Tag Archives: Sturdee

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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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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U9 Sinks Three British Cruisers 22 September 1914

In the first month and a half of WWI British and German submarines both sank an enemy light cruiser. Some British admirals, such as Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, realised the threat that submarines posed to surface ships and acted accordingly. Others failed to recognise it.

At the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s Southern Force under Rear Admiral Arthur Christian was ordered ‘to keep the area south of the 54th parallel [which runs a little south of the Dogger Bank and Helgoland] clear of enemy torpedo craft and minelayers.’[1]

Christian flew his flag in the armoured cruiser HMS Euryalus and had under his command the light cruiser HMS Amethyst, the armoured cruisers HMS Bacchante, Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue of Rear Admiral Henry Campbell’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, the 8th Submarine Flotilla and the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas. The armoured cruisers were all old ships of the Bacchante class: some sources call them the Cressy class, but contemporary RN papers refer to them as the Bacchantes. They were unreliable, with no more than three of the five usually being available.

The Southern Force, operating from Harwich, conducted patrols in two areas. The force off Dogger Bank, covering the southern approaches to the North Sea, was generally stronger than the one in the Broad Fourteens, watching the eastern entrance to the English Channel. However, the latter was sometimes increased according to circumstances, such when the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Channel.

Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the Harwich submarines, told the Admiralty on 12 August that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn. He feared that they were vulnerable to an attack by ‘two or three well-trained German cruisers…Why give the Germans the smallest chance of a cheap victory and an improved morale[?]’[2] However, even the Commodore for Submarines worried about an attack by surface ships, not U-boats.

On 17 September Keyes, supported by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, commander of the Harwich destroyers, had the opportunity to put his views to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiral. He pointed out to Churchill that the Grand Fleet nicknamed the 7th Cruiser Squadron ‘the live bait squadron.’[3]

Churchill sent a memo to Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, on 18 September strongly recommending that the old armoured cruisers should be withdrawn from this patrol:

‘The risk to such ships is not justified by any services they can render. The narrow seas, being the nearest point to the enemy, should be kept by a small number of good modern ships.’[4]

Battenberg, who had not liked the idea of the Bacchantes patrolling up and down the North Sea, agreed. However, Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff told Keyes that ‘[w]e’ve always maintained a squadron on the Broad Fourteens.’[5]

Sturdee was also concerned by the possibility of a German attack on the cross-Channel supply line. He admitted that the Bacchantes were not really suitable for their role, but argued that they were better than nothing until the new Arethusa class light cruisers were ready. HMS Arethusa was under repair after being damaged at the Battle of Helgoland Bight and her seven sisters had not yet been completed.

On 19 September Sturdee persuaded Battenberg to authorise a telegram concentrating the Bacchantes in the South: ‘The Dogger Bank patrol need not be continued. Weather too bad for destroyers to go to sea. Arrange for cruisers to watch Broad Fourteens.’[6] Churchill later said that he did not see it.

There were then four of the armoured cruisers on patrol, Campbell’s flagship Bacchante being in dock for repairs. Euryalus, Christian’s flagship, was added to the Cruiser Squadron in order to keep its numbers up, but Christian’s command responsibilities were wider, and Campbell should have transferred his flag to one of his other cruisers. James Goldrick comments that Christian ‘should not have allowed Campbell, nor should the latter have been willing, to remain in harbour.’[7]

At 6:00 am on 20 September Euryalus had to return to port for coaling and because her wireless aerials had been damaged by the bad weather. Christian would normally have transferred by boat to one of the other cruisers, but the high seas made this impossible. In Campbell’s absence command of the squadron fell to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.

Christian sent Drummond an ambiguous signal, which did not make it clear that it was Drummond who was responsible for summoning the destroyers when the weather improved. By midnight on 21 September the wind had died down on the Broad Fourteens, but it was still strong in Harwich, so the destroyers were not sent out until 5:00 am on 22 September.

The Bacchantes‘ coal consumption was very high if they made 13 or more knots. Consequently they were sailing at barely 10 knots and not zigzagging on the morning of 22 September. They were in line abreast, two miles apart.

Richard Hough says that one reason for not zigzagging was that their captains thought ‘that seas a destroyer could not endure were equally impossible for a submarine.’[8] If true, this was a bad mistake, as the seas had been rough when U21 sank HMS Pathfinder and when E9 sank SMS Hela. At least one of the captains should have understood submarine operations; Captain Robert Johnson of HMS Cressy, although not a submariner, had commanded a submarine flotilla for three years before the war.[9]

Just before 6:30 am on 22 September Aboukir suffered a major explosion. Drummond assumed that she had hit a mine and signalled so to the rest of the squadron. In fact, she had been struck by a single torpedo fired by U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and gave her a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged.

Drummond soon realised that his ship had been torpedoed by a U-boat and ordered the other two cruisers away. However, Captain Wilmot Nicholson of Hogue thought that his ship would be safe if she kept to the side of Aboukir that had not been hit. Hogue stopped about a mile from Aboukir in order to launch her boats.

However, Weddigen had re-positioned his boat. At 6:55, as Aboukir sank, he fired two torpedoes into Hogue from only 300 yards away. U9’s bows rose out of the water, and Hogue fired on her, without scoring any hits. The cruiser sank within 10 minutes.

Cressy was also stationary, launching her boats. A periscope was spotted and Johnson ordered his ship to make full speed in order to ram the U-boat. At 7:20 Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes at her; one missed and the other hit, but did not cause serious damage. He then closed to 500 yards and at 7:30 fired his last torpedo into Cressy, which sank 15 minutes later.

The first rescue ship to arrive was the Dutch steamer Flora, which picked up 286 men, many badly wounded and took them to Ymuiden. Another Dutch ship, the Titan, which rescued 147 men, and two British trawlers, the Coriander and J. G. C., were still picking up survivors when Tyrwhitt’s force of the light cruiser HMS Lowestoft and eight destroyers arrived between 10:30 and 10:45. The civilian ships could not have been sure whether or not they were in a minefield.

A total of 60 officers and 777 men were saved and 62 officers and 1,397 died. The Dutch repatriated to Britain the survivors taken initially to the Netherlands. Casualties on Cressy were particularly high because her boats were full of survivors from the other two cruisers when she was sunk. Many of the crews were middle-aged reservists recalled at the start of the war. Each cruiser also had nine cadets from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth on board, most of them under the age of 15.

The website Naval-History.net lists the casualties and survivors for all three cruisers. The men listed as being either RFR (Royal Fleet Reserve) or RNR (Royal Naval Reserve) were reservists. Men who were rescued but later died of wounds are listed as having died on the dates of their deaths rather than the date of the sinkings. Captain Johnson of Cressy was amongst the dead, but Drummond and Nicholson both survived.

The Admiralty issued orders that armoured ship should zigzag, make at least 13 knots and not stop in waters where enemy submarines might be present. It said:

 ‘that if one ship is torpedoed by submarine or strikes mine. disabled ship must be left to her fate and other large ships clear out of dangerous area calling up minor vessels to render assistance.’[10]

The Court of Inquiry said that Drummond ‘should have zigzagged his course as much as possible. Johnson and Nicholson were guilty of ‘an error of judgment’ in stopping their ships. However, Battenberg thought that they ‘were placed in a cruel position, once they found themselves in waters swarming with drowning men.’[11]

Christian told Jellicoe that ‘certainly Cressy need not have been sacrificed and probably not Hogue if they had only dashed up within say a mile to windward, out all boats and away again.’[12]

Campbell, Christian and Drummond were all placed on half pay, but the two admirals were later given new employment. The Court of Inquiry’s criticism was mainly directed at the Admiralty, meaning Battenberg and Sturdee. Later, when they had left the Admiralty, the Third and Fourth Sea Lords, who had little involvement in operational matters, agreed with this, as did Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson, a former First Sea Lord.

Much of the public criticism fell on Churchill, who was prone to interfere in operational decisions. In fact, on this occasion he had recommended that the Bacchantes should be withdrawn from this patrol, but had not interfered in order to make sure that this was done.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who in WWII organised the naval parts of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944, was a Lieutenant in 1914. He wrote in his diary that it ‘just shows how utterly without imagination the majority of our senior officers are.’[13]

The action showed the potency of submarines to both sides, although some in Britain thought that more than one U-boat must have taken part. The Times wrote on 25 September that:

‘It is well-known that German submarines operate in flotillas of six boats. If it is true that only one, U9, returned to harbour, we may assume that the others are lost.’[14]

The Kaiser awarded Weddigen the Iron Cross First Class and every other member of U9’s crew the Iron Cross Second Class. The action cancelled out the moral advantage that the RN had gained from its victory at Helgoland Bight on 28 August 1914. U9 and the light cruiser SMS Emden were the only German ships to be awarded the Iron Cross during the war.

[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 171.

[2] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 129.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Quoted in 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. 56

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 57, footnote 27. Marder’s source was Admiral Sir William James, who was told the story by Keyes.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 127.

[8] R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 62.

[9] Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 126.

[10] Quoted in Ibid., p. 133.

[11] Quotes in this paragraph from Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 55.

[12] Quoted in Goldrick, The King’s Ships, p. 133.

[13] Quoted in G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 390.

[14] Quoted in Massie, Castles, p. 137.

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