Captain Karl Spindler Commemorative Medal was manufactured in Germany in 1931 on demand of the Clan na Gael leadership, the USA-based anti-British and pro-German Irish nationalist organization. At the outset it should be noted that the name of the decoration is an arbitrary one and is offered by the author of this article for ease of reference only. Its mintage marked the fifteenth anniversary of the unfortunate trip of the German steamboat “Libau” commanded by Leutnant zur See Karl Spindler to the shores of Ireland. The ship tried to smuggle arms to Irish nationalists who organized anti-British Easter Rising.
The Easter Rising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed insurrection in Ireland during the Easter Week on April 24-30, 1916. It was launched by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic, while the United Kingdom was heavily engaged in the Great War. The Easter Rising was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798, and the first armed action of the Irish revolutionary period. The British army suppressed the Rising, its leaders agreed to surrender and most of them were executed following courts-martial.
Karl M.Spindler was born on May 29, 1887 in the Prussian town of Königswinter to the stone quarry operator Hubertus Spindler and his wife Elise (née Fuchs). He entered military service as a One-year volunteer (Einjährig-Freiwilliger) on April 01, 1910 and later went into the Merchant fleet. After the outbreak of the Great War he was transferred to minesweeper division of the Base flotilla Elba and was made commander of coast defense light cruisers: SMS Reiher (until October 1914) and SMS Nymphe (October-December 1914). Come January 1915, Spindler was assigned chief mate of tender and artillery training ship SMS Fuchs. Karl Spindler was promoted to Leutnant zur See der Reserve on January 27, 1915. He was subsequently transferred to the North Sea Outpost Flotilla and was made commander of the outpost boat SMS Polarstern.
It was on March 21, 1916 that Karl Spindler received orders of the Flotilla commander to select five petty officers and sixteen crew members, all volunteers, out of the crews of six outpost boats of the Flotilla. They were not to be older than a certain age, and were to be unmarried. They learned nothing about the nature of the special assignment, but from that moment forward they were to pledge themselves to absolute secrecy.
A short while afterwards Karl Spindler traveled with his crew to Hamburg and at a shipyard there, took over the SMS Libau. The ship originally bore the name SS [Steamship] “Castro” and initially belonged to the British shipping company of Hull. At the beginning of hostilities, in August 1914, she was captured by a German torpedo boat in the Emperor William Canal.
On their way to Lübeck, Libau crew received order to transform the ship into the neutral steamboat “Aud” which at that time operated under the Norwegian flag.
Sailors were equipped with authentic Norwegian seaman’s clothing and thus were transformed into the crew of a merchant vessel. They were also instructed to give up verbal and non-verbal military courtesies for the period of their mission.
Details of the secret mission were brought to Spindler’s notice in Berlin that he visited while being in Lübeck. Thus, he was ordered to load 20,000 rifles, mostly Russian Mosin-Nagant M1891 “three-line rifles” captured by Germans in the Battle of Tannenberg, as well as ten machine guns, cartridges and explosives. It was part of a plan to land German weapons in Ireland to assist Irish republicans in staging anti-British revolt that would become the Easter Rising.
In Lübeck, SMS Libau took on coal, water and provisions and took custody of the load of weapons and munitions. These were packed in wooden cases marked with Genoa and Naples as destination ports. On top of this main cargo was stacked a camouflage cargo of wooden props for coal mines, cases of enameled steelware, wooden doors, window frames and various other transport goods. Then everything else was now quickly made Norwegian, starting with the ship’s certificate, bills of lading and sea charts and ending with the bed linen and the canned food. The entire crew received a new identity through Norwegian enlistment papers and commissions, which were given a credible aging with oil spots, various stains, dog-eared corners and the like. Likewise a campaign of ravaging was waged against the brand new Norwegian sailors’ clothing. As a final “equipment detail” which would not be missing from any tramp steamer at that time, an old dog was taken on board just before departure.
In the night after leaving Lübeck SMS Libau went out as far as Warnemünde before anchoring. Under the cover of night, the ship’s name “Libau” disappeared beneath the inscription “Aud Norge”, while “Bergen” appeared on the stern as home port. When it was daylight again and travel was resumed, the Norwegian flag fluttered aft and the ship’s sides also displayed the colors of Norway. Going forward, it’s worth mentioning that genuine “Aud” with a load of coal was stopped and searched on November 30, 1916 by the German u-boot UB-18 when sailing from Cardiff, Wales to Lisbon, Portugal. German commanding officer declared the cargo contraband and sank the ship after putting the crew in the lifeboats.
Pirated “Aud” reached uninhabited island of Inishtooskert, meeting point with the Irish, in the afternoon of April 20, 1916 but no one showed up. Karl Spindler was sure that something must have gone wrong, but explored thoroughly nearby water area. As a result camouflaged Norwegian freighter came to the attention of the small British warship HMS Shatter II. Its commander came on board with several armed men, checked ship’s papers and false cargo and found nothing suspicious. Splindler and British commander relaxed with a discussion, and a generous helping of whiskey loosened the tongue of the latter and further eased the situation. As Spindler had left him to help himself to more whiskey the commander continued to drink, because on British warships the consumption of alcohol was strictly forbidden. Since whiskey was plentifully available on board the “Aud”, a few bottles were also passed around to the other British sailors on board. As thanks Spindler received several recent English newspapers. During the friendly chat the British commander was moved to disclose that he was out there to intercept a German auxiliary cruiser which was going to land there and bring weapons to the Irish rebels. Meanwhile German admiralty had transmitted the radio message informing of betrayal and ordering Spindler to cancel mission and return home.
Despite mysterious luck, “Libau” cum “Aud” was soon unmasked and a swarm of approximately thirty British auxiliary cruisers and destroyers encircled Germans forcing them to make their way to the port of Queenstown (since 1920 Cobh). On April 22, 1916 at the entrance of Queentown the crew burned secret documents, put on their German uniforms, readied the national flag and opened valves.
British decided to recover a number of rifles from the sinking Libau-Aud before the vessel was scuttled. Several examples are exhibited today in four museums of Britain and Ireland. Among these are the Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald's Park in Cork, a museum in Lurgan County Armagh, the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, and the Imperial War Museum in London.
In 2012, a licensed salvage operation raised Libau-Aud anchors from the wreck site outside the entrance to Cork Harbour at Daunt Rock. Following conservation and desalination works the anchors were put on public display.
Having been taken prisoner of war, Karl Spindler was separated from the crew and after a few stopovers he was put into Donington Hall officer POW camp near Derby and Nottingham. From now on he was continuously occupied with making escape plans and putting them into action. However they failed again and again. On April 22, 1918, shortly before the end of the war, he was exchanged to the Netherlands after exactly two years of imprisonment. Having arrived to Germany, Spindler served as a communications officer until the end of the Great War.
Karl Spindler retired on February 28, 1919 and got promotion on May 21, 1921 (charakterisiert als Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve außer Dienst). He subsequently travelled to the United States where he decided to settle down and did so for the rest of his life.
Karl Spindler was decorated with Prussian Iron Crosses of first and second classes, Commemorative Honour Cross of the Navy Corps Flanders, German Honorary Commemorative Badge of the World War with the Combat emblem, Commemorative Medal of German POWs with the clasp “England”, as well as with Commemorative War Medal for Frontline Soldiers (Hungary) and, presumably, Commemorative Cross of the Former German Serviceman with inscription “Loyalty to the Navy”.
The most impressive flood of honors broke over Karl Spindler in the USA, where Irish Americans established a personality cult of the former captain. The peak was reached in 1931, during celebrations of the 15th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Thus, Spindler was invited to carry out lecture tour while visiting several big cities, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh. The highest point of the numerous honors conferred by the Americans was the presentation of the “golden key of the State of California” to Spindler personally by Governor James Rolph Jr. That was the first time ever for the State to confer this honor. Later in Boston he also received the symbolical “golden key” to that city.
As for the medal for the man, “who in 1916 risked his life for Irish liberty”, it was presented to Karl Spindler by John T.Ryan, President of the Irish Committee in New York and one of the leaders of the Clan na Gael, the secret American counterpart to the irish Republican Brotherhood. Incidentally, Ryan was a representative of the Sinn Féin, Irish nationalist organization, in the Weimar Republic in 1920-1922. The medal was handed to retired captain in the giant hall of Mecca Temple theater amid the roaring jubilation of the enthused crowd. Meanwhile the band played the German national anthem, at which all present stood listening, while at the same time the German flag was raised on the stage. Among others, many hundreds of Germans also attended the stirring ceremony.
After his moving to the USA Spindler visited Germany just a few times. It is sure that in 1932 he visited his father, still living at that time in Königswinter, and in the summer of 1935 he visited his home city, presumably for the last time.
During World War II Spindler was detained in an internment camp as an “enemy alien” as he failed to get permanent residency or naturalization in the USA. He was released in poor health at the end of the war. Spindler passed away on November 29, 1951 and was laid to rest at the Fairview Cemetery in the town of Bismarck (Burleigh County, North Dakota).
Having completed that necessary historical digression let’s return to the main subject of an article. Design of the medal was elaborated by John T.Ryan.
Centre of the obverse showed the bust of Karl Spindler full face. Interestingly, the full dress he is shown wearing on the medal is that of the Oberleutnant zur See, the rank he was promoted to only after retirement in 1921, but not he held at the time of his action (see above). At the bottom the bust is sided with two crossed olive branches. Inscription in capital letters is placed below in two semi-circular lines: “Captain Karl Spindler” и “Commander of His Majesty’s Ship Libau” (“Kapitän Karl Spindler” and “Kommandant S.M.S. Libau”). Obverse was circumscribed “Blockade Runner His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser Libau (Aud) Heading towards Ireland” (“Blockadedurchbruch S.M. Hilfskreuzer Libau (Aud) nach Irland”) in narrow capital letters. Two dates separated from the above-mentioned inscription with two dots – “·April 8-22, 1916·” (“·8.··22. April 1916·”) – were placed at the bottom of the obverse.
Irish inscription in seven horizontal lines is situated in the centre of the reverse: “In Recognition for Services to Ireland During Easter 1916” (“I dtaoḃ a saoṫair ar son na hÉireann um Cáisc 1916”). Backside is circumscribed in Irish as well: “Decorated by the US Executive Committee for Freedom” (“Ᾱrd Cóṁairle na Saoirse in Aimeriocá do ḃronn”). Date “·1931·” separated from that inscription with two dots is placed at the bottom of the reverse.
The edge was maker marked “Gebr. Godet & Co. Berlin” on the edge standing for the well-known Berlin-based company “Gebrüder Godet & Co.”.
Medals without borders measuring 34,5 mm in diameter were minted of bronze. They were awarded to survived members of the SMS Libau crew. Unique medal presented to Karl Spindler by John T.Ryan in New York was manufactured of pure gold.
Ribbon consisted of six equal-sized vertical stripes representing national flags of Ireland and the German Empire, viz. green, white, orange, black, white and red. Interestingly, Irish tricolor was raised for the first time as a national flag exactly during the Easter Rising. It was later adopted by the Irish Republic during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Horizontal pin was attached to the upper part of the reverse of the ribbon.
Medal was issued in dark blue rectangular presentation case with gilt foil stamping along the perimeter of the lid. The latter bore maker’s mark stamped on its interior side. Case contained six items: medal itself, pinback ribbon bar measuring 9,7x36,2 mm and four 12,7 mm lapel rosettes. Each rosette was stamped “Gebr. Godet & Co. Berlin” on reverse.