‘Ruthless Warfare’: German military planning and surveillance in the Australia – New Zealand region before the Great War. Edited and introduced by Jurgen Tampke. 214 pp. Southern Highlands Publishers, Canberra, 1998. ISBN: 0-733-0504-5. Recommended Retail Price: $24.00.

Review by Robert McGregor

The role of naval strategy in the Pacific during World War I has unfortunately received scant attention from Australian historians in recent years. In comparison with the enormous published concentration upon the Gallipoli campaign, and trench warfare in Europe, historiography on events in the Australia – New Zealand region seems sparse by comparison. Indeed, it is often a forgotten fact that the first Australian casualties of the war were suffered in New Guinea, at the time a German colony. This neglect can be demonstrated by even a glance at the New South Wales Higher School Certificate Modern History syllabus: in a compulsory module on World War I, there is remarkably little emphasis upon the Australian region in a strategic sense. Yet there was a war on Australia’s doorstep throughout 1914: New Guinea and other Pacific territories belonging to Germany were occupied by Australian and New Zealand forces, and the destruction of the German cruiser Emden by HMAS Sydney off Keeling Island in 1914 demonstrated the immediate danger. Jurgen Tampke’s Ruthless Warfare is a fine attempt at redressing this imbalance in the historiography by providing documentary proof of German military planning, in particular, schemes for the use of ‘cruiser warfare’ throughout the Australia – New Zealand region.

It should be emphasised that this volume will be of interest to a readership beyond specialist military historians. For it appears that the German military regarded the potential value from the region not only in strategic terms, but also in cultural value: Deutschtum, or the maintenance of German culture in a ‘foreign’ context, was an extremely important issue. This point is evidenced by the visit of the German warships Condor (in 1910) and Cormoran (in 1912) to several Australian ports including Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, and Brisbane. The documentary evidence shows that there was more to these visits than mere reconnaissance: detailed reports were made on the state of German culture in each individual area, through contact with German social clubs and communities. The presence of German ‘patriotic’ spirit, through the forms of language, religion, and ‘imperial’ sentiment (the display of Kaiser Wilhelm’s portrait in one Tasmanian home drew particular praise) were carefully noted by the visitors, and any absence of such loyalty in German communities deplored. Of course, there was a strategic purpose to this surveillance: as noted by the senior German station officer, Captain Kranzbuhler, following the 1910 tour, ‘nothing serves German interests better than a visit by a German warship to Australian ports.’ (p. 113) Indeed, evidence is presented for the existence of pre-war intelligence cells, largely based around the German embassies or consulates in capital cities and major coastal centres. Tampke uses this material to support his argument that the internment of German citizens within Australia at the outbreak of war was a necessary act. (p. 28) The possibility of any large scale network of activists involving the wider German community in Australia seems questionable, although as pointed out, the growing availability of previously restricted material will shed greater light on this issue. (p. 103)

In strategic terms, the documents illuminate German war planning in the Pacific. Given the race for arms and empire between Germany and Great Britain in the pre-war period, including the production of Dreadnought class battleships, it seems inevitable that the Australia-New Zealand area would be included as part of a wider imperial grand strategy, particularly in view of the German colonial possessions nearby. Indeed, Tampke reveals that well before the outbreak of war, German strategists saw the Australia-New Zealand theatre as a diversion for the British fleet, ‘forcing the British to send considerable detachments to remote regions of the world’ following an ‘auxiliary war’ aimed against British and Dominion merchant shipping. (pp. 69 – 70) In Australia too, the increase of German, and more alarmingly, Japanese naval power (a point not fully developed by Tampke) in the pre-war period sparked debate in press and parliament as to exactly how secure Australia and its shipping lanes would be in the event of a conflict with either nation. The entry of the Australian Fleet Unit into Port Jackson during October 1913 proved a considerable foil to German plans: in particular, the arrival of the 18,800 ton battle cruiser HMAS Australia, in company with other light cruisers, definitely forced a revision in German strategy. (p. 191) The Australia heavily outgunned the two largest German cruisers on the station, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, seriously clouding German visions of unchallenged oceanic supremacy, harassment of coastal areas, and trade interdiction. In the aftermath, pre-war strategies of German naval planners, heavily based upon naval predominance in the area, had to be re-examined or abandoned totally: from this point on, it seems, the primary mission of the cruiser squadron was to avoid a possibly disastrous wartime encounter with HMAS Australia.

Japan’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914 served to damage German plans still further, largely because of the vulnerability of their only naval base in the Pacific: Tsingtao, on the Chinese coast, which was hastily evacuated by the cruiser squadron upon the outbreak of war. As Tampke notes, the German assumption of Japanese neutrality proved to be a costly mistake, both diplomatically and militarily. (p.190) Initially, the German cruiser squadron encountered success in its pursuit of enemy shipping, characterised by the Emden’s capture or destruction of twenty-one merchant ships in the Indian Ocean. But these victories were to be short-lived. Despite meticulous planning in the pre-war period, (as shown by Tampke’s inclusion of War Plans A, B, C and D) and identification of factors that the cruiser squadron might exploit to its advantage (such as the relatively unprotected Australian coastline) the simple fact was that international events and alliances had overtaken German planning. Rather than proving a ‘soft’ target, Australia was ready for war when it came, impounding twenty-six German merchant ships that were earmarked for the cruiser squadron as coalers and auxiliaries. Communications were also to prove problematic: in 1913 German planners had identified the importance of defending their telegraph station at Yap, but this station and others in German New Guinea were promptly destroyed or seized by British and Australian forces in late 1914. (p. 168) Moreover, the cruiser Emden’s attempt to shut down the Australian telegraph station on Keeling Island was forcibly interrupted by the arrival of HMAS Sydney, which, in turn, had been one of four warships detailed to escort the ANZAC troop convoy from Fremantle – an escort which was regarded as essential by the Australian government to protect against the German cruiser squadron.

Unfortunately, I found problems with the quality of this book. Sub-standard binding has already resulted in several pages falling out of the review copy. There are also several errors in the text; admittedly one is corrected by an errata sheet, but others are not (see for example, p. 129 – a reference to the German warship HMS Mowe, which should read SMS Mowe). And, although the sub-title of this work is German military planning and surveillance in the Australia-New Zealand region before the Great War, Tampke does not seem to have included a great deal on German interest (strategically, or culturally) in New Zealand. Whether this is due to a non-existence or lack of relevant documentation would have been useful to know, and might have been worth mentioning in the introduction.

In conclusion, however, Tampke’s contention that the German threat to the Australia-New Zealand region was of a serious nature appears valid. Ultimately, German naval plans for the region failed miserably, and this is revealed through these previously unpublished documents, as well as the fate of the Emden and the other sunken vessels of the cruiser squadron. It would seem that the push towards war outran German strategy in the region, based as it was upon diplomatic hopes that did not eventuate. These documents should be of immense interest to Australian historians: they serve as a poignant reminder of an ambitious naval war that never was.


George Odgers, Navy Australia: An Illustrated History, Fourth edition (Sydney, 1989)

Peter Overlack, ‘Australian Defence Awareness and German Naval Planning in the Pacific, 1900 – 1914,’ War & Society 10, 1: 1992.

Robert McGregor is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Newcastle. He specialises in British and European history, and is completing a thesis investigating representations of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century. He also has a strong interest in Australian naval history.

E-mail: [email protected]