Apart from the East Asiatic Squadron, the Germans had maintained a small fleet to keep peace and show the flag around the islands of the South Pacific, and to patrol the Chinese rivers. This fleet included the survey ship Planet (which was at Yap in the Carolines at this time) and two gunboats of considerable vintage. One of these gunboats had already finished her tour of duty and was on her way back to Germany. The other, the Cormoran, had been in dry dock at Tsingtao undergoing a refit (and would also later be scuttled along with the Austrian cruiser). This refit, incidentally, involved the dismantling of the ship’s engines, which supports the claim that the Germans in China were taken by surprise by the timing of war. This is even further borne out by the fact that just two months previously, the commander of the British China Squadron itself, Vice-Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram, had paid a courtesy call at Tsingtao.
Cormoran’s crew, enjoying a long shore leave, had been joined by the crews of the Yangtze River gunboats Otter, Vaterland and Tsingtao who had been instructed in July to disarm and abandon their vessels and travel overland to the German colony.
The capture of the Rjasan solved the problem for the Germans of what to do with these surplus crews. The commander of the disabled Cormoran, Korvettenkapitan Adalbert Zuckschwerdt, had decided in von Müller’s absence to mount guns on the luxury liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich and man the ship with some of his surplus sailors. Now, with the Emden’s prize, he had two auxiliary cruisers at his disposal.
The Rjasan had been a member of the Russian Volunteer Fleet and had clearly been designed to be converted to an auxiliary cruiser. Von Müller decided she could well fit this role in the cause of Imperial Germany, with Zuckschwerdt and his men to be her crew. The former Russian ship was moored alongside the disabled Cormoran. The first task was to clean her up, Russian standards of cleanliness at sea being far removed from Teutonic hygiene requirements. On shore, meanwhile, frantic preparations were being made for the defence of Tsingtao itself. The harbour was mined and gun emplacements set up along the waterfront. Small ships were being loaded ready to act as colliers to the German fleet.
Within two days they had the Rjasan ready to sail. She was now re-named Cormoran in place of the shell of a ship still lying at the dock. The main problem for Zuckschwerdt was fuel capacity. The question of coaling the surface raiders is a recurring one throughout this book: not only were commanders constantly concerned where the next supply of coal was coming from, but, when coal was available, getting it aboard ship was a backbreaking and filthy job. Away from ports there was inevitably no crane to help, only the crew working with shovels and buckets. Raiders of World War I, while charged with sinking Allied shipping in order to starve Britain of supplies, eyed many possible victims with the single thought of how much coal they might be carrying. As will be seen later, German colonies were justified in Berlin on the sole grounds of their potential as coaling stations for the Imperial Navy.
In the case of the newly re-named Cormoran the solution to the problem of limited fuel capacity was to move the crew on to the deck and use the ship’s accommodation as extra coal bunkers. By this means Zuckschwerdt gave his ship an additional 16,000 kilometre range. He sailed out of Tsingtao on 10 August 1914. Four months later he and his crew were to be interned by the Americans at Guam, but a great deal would happen to the Cormoran before then.
Meanwhile the might of the British Empire was preparing to expel Germany once and for all from the Pacific. She had not been wanted there in the first place. To the British and Germans the Pacific was a sideshow at a time of momentous events on the European continent. Indeed, many histories of World War I scarcely mention the events taking place so far away from London, Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg. The Germans and the British knew that the question of naval supremacy would be settled in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The wider questions of strategy and planning will be dealt with in the next chapter, but it is clear from contemporary accounts that the people of Australia and New Zealand had a considerable fear of a German presence in the Pacific Ocean. There had been a number of Russian ‘scares’ in the late nineteenth century and, particularly in New Zealand, defensive installations had been undertaken at some harbours in anticipation of the Tsar’s warships suddenly appearing on the horizon. Australia was not quite so hysterical: in 1909 the Australian government noted that the term ‘defended port’ was an empty one, those ports so designated (Sydney, Adelaide, Newcastle, Port Phillip, for example) either had no guns, or if they did, had no trained gunnery officers, searchlights for night firing or supplies for the crews.
But by the outbreak of war, the scare was really on in both countries. On 10 August, the New Zealand Herald reported the Australians were worried about ‘the great naval base of Simpsonhafen (now Rabaul) in Kaiser Wilhelm land (now part of Papua New Guinea) which had allegedly been built at a cost of ‘thousands of pounds’. The newspaper which, despite hostilities, was still printing daily summaries of local shipping movements, warned that the German naval base had been built under the guise of mercantile expansion within striking distance of the Torres Strait, where all the shipping routes between Australia and the Far East converged. It reported that the wharf at Simpsonhafen was 300 metres long with spacious warehouses worth £40,000; if these had existed, this imaginary wharf would have been longer than any other in Australasia and equal to the needs of a city of 100,000 people. The report of this ‘great naval base’ would have been news to the Imperial German Navy, too.
At the outbreak of war, the East Asiatic Squadron faced a superior British and Allied presence and the squadron commander, Vice-Admiral Maximilian Count von Spee, knew that only too well. Apart from the Russian fleet at Vladivostok and the two French cruisers, Dupleix and Montcalm, there was the British China squadron based at Weihaiwei and Hong Kong, the East Indies station at Colombo, and the Australian squadron.