During the Great War the Japanese, seeing their opportunity, took the lion’s share of the German Far East and Pacific colonies. These colonics were also important because Tsingtao, the capital of Kiaochow, was the headquarters of the German East Asiatic Xaval Squadron, commanded by the formidable N ice Admiral Graf Maximilian on Spee.
During October 19tq it became evident that a major part of this squadron was heading for South America, where Germany had powerful interests. To the Germans, this course seemed prudent in view of the Japanese declaration of war against Germany. Such action brought two further advantages: it was thought unlikely that the Japanese would pursue the Germans so far afield, in view of possible complications with the United States, and the journey could be accomplished in relative ease and secrecy by journeying ia the myriad islands en route.
The British were anxious lest subsequently the German fleet might round Cape Horn and cause havoc to the vital South. Xmerican-Europcan trade in meat and maize. The. Admiralty resolved (hat this danger must be averted at all costs, for if her foreign trade and food imports were seriously disrupted. Great Britain would be brought to her knees in a matter of weeks. Thus the (Jerman vessels must be found and destroyed.
Coronel, to the south of Santiago, Chile, was the scene of the first round in a double clash of navies. On 31 October the British light cruiser Glasgow anchored in Coronel Bay. She had taken a battering in tremendous gales during her journey from the Falkland Islands, and was now in need of a brief respite in port for repairs. Next day, however, the Glasgow sailed away, aware from telegraphic signals that a German ship was nearby. Soon she joined the rest of the British fleet some forty miles west of Coronel.
As it happened, Spee had moved south to forestall the Glasgow at the same time that the British commander Rear. Admiral Sir Christopher Cra-dock, had voyaged north tf) fight what he supposed to be the isolated German light cruiser /.eif>zig-Allhf)ugh both navies sought the encounter, (he actual battle was full of mutual surprises.
I he British shijjs. Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto spread out in linear formation. On the afternoon of i. Xovember, the Germ. in armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau approached on the horizon; the Leipzig was not, after all, alone. To this German coik entration was added the Dresden. Fhe Ifritish were at a heaw
Disadvantage: against two elderly armoured cruisers, an armed merchant ship, and a light cruiser, the Germans pitted two modern armoured cruisers and two light cruisers, with the danger ofa third, ihe yUrnberg, in the background. Moreover, the German ships were manned by expert professional sailors, whereas the British seamen were mostly recent recruits. Cradock could have avoided action by retiring southwards; Cruttwell guesses that his motie for not doing so was his hope that before his inevitable destruction he might damage the German fleet sufficiently to enable the British ship Canopus, 300 miles to the south, to finish the job.
Cradock was a true son of Nelson. Fearlessly he prepared for battle against overwhelming odds. As evening fell, the German guns blazed fire, and thunderously the British boomed their reply. A’et, outlined in the sunset, the British ships were doomed. In under an hour the Good Hope found a watery grave. Torn by an explosion, her hulk blazing like a charnel house, the British flagship disappeared from sight. Lumbering bn into the darkness, the burning Monmouth was annihilated by the yUrnberg, Both British ships went down in grim defiance, with the loss of every single man aboard, 1440 in all. Somehow the Glasgow contrived to escape, while the Otranto had only played a minor role. The German ships were barely scratched, and their only casualties were (wo wounded. Here was a German victory at the very moment when. Allied morale needed a fillip to counter Turkish entry into the war.
Admiral Lord Fisher, newly reappointed as I'irsi Sea Lord, was fiercely determined to hunt down Spce wherever he went. Vet Spec had tasted victoiA and liked its Has our. .s the I'rench sa. I'appetit rient en mangeant. After nuirh dela. Spec decided to pull olTanoiher coup by aitackiiie; the Falkland Islands, a position of tremendous stratcetic importance due to its use as a coaling station and radio communications centre. He was partiallv cncoura2;cd by several reports that the islands now lay undefended.
Meanwhile, on 7 December. ’ice.dmiral Sir Frederick Do cion Sturdee, Commander in Chief of British naval forces in the Pacific and South .tlantic. had arriv ed w ith his squadron for coaling in the Falklands. Next day the Gneisemu and .Vurnberg were sighted. The Germans had seen a tremendous pall of smoke rising from the harbour, but thinking that the stocks of coal were being destroyed on their approach, thev proceeded, d'oo late, the German vessels spotted the British battlecruisers lying at anchor in Port Stanley. Swiftly they and the rest of the German fleet sped southeast. Ironically, several of the British ships were still coaling, and had Spce boldly attacked, he might have done considerable damage.
Sturdee. calm and unhurried in the best tradition of Drake, but nonetheless relentless, followed in pursuit. Caution lest his ships be damaged seriously led Sturdee to fight at long range., and this considerably lengthened the duration of the battle. N'ev erthelcss, he had it mostly his own way. In the afternoon, the Scharnhorst, already burning uncontrollably, was pulverized by the Inflexible and the Invincible. Rolling on her side, the Scharnhorst sank. Firing haphazardly to the end. the Gneisenau went down with flags living and sailors cheering the Kaiser. Fhc Germans had proved themselves as brave in defeat as they were haughty in victory. Then the. Viirnberg fell victim to the Kent, and the Leipzig similarly to the Cornwall and the Glasgow. Only the Dresden escaped, to lead a charmed life as the last German cruiser at sea. until she too was cornered the following. March.
Some two hundred German sailors survived the rout, but eighteen hundred died, including Spec and his two sons. British casualties were only thirty. The Falklands was Coronel in reverse, but now the threat from German surface raiders was over. Britannia once more ruled the waves.