The Bloodless Capture of German Samoa

By Malcolm Ross, F. R. G. S.

[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]

WELLINGTON, N. Z., Sept. 19.—The advance detachment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which was ordered to seize German Samoa left Wellington in two troopships at dawn on Aug. 15, and was met in the ocean in latitude 36.0 south, longitude 178.30 east by three of the British cruisers in New Zealand waters—the Psyche, Pyramus, and Philomel.

As it was known that the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were still at large in Pacific waters, it was decided not to go direct to Samoa, but to shape a course direct for New Caledonia. For the next fortnight or so we were playing a game of hide and seek in the big islanded playground of the Pacific Ocean. The first evening out the Psyche signaled "Whereabouts of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau still unknown; troopships to extinguish all lights and proceed with only shaded lights at bow and stern." Military books and papers were quickly gathered together, and the remaining few minutes of daylight were used for getting into bed, while the difficult task was set us of trying to sleep the round of the clock. Thus, night after night, with lights out, we steamed along our northward track, the days being spent in drill and ball firing with rifles and the Maxim guns.

On the morning of Aug. 2 we proceeded along the shores of New Caledonia and saw the big French cruiser Montcalm entering the harbor. Next day we were joined by the battle cruiser Australia and the light cruiser Melbourne. The contingent received an enthusiastic reception in New Caledonia. As we passed the Montcalm our band played the "Marseillaise," and the band on the French cruiser responded with our national anthem. Cheers from the thousands of men afloat and the singing of patriotic songs added to the general enthusiasm, the French residents being greatly excited with the sudden and unexpected appearance of their allies from New Zealand.

A delay of twenty-four hours was caused by one of the troopships grounding on a sand bank in the harbor, but on Sunday, Aug. 23, the expedition got safely away.

We steamed through the Havannah Pass, at the southeastern end of the island, where we awaited Rear Admiral Sir George Patey, in command of the allied fleets. In due course the Australia and the Melbourne came up with us. Then in turn waited for the Montcalm. All the ships, eight in number, were now assembled, and they moved off in the evening light to take up position in the line ahead.

Fiji was reached in due course, and at anchor in the harbor of Suva we found the Japanese collier Fukoku Maru, and learned that she had been coaling the German cruisers at the Caroline Islands just before the declaration of war. After the coaling had been completed the Japanese Captain went on to Samoa, calling at Apia. The Germans, however, would not allow him to land. The Japanese Captain had been paid for his coal by drafts on Germany, which, on reaching Suva, he found to be useless. He was therefore left without means to coal and reprovision. As he was not allowed to land at Samoa, he went on to Pago-Pago, in complete ignorance that war had been declared, and, not being able to get supplies there, left for Suva. At the latter port the harbor lights being extinguished, he ran his vessel on to the reef in the night time. Rockets were sent up, but no assistance could be given from the shore. Fortunately, however, he got off as the tide made; but it was a narrow call.

In the early dawn of Aug. 30 we got our first glimpse of German Samoa. The American island of Tutuila was out of sight, away to the right, but presently we rounded the southeastern corner of the island of Upolu, with its beautiful wooded hills wreathing their summits in the morning mists, and saw the white line of surf breaking along its coral reef historic Upolu, the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the scene of wars and rebellions and international schemings, and the scene also of that devastating hurricane which wrecked six ships of war and ten other vessels, and sent 142 officers and men of the German and American Navies to their last sleep. The rusting ribs and plates of the Adler, the German flagship, pitched high inside the reef, still stare at us as a reminder of that memorable event.

The Psyche went boldly on ahead, and after the harbor had been swept for mines she steamed in, under a flag of truce, and delivered a message from Admiral Patey, demanding the surrender of Apia. The Germans, who had been expecting their own fleet in, were surprised with the suddenness with which an overwhelming force had descended upon them, and decided to offer no resistance to a landing. Capt. Marshall promptly made a signal to the troopships to steam to their anchorages; motor launches, motor surfboats, and ships' boats were launched, and the men began to pour over the ships' sides and down the rope ladders into the boats.

In a remarkably brief space of time the covering party was on shore, officers and men dashing out of the boats, up to the knees, and sometimes the waist, in water. The main street, the crossroads, and the bridges were quickly in possession of our men, with their Maxims and rifles, and then, one after another, the motor boats and launches began to tow strings of boats, crammed with the men of the main body, toward the shore. The bluejackets of the beach party, who had already landed, urged them forward by word and deed in cheery fashion, and soon Apia was swarming with our troops.

Guards were placed all about the Government buildings, and Col. Logan, with his staff, was quickly installed in the Government offices.

Lieut. Col. Fulton dashed off to the telephone exchange and pulled out all the plugs, so that the residents could hold no intercommunication by that means. The Custom House and the offices of the Governor were also seized without a moment's loss of time. An armed party was dispatched along a bush road to seize the wireless station. Late that evening the man in charge rang up in some alarm to state that there was dynamite lying about and that the engine had been tampered with to such an extent that the apparatus could not be used until we got our own machinery in position.

Meantime the German flag, that had flown over the island for fourteen years, was hauled down, the Germans present doffing their hats and standing bareheaded and silent on the veranda of the Supreme Court as they watched the soldier in khaki from New Zealand unceremoniously pulling it down, detaching it from the rope, and carrying it inside the building.

Next morning the British flag was hoisted with all due ceremony. In the harbor the emblem of Britain's might fluttered from the masts of our cruiser escort, the Stars and Stripes waved in the tropic breeze above the palms surrounding the American Consulate, and out in the open sea the white ensign and tricolor flew on the powerful warships of the allied fleets of England and France.

A large crowd of British and other residents and Samoans had gathered. In the background were groups of Chinese coolies, gazing wonderingly upon the scene. The balconies of the adjoining buildings were crowded with British and Samoans. Only the Germans were conspicuous by their absence. With undisguised feelings of sadness they had seen their own flag hauled down the day before. Naturally they had no desire to witness the flag of the rival nation going up in its place.

A few minutes before 8 o'clock all was ready. Two bluejackets and a naval Lieutenant stood with the flag, awaiting the signal. The first gun of the royal salute from the Psyche boomed out across the bay. Then slowly, to the booming of twenty-one guns, the flag was hoisted to the summit of the staff, the officers, with drawn swords, silently watching it go up. With the sound of the last gun it reached the top of the flagstaff and fluttered out in the southeast trade wind above the tall palms of Upolo.

There was a sharp order from the officer commanding the expedition, and the troops came to the royal salute. The national anthem never more fervently sung and three rousing cheers for King George followed.

Then came the reading of the proclamation by Col. Logan, the troops formed up again, and, to the music of the band of the Fifth Regiment, marched back to quarters.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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