- Bombardment of Papeete 1914 in the Great War -
Great War>The Battles
If you enjoy this site please consider making a donation.
Add Stories & Photos
Day by Day
War in the Air
Prisoners of War
The War at Sea
Training for War
Those Who Served
Women at War
Life on Home Front
Central Powers Army
Central Powers' Navy
World War Two
Add Stories & Photos
Help & FAQ's
Our Facebook Page
Great War Books
Bombardment of Papeete 1914
22nd September 1914 Bombardment of Papeete 1914 The Bombardment of Papeete occurred in French Polynesia when German warships attacked on 22 September 1914, during World War I. The German armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Papeete on the island of Tahiti and sank the French gunboat Zélée and freighter Walkure before bombarding the town's fortifications. French shore batteries and a gunboat resisted the German intrusion, but were greatly outgunned. The main German objective was to seize the coal piles stored on the island, but these were destroyed by the French at the start of the action. The German vessels were largely undamaged but the French lost their gunboat. Several of Papeete's buildings were destroyed and the town's economy was severely disrupted. The main strategic consequence of the engagement was the disclosure of the cruisers' positions to the British Admiralty, which led to the Battle of Coronel where the entire German East Asia Squadron defeated a Royal Navy squadron. The depletion of Scharnhorst's and Gneisenau's ammunition at Papeete also contributed to their subsequent destruction at the Battle of the Falklands.
Word of war reached Admiral Maximilian von Spee—of the German East Asia Squadron—while at Ponape (17 July – 6 August). He concentrated the majority of his squadron at Pagan Island in the nearby Mariana Islands, and then steamed off into the Pacific with the Scharnhorst-class armored cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Königsberg-class light cruiser SMS Nürnberg, the auxiliary cruiser SMS Titania, and several colliers at his disposal. Nürnberg and Titania were sent to gather intelligence at Hawaii and raid the cable station at Fanning Island. Von Spee then learned that Australian and New Zealand forces had captured German Samoa and he sailed off in his flagship Scharnhorst—along with her sister ship Gneisenau—to engage what Allied forces they could find there. Failing to catch the Samoa Expeditionary Force at Apia and having seen no action at all since leaving Pagan Island, the men of Admiral von Spee's armored cruisers were eager to meet the enemy in battle. Von Spee decided to raid Papeete in Tahiti on his way to rendezvous with the rest of his squadron at Easter Island. The French held over 5,000 tonnes of high-quality Cardiff coal at the port and von Spee hoped to seize the coal piles to replenish his squadron's supply. Additionally, von Spee aimed at destroying what allied shipping he could find in the harbour and thought the raid might help raise his men's morale. Von Spee intended to coal at Suwarrow Atoll before sailing to Papeete, but was prevented by foul weather. Instead, von Spee decided to take Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and attempt to resupply at Bora Bora while Nürnberg and Titania were dispatched to Nukuhiva to guard the fleet's colliers. The German admiral intended to keep his vessels' identities secret by disguising them as French ships, flying French flags, and only allowing French- and English-speaking members of his crew contact with the Frenchmen present there. Von Spee managed to replenish his food stores using gold seized by Titania and Nürnberg during their raid of Fanning and was able to discover the strength of the French military in the region as well as the exact size and positions of the coal piles at Papeete. The French had no heavy defenses at Papeete but had been warned that von Spee's squadron might raid Tahiti and that a German squadron had been sighted off Samoa. Although Papeete was the capital of the French Settlements in Oceania, by 1914 it had become a colonial backwater, lacking a wireless station and having a garrison of only 25 colonial infantry and 20 gendarmes. In order to bolster the town's defenses, Lieutenant Maxime Destremau—commander of the old wooden gunboat Zélée and the ranking officer at Papeete—had his ship's 100 mm stern gun and all of her 65 mm and 37 mm guns removed from his vessel and placed ashore to be used in place of Papeete's antiquated land batteries. Several Ford trucks were turned into impromptu armored cars by mounting them with Zélée's 37-mm guns and 160 sailors and marines drilled in preparation to repel any German attempt at landing. Zélée retained only her 100-mm bow gun and 10 men under the ship's second in command. In addition to the gunboat and harbor fortifications, the French also had at Papeete the unarmed German freighter Walkure, which had been captured by Zélée at the start of the war. Despite the French preparations, the two German cruisers were more than a match for the forces Destremau commanded at Papeete. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau heavily outgunned Zélée, each being armed with eight 210 mm guns, six 150 mm guns, eighteen 88 mm guns and four torpedo tubes. Von Spee's forces also outnumbered the French with over 1,500 sailors aboard their vessels, more than enough to form a landing party and overwhelm the forces Destremau had to oppose them.
At 0700 on 22 September 1914, the French sighted two unidentified cruisers approaching the harbour of Papeete. The alarm was raised, the harbor's signal beacons destroyed and three warning shots were fired by the French batteries to signal the approaching cruisers that they must identify themselves. The cruisers replied with a shot of their own and raised the German colors, signaling the town to surrender. The French refused the German demands and von Spee's vessels began to shell the shore batteries and town from a distance of 6,000 m (6,600 yd). The land batteries and the gunboat in the harbor returned fire, but scored no hits on the armored cruisers. Having difficulty in discovering the exact position of the French batteries, the German cruisers soon turned their attention to the French shipping in the harbor. The French commander—Destremau—had ordered the coal piles burned at the start of the action and now smoke began billowing over the town. Zélée and Walkure were sighted and fired upon by the Germans. The French had begun to scuttle their vessels when the action had begun, but both were still afloat when Scharnhorst and Gneisenau began firing upon them and finished the two ships off. By now, most of the Papeete's inhabitants had fled and the town had caught fire from the German shelling, with two blocks of Papeete set alight. With the coal piles destroyed and the threat of mines in the harbor, von Spee saw no meaningful purpose in making a landing. Accordingly, the German admiral withdrew his ships from Papeete's harbor by 1100. After leaving Papeete, the ships steamed out towards Nuku Hiva to meet Nürnberg, Titania and colliers waiting there.
By the time von Spee withdrew his ships, large portions of the town had been destroyed. Two entire blocks of Papeete had burnt to the ground before the fires were finally put out. A copra store, a market and several other buildings and residences were among those destroyed by the shellfire and resulting inferno. While the majority of Papeete's civilians fled to the interior of the island as soon as the fighting began, a Japanese civilian and a Polynesian boy were both killed by German shellfire. Although the two French vessels in the harbor had been sunk, there were no military casualties on either side and the German vessels took no damage. Overall, the bombardment was estimated in 1915 to have caused over 2 million francs' worth of property damage, some of which was recouped through the seizure of a German store on the island. In addition to the seizure of their property, several local Germans were interned and forced to repair the damage von Spee's squadron had caused. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the bombardment on the French was the dramatic fall of copra prices in the region, as local suppliers had previously sold a majority of their produce to German merchants in the area who were now interned. Further havoc and distress spread throughout the island 18 days after von Spee's squadron had left, when rumors started to spread that a second German bombardment was about to begin. After withdrawing, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau rendezvoused with Nürnberg and Titania at Nuku Hiva, where they resupplied and their crews took shore leave before moving on to meet the rest of the squadron at Easter Island. Although the Germans had destroyed the shipping at Papeete and wreaked havoc in the town, they had been denied their primary objective of seizing the French coal piles and replenishing their own stocks. Von Spee's raid allowed the British Admiralty to receive word on his position and heading, allowing them to inform Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock of the German intentions thus leading to the Battle of Coronel. Another effect was the reduction of ammunition available to the two German cruisers. The hundreds of shells fired by von Spee's ships at Papeete were irreplaceable. The depletion of ammunition as a result of the action at Papeete contributed to the German East Asia Squadron's failure to adequately defend itself at the Battle of the Falkland Islands against British battlecruisers. Lieutenant Destremau was chastised by his misinformed superior officer for his actions during the defense of Papeete and for the loss of the gunboat Zélée. He was summoned back to Toulon under arrest to be court-martialled, but died of illness in 1915 before the trial. In 1918, Destremau was finally recognized for his actions at Papeete and was posthumously awarded the Légion d'honneur.John Doran
If you can provide any additional information, please add it here.
Want to know more about Bombardment of Papeete 1914?There are:1 articles tagged Bombardment of Papeete 1914 available in our LibraryThese include information on officers service records, letters, diaries, personal accounts and information about actions during the Great War.
Those known to have served in
Bombardment of Papeete 1914
during the Great War 1914-1918.
The names on this list have been submitted by relatives, friends, neighbours and others who wish to remember them, if you have any names to add or any recollections or photos of those listed, please Add a Name to this List
The 1st of September 2017 is The Wartime Memories Project's 18th Birthday. If you would like to send us a present, a donation, no matter how small, would be much appreciated, annually we need to raise enough funds to pay for our web hosting or this site will vanish from the web.
Looking for help with Family History Research?
Please see Family History FAQ's
We are unable to provide individual research free of charge, but do offer a paid service at competitive rates, the small profit from these services will be put towards the costs of keeping this website running. For more information please see our Research Services Leaflet
Can you help?The Wartime Memories Project is run by volunteers and this website is funded by donations from our visitors.
If the information here has been helpful or you have enjoyed reaching the stories please conside making a donation, no matter how small, would be much appreciated, annually we need to raise enough funds to pay for our web hosting or this site will vanish from the web. In these difficult times current donations are falling far short of this target.
If you enjoy this site please consider making a donation.
- The Wartime Memories Project is the original WW1 and WW2 commemoration website
This website has been running for 18 years and receives in excess of a million hits per month. The website and our group will continue long after the 2014-18 events are over. We hope that people will continue to support us by submitting material and stories in addition to submitting to the new websites set up for the anniversary.
- We are looking for volunteers to help with researching the activities of units of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Territorial Force, Regular Army, Pals Battalions, Kitchener's New Armies, Voluntary Organisations and the Ships of the Royal Navy. We currently have a huge backlog of stories and historical documents which need to be edited or transcribed for display online, if you have a good standard of written English, an interest in the two World Wars and a little time to spare online we would appreciate your help. For more information please see our page on Volunteering.
Wanted: Digital copies of Group photographs, Scrapbooks, Autograph books, photo albums, newspaper clippings, letters, postcards and ephemera relating to the Great War. If you have any unwanted photographs, documents or items from the First or Second World War, please do not destroy them. The Wartime Memories Project will give them a good home and ensure that they are used for educational purposes. Please get in touch for the postal address, do not sent them to our PO Box as packages are not accepted.
We are now on Facebook. Like this page to receive our updates, add a comment or ask a question.
If you have a general question please post it on our Facebook page.
Sep 2017World War 1 One ww1 wwII greatwar great
Please note we currently have a backlog of submitted material, our volunteers are working through this as quickly as possible and all names, stories and photos will be added to the site. If you have already submitted a story to the site and your UID reference number is higher than 235634 your submission is still in the queue, please do not resubmit without contacting us first.
Did you know? We also have a section on World War Two. and a Timecapsule to preserve stories from other conflicts for future generations.
Want to know more about Bombardment of Papeete 1914?There are:1 articles tagged Bombardment of Papeete 1914 available in our Library
Available at discounted prices.
Suggest a link
The Wartime Memories Project is a non profit organisation run by volunteers.
This website is paid for out of our own pockets, library subscriptions and from donations made by visitors. The popularity of the site means that it is far exceeding available resources.
If you are enjoying the site, please consider making a donation, however small
to help with the costs of keeping the site running.
Website © Copyright MCMXCIX - MMXVII
- All Rights Reserved