John Ross, author of Formosan Odyssey and You Don’t Know China, shares insight into a new (re)publication about the German naval aviator Gunther Plüschow (pictured) in a special two part series. Read Part One below. John writes: “Gunther Plüschow’s bestselling 1917 account first appeared in an English translation in 1922 with the underwhelming title My Escape from Donington Hall. Republished in March 2014 as The Aviator of Tsingtao by Camphor Press, this ebook edition has new material to help modern readers, including notes throughout the text, additional photographs, and an introduction by British author Anton Rippon, whose 2009 biography Gunther Plüschow: Airman, Escaper, Explorer is the standard work on this remarkable figure. The Aviator of Tsingtao is available from www.camphorpress.com and Amazon for a special introductory price of US$1.99.”
The Aviator of Tsingtao Part One (of Two)
China and the First World War
Far from the carnage in Europe, and neutral up until August 1917, China as a whole had a quiet First World War. The same cannot be said for Shandong; it played a starring role in all three of China’s main wartime episodes: the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao, the sending of Chinese labourers to France, and the controversy surrounding the post-war settlements at the Treaty of Versailles.
In the autumn of 1914 the German enclave of Kiaochow was attacked, the prize target being the port settlement of Qingdao (then rendered as “Tsingtao” in English, “Tsingtau” in German) by Japanese and British forces. The Siege of Tsingtao lasted two months. Japanese troops numbered 23,000 and Britain contributed 1,500 (as well as a squadron of warships); the German garrison was about four thousand strong. The defenders put up stiff but ultimately futile resistance, surrendering on November 7, 1914.
Starting in 1916, China allowed nearly 140,000 labourers to be recruited for service in France and Belgium. The labourers were volunteers, mostly poor farmers attracted by high pay. And the majority of them were from Shandong because the men – on top of being better suited to the cold European winters – were larger and considered stronger than southerners. About 100,000 Chinese labourers served near the front lines, performing menial tasks such as digging trenches, clearing battlefields, and carrying supplies. The other 40,000 worked away from the front lines in factories and docks.
Despite its contribution, China went unrewarded when the Allies drew up post-war terms at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Instead of being handed back to China, the former German enclave in Shandong was formally given to Japan. This insult – the Chinese government actually refused to sign the treaty – triggered outrage and protests in China that grew into the May Fourth Movement. Young patriots called for national revival and modernisation. But, with the liberal Western democracies discredited in the eyes of many Chinese intellectuals, inspiration was found instead in the example of the Russian Revolution and communism.
The Aviator of Tsingtao
The stand-out story from the war in China – and one of the most amazing from the entire First World War in any theatre – concerns German naval pilot, Gunther Plüschow, who was effectively a one-man air force during the Siege of Tsingtao. In his barely-airworthy Taube monoplane, he flew alone, armed with only a pistol, all the while dodging ground fire and the enemy’s superior biplanes as he spied on Allied positions and movements.
Gunther Plüschow arrived in Tsingtao in mid-June 1914, ecstatic to be in this idyillic port and beach resort. In his wartime account, Die Abenteuer des Fliegers von Tsingtau (The Adventures of the Airman of Tsingtao) he called it a “Paradise on earth.”
In the meanwhile July had come, and brought with it the loveliest weather, most radiant sunshine, and the bluest of skies. It was Kiaochow’s best month. The bathing season was at its height. There were many charming ladies, mostly from the European and American settlements in China and Japan, visiting the “Ostend of the Far East” and enjoying the beauty of Kiaochow.
Amusement was the order of the day. Motor drives, riding-parties, polo and tennis filled the free hours, and in the evenings dancing held undisputed sway. There were many Englishwomen amongst the women, and our relations were most pleasant and cordial. For the beginning of August we had challenged the English Polo Club at Shanghai to a match when, on the 30th of July — like a bolt from the blue — came the order warning us of “Danger of war!”
Plüschow’s first flight over Tsingtao was on July 28, the same day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia thereby starting the First World War. A few days later, Plüschow’s flying colleague, Müllerskowski, crashed the colony’s second Taube monoplane during its maiden flight, injuring himself and destroying the aircraft. This left Plüschow as a one-man air force. On a side note, Plüschow was not actually the first aviator to take to the skies over the German protectorate. The previous summer civilian Franz Oster, a German metalworker who had arrived in Tsingtao in 1899 and become a successful factory owner, had successfully flown a Taube. However, during the Siege of Tsingtao, his plane was not airworthy, and Oster – along with the other Germans – spent the rest of the war in Japan as a prisoner of war.
Adding to the risks Plüschow faced flying such a primitive aircraft was the unsatisfactory nature of the airfield at Iltis Platz; it was a racecourse converted into a makeshift airfield and much too short for safe landings and take-offs. Today the site of the racecourse, a short distance from the No 1 bathing beach, is part of Huiquan Square.
Plüschow’s Taube (German for “dove”) was a monoplane design first flown in 1910 and already on the verge of obsolescence. It had no ailerons (the hinged flaps at the rear of wings that allow for control of lateral balance), instead using “wing warping” – a system of pulleys and cables to pull the trailing wing edges into shape.
The Japanese enjoyed almost complete air supremacy. Their Navy Flying Corps had four seaplanes – French Maurice Farman biplanes – which were larger, faster, and more heavily armed than the Taube. They operated from Japan’s first aircraft carrier (and the world’s first to be used in combat), the Wakamiya Maru, from which they were lifted in and out of the water. After the carrier was damaged by a mine, the planes were moved to a beach airstrip. The Japanese Army had four Farmans of its own, which were operated from a purpose-built airfield at Tsimo (Jimo), about 40 kilometres to the north.
Against terrible odds, Plüschow took to the skies day after day, gaining valuable intelligence for his beleaguered comrades. As if avoiding enemy fire were not enough, he also made several daring bombing attacks against the Allies using improvised munitions. His most hair-raising moment came in a duel with a biplane.
As the siege reached its climax, the Allies inching forward and bombarding Tsingtao from land, sea and air, Plüschow was – on the eve of the surrender – given important documents and ordered to fly to nominally neutral China. In Part Two we will follow Plüschow’s escape from China, his capture and internment in POW camps in England, and his escape back to Germany. In fact, Plüschow was the only German in either world war to escape from a POW camp in Britain and make it all the way back to the Fatherland.
Check out a photo of a Taube (also known as a Rumpler Taube after the manufacturer “Rumpler”) below.