By Harold Briley (*) Early in World War One the Royal Navy suffered one of its most disastrous defeats followed five weeks later by one of its most decisive victories. In the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December, 1914, all five battle cruisers of the German East Asian Squadron and its support ships were defeated with nearly 2,000 men killed including their commander, Vice Admiral Graf von Spee. No British ships were lost and only eight British sailors were killed.
The battle avenged the Royal Navy’s most disastrous defeat for over a hundred years in the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1 November, 1914. Graf von Spee’s squadron sank two cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth, the first British warships of any size sunk by enemy gunfire with all hands lost. More than 1,600 died including their commander, Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. The Falkland Islands gold reserves of £3,750 lent by the Governor to Cradock also went down with his ship. He had fallen foul of the setting sun which plunged the Germans into darkness while silhouetting his own ships, a scenario he had warned against in a battle instruction handbook. Two other ships Otranto and Glasgow, with a gaping hole in her stern, were forced to withdraw. The Kaiser awarded Graf Spee and his men 300 Iron Crosses.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, took a personal interest in the hunt for Graf von Spee’s squadron hiding in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, where it was a threat to commercial shipping and to troopships sailing to Europe from Australia and New Zealand. The Admiralty deployed a powerful force to the South Atlantic - eight cruisers, Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon; Cornwall, Kent, Bristol, Glasgow, and Macedonia, and the battleship Canopus, under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. His orders were to pursue and destroy the German squadron.
Its cruisers, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Dresden, Nurnberg and Leipzig and three supply ships rounded Cape Horn and, on their way back to Germany, von Spee, decided to attack and destroy the Falkland’s base installations, which he believed to be undefended. The Governor, William Allardyce, ordered the evacuation of 500 women and children from Stanley into the countryside.
Admiral von Spee was shocked to find the powerful British force had arrived in Falklands only the previous day. Sturdee was equally surprised as his ships were unready for battle, still taking on thousands of tons of coal to fire their steam boilers. They were trapped and faced annihilation. Canopus had been driven five feet deep into mud to provide a stable platform for her heavy guns.
Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that the outcome of the battle gave him one of his most anxious periods in two World Wars. He was misled by an ambiguous signal from Governor Allardyce from which he wrongly inferred that the British ships had been destroyed. But second message hours later told him: “It’s all right, Sir, they are all at the bottom”, meaning the German fleet. Instead of attacking, von Spee beat a rapid retreat, a fatal mistake for the Germans and salvation for the British.
Sturdee’s force set off in pursuit. Within a few hours Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, Leipzig and two supply transports, Baden and Santa Isabel, were sunk. Dresden escaped but three months later, in March 1915, she was found sheltering in Chilean waters by Kent and Glasgow, and was scuttled. The surviving German supply ship, Scydlitz, was interned by Argentina. All von Spee’s eight ships were accounted for. A pig given to Dresden’s crew by the German community in Chile swam ashore, was captured as a war trophy, re-christened Tirpitz, and raffled several times for the war effort. It died of old age and its stuffed head was put on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Sturdee was knighted and later commanded ships in the 1917 Battle of Jutland. The Admiralty gave £10,000 to Sturdee and £12,160 in prize bounty to be shared among the crews of the battle cruisers.
Churchill’s gamble of sending so many powerful warships so far away weakened Britain’s defence against invasion. The German High Seas Fleet seized the opportunity to send a squadron across the North Sea on 16 December to bombard Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby, killing 137 people and injuring 592, a consequence of a battle 8,000 miles away.
A memorial statue in Stanley commemorates Admiral Sturdee’s victory, and a new memorial wall has been built nearby for the hundredth anniversary to commemorate the Battle of Coronel.
To mark the anniversary, the battles were being commemorated in ceremonies in Chile, the Falkland Islands and London with a memorial service in St Martin- in- the- Fields, the Royal Navy Church in Trafalgar Square. Descendants of crew members were invited to take part. The Falkland Islands Government minted a new £2 coin depicting HMS Glasgow commanded by Captain John Luce which took part in both battles and in the search for Dresden.
A film about the battle, made in 1927, described as one of the best war films ever made, starring Royal Navy ships, has been refreshed by the British Film Institute for the 100th anniversary.
(*) Harold Briley, former BBC Latin America and Defence Correspondent