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.

Glasgow was more fortunate. Despite the numerous shells fired at her by Leipzig and Dresden, she was hit only five times. Three shells struck the light cruiser in the coal bunkers without exploding, one hit the conning tower without exploding, and one burst aft above the port propeller, tearing a hole in the side and flooding one of the ship’s compartments.

Captain Luce of Glasgow directed his efforts to assisting Monmouth. The crew of the heavy cruiser managed to extinguish the fires on deck, but other fires were raging below. Luce’s ship was in relatively in good shape, and he hoped to save Monmouth. At 10:15, Luce signaled by Morse lamp, “Are you alright?” The reply was, I want to get stern to sea. I am taking water badly forward.” Luce signaled, “Can you steer north-west? The enemies are following us astern.” There was no answer.

“It was obvious,” wrote one of Glasgow’s officers, “that the Monmouth could neither fight nor fly. She was badly down by the bows, listing to port with the glow of her ignited interior brightening the portholes below her quarterdeck. It was essential that there should be a survivor of the action to turn Canopus which was hurrying at her best speed to join us and, if surprised alone must share the fate of the other ships. Monmouth was therefore reluctantly left to her fate, and when last seen was bravely facing the oncoming enemy. Glasgow increased to full speed and soon left the enemy astern, losing sight of them about 2050.”

In his heart, Luce wanted to stay by Monmouth, but one of his officers pointed out that the enemy was jamming his wireless signals and therefore he could not warn Canopus. It was therefore necessary to leave the stricken cruiser and save the pre-dreadnought. “It was an awful affair to leave the Monmouth, but I don’t see what else the skipper could have done,” concluded the gunnery officer. Glasgow and Otranto fled the scene.

The Disastrous Fate of the Monmouth

Meanwhile, Spee took stock of the situation. He had lost contact with the enemy at 10 o’clock. He did not know that Good Hope had foundered. He signaled his light cruisers: “Both British cruisers severely damaged. One light cruiser apparently was fairly intact. Chase enemy and attack with torpedoes.”

Earlier, Nürnberg had sighted smoke. It was from Glasgow. The German warship chased her, but she disappeared over the horizon. Nürnberg continued her search while sailors began throwing empty cartridge cases overboard. They saw debris, possibly from Good Hope, but thought it was their own cases. They did not report the evidence. Thus, Spee did not know of the British flagship’s demise and attempted no rescue.

Captain Karl von Schonberg of Nürnberg saw a vessel in the darkness but refrained from firing on her. There was the distinct possibility that she might be German. He challenged her but received no answer. In the moonlight, the German captain then realized it was the enemy. One of Spee’s sons, Otto, an officer on Nürnberg, reported: “She [Monmouth] had a list of about ten degrees to the port. As we came nearer she heeled still more, so that she could no longer use her guns on the side turned towards us.”

Schonberg waited to give the enemy a chance to surrender, but her flag was still flying. So reluctantly he opened fire on her. “We opened fire at short range,” wrote Otto von Spee. “It was terrible to have to fire on poor fellows who were no longer able to defend themselves. But their colors were still flying and when we ceased fire for several minutes they did not haul them down. So we ran up for a fresh attack and caused [Monmouth] to capsize by our gunfire.”

Nürnberg continued to fire on the dying Monmouth. The British cruiser rolled over on her side and capsized. At 8:58 pm, the sea closed over her.

Monmouth sank with her flag still flying. Schonberg could not attempt a rescue since the sea was rough and new smoke was seen. He thought it was the enemy, but after steering toward it he realized that it was from the other German warships. By then it was too late for Monmouth. There were no survivors from the doomed heavy cruiser.

“Better to Have Fought and Lost Than Not to Have Fought at All”

The Battle of Coronel was over. The British had lost two heavy cruisers and 1,600 men, while the Germans did not lose a single ship and had only a few men wounded. It was the first British naval defeat since the War of 1812. A German historian boasted: “The Battle of Coronel will ever be memorable in the annals of our Navy. On that day von Spee’s name was enrolled in the list of German heroes. He had materially dimmed the glory of England’s mastery of the sea.”

In Great Britain, there was muted criticism of Cradock. Admiral David Beatty wrote his wife: “He was a gallant fellow, and I am sure put up a gallant fight, but nowadays no amount of dash and gallantry will counterbalance great superiority unless they are commanded by fools. He has paid the penalty, but doubtless it was better to have fought and lost than not to have fought at all.”

It was said that the presence of Canopus might have made a difference. Her 12-inch guns would have added more firepower. But she was too slow to keep up with Cradock. Also the range of Canopus’s guns was more apparent than real. One gunnery officer stated under good conditions the range was only 9,000 yards. The conditions at Coronel allowed only a 4,000-yard range.

Perhaps Cradock’s biggest mistake was taking along Otranto. Saddled with her slow speed, the admiral was unable to cross the German “T.” But the main criticism was directed at the Admiralty for not giving Cradock sufficient force to fight Spee. As Beatty said: “Kit Cradock has gone at Coronel. His death and the loss of the ships and the gallant lives in them can be lid to the door of the incompetency of the Admiralty.”

Spee’s Ultimate Defeat in the Falklands

The Admiralty was determined to make up for the mistake, sending the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, under the command of Vice Admiral Frederick Doveton Sturdee, to join the South Atlantic squadron. They arrived at the Falkland Islands on December 7 and began coaling. The next day, Spee arrived at the islands to attack, commencing the Battle of the Falklands.

This time the British had superiority of speed and firepower. Spee tried to escape but quickly realized that the British would overtake him. He ordered his light cruisers to scatter while he and his heavy cruisers engaged the British battlecruisers, armed with 12-inch guns. For over three hours, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau exchanged shots with the two British battlecruisers. In the end, both German heavy cruisers were sunk. Scharnhorst went down with her entire crew, including Spee. Gneisenau had only 187 survivors.

Sturdee’s light cruisers chased Spee’s light cruisers. Leipzig and Nürnberg were sunk with great loss of life. Dresden managed to escape. In March of the following year, Dresden was cornered and scuttled by her crew. In November 1914, a few days after Coronel, Emden was caught off Direction Island and sunk by the Australian cruiser Sydney.

Back home in Great Britain, Cradock was regarded as a hero by the rank and file. He had fought bravely against hopeless odds and gone down with his ship. For a seagoing people with a proud naval tradition, that was the ultimate sacrifice.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons