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. 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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
||Weight of Broadside (lbs)
||8 x 8.2″
|6 x 5.9″
||8 x 8.2″
|6 x 5.9″
||10 x 4.1″
||10 x 4.1″
||10 X 4.1″
||8 x 12″
|16 x 4″
||8 x 12″
|16 x 4″
||4 x 7.5″
|6 x 6″
||14 x 6″
||14 x 6″
||2 x 6″
|10 x 4″
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>> [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. 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.
Naval Operations says that Spee had taken ‘a decision which did him and his service the highest honour.’ 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.
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.
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.
Invincible suffered no significant damage and no casualties, Carnarvon was not hit and Inflexible had one man killed and three wounded.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. i. p. 165; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 411
 Naval Staff vol. i. p. 163.
 Ibid., p. 166.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p, 416.
 Ibid. vol. i, p. 426.
 Ibid. vol. i, p. 419.
 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.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 421-22.
 R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 272-74.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 425-26.
 Ibid. vol. i, p. 427.
 Massie, Castles, p. 277.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 432 and note 1.
 Massie, Castles, p. 278.
 G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 110.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 429.
 Massie, Castles, pp. 276-77.
 P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 99.
 Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 433.
 Bennett, Naval Battles, p. 122. 765 on each armoured cruiser, 290 on Leipzig and 320 on Nurnberg.