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The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight 16-17 November 1917

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent  minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[1]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised: 1st Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier) of two light battle cruisers and four destroyers; 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) of four C class light cruisers and four destroyers; 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan) of one C and 3 Arethusa class light cruisers and two destroyers; and 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Pakenham (five battlecruisers, a light cruiser and eight destroyers.

Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron.

The 1st Battle Squadron of six battleships and 11 Destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.

The Germans had the VI Minesweeping Group, II and VI Support Groups and IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling 16 auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the 7th Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[2]

The light battlecruisers, HMS Courageous and Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15 inch, 18 4 inch and two 3 inch guns plus two 21 inch torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.[3]

The British spotted German ships at 7:30 am on 17 November, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen, which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[4]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 8:07, when Napier’s flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[5]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships.  The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with SMS Blücher at the First Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1915.[6]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 8:10, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and 15 minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 8:40. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and HMS Cardiff was hit and damaged at 8:50. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course. [7]

Napier’s squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Caledon of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[8]

The British opened fire again at 8:52. Napier decided to follow the Germans for 12 more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[9]

At 8:58 Pakenham  ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 8:52 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time that Pakenham’s withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[10]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. The Germans launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack around 9:30. At 9:32 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action because they had reached his danger line, but the light cruisers, whose commanders  did not have the chart Napier had based his decision on, continued. At 9:40 HMS Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until 9:50, when shells from two German battleships started to land amongst them. The light cruisers withdrew, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 10:40.[11]

The British thought that some of the eight or 10 torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[12]

The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only  five hits, with SMS Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged.  A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December.[13]

Naval-History.net lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers. None of the sources consulted give German casualties.  One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of HMS Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded.  The citation for his VC, quoted on Wikipedia, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies.

— The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least 30 knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[14]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers.

 

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, pp. 165-66.

[2] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015), pp. 138-39; 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. iv, pp. 300-1,

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 39-40.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 169-70.

[5] Ibid., pp. 170-71.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 302.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 172-73.

[10] Ibid., p. 173.

[11] Ibid., pp. 175-76.

[12] Marder, From. vol iv, p. 305.

[13] Ibid., p. 304.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 177; Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 305

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The Battle of Dogger Bank 24 January 1915

On 23 January 1915 the British Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had 18 dreadnoughts ready at Scapa Flow and eight King Edward VII class pre-dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. The battlecruisers had been moved there from Cromarty after the German raid on the north east coast on 16 December 1914 so that they could respond more quickly to future attacks.

Jellicoe thought that his margin over the German High Seas Fleet was too narrow. It had 17 dreadnoughts, 22 pre-dreadnoughts and four battlecruisers. There were other British pre-dreadnoughts on the Channel Fleet, but these were not under his command.[1]

Jellicoe always counted the number of ships that he had actually available, excluding those under repair or refit or newly built ones that we not fully worked up. He assumed that the Germans would not come out unless they were at full strength, which proved not to be the case.

The British battlecruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, had recently carried out a sweep into the Helgoland Bight, but had not encountered the enemy. They returned to base on 20 January 1915.

The Germans planned an operation of their own for 23 January. The battlecruisers of Admiral Franz Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group of three battlecruisers and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, the four light cruisers of the 2nd Scouting Group and two flotillas with a total of 18 torpedo boats would carry out a reconnaissance towards Dogger Bank. The Germans called their destroyers as torpedo boats.

Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, commander of the High Seas Fleet, wrote in an after action report that:

‘The intention was to make an extended destroyer advance with cruiser support, in order to clear the course to the Dogger Bank of trawlers employed in enemy service, and, if fortune were favourable, to surprise light forces on patrol.’[2]

He was reluctant to carry out such an operation at a time when the rest of the High Seas Fleet was not in a state of preparedness to support it. However, he agreed because he assumed that the Grand Fleet would be in port coaling, as it had carried out a sweep of the North Sea on 19 January.

The Germans had begun to realise that the British had accurate intelligence on their movements, but did not suspect that it came from reading coded German signals. They believed instead that trawlers or possibly dockyard spies were responsible.[3] A 1922 German analysis of the battle states that it the war it had then ‘only recently transpired’ that the Russians had recovered the code books of the German light cruiser Magdeburg in August 1914 and shared them with their allies.[4]

The British intelligence slightly over estimated the strength of Hipper’s force at four battlecruisers, six light cruisers and 22 torpedo boats.[5] Jellicoe’s assumption that the Germans would come out only when all their ships were available was wrong, since the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann was in dry dock. This was for a routine overhaul, and the story that she was being repaired after colliding with another warship during the Cuxhaven Raid is wrong: it came from prisoners taken at Dogger Bank who either lied to mislead the enemy or else repeated false gossip.[6]

Beatty had the five battlecruisers of the 1st and 2nd Battle Cruiser squadrons and the four ships of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under his command: a sixth battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was undergoing maintenance. He was ordered to rendezvous with the three light cruisers and 35 destroyers of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force at 7:00 am on 24 January near Dogger Bank.

The King Edwards of the 3rd Battle Squadron and the armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron were positioned about 45 miles northwest of the rendezvous point in case the Germans were driven north. Four submarines were sent to intercept the Germans on their way home, but received the signal too late to do so if they got back to port before dusk on 24 January.[7]

Jellicoe and the rest of the Grand Fleet were ordered to sea, but too late to make the action. He later complained that his ships could have been at Beatty and Tyrwhitt’s rendezvous point by 9:30 am on 24 January had he been told to raise steam as soon as the Admiralty learnt that of the German operation. In the event, his ships were 140 miles away from the battle.[8]

The light cruiser HMS Aurora of the Harwich Force came into contact with the Germans just before sunrise. Beatty headed South South East at full speed in the hope of getting to the south of the Germans and cutting them off from their bases. Even if a chase developed, the wind would be blowing the smoke of the coal fired ships towards the Germans, giving the British an advantage on visibility, The Germans were in sight at 8:00 am and the British fired their first ranging shots at 20,000 yards at 8:52 am.[9]

The British ships were sailing in the order Lion (Beatty’s flagship), Tiger, Princess Royal (these three all had eight 13.5 inch guns), New Zealand (Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Moore, commanding 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron’s flagship) and Indomitable (the last two both had eight 12 inch). The German order was Seydlitz (Hipper’s flagship with 10 11 inch), Derfflinger (eight 12 inch), Moltke (10 11 inch) and Blücher (12 8.2 inch).  Blücher was outclassed, but the smaller guns of the German ships were otherwise counter-balanced by superior armour.

Beatty’s despatch claimed that Lion achieved a speed of 28.5 knots, although the highest given in her log was 27 knots. Indomitable could make only 25 knots. so fell behind. New Zealand claimed to have managed 27 knots, a knot faster than in her trials two years before. At 9:52 am Beatty had to slow down to 24 knots so that his squadron could keep close enough together to support each another.

The German claimed maximum speeds of about 28 knots for their three battlecruisers, but they were held back by Blücher, which managed only just over 22 knots, below her designed speed. The German squadron stayed together until 9:30 am, when the battlecruisers increased speed to 23 knots, pulling away from Blücher.

By 09:05 am all three 13.5 inch gun ships were firing on Blücher. The two 12 inch armed ones were still out of range. At 09:24 am Lion switched her fire to Derfflinger. The three German battlecruisers were all firing on Lion. At 09:35 am Beatty ordered his ships to fire on their opposite number in the enemy line.

This should have meant Lion at Seydlitz, Tiger at Moltke, Princess Royal at Derfflinger and New Zealand at Blücher; Indomitable was out of range. However, Tiger, not realising that one British ship was not able to fire, targeted Seydlitz, meaning Moltke was not being fired at and creating spotting problems for Lion and Tiger.

At 09:43 am Lion hit Seydlitz’s aft turret, creating a cordite fire that put the two aft turrets out of action and required the flooding of the magazine. However, Lion was suffering heavy damage and started to lose speed from 10:45 am. Blücher, which by then was on fire, turned north in an attempt to escape at about the same time.

At 10:54 Lion thought that she had spotted a periscope, almost certainly wrongly as the German Official History later stated that there were no U-boats in the area.[10] Beatty therefore ordered a turn to port, taking the course to North North East . Hipper ordered a torpedo boat attack on the battlecruisers at 11:00 am, but it was cancelled at 11:07 am because of their change of course.

Lion had been hit 15 times, her port engine was stopped, all her lights were out, her speed was down to 15 knots, she was listing 10 degrees to port, her searchlights and wireless were out of action and she had only two signal halliards.

The rest of the squadron had to immediately resume the chase in order to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy the German squadron, but it was lost because of signalling errors. Beatty ordered two signals to be raised: ‘Course N.E’ and ‘Attack the rear of the enemy.’ They were then followed by ‘Keep nearer the enemy – repeat the signal Admiral is now making.’

Beatty’s intention was that the squadron should head north east, taking it clear of any mines that he wrongly feared the German torpedo boats might have dropped, and cutting Blücher off from the German battlecruisers. However, Blücher was north east of the British squadron and Moore, who was now in command since Lion could not keep up, did not know why Beatty had ordered the earlier turn.

Beatty’s first two signals were interpreted as a single one: ‘Attack the rear of the enemy bearing north east.’ The British battlecruisers therefore pounded the stricken Blücher to destruction, whilst the rest of the German squadron escaped. They fired on Tiger for a while, hitting her seven times and putting one turret out of action, before moving out of range to the south east.

Blücher was now under attack from four battlecruisers and several light cruisers and destroyers. She was still putting up a fight and badly damaged the destroyer HMS Meteor, but stopped firing at 11:38 am after the light cruiser HMS Arethusa put two torpedoes into her.

At 11:40 am the battlecruisers headed south east in pursuit of the Germans. Five minutes later Tyrwhitt reported that Blücher had struck her colours. The British then began to rescue survivors, observed by a Zeppelin that had been fired on by the light cruiser HMS Southamption around 10:30 am. A German seaplane appeared at 12:30 pm and dropped bombs. The rescue effort was called off at 12:40 pm, by when most of the men in the sea had been either rescued or killed by the bombs. Presumably the seaplane crew assumed that the sinking ship was British. She was then the only large German ship with a tripod mast, but all British dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had tripod masts.[11]

Beatty had meanwhile called for the destroyers to come alongside Lion. At 11:25 am he transferred his flag to the destroyer  HMS Attack, which took him to HMS Princes Royal. He was onboard her by 12:20 pm, but it was now too late for the British to catch the Germans.

Dogger Bank was a clear British victory, with a German armoured cruiser and no British ships sunk. It could have been a greater victor had the British battlecruisers pursued the retreating Germans. It is possible that the a pursuit might have turned victory into defeat, given the way in which three British battlecruisers would blow up at Jutland in 1916.

However, Seydlitz was already badly damaged, and her near loss shows that the in 1915 the Germans were also making the mistakes in ammunition handling and flash protection that cost the British three battlecruisers a year later. A German U-boat crewman who was captured in 1918 had been a gunlayer on Seydlitz at Dogger Bank. The British report on his interrogation said that:

‘Great damage was done by a shell which hit her aftermost turret and exploded the ready ammunition (6 rounds per gun) stowed there. A flame rose mast high and also went down the ammunition hold, causing the magazine to be flooded hurriedly to save the ship. The entire turret’s crew, including the men in the magazine perished. Informant could not remember if a fire was actually started.

In consequence of this, precautionary measures were taken which had a very considerable influence on the Battle of Jutland. These were:-

1. At the top and bottom of all cartridge hoists double flap doors were fitted through which every cartridge has to pass.

2. Similar doors were fitted to the projectile hoists in the turrets and working chambers, but not in the shell rooms.

3. The ready supply of six rounds in the turret was abandoned.

4. The hatchways to magazines and shell rooms were ordered to be kept closed while at sea, and the only exits from these compartments is then by way of an escape through the central hoist into the turret.

5. The manhole in the well under the slide of each gun was ordered to be kept permanently closed.’[12]

The British had also had a chance to learn from their mistakes when HMS Kent was saved from blowing up at the Falkland Islands by the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, but did nothing other than awarding Mayes the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Naval-History.net lists lost 14 British killed and 29 wounded: 17 wounded on Lion, 10 killed and 11 wounded on Tiger and 4 killed and one wounded on Meteor. Lion had to be towed back to port by Indomitable, and took four months to be repaired.[13]

German casualties were 959 killed, 90 returned to port wounded and 234 captured, 45 of them wounded: 792 killed and all the captured on Blücher, 159 killed and 88 wounded on Seydlitz and 8 killed and two wounded on the light cruiser SMS Kolberg. Seydlitz was ready for sea on 1 April and Derfflinger on 17 February.[14]

The battle resulted in von Ingenohl being replaced as commander of the High Seas Fleet by Admiral Hugo von Pohl on 2 February. Moore, who was deemed to lack the initiative required to command a battlecruiser squadron, was transferred to command a cruiser squadron in the Canaries.

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, wanted to dismiss Captain Henry Pelly of Tiger, who had fired on the wrong target and then should, according to Fisher, have disobeyed Moore’s orders and continued the chase. Fisher, looking back to Lord Nelson, said that ‘In war the first principle is to disobey orders. Any fool can obey orders!’[15] Tiger’s gunnery was also poor, but Pelly kept his job.

Another who retained his position was Lieutenant Ralph Seymour, Beatty’s Flag Lieutenant. He had made a crucial signalling error during the pursuit of Hipper’s squadron after the North East Raid and was clearly not good enough at signalling to do the job. He had other duties, such as being the admiral’s social secretary when ashore, but signalling was by far the most important task. Beatty, who was loyal to his immediate subordinates, liked him. However, if he did not want to fire Seymour he could have arranged to promote him away to a destroyer command, but he kept him on to make more mistakes at Jutland.[16]

Dogger Bank was a British victory, but it was one that glossed over many problems, such as poor gunnery, dangerous ammunition handling procedures and signalling errors. Derfflinger was hit once, which set her on fire. Seydlitz was hit only twice, but the almost catastrophic nature of one of the hits caused the Germans to correct mistakes in their anti-flash procedures, which the British did not do.[17]

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 82.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, CAB 45/284, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Translation of German Account, by Commander Groos’  Quoted in ‘The Action of the Dogger Bank 24th January, 1915’ by Commander Groos, ‘Marine Rundeschau’, March 1922, p. 22.

[3] K. Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916 (London: Chatham, 2000), pp. 79-80.

[4] CAB 45/284, p. 4. Footnote.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 84.

[6] R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 118-20.

[7] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. iii. p. 211.

[8] 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. 157-58.

[9] Except where otherwise stated, the description of the battle is based on Naval Staff vol. iii. pp. 212-17. Note that there are a number of alterations to the text, some hand written, some printed and attached to the original text, in the copy consulted.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 97. Footnote 1.

[11] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 407.

[12] TNA, CAB 45/283, ‘German Navy and Sources of Material: Dogger Bank Action, 1915: Miscellaneous Reports from German Sources’. BATTLE CRUISER “SEYDLITZ”

[13] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 166.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 102.

[15] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii. p. 169. Italics in Marder.

[16] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), pp. 93-97.

[17] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 164-65.

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The Battle of the Falkland Islands 8 December 1914

Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst (flag) and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg arrived at the Falkland Islands on the morning of 8 December. Their intention was to destroy the local facilities and wireless station

These were the ships that had won the Battle of Coronel on 1 November. The previous entry in this series described the intervening events, including the despatch of the battlecruisers, HMS Invincible (flag of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee) and Inflexible to the South Atlantic.

The Falkland Islanders had expected to be attacked by Spee since they learnt of Coronel on 25 November. They had formed a local defence force in case of invasion, whilst Captain Heathcoat Grant had deliberately beached the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus on mud to protect the harbour. A signal station had been established on Sapper Hill in order to watch for enemy ships and to direct Canopus’ fire. A row of electric mines laid across the entrance to the outer harbour.

However, Sturdee’s force, also including the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon (flag of Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Stoddart ), Cornwall and Kent and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow had arrived at the Falklands the day before with the intention of coaling before heading for Cape Horn in search of Spee. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Macedonia was also present. Another AMC, HMS Orama, was escorting Sturdee’s colliers to the Falklands.

The Naval Staff Monograph, written in 1921, says that German prisoners later told the British that the only ships that Spee expected to meet were HMS Canopus, Carnarvon, Kent, Cornwall, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle and possibly Defence at the Falklands.  This probably does not mean that he expected to encounter all of them.

The 1938 edition of Naval Operations, the British Official History, which was revised after the publication of the German Official History, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918, says Canopus, Carnarvon, and possibly Defence, Cornwall, and Glasgow.[1] The Germans could outrun Canopus and had heavier guns than all the others except Defence. Any British ships present would probably be coaling, so vulnerable to attack.

Spee’s plan was that Gneisenau and Nürnberg would carry out the attack, with the rest of his squadron standing off in support. They would enter Port Stanley behind a line of minesweeping boats. Gneisenau would take the Governor on board, whilst Nürnberg would enter the inner harbour and destroy the dockyard and wireless station. If hostile warships were present, they would withdraw to the rest of the squadron.

At 7:50 am the look outs spotted Gneisenau and Nürnberg approaching. Coaling had been slow because the first of Sturdee’s own colliers, had only just arrived at the Falklands to join three that were already there. Only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling. the battlecruisers and Bristol were coaling and the other three ships had not yet started to do so. Kent, as guardship, had steam at 30 minutes notice and the others were at two hours notice, except Bristol which needed engine repairs, so was at six hours notice.[2]

At 8 am the Germans spotted wireless masts and heavy smoke, which they initially assumed was the British burning their coal stocks. Gneisenau’s gunnery office, Kapitänleutnant Busch, is believed to have reported seeing tripod masts, which would have meant that British dreadnought battlecruisers or battleships were present. However, his report was not believed.[3]

The following account is based on Sturdee’s Despatch, available from this link to ‘The World War I Primary Documents Archive’, unless otherwise footnoted.

8:00 am: The signal from Sapper Hill reached Sturdee. He ordered Kent was to weigh anchor and the squadron to raise steam for full speed.

8:20 am: The signal station reported another column of smoke to the south.

8:45 am: Kent took up station at the harbour entrance.

8:47 am: Canopus reported that the first two ships were eight miles away and that the second column of smoke seemed to come from two ships about 20 miles away.

8:50 am: The signal station reported a further column of smoke to the south. Macedonia was ordered to weigh anchor and await orders.

9:20 am: Canopus opened fire on the two leading enemy ships at 11,000 yards. They turned away. Their masts and smoke were now visible at a range of 17,000 yards from Invincible’s upper bridge. A few minutes later the Germans changed course, as if to close on Kent, but then changed course and increased speed in order to join their consorts, apparently having spotted the battlecruisers.

9:40 am: Glasgow weighed anchor in order to join Kent.

9:45 am: Carnarvon, Inflexible, Invincible and Cornwall weighed anchor and left harbour in that order. The sea was calm, the sun bright, the sky clear and visibility at its maximum. There was a light breeze from the north west. The five German ships became visible once the squadron had passed Cape Pembroke Light.

Canopus missed the German ships, but the size of water splashes from her shells indicated that they were from 12 inch guns. Spee ordered his ships to turn away after Gneisenau reported that there were six enemy warships present.

The Naval Staff Monograph says the Germans saw the six British ships leaving the harbour at 10 am, but identified them as being two pre-dreadnought battleships, three armoured cruisers and a light cruiser and did not realise that could see that the two largest ships were battlecruisers rather than pre-dreadnoughts until 10:20am. The Germans were then heading east at 20 knots, The subsequent battle was so one sided that the Naval Staff Monograph concludes its account at this point by saying that ‘von Spee knew that his hour had come.’[4]

Naval Operations states that the Germans identified the battlecruisers at 9:40 am. Whenever they made the identification, it came as a great shock to them. There had been US newspaper reports that Invincible had been sent south, but Spee was unaware of them.[5]

Spee’s squadron could out run but not out fight pre-dreadnoughts. It could neither out run nor out fight battlecruisers. Withdrawing was the best action if he thought that he faced pre-dreadnoughts, but if he had realised that he faced battlecruisers, his only chance would have been to attack the first ship to leave harbour, Kent, in the hope of sinking her and obstructing the exit of the rest of the British squadron.

By the time that the battlecruisers had been identified, Spee’s only hope was that his doomed armoured cruisers could hold the British off for long enough that his three light cruisers might escape in order to carry out commerce raiding. The following table shows that the British had an overwhelming superiority.

Ship Completed Tonnage Speed (knots) Guns Weight of Broadside (lbs)
Scharnhorst 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Gneisenau 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Nürnberg 1908 3,400 23.0 10 x 4.1″ 176
Leipzig 1906 3,200 23.3 10 x 4.1″ 176
Dresden 1909 3,592 24.5 10 X 4.1″ 176
German Total 33,032 4,442
Invincible 1909 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Inflexible 1908 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Carnarvon 1905 10,850 22.0 4 x 7.5″ 900
6 x 6″
Cornwall 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Kent 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Glasgow 1911 4,800 25.3 2 x 6″ 325
10 x 4″
British Total 69,996 13,225

Sources: R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985) pp. 24-25, <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Carnarvon>&gt; [accessed 8 December 2014], Marder, A. J., 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. 109, 122. Cornwall and Kent have been assumed to be identical to their sister Monmouth.

Kent and Leipzig both had reputations as being poor sailors that rarely achieved the designed speeds quoted above. The Germans ships were all in poor condition after four months of cruising.[6] Bristol and Macedonia have been omitted because they did not take part in the main action.

10:20 am: The signal for a general chase was given.

11:15 am: Speed reduced to 20 knots in order to allow the armoured cruisers to close up to the faster battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:20 pm: Sturdee decided to attack the enemy with the battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:47 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Open fire and engage the enemy.’

12:55 pm: Inflexible fired the first shots at a range of 16,500 yards at Leipzig, the closest ship, which was dropping back from the rest of her squadron.

1:20 pm: The range was down to 15,000 yards. The three German light cruisers now turned away to the south west. Sturdee ordered Kent, Glasgow and Cornwall to follow them, whilst the battlecruisers and Carnarvon concentrated on the German armoured cruisers. Thereafter, the battle split into two separate actions.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Falkland_Islands#mediaviewer/File:Falklandschlacht.jpg

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Falkland_Islands#mediaviewer/File:Falklandschlacht.jpg. Originally from Eduard Rothert, Karten und Skizzen zum Weltkrieg, Druck und Verlag von A. Bagel, Düsseldorf, 1916

Naval Operations says that Spee had taken ‘a decision which did him and his service the highest honour.’[7] He would sacrifice himself, his two armoured cruisers and their crews in order to preserve the three light cruisers, which could then raid Allied commerce.

Action with the Armoured Cruisers:

1:25 pm: The Germans turned to port, opening fire five minutes later. Sturdee wanted to keep the range between 13,500 yards (the maximum of the German 8.2 inch guns) and 16,400 yards (the maximum of the British 12 inch guns). Spee wanted to close to less than the 12,000 yard range of his 5.9 inch guns.[8]

1:30 pm: The Germans opened fire. Soon afterwards, Sturdee ordered a turn.

2:00 pm: The range had opened to 16,450 yards.

2:10 pm: The Germans turned away and another chase began.

2:45 pm: The battlecruisers opened fire.

2:53 pm: The Germans turned.

2:55 pm: The Germans opened fire.

Naval Operations says that the German 5.9 inch guns were in range by 2:59 pm, but had little effect at their maximum range. The smoke from the battlecruisers was making gunnery very difficult for both sides, but Gneisenau was listing by 3:10 pm. Five minutes later, Scharnhorst, which was on fire and whose fire was slackening, lost a funnel.[9]

3:30 pm: Scharnhorst turned, apparently to bring her starboard guns into action. She was on fire and steam was coming from her. Around 4:00 pm (the linked file says 4:40 pm but this must be a typo), she listed heavily to port. Her colours were still flying.

4:17 pm: Scharnhorst sank with all hands.

5:08 pm: Gneisenau’s forward funnel fell and her fire slackened.

5:15 pm: A shell from Gneisenau hit Invincible.

5:30 pm: Gneisenau turned towards Invincible. Sturdee ordered ‘Cease fire’, but cancelled it before it had been raised after Gneisenau fired a single gun.

5:40 pm: The three British ships closed on Gneisenau. One of her flags appeared to be hauled down, but another was still flying.

5:50 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Cease fire.’

6:00 pm: Gneisenau suddenly turned over and sank.

She had been pounded from 4,000 yards before being scuttled on the orders of Kapitän Julius Maerker. He did not survive, but Hans Pochhammer, his second in command, did. Invincible picked 108 men, 14 of whom were found to be dead, Inflexible 62 and Carnarvon 20.[10]

Invincible suffered no significant damage and no casualties, Carnarvon was not hit and Inflexible had one man killed and three wounded.[11]

Action with the Light Cruisers

3:00 pm. Glasgow exchanged shots with Leipzig at 12,000 yards.

The British 6 inch and German 4.1 inch guns could fire at this range, but not the British 4 inch guns. Captain John Luce of Glasgow successfully aimed to entice Leipzig to turn towards his ship, thus delaying her in order to allow the British armoured cruisers to catch up.[12]

3:36 pm: Cornwall ordered Kent to attack Nürnberg, the enemy ship closest to her.

4:00 pm: The weather changed, considerably reducing visibility. This helped Dresden, the fastest German ship, to escape. Only Glasgow was fast enough to catch her, but she was busy with Leipzig.

4:17 pm: Cornwall opened fire on Leipzig.

5:00 pm: Kent, whose engine room crew performed excellently, contrary to her reputation as a poor sailor, was in gun range of Nürnberg.

Robert Massie says that she was faster because the lack of coal on board made her light. Her crew made up for this by feeding as much wood as they could spare. including furniture, ladders, doors and even deck timbers into her furnaces.[13]

6:35 pm: Nürnberg was on fire and ceased fire. Kent closed to 3,300 yards, but re-opened fire after seeing that the German ship was still flying her colours. They were taken down after five minutes according to British reports, which Naval Operations says was ‘no shame’; it notes that the German Official History denies that they were hauled down.[14] At Coronel Nürnberg had been forced to carry on firing at the helpless HMS Monmouth when she refused to strike her colours.

Kent was only able to launch two hastily repaired boats. They were on their way to Leipzig when she sank just before 7:30 pm. The British searched until 9:00 pm, but was able to find only twelve men alive, five of whom later died.[15]

Sturdee’s report said that four men were killed and 12 wounded on Kent, but naval-history.net lists five men killed and 11 wounded, with three of the latter later dying.

Most of Kent’s casualties were inflicted by a single shell that struck a gunport. It caused a flash that went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Without the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, this would most likely to have caused an explosion that would have destroyed the ship. Mayes was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross for man of his rank. Sturdee’s Despatch stated that:

A shell burst and ignited some cordite charges in the casemate ; a flash of flame went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Sergeant Mayes picked up a charge of cordite and threw it away. He then got hold of a fire hose and flooded the compartment, extinguishing the fire in some empty shell bags which were burning. The extinction of this fire saved a disaster which might have led to the loss of the ship.

However, the Admiralty failed to learn the lessons of this near disaster, with the result that three battlecruisers, including Invincible, blew up at Jutland in 1916.[16]

7:17 pm: Leipzig was on fire and Cornwall and Glasgow ceased fire.

Naval Operations says that ‘[n]o ship could have done better against such odds’ than Leipzig.[17] She was no longer firing, but she was moving through the water, her colours were flying and she Leipzig sea cocks had been opened in order to scuttle her.

According to Massie, the Germans were unable to pull their flag down because of a fire round the mast. They fired two green distress signals at 8:12 pm, which Luce took to be a sign of surrender. The British launched boats at 8:45 pm. Leipzig sank at 9:23 pm. Only 18 of her crew were rescued.[18] Glasgow had five men wounded, one of whom later died. Cornwall suffered no casualties.

In the late morning Bristol and Macedonia were ordered to see in response to a report from a local woman, Mrs Felton, that there were three ships off Port Pleasant. There was a possibility that they might have been transports carrying troops recruited from German residents of South America.[19]

There were actually two, the Baden and Santa Isabel, and they were carrying coal. Captain Basil Fanshawe of Bristol obeyed the letter of Sturdee’s orders and sank them, after taking off their crews. He did not then know that the British had defeated Spee’s squadron. The third collier, the Seydlitz, managed to evade the British and was interned in Argentina in January 1915.[20]

All but one warship and one collier of Spee’s squadron had been sunk. Only 201 German sailors were rescued, and it is not clear from the sources quoted whether or not all of them lived. The ships sunk had total crews of at least 2,140, which may not include Spee’s staff on his flagship.[21]

Spee, the captains of all the ships sunk and his two sons, Otto on Nürnberg and Heinrich on Gneisenau, were amongst the dead. The British lost 6 dead and 19 wounded, with 4 of the wounded later dying.

Sturdee was acclaimed for his victory, except by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher. Sturdee received a baronetcy in January 1916. Fisher, however, had not forgotten that Sturdee had been on the other side in his feud with Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. He initially refused to allow Sturdee to return home until Dresden had been sunk, but this was vetoed by Winston Churchill, the First Lord.

Fisher argued that he should take much of the credit for his decision to send two battlecruisers after Spee, that Sturdee’s poor dispositions had led to the defeat at Coronel and that he had been lucky to encounter Spee at the Falklands. These comments were fair, but his criticisms of Sturdee for taking a long time and using a lot of ammunition to defeat an inferior enemy were not. Sturdee could not risk damage to his battlecruisers solely in order to win more quickly.

Sturdee’s performance in both his roles in 1914 shows that he was a man more suited to sea command than to shore based staff duties.

The British victory at the Falkland Islands removed the main German surface threat to Allied merchant shipping. This meant that a large number of RN warships could now be recalled to home waters, increasing the Grand Fleet’s superiority over the High Seas Fleet.

 

[1]Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. i. p. 165; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 411

[2] Naval Staff vol. i. p. 163.

[3] Ibid., p. 166.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p, 416.

[6] Ibid. vol. i, p. 426.

[7] Ibid. vol. i, p. 419.

[8] 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, pp. 122-23.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 421-22.

[10] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 272-74.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 425-26.

[12] Ibid. vol. i, p. 427.

[13] Massie, Castles, p. 277.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 432 and note 1.

[15] Massie, Castles, p. 278.

[16] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 110.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 429.

[18] Massie, Castles, pp. 276-77.

[19] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 99.

[20] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 433.

[21] Bennett, Naval Battles, p. 122. 765 on each armoured cruiser, 290 on Leipzig and 320 on Nurnberg.

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