Coronel to the Falkland Islands 1914

Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst (flag)  and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg defeated Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock’s British squadron at Coronel, off the coast of Chile, on 1 November 1914. The British force was inferior to the German one, but the British were so used to naval superiority that any defeat was a major psychological blow to them and a boost to their enemy.

The existence of Spee’s squadron disrupted British South American trade. It might also appear off South Africa, where a significant proportion of the Boer population was pro-German. A large number of British ships were tied up in escorting convoys and hunting for German raiders.[1]

There had been three German light cruisers outside European waters at the start of the war as well as Spee’s squadron and three out of five German merchant ships armed as auxiliary raiders at the start of the war were still operating at the start of November.[2]

Spee had detached the light cruiser SMS Emden to operate in the Indian Ocean. Her highly successful cruise did not end until 9 November, when she was destroyed by HMS Sydney. SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in East Africa by November 1914, but still tied up several British cruisers by her presence. SMS Karlsruhe successfully raided Allied shipping off north east Brazil before being destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November. However, it was some time before the British learnt of her fate.

However, Spee had problems of his own. The Japanese entry into the war made his principal base of Tsingtao in China, now Qingdao, untenable. British Empire forces, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, captured Germany’s bases and wireless stations on various South Pacific islands. He could obtain coal and intelligence from German agents and diplomats in South America, but he had no means of repairing his ships or replenishing their ammunition.[3] They had suffered little damage at Coronel, but had used 666 out of their 1,456 8.2 inch shells.[4]

He told a former German Navy surgeon, who was then living in Valparaiso, that:

‘You must not forget that I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany, we possess no other secure harbour, I must plough the seas of the world, doing as much mischief as I can, till my ammunition is exhausted, or till a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me.’[5]

The two German armoured cruisers and Nürnberg had entered Valparaiso after Coronel, but left on 4 November. The Admiralty had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the German squadron until 14 November. Dresden and Leipzig had entered Valparaiso the day before, but were not allowed to coal. They left at 1 am on 14 November and were reported to have met the rest of their squadron outside the port.

The Naval Staff Monograph argues the visit of the two light cruisers to Valparaiso, which may have been to allow their crews a chance to visit a port ‘was a mistake…[that] served no purpose of military utility’ and let the Admiralty know that Spee was still off the Chilean coast.[6]

On 21 November Spee’s squadron arrived at St Quintin Bay in Chile, along with seven colliers. It coaled from four of them: the Memphis, Luxor, Ithakotis and Amasis. The other three, the Seydlitz, Baden and St Isabel, carrying 17,000 tons of coal, sailed with the warships when they left St Quntin on 26 November. The squadron needed about 7,000 tons of coal every fortnight. [7]

On 2 December the British three masted barque Drummuir, carrying 2,800 tons of coal, was captured by Leipzig. The German squadron then detoured to Picton Island to transfer the coal to the bunkers of its colliers, which took until 6 December.

That day, Spee called a conference of his captains and senior staff officers. He informed them that he intended to attack the Falkland Islands, destroy its wireless station and dockyard and capture its governor in retaliation for the British capture of the German governor of Samoa. The majority opposed his plan, but he over-ruled them.[8]

The German squadron sailed for the Falklands that afternoon, first scuttling the Drummuir . The three days spent at Picton Island would prove to be a fatal delay for the Germans.

The British, meanwhile, had responded decisively to their defeat at Coronel. Admiral Lord ‘Jackie’ Fisher had been re-appointed First Sea Lord following the resignation of Prince Louis Battenberg on 29 October because of ‘rising agitation in the Press against every one German or of German descent.’[9]

On 4 November, six hours after learning of Coronel, Fisher decided to send two battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible and Invincible, to hunt for Spee’s squadron. Four days later they arrived at Devonport, where they were to take on stores and Invincible was to undergo repairs. The dockyard said that they would take until 13 November, but Fisher said that the ships must sail on 11 November, with dockyard workers on board if necessary. They made this target.

The Royal Navy cruiser squadron in the South Atlantic was commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Stoddart. The battlecruisers were, however, a Vice Admiral’s command and one was now available.

Fisher had both professional and personal objections to Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. the Chief of the War Staff at the Admiralty. Sturdee had been on the side of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford in his feud with Fisher. Additionally, Fisher blamed him for the loss of three cruisers to a single U-boat in September and for poor dispositions that led to Coronel. Fisher said that ‘[n]ever such utter rot as perpetrated by Sturdee in his world-wide dispersal of weak units! Strong nowhere, weak everywhere.’[10]

However, Winston Churchill, the First Lord, trusted Sturdee and did not want it to seem as if he was being fired because of Coronel.[11] Sturdee had declined Fisher’s offer of command of the China Station because he would be based on shore rather than at sea. Churchill then suggested giving him command of the squadron being sent to the South Atlantic. Sturdee was therefore appointed to command in the South Atlantic and Pacific, ’embracing as it did a wider extent of sea than had ever yet been committed to a single admiral.’[12]

Sturdee’s orders were:

‘Your main and most important duty is to search for the German armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and bring them to action, all other considerations are to be subordinated to this end. It is not intended that you should confine your operations to the limits of your station should the movements of the enemy render it necessary for you to pass beyond them.[13]

As well as the two battlecruisers being sent with Sturdee, another, HMS Princes Royal, was sent to the Caribbean on 12 November. There was a risk that Spee might come through the Panama Canal. The USA allowed three belligerent warships in it and three in US territorial waters at each end at any one time, so Spee’s squadron could have transited it in less than a day.[14] However, the Naval Staff Monograph, written after the war for internal RN use only, says that the main reason for the despatch of Princess Royal was the risk of German cruisers breaking out from Germany into the Atlantic.[15]

The removal of three battlecruisers from the Grand Fleet meant that it was outnumbered five to four by the German High Seas Fleet in that type of ship. Its commander, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was concerned that he had too small a margin over the enemy. He did not regard the recently completed ships, the battlecruiser HMS Tiger and the battleships HMS Benbow, Emperor of India and Queen Elizabeth, as being ready for action. However, Paul Halpern praises Fisher as showing ‘considerable nerve and moral courage for he correctly foresaw the need for overwhelming force at the decisive place.’[16]

Sturdee’s squadron sailed south at a slow speed in order to conserve coal. It lost 12 hours searching for the German auxiliary cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm, which had wrongly been reported to be in the area, and another 12 clearing a wire that had fouled one of Invincible’s propellers during target practice.

On 26 November he rendezvoused with Stoddart’s squadron of the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon (flag), Cornwall and Kent, the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow and the Armed Merchant cruiser HMS Orama at the Abrolhos Rocks off north east Brazil. The armoured cruiser HMS Defence was also present, but she was to proceed to South Africa after transferring her modern wireless equipment to Invincible. It was hoped that this would prevent a repetition of the communications problems that had been an issue with Craddock’s squadron before Coronel.[17]

Sturdee had originally intended to remain at the Abrolhos Rocks until 29 November, transferring stores to Stoddart’s ships, but Captain John Luce of HMS Glasgow persuaded him to sail a day earlier. The British squadron therefore reached the Falkland Islands, where it intended to coal, on 7 December, a day before the Germans. The Germans would have been there first if they had not delayed at Picton Island or if Sturdee had not been persuaded by Luce to leave the Abrolhos Rocks sooner.

The next entry in this series will describe the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. i. ‘Monograph 3: Operations up to the Battle of The Falkland Islands’, pp. 140-41.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918.

[3] For an analysis of Spee’s strategic options see P. Overlack, ‘The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asian Cruiser Squadron in 1914’, The Journal of Military History 60, no. 4 (1996), pp. 657-82.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, p. 118.

[5] Quoted in Naval Staff vol. i. p. 154.

[6] Ibid., p. 148.

[7] Ibid., pp. 153-54.

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 414.

[9] Ibid. vol. i, p. 246.

[10] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 120

[11] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 90; P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 94; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 248.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 365.

[13] Naval Staff vol. i. pp. 155-56.

[14] Halpern, Naval, p. 96.

[15] Naval Staff vol. i. p. 144.

[16] Halpern, Naval, p. 94.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 409.

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  1. Pingback: The German Raid on North East England 16 December 1914 | War and Security

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