by Kevin R. Young
It seems everyone who comes to San Antonio wants to be at least seen at the Alamo. Accounts of Alamo visitors, J. H. Barnard in 1836 to John Madden, have appeared in books and newspaper articles, while Alamo visits have been recorded by photography since 1849. Sometimes Alamo visitors go on to become part of history themselves. This is one of those stories.
In May 1941, the free world followed a drama on the high seas. The Kriegsmarine Bismark, renowned and feared as the most powerful battleship afloat, had broken out into the Atlantic. The threat of this monster's firepower was driven home when, in its first combat, it sank the HMS Hood.
A combined effort of British capital warships and naval planes tracked Bismark down. With her rudder damaged from a British torpedo, Bismark could not maneuver, and was still to far from occupied France to seek aid from either naval or air support. The British fleet closed in, and on May 27, the pride of the German Navy was reduced to a burning hulk that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. With Bismark went hundreds of her crew, including her captain and Fleet Commander Admiral Gunter Lutjens.
Lutjens is often presented as the typical German especially in the film, Sink the Bismark! He was, after all, taking a powerful vessel into open water to smash the convoys bringing supplies to the British - the life lines to the people of Great Britain, locked in a struggle alone against the conquest of Adolph Hitler. But Lutjens was also the man who once insisted on visiting the Alamo so he could pay silent tribute to the courage of its defenders.
It was some six years earlier, San Antonio was still in the Great Depression when the officers and men of Karlsruhe came to pay their respects to the men of the Alamo. The Bride of Frankenstein was playing at the local movie house, Texans were watching the trial of Bonnie and Clyde sidekick Claude Hamilton, and Bess Carol was starting her series of articles on the centennial of the Texas Revolution. This was before the Kristallnacht, before the invasion of Poland, France and Dunkirk. The Riechsmarine had sent two cruisers, Karlsruhe and Emden on a world cruise. The mission was a "good will tour" and more importantly, a high seas training cruise for the German Naval Class or crew of 1934. Some 318 future German naval officers, separated into two groups, joined the crews of the two cruisers, Lutjens was then captain of Karlsruhe. Such cruisers were part of the regular training of German Naval cadets.
The Karlsruhe had been commissioned In November 1929. A "K" class, cruiser, she displaced at 6,650 tons with a top speed of 30 knots, a crew of 820 and main armament of 9 six-inch guns. Lutjens was a long time veteran of the German Navy, starting his career in 1907.
While Emden took a route through the Indian Ocean, Karlsruhe was to visit South America, up the Pacific Coast as far as Vancouver and then back down to Panama, through the Canal to the Gulf of Mexico and then home to Kiel. Lutjens set sail on October 22, 1934. The tour took Karlsruhe to the Azores, Trinidad, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Colombia, San Francisco and Canada then back down to Acapulco, Guatemala, through the Panama Canal to Houston, then to Charleston and back home. Los Angeles was later added to the stop overs. The cruiser returned home on June 20,1935.
The trip was not without some incident, especially considering Hitler's defiance of the Versailles Treaty and the growing suppression of human rights in Germany. Labor unions protested the arrival of the German cruiser at San Francisco and Vancouver. But Lutjens, his crew and the cadets remained on their best behavior. The German Navy had remained independent of the growing Nazi changes. The swastika would not be added to the naval ensigns until the fall of 1935. Admiral Raeder insisted on keeping Jewish officers in the ranks as well as retaining the old Naval salute.
In late April 1935, Karlsruhe was on its homeward end of the cruise when the cruiser made its stop at Houston. It remained there for over a week. Lutjens, the crew and cadets took advantage of the stop to visit various spots in Texas. Lutjens himself went to Austin, visited with Governor James V. Allred and spoke to a joint session of the Texas Legislature. His next stop was a quick flight to Kelly Field in San Antonio on April 30th. A luncheon was held at the Plaza Hotel where the captain and his aide, Lieutenant Commander Alfred Schemmel was honored by the mayor, county commissioners and Kelly Field commander, Colonel Jacob E. Fickel. Following lunch, Lutjens and Schemmel called on the commander of Fort Sam Houston.
The trip to San Antonio was near complete when Lutjens expressed his concern that he was not going to be allowed to visit the Alamo. Despite a tight schedule, Lutjens insisted on visiting "your city's famous shrine." The German captain's visit was brief, but moving, as he removed his cap and bowed his head in silent tribute to the heroes of 1836. He was visibly impressed with his Alamo experience.
Two days later, on May 1st, a second group of officers from Karlsruhe arrived in San Antonio. This group was headed by Lieutenants H.W. Grosse and E. G. Bachmann, along with two warrant officers, two petty officers, four seaman and four of the cadets. They too visited the Alamo, and in a special ceremony, placed a wreath honoring the Alamo heroes. In a well published photo which ran the following day in the San Antonio Light, Bachmann, Warrant Officer Schlicht and Lt. Grosse can be seen with the rest of the crew inside the Alamo, giving the now infamous extended arm "Nazi" salute.
After the Alamo ceremony, the party was given a Mexican luncheon and then taken on a site seeing tour of the city and scenic loop territory (Hellotes area). The group returned to Houston and the Karlsruhe the next morning.
Karlsruhe was to play a part in the upcoming war or at least, the first year of it. Following the invasion of Norway, the cruiser was returning from Kristiansand when the British submarine, Truant, hit her with a torpedo on April 9, 1940. Badly damaged, the cruiser had to be finished off with torpedoes fired from a German vessel.
Those members of Crew 34 went on to wartime careers in all branches of the Kriegsmarine. At least one of those on the 1935 visit to Texas also ended up with Lutjens on the maiden and final voyage of the Bismark. Baron Burkard Von Mullenheim-Rechberg, who was a member of Karlsruhe crew during the trip, served originally as adjutant to Bismark's captain and later as fourth gunnery officer of the ill-fated battleship. He lived through Bismark's final fight, the highest ranking officer to survive.
Lutjens, who had insisted on stopping at the Alamo to pay his respects to those who had fought against overwhelming odds, found himself in the same position that fateful day in 1941. In one of his last addresses to the crew he said, "We will fight until our gun barrels glow red hot and the last shell has left the barrels. For us seamen, the question is now victory or death." The reasons why were far different, but nevertheless, the story of the Bismark is still the stuff legends, songs, stories, and movies and fascination are made of.
From the October 1996 "Alamo Courier" the journal of the Alamo Battlefield Association.