In terms of British military history, the Falkland Islands are best known for the 10-week war in 1982 against Argentina. However, almost 70 years earlier, the waters around these South Atlantic islands were the setting of a significant naval battle in the early months of the First World War.
The lead-up to the Battle of the Falklands actually began thousands of miles away on November 1st 1914, a date that remains as one of the darkest in Royal Navy history. Off the coast of Chile that day, a British squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock was defeated by the expert gunnery of German Vice Admiral Maximilian Von Spee. Two old armoured British cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope were sunk with all hands, including Cradock. This first defeat of the Royal Navy since the War of 1812 severely damaged Britain’s perceived power and prestige, but more worryingly, all British trade in South America was now at the mercy of Von Spee’s ships.
Although victorious, Von Spee faced a serious problem - his ships had fired off over half their precious ammunition supply and re-supply was almost impossible owing to their isolated position. Von Spee’s only hope lay in a return to Germany.
Meanwhile, the British immediately dispatched two fast battlecruisers to the South Atlantic hoping to intercept Von Spee before he rounded Cape Horn and became lost in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Invincible and Inflexible, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, reached Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on the morning of December 7th. The battlecruisers were now joined by the three armoured cruisers Cornwall, Carnarvon and Kent and two light cruisers, the Glasgow and Bristol. But after steaming thousands of miles, the British ships needed several days to load coal for the next phase of their mission to find Von Spee.
But while the British ships were safe in Port Stanley re-fueling, Von Spee had already rounded Cape Horn. Most admirals would have then simply raced for home port, but Von Spee announced to his surprised crew that he wanted to destroy the wireless station on the Falkland Islands. He believed the Falklands were undefended and this attack would constitute a final act of German defiance in the region. However, through an incredible piece of bad luck: although the British Squadron’s arrival was common knowledge in the ports down the Chilean coast no one had told the German admiral. It was to prove a fatal mistake.
On the morning of December 8th, Von Spee dispatched the armoured cruiser Gneisenau and the light cruiser Nürnberg to attack the Falklands, whilst his flagship the armoured cruiser Scharnhorst and the light cruisers Dresden and Leipzig waited over the horizon. As the Gneisenau and Nürnberg approached the Falklands at around 8.30am, British lookouts on the islands spotted their smoke and immediately reported this back to the Canopus, an old antiquated battleship whose only use to the fleet was to be beached at the entrance to Port Stanley and transformed into a fort.
Canopus saved the entire British squadron from destruction.
There was no telephone line between Canopus and the British flagship Invincible so the old battleship was forced to hoist the time-honoured signal “Enemy in Sight.” Busy coaling, the British ships were caught completely by surprise and it would be hours before any of them could raise steam. Although he didn’t know it, the Falklands wireless station and, in fact, the entire British squadron were at Von Spee’s mercy.
Remarkably, despite firing blind as the German ships were obscured by the headland, the second salvo from Canopus was a near-miss with shell splinters hitting the base of Gneisenau’s funnel The German ships were forced away and Canopus saved the entire British squadron from destruction.
Defied of his objective, Von Spee’s squadron re-grouped and was forced to flee, heading south. However, led by Sturdee aboard Invincible, the British fleet gave chase with the advantage of faster ships and fine weather. Within a few hours, the German spotters saw the large clouds of black smoke from the chasing British battlecruisers which carried deadly 12-inch guns – battle would soon commence. At 12.47pm, the battlecruiser Inflexible opened fire at the colossal range of 16,500 yards. No British warship had ever before fired at a live target from such distance. While the shell fire was inaccurate, Von Spee soon realised his position was already critical. He was forced into a selfless act of bravery, turning his two armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into the path of the oncoming British battlecrusiers, hoping to draw their fire away from his remaining three light cruisers, allowing them to escape.
Admiral Sturdee, however, had planned for this, and while his battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible would engage the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, the Kent, Cornwall and Glasgow could hunt the escaping German light cruisers.
Although British gunnery was poor, the sheer power of their 12-inch shells were slowly turning the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau into masses of twisted steel. Despite a desperate resistance, by 4.00pm the Scharnhorst ceased firing and by 4.17pm she slipped beneath the waves. Every member of her 800 strong crew perished, including Von Spee. By 5.15pm Gneisenau had ceased firing and also sank, with only 190 German sailors plucked from the icy seas.
Meanwhile, the remaining British cruisers were straining to catch the remaining three German ships. Engineers on the antiquated cruiser Kent were amazed that her unreliable engines were still working, but a more pressing issue was an increasing lack of coal, as the German squadron's arrival at the Falklands had delayed Kent’s resupply. Wrecking parties were organised who worked with superhuman energy stripping anything they could find to feed the boilers. This caused the ship to make 24 knots, a speed she had never before achieved. Eventually, Kent caught and overwhelmed the Nürnberg. Only twelve German sailors were rescued.
The British cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall together then sunk the Leipzig. But the Dresden managed to escape. Following her discovery by the British, she would eventually be scuttled several months later off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra by her own crew.
The Battle of the Falklands lasted just one day with four German ships destroyed and all British vessels surviving intact. British trade in South America was once again secure and Admiral Cradock’s death had been avenged. However, despite a clear British victory, it may be that the bravery of Von Spee and his gallant crew is the most memorable aspect of this unique naval battle.