The Yellow Sea Incident


Richard Franklin Bishop


© Copyright 2016 by Richard Franklin  Bishop      

Photo of Gunther Plüschow.

This is the Story of Tsingtao, China

It also includes a critical review of the book:

DRAGON MASTER - The Kaiser’s One-Man Air Force in China, 1914

(This is an expanded “critical review”. Portions of the following have appeared in

Amazon’s Book Listing and appear here - with their approbation)

The Yellow Sea lies between the north-central mainland of China and the Korean peninsula. Once upon a time, there was a ripple on the Yellow Sea near China that most modern Americans never heard of.

But, using the right search words in “The Aviator of Tsingtao” (English spelling) will turn up 8,950 “hits” placing the location and the events at least as a footnote in History. If you shift to (Germany), the search words: “Der Flieger von Tsingtau” (German spelling) will get you 53,800 (six times as many) “hits” illuminating the person and the events easily recognizable by almost every person in Germany, as well as by many people in Chile and Argentina.

The mentioned Aviator (Flieger) was named Gunther Plüschow and he was an Oberleutnant with one stripe on his sleeve (equivalent to a Navy Full Lieutenant or Captain in our Military) in the Imperial German Navy’s Flying Corps. He became a Hero in Germany during WW I and, later-on, became famous in South America, as well.

It all was highlighted in the World newspapers when the Japanese showed their aspirations for international power as a result of their unbelievable victory over the Russians in 1904-1905.The entire world was amazed by their sinking the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait (between Japan and Korea) during the Russo-Japanese war.

Other World-powers had kept colonialism alive, e. g., the British acquired Hong Kong in 1842 together with a protectorate Wei-Hai-Wei on the Shantung (Shandong) north coast. Germany was envious and also wanted their piece of the colonial “cake”. Russia leased their Colony at Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou) and France established a Colony at Kwang-Chou-Wan. When the United States acquired the Phillipines from Spain in 1898, that about ended our taste for colonialism in the Pacific. We were only interested in trading and “business as usual.”

Not so for Japan, their “Victory” brought about an active rise in nationalism and the accompanying militarism began to alarm other countries. Apparently, the Japanese were not especially interested in forming trading “Colonies” and had formulated some other motive. High on the list of those countries in a sudden apprehension of danger were China and Germany.

China had established a strategic military post at Kiaochow Bay on the Shantung (Shandong) Coast as early as 1891. So, after a couple of German missionaries were murdered in China, Germany used this as an excuse to force a treaty of 99 years duration (together with a lease on a German Colonial Trade Protectorate) onto the military garrison of the Manchu Government in March of 1898 - using “gunboat diplomacy”.

Tsingtau (the Chinese word means Green Island) and the treaty-lease district around it includes some 315 square miles. It is located at 36 of north Latitude (the 36th parallel). Tokyo, Japan is located at 32 of north Latitude (the 32nd parallel) and is 1,097 miles or 19 further east of Tsingtau. The former German colony lies on the east coast of China 440 miles north of Shanghai and 558 miles northwest of the Japanese naval base of Nagasaki. Was this really a threat (too close for comfort) for the Japanese?

The Germans spent the next 16 years (from 1898 until the beginning of WW I in 1914) establishing a commercial port and naval supply station at the former Chinese military base on the Shantung (Shandong) coast (now-a-days called Qingdao with the new Chinese Pinyin system for spelling and pronunciation). They built a giant crane and a floating drydock (the largest in Asia) and turned the little fishing village into a model “little Germany” complete with hundreds of European-style houses, a modern sewage system, a brewery, and parks and administration buildings of the finest kind. Their placement of “homelike” memoirs of the “Fatherland” included pensions, hotels, boulevards and a race track. Their Governor’s Mansion was grandiose! It is amusing to see blogs on the Internet from tourists who visited there recently. They innocently describe the present Qingdao as: “A little Switzerland” !

After several Declarations of War in Europe, the World “girded-up” for WW I in 1914. Amazingly, England, Japan and now Russia became wartime Allies. Japan decided (and the English agreed) that the German port of Tsingtau was a thorn in their side and needed trashing. On 15 August 1914, the Japanese sent an ultimatum to the German Governor of Tsingtau calling for an unconditional surrender by September 15th. This ultimatum would expire on 23 August 1914.

The British didn’t wait. The day before it expired, the British Destroyer H.M.S. Kenet attacked the German Torpedo Boat S-90 which was accompanying a ship named Lauting that was laying mines outside the harbor entrance. Although much slower, the S-90 resisted with deadly aim. After a running battle in which the British vessel suffered a destroyed bridge, and six more hits, the damage inflicted was three dead (including the ship’s Commander) and six wounded. The British finally broke off its “dogged pursuit” when it came too close to the German guns of Hweichuen Fort that put a geyser from a 240 mm (9.4 inch) gun extremely close to them.
In the subsequent blockade and bombardment of Tsingtau, the Japanese used 5 Battleships (the British furnished 1 more), 12 Cruisers, 14 Destroyers (the British furnished 2 more), 7 Gunboats, and 18 other ships for mine-sweeping and other duties including a sea-plane tender (the British added 1 Hospital ship). This was a total of 60 vessels not including Troop-transports for the landings.

In their inevitable invasion, the first landing was made about 185 miles north of Kiaochow Bay on 2 September 1914. The beachhead was on the opposite side of the Shantung (Shandong) Peninsula entirely in neutral Chinese territory. This major incursion force consisted of 26 Troop transports and used 36 out of the 60 warships already in the area to cover the landing. This landing was deemed later to have been a grave mistake because a severe rainstorm beginning on August 31st (and lasting 10 days) had turned the entire area into a quagmire. This landing was duly halted on 3 September and many of the ships were re-deployed together with their Troops who had re-embarked.

Fifteen days later, on September 18th the final amphibious landing placed more than a hundred siege cannons, thousands of tons of equipment, almost three hundred horses, and nearly 30,000 men on the beachhead south of the village of Wangko Chuang; again in neutral Chinese territory. The Japanese Headquarters would be only about 25 miles north of Tsingtau. Eventually, two giant floating cranes were used to offload the heaviest equipment such as big 15-ton Siege guns. Large diesel generators powering search-lights provided lighting for 24-hour operations. They seized several hundred big sampans for use as “lighters” in transporting men, horses and supplies from the transport ships. More than 500 large Chinese single-wheel wheelbarrows (2 men to a barrow) and half a thousand two-wheel carts pulled by ponies were commandeered. Also, a narrow gage railway was constructed. Thus continued an invasion and siege of gigantic proportions for the times.

On 19 September, after a small raiding party in which 6 German Soldiers at an outpost were overwhelmed without firing a shot, the first Japanese soldiers acquired “German” soil on their boots. The day-by-day relentless Infantry “push” by the Japanese Infantry and the exhausting of the ammunition of the Germans both contributed to an early end to the resistance. Counting the British preparations in late August, the siege ended with the German unconditional surrender on 7 November 1914; having lasted 72 days.

Oberleutnant Plüschow flew reconnaissance flights piloting a shaky Rumpler Taube (Dove). This 6-cylinder Mercedes-powered airplane was one of those primitive monoplanes whose control was effected by wing warping. Two aircraft had arrived in Tsingtau as cargo and weeks of 100% humidity enroute had badly eroded the spare parts and the 5 laminated wooden propellers were useless because they were all warped.

In the Americas, we would always ask: was this strange-looking flying object an obscure and unknown European aircraft ? No, not by any means ! It was a popular 1909 design from Ignaz IgoEtrich (an Austrian-Hungarian designer & inventor) that first flew in Europe in 1910. He became fascinated by the characteristics of the seed of the Zanonia microcarpa, a vine like climbing plant (a liane) from the Malay Archipelago and Indonesian islands whose seeds flew like a “flying wing” for long distances “from up high in the forest canopy” (some were found on the decks of passing ships). This was his starting point for the unusual design of the Etrich Dove. In its favor, we would have to say: it really did look more like a bird than other designs of the times !

About five hundred Doves of various types were mass-produced by scores of aircraft manufacturers. This aircraft was built within Germany by 14 Companies; Rumpler, Gotha and twelve other factories. It was a “natural” for use in observation because the translucent fabric made it invisible when it flew above a thousand feet of altitude. This first “stealth” aircraft was used by 10 different countries.

The second aircraft, also a Rumpler, was piloted by German Marine Lieutenant Friedreich Muellerskowski and had crashed on takeoff just after assembly on 31 July 1914. Oberleutnant Plüschow had tried in vain to persuade Muellerskowski not to fly that day because of unpredictable winds. The Marine Lieutenant was hospitalized with multiple fractures. It was a total loss and his perseverance caused the Germans to lose half of their local Air Force.
Oberleutnant Plüschow solved the propeller problem by using Chinese fine-furniture craftsmen who laminated a propeller by gluing & pressing together 7 thin seasoned oak boards and then, using centuries-old techniques, they hand-carved it into a new one. After each flight of the one remaining aircraft, they had to re-glue the propeller and dry it to a resinous hardness in a press. They also used a tape resembling modern “Ducting Tape” to give the propeller added strength and duration. The heavier wood dropped the engine speed by 100 RPMs.

With something like thirteen to 1 odds against them, the Germans stoutly defended their colony against the invaders. Oberleutnant Plüschow did his part in the defense plan in spite of the fact that his one-man Air Force was pitted against nine aircraft: five Imperial Japanese Army aircraft and four Imperial Navy aircraft that were fitted with pontoons. 8 aircraft were French designed Maurice Farman MF.7s; one Imperial Army Air Corps aircraft was a Nieuport Monoplane.

In his diary on September 28th, Plüschow claimed to have shot down a Farman firing 30 rounds from a 9 mm automatic pistol known as a “broomhandle” Mauser (1896 Model).

Did he do it, knowing that he was disobeying a direct order not to unnecessarily jeopardize his aircraft ? Perhaps that is why it appeared only in his diary and never appeared in “official” reports. History only credits him with an “unofficial” kill.

Oberleutnant Plüschow, under orders on the last day as the fortress fell, flew out of the besieged town and landed in Haichow in China. After destroying his aircraft, he was escorted as a celebrity to Nanking. There, to avoid internment, he posed as a Swiss businessman and surreptitiously made his way by train to Shanghai where he caught an American ship to San Francisco. After having his experiences in Tsingtau printed in an article in Sunset Magazine, he made his way to New York. There, posing as a Swiss locksmith, he caught an Italian ship to Gibraltar where he was captured by the British and interned as a Prisoner of War in Donington Hall in England. He escaped from there, and from London, swam out to a Dutch ship and made his way as a stowaway to Holland where, at the German border they tried to arrest him. He had a large tattoo of a Dragon on his shoulder which, together with British Newspaper clippings, facilitated his identifying himself as the escaped German Naval officer urgently sought by Scotland Yard.

He was decorated by the Kaiser with the Royal Order of Hohenzollern and the Iron Cross (First Class and, later, Second Class), and promoted to Kapitänleutnant with two stripes on his sleeve on 17 October 1915 (equivalent to a Navy Lieutenant Commander or Major in our Military). He was also awarded the Imperial Pilot’s Shield and the Imperial Flying Cross that were both fashioned in gold. It was said that he would have been given Germany’s highest Decoration, the Blue Max, except for the fact that the Kaiser abdicated before he could sign the orders.

Kapitänleutnant Gunther Plüschow was given command of the Imperial German Naval Air Force Base at Libau near Riga, Latvia. He was married in June 1916, in an airplane hangar there. His wife was named Isot and gave birth to their only Son, whom they named Guntolf, in September, 1918. She died in 1979 at the age of 90 in Berlin. The Son, now named Gunter Guntolf Plueschow II, lived in Winnipeg, Canada.

After the War, Plüschow became an explorer and photographer; chiefly in the uncharted southernmost tip of South America. Three sources; (1) Internet Wikipedia (.com - in English) and (2) Internet Wikipedia (.de – in German) and (3) a special one-of-a-kind Wikipedia Disk (a DVD – produced only in the German language) have displayed him as a prominent person in History.

Some of the Wikipedia details follow. This is not a precise and exact translation of the two German sources, but rather is shown as a compendium of all three of the Wikipedia sources (both English and German) in the words of the present author:

Gunther Plüschow (* 1886 - † 1931). He was an Officer and Pilot of the Imperial German Navy achieving the rank of Kapitänleutnant with two stripes on his sleeve. He became famous during WW I as Der Flieger von Tsingtau.

After the hostilities were over, he became equally famous as an explorer and film-maker in the Argentine Tierra del Fuego. As a flight pioneer, using an open-cockpit Heinkel HD 24 biplane with floats, he was the first to carry airmail to Ushuaia, the southern-most town in South America. He was also the first to overfly the Darwin-Cordillera, Torres del Paine of Patagonia, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Cape Horn.

On 28 January 1931, on his third expedition, Plüschow, together with his Flight Engineer, Ernst Drablow, died when his new Heinkel HD 30 biplane equipped with pontoons, crashed while operating out of Ushuaia, Chile in Tierra del Fuego Province. They were exploring near the Perito-Moreno Glacier and Lake Argentino. Witnesses said there were two parachutes deployed - - but in vain.

His aerial films were used by both the Governments of Chile and Argentina in the discovery and mapping of some of the wildest, most inaccessible landscapes on the planet. For such services over several years ending in his death, those two Countries still provide undying gratitude with monuments and ceremonials. A partial list follows:

A monument was set up across the border in Argentine Patagonia near the Perito-Moreno Glacier and Lake Argentino, where the death of he and his Flight Engineer are regularly remembered to this day by the citizens of Argentina.
In Chile, a monument was dedicated in the TORRES DEL PAINE National Park, not far from the shores of Lake Sarmiento where there had been established a special Warehouse/Depot.

At the 75th anniversary of the date of his death (28 January 1931) in the year 2006, in Germany at his grave in the Parkfriedhof Berlin-Lichterfelde (Cemetery), members of the Staffs of both of the Consulates of Chile and Argentina participated in honoring him with a ceremony.

On December 12th, 2006, in Punta Arenas (Chile) a locality was named after him; a GUNTHER-PLÜSCHOW-PLACE was dedicated on the Magellan Street, in a central location.

The Gunther Plüschow Glacier in Tierra del Fuego is named in his memory.

In Germany, a Sport ship, a Caserne, a Navy Squadron, and several streets have been named after him. There is also an organization: Gunther Plüschow e.V., whose dedicated members are producing various publications that preserve his memory for posterity.

After August 2006, a traveling exhibition was displayed in Europe, first in different German towns where one could see photos, books, contemporary documents and objects, all of which are memorials to the War Hero, Adventurer, Film-Maker, Writer, Flight Pioneer, Explorer and Researcher.


In the United States there are at least 27 books and 8 articles extant in English on this topic. Of those, perhaps the best one is a masterfully written book entitled:

DRAGON MASTER - The Kaiser’s One-Man Air Force in Tsingtau, China, 1914” by Robert E. Whittaker, COMPASS BOOKS, Cleveland, Wisconsin, 1994: Hardcover: ISBN 978-0-9639310-1-6

Paperback: ISBN 978-0-9639310-0-8

The author, Robert E. Whittaker, as the book indicates, has written for a variety of Magazines and Newspapers in addition to creating 47 film and video scripts and this level of experience really shows; the reader is carried along effortlessly as if watching a film documentary on television. He moves the reader seamlessly between the experimental air war, the sea war on the Yellow Sea and the ground war in the trenches (on the Japanese Attack, he describes: ‘the empty battlefield advance’; on the German Defense, he describes: ‘the backward march’).

The author had spent 17 years in Tsingtau (now Qingdao) and thus became intimately familiar with all the events described. Readers will also get a dose of what “Old China Hands” already know; the sights, and sounds, and, yes, even the smells of the early 20th Century in China. His description of a unique Chinese transportation invention was as amazing as it was precise. It was the northern Chinese wheelbarrow that: “had an enormous single wooden wheel in the center and could carry 6 people, three seated (backs against each side of the wheel) and drawn by a man or boy and guided and balanced from behind by another.”

The author, Robert E. Whittaker, firmly anchors the events (that I have labeled as The Yellow Sea Incident) in an honored niche in History and said: “While this Lilliputian struggle was not as large as the European conflict, it was historically more significant. ….. This battle field ‘laboratory experiment’ tested nearly every known piece of equipment and technique of modern warfare, except chemical. ….. Most notable was the recognized contribution of air power.”

The author, Robert E. Whittaker, consulting Japanese records with the translation assistance of Professor Susanne Kawatsu, further said: “A Japanese Aviator, Lieutenant Shigematsu, flying a Maurice Farman, was listed as killed in action in 1914, the only one that year.” Whittaker leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether or not Oberleutnant Gunther Plüschow was, on September 28, 1914, the first airman in History to shoot down an enemy airplane. Despite French claims to the contrary, perhaps Plüschow should be OFFICIALLY awarded the first aerial “Kill” of all time.

In addition to the memorializing events listed by the present Author from the three Wikipedia sources, the author Robert H. Whittaker indicated in his book: “In 1991, a bicentennial (sic) memorial ceremony was held and documented by a German television crew. A large bronze plaque cemented on a rocky cairn commemorates the site.” This was not a bicentennial but actually was the 60th anniversary of his death.

As evidenced by the citations and quotations above, this book is an especially thorough recounting of the invasion and siege of Tsingtau and the exciting life of Gunther Plüschow; both during the hostilities and after World War I.

The book is available by mail at a bargain price from Amazon and is an easy read (there are 64 photographs and illustrations). Aviation buffs and other Historians will enjoy the listing of all the Military and Aviation “firsts” (eleven of them plus two “possibles”) achieved at the beginning of WW I in Asia. It’s a good read and those who love History and especially Aviation History, will appreciate this highly affordable book.

I was lucky. My Amazon paperback book supplied by GOODWILL OF DENVER showed a personally inscribed dedication to the purchaser, by the late author Robert E. Whittaker in his own handwriting (more than likely, it was a book “return” from a “book giveaway” & autograph-signing session).

A really nice keepsake! Mine reads:

All the best from an old flyer to a younger one. All the best.

Robert E. Whittaker

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