Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Sinking of Von Spee’s Squadron

The Sinking of Von Spee’s Squadron 

Captain F.W. Wheatley

A little-known chapter in the history of The Great War (WWI) involved a Kapunda born Cryptographer named Frederick Wheatley.
Wheatley was born in Kapunda, South Australia on June 7th, 1871, to music teacher James Wheatley and his wife Magdalena (nee Basedow).
He was educated at the Prince Alfred College, and then the University of Adelaide. In 1890 he became a teacher at Way College, later he became a teacher at Prince Alfred College. Eventually, he became the Headmaster at the Rockhampton Grammar School, of which he lasted a year, quitting after a disagreement with the board.
 He soon became engaged with the proposed Royal Australian Naval College, helping to establish their syllabus. 

Wheatley married Alice Kimber at Glenelg in 1898, together they had three children.

 In 1913, Wheatley travelled to Germany, where he improved his understanding of the German language, this would later assist in his position in the Australian Navy during the coming war.

 World War One broke out in August 1914. Wheatley was stationed at the Navy Office, Melbourne under Captain Thring, where he was placed in charge of intercepting enemy radio messages.
 A German ship hurriedly left Sydney on August 4th, and Australian authorities were convinced it intended to warn German ships to turn back to Europe, as they would not, as of yet heard the declaration of war announced.
 A German ship named Hobart entered the Port of Melbourne and was soon boarded by the District Naval Officer, Captain John Richardson, under the guise of a quarantine inspection.  Later that evening two German men gave up the position of hidden safe that held a copy of the German Mercantile Code Book and a cipher key. These important documents were handed to Wheatley to Translate.

 Wheatley set to work, and via the cipher key, was able to translate the book, and decipher messages sent by Vice Admiral Graf Von Spee’s Pacific squadron. It took three days to decipher the codes, but what they turned up was the itinerary of the Spee’s fleet, that they were steaming through the Strait of Magellan to the Falkland Islands, then heading towards Brazil, down to South Africa.
 A cable message was sent to the British Admiralty, and ships were sent toward the Falkland Islands, arriving the day before Von Spee’s fleet. The English ships sank Von Spee’s ships Scharnhorsl, Gneisenau, Nurnberg and Leipzig that day, with only the ship Dresden escaping.
 Dresden was later sunk by the British Vessels Kent and Glasgow off the Juan Fernandez Island in the Pacific Ocean.

 If it wasn’t for Wheatley’s expertise, who knows what damage Von Spee’s fleet of warships could have caused for the Commonwealth.
Later in life, Wheatley became the Director of Studies at the Cranbrook School in Sydney. He was appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1932.
Frederick Wheatley passed away on the 14th of November 1955

 researched and written by Allen Tiller © 2018


Robert Hyslop, 'Wheatley, Frederick William (1871–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 11 February 2018.

1934 'HOW VON SPEE'S SQUADRON WAS SUNK', The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 - 1954), 27 June, p. 23. , viewed 11 Feb 2018,

Royal Australian Navy, 2017, Dr Frederick William Wheatley, Australian Government, viewed 11 Feb 2018,

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