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A World War One Naval Battle - The Battle of the Falkland Islands.
Flower Gardens at Government House, Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
Setting the scene.
During the initial weeks of World War One, the British Navy went through a period of mistakes and misfortunes that culminated in a tragic defeat at Coronel off the coast of central Chile, where the winner was the German East Asia Squadron, a naval fleet under the command of Admiral Maximilian Von Spee. (See my previous article on the Battle of Coronel).
The ships that formed the German Squadron were: the Sharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Leipzig, the Nürenberg and the Dresden.
The British Squadron, under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, included the Good Hope, the Monmouth, the Glasgow, the Otranto and the Canopus. Of these, the only viable ones were the first three, as the Otranto was an armed merchant cruiser, and the Canopus was so slow that at time she had to be towed.
Cathedral at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands.
Changes are implemented by the British Admiralty in London.
The main theatre of the war was centered in Europe, and the powerful British fleets were stationed in home waters, leaving the protection of British interests in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, mainly to ships that were nearing the end of their productive lives and that were therefore slower than their German enemies. The British ships stationed in outlying areas also could not match the German fleets for firepower and armor.
The outcome of the Battle of Coronel, on the 1st of November, 1914, where the cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth were lost with no survivors, brought about changes in the Admiralty in London, where Lord Fisher had been named First Sea Lord. On the 11thNovember, just days after the defeat at Coronel, a fleet of powerful ships was ordered to sail for the Atlantic.
Three battle cruisers were included in this new force, and these were: the HMS Princess Royal, sent to the Caribbean to patrol the Panama Canal, and HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, sent to reinforce the Falkland Islands area in the southern Atlantic.
Southern Coast of Chile.
Juan Fernandez Islands, Cumberland Bay.
Movements of the German Squadron.
In the meantime, after the encounter at Coronel, Von Spee took his fleet to Valparaiso. He had not realized, in the dark amid the confusion of battle, that the Good Hope had sunk. He imagined that his principal enemy ship, being badly damaged, would probably make for Valparaiso to organize some repairs and he hoped to intercept the Good Hope somewhere near this port. In Valparaiso the German colony received him with honors and a banquet, but the German fleet had to leave 24 hours later in accordance with the Hague Convention for neutral countries.
Von Spee then went to the Juan Fernandez Islands off the Chilean coast, and after that spent some time on the southern coast of Chile, resting his men and trying to load up with coal.
Taking stock of their situation, with about 45% of their munitions spent at Coronel, and with ever increasing difficulties to obtain coal, Von Spee decided to move into the southern Atlantic by way of Cape Horn. On the way they captured a British collier, the Drummier, and then put in to Picton Island to distribute the coal from the collier and to hunt. After three days, the German fleet finally set sail for the Atlantic on the 6thof December. On that same date, von Spee decided to raid and destroy the British radio station that operated from the Falklands, as he had received information from a passing commercial steamer that the British war ships were not there.
Map of the Falkland Islands, southern Atlantic Ocean.
Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands
Movements of the British Fleet.
While all this was happening, the British battle cruisers coming from Europe had met up with the rest of the British fleet off the coast of Brazil, and were moving towards the Falkland Islands with as much secrecy as they could manage.
By this time, the British ships converging on the Falklands were the following: the Invincible, the Inflexible, the Carnarvon, the Kent, the Cornwall, the Glasgow, the Bristol, the Macedonia, and last but not least the old Canopus.
The British fleet arrived on the 7th December, and set about making some necessary, though minor, repairs. As a strategic precaution, the battleship HMS Canopus with her powerful 12in.guns, was beached behind a small hill with the idea of forming a stable firing platform, as a further aid in the defense of the British port installations, in case of a German attack. It was not possible to see Canopus when approaching the port from the sea.
The weather conditions on the 8th of December were good, with clear visibility. Just before 8.00 am, an observer stationed on Sapper Hill, reported columns of smoke and funnels heading for Port Stanley. The British fleet was not yet ready to move out, as most of them were still either loading coal, or raising steam. Admiral Sturdee, the officer who had command of the British squadron, ordered the fleet to be made ready at all possible speed, and to provide the men with breakfast. Then Sturdee, in true British fashion, also had breakfast!
At 8.45am HMS Kent was able to take up station at the entrance to the Port.
The Battle of the Falkland Islands, a Painting.
The Inflexible, picking up survivors from the Gneisenau.
The Battle of the Falkland Islands.
At about 9.30am, the two leading German ships, the Gnesenau and the Nürenberg, sailing with guns trained on the radio station and without seeing the Canopus, came into range and started receiving shells from the British battleship, still hidden behind the protecting small hill. The German ships changed course, and this brought them within sight of the Invincible and the Inflexible, which must have been a bad shock for the German squadron. The result was that the two German ships increased speed and started to draw away in order to join up with the other ships of Von Spee’s Squadron.
Just before 10.30, the British fleet was ready and the order went out to “give chase”. At that time, the German ships were barely visible just above the horizon and pulling away fast.
At around 12.30, Sturdee decided to attack with the two larger ships, the Invincible and the Inflexible, plus the Glasgow as they were better able to make speed.
Just after 12.45, the order to “open fire” was given. The battle raged through most of the afternoon, as the encounter broke up into three separate actions. Around 4.30pm, Scharnhorst sank with all hands. Gneisenau sank at 6pm, and some survivors were rescued as prisoners of war. They reported that at that time, their ammunition was completely exhausted.
The Leipzig sank at 9 pm. A few officers and some men were picked up and were able to survive the freezing water.
In another separate action, the Nürenberg sank at 7.20pm. A few men were saved from the waters and survived.
While all this was happening, the weather had changed and visibility was poor owing to mist. This circumstance allowed the Dresden to get away, the only German ship that was not sunk or captured. For all practical purposes, this was the end of Von Spee’s East Asia Squadron.
The Sinking of the Scharnhorst, a Painting by Thomas J. Somerscales.
Some thoughts on war in general and on this action in particular.
It seems to me that there are at least two basic elements that are fundamental to a successful action in war: good information and some luck!
If von Spee had known that the British fleet was being strengthened with the intention of finding his Squadron and destroying it, he would not have spent so much time in Chilean waters before turning into the Atlantic.
If he had not been misinformed about the radio station on the Falkland Islands being unprotected, he would never have tried to attack.
And as for luck, if Sturdee had not arrived one day before the German Squadron, the result could have been very different because if just one ship had sunk at the entrance to the Port facilities, the rest would have been trapped inside.
And what of the Dresden?
Well, that’s another fascinating story, for although she did not survive for long, the actions of the Dresden following the encounter at the Falkland Islands, would have far-reaching effects, right into World War Two! Moreover, these more recent happenings that took place about 25 years after the Battle of Coronel and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, are accidentally interrelated with my family here in Chile, and therefore with my personal life. This could be yet another interesting story!
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)