1st November 1914 – A German battle squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Graf Von Spee defeated an inferior British squadron, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock off Coronel in Chile. During the battle, the Royal Navy lost two armoured cruisers, the flagship HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth, including 1,600 sailors killed. Although Von Spee was victorious at the Battle of Coronel, his ships had fired off over half of the total amount of shells they had. Being resupplied with ammunition was almost impossible owing to their isolated position, which meant a return to Germany for rearmament.
The British Admiralty were shocked to hear the losses, this was the Royal Navy’s first defeat for around 100 years. The Admiralty detached the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible from the Grand Fleet, and placed under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Both battlecruisers left Devonport on 10th November 1914 enroute to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. They were later joined by the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall, and HMS Kent, light cruisers HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow, and armed merchant cruiser HMS Macedonia.
Arrival of the Royal Navy to the Falkland Islands
7th December 1914 – During the morning, the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible arrived at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The remainder of the British squadron had arrived at Port Stanley a day earlier for re-fuelling with coal. The intention was to depart two days later to search for Von Spee.
The German East Asia Squadron had already rounded Cape Horn, Von Spee announced to his crew that he wanted to destroy the wireless station on the Falkland Islands. He was under the impression that the Islands were left undefended by the British.
Vice-Admiral Graf Von Spee’s advancing German squadron
8th December 1914 – Von Spee arrived just over the horizon to the Falklands with his flagship the armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst and the light cruisers SMS Dresden and SMS Leipzig. The armoured cruiser SMS Gneisenau and the light cruiser Nürnberg were sent to attack the wireless transmitter on the Falklands.
At 8:30am the smoke from the approaching SMS Gneisenau and SMS Nürnberg was spotted by British lookouts on the Islands. The news was reported to HMS Canopus, an obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship which had been previously beached on the mudflats behind a hill at the entrance to Port Stanley to act as a fort.
9:00am – The 12 inch guns of HMS Canopus fired upon SMS Gneisenau and SMS Nürnberg with a couple of salvos, but the shells fell short with a near-miss of the approaching German cruisers. Von Spee was surprised by the gunfire, and the report of the sight of distinctive tripod masts of the British fleet in the harbour. Realising the British were better-equipped, he broke off the planned attack and ordered a retreat to re-group. The German squadron headed southeast towards the open sea of the South Atlantic.
The Battle of the Falkland Islands
10:00am – The British fleet left Port Stanley and gave chase led by Sturdee onboard the British flagship HMS Invincible, Von Spee’s ships were now ahead by 15 miles. HMS Kent was already pursuing the German Squadron after an earlier order giving by Sturdee.
Sturdee had an advantage, the British ships were much faster, there was also plenty of light left in the day to chase the German squadron down.
1:00pm – The battlecruiser HMS Inflexible armed with 12-inch guns opened fire upon the last ship in the German line, SMS Leipzig.
1:20pm – Von Spee realised that he would not be able to outrun the British ships. He decided to engage with his armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau, this enabled the light cruisers a chance to escape. The British ships vision was obscured by the German ships funnel smoke due to being windward. SMS Scharnhorst opened fire, HMS Invincible was struck by several shells but suffered little damage. Von Spee turned to escape.
2:00pm – Sturdee sent his cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Cornwall to chase the fleeing German light cruisers SMS Leipzig and SMS Nürnberg. HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible came into range, they turned and gave a broadside, resulting in SMS Scharnhorst received extensive damage, the third funnel has been shot away and the ship was listing to the port slightly. SMS Gneisenau had been hit twice, with damage to the aft funnel, several men had been killed and wounded. SMS Dresden managed to escape the battle.
4:00pm – Von Spee attempted to turn SMS Scharnhorst to lunch torpedoes towards the British. The ship was listing more to the port and the bow was only two metres above sea level at this point.
4:17pm – SMS Scharnhorst capsized to port and finally sank, 860 officers and men, including Von Spee went down with the sinking ship. There was no attempt at rescuing any survivors as HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible turned their attention on SMS Gneisenau.
5:15pm – After a continuing a tactic of firing and evading with damage to the engines and boiler room, SMS Gneisenau ran out of ammunition. HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible was joined by the cruiser HMS Carnarvon, they continued to fire upon SMS Gneisenau with 12-inch shells. The bridge had a direct hit, along with various other areas of the ship.
6:02pm – The crew onboard the burning wreck of SMS Gneisenau detonated scuttling charges, and torpedoes were released from the forward tubes to hasten the flooding. The ship slowly rolled over while around 300 of the crew disembarked, before the ship sank. HMS Carnarvon picked up 187 survivors while the others died in the cold South Atlantic sea.
The fleeing German light cruisers and colliers sunk
5:30pm – After being chased down by HMS Kent, SMS Nürnberg turned to give battle. The pursuing British armoured cruiser had the advantage in shell weight and armour. After an hour, SMS Nürnberg suffered two boiler explosions, and at 7:27pm she turned over and sank. Only 12 of the crew were rescued, five of those died which included Von Spee’s son Otto.
SMS Leipzig had been closed in by the British cruisers, HMS Glasgow and HMS Cornwall. SMS Leipzig flying her battle ensign had run out of ammunition, HMS Glasgow closed in to finished of the German light cruiser. At 9:23pm SMS Leipzig rolled over and sank, leaving just 18 survivors.
The German colliers SS Baden and SS Santa Isabel had been pursued and caught by HMS Bristol and HMS Macedonia. The crew was removed from the colliers before the ships were fired upon and sunk at 7:00pm.
The third collier SS Seydlitz took a different course, and managed to escape the battle.
Aftermath of the Battle
The light cruiser SS Dresden managed to escape the battle. Several months later the British found SS Dresden off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, but the crew scuttled the ship.
The complete destruction of the German East Asia Squadron resulted in the loss of about 2,200 German sailors and officers, including two of Vice-Admiral Spee’s sons, Henrich and Otto. A total of 215 German survivors from the battle became prisoners of war.
In Germany, Spee was hailed as a hero and the men of the East Asia Squadron were celebrated in the newspapers due to their bravery and refusal to surrender.
HMS Canopus left the mudflats of Port Stanley on 18th December 1914, the ship returned to South American Station duties at the Abrolhos Rocks.
Finally, after the Battle of the Falkland Islands, British trade in South America was once again secure.