Canaris, Wilhelm

Childhood and early naval career

Childhood and study

Wilhelm Franz Canaris was born on January 1st, 1887, in Aplerbeck (today a part of Dortmund). He descended from a family of engineers, lawyers and merchants. His Lutheran parents were the engineer Carl Canaris and Auguste Popp. He had two brothers and a younger sister. Because of the work of his father in the steelindustry, first at the Aplerbecker Hütte and later on at the Niederrheinsche Hütte, the family moved house frequently. Wilhelm grew up in luxury. His parents owned a country house with its own park and tennis court in Duisburg, where they lived from 1892 onwards.

From 1898 onwards he attended the local Steinbart-Gymnasium (secondary grammar school). He was driven to school by carriage every day. He was one of the most intelligent pupils of his class, but he had few friends. This was mainly because he choose this himself. Contempories describe him as a reserved, uncommunicative person who preferred to live in isolation. Wilhelm was keen on spying from his early days. It seems that as a child he was already interested in experiments with invisible ink and he gave himself aliases. The other kids at school called him Peeping Tom sometimes.

After he had seen a statue of the Greek admiral and freedom fighter Constantin Kanaris (1795 – 1877; no relative by the way) during a visit to Greece in 1902, Wilhelm developed a keen interest in the navy. He decided therefore that he wanted to attend the navy academy in Kiel after having graduated from his Gymnasium.

Navy training

Father Canaris accepted his son’s choice son to become a career officer, but he did not think the navy was the correct unit for his son to serve in. In his opinion, Wilhelm would be better placed with the noble cavalry, rich in tradition. Under pressure by his father, Wilhelm therefore reported at the Königlich Bayerische 1. Schwere-Reiter-Regiment "Prinz Carl Von Bayern". Young Wilhelm was an able horseman, so the cavalry might well offer him a good future. The navy kept tugging at him however and after his father had died in 1904, he was able to convince his mother to let him apply to the Seekadetten-Annahme-Kommission (sea cadet entry commission) in Kiel. He was accepted without any problems, certainly after it appeared that his mother could affort the required 4800 Reichsmark for the training.

After having passed his Gymnasium final examinations with good marks, Wilhelm Canaris reported to the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) in Kiel. The education started with a brief infantry training, followed by a schooling of one year on the sailing ship SMS Stein.The education was concluded with 18 months theoretical training at the Naval Academy. He did especially well in the latter aspect but the physical part of the training caused him considerably more trouble. He had never been a sportsman and in the beginning it cost him a lot of effort to keep up with the others at physical exercises. Canaris however demonstrated a strong willpower and kept it up. On April 7th , 1906, he was promoted to Fähnrich zur See. At the conclusion of the education he was judged to be "theoretically very gifted and with an iron dilligence". He was posted to the light cruiser SMS Bremen, which soon after departed for a flag showing trip to South and Central America.

During this trip Canaris started to study Spanish, a language he soon mastered. Apart from Spanish Canaris spoke English, French and a little Russian as well. He utilized his linquistic knowledge for instance to set up a network of trustees (V-men) in Argentina and Brazil on orders from the captain of the Bremen. These V-men provided intelligence to the navy and especially during the First World War Canaris would greatly benefit from these persons.

Naval career

On September 28th, 1908 Wilhelm Canaris was promoted to Leutnant zur See, he also was appointed adjutant of the captain of the Bremen. In this position he was also involved in the negotiations with Juan Vicente Gómez, the president of Venezuela. An international blockade had been proclaimed against this country after the former president, José Cipriano Castro Ruiz had nationalised a number of international companies. Subsequently Gómez had taken over power by means of a coup d’état in that politically very unstable country. During the following negotiations, aimed at lifting the blockade, young officer Canaris made such a good impression that Gómez awarded him the Order of Bolivar 5th Class.

In January 1910 Canaris was transferred to the Nordseeflottille. Initially he was posted on destroyer SMS V162 as second officer of the watch and subsequently on the SMS S145 as a company and watch officer. The switch from the subtropical climate in South America to the cold and wet weather in the North Sea did not suit him at all. In the south he had contracted malaria and here he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. This caused him to take half a year off in order to recuperate. This did not prevent him from being promoted to Oberleutnant zur See on August 29th , 1910.

After his recovery, Canaris was posted on a light cruiser in December 1911, this time the SMS Dresden. In 1913 this ship was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean in order to protect the German interests during the second Balkan war (which lasted from June 29th , till August 10th , 1913). On return to her home port she ship was dispatched on a voyage almost immediately (and unable to have the necessary maintenance carried out). This time the presence of the ship was required in the Eastern waters off the Mexican coast. At that time civil war was raging in that country and the Dresden was deployed in the evacuation of foreigners from Vera Cruz, whose safety could no longer be guaranteed. For having taken 2000 American citizens to safety, the vessel would be decorated by president Woodrow Wilson.

It was intented that the cruiser would be relieved on July 27th , 1914. Due to the tense political situation in Europe and the First World War about to break out, the ship could not depart. Hence, the light cruiser remained berthed in the harbor of Port-au-Prince on Haďti. After the declaration of war by Germany on August 1st , 1914, the Dresden was ordered to start a "cruiser war" in the Atlantic Ocean; this entailed hunting down Allied merchantmen and navy vessels.


Originally the designation for mounted troops. During World War 2 the term was used for armoured units. Main tasks are reconnaissance, attack and support of infantry.
Very light, fast and agile warship, intended to destroy large enemy ships by surprise attack and eliminating them by using torpedoes.
Foot soldiers of a given army.
Part of a division. A division divided into a number of regiments. In the army traditionally the name of the major organised unit of one type of weapon.

Pagina navigatie


Canaris as a schoolboy, 1905

Canaris as a naval cadet, 1905

The sailing ship SMS Stein, on which Canaris received one year of training.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv)

The light cruiser SMS Bremen in 1912, on which Canaris was appointed adjutant of the captain.
(Source: Library of Congress)


Translated by:
Arnold Palthe
Article by:
Wesley Dankers
Published on:
Last edit on:
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