his special mission, which was discussed in all its detail. Casement had misgivings about his coming along aboard the "Libau". For that reason it was arranged to bring him and his pair of companions to the west coast of Ireland in a German U-boat. They would wait off Tralee for the "Libau" to arrive and enter the harbor with her.
The "Libau" transforms itself into the Norwegian freighter "Aud"
In Luebeck, the "Libau" took on coal, water and provisions and took custody of the load of weapons and munitions. These were packed in wooden cases marked with Genoa and Naples as destination ports. On top of this main cargo was stacked a camouflage cargo of wooden props for coal mines, cases of enameled steelware, wooden doors, window frames and various other transport goods. Then everything else was now quickly made Norwegian, starting with the ship's certificate, bills of lading and sea charts and ending with the bed linen and the canned food. The entire crew received a new identity through Norwegian enlistment papers and commissions, which were given a credible aging with oil spots, various stains, dog-eared corners and the like. Likewise a campaign of ravaging was waged against the brand new Norwegian sailors' clothing. As a final "equipment detail " which would not be missing from any tramp steamer at that time, an old dog was taken on board just before departure. In the night after leaving Luebeck the ship went out as far as Warnemuende before anchoring. Under the cover of night, the ship's name "Libau" disappeared beneath the inscription "Aud Norge", while "Bergen" appeared on the stern as home port. When it was daylight again and travel was resumed, the Norwegian flag fluttered aft and the ship's sides also displayed the colors of Norway. The camouflaged "Libau" had a similar appearance to a genuine "Aud" which at that time operated under the Norwegian flag. Only one thing was lacking on the pirated "Aud": on this Norwegian freight steamer not one crew member spoke or understood Norwegian. In a critical situation Spindler hoped to be able to deceive the English whom, as he understood, were certainly no foreign language prodigies, with a German dialect gibberish.
This lack almost caused some complications when leaving the Baltic Sea by the Sund. The narrow shipping channel swarmed with ships of Scandinavian origin and besides that the "Aud" was followed persistently by a small Danish steamer flying a pilot flag, whose skipper absolutely insisted on putting a pilot on board. This continued for such a long time that he could not be ignored. Spindler realized that the pilot would immediately see through the language difficulties on board. When the pilot boat finally turned away there was a fear that the he could have noticed something and might have radioed his suspicions to the English. However, nothing happened.
Although some British guard ships were encountered in the Kattegat, there was no contact. The journey to the north could be continued undisturbed. In the Skagerrak Spindler had finally reached a northern latitude which would let it appear convincing that Christiania (Oslo) was his last port if he turned off to the west. That was important, because all his bills of lading showed this city as port of origin. Spindler went on a westward course and, favored by foggy weather, reached the North Sea undetected by the British patrol boats stationed at Cape Lindesnaes (Norway's southern point). From then on he navigated to the north. Now and again he met with various ships which he could not avoid if he did not want to create suspicion. At these meetings he reduced speed and plowed through the water at only five knots. When the vessels were out of sight, he again drove ahead at full speed. When he was within 100 nautical miles east of the Shetlands, he had reached the line where English warships had blocked off the North Sea to the north to prevent break-through attempts by German auxiliary cruisers. Although the crew of the "Aud " sighted the high battle mast of a large warship from her own mast top, she herself remained undetected with her low smokestack and masts only slightly higher than that.
When the Arctic Circle was crossed somewhat west of its intersection with the prime-Meridian, the "Aud" came into beautiful weather, which is of no use to the blockade runner. Spindler ordered the engines stopped, since some urgent repairs of the engine had to be done, and waited for the weather to worsen. The British had put a last blockade chain between the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. Ten to twelve large auxiliary cruisers were in action along this approximately 200 nautical mile stretch. He had to slip through here. He could not risk a route north around Iceland, because he did not have up-to-date information on ice conditions.
With weather degradation setting-in, the "Aud" took a south west course and actually succeeded in making a break-through here. The blockade runner did not remained unnoticed, but the British auxiliary cruiser did not bother sending across a boarding party. That was to be explained partly by the weather conditions, because a storm rose, which made a taking of a prize boat a risky operation. On the other hand it seemed that the bluff of navigating like a Norwegian tramp steamer unimpressed by the blockade chain succeeded. Nevertheless Spindler wondered whether the "Aud" operation was betrayed and if she had been left undisturbed only in order to stop her short at a crucial moment later.
The oncoming storm ran fairly dramatically for the "Aud" and the ship and the crew were given a good beating. Besides that, the crew was forced to weather the tempest in the direct proximity of Rockall. This is a rocky shallows in the Atlantic west of the Hebrides and feared because most of the rocks do not show above the water.
On the morning of April 20th the "Aud" was scarcely 45 nautical miles from Tralee bay on the Irish west coast, approximately four hours out from the port. Therefore Spindler could be at the rendezvous at the arranged time. On the last part of the voyage a large part of the camouflage cargo had been thrown over board, to speed up the unloading of the actual cargo. Upon arrival everything had to happen very fast. Now the masquerade was also dropped to the extent that German uniforms were worn beneath the Norwegian sailor clothes. Also weapons and the Imperial battle flag were made ready in a hiding place. Depending upon progress of the pending action, preparations had even been made to blow up the "Aud".
Spindler did not know what the present situation was in British-occupied Ireland. Before departure he had read in the "Berliner Newspaper" that violent unrest had broken out in Dublin and martial law had been imposed over the entire east coast.
Tralee bay is situated somewhat south of the broad Shannon bay, into which the river of the same name flows. The bay of the Shannon is dominated by Loop Head peninsula. When the "Aud" approached the Head, there were half a dozen gun barrels staring down at her. Immediately the "slow tramp steamer charade" was produced again, and again the coast guard gave neither a signal to heave-to nor an unmistakable shot across the bows. Because of the submarine menace at that time many smaller steamers navigated close-in to the coast. The "Aud" slowly settled farther out and at 4:15 in the afternoon reached the elongated, uninhabited island called Innishtooskert, one of the Seven Hogs; she had reached the rendezvous arranged with Sir Roger Casement. Spindler stopped the engine.
The events in Tralee Bay and the finding of the Aud
The arranged signal flags were set on the bridge and a watch was made for the pilot boat which should push out to the 'Aud', but nothing stirred. Also the submarine which should bring Casement did not show up. After half an hour the situation was still unchanged. It was unquestionably certain that they were at the right place at the right time. It had been arranged that before the arrival of the "Aud" the Irish would make sure the customs- and port authorities would cause no problems so that cargo unloading could go as quickly as possible. Spindler's instructions read: if after a half-hour waiting period none of the arranged vessels or persons has made contact, and no signs point to making a connection, he should use his own discretion whether to run in or to return."
The half hour was over. Spindler was sure that something must have gone wrong. Many possibilities offered themselves but there was no way to guess which was the correct one. It seemed to him most likely that the unrest in the east of Ireland had spread to the west of the island and that many Sinn Feiners, perhaps Casement himself, had been taken into custody. If that were true he assumed it would be probable that contact would be established during the night. However he could not run into the port now to clarify the situation: the authorities would have come aboard immediately and he had no cargo papers which mentioned this port. He set the engines in motion again because he was sure that a still longer stay would arouse suspicion, since he was being observed by the British coast guard. But no matter what, Spindler did not want to turn back now.
He left Innishtooskert and headed into Tralee bay, in order to explore it slowly. On the pier of Fenit, the main port of Tralee, a British sentry walked his post, taking no notice of the "Aud". Thus it was clear that the port was occupied by the military. Signals aimed at the houses on the beach went unanswered. Also no harbor fee collector appeared to inquire why they were roaming around in the bay. The silence was unbearable for Spindler. He suspected that he had been lured into a trap, which could snap shut at any moment. In fact, however, the "Aud", as was later established, was at this time still regarded by the British coast guard as a Norwegian freighter. The prearranged green light signals also remained unanswered at nightfall. Spindler went back behind Innishtooskert and at 1:30 in the morning anchored in the protection of the island.
When it was again daylight, Spindler had to admit to himself the fact that the operation was failed if something had not happened by now. But he did not yet want to turn back. Suddenly the lookout announced that a pilot steamer was approaching the "Aud", Spindler personally set the recognition signal arranged with the Irish, at which point the English war flag was hoisted on the alleged pilot steamer; it was not the longingly awaited Irish pilot boat, but a British outpost boat. The situation had become serious. On the "Aud" the usual role playing immediately started again, but this time the commander of the "Shatter II", which was the name of the small warship, could not be prevented from coming on board with several armed men.
Naturally the commander of the small warship wanted to know above all, why the "Aud" was anchored here and where she was bound. Spindler told him of the storm he rode out near Rockall during which the cargo had shifted, requiring restowing. As destinations he gave Cardiff then on to Naples and Genoa and he also showed him the ship's papers. The "Shatter" commander had just seen the coal mine timber props lying under one of the two loading hatches. The props were not there because of the storm. They had been left there when the bulk of the camouflage cargo was tossed overboard. Spindler's story was enough to satisfy the Commander of the "Shatter II". They relaxed with a discussion of the storm, which the commander of the "Shatter II" had also experienced. A generous helping of whiskey loosened his tongue and further eased the situation. As Spindler had left him to help himself to more whiskey the commander continued to drink, because on British warships the consumption of alcohol was strictly forbidden. Since whiskey was plentifully available on board the "Aud" a few bottles were also passed around to the other British sailors on board. As thanks Spindler received several recent English newspapers. During this captain-to-captain chat the commander of the "Shatter" was moved to disclose that he was out there to intercept an auxiliary cruiser which was going to land here and bring weapons to the Irish. At that moment Spindler must have finally become sure that the operation had been betrayed and was doomed to failure. Actually, shortly before his arrival in the vicinity of Tralee Bay the German admiralty had transmitted the radio message: "Everything betrayed. Return immediately with "Libau!" to all submarines west of Ireland, but not one submarine received the message.
When the "Shatter" people finally left, Spindler had found a new friend in its commander: "If you happen to see the German auxiliary cruiser outside, then be careful that the chap does not fire on you. Inform a signal station immediately or one of our cruisers which are waiting for him in large numbers outside. You will get a good reward from the government. I'm telling you this as a friend! " The British therefore knew that a German auxiliary cruiser was on the way to Tralee, but that it could be disguised as a Norwegian freighter had obviously not been taken into official consideration up to then.
The visit of the "Shatter" with the "Aud" had obviously been observed by the coast guard and reported to the Limerick naval base At any rate, close to 1:00 in the afternoon another large and modernly equipped outpost boat was sighted. Since the commander of this ship wanted to be briefed by the commander of the "Shatter" he searched for that ship first and the "Aud" succeeded in escaping again. Meanwhile the line of ships which had probably been hidden from the "Aud" came into view. As Spindler later learned from a English naval officer, the radio-equipped outpost boat had issued an urgent radio message to the responsible admiral, who rushed a swarm of approximately 30 auxiliary cruisers and destroyers onto the "Aud".
The British warships soon located the "Aud" and encircled her. The play was finally ended. Spindler hoped that a prize crew which he could overpower and capture would be sent to his ship. This would have allowed him to demand terms. But this favor was not granted, and he was requested to accompany the ships to Queenstown in the wake of the auxiliary cruiser "Bluebell" in the lead. (Today, Queenstown is called Cobh; it is the main port of Cork on Great Island.) While following along, Spindler pretended to be having communications problems and moved so slowly that the British nearly burst a blood vessel. Spindler still hoped to find some way of slipping away from the escort during the night or that a German submarine would break him free from this situation. But nothing could be done, he was in a stranglehold.
In preparation for the morning, the crew put on their the uniforms, readied the national flag, and burned secret documents. Everything was prepared for scuttling, the two life boats were quite slowly and unobtrusively made ready. It was not clear how the scuttling would go- ammunition and explosives were on board - there was the possibility of being blown sky-high. At the entrance of Queenstown the charge was detonated, tearing a large hole in the side of the ship. The entire crew was in the lifeboats by the time further explosions followed. The boats succeeded in moving free of the sinking ship. The "Aud" turned broadside to the channel and in a few minutes, with flag flying, went to the bottom. The ship's dog had been saved from an unknown fate beforehand by a coup-de-grace from a pistol. - It was 22 April 1916, the day before Easter. Just one month had passed since the transfer of the special command to Spindler.
Imprisonment and escape.
The crew of the "Libau" who had gone into the life rafts after sinking the "Aud" had immediately made themselves recognizable as sailors of the German Navy and had run up the white flag to show that they were ready to surrender. They were first picked up by the "Bluebell" then put ashore and later taken to Great Britain on a British cruiser. Spindler was separated from the crew and Captain and men more or less questioned nonstop. After a few stopovers Spindler was put into Donington Hall officer prisoner of war camp near Derby and Nottingham. From now on he was continuously occupied with making escape plans and putting them into action. However they failed and again.
It was now 1917. With the continuation of the war conditions outside the camp became ever less favorable for an escape. Spindler had a good command of English, but the introduction of ration cards on the island combined with passport checks and heavier security measures at the ports and docks appeared to doom prospects for an escape by land or by water. This compelled Spindler to plan for an escape by air. Although it was true he had never even sat in an airplane, he still hoped that there would be a pilot who would dare this operation with him among the German soldiers who week after week continued to fill the camp. He finally found him in Flight Lieutenant Winkelmann, who had been shot down in aerial combat on the western front and who was also well-versed on enemy combat aircraft. He had even flown captured models.
Spindler had established that there must be a small airfield not too far from Donington Hall. By skillful questioning of civilian camp workmen he also knew also its approximate location. He estimated that the airfield could be reached in a four to six hour march. The prisoners' plan for a new tennis court within the camp created the possibility of drawing up a somewhat larger than necessary rainwater drainage ditch so that two men could lie in it.
Spindler realized that his disappearance would be noticed. He was most prominent German officer in the camp, and was regularly pointed-out as the "Casement Captain" and guards making evening rounds were careful to make sure that he was actually in his bed. With Spindler's escape his "role" in the camp was taken over by an officer of his same size who occupied Spindler's bed when the guards came around.
The day of the escape was Thursday, July 12, 1917. It proved to be considerably more difficult than anticipated. Getting through the wire fences of the camp without tools took longer than expected and used up much of their reserve of strength. Because the escape route avoided roads, they constantly encountered fences, hedges and drainage channels, making long detours necessary. Most important, however, they did not find the airfield, nor could they see any pilots ready to takeoff or coming in for a landing. Their supplies weighed them down and a dreadful thirst tormented them. Because of the overnight stay on the ground, or because of standing in the wet grass, Spindler's old rheumatism pains returned. On Sunday after the escape the remainder of their food rations had been used up. Spindler had the boldness to speak to a boy near a farm. He asked him whether his mother was at home and if she would make them something to eat in exchange for payment. The good woman did this. In further conversation with the boy Spindler learned that the small airfield for which they had searched the whole time was abandoned six weeks ago and there was now only the airfield north of Nottingham, on the other side of the River Trent - the agony of the last three days had been all in vain.
When Spindler and Winkelmann arrived in Nottingham early in the morning, they discovered a poster which announced in large print that on Saturday three officers had broken out of Donington Hall. There followed the personal descriptions of Spindler and Winkelmann and an Austrian army officer, Arpad Horn. They knew the latter, obviously he had also escaped after them. Spindler and Winkelmann soon found the bridge over the River Trent, which was barred by a toll booth with a turnstile. In addition to the bridge attendants two policemen guarded it. Since it was still early in the day and there was little traffic, they decided to wait until 8 o'clock to cross when the rush hour had begun so they would be less noticeable. They took a bench on a square in an nearby avenue. After about ten minutes a policeman turned into the avenue from a road. By either side he led two apparently handcuffed ragged looking me. When this group was next to Spindler and Winkelmann, the group rushed them and encircled them. - They had been skillfully lured into a trap, the escape had failed.
The escapees were returned to Donington Hall. Spindler was transferred afterwards to various other prisoner of war camps and prisons. He gave up making escape plans only because he was gripped by an infection during a stay in Cromwell Gardens prison (London). He was so weakened by malnutrition that he collapsed after returning to Donington Hall and was confined to bed for several weeks with high fever and a skin disease. On April 22, 1918 he was exchanged to Holland after exactly two years of imprisonment.
Reasons for the failed weapon transfer to the Irish.
Research into the background of the operation and the failed weapons transfer in Tralee bay must have occupied Spindler intensively after publication of his German-language edition. That is understandable, because he had begun the voyage on the "Libau", without having a deep knowledge of the history leading up to it. The English language edition published in1931 with the title "The mystery of the Casement ship" is with small deviations a translation of the German edition, with the addition, however of two appendices. In the first Spindler listed written correspondence, telegrams and recorded radio messages associated with the operation; in the First World War they were classified as "top secret".
In the second appendix of the English language edition with the heading "Why the German arms landing failed" he summarizes the result of his research. In particular he emphasizes that the Easter revolution of 1916 was planned by the Irish themselves and was not based on an initiative of Germany. It was not the uprising of a prominent few, but a large-scale revolt of the entire Irish population. It was also not spontaneous by any means, but was long in the planning. The German Imperial government at that time and the Admiralty had not become involved in an operation of uncertain outcome, but had probed beforehand the chances for success. This sounding-out had established that in Ireland at that time 30,000 badly trained British soldiers and 10,000 well armed policemen faced at least 40,000 Irish Volunteers, who were trained like the American National Guard. With them on the Irish side were a further 50,000 untrained volunteers, so that supplying the Irish with 25,000 to 50,000 rifles and ammunition and an appropriate number of machine rifles and cannons for field artillery gave a probability of success for the planned rebellion.
There are several reasons for the failure of the operation. As set out here, the Sinn Fein leader Sir Roger Casement with his companions actually arrived in a German U-boat at the arranged meeting place in Tralee bay, admittedly late in the evening. The U 20 under Captain Schwieger which had been designated for the operation and which had set out along the intended route to the west coast of Ireland, had to turn back on April 12th because of rudder damage and was back in Helgoland on April 15th. As fast as possible the operation was transferred to U 19 under Captain Weissbach, and this was done so briskly that the submarine was still able to set off in the afternoon of the same day. As soon as U 19 had put out to sea, a radio message was sent to the Admiralty, explaining that this incident would cause no delay in the operation. (1)
However the commander of U 19 did not possess detailed written instructions. For security reasons, the commander originally assigned, Schwieger of U 20, had burned all written instructions before he had returned with his boat because he had already traveled almost half the distance to Ireland and it could not be ruled-out that he could be intercepted by a British warship. Thus Captain Weissbach only received the verbal instruction either to put Sir Roger and both his companions on board the "Aud" or, if that were not possible, to put them ashore. According to Spindler's testimony, the crew of U 19 had seen the outlines of the "Aud" in the distance during the night but they took it for an English destroyer. The signal flags and the light signals shown from the "Aud" had not been detected because of bad visibility. Since Casement incorrectly assumed that the auxiliary cruiser had not arrived, he pressed the submarine commander Weissbach to put him and his two companions ashore immediately. The submarine put Casement and his two companions into a dinghy to start ashore from Ballyheige bay (northeastern area of Tralee bay) (2) Following that, according to Spindler's narration, the submarine immediately began the return trip.
Spindler never found an answer to the question of why Casement did not want to wait until the "Aud" had arrived or at least until there was a better understanding of the situation. There are several peculiarities here. Spindler reported that he learned later from Captain Weissbach and his officers that Casement had been very uncommunicative and kept to himself during the journey and especially toward its en. Possibly then, Spindler assumes, Casement for some unspoken reason tried to prevent the Irish rebellion at the last moment because he had overburdened himself with this operation or because he judged that there was little probability of a successful outcome and wanted to avoid useless bloodshed by his compatriots. Nevertheless Spindler emphasizes he does not want to condemn him due to a possible shift of opinion, because he became acquainted with him as a man whose actions were shaped by love and a sense of responsibility for his homeland. - As the English newspapers reported, Casement was picked up and arrested the following day near the place where he had landed.
That chief cause of the failure of the weapons transfer lay in an extension of the deadline for the rebellion. For reasons which cannot be explained because of the executions of those responsible in the Irish revolutionary council, the date for the arms delivery had been shifted to Easter Saturday (April 22nd). The revolutionary council probably assumed the change of days was also communicated to the commander of the auxiliary cruiser. However that was not done. A black mark against the "Libau" operation was that the ship had no radio equipment. After the auxiliary cruiser put out to sea, communication of the German naval command with Spindler was only possible via a submarine which had received an appropriate radio message. However a submarine could receive a radio message only if it were surfaced. Another prerequisite for passing on a message to the "Libau" was that the submarine would meet the "Libau". The "Libau" was sighted by the Irish during its stay in Tralee bay, but was ignored because of the deadline extension. This is also the reason why the arranged signals were not answered; the Irish were intensively involved with preparations for the rebellion to begin on the day after the next.
The English and Irish press occupied themselves the whole week with different descriptions of the "Libau" operation and the arrest of Sir Roger Casement. The trial against him was in session through the remainder of the month of April. Casement, left on his own, conducted a quite excellent defense of himself during his trial The verdict of the court against him was death by hanging; on August 3, 1916, the sentence was carried out.
Spindler's recurring suspicion that his special assignment was at least to a certain extent known to Britain, was confirmed by the British themselves. Concerning an interrogation by Scotland yard during his imprisonment he writes: "In the course of the interrogation unfortunately it turned out that the English had not only gotten wind of the arrival of the 'Libau', but that they were familiar with almost all details of the whole operation." And further: "To repeated questions about Sir Roger Casement I answered again and again that I did not know this man at all. Whereupon several passages of a large document were read out to me, which were word for word exactly the same as in my secret instructions! I had personally burned my copy. Therefore the only copy still available must have been in Casement's possession." All details of the "Libau" operation might not have been well-known, otherwise the British would have ended it at the latest in Tralee bay. Because an auxiliary cruiser, which was equipped with only one machine gun as weaponry might have been easy to overpower. At the least it was believed the German blockade runner had a substantially stronger armament. "Had we known what kind of ship the English regarded us as being and what kind of enormous reinforcement and submarine escort they thought we had, then what occurred would have been more understandable", Spindler commented on the fact that his ship was accompanied by several auxiliary cruisers and destroyers, which usually kept themselves at a respectful distance while on the way to Queenstown.
The Easter Rising of the Irish in the year 1916, which ended bloodily after one week, the fate of Sir Roger Casement and the voyage of the German auxiliary cruiser "Libau" still occupy historians long after the events. There are other publications on those themes than Spindler's, which was the main source for this contribution. For the most part, they follow Spindler's description of the voyage of the "Libau".
In 1966, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the events, there appeared a book with the title "The Sea and the Easter Rising 1916". The publisher of this study is the National Maritime Institute of Ireland, the author Dr. John de Courcy Ireland, who is described as the father of modern Irish maritime historical research. A revised and extended third edition of this book appeared recently (1996) and the main section concerns itself with the voyage of the " Libau". Here Spindler's descriptions of the stay of the German auxiliary cruiser in Tralee bay on April 20th and 20th 1916 are submitted to a critical examination. Drawing on face-to-face discussions and an exchange of letters with the commander at that time of U 19, Raimund Weissbach, which de Courcy Ireland began shortly before Weissbach's death, led to a somewhat altered picture of the situation. The commander of the submarine recorded in his logbook that he held position for at least 2-1/2 to 3 hours after beginning a watch for the "Aud" before setting the Irish into the water. (3) The author assumes that Weissbach could not find the German auxiliary cruiser, because in the night it had been mistakenly run in to the estuary of Shannon bay instead of into Tralee bay. Nevertheless de Courcy Ireland also views the absence of radio equipment on the "Aud" as the principal reason for the failure
It is doubtful whether it will be possible to clear up what happened off the Irish coast on April 20th and 21st, 1916 at this distance of time. Spindler himself cannot comment on conclusions which are made on suppositions being used now.
From his books it emerges that after he and Weissbach were released from captivity, discussions took place between them about the situation in Tralee bay. At that time no mutual reproaches were raised nor did any ill-feelings remain between the two commanders. With the sinking of the ship, the logbooks of the "Libau" are missing. Spindler could have only written his book about the progress of the voyage from memory, whereby inaccuracies can have insinuated themselves. (4) It lies within the realm of possibility that he could have "verfranzt" himself along the unfamiliar and deeply fissured coast. However it is undisputed that he did not begin the return trip on April 20th at 4:30 in the afternoon after a half-hour waiting period, which his instructions left open as an alternative, but that he tried on own responsibility to somehow accomplish the unloading of the weapons. - It is interesting anyway that the voyage of the "Libau" is, after 80 years now, still a topic which occupies Irish historians.
Honors and awards for captain Spindler.
Spindler dedicated the German-language edition of his book, which in 1921 had gone into a printing of 20,000 copies, to his "wackeren crew". The book itself reads like an adventure novel. The tenacity and persistence, and also the circumspection with which Spindler proceeded in each individual situation are impressive. Spindler was undoubtedly a born leader who could inspire and draw others along. His crew must have really worshipped him. Four of his crew members had escaped from camps, in which they were held as prisoners. When they were recaptured, however, they were not traveling in the direction of their homeland, but toward Donington Hall; they wanted to break-out their commander.
During the First World War the "Libau" operation was understandably hushed up in Germany because it had not gone "gloriously". It had failed because of circumstances over which Spindler had no control. The operation he led, the arrest and execution of Casement and Spindler's escape from the prison camp caused much sensation in Ireland and Great Britain at that time. While in Ireland, understandably, it was primarily the fate of Sir Roger Casement that occupied the press, the questions, how a German auxiliary cruiser could unhindered break through all the blockades, how the "Aud" could blow itself up while in custody of numerous British ships, how Captain Spindler could escape from the camp, likewise for months were subjects of reports in the newspapers and debates in the parliament. At that time Spindler enjoyed a high degree of publicity in Ireland and Great Britain.
Spindler was awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class, the Flanders Cross, the Hungarian War Medal with Swords Device, the Naval Memorial Cross, the German Remembrance Medal of the World War with Combat Badge and the Prisoner of War Medal. "From the German Imperial government", he writes in a statement dated April 4, 1932, "as a special honor for my blockade breakthrough I received my appointment to the Naval Command (formerly Admiralty). Even though as a reserve officer only entitled to wear the rank of First Lieutenant of the Sea , I was raised to my former rank as a Captain in the Merchant Fleet and as Section Chief in the Naval Command. This was a privileged position, which was not bestowed in earlier times and presumably will not be bestowed again." - Spindler regarded it thus, despite the failure of his operation, so too did his native land. Exactly like count Felix von Luckner, he also carried out lecture tours, with which he told about the journey of the "Libau".
Such a flood of honors broke over Spindler in the United States of America, that they could almost be called a personality cult. The reason for these honors in 1931 was the commemoration of the15th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising. The president of the Irish committee in New York had invited Spindler to do a lecture tour of the United States. As well as New York, lectures were intended for Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston and other cities. The main event took place on Easter Sunday in the city of San Francisco. Immediately on entering the city there was a parade. The 2.5 km long main street of the city, Market Street, was draped with banners. "As could be clearly read, many of the banners carried the inscription, 'Welcome Capt. Karl Spindler.' The banners in the American, German and Irish colors - also the public buildings - - during the whole week's stay of Captain Spindler in San Francisco," reported the May 8, 1931 edition of a San Francisco German language newspaper. The high point of the numerous honors conferred by the Americans was the presentation of the "golden key of the State of California" to Spindler personally by Governor Rolph; this was the first time ever for the State to confer this honor. Later In Boston he also received the "golden key" to that city The Irish living in the United States - newspaper reports spoke of 20 million - still had something special left. They had a medal of pure gold struck for the man, "who in 1916 risked his life for Irish liberty", "which bore on the front side a portrait of Captain Spindler with his name and on the reverse side an inscription in commemoration of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and the blockade breakthrough by the German auxiliary cruiser. This medal was formally presented to Captain Spindler and his Crew by the president of the Irish Committee, John T. Ryan, on the occasion of yesterday's New York commemoration ceremony in the giant hall of Mecca Temple amid the roaring jubilation of the enthused crowd. Meanwhile the band played the German national anthem, at which all present stood listening, while at the same time the German flag was raised on the stage. Among others, many hundreds of Germans also attended the stirring ceremony.".
The pedestal on which Spindler was raised, was high, perhaps even somewhat too high, because outstanding achievements in the War were not forthcoming only from him. Many, nameless and still nameless, also did much. Spindler's honors in America are to be understood only against the background of the extremely sorrowful history of the Irish people. Together with a strong inner loyalty to the land of their forefathers the memories of suppression and of the blows of fate still lived fresh in their consciousness. To bring an end to oppression, Irishmen on the mother island had suffered and those in America had done everything they could. Spindler had carried the hope of a change in the course of Irish history. What is honored in the focus of the Irish upon Spindler, is the fact that his achievements were recognized even though they could not cause the fervently longed-for change.
The history of Spindler's later life was only reconstructed in fragments. It is sure that in 1932 he visited his father, still living at that time in Koenigswinter. In the summer of 1935 he visited his home city, presumably for the last time. Christmas 1935 he was again in New York City and also at the beginning of the Second World War he stopped in the United States. With the entrance of the United States into the war Spindler was interned, however after the War he returned to Germany "where he died some years ago", as the Irish naval historian John de Courcy Ireland reports without further detail. (5).
That a "Son of Koenigswinter City", as he is described in an article of the Koenigswinter local newspaper "The Seven Mountains Echo" on July 4, 1931, attained almost the status of a national hero of the Irish might not only be of interest for the history of his hometown. On the contrary, his life and his fate may be an example of what the "Ancient Romans" had already realized: "Sic transeat gloria mundi - how quickly the fame of the world passes".
(1) Captain Weissbach, commander of U 19, and Captain Schwieger, commander of U 20, were connected by common war experiences. Before Raimund Weissbach became a submarine commander he served as torpedo officer on U 20. It was he who fired the torpedo on May 7,1915 which led to the sinking of the "Luisitania". The question whether this British passenger steamer also transported weapons has not been settled so far. Weissbach was later commander of U 81. His submarine was sunk by the British submarine E 54 in 1917 while surfaced after torpedoing a freighter. He and part of his crew were rescued by the British submarine. Weissbach came from Breslau and died in 1972.
Captain Schwieger lost his U 20 in November 1916 off the Danish coast. His new command was the U 88, which went down in the North Sea with its entire crew on September 5, 1917.
Submarines U 1 to U 18 used surface-running engines which were fueled with heavy oil. Diesel engines came into use beginning with U 19. In 1916 U 19 and U 20 were "modern" submarines.
(2) The dingy displayed in the Imperial Museum in London is assumed to be the one in which the Irish rowed ashore. At any rate, the boat is not collapsible as was often assumed. This leaves open the question how such a dingy could be transported in or on a submarine.
(3) However the U 19 log does not mention a search for the "Libau" before setting the Irish into the bay. The entries covering the early morning hours of April 21, 1916 say: "Pilot not found. No vessel at all to be seen. Landing with the dingy is only alternative. I go in therefore under the high ground of Kerry Head, at the north side of the bay, and then on an course east into Ballyheige bay at the limit for submerged depth. Rocks and shallows to are easy to detect. Water in the bay is mirror-smooth, only gentle swelling. Gone to reciprocal heading, dingy equipped with all necessities readied. Around 2.25 lowered the Dingy with the 3 Irishmen. Did without the dingy motor because of the loud noise. The distance from onboard to ashore amounts to about 2 nautical miles. I have the conviction that the dingy having gone about 3 o'clock has landed. ".
Since the National Museum only puts reproductions of historical photographic material at ones disposal, the quality of some photographs is consequently greatly reduced.
(4) Perhaps that explains why Spindler rarely seems to report dates. Today the positions of the "Libau" on individual days are well-known, but that is the result of later analysis of logs of those British ships which had observed the "Libau".
(5) When and where Spindler died could not be discovered despite intensive research. The Military History Research Office in Potsdam also possesses "Libau" operation documents, however it has no personnel documents. Efforts to clarify Spindler's life history through the Koenigswinter City register office have also been fruitless.
BULLIT-GRABISCH, Agatha: Roger Casement and the "German Plot".
COURTESY: Centenary of Roger Casement, 1964.
HICKEY, K.A.: The Gun-Runners, 1947.
IRELAND, John de Courcy: The Sea and the Easter Rising 1916, 3rd Printing, Dublin 1996.
SPINDLER, Karl: Das geheimnisvolle Schiff, Berlin, 1921.
same: The mystery of the Casement ship, Berlin 1931.
same: German Guns for the Irish Cause - The story of my expedition to Tralee Bay (an undated lecture manuscript).
In addition photocopies of the log of the H.M.S. " Bluebell ", the secret.
"Queenstown Naval Notes" and extracts from the log of U 19 in order.
Reports about Captain Spindler can also be read in the Koenigswinter local newspaper "Seven Mountains Echo" for April 14th and July 4th, 1931.
For suggesting this contribution I am indebted to Mr. Guenter Hank, Koenigswitner, who was very helpful to me in the procurement of documents. He made contact with Mrs. Tina Eberhardt of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Dublin, which led to a connection with Dr. John de Courcy Ireland of the National Maritime Institute of Ireland and with Dr. Philip Smyly of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland. These made accessible to me biographies and papers and allowed reproduction of historical photographic material in the possession of the Museum and the Institute. I am indebted to you all.
Page 98. Koenigswinter native Captain Karl Spindler in dress uniform. He was commander of the auxiliary cruiser "Libau" which brought out a weapons cargo from Germany to Ireland in aid of the 1916 Easter Rising. Photograph: Photo Archive of the Seven Mountains Local History Association, Koenigswinter.
Page 100. The "Castro" of the Wilson Line in Hull was captured in August 1914 by the Royal Navy as prize and converted to the S.M.S. auxiliary cruiser "Libau. Photograph: The National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
Page 102. Route of the auxiliary cruiser "Libau" with indication of places where enemy warships were passed. Taken from Spindler's book, "The Mysterious Ship", Library of the Seven Mountains Local History Association, Koenigswinter.
Page 104. The Kerry coast on the west side of Ireland with Inishtookert Island which was the designated rendezvous of the auxiliary cruiser "Libau" with the German U-boat. Drawing: Ursula Hardenberg/Frieder Berres, Koenigswinter.
Page 106. Logbook of H.M.S. "Bluebell" from Saturday, April 22, 1916. Lower right, the entry that at 9:28 am the "Aud" sank itself, the crew surrendered and 3 officers along with 19 crewmen of the German Navy were made prisoners. The original of the logbook is found in the possession of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
Page 108. Another photograph that was taken during the journey of U 19 from Helgoland to the Irish West coast. On the conning tower somewhat to the right of center and without a headcovering, Sir Roger Casement, top left with visored hat, commander Raimund Weissbach. Photo: The National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
Page 109. On board U 19 in April, 1916 during the journey to the Irish west coast to the rendezvous point with the "Libau". In the left foreground a crew member and beside him commander Raimund Weissbach. The civilians are (from left to right) Monteith, Beverly; behind Weissbach stands Sir Roger Casement, the leader of the Irish Sinn Feiners. Photograph: The National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
Page 110. Four German U-boats in their base. In the center U 20 and U 19, which along with the "Libau" were involved in the German arms delivery for the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. Photograph: The National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
Page 111. The title picture of the paper, "The Sea and the Easter Rising 1916", which was published in 1996 by the National Maritime Institute of Ireland , showing the German auxiliary cruiser "Libau" in its disguise as the Norwegian freighter "Aud".
Page 112. First Lieutenant of the Sea Karl Spindler. The numerous decorations make it possible to recognize that the photograph must have been made after his return from imprisonment. Photograph: Photo Archive of the Seven Mountains Local History Association, Koenigswinter.
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