‘Commander von Brüning, in command of the torpedo gunboat Blitz’

Where do writers get their characters from? In the case of Childers, we can be pretty sure that Davies is, to a large extent, a portrait of himself. Carruthers, we think, is an almagam of several of his real-life Oxbridge and Civil Service sailing chums.

Dollman is a bit harder to work out. Perhaps he’s a new kind of double-dealing cad that Childers is introducing to the world. Lloyd has some theories on this, that he’s going to to share in a separate post.

Von Brüning, on the other hand, is pretty much typecast. He’s the kind of German military man that every Brit in 1903 would recognise – honourable, upright, a good sort. We *liked* Germans back then. Eleven years later we were at war, and things went downhill from there.

Alfred von Tirpitz – a model for von Brüning?

In terms of real-life role models for von Brüning, one needs look no further than the greatest naval German of them all at the time: Alfred von Tirpitz. It’s surely not a coincidence that Tirpitz’s first command was a torpedo flotilla leader called… Blitz! It’s a warship that Childers would almost certainly have seen in Kiel harbour, or cruising between the Baltic and the North Sea.

“SMS Blitz”. Via Wikipedia

It was also a boat that was present at the 1887 Cowes Regatta (the Brits and the Germans were friendly enough then to co-host naval reviews). On board the Blitz on that occasion was the young prince Wilhelm himself, the future Kaiser.

Tirpitz was keen enough on Britain to assert in his youth that German naval officers were made more welcome in Portsmouth than in Kiel. And he sent both his daughters to private school in England. You won’t find a more English-loving German officer anywhere at the time. So what happened?

Tirpitz is best known as the man who masterminded the build-up of the German navy, triggering an arms race with Britain that led to World War One. He’s also a man who was keen on torpedo boats – exactly the kind of small torpedo boats that Childers warns about in the Book; vessels that might whizz through narrow channels, carrying out surprise attacks and supporting a full-blow invasion force. We can safely say the Tirpitz plan ‘back-fired’ in the end, and having been the Brit-loving man in his youth, Tirpitz ended his days as a founder of the suspiciously named Fatherland Party, and someone the the Brits truly despised.

Franz von Hipper – went from attending Queen Victoria’s funeral to becoming known as ‘the baby killer’.

Another top torpedo man was Franz von Hipper, another German naval office who started as a friend of the Brits, attending the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901,  arriving on board the Imperial yacht SMY Hohenzollern. By 1914 he was masterminding the first coastal attack on Britain at Sunderland, Hartlepool and Whitby , causing the first civilian casualties of the war. The British media was so shocked by this act of violence they labelled Hipper from then on as ‘the baby killer’.

So we have some obvious models for a German naval officer, we’ve found a German boat called Blitz, and we can see what fate has in store for this kind of ‘honourable’ man. But where does the name von Brüning come from? A little bit of web research digs up a newspaper article in the Los Angeles Herald describing a yacht race of 1902:

ISLAND OF HELIGOLAND, German*. July 14.—The yachts competing In the race from here to Dover, Eng. for the Von Busch trophy, valued at 600 guineas, and two other prizes, started today In a light wind about 3 o’clock. The contest is open only to German yachts. The competitors were: Emperor William’s Meteor 111, Herr Watjen’s Navahoe, Herr Von Brüning’s Lasca and four others.

It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of news item that would’ve caught Childers’s eye at the time. Better still, this real-life von Brüning turns out to be Walter von Brüning, a senior civil servant working in Kiel. In other words, he does pretty much the same job as Childers, and he shares the same passions – but he’s German.


One thought on “‘Commander von Brüning, in command of the torpedo gunboat Blitz’

  1. During his great war Naval Intelligence work, he kept a notebook on him at all times with the latest German Royal Navy dreadnought class ships, hand sketched with own ink pen. This would have been standard practice for ship Captains as well.

    Click to access 1346.pdf

    Library of Trinity College Dublin, Digital Collections (DRIS)


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