Battle of the Falkland Islands
|Battle of the Falkland Islands|
|Part of World War I|
A painting; Battle of the Falkland Islands.
|United Kingdom||German Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Doveton Sturdee||Maximilian von Spee †|
Three armoured cruisers
Two light cruisers and
One grounded pre-dreadnought
|2 armoured cruisers
Three light cruisers
|Casualties and losses|
No ships lost
Two armoured cruisers sunk
Two light cruisers sunk
Two transports captured and subsequently scuttled
The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a British naval victory over the Imperial German Navy on 8 December 1914 during the First World War in the South Atlantic. The British, after a defeat at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, sent a large force to track down and destroy the victorious German cruiser squadron.
Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee—commanding the German squadron of two armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, and three auxiliaries—attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. A larger British squadron—consisting of the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible, the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Macedonia and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow—had arrived in the port only the day before.
Visibility was at its maximum, the sea was placid with a gentle breeze from the northwest, a bright, sunny, clear day. The advance cruisers of the German squadron had been detected early on. By nine o'clock that morning the British battlecruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit of the five German vessels, these having taken flight in line abreast to the southeast. All except Dresden and the auxiliary Seydlitz were hunted down and sunk.
The British battlecruisers each mounted eight 12 in (305 mm) guns, whereas Spee's (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), were equipped with eight 210 mm (8.3 in) pieces. Additionally, the battlecruisers could make 25.5 kn (47.2 km/h; 29.3 mph) against Spee's 22.5 kn (41.7 km/h; 25.9 mph); thus, the British battlecruisers could not only outrun their opponents but significantly outgun them too. The obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship—HMS Canopus—had also been grounded at Stanley to act as a makeshift defence battery for the area.
At the outbreak of hostilities, The German East Asian squadron, which Spee commanded, was outclassed and outgunned by the Royal Navy and the Japanese Navy. Both Spee and the High Command did not believe that the Asian possessions could be defended or even that the squadron would survive. Spee therefore tried to get his ships home by heading across the Pacific, but was pessimistic of their chances. Following von Spee's success at Coronel off the coast of Valparaíso, Chile, where his German East Asia Squadron sank the cruisers HMS Good Hope (Admiral Cradock's flagship) and Monmouth, von Spee's force put into Valparaíso. As required under international law for belligerent ships in neutral countries, the ships left within 24 hours, moving to Mas Afuera, 400 mi (350 nmi; 640 km) off the Chilean coast. There they received news of the loss of the cruiser SMS Emden, which had previously detached from the squadron and had been raiding in the Indian Ocean. They also learned of the fall of the German colony at Tsingtao in China, which had been their home port. On 15 November, the squadron moved to Bahia San Quintin on the Chilean coast, where a ceremony was held to distribute 300 Iron Crosses second class, amongst the crew, and an Iron Cross first class to Admiral Spee.
Spee was advised by his officers to return to Germany if he could. His ships had used half their ammunition, which could not be replenished, at Coronel, and had difficulties obtaining coal. Intelligence reports suggested that the British ships HMS Defence, Cornwall and Carnarvon were stationed in the River Plate, and that there had been no British warships at Stanley when recently visited by a steamer. Spee had been concerned about reports of a British battleship, Canopus, but its location was unknown. On 26 November, the squadron set sail for Cape Horn, which was reached on 1 December, then anchored at Picton Island, where they stayed for three days distributing coal from a captured British collier, the Drummuir; and hunting. On 6 December, the British vessel was scuttled and the crew transferred to the auxiliary Seydlitz. The same day Spee proposed to raid the Falkland Islands before turning north to sail up the Atlantic back to Germany. The raid was unnecessary because the squadron already had as much coal as they could carry and was opposed by most of Spee's captains, but he decided to proceed anyway.
On 30 October, retired Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher was reappointed First Sea Lord to replace Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, who had been forced to resign because of public outcry against a perceived German prince running the British navy. On 3 November, Fisher was advised that Spee had been sighted off Valparaíso and acted to reinforce Cradock by ordering Defence, already sent to patrol the eastern coast of South America, to reinforce his squadron. On 4 November, news of the defeat at Coronel arrived. As a result, the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible were ordered to leave the Grand Fleet and sail to Plymouth for overhaul and preparation for service abroad. Chief of Staff at the Admiralty was Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Fisher had a long-standing disagreement with Sturdee, who had been one of those calling for his earlier dismissal as First Sea Lord in 1911, so he took the opportunity to appoint Sturdee Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic and Pacific, to command the new squadron from Invincible.
On 11 November, Invincible and Inflexible left Devonport, although repairs to Invincible were incomplete and she sailed with workmen still aboard. Despite the urgency of the situation and their maximum speed of around 25 kn (46 km/h; 29 mph), the ships travelled at a steady 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph); running at high speed used significantly more coal, so to complete the long journey it was necessary to travel at the most economic speed. The two ships were also heavily loaded with supplies. Although secrecy of the mission was considered important so as to surprise Spee, Lieutenant Hirst from Glasgow heard locals discussing the forthcoming arrival of the ships while ashore at Cape Verde on 17 November; however the news did not reach Spee. Sturdee arrived at the Abrolhos Rocks on 26 November, where Rear Admiral Stoddart awaited him with the remainder of the squadron.
Sturdee announced his intention to depart for the Falkland Islands on 29 November. From there, the fast light cruisers Glasgow and Bristol would patrol seeking Spee, summoning reinforcements if they found him. Captain Luce of Glasgow, who had been at the battle of Coronel, objected that there was no need to wait so long and persuaded Sturdee to depart a day early. The squadron was delayed during the journey for 12 hours when a cable towing targets for practice firing became wrapped around one of Invincible's propellers, but the ships arrived on the morning of 7 December. The two light cruisers moored in to the inner part of Stanley Harbour, while the larger ships remained in the deeper outer harbour of Port William. Divers set about removing the offending cable from Invincible; Cornwall's boiler fires were extinguished to make repairs, and Bristol had one of her engines dismantled. The famous ship SS Great Britain—reduced to a coal bunker—supplied coal to Invincible and Inflexible. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was ordered to patrol the harbour, while Kent maintained steam in her boilers, ready to replace Macedonia the next day, 8 December; Spee's fleet arrived in the morning of the same day.
Spee's cruisers—Gneisenau and Nürnberg—approached Stanley first. At the time, the entire British fleet was coaling. Some believe that, had Spee pressed the attack, Sturdee's ships would have been easy targets, although this is a subject of conjecture and some controversy. Any British ship that tried to leave would have faced the full firepower of the German ships; having a vessel sunk might also have blocked the rest of the British squadron inside the harbour. Fortunately for the British, the Germans were surprised by gunfire from an unexpected source: Canopus, which had been grounded as a guardship and was behind a hill. This was enough to check the Germans' advance. The sight of the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers confirmed that they were facing a better-equipped enemy. Kent was already making her way out of the harbour and had been ordered to pursue Spee's ships.
Made aware of the German ships, Sturdee had ordered the crews to breakfast, knowing that Canopus had bought them time while steam was raised.
To Spee, with his crew battle-weary and his ships outgunned, the outcome seemed inevitable. Realising his danger too late, and having lost any chance to attack the British ships while they were at anchor, Spee and his squadron dashed for the open sea. The British left port around 10:00. Spee was ahead by 15 mi (13 nmi; 24 km) but there was a lot of daylight left for the faster battlecruisers to catch up.
It was 13:00 when the British battlecruisers opened fire, but it took them half an hour to get the range of Leipzig. Realising that he could not outrun the British ships, Spee decided to engage them with his armoured cruisers alone, to give the light cruisers a chance to escape. They turned to fight just after 13:20. The German armoured cruisers had the advantage of a freshening north-west breeze, which caused the funnel smoke of the British ships to obscure their target practically throughout the action. Author Hans Pochhammer indicates that there was a long respite for the Germans during the early stages of the battle, as the British attempted unsuccessfully to force Admiral Spee away from his advantageous position.
Despite initial success by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in striking Invincible, the British capital ships suffered little damage. Spee then turned to escape, but the battlecruisers came within extreme firing range 40 minutes later.
Invincible and Inflexible engaged Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, while Sturdee detached his cruisers to chase Leipzig and Nürnberg.
Inflexible and Invincible turned to fire broadsides at the armoured cruisers and Spee responded by trying to close the range. His flagship Scharnhorst took extensive damage with funnels flattened, fires and a list. The list became worse at 16:04, and she sank by 16:17. Gneisenau continued to fire and evade until 17:15, by which time her ammunition had been exhausted, and her crew allowed her to sink at 18:02. During her death throes, Admiral Sturdee continued to engage Gneisenau with his two battlecruisers and the cruiser Carnarvon, rather than detaching one of the battlecruisers to hunt down the escaping Dresden. 190 of Gneisenau's crew were rescued from the water. The battlecruisers had received about 40 hits, with one man killed and four injured.
Meanwhile, Nürnberg and Leipzig had run from the British cruisers. Nürnberg was running at full speed but in need of maintenance, while the crew of the pursuing Kent were pushing her boilers and engines to the limit. Nürnberg finally turned for battle at 17:30. Kent had the advantage in shell weight and armour. Nürnberg suffered two boiler explosions around 18:30, giving the advantage in speed and manoeuvrability to Kent. The German ship then rolled over at 19:27 after a long chase. The cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall had chased down Leipzig; Glasgow closed to finish Leipzig which had run out of ammunition but was still flying her battle ensign. Leipzig fired two flares, so Glasgow ceased fire. At 21:23, more than 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) southeast of the Falklands, she also rolled over, leaving only 18 survivors.
Casualties and damage were extremely disproportionate; the British suffered only very lightly. Admiral Spee and his two sons were among the German dead. Rescued German survivors, 215, became prisoners on the British ships. Most were from the Gneisenau, nine were from Nürnberg and 18 were from Leipzig. There were no survivors from Scharnhorst. One of Gneisenau's officers who lived had been the sole survivor on three different guns but was pulled from the water saying he was a first cousin of the British commander (Stoddart).
Of the known German force of eight ships, two escaped: the auxiliary Seydlitz and the light cruiser Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before her captain was cornered by a British squadron off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915. After fighting a short battle, Dresden's captain evacuated his ship and scuttled her by detonating the main ammunition magazine.
As a consequence of the battle, German commerce raiding on the high seas by regular warships of the Kaiserliche Marine was brought to an end. However, Germany put several armed merchant vessels into service as commerce raiders until the end of the war (for example, see Felix von Luckner).
Secret Service trap
After the disaster, German naval experts were baffled at why Admiral Spee had attacked the base and how the two squadrons could have met so coincidentally in so many thousands of miles of open water. Kaiser William II's handwritten note on the official report of the battle reads: "It remains a mystery what made Spee attack the Falkland Islands." See Mahan's Naval Strategy.
There are three possible scenarios in the tale: one, that Spee was ordered by the German admiralty to attack the Falklands; second, that he used his own initiative (perhaps to magnify the glory of Coronel) to attack before running for Europe; or three, he was duped by British Intelligence to attack the Falklands - where an ambush had been set.
It is known that Spee called a meeting of his officers and announced that he would attack the base which was acting as a coaling and wireless relay station for the British, as his intelligence, received from the German wireless station at Valparaíso, reported the port to be free of Royal Navy warships. Despite objections by the captains of three of his ships, the attack proceeded.
However, in 1925 the German naval officer, Franz von Rintelen, interviewed Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of the Admiralty's Naval Intelligence Division (NID), who said that the Spee squadron had been lured towards the British battlecruiser squadron by means of a fake signal sent in a German naval code broken by British cryptographers.
On the face of it, this seems unlikely; broadcast of a false order in a broken naval code would have been against the British Naval Staff's policy; as noted by Rear-Admiral Herbert Hope "In a very few months we obtained a very good working knowledge of the organisation, operations and internal economy of the German Fleet. Had we been called upon by the Staff to do so, we could have furnished valuable information as to the movements of submarines, minefields, mine-sweeping, etc. But the Staff was obsessed by the idea of secrecy; they realised that they held the trump card and they worked on the principle that every effort must be made to keep our knowledge up our sleeves for a really great occasion such as the German Fleet coming out in all their strength to throw down the gage of battle. In other words the Staff determined to make use of our information defensively and not offensively"  No less than Winston Churchill replied most sharply to Admiral Jellicoe, even mentioning the subject by telegraph specifically, so sharp was the concern that the breaking of the German Naval codes might be uncovered.
- Jaques. Dictionary of Battles and Sieges. p. 346.
- Scott & Robertson. Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto. p. 16.
- 'Castles' p. 251-252
- 'Castles' p.253-256
- Prince Louis had been British and in the Royal Navy since the age of 14
- 'Castles' p. 248
- 'Castles' p. 249
- 'Castles' p.249-251
- Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) p. 13 Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
- Reagan p. 14
- Rintelen, Franz von (1998). The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-4792-6.
- Halpern, p.97
- Massie, p.255
- Beesly, p. 41
- Beesly, p.42
- Bennett, Geoffrey (1962). Coronel and the Falklands. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.
- Jaques, Tony (2007). Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity through the Twenty-first Century. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313335389.
- Massie, Robert K. (2004). Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-04092-8.
- Irving, John (1927). Coronel and the Falklands. London: A. M. Philpot, ltd.
- Halpern, Paul (1994). A Naval History of World War I. United States: United States Naval Institute. ISBN 1-85728-295-7.
- Michael McNally (2012). Coronel and Falklands 1914; Duel in the South Atlantic. Osprey Campaign Series #248. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781849086745
- Scott, R Neil; Macneill, RT. Hon. Lord George Islay Robertson (2012). Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442213425.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of the Falkland Islands.|
- Description of the battle from the diary of Captain JD Allen RN (HMS Kent)
- Battle of the Falkland Islands
- Battles of Coronel and the Falklands – a Pictorial Look
- Sailing vessel Fairport and her appearance during the battle