The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 157th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.
December 8, 1914: Revenge at the Falklands
For over a century, ever since Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Britain’s Royal Navy had been mistress of the seas, unchallenged in seamanship, shipbuilding, and sheer firepower. So when war broke out in August 1914, most observers expected the British to quickly secure the global maritime trade network. But conventional wisdom failed to appreciate the unusual asymmetrical nature of the threat posed by the German Imperial Navy.
Ironically the German High Seas Fleet, the principal cause of pre-war tension between Germany and Britain, played a mostly passive role once hostilities began, sticking close to its homeports on the North Sea in order to avoid an encounter with the Royal Navy’s superior Grand Fleet, guarding the “home waters” around the British Isles. Meanwhile further afield a handful of German “commerce raiders” inflicted damage out of all proportion to their numbers, roaming the high seas, striking civilian merchant vessels and undefended land installations out of the blue, then disappearing again into the vast empty spaces of the world’s oceans. These “hit and run” campaigns forced the British to divert precious resources to carry out a global dragnet for the elusive raiders. And even with vastly superior forces, the huge distances involved, combined with limited information about the enemy’s position in an age before radar or spy satellites, made it difficult to exploit the Royal Navy’s numerical advantage: by the time one ship spotted the Germans and alerted the nearest vessels (perhaps hundreds of miles away) the battle might well be over.
That’s exactly what happened at the disastrous Battle of Coronel, where Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron destroyed two British cruisers, HMS Monmouth and Good Hope, with the loss of 1,570 officers and men, off the coast of Chile on November 1, 1914. At Coronel the British commander, Admiral Christopher Cradock, made the fatal mistake of engaging the Germans before his strongest ship – the older, slower, but better-armed HMS Canopus – had arrived. Following the failure to prevent the Goeben and Breslau from escaping to Constantinople in August, the sinking of HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue by the U-boat U-9 on September 22, and the sinking of HMS Audacious, a brand-new “super-dreadnought,” by a German mine off northern Ireland on October 27, Coronel was another embarrassing defeat for the British Admiralty, prompting First Lord Winston Churchill and First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher to focus all their efforts on finding and destroying Spee’s squadron.
In this case retribution was swift. After his victory at Coronel Spee sailed south around Cape Horn into the Atlantic Ocean, probably intending to raid British shipping and disrupt South African operations against German Southwest Africa; before doing that, however, he sailed north to bombard the defenseless Falkland Islands. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Spee, Churchill and Fisher had dispatched two fast, powerful battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and Inflexible, to form a new battle group under Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee in the South Atlantic; Sturdee was sailing south intending to round the cape and hunt Spee in the Pacific, but first stopped at Port Stanley in the Falklands to refuel on December 7.
On the morning of December 8, Spee approached the Falklands cautiously from the south, sending two of his ships, Gneisenau and Nürnberg, ahead to destroy the wireless station at Port Stanley and so prevent the British garrison from raising the alarm. As they drew near the harbor around 7:50am, the German commanders were surprised to find a powerful British flotilla taking on coal; Sturdee, equally surprised to see the Germans on this side of South America, scrambled to get up steam to pursue them (it could take several hours of continuous stoking to get the warships’ huge steam engines to top speed). One British crewmember, Signalman Welch aboard the light cruiser HMS Kent, recalled:
Things were now getting exciting & I think all the men were jolly delighted at the chance of a scrap. The thoughts came crowding in – home, wife, child & all that a man has dear to him. The possibilities of the day occurred to me, but there was no time to think of the danger – all that seemed to trouble me was that the other ships in the harbour were taking so long to get under way.
As Sturdee’s ships prepared for battle the Gneisenau and Nürnberg reversed course and sailed southeast to rejoin the rest of the German squadron, sending wireless messages ahead to warn Spee about the British force. At 10am the British ships left the harbor in pursuit of the Germans, about 15 miles to the southeast. By 11am Sturdee had closed the gap to around 12 miles, but heavy smoke from the British ships’ own funnels was obscuring the view, forcing him to rely on signal messages from his lead ship, HMS Glasgow, to stay on course. With a comfortable advantage in speed, around 11:30am Sturdee ordered the Invincible and Inflexible to slow from 24 knots to 20 knots, in order to lessen the smoke and allow some of his slower ships to keep pace (below, the Invincible and Inflexible at the Battle of the Falklands).
Spee now adjusted his heading to a more southerly course and ordered all his ships to proceed at their own top speeds, with the result that the German squadron began to drift apart. Concerned that the faster German ships might escape, Sturdee ordered the Invincible and Inflexible to increase their speed to 25 knots around 12:20pm. Still hoping to save some of his ships, Spee then ordered his weaker light cruisers, Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden, to scatter while his armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, turned to fight the British in a desperately uneven battle; however Sturdee sent some of his own light cruisers to pursue their German counterparts as the rest of the squadron closed with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
At 1:20pm the Invincible and Inflexible opened fire on the approaching armored cruisers at a range of around eight miles (below, the Inflexible fires), still beyond the range of the German guns, but the heavy black smoke from their funnels made accurate targeting all but impossible. The Germans quickly closed the gap and returned fire, with one shell hitting the Invincible, prompting Sturdee to maneuver out of range again by around 2 pm. As the German ships turned to flee again Sturdee resumed his pursuit, and by 2:45pm he was on course to cut the Germans off. Spee responded by turning to bring his short-range guns to bear on the British, opening fire at 2:59pm, but the British heavy guns firing at relatively close range inflicted far more damage, and by 3:20pm the Gneisenau was burning and the Scharnhorst was taking on water, preventing it from using half of its short range guns.
With the Germans ships losing momentum, Sturdee ordered his own ships to reduce steam to clear the smoke, giving them clear lines of sight for targeting; now it was only a matter of time. Pounded relentlessly by the British heavy guns, by 4pm the Scharnhorst was dead in the water and listing heavily to one side, and at 4:17 she rolled over and sank with the loss of all hands (by the time the British ships returned to pick up survivors, they had all drowned in the rough, frigid waters of the South Atlantic).
As the German flagship went down the British turned their guns on the Gneisenau, which valiantly continued firing as rain and fog completed the gloomy scene. At 5:45pm the German captain, seeing the end was near, ordered the remaining crewmembers to scuttle and abandon ship. The German sailors swam frantically to escape the resulting vortex, but once again many drowned before the British could rescue them, as one British crewmember, Assistant Paymaster Duckworth, later admitted (top, survivors from the Gneisenau await rescue by boats from the Inflexible):
Away ahead of us on the dull leaden sea appeared a small pale green patch of water containing a clustering mass of humanity, while the wind brought dismal cries to our ears from the only survivors of the sunken ship… All round the ships there were floating bodies, some on hammocks, some on spars. Some struggling, others drowning slowly before ones eyes before any boat could reach them. Most were so numbed they could not hold on to anything, and were helpless… On all sides one saw all our men hauling half frozen bodies up the side and carrying them down to the Admiral’s cabin. It was a truly terrible sight and one I hope never to see again.
To the northwest the British cruisers chased down the fleeing German light cruisers, sinking two of the three by nightfall; only the Dresden managed to escape, eventually heading back into the Pacific, where it was interned by Chilean authorities and finally scuttled by its own crew to prevent it from falling into British hands in March 1915.
A German officer on the Leipzig recounted the horrible scenes as the ship went through its death throes:
Under the forecastle on the starboard side there was wild disorder. Dead men lay near the No 2 gun starboard and the ship’s side was torn away. Everybody was busy searching for objects that would float, such as hammocks and balks of timber… Dead bodies and wounded and maimed men lay around everywhere, and fragments of bodies were to be seen on all sides. I did not look too closely, it was such a dreadful sight.
Like their counterparts from the Gneisenau, after jumping overboard the sailors spent hours floating in very cold water, often with fatal effects, according to the same officer, who narrowly avoided the same fate when the British almost failed to spot him:
Towards the end I did not see many men in the water. Those who still survived were clinging to all kinds of objects, and they dropped off as their hands became numb… The two boats now approached, and I saw men being pulled out of the water. We began to shout and wave our hands in the gathering darkness. I lost sight of one boat, and the other turned away. We each shouted in turn, but nobody seemed to notice us, then they came straight toward us. I was seized by the hands and dragged in… I lay down in the bows of the boat, and closed my eyes; nothing mattered now.
He was one of the lucky ones, as 1,871 German sailors were killed in battle or drowned, leaving just 215 survivors to be taken prisoner by the British.
NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.