The following article concerning the wireless station at Apia, Samoa, was published in the Telefunken company’s newsletter Telefunken-Zeitung, Nr 18, of October 1919.
The Telefunken-Zeitung newsletters were digitised in 2007 by Thomas Günzel for www.radiomuseum.org
The original article in German was reviewed for maritimeradio.org in 2021 by Johannes Schneider and a few minor errors, such as typos in the original, were corrected.
Johannes also produced this English translation for maritimeradio.org in 2021.
In the following text, roman numerals indicate notes in the original publication, while arabic numerals indicate notes by the translator.
We are grateful to Thomas and Johannes for their assistance in preserving this important information.
Sketches of Wireless Telegraphy from the South Seas at War (Samoa)
By R Hirsch
In the first bits of news from home about mobilisation, the English stance still seemed undecided and left some room for a ray of hope that England might stay neutral or, at least, not take the war to the colonies. In Apia we were all on tenterhooks waiting for more telegrams. Telefunken’s station at Yap was still in contact with home. At 2am on 5 August the decision came: “England has officially declared war on Germany.” We knew this was the death sentence for our colony. Samoa was the furthest-flung and most exposed of all German overseas possessions. The English cruisers from the neighbouring fleet base in the Fiji Crown Colony could arrive at Apia at any moment. No sooner had our telegraph operator Grün written down those seven portentous words when we heard a booming and clattering noise that came up from Apia Harbour and sounded just like ships’ anchors being dropped. What now ‒ should the English warships already be here, should they have been lurking off Apia, just waiting for exactly this moment of war being declared to get hold of Samoa, which they had been coveting for so long, in one fell swoop? We telephoned down to the harbour. There’s not a single ship to be seen anywhere, came the reply. Only a quarter of an hour later, when our frayed nerves had calmed down a little, did we realise our senses had been playing tricks on us. The sound of anchor chains going down had been caused by an earthquake that had, oddly enough, hit Apia right after the moment we had learned about the declaration of war.
Another strange coincidence is that the Apia wireless station was completed and put into public service on 1 August 1914, just before war broke out.[i] The station was meant to serve German trade in the South Seas, which was just then blossoming in peaceful competition; however, the first official telegrams that came in contained nothing but declarations of war! On the other hand, even on 1 August 1914 the English Union Steamship Company of New Zealand sent the German governor a telegram congratulating him on the station coming into service! The fact that the station happened to become operational just before war broke out meant that Samoa fell into enemy hands at least not altogether without warning. Many of the islands in the South Seas which were without wireless connections only learned about war breaking out months later and only realised that something unusual must have happened when the regular boat services failed to turn up. The Germans in the Tonga Islands, for example, only learned about the war in October 1914 from an English warship that entered Vava’u, and they got to feel it right away, because the crew of the warship immediately boarded the German sailing ship that was lying at anchor there. To the superstitious natives of Samoa the coincidence of the wireless station being completed at the outbreak of war seemed such a miracle that they believed Samoa’s governor, Dr Schultz, had foreseen the outbreak of war for years and had arranged for the station to be completed right on that date!
The following little incident may show that everything was going on just as usual, even in those exciting and critical times right before war broke out. At the wireless station we had received an important telegram to do with war. I did not want to telephone its content to the governor in Apia because it might easily have been intercepted, and so I had my trap made ready and hurried the 10 kilometres from the station to the government building in town in order to deliver the telegram in person. While curious as to which measures would now be taken, I was no little taken aback when, the following day, I got a ticket – for speeding. I then thought it was, really, quite nice that the native police force had kept a cool head and still made sure traffic rules were being followed. (And just as an aside – the ticket was soon cancelled.)
The news about war having been declared did indeed come to the Germans in Samoa with all the suddenness of a landslide. Samoa was completely unprepared for a war. A count of all firearms in the islands was taken at once, with depressing results: the whole armoury of the colony consisted of 50 carbines (1871 model) with 20 rounds each, which worked badly or not at all, and one old mortar gun to fire salutes at a rate of two rounds per hour. Still, there was hope in the form of the German East Asia Cruiser Squadron, which was on a tour in the South Seas and kept in wireless contact with Apia. Although it was not very probable that Count Spee and his fleet would use Samoa as a base, as it was not fortified and had no protected harbour or coaling facilities, everybody was still hoping for a short visit and that we would be given some machine guns and other weapons. However, no matter how hard the guards were scanning the horizon from the top of our 120 metre tower, the German battle ensign was nowhere to be seen.
The interior situation in Samoa held a number of dangers because the fleet was away and there was a lack of ammunition. The overall number of white people in Samoa was only 500, among whom there were 200 English people and citizens of neutral countries. The number of women and children was 200. Furthermore, there were 2500 Chinese and 800 from New Guinea working on the plantations, plus about 35,000 Samoans, among whom there was a pro-English faction secretly supported by the English missions. The German government took all necessary steps and formed a police force of 60 white men, of whom about 20 were detailed to guard our wireless station.
Of course, the wireless station was not idle. Every minute that was not filled with traffic with Nauru and Yap or sending out warning messages to German vessels at sea[ii] was used to interfere with the English and French land- or ship-based stations in Australasia. At the time, Apia and Nauru were the most powerful wireless stations between Honolulu and Sydney. As regards wireless telegraphy, Germany was much better prepared in the South Seas than in military terms.
After the Telefunken station at Yap had been shelled on 10 August 1914 we were cut off from any connection with home, and we had to take news about the war, which we in our far-flung outpost were waiting for in a state of greatest excitement, from whatever source we could. The English news from the stations in Australia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands was not very important to us; we could expect fairly reliable and neutral news only from the neutral stations in Honolulu, San Francisco, Pago-Pago and from American ships that we listened in to and, every now and then, asked to relay to us news from the papers. From the American sources we got a tolerably accurate picture of how things were going in the war. The governor of Samoa spent every night at the station in order to be informed at any moment. A room at the station was used as the editing office for the daily newspaper that published bulletins to the people in both German and Samoan. Every day at 4am a messenger on horseback took the news bulletins and newspaper articles from the station to the printer’s workshop in Apia.
Of course we were listening with particular interest for any signs of life from the enemy warships. However, the enemy squadron kept quiet in general. They did not want to give themselves away, in order to carry out the raid on Samoa with as much surprise as possible. We did not have to wait long for the enemy to turn up. On the morning of 29 August 1914 our lookout on the tower reported a fleet of eight ships drawing near. Was this Count Spee’s fleet? A last ray of hope flashed through the Germans. But it was only too soon that we heard the characteristic sound of the rotary spark-gap transmitters of the English warships, and the telescope did not show the outline of Scharnhorst but that of a dreadnought – it was the enemy squadron! The warships formed a semi-circle in the roadstead, ready for action, and at the station we were expecting “strong atmospheric disturbance” in the shape of burst shells any moment. The harbour at Apia was full of smoke and steam from all the grey behemoths. That was something the Germans had not reckoned with, indeed: to face their 50 rifles, the Allied powers had fielded one dreadnought, two big and three small cruisers and two troop transports. The leader of the squadron, Vice-Admiral Patey, broke international law by threatening to shell the unfortified town of Apia and thus forced the occupation of the island, and soon no fewer than 1500 New Zealand soldiers landed with their exquisite equipment of guns, machine guns, portable wireless stations and loads of rations, and moved unopposed into the town. The English had grossly overestimated Germany’s military and maritime strength in the Pacific.
One of the first measures of the new administrator of Samoa, Colonel Logan, was to publish a proclamation in which our bulletins in the Samoan newspaper were called untrue. He warned white and coloured people alike not to believe “Count Bernstorff’s lies”. Even in December 1914, English staff officers stubbornly refused to believe that Brussels had been taken and Belgium occupied!
As Vice-Admiral Patey again threatened to shell Apia at once if wireless operations at our station did not cease, the governor sent orders to stop operations and make the transmitters unusable. We had been prepared to execute this order from the first day of war and had been drilling and practising every day how to blow things up and render the station inoperative. Tunnels had been dug under the whole station and electric detonators had been installed. That way it was possible to render unusable the oil engines, switching gear, leads, spark-gap transmitters, etc. quickly and according to plan. Our aim was this: it should take the enemy many months to get the repairs done, but once the war was over we should be able to get the station up and running again in next to no time. We refrained from bringing down the tower. One of the reasons for this was that the natives saw the tower as a symbol of German power and its destruction would be taken as a bad omen. Going by the news of victories coming in during August 1914, we expected the war to be over soon.
The English were very angry that we had rendered the station useless. They had the station but could not make any use of it for the time being. The following day, when I was led before the commanding officers of the warships and landing troops, who had come together at the government building for a council of war, I demanded a receipt now that the station, which was private property of our company, had been commandeered. “You’ll not get that,” Colonel Logan from New Zealand, who was in command of the expeditionary force, snarled at me, “You’ve pulled a dirty trick on me by destroying the station.” I replied that we had done this fully on purpose and had for weeks been practising playing that trick on him, it was a natural military measure to nail shut one’s cannons before handing them over. “That is not natural at all,” interjected Captain Bell, a New Zealand Member of Parliament and legal counsellor of the expeditionary force. “On the contrary, it is punishable under martial law; a soldier who faces being taken prisoner must not, for example, take the lock from his rifle!” I explained again that the station had been rendered inoperative half an hour before Apia was occupied, that the station was private property which we could do with whatever we pleased – all to no avail.[iii] Colonel Logan carried on speaking and worked himself up into ever greater agitation, claiming I wasn’t a private employee at all but a “Commander of the Imperial German Navy, secret service.” He first hinted at, and then openly threatened me with being court-martialed and shot, and demanded to know in detail what had been destroyed, if, and which, parts had been taken away and how the station could be rendered operational again. Of course I refused to accept such an unreasonable and impertinent demand and gave him irrelevant and wholly misleading answers, all the more because I heard the commanding officer of an English cruiser whisper to another, “we must have the station working tonight.” The proceedings got more and more heated. The commander of the cruiser Philomele tried to cook our goose, accusing us of having sent out telegrams after we had been ordered to stop transmitting – a claim that was completely untrue. Yes, he said, his wireless officer had made this official report to him. Another officer, I think it was the Chief Engineering Officer of the dreadnought Australia, suddenly tried clemency. He drew me into a corner and explained to me that he had two hundred mechanics on board who could easily get our transmitters up and running again, our resistance was useless, etc. I had seen the previous day how the wireless expert from New Zealand, Lieutenant Davies, had laboured around at our station, how he had wandered about aimlessly, saying: “You put the station thoroughly out of order and I got strict instructions to have the station working within 24 hours!”. I was not worried by the 200 mechanics from the Australia. Colonel Logan’s agitation had peaked. He ran around the room, banged his fist on the table and started uttering dark threats again. Eventually, when he realised how embarrassing a figure he cut with the officers present, he ended the scene and said: “Commander H., you are arrested,” and had me taken onto an English ship as I was, without allowing me to settle any of my affairs or telling me what would now become of me and the other employees of the station. “The British Government will look after you.” As I was being taken away, I passed our wireless operator Grün and the mechanic Freund, who were about to be interrogated, and I could just call out to them the reason why I had been arrested. I was sure and fully confident that nobody would get anything out of these two. On the ship I met the Governor of Samoa and his secretary. Dr Schultz had been taken prisoner of war some moments before. The ship sailed right after my arrival and took us to Fiji. From there we were taken to New Zealand and interned on Motuihe Island near Auckland for four and a half years.
The New Zealanders were too optimistic in thinking they would get the big transmitters of our station operational again within 24 hours. After more than 24 months had gone by, they were still not working. “We have given it up,” a dispirited station officer assured a German in late 1917. They had tried everything to put our machines, apparatuses and cables back together again and get them running. A proclamation by the administrator set the death penalty for inhabitants of Samoa who withheld parts of the wireless station. The unsuspecting captain of a sailing ship that lay at anchor in peace and quiet at Fiji, 500 nautical miles from Apia, suddenly had his ship boarded by police, who searched the vessel and even had divers examine it down to the anchor chains, for parts from our wireless station. The petrol engine from the ice machine of the master butcher at Apia was confiscated and used to run the station. It turned out to be far too weak. They fiddled around with our hot-bulb engine for months. Once the governor parts we had removed had been put in place again, the engine suddenly started up and immediately went into overdrive because, just as we had expected, they had not quite guessed the correct governor settings, and the heavy flywheel disintegrated. A part of the flywheel went through the roof, hit the tower at a height of 75 metres and caused it to buckle, fell down again and cut off the leg of a station worker. The New Zealand experts were reinforced by some Australians. A lot of effort went into finding out who had been with me at the Sydney Telefunken station before the war, and those people were ordered on site as well. However, in the end, they realised they had to fit their own apparatuses and machines, which had to be brought from far away – Honolulu and Vancouver, they say – and at great cost. Getting the station working again had become a matter of prestige for the English. The natives had noticed all the failed attempts at the station. In spite of all the secrecy, the accident with the diesel engine had immediately made the rounds as well, damaging the English reputation among the gleeful Samoans.
Notes from the original publication
i. Before service trials were run in July there were a number of interesting wireless trials to find out the time signals and geographical longitude, conducted together with the Apia astronomical observatory and the wireless stations in Yap, Nauru and Tsingtao in order to establish the geographical longitude of Samoa, which had not been known exactly before.
ii. According to New Zealand newspaper reports, the German steamer Wismar, which was close to New Zealand, changed course in time after warnings from the Apia wireless station and managed to reach safety in Chile.
iii. Later, as a prisoner, I learned from Colonel Turner that from the 12 commanding officers present in the council of war only two had declared the previous destruction of the station a legal act under military law!
From a list (“Telefunken employees still held as prisoners”) in Telefunken’s company bulletin Telefunken-Zeitung vol. 4, no. 17 (August 1919), p. 101
Before they were taken to Motuihe, engineer Hirsch and the gentlemen who were with him had to get through some rather dangerous hours on the station in Samoa. They had, at the very last moment, rendered some parts of their station inoperative, and neither the promise of a substantial reward, should the station be operative again, nor threats of being shot could make them do what the English wanted them to. They stayed the honest and upright characters we had always known them as, and kept their unwavering spirit in the face of the enemy. Their steadfast behaviour has been brought to the attention of the Reich authorities; may its recognition not take long to come.
Generally speaking, the gentlemen fared tolerably well on Motuihe ; they had to endure the lack of newspapers, but with the support money sent from here they could make things easier for themselves every now and then. For Christmas they always got a biggish package of books from us, which wound up at the correct destination.
Fate, however, dealt our wireless operator Grün a rather bad deal. After a few months he was sepa-rated from the other gentlemen for reasons unknown to us, and taken to the fort of Devonport, where he stayed for some time. There he met men from the German warship Seeadler , took part in their escape, which, unfortunately, came to a premature end, and was put into prison again. The news we received from his family was not very favourable.
Every now and then we had some news from engineer Hirsch and other gentlemen, in which he told us about what was going on on the island and what they did to stay alert mentally. We also received some photographs, although more than one letter did not reach its destination. On Motuihe there also were government officials from Samoa.
Notes from the translator
1. English words in the German original: “Officially: England has declared war to germany.” (sic)
2. The author uses the term “dreadnought”; it probably is not meant as a generic term here but to refer to a big British or Commonwealth warship as opposed to SMS Scharnhorst, Count Spee’s flagship.
3. Imperial German Navy terms for cruisers of more (“big”) and less (“small”) than 5,500 tons respectively.
4. I haven’t been able to find out who exactly this person was; perhaps Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff, German ambassador to the US.
5. The English words in the German text: “Commander of the Imperial German Navy, secret Service” (sic)
6. The English words in the German text: “we must have the Station working to night.” (sic)
7. The English words in the German text: “You put the Station thoroughly out of order and I got strict instructions to have the station working within 24 hours!” (sic)
8. The English words in the German text: “The british Gouvernement will look after you.” (sic)
9. Apparently, Hirsch makes no distinction between “hot-bulb” and “diesel” engines, other than neither being a petrol engine.
10. That is, before Hirsch’s article was printed in vol. 3, no. 18 in October 1919.