Wednesday, December 07, 2005
The Battle Of The Falklands, December 8, 1914
Today in 1914, German and British cruisers met in battle near the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. This battle, though not as well-remembered as the Battle of Jutland two years later, is considered by some historians to be the most important naval engagement of the First World War.
On November 1st of that year, a British squadron suffered the first Royal Navy defeat since 1812 at the hands of a German squadron under the command of Maximilian von Spee off the coast of Coronel, Chile. During the battle, nearly 1,700 Royal Navy sailors were killed and two of her armored cruisers were sunk. The British Admiralty assembled a powerful modern force and went looking for the five German ships in the South Atlantic.
Admiral von Spee had experienced some success in that part of the world, where his primary mission was to destroy Allied merchant shipping. After the Battle of Coronel, von Spee planned a bold raid on the Falkland Islands, where a British coaling depot and radio station were located. He expected little resistance in light of his recent victory.
Von Spee had no way of knowing that a fast British squadron had already made the transit to the Falklands from the North Atlantic and were taking on coal. The squadron consisted of 8 ships: two new, fast battle cruisers, five other cruisers and one battleship from the last century. The battleship was grounded at Stanley in the Falklands to act as a sort of fortress, since she was too slow to keep up with the rest of the squadron during battle. Admiral von Spee’s force contained only five ships: two armored cruisers and three light cruisers. Their guns were smaller and fewer in number than their more modern British counterparts.
As the Germans approached the islands, they were surprised to find a battleship firing at them from extreme range. Soon, von Spee’s lookouts spotted the rest of the British squadron. Outgunned and outnumbered, von Spee prepared to engage with his two heavier ships, hoping to give the light cruisers time to escape.
It was not to be. A running gun battle ensued, one that the slower German ships could not hope to win. Four German ships out of five were sunk, including von Spee’s flagship, which went down with all hands. The tables had been turned from the Battle of Coronel: 1,871 German sailors died, including von Spee and two of his sons. The German naval command decided that raiding merchant vessels with surface ships was too dangerous and ceased the practice. Instead, they introduced the commerce raider, armed merchant vessels which also found success during the Second World War. They also intensified submarine operations; the experience learned there would nearly cripple the Allied effort 25 years later.