Apart from Jutland, the war is not often noted for its naval battles. This is largely due to most of the German surface navy having spent the war under blockade, with the most wide-ranging naval operations instead being conducted by the German U-Boat fleet.
There was one independent squadron operating elsewhere at the outbreak of the war: Admiral Maximilian von Spee‘s German East Asia Squadron, which had been based out of Tsingtao in China. With the declaration of war, however, and Japan’s decision to enter on the side of Great Britain, the then-at-sea squadron could not return to port and was forced to flee. Vastly outnumbered and with few options (other German colonies and ports in the area having been swiftly seized), von Spee decided to take his ships into the Atlantic to subject Allied shipping to their predations until better opportunities came along. It was also hoped that they’d be able to dock at Valparaiso in Chile to refuel and rearm.
The Royal Navy was greatly concerned by the threat von Spee’s squadron posed to the Pacific theatre, but also with the above possibility of it making its way around the Cape to enter the Atlantic. Rear-Admiral Christopher Cradock‘s South Atlantic Squadron was given orders to take up the hunt. Cradock was given considerable operational leeway, and decided that it would be best to split the squadron into two patrols, the one to sail up and down the western coast of Chile from the Cape to Valparaiso, the other to patrol the southern coast of Argentina. Cradock and his flagship, HMS Good Hope, accompanied the western patrol — both were going to their death.
The western patrol (the cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and six other lighter ships of varying types) encountered von Spee’s squadron off the island of Coronel on Nov. 1st, 1914, and Cradock gave the order to engage. The gathering darkness played to German advantage, however, as did their more modern ships; by the time the battle was over, Good Hope, Monmouth and 1600 British sailors lay on the ocean floor — no survivors. Von Spee’s squadron, by comparison, suffered fewer than ten wounded and no fatalities at all. They steamed into Valparaiso as planned. Von Spee seemed deeply troubled by his success — he was of the type to respect a gallant action, even from an enemy, and to mourn a wholly lop-sided victory.
Once news reached England of the defeat, several more ships were detached from the North Sea blockade and the Home Fleet and sent to reinforce what was left of Cradock’s squadron. The new squadron, which added to it HMS Danger, Invincible and Inflexible, came under the command of the marvelously named Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, an accomplished sailor and administrator who had recently served as the Chief of Staff at the Admiralty. Nevertheless, he had something of a rivalry with Sir John Fisher, then First Sea Lord, and Fisher had seen this as an opportunity too get Sturdee out of the way. Little did he know that his rival would return covered in glory.
In any event, Sturdee and his men were ready for battle. They found it — by accident — on Dec. 8th, 1914.
The British squadron was in harbour at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on the 8th, having only just arrived there the previous morning. There was considerable surprise when von Spee’s squadron unexpectedly came into view from the south. It’s hard to say for sure, but the best evidence we have is that von Spee had hoped to attack Stanley before the British squadron arrive and then slip off northward; their meeting on the 8th was a result of delays for the one party and a mostly speedy crossing for the other. Whatever the case, they had met — something had to be done.
Sturdee, commanding from his flagship Invincible, ordered his squadron to disembark, while fire from the shore kept von Spee’s ships from being able to approach the island at sufficient distance to shell their opponents in port. Realizing the gamble had failed, von Spee turned his squadron north-east and tried to race off into the Atlantic; by 1PM, the British had caught up.
What happened next was something in the way of a massacre, though not an easy-going one for all that. The Germans were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned, and their enemies were out for revenge, but having made it this far they were not about to go down without a fight. Over the course of the next few hours the Germans kept up an intensity of fire that shocked their British counterparts, buying crucial time through von Spee’s skillful maneuvering of the squadron with the shifting winds to always keep the British funnel smoke obscuring their own targeting. Invincible and Inflexible came under fire from the longer-ranged German guns, and it would take some time to close the gap.
But it was closed, and the results were as catastrophic for von Spee’s squadron as his earlier action had been for Cradock’s. Von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst was the first to go down, taking the admiral, his two sons and every other soul aboard with her. The rest of the squadron swiftly followed suit, with only one cruiser, the Dresden, being able to escape — she would be driven into hiding after intense pursuit and eventually scuttled three months later. While the British suffered ten fatalities as a consequence of the action, the Germans lost 1900 men (with an additional 200 taken prisoner), six ships, a daring and accomplished admiral, and the ability to ever again effectively conduct surface operations in the Atlantic. The war was only four months old.
The battle is an interesting one to me because of all the things it was not: no stagnation in the trenches, no repeated folly, no gross miscalculations. The worst that can be laid at the feet of those involved is misfortune. Even more than this, in a war that was so often marked by the disproportionate (even appalling) results achieved by tactics involving nascent technologies, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was nothing more or less than a squadron action, gun upon gun, in the oldest traditions of the navies involved. No radar, no aircraft, no submarines, no mines. Everything involved but the ships themselves would not have been out of place in the age of Lord Nelson, and the victory at the Falklands — particularly after the disaster at Coronel — was seen as a sign that the Royal Navy’s age-old supremacy had at last been reasserted. Mark Connolly of the University of Kent provided a spectacular keynote about the battle’s commemorative history at the 2011 The Great War: From History to Memory conference in London, ON. The conference’s proceedings no longer seem to be online, so no link to that is possible at this time — in a very real sense, you had to be there.
I’m happy to report that the good people at Osprey have finally put out a volume about these events — Coronel and Falklands 1914; Duel in the South Atlantic (2012). Those who would like to know more will find it an accessible and comprehensive work.