How Germany Wreaked Havoc on the Royal Navy at the Start of World War I

January 21, 2021 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IRoyal NavyGerman Navy

How Germany Wreaked Havoc on the Royal Navy at the Start of World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, eight German cruisers were on the high seas. Off the coast of Coronel, Chile, on November 1, 1914, Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee attacked an outnumbered British squadron.

On October 31, Cradock sent Glasgow into Coronel Bay, Chile, to collect telegrams. Her captain, John Luce, was worried that he might not be able to rejoin Cradock in time if the enemy was sighted. His wireless had already picked up signals from Leipzig. Perhaps the rest of the German East Asiatic Squadron was nearby. Glasgow rejoined Cradock. The seas were too rough for boats, so the light cruiser towed a cask containing the telegrams across to Good Hope. Cradock ordered his ships to form a line. Good Hope was to the west with Glasgow to the east. It was the admiral’s hope to catch Leipzig alone. The force under his command was sufficient to handle a lone ship.

Spee Keeps His Distance

Spee was preparing for battle as well. He had heard that Glasgow was nearby. The German admiral assumed, like Cradock, that he would be facing only one small cruiser. Each man was wrong.

At 4:25 pm on November 1, Glasgow saw smoke. Luce notified Cradock of the development and then moved to the starboard to investigate. A few minutes later, lookouts saw Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with Leipzig astern. Glasgow turned back and tried to inform the flagship of Spee’s presence, but the German vessels’ wireless jammed the British cruiser’s radio. By 4:45, Cradock realized that Spee’s ships were in the vicinity.

Cradock was at a serious disadvantage. His flagship was capable of 23 knots and armed with two 9.2-inch guns and 16 6-inch guns. Monmouth had a speed of 22.4 knots and was armed with 14 6-inch guns, Glasgow had a speed of 25.3 knots with two 6-inch guns and 10 4-inch guns, and Ontranto had a speed of only 15 knots and was equipped with four 4.7-inch guns.

Spee’s force was clearly superior. The flagship Scharnhorst was capable of 23.2 knots and armed with eight 8.2-inch guns, six 5.9-inch guns and 18 22-pounders. Gneisenau had a speed of 23.5 knots and was similarly armed. Leipzig was capable of 22.4 knots, Dresden 24 knots, and Nürnberg 23.5 knots. The three light cruisers were armed with 10 4.1-inch guns. In all, the Germans presented a broadside of 3,812 pounds to the British 2,815 pounds. Another advantage Spee had was that most of his men were experienced seamen, while 90 percent of Good Hope’s crew were reservists.

Cradock was faced with the toughest decision in his career: should he attack or retire? He dearly wished to have Canopus with her 12-inch guns, but she was over 200 miles away. His orders were to protect British shipping, and to do so meant that he had to attack. Cradock made his decision. At 6:18 he signaled Canopus, “I am going to attack the enemy now!” He gave his position as “Lat. 370 30’ S. Long. 740 0’ W.” This was actually some 50 miles south of where he was. Cradock signaled his ships to follow in the admiral’s wake.

The captain of Otranto signaled Cradock asking whether he should stay out of range. The reply was, “There is danger; proceed at your utmost speed…” The message was not completed. Meanwhile, Cradock moved to the southeast. It was apparently his intention to position himself so that the wind would blow his smoke clear of his gun crew and at the same time Scharnhorst’s smoke would blow across the German sights.

Spee kept his distance from the enemy. Cradock had a chance if he could cross the German “T” to bring his broadside to bear while the enemy could only fire his foreguns. But the slow-moving Otranto prevented this from happening. Cradock had one last hope. If he could position himself between the enemy ships and the sun this would help tremendously. The sun would be in the eyes of the German gun crews. But the wily Spee kept his distance and waited for the sun to set.

Shots in the Dark

Cradock turned back to a southerly course. He began to reform his battle line. The British admiral observed Leipzig coming up and Dresden steaming up from the horizon. He knew Nürnberg was not far away. The sea was rough. The British guns were awash and spray drenched the telescopes and gun sights. The Germans by contrast had their guns high above the waterline and were dry.

Spee ordered all his boilers to be lighted and quickly increased his speed from 14 knots to 20. “The wind was south,” he later explained, “force 6, with a correspondingly high sea, so that I had to be careful not to be maneuvered into a lee position. Moreover, the course chosen helped to cut off the enemy from the neutral coast.”

Soon, the sun set. Now the advantage of light was with the Germans. Spee’s ships were in darkness while the British were illuminated in the afterglow. He moved his ships into position. At 7:04 pm, the Germans opened up with their 8.2-inch guns at a range of 12,000 yards. The shells came within 500 yards of Good HopeGlasgow responded by firing her 6-inch guns. The Battle of Coronel had begun.

The sea was not favorable. One German officer noted, “The waves rose high in the strong wind. The ships tossed hither and thither. Water foamed up over the upper decks. The gun’s crew and ammunition carriers found it difficult to keep their feet.” The rough seas presented more trouble for Cradock and his men than it did for the Germans. Spee conceded that “the British suffered more from the heavy seas than we did.”

Otranto could be of little service to Cradock. Her great size and the short range of her guns made her more of a target than an asset. Her captain realized this and did his best by zigzagging and altering speed in hopes of confusing the enemy. When Gneisenau put two shells over his fore bridge, one 50 yards on his starboard bow and the other 150 yards astern, he drew out of line to the westward and took no further action in the battle.

The fighting continued. The British had difficulty seeing their targets owing to the darkness, while the Germans easily found their marks. The gunnery officer on the Glasgow observed, “No fall of shot could be seen except an occasional common shell bursting short in line with flashes of enemy guns.”

Good Hope and Monmouth engaged Scharnhorst and Geneisenau, while Glasgow exchanged shots with Dresden and LeipzigNürnberg was still several miles astern of Spee, but was making her upmost speed to join the fight. The British were missing their targets, while the Germans scored hit after hit.

Two Flaming Heavy Cruisers

Within minutes after the battle began, a shell hit the forward 9.2-inch gun on Good Hope. The flagship shuddered, and a sheet of flames rose over the vessel. The 9.2-inch gun was knocked out of action. It was a serious blow for the British. A few seconds later, Monmouth was hit on the foredeck; fires broke out on her port side. The heavy cruiser backed out of line and never did get into station.

In short order, an 8.2-inch shell from Scharnhorst hit the British flagship amidships. Fires broke out, and some of the ammunition on board Good Hope exploded. Both British heavy cruisers were now easy targets in the glow of the flames. A third salvo from Scharnhorst hit Good Hope, causing the fires on board to spread. The German heavy cruisers were firing a salvo once every four minutes. By 7:23, the range was down to 6,600 yards. Spee thought Cradock was attempting a torpedo attack. He turned one point eastward.

Cradock reduced the range to bring his 6-inch guns into play. His after 9.2-inch gun was firing once a minute. The British admiral was in dire straits, with ammunition exploding and fires raging below decks. Monmouth was also taking a great deal of punishment. She was ablaze and listing. It was starting to get dark but the fires on the two British heavy cruisers illuminated them, making them perfect targets.

With the range down to a few thousand yards, Good Hope and Monmouth were in position to fire their 6-inch guns, but they missed their targets due to the darkness. Meanwhile, shell after shell continued to hit the two dying ships. Finally, one of Gneisenau’s shells hit Monmouth’s fore-turret, blowing off the roof and setting the housing on fire. Flames broke out, and there was a deafening explosion. When it subsided, both gun and turret were gone. Fires continued to rage on the heavy cruiser. Another shell from Gneisenau struck Monmouth’s side and knifed through the body of the ship near ammunition stored for the starboard guns.

Abandoning the Monmouth

Cradock continued toward the enemy. He was determined to fight against hopeless odds. Range was down to 5,500 yards. Good Hope was in a last desperate effort to sell her life dearly. At 7:53 pm, the fire aboard Good Hope reached the magazine. There was a tremendous explosion; flames reached 200 feet above the deck. The explosion was so great that crewmen aboard Nürnberg, six miles away, were forced to hold their hands over their ears. Good Hope and her entire crew, including the gallant Cradock, went down.