While much has been written about the 1982 Argentine invasion of these South Atlantic islands, there is a lesser known, but no less important battle that took place 68 years earlier when the German navy arrived to contest Britain’s sovereignty.
On the 1st November 1914, off the coast of central Chile, a Royal Navy squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock was patrolling off the coast of Chile near the city of Coronel in search of a German naval squadron known to be in the area. The British squadron consisted of two armoured cruisers, HMS Good Hope, and HMS Monmouth, one light cruiser HMS Glasgow and a converted liner, the Otranto. He was due to be joined later by the old pre dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus who could only make some 12 knots and was still 300 miles south of Cradock’s force when the two squadrons finally met. This British force, while formidable on paper, was composed mainly of obsolete and under gunned vessels; all crewed by inexperienced naval reservists and was tasked with searching for the German fleet’s East Asia squadron, led by Vice Admiral Maximillian Von Spee, who were engaged in commerce raiding in the area.
Cradock had recently split his force in half to enable him to patrol both the east and west coast of South America, sending three light cruisers and two armed merchantmen to the east while he remained on patrol off Chile.
In contrast, the German squadron consisted if five modern cruisers, all led by officers hand picked by the German Grand Admiral Von Tirpitz himself.
On the 31st October, Glasgow entered Coronel harbour to collect messages from the British Consul. In the harbour was a German supply ship who immediately radioed Von Spee of the British ship’s presence. Glasgow, in turn, had been intercepting German radio traffic and had picked up messages thought to come from the cruiser Leipzig and signalled this information to Cradock. Both fleets now began a search for what they believed was a single enemy vessel and it was with some surprise that they sighted each other’s smoke in the afternoon of the 1st November. Cradock now faced a choice, he could take his three cruisers, abandon the slower Otranto and outrun the enemy, or stay and fight. This brave man chose to fight, knowing he was outgunned, but refusing to leave the converted liner. He knew that his 6 inch guns were no match for the German 8 inch and ordered his ships to close with the enemy at full speed to reduce the range. In a very short time both Good Hope and Monmouth were on fire, presenting easy targets to the German gunners now that dusk had fallen whereas the enemy ships had disappeared in the gloom.Good Hope, though badly damaged, still continued to close on the enemy receiving more and more hits. She finally exploded and sank around 7.50 that evening. Monmouth, now badly damaged and slowly sinking, decided to attempt beaching on the Chilean coast and moved off. Glasgow, herself damaged and on her own, headed off south.
The German Nurnberg came across Monmouth, listing and badly damaged but still moving. After pointedly directing his searchlight at the ship’s ensign, an invitation to surrender, he opened fire and finally sunk her.
The brief battle cost the British two cruisers and the lives of 1,600 officers and men, including Cradock himself. Scharnhorst in turn had suffered slight damage and three dead, but more importantly, had expended 422 shells in the action, leaving her with just 350. This shortage was to prove crucial later.
The British Admiralty immediately ordered the battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible with their 12 inch guns, together with three armoured cruisers, Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, plus two light cruisers, Bristol and Glasgow, under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee, to sail for the South Atlantic and destroy the German raiders.
Von Spee meanwhile, put into Valparaiso for 24 hours and then on to Bahia san Quintin in Chile where a ceremony was held to distribute 300 Iron Crosses 2nd Class among the crews and an Iron Cross First Class to Von Spee himself. On the 1st December, his ships rounded Cape Horn and anchored at Picton Island where they stayed for three days distributing coal from the captured British collier Drummuir. On the 6th December they scuttled the British ship and headed north.
Von Spee’s officers advised him that, being low on ammunition and with no way of obtaining more, they should head home to Germany, but he was determined to mount one more attack before heading for home and proposed to make a raid on the Falklands Islands where his spy ships had reported the area free of enemy warships, but had missed the presence of the old battleship Canopus which had been grounded in an inlet close to Port Stanley to provide a stable gun platform for the defence of the town.
Unknown to the Germans, Sturdee had also decided to make for the Falkland’s and arrived in Port Stanley on the 7th December where his two light cruisers moored in the inner basin of Stanley Harbour while his heavier ships remained in the deeper outer harbour of Port William. The ships were ordered to carry out repairs and maintenance after their long journey and Cornwall shut down one of her boilers to make repairs and Bristol dismantled one of her engines. The famous old ship, SS Great Britain, now reduced to a mobile coal bunker, moved around the harbour supplying coal to the ships. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was ordered to patrol the harbour while Kent made ready to replace her the following day, the 8th December.
On the morning of the 8th, the British fleet was still coaling and would need over an hour to get up steam when Gneisanau and Nurnburg approached the islands. If Von Spee had only attacked at this moment, Strurdee’s ships would have been easy targets. Any British ship trying to leave would have had to face the full power of the German ships and, if one were sunk, might have blocked the rest of the squadron in the harbour.
Fortune however, favoured the British in the shape of Canopus, who, hidden in the nearby inlet and with spotters directing her fire, from the surrounding hills, launched her 12 inch salvoes at the extreme range of 12,000 yards. The shots fell short, but made big splashes and followed with a salvo of practise rounds that had been readied for a practise shoot later in the day. One of these rounds ricocheted off the water and hit the funnel of Gneisenau . The startled Germans, now close enough to see the distinctive tripod mast tips of battle cruisers in the harbour and being on the receiving end of 12 inch shellfire, realised the danger too late and having lost any chance of shelling Sturdee’s fleet while in port, turned and headed for the open sea.
The British squadron left Stanley at 10am chasing the Germans who were by now some 15 miles ahead, but with plenty of daylight left Sturdee knew his faster battle cruisers could catch up. By 13.00, they were in range and opened fire on the fleeing Germans. Knowing that he could not outrun the British, Von Spee decided to engage them with his armoured cruisers and give the light cruisers a chance to escape. Sturdee ordered his light cruisers to chase Leipzig and Nurnburg, while Invincible and Inflexible turned to fire broadsides at the German heavy cruisers. Spee tried to close the distance between them and scored hits on both British ships, causing minor damage. The British ships had now found their range and the German ships began to suffer heavy damage with Scharnhorston fire and listing, finally sinking at 16.04.
Sturdee now turned his combined fire on Gneisanau who, though badly damaged and on fire, bravely continued to fire until 17.15, by which time she had exhausted her ammunition and finally sank at 18.02. Of her crew of 764, the British managed to rescue just 192.
Meanwhile, the cruisers Leipzig and Nurnburg had run from their pursuers, but by 17.30 the British cruisers had caught up and were within range. Kent concentrated her fire on Nurnburg and with advantage in both shell weight and armour, pounded the German ship relentlessly. Nurnburg returned fire valiantly, scoring some 38 hits on her adversary until a salvo exploded her boilers bringing her to a halt. She struck her colours, capsized and sank around 19.30. Kent launched lifeboats, but out of an original crew of 338, managed to save just twelve survivors, five of whom died shortly after being rescued. Leipzig was attacked by the cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall and sustained many hits, but continued to fight until she too ran out of ammunition. Now dead in the water and virtually helpless, she still flew her battle ensign and the British continued shelling until two flares were fired from the stricken ship and the British ceased fire. She finally rolled over and sank at 21.20 leaving just 18 survivors out of a crew of 288.
Ten British sailors died in the battle and nineteen wounded; none of the British ships were badly damaged. The remaining German cruiser, the Dresden, roamed at large for a further three months until she was cornered by a British squadron off the Juan Fernandez Islands on March 14th, 1915. After a short fight, her captain evacuated his crew and scuttled the ship by detonating her magazine.