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samedi 20 septembre 2014

Tahiti and the war of 14/18

Papeete bombed by the German Navy

On 22 September 1914, Papeete was subject to attack by German ships "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau". Tahiti is rescued by Captain Destremau.

On Saturday, August 1, 1914, while it's morning in France, where the general mobilization is announced, in Tahiti it’s night. We're dancing on The Montcalm, French Admiral Cruiser of the Far East Division and in stopover here.

La Zélée”, gunboat off Tahiti

The only other French military vessel present in Polynesia is an old gunboat, La Zélée, commanded by Captain Destremau.

At this time, in Polynesia, it is not even a wireless radio set. The news took some time to get into these remote islands.

After a stopover in Raiatea, The Montcalm leaves Polynesia and is heading to Noumea, entrusting the defense of the 118 Polynesian islands to the only good cares of La Zélée.

Captain Maxime - François Destremeau
This one slowed by many machine problems, succeeds in returning to its base in Papeete only on August 7.

Along the way, it captured the German freighter Walküre off Makatea and came back with it to Tahiti, what will prove extremely useful in the future.

Tahiti prepares for war
In Papeete, La Zélée was eagerly awaited. Indeed, if Paris had forgotten to warn the colonial governor Fawtier in Papeete, like other French Pacific colonies elsewhere, the British consul just received from London the notice of the declaration of war.

La Zélée” sails  “The Walküre” back in Papeete

To organize any defense of Tahiti, we can count on La Zélée, its crew, and sixty "colonial" recently arrived from Noumea.

Despite the opposition of some of the European population of the island, it was essential that they should protect themselves against any threat from the sea. That was not to be taken lightly.

Contrary to France, Germany had, in the South Pacific, five of its best units, two large armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both heavily armed.

The heavily armored deck of the battleship Scharnhorst
In open warfare with Captain Destremau, the governor Fawtier entrusts him, very grudgingly, with the delicate task of ensuring the defense of Tahiti.

For this, Destremau has only weapons loaded on board of La Zélée. While there were limited pieces of artillery, but they had long since been abandoned in the lush tropical vegetation and rust.

The device of Captain Destremau
For starters, Destremau plans to block the pass of the port of Papeete with The Walküre.

Then, in order to have some semblance of artillery, he made dismantle the ten pieces that arm the old gunboat (two 100–mm guns, four 65-mm  and four 37-mm ones).

 With an incredible energy, he made to install a 100-mm gun and four of 65-mm at the site of the old battery which dominates the Pass of Papeete.

The cargo ship Walküre sank in the Pass of Papeete
Everything is completed in just five days.

It remains only to watch out for the arrival of ships of Count Von Spee, commander of the German squadron.

Indeed, we have learned that the two German cruisers, by posing as English ships, managed to get supplies from Bora Bora. Last I heard, they set sail for Tahiti...

The Battle of Papeete
On 22 September 1914, the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau appear before the Pass of Papeete. At 2000 m from the coral reef, they suffered three bursts of the battery installed by Destremau. Surprised, but confident in his infinitely superior artillery (16 210-mm pieces and 12 150-mm), Von Spee fired several rounds into the forest. Then he ran again to the entrance of the Pass.

Papeete after bombardment
To deny them access, Captain Destremau scuttled the ship Walküre in the harbour, unable to do in the Pass itself. At the same time, he sets fire to the coaling port. In order not to show his real strength, he lets his guns silent.

Coal is the main reason that attracts German ships in Tahiti. As soon as there are no more, the issue is not at all the same. On the other hand, the silence of the French artillery worried Von Spee who suspects a trap.

Fearful of losing stupidly a building for nothing, since coal is on fire, Von Spee launched several salvos of artillery on the city of Papeete in flames, while two shells affect La Zélée and the boat is sinking, top  flag . Then he turns around and goes away.

The little lieutenant Destremau saved Tahiti.

The bombing of Papeete told in 58 seconds...
However, there were one third of Papeete in ashes and two deaths in the ruins of the market hard hit by several shells.

Destremau dies in March 1915 when he returned to France, unfairly vilified by the civil authorities in Tahiti which thought only of escape.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

Read the book written by Michel Gasse: "Tahiti 1914 - The winds of war"

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