In the final months of the first year of the First World War a squadron of the Imperial German Navy under von Spee decisively destroyed a weaker British force under Cradock off the coast of South America. This action in the Southern Pacific, known as the Battle of Coronel (after the nearest coastal town in Chile) delivered a decisive blow to the prestige and perception of British sea power and prompted a determined and powerfully resourced retaliatory response from the British Admiralty which would lead to the events described in this book, the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The German cruiser squadron comprised two armoured cruisers, Scharnorst, Gneisenau, three light cruisers, Nurnberg, Dresden and Leipzig plus three auxiliary support vessels. After his Coronel victory, von Spee had sailed his squadron south with the intention of raiding the supply base at Port Stanley in the Falklands in the South Atlantic, when on December 8th, 1914 it was brought to engagement by the avenging stronger British force under Doveton Sturdee comprising the battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible, the armoured cruisers Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent and two light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow. The outcome was perhaps as inevitable as it was intended to be. Only two German vessels escaped being sunk. Students of naval history will know that for a century the Royal Navy's dominance of the seaways had meant that it had fought few major engagements since Trafalgar. The First World War was dominated by the Battle of Jutland. So this account of modern warships in action is of vital interest. Available in softcover and hardback for collectors.
The distance of the retreating enemy was rapidly decreasing, until at 2.45 p.m. Admiral Sturdee gave the order to open fire at a range of about 15,000 yards. Von Spee held on his course in the vain hope, apparently, of drawing us on, so that by a sudden turn made later he might “get to grips.” Eight minutes afterwards the Germans were forced to turn to port towards us, forming into line-ahead and opening fire as soon as they came round. We hauled out once again on to an almost parallel course. The range had appreciably dropped, and was at one time under 12,000 yards. Things now became fast and furious, shot and bursting shell were everywherein the air, and our 12-inch guns were doing terrible execution. “It was like hell let loose,” said a petty officer in the flagship, which was hit several times. The German gunnery was not nearly as good as it had been in the first phase of the engagement, whilst we had settled down to business and were, on the whole, more accurate than before. An officer in the Inflexible remarked that at this time several of the enemy’s shell fell between our two ships, and that as his ship approached these yellow-green patches, he wondered whether the debatable maxim that no two projectiles ever hit the same spot would prove accurate.<br>
The Scharnhorst was badly hit at 3 p.m., starting a fire forward, but she continued to blaze away; the Gneisenau also bore signs of the severe treatment she had received from the Inflexible. The Invincible now met with some damage, and suffered by far the most as the enemy’s fire was naturally concentrated on her. The wind had increased, and was blowing the smoke across the guns, impeding our gunners, and the Carnarvon was coming up astern, so at 3.18 Admiral Sturdee executed a sudden manoeuvre by putting his helm over to starboard, turning completely around, and crossing his own track so as to steer roughly S.W.; this put the enemy completely off the range, and also forced him five minutes later on to a parallel course, in order to avoid the alternative of being raked fore and aft.<br>
As both our ships had altered course together, their respective positions became reversed—the Inflexible leading—and they presented their port sides to the enemy (see p. 63). The Carnarvon cut the corner and came up on the off side of the battle-cruisers, in accordance with Admiral Sturdee’s orders, as her guns were useless at ranges exceeding 12,000 yards. The Scharnhorst, who had already had a bad hammering from the flagship, was now subjected to the concentrated fire of our two big ships for a very short time, during which the Gneisenau was lost sight of in her consort’s smoke. At 3.30 p.m. the Scharnhorst’s fire had slackened perceptibly, and one shell had shot away her third funnel.<br>
The Invincible now engaged the Gneisenau, who was not nearly so badly damaged and was firing all her guns. In fact, all ships were at it as hard as they could go, but the Inflexible came off lightly on account of the plight of her opponent. The noise was indescribable, shell were hurtling through the rigging; when one actually struck and burst, the whole ship quivered and staggered, while the crash of steel plates falling, and splinters of shell striking the upper works, sounded like hundreds of empty tins being hurled against one another.<br>
The Scharnhorst was clearly in a very bad way, and looked, as she was, a perfect wreck. Masses of steel twisted and torn as if growing out in all directions like the roots of a tree, clouds of steam were going up sky High, and she was blazing fore and aft. The Admiral says, “At times a shell would cause a large hole to appear in her side, through which could be seen a dull red glow of flame.” She was 14,000 yards distant. Up till quite near the end, however, she continued to fire in salvos, her starboard guns having only been in action since the last turn was made. At 3.56 p.m. the commander-in-chief decided to close in and give her the coup dc grace, which enabled the Carnarvon to get into action and open fire for the first time. By 4 p.m. both the Scharnhorst’s masts, as well as her three funnels, shot away, and she was listing heavily to port. She struggled on hopelessly and went over more and more, until at 4.10 p.m. she was on her beam ends. For seven minutes she remained in this position, her screws still going round, and then suddenly sank like a stone, with her flag still flying.