Canaris, Wilhelm

Naval Officer and secret agent in the First World War

Aboard the Dresden

The captain of the Dresden decided to proceed to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, as there were many shipping movements. In the following period the Dresden succeeded in sinking two English freighters.

The Dresden however struggled with a number of serious problems. At the outbreak of war all communication between the Dresden and navy headquarters had been lost. Moreover, the light cruiser only had a limited supply of coal and replenishment was very complicated. The network of V-men of Canaris however offered relief. The V-men were able to provide Canaris with information on a number of important Allied shipping movements and the Dresden could contact a number of German freighters which could provide the necessary provisions to the cruiser also through those V-men.

When Canaris was told that strong British units were approaching, the Dresden sailed to the Pacific Ocean. There the ship joined the squadron of Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee, which consisted of two heavy cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) and the light cruisers NŁrnberg and Leipzig. On November 1st, 1914, this squadron destroyed the British cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth near Coronel (Chile). Graf von Spee decided, probably having become overconfident by his success, to launch an attack on the British naval support base Port Stanley on the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic. This was strongly discouraged by the other shipsí commanders, but Graf Von Spee insisted with disastrous consequences. In Port Stanley a strong British squadron, consisting of two battle cruisers HMS Invisible and HMS Inflexible, plus three heavy and two light cruisers was lying at anchor. In the ensuing maritine battle which took place on December 8th , 1914, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and NŁrnberg were all sunk. Only Dresden escaped.

The Dresden succeeded in evading the enemy for the next three months. In that time the ship was able to take in coal from German freighters a few times but she had almost run out of ammunition. On March 9th , 1915, she anchored in Cumberland Bay on Robinson Crusoe Island in the South Pacific. Because the situation of the ship was desperate, the commander asked the Chilean authorities whether the ship could be interned. This was agreed to but it would take a few days before the ship could be seized.

The hiding place of the Dresden however was discovered by the Royal Navy prior to her being seized. On March 14th , 1915, the Dresden was attacked by the British cruisers HMS Kent and HMS Glasgow in violation of maritine law. The commander decided, the situation being what it was, that there was no other option left than to scuttle the ship himself. In order to gain time, Canaris was sent to the Glasgow in order to negotiate with the commander. Meanwhile, aboard the Dresden scuttling charges were placed in position. At 11:15 a heavy explosion occurred and the ship went down.

Internment and escape

The crew of the Dresden was interned on an island near the Chilean town of Concepciůn. Despite the officers being well taken care of and they were granted much freedom of movement, Canaris refused to accept his fate. He decided to make an attempt to return to Germany.

On 3 August, 1915, Canaris escaped from the island with the help of a local fisherman. Subsequently he travelled by train and on horseback on his own across the Andes to Argentina. The German embassy in Buenos Aires provided him with false identity papers in the name of the Chilean citizen Reed Rosas. Subsequently he travelled as a passenger on the Dutch steamer Frisia to Amsterdam. On October 4th, 1915 he reported back in Hamburg.

Secret Agent

The energetic conduct of the young officer had attracted the attention of the Marine-Nachrichtendienst (Naval Intelligence Service) in the meantime. He was considered a useful re-inforcement of the intelligence service. Canaris accepted the offer.

On 30 November, 1915 he was sent to Spain. His tasks involved setting up a supply system for submarines in the western Mediterranean. He also was to create a network of trustees who could provide the Nachrichtendienst with the necessary information on Allied shipping movements.

Canaris was very successful in his performance. Through a befriended captain of industry he succeeded in having Spanish shipyards build small vessels which were extremely suitable for provisioning submarines. Also he succeeded in channelling exact information about the British naval base in Gibraltar to navy headquarters.

In the long run however Canaris could not derive satisfaction from his intelligence work any more and so he requested to be transferred to the torpedo units. This request was also founded on the fact that the French secret service had tracked Canaris down and that they were keeping a watchful eye on him. It is also assumed that the British secret service made a murder attempt on the intelligence officer but hardly any details about this are known.

In September 1916 Canaris returned to Germany aboard a submarine, after earlier attempts to reach his fatherland by land had failed. He was awarded the Iron Cross first class for his services in Spain. He also was promoted to Kapitšnleutnant zur See. On November 28th , 1917, he was given command of his own U-boot, the SM UC 27. Later on he was posted on the SM U 34 as deputy commander. Under his command the U 34 sank three British ships in the Mediterranean in January- February 1918. In May he was put in command of the UB 128 in Kiel. With this submarine he sank a French cargovessel in the Atlantic Ocean. On September 4th , 1918, the UB 128 arrived in Kotor, an Adriatic harbor, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today Montenegro. It was intended that this harbor was to be the subís home port.

The war proceeded badly for Germany and her allies however. In October Austria-Hungaria was forced to surrender. This forced the German submarines to leave the eastern Mediterranean . With much trouble Canaris succeeded in guiding his boat through the Strait of Gibraltar while several depth charges were launched at her. On November 11th, 1918, Germany capitulated and the First World War ended for Canaris.


Iron Cross
English translation of the German decoration Eisernes Kreuz.
A military unit in the Belgian navy usually six to eight small ships operating together under one command. The smallest military unit in the Dutch air force of about 350 men. In most countries is the designation of a military unit thesize of a company. It is either an independent unit, such as a battery, or part of a bigger Calvary unit. In the air force it is the designation of a unit of aircrafts.
A weapon of war. A cigar shaped body fitted with explosives and a propulsion and control mechanism. Intended to target after launch a nearby enemy ship and disable it by underwater explosion.

Pagina navigatie


SMS Dresden off the American coast at New York approximately 1909. Canaris served aboard this ship at the outbreak of the First World War
(Source: Library of Congress)

UB-148 in American hands, 1919. Canaris was commander of UB-128 a submarine of the same class at the end of the First World War.
(Source: U.S. National Archives)


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