Battle of the Falkland Islands

World War 1 Naval Combat

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Battle of the Falkland Islands The Battle of the Falkland Islands was not of great tactical significance, being essentially a stern chase.  Spee managed to outmanoeuvre Sturdee in the early stages of the battle but the British Admiral used his speed and firepower advantage sensibly, defeating his opponent without risking his ships, especially the valuable battlecruisers.

On November 11 1914 the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible under Admiral Sturdee left for the Falkland Islands.  HMS Princess Royal was dispatched to the Caribbean to guard the Panama Canal. The shock of the defeat at Coronel had made the Royal Navy take decisive action to destroy Spee and the battlecruisers were the chosen means for retribution.

After his victory Spee coaled and then loitered in the Pacific whilst he decided what to do next, little did he realise that this indecision would prove fatal.  Eventually he decided to enter the Atlantic and try to make it home.  The squadron had passed Cape Horn by December 1 and on the following day they captured the Drummuir carrying coal.  They then rested for three days at Pictou Island.  Spee wanted to raid the Falkland Islands but his captains were opposed to the idea, however in the end Spee decided to go ahead anyway, another decision he was to regret.

HMS Canopus was now beached at Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, as guard ship.  On December 7 Sturdee arrived, bringing the British warships at Port Stanley to the pre-dreadnought Canopus, the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon and Cornwall, the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow and the armed merchant cruiser Macedonia.

On the morning of December 8 1914 Gneisenau and Nürnberg were detached from the main squadron, which followed about fifteen miles behind, to attack the wireless station and port facilities at Port Stanley.  At 0830 they sighted the wireless mast and smoke from Macedonia returning from patrol.

They didn't know that at 0750 they had been sighted by a hill top spotter which signalled Canopus which then signalled Invincible, flagship, via Glasgow.  The British ships were still coaling and most ships, including the battlecruisers, would take a couple of hours to get up steam.  If the Germans attacked the British ships would be stationary targets and any ship which tried to leave harbour would face the concentrated fire of the full German squadron, if they were sunk whilst leaving harbour the rest of the squadron would be trapped in port.  Sturdee kept calm, ordered steam to be raised and then went and had breakfast!

0900 the Germans made out the tripod masts of capital ships.  They were unsure of what theses ships were but they knew Canopus was in the area and they hoped that these were pre-dreadnoughts, which they could easily outrun.
Canopus was beached out of site of the German ships, behind hills but had set up a system for targeting using land based spotters.  At 13,000 yards her forward turret fired but was well short, the massive shell splashes astonished the German ships who could see no enemy warships.  The rear turret then fired using practice rounds which were already loaded for an expected practice shoot later.  The blank shells ricocheted off the sea, one of them hitting the rearmost funnel of Gneisenau.  The two German ships turned away.  Canopus didn't fire again but she saved the British from a perilous situation.

HMS Canopus.  It is doubtful if her presence at Coronel would have saved the British from defeat but at the Falklands she fired the first shots of the battle and saved the British from a dire situation. Battle of the Falklands - Canopus

By 0945 Bristol had left harbour, followed 15 minutes later by Invincible, Inflexible, Kent, Carnarvon and Cornwall, Bristol and Macedonia stayed behind.  The German squadron had a 15-20 mile lead but with over eight hours of daylight left and fine weather the battlecruisers would be in action in a couple of hours.

The German lookouts could now tell that the tripod masts belonged to battlecruisers which at c25 knots were considerably faster than the 20 knots the in need of refit German ships could manage.  Spee set course to the South East in the hope of finding bad weather.

At first the British squadron stayed together but the battlecruisers were being slowed down by the other ships and so pulled ahead on their own.

At 1247 at 16,500 yards the battlecruisers opened fire, with little accuracy, taking half an hour to straddle the rear ship, Leipzig.  Spee realised he was caught and turned his armoured cruisers to slow the British whilst ordering his light cruisers to try and escape.  Sturdee had made contingency plans for this and Invincible, Inflexible and the trailing Carnarvon engaged the armoured cruisers whilst the rest of the force set off after the light cruisers.

The battlecruisers turned onto a parallel course to Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 14,000 yards.  The Germans had the advantage of being in the lee position of the wind, the British gunnery was badly affected by their own smoke.  The German shooting was excellent but at this long range their shells did little damage to the battlecruisers.  The British also scored a few hits which did more damage but they were unaware of this as the visibility prevented them from seeing these.

In an attempt to gain the lee (smoke free) position Sturdee made a sharp turn to starboard towards Spee's stern.  Whilst performing this turn the British were shrouded in their own smoke and Spee took this opportunity to turn south, pulling out of firing range.  It took the British another 45 minute stern chase before they could resume firing.

At 1450 the battlecruisers turned to port to bring their broadsides to bear.  Spee decided that his only chance was to close the range and use his superior secondary armament but his change of course made the smoke much less of a problem for the British.  Their firing became much more accurate and both German ships, but especially Scharnhorst suffered severe damage and casualties.  By had received over fifty hits, three funnels were down, she was on fire and listing.  The range kept falling and at 1604 Scharnhorst listed suddenly to port and by 1617 she had disappeared.  As Gneisenau was still firing no rescue attempts were possible and her entire crew including Spee were lost.  Invincible had received 22 hits, over half 8.2 inch, but these caused no serious damage and only one crew member was injured.

Gneisenau kept on alone, zigzagging to the south west.  At 1715 she scored her last hit on Invincible before her ammunition ran out.  The British stopped firing soon afterwards and the burning German ship ground to a halt, her crew opening the sea-cocks and abandoning ship, 190 crew from a total of 765 were rescued but many of these died from their wounds.  Inflexible was only hit 3 times and had 1 killed and 3 injured.

Battle of the Falklands - Inflexible Inflexible stopped to pick up survivors from Gneisenau.  There were few survivors from the German squadron as the German ships took a lot of damage before sinking, resulting in heavy onboard casualties.  Warship lifeboats were often landed in times as war so that they wouldn't be turned into dangerous splinters when hit, as any that were left onboard usually were if a ship was sunk.  The British stopped to pick up survivors where possible but in battle it was often not possible.

Whilst the big ships were fighting the smaller cruisers were having their own battles.  The German light cruisers were in the order Dresden leading followed by Nürnberg and Leipzig whilst the British were led by Glasgow with Cornwall and Kent trying to keep up with her.

At 1445 Glasgow opened fire on Leipzig, Leipzig turning to port to reply, scoring two early ships whilst Glasgow's fell short.  Glasgow had to turn away, allowing Leipzig to resume her earlier course.  The other German ships had not turned to help Leipzig but had carried on their escape attempt.

Glasgow fired on Leipzig again, but this time the other German cruisers changed course, Dresden to the South West and Nürnberg to the South East.  Glasgow's ploy of forcing Leipzig to turn and fire succeeded in slowing her so that at 1617 Cornwall had her in range, Kent setting off after Nürnberg.

Leipzig's firing was good but she didn't hit Glasgow and her shells didn't do much damage to Cornwall.  By 1900 Leipzig's mainmast and two funnels were down and she was on fire.  When her ammunition was exhausted she made an unsuccessful torpedo attack on Cornwall and then her crew prepared to abandon ship.

Glasgow closed the range to finish her off as her flag was still flying, stopping when two green flares were fired by the crippled German cruiser.  At 2120 she rolled over and sank leaving eighteen survivors.

Cornwall had received eighteen hits but no casualties.  Glasgow had received no damage after the two early hits which killed one and four wounded.  Her boilers were damaged which reduced her speed enough for there to be no chance of catching Dresden which escaped.

Nürnberg had a 10 mile led on Kent and was, on paper, faster, but Nürnberg needed an engine overhaul and Kent's crew worked so hard that the old cruiser exceeded her designed horsepower, reaching 25 knots, being forced to burn all available wood on board and causing the whole ship to vibrate violently.

By 1700 the range was down to 12,000 yards and Nürnberg opened fire with the by now expected superb accuracy.  When Kent returned fire ten minutes later her shells fell short.  Once the range had fallen to 7,000 yards both sides started to score regular hits and Nürnberg gave up her escape attempt and turned to bring her broadside to action.

By 1730 the range was down to 3,000 yards and Kent's heavier shells and thicker armour gave her the upper hand.  An hour later, just as bad weather arrived which may have saved her, two of Nürnberg's boilers exploded, reducing her speed.  Kent was now able to easily outmanoeuvre her opponent and within half an hour Nürnberg was dead in the water, at 1926 she rolled over to starboard and sank with only twelve survivors.
Kent had received thirty eight hits but only sixteen casualties.

Whilst these battles had gone on Bristol and Macedonia had sunk Spee's colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, the other collier, Seydlitz escaped, eventually being interned in Argentina.

Damage to Kent seen after the battle.  Despite receiving many hits the British squadron had light casualties and little damage, the shells of the German cruisers were not powerful enough to do serious damage to their larger British opponents.  The German navy continued arming it's light cruisers with 4.1 inch guns well after the British had switched to larger 6 inch weapons.  Although the German guns were excellent, often having longer range than the British 6 inch guns, in the end the greater hitting power of the 6 inch gun persuaded  them to switch, throughout the various battles of Spee, Emden, Königsberg and Karlsruhe the most heavily armed warship won all of the battles. Battle of the Falklands - Kent

Sturdee searched for the Dresden before returning to the UK with the battlecruisers.  There was some criticism (mainly from the 1st Sea Lord Fisher) of him for letting Dresden escape and for the heavy ammunition expenditure of his battlecruisers (Invincible 513 12 inch rounds, Inflexible 661 12 inch rounds fired) but generally his clear victory was welcomed.   He had destroyed Spee's squadron without any serious damage to any of his ships and their shooting (c.6.5%) was considerably better than was managed by British (and German) battlecruisers at Dogger Bank and Jutland.

The hunt for the Dresden took months as she made her way into the Pacific pursued by British cruisers.  They eventually caught up with her at Mas a Tierra on March 13 by Glasgow, Kent and the armed merchant cruiser Orama.  Glasgow had escaped from Dresden at Coronel, Dresden evaded Glasgow at the Falklands but it was Glasgow and Captain Luce who were to be final victors.

Glasgow infringed Chilean neutrality by opening fire on Dresden whilst she was anchored in Chilean waters.  After five minutes Dresden was heavily hit and surrendered.  Whilst surrender talks were going on the Germans abandoned ship and scuttling charges detonated her magazine, ending the last of Spee's squadron.  Dresden suffered eight killed and sixteen wounded.

Battle of the Falklands - Dresden Dresden at Mas a Tierra flying a white flag, prior to her scuttling.  She was the least successful of the German cruisers that operated on their own.  She sailed from the Caribbean to the Pacific on her own achieving little and then after Spee's defeat she sailed on her own for several months without causing many problems.

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