The mysterious treasure of the German cruiser SMS Dresden, sunk in the First World War

A few months ago we dedicated an article to tell the exciting story of the sms emdena ship of the German Imperial Navy that during the First World War was dedicated to practicing privateering in the Indian Ocean, constituting a nightmare for the enemy until the cruise HMS Sydney of the Royal Navy surprised him and destroyed him with cannon fire.

well, the sms emden It was the second ship of the homonymous class, the first being the sms dresdenwhose story is equally fraught with adventure… and also with an exciting mystery.

Launched in Hamburg on October 1, 1907, it was a light cruiser measuring 118.3 meters in length by 13.4 in beam and 5.55 in draft, displacing a maximum of 4,268 tons and having a dozen 105-gauge guns. mm, 8 52mm and a pair of torpedo tubes. What differentiated this unit from its twin was that it was powered by turbines, instead of conventional piston engines, which drove 4 propellers, which allowed it to reach higher speeds: up to 28 knots.

The cruise ship, shortly after its entry into service, crossing the Kiel Canal/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

If the history of navigation is synonymous with adventure, that of Disdain sublimates that concept and is full of anecdotes. Obviously, the war was the decisive factor in that sense, but before that, during the first trials at sea, it suffered a strange experience: colliding with another ship, a Swedish ship to be exact, which delayed its entry into service by six months… but then there was a problem with a turbine and this caused another delay of four more months.

Finally he was sent to the US to represent Germany at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York, later being assigned to a squad with which he carried out naval exercises for two years. During one of them, incredible as it may seem, he again collided with another ship, the SMS Königsberg.

Dresden class features/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was not all negative. The sms dresden he won the Kaiser’s Schießpreis, a marksmanship competition, and in 1913 he was assigned to the Mittelmeer-Division (Mediterranean Division), where he remained for several months until he returned to the shipyards for an overhaul.

Once this was finished and when the crew was preparing to return to the Adriatic, they received a counterorder: the ship had to go to Mexico to protect German interests in the revolutionary context that was taking place there, just as other countries did. Accompanied by Hertha and the Bremenand taking Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris (future director of the intelligence services of the Third Reich) among the crew, he was used to transfer the resident German citizens, although he also collaborated in bringing to safety a thousand Americans trapped in Veracruz and in facilitate the arrival of a shipment of arms for President Victoriano Huerta, an ally of the Kaiser in those pre-war times.

Commander Fritz Lüdecke then arrived to take command. Polish by birth, he was an artillery specialist and the one who was in charge of removing Huerta when he was overthrown, leaving him in Jamaica. They were there when World War I broke out and the ship was ordered to stay in America with the mission of operating in those waters. Lüdecke headed for Brazil, where he carried out his first action on August 6, seizing a British freighter, the SS Drumcliffe, who was chivalrously released because he had not heard the news. From then on, the sinking of enemies followed one another, with the support of a collier, a gunboat and various support ships.

The Dresden in New York/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It then crossed the Strait of Magellan to join on Easter Island, like the leipzigto Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee’s Asian squadron, which had crossed the Pacific from Tsingtao (China) and was made up of the battleships scharnhorst Y Gneisenauplus the light cruiser nuremberg (other units had broken off to operate on their own). At the end of October they headed from Valparaíso to the Chilean port of Coronel to attack a British light cruiser anchored there, the HMS Glasgow. But the information that Von Spee handled was incomplete because that ship was not alone but accompanied by three others, the battleships mommouth Y good hopeand the auxiliary cruiser otranto.

The ensuing battle was fought on November 1, so apart from the name of Colonel it is also known as All Saints’ Day. The German squadron was superior to the British, led by Admiral Christopher Cradock, who was denied reinforcements, which made the Teutons emerge victorious: the good hope and the mommouth they sank and the sea swallowed 1,654 sailors, since bad weather prevented their rescue.

That left those latitudes in the hands of the Kaiserliche Marine and that convinced the British Admiralty that Cradock was indeed right to ask for help. Accordingly, the cruisers were sent HMS Invincible, HMS Inflexible Y HMS Kent commanded by Vice Admiral Frederick Doveton Sturdee.

In the Falkland Islands they joined the armored cruisers Cornwall, Kent Y Carnarvonand light cruisers Glasgow Y Bristol boardplus an already obsolete ship called HMS Canopus. Von Spee was heading towards the archipelago, who, unaware of the formidable squadron that awaited him, had the objective of destroying the Port Stanley telegraph station and the coal store, although Lüdecke and other captains did not agree with the plan. The meeting took place on December 8: upon discovering the all-powerful enemy, Von Spee ordered to turn around but the British launched in pursuit and caught up with the Germans.

The famous Teutonic admiral tried to protect the retreat of the light cruisers with the battleships and went to the bottom of the sea with the scharnhorst (Her two sons also died.) the captain of Gneisenaufaced with an unequal confrontation with three ships, sank his while the leipzigengulfed in flames, was destroyed by the artillery of the Glasgow and the Cornwall, at the same time that his sailors opened the valves. For his part, he nuremberg tried to ram the Kentwho let him approach to pulverize him with cannon shots.

Outline of the Battle of Coronel/Image: Wikimedia Commons

Only him Dresden He was able to escape thanks to the power of his turbines, giving his pursuers the slip in the maze of channels of Chilean Patagonia. Then he looked for a port where he could carbon and repair the damage. But according to international law he could only stay as long as he needed to, and since it was impossible to return to Germany with the Royal Navy cut off, Lüdecke had the idea of ​​crossing the Pacific. However, his coal reserves were running out and the engines began to fail, so in early March he anchored in the Juan Fernández archipelago. There he was surprised on the 14th by a British squad made up of the HMS Kent, HMS Orama Y HMS Glasgow.

Unable to fight, being immobile, Lüdecke sent Lieutenant Canaris to parley. But he was ignored and the cannonade began, so the captain disembarked his men, opened the valves and detonated the magazine, sending the cruiser to the bottom. The sailors were interned for the rest of the war, except for three who managed to escape, including Canaris. He had finished the story of the sms dresden but the legend began, because it didn’t take long for rumors to appear about what had happened to the riches that he allegedly had on board.

Outline of the Battle of the Falklands/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The wreck of the cruiser is half a kilometer from land, in Cumberland Bay, resting on her starboard side in a depth of seventy meters. Thanks to the clarity of the waters, divers have managed to rescue several pieces, such as the bronze bell.

But, without a doubt, the most suggestive, the thing that unleashes the feverish imagination of almost everyone, is the aforementioned treasure: cash, jewelry and all kinds of valuables from the Germans residing in Mexico, who had deposited them in the ship anchored in Tampico to be transferred to Germany; also a fortune in Chinese gold coins from Tsingtao. Is all that at the bottom of the sea or could it have been removed before?

In the Teutonic colony of Puerto Montt, in the Chilean region of Los Lagos, it is said that some of their ancestors were on board the Dresden carrying supplies when he hid from the British in a local fjord called Quintupeu. It is a narrow sea inlet, wedged between enormous 600-meter-high cliffs that was very appropriate as a hiding place, as two Teutonic residents of Punta Arenas, Albert Pagels and Harry Rothemburg, had informed Lüdecke. Well, some said that once the repairs were completed and the path of British ships cleared, the cruiser prepared to resume its march, but before throwing a large crate into the water.

The sinking of the SMS Dresden/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Speculations about its content are easily deductible. However, the legion of adventurers who have set out in search of him since then have failed in the attempt. The questions of yesteryear are still present today: what did that enigmatic drawer contain? Was it the treasure? Where can this be, in the fjord or on the wreck? Does it really exist or is it the fruit of the imagination?


German raiders of the First World War. Kaiserliche Marine cruisers and the epic chases (Chris Sams)/1914: 100 years after the First World War (Fabio Martin Baccaglioni)/The intelligence war in Latin America, 1914–1922 (Jamie Bisher)/The battles of Coronel and the Falklands, 1914 (Geoffrey Bennett)/Dresden’s Treasure (Carlos Johnson Edwards in Histarmar, History and Marine Archeology)/Wikipedia

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