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War history: Victory off the Falklands Islands... 100 years ago

PUBLISHED: 12:45 13 December 2014

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Inflexible stands by to pick up survivors from the German cruiser Gneisenau after the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Inflexible stands by to pick up survivors from the German cruiser Gneisenau after the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.

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They were hard-fought actions that tested the Royal Navy’s strength and traditional supremacy. Galloway Travel’s resident military historian, Mike Peters, focuses on the often-overlooked naval battles of November and December, 1914

A painting, Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914, by William Lionel Wyllie.A painting, Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914, by William Lionel Wyllie.

Many readers probably regard the Battle of Jutland as the best-known sea battle of the First World War. Actually, 100 years ago this week, most newspapers in Britain and across the English-speaking world were full of articles about a decisive Royal Navy victory over German naval forces in the waters off the Falkland Islands.

The winter of 1914 had already seen British and German ships clash twice, the first in the strategically vital waters off Cape Horn at the southern-most tip of South America.

British and German admirals knew that domination of the sea-lanes around the cape would allow them to control the passage of merchant shipping between the South Atlantic, the Pacific and − of particular importance to the British − the Indian Ocean. High stakes indeed, especially for Great Britain, as the shipping routes were the arteries that carried the trading lifeblood of Britain to and from her far-flung empire.

Maintenance of British naval supremacy was a costly business. The Admiralty had worked for years to man and equip a navy that would successfully defeat any two fleets in the world combined. This strategy had been tested to the full in pre-war years by the emergence of a new and potent threat in the shape of a modern and continually expanding Imperial German Navy.

There was genuine cause for concern. Although numerous, a significant percentage of Britain’s ships was outdated and therefore no match for the pride of the Kaiser’s navy. That said, when war was declared the Royal Navy was ready: the orders for mobilisation preceded Britain’s declaration of war. The Admiralty had quickly despatched British naval squadrons to their war stations, manned and provisioned for war.

In previous weeks I have talked about the German Navy’s raids on our coastline and the impact of those hit-and-run attacks. Although they were dramatic events, they had done little to affect the naval balance of power. Both sides really wanted to inflict a decisive defeat on the other of such scale that it would determine the course of the war.

On November 1, 1914, Germany’s East Asiatic squadron, under Count Maximilian von Spee, was trying to evade interception by warships of the Royal Navy and the allied Imperial Japanese Navy. His squadron consisted of five vessels: the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and three light cruisers: Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg.

The German squadron was sailing eastwards from the Caroline Islands across the Pacific. As von Spee neared the coast of South America, the British unwisely chose to intercept him with the ageing and out-dated cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and the armoured merchant ship Otranto. The even older pre-Dreadnought HMS Canopus was in reserve.

The British squadron, commanded by Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock, met and engaged von Spee at Coronel, off the coast of Chile. Craddock went down with his ship when Good Hope and Monmouth were lost with all hands. Von Spee also drove off the remaining two British vessels.

For a few worrying weeks it seemed that Britain’s command of the seas was in doubt. It was not long before Britain’s navy exacted its revenge for Coronel. A squadron of cruisers and a battleship under Admiral Sir Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee engaged von Spee again, destroying his entire squadron of cruisers and supply ships.

On the morning of December 8 von Spee, against the advice of his captains, had ordered the Gneisenau and the Nürnberg on a skirmishing mission around the Falkland Islands. They were sighted off Port Stanley, where Sturdee’s ships lay at anchor. HMS Canopus opened fire and, although the two German ships were out of range, the fire drove them back to rejoin their group. The German force then steamed eastward at full speed to avoid action.

At 0945 most of the British squadron started in pursuit. By 1300 the rear ships of the German column were within firing range of HMS Invincible and Inflexible. By 1800 the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, with von Spee aboard, were sunk. The remaining German ships were also sunk, with the exception of the Dresden, which escaped – only to scuttle herself later when cornered by her British pursuers.

The newspapers of this week in 1914 concluded that the Royal Navy’s honour had been restored and that the defeat at Coronel had been decisively avenged by the victory off the Falklands Islands. Many felt Sturdee and his ships had reasserted British maritime superiority for the rest of the war.

Galloway have two guided four-day tours of the Western Front travelling on April 17 and May 1, 2015. Further details are online at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information.


For more on the centenary of the First World War, see our anniversary page here

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