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Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914

Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914

Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914

The Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914, saw the defeat of a squadron of German cruisers under Admiral Maximilian von Spee. On 1 November von Spee’s squadron of five modern cruisers had defeated a small British squadron under Admiral Christopher Cradock, at the Battle of Coronel, sinking two British cruisers with the loss of all hands.

The defeat had caused outrage in Britain. The new First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, responded by reinforcing British naval squadrons around the Atlantic, while the Japanese navy moved ships across the Pacific to prevent von Spee from escaping back into the Pacific.

Before the victory at Coronel von Spee had decided to move his squadron from the Pacific to the South Atlantic. After the battle he stuck to that plan, and by the start of December was in the Atlantic. Once there, he decided to attack the British coaling station on the Falkland Islands.

This was a serious error of judgement. The inevitable British response to the defeat at Coronel saw the formation of a new South American Squadron to replace the one lost at Coronel. Commanded by Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, this new squadron was built around two battle-cruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. Sturdee also had three armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and the Canopus, an elderly battleship that had been too slow take part in the disastrous expedition to Coronel. The two battle-cruisers were a match for the German squadron, faster and with 12-inch guns (compared to von Spee’s 8-inch guns). The battle-cruisers gained a bad reputation later in the war in clashes against German dreadnaughts, where their lack of armour left then vulnerable, but they were ideal for use against von Spee’s cruisers.

On 8 December von Spee approached the Falklands and discovered the British squadron. A long chase followed, but in the early afternoon Sturdee’s battle-cruisers had caught up with von Spee’s fleet. In an attempt to win time for the rest of his ships to escape, von Spee decided to fight with his two biggest ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. Inevitably the two German cruisers were sunk, with heavy losses. Of his remaining three ships, the Nürnberg and Leipzig were caught and sunk by Studee’s cruisers. Only the Dresden escaped, remaining at large until March 1915.

The battle of the Falklands and the destruction of the Dresden ended the German presence on the high seas. A number of armed merchantmen would slip through the Allied blockade but the main German naval threat outside the north sea would come from the U-boats.

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Spee was en route to destroy the British coaling and communication facilities at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. Unbeknown to him, a British squadron commanded by Vice Admiral F. D. Sturdee had arrived two days earlier and was lying in wait for him.

Spee sighted the British at Port Stanley and ordered his ships to withdraw. Sturdee’s battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible gave chase, supported by armoured cruisers. Spee also found himself under fire from the ageing British battleship Canopus, that had been beached in the harbour to provide a steady gun platform.

‘Invincible and Inflexible steaming out of Port Stanley in Chase’: the start of the Battle of the Falkland Islands, 8 December 1914.


Last week, marine archeologists announced finding the wreckage of the German battlecruiser SMS Scharnhorst, off the Falkland Islands. The Scharnhorst, along with most of the German East Asia Squadron, was sunk by the Royal Navy 105 years ago on this day, December 8, 1914, in the Battle of the Falklands. How and why the Battle of the Falklands came to be fought remains something of a mystery.

Toward the end of 1914, the Imperial German Navy’s East Asia Squadron, under the command of Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, was fighting its way home. On November 1, the German squadron has easily defeated two obsolete British cruisers killing 1,600 British seamen, off the coast of central Chile near the city of Coronel. Spee then refueled his ships and rounded Cape Horn. Before setting a course for Europe, however, Spee decided to attack the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. He believed the base was undefended. He was wrong. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

The East Asia Squadron was made up of two armored cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, and three auxiliaries. When Spee steamed into Stanley, he discovered a larger Royal Navy squadron waiting for him. The British squadron, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, consisted of the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible, the armored cruisers HMS Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Macedonia and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow.

Spee and the East Asia Squadron were outnumbered and outgunned. When the Germans turned to flee, they were also outrun by the faster Royal Navy ships. The battle was a rout. The Germans lost both armored cruisers, and two of the three light cruisers. Two d the auxiliaries were also captured and scuttled. Where the British had 10 killed with 19 wounded, the Germans lost 1,871 including Admiral Spee and his two sons. An additional 215 German sailors were captured.

How and why the Battle of the Falklands was fought is something of a mystery. Why did Spee choose to attack Stanley? Why did he think that it was undefended? How did the British know when and where Spee would arrive?

After the battle, German naval experts were baffled at why Admiral Spee attacked the base and how the two squadrons could have met so coincidentally in so many thousands of miles of open waters. Kaiser William II’s handwritten note on the official report of the battle reads: “It remains a mystery what made Spee attack the Falkland Islands.

It was generally concluded that the German admiralty passed inaccurate information to Spee from the German wireless station at Valparaiso which reported the port free of Royal Navy warships.

In 1925, a German naval officer and spy, Franz von Rintelen, interviewed Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division, and was informed that Spee’s squadron had been lured towards the British battlecruisers by means of a fake signal sent in a German naval code broken by British cryptographers.

If that was the case it foreshadowed the breaking of the Japanese naval code in 1942, which contributed significantly to the American victory.

There are many skeptics of von Rintelen’s account, however. BritishBattles.com notes: The problems with [von Rintelen’s] claim are numerous: Why did the Admiralty not inform Sturdee of this ruse as it could only work if his ships were in the Falklands when von Spee arrived? There was very limited direct radio communication, if any, between London and its own ships let alone with von Spee. There is no indication from the conduct of operations in the Pacific and Atlantic that the British Admiralty had access to German naval codes. It seems inconceivable that a British admiral would discuss secret naval matters with anyone, let alone a notorious German saboteur like von Rintelen, whom the British would have shot if they could have laid their hands on him.

We may never know whether Spee was lured to the Falklands by a fake coded message, inaccurate information or just poor judgment and supremely back luck.

In 1936, the German Kriegsmarine commissioned a heavy pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, named in honor of the admiral lost in the Battle of the Falklands. In the first naval battle of World War II, the Admiral Graf Spee was trapped in the River Plate by a superior British naval force and was scuttled.

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The Mystery of The Battle of the Falklands, 12/8/1914 — 5 Comments

In his essay at the Wavell Room, Reflections on the Battle of Jutland, https://wavellroom.com/2019/11/28/reflections-battle-jutland-broad-questions-from-a-narrow-selection-of-the-secondary-literature/, Ralph Hitchens wrote recently that, “by the spring of 1916 the Royal Navy was reading the verbatim text of German naval wireless traffic.” He does not offer to prove this, but it seems to be widely agreed. That the Admiralty withheld Hipper’s escape route from Jellicoe for reasons of OPSEC suggests a plausible explanation for why the Admiralty kept in the dark about Von Spee’s approach to the Falklands.

Correction. The last line of my previous comment ought to name Sturdee as kept in the dark by the Admiralty.

In background for his book, Bodyguard of Lies, Anthony Cave Brown goes through a whole litany of reasons British intel didn’t share what they knew mostly to avoid leaks that they had broken the Germans naval code. While he does not mention the Falklands specifically, he does consider the WWI code breaking a key to the later successes in WWII. Morison calls it the second biggest mistake in naval history because Admiral Spee had no reason to go near the Falklands on his way home. Not really sure what Morison considered the first biggest mistake?

Trying to read the tea leaves of history can be fascinating. A good argument can be made for believing that Spee was tricked into attacking the Falklands. On the other hand, Spee appeared to be acting opportunistically and had just won battles at Papeete and Coronel. He could have simply blundered into an attack on the Falklands wanting to add another victory on his way home.

In his book, Castles of Steel, Massie claims that the Royal Navy had a pretty good handle on the WW 1 German Navy code. He claimed it was a failure to pass on to Jellicoe and Beatty critical German ship movement information that led to the Royal Navy’s failure to meet the German as a combined force.


Battle of the Falkland Islands

War: The First World War also known as ‘The Great War’.

Contestants at the Battle of the Falkland Islands: A British Royal Navy squadron against a German Imperial Navy squadron.

Admirals at the Battle of the Falkland Islands: The British Royal Navy Squadron was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee. The German squadron was commanded by Vice Admiral Reichsgraf Maximilian von Spee.

Ships involved in the Battle of the Falkland Islands:
The Royal Navy:
HMS Invincible:
Battle Cruiser – completed in 1908 – 17,250 tons – armament 8 X 12 inch and 16 X 4 inch guns – maximum speed 28.6 knots – crew: Captain Beamish and 1,031 all ranks.

HMS Invincible, the British flagship at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914

HMS Inflexible: Battle Cruiser – completed in 1908 – 17,250 tons – armament 8 X 12 inch and 16 X 4 inch guns – maximum speed 28.4 knots – crew: c. Captain Phillimore and 1,000 all ranks.

HMS Inflexible, the second British battle cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Montague Dawson

>HMS Kent: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser – completed in 1901 – 9,800 tons – main armament 14 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 22 knots – crew: Captain Allen and 678 all ranks.

HMS Kent, British light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Cornwall: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser – completed in 1903 – 9,800 tons – main armament 4 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 24 knots – crew: Captain Ellerton and 677 all ranks.

HMS Cornwall, British light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Carnarvon: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser – completed in 1903 – 9,800 tons – main armament 4 X 7.5 inch and 6 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 22.1 knots – crew: Captain Skipworth and 609 all ranks.

HMS Carnarvon, British light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Glasgow: Light Cruiser – completed in 1911 – 4,800 tons – main armament 2 X 6 inch and 10 X 4 inch guns – maximum speed 25.8 knots – crew: Captain Luce and 410 all ranks.

HMS Glasgow, British light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Bristol: Light Cruiser – completed in 1911 – 4,800 tons – main armament 2 X 6 inch and 10 X 4 inch guns – maximum speed 26.8 knots – crew: Captain Fanshawe and 410 all ranks.

HMS Bristol, British light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Macedonia: auxiliary cruiser (ex – civilian ship) – 12,100 tons – main armament 8 X 4.7 inch guns: maximum speed 18 knots – crew: Captain Evans and 370 all ranks(crew as a merchant ship).

Macedonia as a civilian liner. Macedonia was a British auxiliary cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

HMS Canopus: obsolescent Battleship – completed in 1897 – 12,950 tons – main armament 4 X 12 inch and 12 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 16.5 knots. Captain Grant and 750 all ranks.

HMS Canopus, British battleship beached in Port Stanley during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

The German Imperial Navy:

Admiral Graf von Spee’s squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: SMS Nürnberg, Dresden, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Leipzig

SMS Scharnhorst: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser – completed in 1907 – 11,600 tons – main armament 8 X 8.2 inch and 6 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 21 knots – crew: 52 officers and 788 non-commissioned ranks (including the admiral’s staff).

SMS Scharnhorst, the German flagship at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Gneisenau: Armoured (Heavy) Cruiser – completed in 1907 – 11,600 tons – main armament 8 X 8.2 inch and 6 X 6 inch guns – maximum speed 24.8 knots – crew: 38 officers and 726 non-commissioned ranks.

SMS Gneisenau, the second German armoured cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Dresden: Light Cruiser – completed in 1909 – 3,600 tons – main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns – maximum speed 24 knots (this was the theoretical maximum, but Dresden seems to have been able to reach 27 knots) – crew: Kapitän zur See Lüdecke 18 officers and 343 non-commissioned ranks.

SMS Dresden, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Nürnberg: Light Cruiser – completed in 1908 – 3,600 tons – main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns – maximum speed 22.5 knots – crew: 14 officers and 308 non-commissioned ranks.

SMS Nürnberg, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Leipzig: Light Cruiser – completed in 1906 – 3,250 tons – main armament 10 X 4.1 inch guns – maximum speed 24 knots – crew: 14 officers and 280 non-commissioned ranks.

SMS Leipzig, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

All the above ships except Macedonia carried smaller guns, machine guns and torpedo tubes.

Seydlitz: hospital ship

Baden and Santa Isabel: colliers

Winner of the Battle of the Falkland Islands: The British squadron sank all the German ships other than the light cruiser Dresden and the hospital ship Seydlitz, which escaped. Dresden was tracked down by British cruisers Glasgow and Kent at the Chilean island of Mas-a-fuera and attacked on 14th March 1915. The Dresden’s captain scuttled his ship and the crew were interned.

Background to the Battle of the Falkland Islands:
The British admiralty heard of the destruction of Admiral Cradock’s squadron by the German squadron commanded by Admiral Graf von Spee at the Battle of Coronel on 1st November 1914 from a communiqué issued by the German Imperial Navy. Initially the news was discounted, as it made no mention of the battleship HMS Canopus, the ship that was intended to give Cradock a significant advantage in firepower over von Spee’s squadron.

Admiral Graf von Spee in Valparaiso after the Battle of Coronel

Finally convinced by other reports of the loss of Cradock’s ships, the Admiralty faced a major crisis. Canopus and Cradock’s surviving light cruiser Glasgow were hurrying back towards the Falkland Islands, leaving no obstacle to von Spee escaping into the South Atlantic, where he could disrupt any of the important allied operations around the African coast.

Sir Julian Corbett in his Naval Operations states that the consequences of Coronel were felt in every naval theatre around the globe.

Rear Admiral Stoddart, British second in command at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

The Admiralty ordered Admiral Stoddart to concentrate at Monte Video his armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon and Cornwall and the armoured cruiser HMS Defence, on her way from the Mediterranean to join Cradock. Canopus, Glasgow and Otranto, returning from the Coronel battle, were ordered to join Stoddart, as was the armoured cruiser HMS Kent from the East Atlantic.

A force of British, Japanese and Canadian ships was ready to deal with von Spee if he went north to the Canadian shore.

It was expected that, following his spectacular success at Coronel, von Spee would sail around the Horn and capture the Falkland Islands, temporarily defenceless.

Admiral Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, was ordered to detach the battle cruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible from his 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron for service in the South Atlantic.

HMS Invincible, the British flagship at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914, at Spithead in 1910

Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, the Chief of War Staff at the Admiralty, took over command of these two powerful and fast battle cruisers, with the appointment of Commander – in – Chief in the South Atlantic and Pacific. In addition, if his duties took him to any part of the North Atlantic or the Caribbean, that area would come under his command. This was an unprecedented appointment and reflected the seriousness of the crisis.

HMS Invincible and Inflexible:
Invincible was the lead ship of Britain’s three oldest battle cruisers. Equipped with 8 X 12 inch guns the ‘Invincibles’ were provided with no secondary armament, a controversial move. Due to continuing difficulty with her electrically driven turrets, Invincible was taken out of commission in early 1914 for a refit. The refit was not complete when the Royal Navy mobilised on 1st August 1914 and did not finish until 12th August. Invincible was re-commissioned on 2nd August 1914 with a new crew comprising RN, RNR and RNVR officers and non-commissioned ranks. Invincible was present at the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August.

HMS Invincible and Inflexible leaving Stanley Harbour at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

On the outbreak of the Great War, Inflexible was the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. She saw action in the pursuit of the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau before returning to Britain on 15th August 1914. She remained crewed substantially by Royal Navy personnel.

Admiral von Spee’s squadron comprised ships stationed in the Pacific for a number of years before the war broke out. Their crews were almost entirely regular German naval personnel. Spee’s two armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were particularly efficient ships, each having won shooting awards several times. Von Spee’s ships had been at sea for several months under active service conditions and were all in need of refit.

At midnight on 5th November 1914 HMS Invincible and Inflexible left Cromarty on the north-east coast of Scotland for Devonport, Plymouth, which they reached on 8th November. In spite of a need for repairs to Invincible the two battle cruisers sailed for the South Atlantic on 11th November 1914.

Sturdee was ordered to sail to the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa, and then to the Abrolhos Rocks rendezvous off the coast of Brazil, where he would meet Stoddart’s ships. On the way Sturdee was to collect the cruiser HMS Bristol and the auxiliary cruiser Macedonia, to strengthen the light cruiser element of his squadron.

On 8th November 1914 the surviving ships from Cradock’s squadron, HMS Canopus and Glasgow with the colliers, arrived in the Falkland Islands and refuelled, while Otranto went straight to join Stoddart, the other ships following on.

Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Justin (front left) with other crew from HMS Canopus 1914

On 12th November 1914 a further battle cruiser HMS Princess Royal was detached from the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow to join Admiral Hornby, watching the German civilian ships in New York harbour, any one of which, it was feared, was designated an auxiliary naval cruiser.

Information to the Admiralty now suggested, correctly, that von Spee’s squadron was at Mas-a-fuera, an island off the Chilean coast and not, as feared, heading for the South Atlantic.

Instead of hunting von Spee’s ships in the Atlantic it now appeared that Sturdee would have to take his ships into the South Pacific and seek him there. Canopus was ordered to return to the Falklands and prepare to defend the harbour.

On 11th October 1914 HMS Glasgow joined Admiral Stoddart’s squadron which then moved northwards towards the Abrolhos Rocks rendezvous.

Stoddart did not hear of the despatch of HMS Inflexible and Invincible under Admiral Sturdee to the South Atlantic until 11th November 1914, the day he reached the Abrolhos Rocks. He there had three armoured cruisers, HMS Edinburgh Castle, Kent and Defence. HMS Bristol and Macedonia were searching for SMS Karlsruhe and HMS Glasgow was at Rio de Janeiro for repairs to her damage from the Coronel battle.

Admiral von Spee’s movements:
After the Battle of Coronel von Spee called at Valparaiso and, after the permitted 24 hour stay in a neutral port, sailed for the island of Mas-a-fuera off the Chilean coast, appointed as the rendezvous for the rest of his squadron.

SMS Scharnhorst, the German flagship at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Von Spee reached Mas-a-fuera to find the light cruiser SMS Leipzig already there with the colliers Amasis and Santa Isabel and a captured vessel. Baden arrived the next day with a further prize. The prizes were carrying coal which von Spee appropriated for his warships.

Admiral von Spee’s squadron leaving Valparaiso on 3rd November 1914: Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

On 8th November the cruisers Prinz Eitel Friedrich and SMS Dresden arrived with another prize also carrying coal.

Von Spee spent a considerable time assimilating these cargos of coal into his ships. He seems to have delayed his departure further in view of reports of German battle cruisers breaking out of the North Sea to join him (SMS Seydlitz, Moltke and possibly Von der Tann). The breakout did not take place.

On 15th November von Spee sailed south to the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America, meeting the Leipzig and Dresden on the way with a further captured collier.

On 21st November 1914 von Spee reached St Quentin bay, on the Chilean coast some 500 miles short of Cape Horn, where he met three large German ships carrying coal and provisions. One of these, the Luxor, had evaded the Chilean authorities in leaving Coronel. Information on these ships reached the British admiralty and confirmed that von Spee was moving south to round Cape Horn into the South Atlantic. Von Spee’s delay would give Sturdee time to be ready to receive him.

Admiral von Spee’s squadron in line ahead off Chile in late November 1914: SMS Scharnhorst (the most distant ship), SMS Gneisenau, SMS Leipzig, SMS Nürnberg and SMS Dresden (in the foreground): Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Now that von Spee’s intention was clear the British Admiralty made some re-arrangements in ship deployments. This involved the return of capital ships from Africa to the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow and the posting of HMS Defence to Africa, once Sturdee’s battle cruisers were off the coast of Brazil.

Sturdee was ordered on arrival off the Brazilian coast to steam south with Stoddart’s and his own squadrons and round the Cape into the South Pacific. This order seems to be inconsistent with the Admiralty’s belief that von Spee was about to enter the Atlantic.

Sturdee received his orders when he arrived at Abrolhos Rocks and joined Stoddart on 26th November 1914. HMS Defence handed to Invincible her Poulsen Wireless gear which enabled radio contact to be maintained with London, via a similar equipped ship, Vindictive at Ascension Island, overcoming the handicap suffered in attempting to communicate with Cradock before Coronel.

Sturdee sent the three fastest colliers on to the Falkland Islands, while he coaled his ships and made his way south with the other colliers.

On the day Sturdee reached Abrolhos, 26th November 1914, von Spee left St Quentin Bay and headed south with Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg, the hospital ship Seydlitz and the two colliers, Baden and Santa Isabel. Prinz Eitel Friedrich was detached to raid on her own in the Pacific.

On 25th November HMS Canopus in the Falkland Islands received information from a passing ship that von Spee had rounded Cape Horn on 25th November, but she was unable to pass this information to Sturdee.

HMS Canopus in Port Stanley: Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

A number of misleading reports caused Sturdee to search the coast of Brazil, until HMS Bristol rejoined with information from the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro that Sturdee had been misled. Abandoning the search Sturdee headed south with his squadron. On 3rd December 1914 Macedonia joined the squadron from Sierra Leone as it coaled in the River Plate.

On 4th December Sturdee received a message from the British Consul-General in Valparaiso that the Prinz Eitel Friedrich had been sighted off the port that morning. Sturdee’s conclusion was that von Spee’s whole squadron must be in the same place. Sturdee continued south with the intention of rounding Cape Horn and pursuing von Spee into the Pacific.

Von Spee in fact rounded the Horn on the night of 1st/2nd December 1914. He there captured a British four-masted barque, the Drummuir, loaded with anthracite coal for San Francisco. Von Spee took the Drummuir to Picton Island at the eastern end of the Beagle Channel, just north of Cape Horn, and spent three days unloading the anthracite into his ships, before sinking the Drummuir. He resumed his journey to the Falkland Islands on 6th December 1914.

Crew of HMS Kent on deck before the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Without the delay in unloading Drummuir von Spee’s squadron would have arrived in the Falkland Islands on 4th December. According to a German survivor a Dutch ship passing Picton Island informed von Spee that there was a British squadron in Port Stanley coaling. Von Spee calculated that the squadron must comprise the battleship Canopus, Carnarvon with, possibly, Defence, Cornwall and Glasgow. It seems that von Spee intended to lure these ships out to sea and sink them before wrecking the facilities at Port Stanley including the radio station and coaling facilities.

If von Spee was given this information it is surprising that he carried on with the plan to attack the Falkland Islands. He must have known that Canopus carried 12 inch guns which, although old, would outrange his own guns and could at the least inflict severe damage on his ships.

In fact the only British warship in the Falklands when von Spee rounded Cape Horn was HMS Canopus. Since its arrival on 12th November 1914 Canopus’ commander Captain Grant had been preparing defences for the islands. Canopus was lodged on the mud at the entrance to the inner harbour to ensure a firm gun platform, the harbour entrance had been mined and three shore batteries put in place with an observation tower to control their fire. Considerably delayed by the appalling weather, the work was completed on 4th December 1914.

Account of the Battle of the Falklands Islands:

The Falkland Islands and the crew of HMS Canopus were expecting their first visitors to be the German squadron. Unexpectedly on Monday 7th December the first arrivals were Admiral Sturdee’s ships.

All Sturdee’s ships anchored in the outer harbour, Port William, except for Bristol and Glasgow which went into the inner harbour, Port Stanley. Macedonia received the duty of patrolling 10 miles out to sea during the night. Inflexible was the first guardship followed by Kent.

Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, in 1914: Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Sturdee intended to coal his squadron and leave on Wednesday 9th December, heading south-west to Cape Horn.

The order he set for coaling was Carnarvon, Bristol and Glasgow to coal first then Invincible and Inflexible, with Kent and Cornwall coaling last. In addition Bristol needed repairs to her engines. All ships were to keep up steam to enable them to achieve 12 knots at 2 hours notice, with the allocated guardship ready for 14 knots at 30 minutes notice. Bristol was permitted to run her fires down to enable the repairs to be carried out.

Early on Tuesday 8th December Carnarvon and Bristol coaled, although Bristol’s coaling was delayed due to the deterioration in her collier’s coal, leading to a spin-off delay for the other ships. Inflexible began coaling. Neither Cornwall, Kent nor Macedonia had begun coaling.

The Battle:
At 7.50am the observation tower established by Canopus reported that two strange warships were approaching from the south. It was apparent that they must be ships from von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron. Sturdee’s ships had been taken by surprise.

Von Spee is reported to have been reluctant to approach the Falkland Islands and was persuaded to make the raid, primarily aimed at the Falklands radio station, by the captain of the Gneisenau. Von Spee sent Gneisenau and Nürnberg ahead of the squadron to reconnoitre the Falklands and destroy the radio station with gunfire so that no warning could be passed on of their approach.

SMS Scharnhorst at sea: Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

The British ships were busy coaling and preparing to leave that evening and so many false reports on the position of the German warships were circulating that little notice was taken of the warning. Glasgow received the message and fired a gun to attract the attention of the other ships. It was not for some twenty minutes that the British ships began to respond to the threat.

It was fortunate that Admiral Sturdee had required his ships to be at 2 hours notice of sailing. After the long journey from the Brazilian coast they might well have been permitted to shut their boilers down completely for repairs and maintenance work.

HMS Kent, Glasgow and Inflexible leaving Port Stanley in pursuit of the German squadron: photograph taken by Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN from HMS Invincible at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

At 8.30am ‘Action’ was sounded off and Sturdee’s squadron prepared to get under way, other than Bristol which could not be ready to move until 11am. Kent was due to take over as guard ship and was able to move off straight away with orders to join Macedonia at sea.

At around this time the signal station reported more smoke to the south-west, the rest of von Spee’s squadron. Macedonia was ordered back into harbour, being insufficiently armed for a sea battle with German warships.

Gneisenau and Nürnberg headed for the radio station near Hooker Point. Canopus at 9am requested permission to open fire, having her gunnery control officer in a hut on high ground ashore. HMS Carnarvon was now under way and heading for the open sea.

HMS Canopus opens fire at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

As Canopus opened fire the two German ships hoisted their ensigns and turned away to the south-east quickly, putting themselves out of range of Canopus’ guns. They then turned towards Kent, causing Sturdee to order Kent to return to harbour.

Shells fired by HMS Canopus splashing around SMS Gneisenau and SMS Nürnberg at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

County flag of Kent hoisted on HMS Kent at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands 8th December 1914 in the First World War

The captains and crew on Gneisenau and Nürnberg saw the clouds of black smoke rising from Port Stanley harbour, as the British ships hurriedly fired up their boilers, indicating a substantial warship presence, and they possibly identified the tripod masts characteristic of British battle cruisers. In the face of such overwhelming British naval strength the two German ships turned and made off at high speed towards Scharnhorst and the rest of the squadron.

By 9.45am all the British warships, other than Bristol, had steam up. Glasgow was ordered to join Kent. Admiral Stoddart in Carnarvon took charge of the guard ships outside the harbour.

At 10am the main body of the British squadron weighed anchor and headed out of the harbour, Inflexible leading Invincible and Cornwall. Glasgow reported the German ships to be heading south-east, apparently at full speed. Glasgow and Kent set off in pursuit.

Opening stage of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War, as the British ships leave Port Stanley in pursuit of the German squadron. The action is foreshortened the German ships in the distance far right Invincible and Inflexible centre Glasgow left and Cornwall centre left

The weather now cleared and visibility over a calm blue sea was complete. As the British ships left harbour the rising smoke smudges on the horizon showed the positions of the five German warships. Von Spee joined Gneisenau and Nürnberg and the whole squadron was making off to the south-east, now fifteen miles away.

Photograph taken from the masthead of HMS Invincible by Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN as the chase began in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War. The smoke from the German ships can be seen on the horizon

Admiral Sturdee signalled ‘General Chase’, the dramatic signal that gives a complete discretion to each captain to do whatever he considers necessary to catch the German ships.

Commander Townsend second in command of HMS Invincible at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

A major feature of the coal powered warships of the period was the amount of black smoke the enormous boilers produced. The greater the acceleration of the ship the more smoke she gave out of her funnels. The two battle cruisers were capable of 28 knots, at which speed clouds of black smoke surrounded each ship and any other ship following.

By 11am Admiral Sturdee could no longer see the German ships, due to the amount of smoke belching out of the funnels of Invincible and Inflexible. Glasgow, leading the chase, signalled that the German squadron was now 12 miles away. The British ships were fast catching up. Sturdee ordered a reduction of speed to 24 knots to reduce the smoke cloud and to enable the other cruisers to catch up. Glasgow was ordered to remain 3 miles ahead to keep watch on the pursued ships well clear of the smoke cloud.

While 24 knots was a reduction in speed for Invincible and Inflexible, it was the maximum speed or even too fast for the British light cruisers and significantly faster than the speed the German ships could maintain, particularly after months at sea with only running repairs to their machinery.

The essence of the order ‘General Chase’ was to give complete discretion to individual captains. As soon as Admiral Sturdee gave orders on speed and station ‘General Chase’ was automatically rescinded.

HMS Inflexible and Invincible seen from HMS Kent during the pursuit of the German squadron in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Carnarvon and Cornwall were lagging behind by some five miles, in spite of the reduction in speed (the best they could do was Carnarvon 20 knots and Cornwall 22 knots). Soon after 11am Sturdee ordered a further reduction for the two battle cruisers and HMS Glasgow to 19 knots. Glasgow signalled that the German squadron was doing only 15 knots and this enabled Sturdee to close up his ships while comfortably overtaking von Spee. The German ships were now well in sight with their upper works visible on the horizon. At around 11.30am Sturdee ordered a speed of 20 knots.

Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee RN, British commander at the Battle of the Falkland Islands 8th December 1914 in the First World War

In Port Stanley the engine room staff of HMS Bristol managed to get her boilers fired up and she was under way. Bristol signalled the flag that two ladies on land reported spotting three further ships, which turned out to be von Spee’s hospital ship and colliers. Sturdee ordered Captain Fanshawe of Bristol to take Macedonia and destroy the colliers.

With some time to go before the German squadron came in range, at 11.30am Sturdee ordered his ships’ companies be dismissed below to change from their coaling rig and have a meal.

With the German squadron at such a distance it was not possible to determine its exact course. The British ships were sailing on a roughly parallel course heading east. At 11.15am Glasgow signalled that the Germans were altering to starboard. Sturdee turned to east by south, continuing on a parallel course. 5 minutes later Sturdee turned a further 2 points to south-east by east, a course converging with the German squadron.

Carnarvon was only making 18 knots not the 20 she claimed to be capable of so that she and Cornwall were still falling back, now being 6 miles in the rear.

At 12.20pm the Germans again turned to starboard and it became apparent that they were breaking up the close formation they had maintained during the chase. They were heading south- east and were becoming covered by their own smoke.

Sturdee decided to attack. The two British battle cruisers opened up the distance between them and increased speed to 25 knots, quickly catching up with Glasgow. Sturdee issued the order to engage.

SMS Leipzig was the slowest of the German ships and was in the rear of von Spee’s squadron. At 16,000 yards (9 miles) Inflexible opened fire on Leipzig, quickly joined by Invincible. The two battle cruisers turned 2 points to starboard in order to close and increased to full speed. Shells were landing around the Leipzig so that she was several times concealed by shell splashes.

HMS Invincible and Inflexible open fire on von Spee’s squadron during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

Seeing that it was a matter of time before his light cruisers were overwhelmed by the British battle cruisers, von Spee at 1.20pm ordered those ships to scatter and head for the South American coast, there to resume their role of sinking Allied commercial shipping, whilst Scharnhorst and Gneisenau turned into line ahead to the north-east to give battle to the British squadron.

HMS Invincible under way and giving off clouds of black smoke at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

The three German light cruisers turned to starboard and headed off to the South. Sturdee’s plans provided for this eventuality. The British cruisers pursued their German opposite numbers, while Invincible and Inflexible dealt with the two German armoured cruisers.

Map of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: map by John Fawkes

Kent, Cornwall and Glasgow turned to starboard to cut the corner in pursuit of Dresden, Nürnberg and Leipzig.

The two battle cruisers turned 7 points to port into line ahead on the beam of von Spee’s two armoured cruisers and did so before the Germans completed their turn.

At 1.20pm the British ships opened fire, Invincible on Gneisenau and Inflexible on Scharnhorst. Gneisenau, the faster of the two German armoured cruisers, had been in the van during the chase. She slowed to permit Scharnhorst to take the lead and open fire. But at 14,000 yards (8 miles) the range was too great for the German guns, their shells falling 1,000 yards short.

HMS Inflexible opens fire on SMS Gneisenau during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the FirstWorld War: photograph taken by Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN from HMS Invincible. Smoke from HMS Invincible can be seen at the top of the photograph

Von Spee altered his course towards the British, the range quickly falling, and at 13,000 yards (7.5 miles) he turned back so that the Germans were on a course parallel to the British ships. The two German ships opened fire. A shell fired at its extreme range hit Invincible remarkable shooting.

At 1.44pm Sturdee altered course to port to take his ships out of range of the German guns on a course parallel with von Spee.

The German ships were firing with restraint, their ammunition supply being unreplenished since the Coronel battle.

Shots fired by SMS Scharnhorst landing in the sea behind HMS Invincible during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: photograph taken by Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN from HMS Invincible

The British battle cruisers were severely hampered by their own smoke, the after turrets on Invincible and all the guns on Inflexible being masked by the dense black clouds. Consequently no hits were now being scored by either side.

By 2pm the range between the British and German ships opened to more than 16,000 yards (9 miles) and both sides ceased firing.

SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau engaged by HMS Invincible and Inflexible during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

At 2.05pm Sturdee turned 8 points to starboard in order to close the range. The change in direction caused the two British battle cruisers to be immersed in the heavy smoke and sight was lost of the two German armoured cruisers.

Once clear of the smoke Sturdee saw that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had turned 10 points to starboard and were heading south after the German light cruisers, already 17,000 yards (9.65 miles) away. Sturdee turned and increased speed, now in a stern chase.

By 2.45pm the British battle cruisers closed the distance on the Germans to 15,000 yards (8.5 miles). Sturdee turned slightly to port to bring his broadside into play and opened fire.

After five minutes von Spee turned 9 points to port into line ahead. Sturdee responded with a 6 point turn to port, bringing the ships broadside to broadside. The German ships opened fire.

The two lines were now on a converging course with the range closing. It seemed that von Spee was intent on bringing his secondary armament into action.

HMS Invincible and Inflexible in action at the beginning of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Eric Tuffnell

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau possessed secondary armaments of 6 inch guns while the secondary armament on Invincible and Inflexible comprised 4 inch guns.

By 2.59pm the range was down to 12,500 yards (7 miles) and the German ships opened fire with their 6 inch guns.

Crew of SMS Nürnberg at Tsing Tao before the Great War

For ten minutes the range remained at this distance and each side scored hits on the other, with the hottest fire of the action, although the heavy smoke from the British ships interfered with the spotting for both sides.

Little damage was being inflicted on the British ships while the German ships were suffering considerable punishment. Scharnhorst was on fire in a number of places, one funnel shot away and her fire slackening, while Gneisenau was beginning to list.

At 3.15pm in order to clear the heavy smoke Sturdee turned his line nearly back on itself through 18 points. He was now to windward and free of the smoke cloud. Both battle cruisers were free to fire on the Germans with a full view of the fall of shot.

SMS Scharnhorst sinking at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Thomas Somerscales

At about 3.20pm as the British ships approached the Germans Sturdee turned 4 points to port, to head across von Spee’s wake. Strikes on the two armoured cruisers continued, Gneisenau’s list was such that her secondary armament was forced to cease firing. Scharnhorst’s was suffering increasing damage.

At 3.30pm, as the two forces were passing each other, von Spee turned 16 points to starboard heading to the north-west and making to cross the bows of the British ships. This enabled Scharnhorst to bring her unengaged broadside into action. But she was in a terrible state.

Assistant Paymaster Gordon Findlay, who served on HMS Invincible from her wartime commissioning on 2nd August 1914 described Scharnhorst: ‘Her upper works seemed to be but a shambles of torn and twisted steel and iron, and through the holes in her side, even at the great distance we were from her, could be seen dull red glows as the flames gained mastery between the decks’ (A Naval Digression by GF).

British postcard of the Battle of the Falklands fought on on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

As the German ships wheeled Sturdee countered with a 2 point turn to port. The range now closed to 12,000 yards (6.8 miles) and was falling. Von Spee was forced to turn away under the heavy fire. Sturdee also turned and quickly was out of range of the German secondary armament.

During these manoeuvres Inflexible took the lead and for the first time was free of the flagship’s smoke. She directed her fire on Scharnhorst as did Invincible. The German flagship was losing speed and the British ships closed in on her.

SMS Gneisenau in action during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

At around 4pm Scharnhorst suddenly ceased firing and lurched to starboard. Inflexible turned back to deal with Gneisenau while Invincible remained with Scharnhorst. Her flag still flying the German flagship turned over. Von Spee’s last signal was to Gneisenau to try and save herself. At 4.17pm Scharnhorst sank. No rescue operation was possible due to the continued action with Gneisenau and all her crew were lost.

Sturdee turned Invincible to starboard to join the attack on Gneisenau, but finding the smoke cloud obscuring his vision of the German ship, turned back to starboard. Now on an opposite course Invincible could see Gneisenau and engaged her at around 11,000 yards (6.25 miles).

Both battle cruisers were now striking Gneisenau. Her number 1 turret was out of action and a stokehold was flooded.

SMS Scharnhorst sinking (foreground) and SMS Gneisenau at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

Invincible circled to escape the ubiquitous smoke and found herself heading west on a course diverging from Gneisenau.

The slow speed of the German ship and the manoeuvring of the battle cruisers enabled Carnarvon to come up and join the attack. Sturdee ordered the other two ships to form line behind Invincible. But again Inflexible found herself unable to shoot at Gneisenau due to the flagship’s smoke and turned to port, acting without orders.

Rescuing the survivors from SMS Gneisenau at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

All three British ships were firing on Gneisenau, Invincible and Carnarvon on her starboard quarter and Inflexible to her rear.

The weather was deteriorating with rain falling and visibility reducing significantly. The German ship was now in a poor way. She had lost a funnel and her speed had fallen to 8 knots. She was on fire fore and aft and had fired away all her 8 inch ammunition.

Battle of the Falkland Islands 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by E.S. Hodgson

At 5.30pm Gneisenau turned towards Invincible and stopped. The two battle cruisers closed in. The German ship was listing heavily to starboard. Her firing was sporadic and then ceased. Sturdee thought she must have struck and ordered the ‘Cease Fire’. Then Gneisenau resumed firing and the British ships fired back.

At about 5.45pm Gneisenau ceased firing again and was seen to be sinking. The British ships closed to around 3,500 yards (2 miles) but before they could approach any further Gneisenau capsized. The remnants of her crew could be seen walking along the keel and then she sank.

The captain opened the sea cocks on Gneisenau, ensuring she sank quickly and took many of the crew with her. The British ships rushed to the area and lowered boats, so that around 200 of her crew were picked up.

HMS Inflexible picking up survivors from SMS Gneisenau at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: photograph taken by Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN from HMS Invincible

Once the action with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was finished Sturdee radioed his cruisers to see how they had fared in their pursuit of the German light cruisers. He received no reply from Kent and Cornwall and eventually a report from Glasgow.

German Light Cruisers:
The three German light cruisers, Dresden, Nürnberg and Leipzig on leaving the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in compliance with Admiral von Spee’s order at 1.25pm headed south. They were around twelve miles ahead of their British pursuers, Glasgow, Kent and Cornwall.

The maximum speeds of the British and German cruisers were: Dresden the fastest with a top speed of 27 knots, Glasgow with 25 knots, Nürnberg with 23.5 knots, Kent, Cornwall and Leipzig with 23 knots.

While these were the official maximum speeds for the class of ship, the German cruisers suffered from a significant disadvantage. Posted to the China station the German ships were inadequately maintained and began the war in a poor state of repair. Since June 1914 von Spee’s ships had been constantly at sea and undergone a major battle. The strain on the machinery and in particular the boilers were now showing with a corresponding loss of efficiency.

The German light cruisers were significantly outgunned by the two British armoured cruisers, Kent and Cornwall with their 6 inch guns against the German 4.1 inch guns. The German ships were low on ammunition, particularly those that had fought at Coronel and been involved in the bombardments in the Pacific.

SMS Nürnberg, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

When the chase of the German light cruisers began at 1.30pm the three ships broadly kept together, Nürnberg in the centre, with Leipzig about a mile on her starboard and Dresden around 4 miles ahead on her port bow.

Glasgow overtook Kent and Cornwall in the pursuit, with Dresden in her sights. Captain Luce in Glasgow then decided that his initial attack should be on Leipzig. Glasgow was some 12,000 yards (6.8 miles) behind Leipzig when she opened fire with her forward 6 inch gun. Leipzig turned to starboard and returned the fire with her broadside. Glasgow turned aside and opened the range, Leipzig turned back and the chase resumed. Glasgow repeated the process and so reduced her distance from Leipzig, while Kent and Cornwall pounded along behind, slowly closing the gap.

Soon after 3.30pm the German light cruisers scattered, Nürnberg turning away to port and Dresden disappearing to the south-west. Kent and Cornwall agreed between them that Kent should take on the Nürnberg, while Cornwall, assisted by Glasgow, dealt with Leipzig.

SMS Leipzig, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

At around 4.30pm the two British armoured cruisers opened fire, but they were just out of range. Nürnberg turned east followed by Kent and Leipzig turned to south-south-east, pursued by Cornwall and engaging Glasgow.

HMS Glasgow opens fire on SMS Leipzig in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Leipzig:
By about 4.45pm Cornwall was straddling Leipzig with her gunfire. Glasgow circled round to join her on Leipzig’s port so that both British ships were firing into the same side of the German ship. Within fifteen minutes Leipzig was badly damaged and her gunnery lieutenant killed, a severe handicap to effective control of her firing.

SMS Leipzig in the Pacific in 1912

At around 5pm Cornwall turned sharply to starboard and brought her port broadside into action. Leipzig was now moving so slowly that Cornwall and Glasgow were able to circle her and fire into her at whichever angle and range they chose.

At around 6pm the rain increased and Captain Luce in Glasgow gave the order to finish Leipzig off. The two British ships closed to 8,000 yards (4.5 miles) and Cornwall opened fire with lyddite, setting Leipzig ablaze.

SMS Leipzig under fire in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Cornwall and Glasgow closed the range, Leipzig continuing to fire back until 7pm when her guns fell silent, all her ammunition expended. She had fought for four hours against the two British ships and was now a wreck, with fires all along her hull and superstructure. But she still flew her ensign.

Luce waited for half an hour to see if the German ship would surrender. As the German ensign still flew he ordered the British ships to resume firing. On board the Leipzig the captain ordered the sea cocks to be opened and 150 of the surviving crew assembled amidships between the fires to await rescue. Many of these men were killed by shellfire until they displayed two green lights. The British ships took this as an indication of surrender and ceased fire.

Signals were made to the German ship but there was no reply. Cornwall and Glasgow launched their boats and began to pick up those survivors who had jumped into the sea.

SMS Leipzig sinking at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

At 9.23pm Leipzig turned over and sank. Although the British boats were promptly launched and moved in to pick up survivors only five officers and thirteen seamen were rescued alive, not including the captain. The choppy cold waters of the South Atlantic were too much for the remainder who had managed to get off the ship.

In the fight with Leipzig Cornwall was hit eighteen times and was listing to port but had no casualties. Glasgow was hit twice and had one man killed and four wounded.

HMS Cornwall after the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

SMS Nürnberg:
At 4.30pm Kent began the chase of Nürnberg, 7 miles behind the German ship. Kent’s nominal maximum speed was 22 knots, but she was notoriously a bad steamer. Nürnberg was expected to achieve 22.5 knots, but she put so much strain on her boilers, which were in need of a complete overhaul after months at sea, that two burst, reducing her speed to 19 knots.

Stokers at work on HMS Kent during the ship’s pursuit of SMS Nürnberg in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Kent had no opportunity to take on coal at Port Stanley before the action began so that she was very short of fuel. Captain Allen, the captain of the Kent, ordered that every item of wood be taken to the engine room for the stokers to load into the burners. Woodwork was stripped from all the fittings and even the officers’ trunks were burnt. It is claimed by the ship that they managed to achieve 25 knots in this way.

By 5pm Kent was within 12,000 yards (6.8 miles) of Nürnberg. Nürnberg opened fire with her rear 4.1 inch guns, her shots falling close around Kent, but achieving only one hit. Kent replied with her forward 6 inch gun, but the range was too great.

HMS Kent in action against SMS Nürnberg during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Charles de Lacy

By 5.30pm Kent was coming up to Nürnberg and at 5.45pm Nürnberg turned 8 points to port and brought her broadside into action. Kent was not interested in a long range duel. The vibration caused by her speed was making range finding almost impossible and the light was failing.

Damage to the hull of HMS Kent caused by shell-fire from SMS Nürnberg during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Kent turned 6 points to port onto a converging course. The range quickly fell to 6,000 yards (3.5 miles) and Kent’s shooting became more effective.

HMS Kent engaging SMS Nürnberg during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

By 6pm the range was 3,000 yards (1.7 miles) and Kent’s larger guns were impacting on the German cruiser. Nürnberg turned away to starboard. Kent also turned but not so sharply so that the range increased, but her hits on Nürnberg continued.

SMS Nürnberg sinking at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Willy Stoewer

By 6.10pm Nürnberg was losing speed, on fire and with only two guns operational. Kent was able to pass her and turn to starboard to cross in front of her. Nürnberg turned to port. This gave Kent the opportunity, as she crossed Nürnberg’s bow, to rake her with her starboard batteries.

The consequences were devastating. The range was only 3,500 yards. Two 6 inch shells destroyed Nürnberg’s forward turret. Kent ran past Nürnberg and turned away enabling her port batteries to open fire.

SMS Nürnberg sinking at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

By 6.25pm Nürnberg was stationary and silent. Kent ceased firing. Nürnberg was listing heavily and down at the stern. She was burning fiercely under the bridge and there was no sign of any crew. Kent approached to 3,300 yards (1.8 miles). She saw that Nürnberg was still flying her ensign. Kent resumed firing but 5 minutes later the ensign was hauled down.

Damage to the officers’ heads on HMS Kent caused by shell-fire from SMS Nürnberg during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Kent’s boats had been damaged in the action, but two were repaired sufficiently to be launched. Soon after, at around 7.30pm, Nürnberg turned over to starboard and sank. A search for survivors was maintained until 9pm, by which time it was dark. Seven members of Nürnberg’s crew were picked up alive.

Shell hole in a casemate on HMS Kent made during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War. Sergeant Mayes RMA stands to the left of the hole

In the action with Nürnberg Kent was hit forty times. One hit wrecked the radio room. Another round hit a casemate and nearly ignited rounds waiting to be fired. The situation was retrieved by Royal Marine Artillery Sergeant Maye. Kent suffered four men killed and twelve wounded.

A sailing ship passes the battle between HMS Kent and SMS Nürnberg, sinking in the left foreground, at the end of the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War: picture by Lionel Wyllie

German Colliers:
HMS Bristol was already fifteen miles out of Port Stanley following the rest of the British squadron, when Captain Fanshawe received the order to seek out the German ships spotted by the two Falkland Island ladies. Bristol turned west – south – west and at 12.30 met with Macedonia. After some time in an unsuccessful search a report was received from the Islands that the German ships had been seen from Fitzroy. Bristol and Macedonia turned east by south and soon saw the smoke of the escaping ships.

Of the three German ships the hospital ship Seydlitz made off on her own. The two ships Bristol and Macedonia were now following were the colliers Baden and Santa Isabel.

At 3.30pm Bristol and Macedonia overtook the two German colliers and firing a gun ordered them to stop. Although the ships contained a large quantity of coal and other stores Fanshawe’s instructions were to ‘sink the transports’. He had no knowledge as to the outcome of the action fought by the other ships of the squadron and at 7pm in accordance with his instructions, after removing the crews, he sank the Baden and the Santa Isabel.

SMS Dresden:
Once he established radio contact with the British cruisers Sturdee enquired which direction Dresden had taken when she made off. The pursuit and destruction of the other German ships had been so all-absorbing and taken so many twists and turns that the cruisers were unable to provide Sturdee with any reliable information.

Eight colliers were being escorted to Port Stanley by the auxiliary merchant cruiser Orama. Sturdee despatched Carnarvon to the north to escort these ships in.

Sturdee took the two battle cruisers in a sweep towards Staten Island at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, ordering Bristol to follow on, to see if he could catch Dresden attempting to make it back into the Pacific.

SMS Dresden, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

At 11.25pm Sturdee signalled Glasgow and Cornwall to make for the Magellan Straits to intercept Dresden. The answer was that both ships had fired off nearly all their ammunition and that Cornwall was very low on coal. Both were ordered into Port Stanley.

After searching in the area of Staten Island Sturdee moved north and on 10th December 1914 finally returned to the Falkland Islands, to find that Kent had returned after sinking Nürnberg.

On 13th December 1914 Sturdee was busy coaling and repairing his ships in Port Stanley when he received news in the early hours that Dresden had been in Punta Arenas, the Chilean port at the western end of the Beagle Channel, on 10th December.

Sturdee sent his ships after Dresden as they were made ready. On arrival at Punta Arenas on 16th December it was found that Dresden had left after being permitted to coal by the Chilean authorities.

The Admiralty now ordered Sturdee to return to Britain with the two battle cruisers, which were to resume their duties with the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow. Admiral Stoddart and the cruisers were to continue the search for Dresden and other German warship and auxiliary cruisers.

SMS Dresden, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914, immediately before the scuttling charges were exploded, sinking her on 14th March 1914 in the First World War

The Dresden passed round Cape Horn on 9th December and, after taking in coal, moved to Punta Arenas on 12th December to obtain more coal from a German ship. In early February 1915 Dresden left the islands of the southern tip of Chile and moved into the Pacific.

On 8th March 1915 in dense fog lookouts on Dresden saw the Kent. Both ships got up steam and a five hour chase ensued in which Dresden got away. Kapitän Lüdecke, the captain of Dresden, decided that the chase had rendered his engines incapable of further operation and his stocks of coal were nearly finished. Lüdecke took Dresden to the Island of Mas-a-fuera where he intended that the Chilean authorities would intern the ship.

On 14th March 1915 Kent and Glasgow found the Dresden in Mas-a-fuera and, in spite of the objections of the Chilean authorities, opened fire on her. Lüdecke sent one of his officers to negotiate with the British and point out that the ship had effectively been interned by the Chileans. Captain Luce of Glasgow simply informed the officer that his orders were to sink the Dresden. The German officer returned to find that Dresden was about to be scuttled. The crew were taken off and explosive charges set off which sank the Dresden. The crew was interned by the Chilean authorities.

SMS Dresden, German light cruiser at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914, sinking on 14th March 1915 in the First World War

Casualties at the Battle of the Falkland Islands:
HMS Invincible: no casualties.
HMS Inflexible: no casualties.
HMS Kent: 4 killed and 12 wounded.
HMS Cornwall: no casualties.
HMS Carnarvon: no casualties.
HMS Glasgow: 1 killed and 4 wounded.
HMS Bristol: no casualties.
HMS Macedonia: no casualties.
HMS Canopus: no casualties.

German Imperial Navy:
SMS Scharnhorst: no survivors of her crew of 52 officers and 788 non-commissioned ranks, including Admiral von Spee.
SMS Gneisenau: around 125 survivors of her crew of 38 officers and 726 non-commissioned ranks (598 men were lost with the ship).
SMS Dresden: no casualties.
SMS Nürnberg: 7 survivors of her crew of 14 officers and 308 non-commissioned ranks.
SMS Leipzig: 5 officers and 13 seamen survived of her crew of 14 officers and 280 non-commissioned ranks.
All the survivors from the German ships sunk became prisoners. The crew of the Dresden was interned by the Chilean authorities on 14th March 1915.

Decorations and medals for the Battle of the Falkland Islands:

Sergeant Mayes Royal Marine Artillery of HMS Kent awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his conduct at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

Sergeant Mayes, Royal Marine Artillery, on HMS Kent received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The citation stated: ‘A shell burst and ignited some cordite charges in the casemate a flash of flame went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Sergeant Mayes picked up a charge of cordite and threw it away. He then got hold of a fire hose and flooded the compartment, extinguishing the fire in some empty shell bags which were burning. The extinction of this fire saved a disaster which might have led to the loss of the ship.’

Admiral Sturdee in his report to the Admiralty on the battle commended five officers from HMS Invincible, including the commander and Lieutenant Commander Dannreuther, the gunnery officer, but none from HMS Inflexible. From the other ships he commended three officers from HMS Kent and one each from HMS Glasgow and Cornwall.

Captain Luce of HMS Glasgow was made Companion of the Bath.

The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to one officer from each of HMS Invincible, Kent and Cornwall.

Mrs Muriel Felton, a resident of the Falkland Islands, who spotted the German colliers and reported them to the Royal Navy, enabling them to be intercepted and sunk, was awarded an OBE.

Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of the Falkland Islands:

Leutnant Graf Otto von Spee of SMS Nürnberg and Leutnant Graf Heinrich von Spee of SMS Gneisenau, sons of Admiral Graf von Spee, both lost in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

• Corbett surmises that towards the end of the battle von Spee intended to disadvantage the two British battle cruisers by closing the range and bringing his secondary armament of 6 inch guns into action. Corbett says that von Spee will have been aware that Invincible and Inflexible had no secondary armament. It is clear that the two British ships were equipped with 4 inch guns. GF describes these guns being exercised during the journey south in November 1914.
• During Admiral Sturdee’s journey across the Atlantic with the British battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and Inflexible, a report appeared in the American press, in spite of the secrecy surrounding the despatch of the two ships. Von Spee was aware of the story, which related to the Invincible, but knew nothing further of where the ship was heading. It was reasonable to assume that Invincible’s destination was New York, to supervise the blockade of the German ships. The discovery by Gneisenau of the two battle cruisers in Port Stanley was a shock for von Spee and confirmed his conviction that the wanderings of his squadron were destined to end in its destruction and his death.
• There is something of a controversy over why von Spee’s squadron went to the Falkland Islands, when there was a reasonable chance they would encounter powerful British resistance, either naval or shore based. The surviving ships from Cradock’s squadron were likely to have returned to Port Stanley and included HMS Canopus, a battleship with 12 inch guns, although an elderly warship. Von Spee suspected that Cradock was supported by a battleship, although he did not know its identity. Corbett states that survivors from SMS Gneisenau informed the British that von Spee was persuaded to carry out the raid on the Falklands by the captain of the Gneisenau against von Spee’s own inclination. Interestingly the German naval spy von Rintelen claimed after the war that he was told by Admiral William Hall, Director of British Naval Intelligence, that the British used a broken German naval code to order von Spee to attack the Falklands Island radio station. The problems with this claim are numerous: Why did the Admiralty not inform Sturdee of this ruse as it could only work if his ships were in the Falklands when von Spee arrived? There was very limited direct radio communication, if any, between London and its own ships let alone with von Spee. There is no indication from the conduct of operations in the Pacific and Atlantic that the British Admiralty had access to German naval codes. It seems inconceivable that a British admiral would discuss secret naval matters with anyone, let alone a notorious German saboteur like von Rintelen, whom the British would have shot if they could have laid their hands on him.

Medal struck in Germany commemorating the deaths of the three Grafen von Spee at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

• Admiral Graf von Spee’s two sons, Otto and Heinrich, served in the East Asiatic Squadron under their father’s command, Otto in SMS Nürnberg and Heinrich in SMS Gneisenau. Both died in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914. A medal was issued in Germany commemorating the deaths of the father and his two sons.

German postcard showing the ‘last man’ about to go down on the upturned hull of SMS Nürnberg, sunk in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914 in the First World War

• The Battle of the Falklands was used extensively in Britain as a propanda tool.

British postcard showing the sinking of SMS Dresden on 15th March 1915 at Mas-a-fuera off Chile in the First World War: in fact the Dresden was scuttled by her crew

• After the action with SMS Dresden on 15th March 1915 at Mas-a-fuera and the scuttling of Dresden, a sailor from HMS Glasgow saw a pig struggling in the sea. With considerable difficulty the sailor rescued the pig, which was adopted as the mascot of HMS Glasgow and given the name ‘Tirpitz’ (after the German naval commander-in-chief). After a year Tirpitz was transferred to the Naval Gunnery School at Whale Island in Portsmouth, where he spent the rest of his life.

Crew of HMS Glasgow with Tirpitz the pig in the First World War

• HMS Canopus took part in the operations in the Dardanelles in 1915, providing gun fire support to the army onshore.
• The Kreigsmarine of the German Third Reich named one of their new pocket battleships (armoured cruisers) ‘Graf Spee’, laid down in 1932. The Graf Spee was scuttled on 18th December 1939 after an action with the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles in the River Plate off Uruguay, not far from the Falkland Islands, where Admiral Graf von Spee was killed in action on 8th December 1914.

Lieutenant Commander Dannreuther first lieutenant and gunnery officer on HMS Invincible at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914. Dannreuther was one of the six survivors when Invincible was sunk at Jutland on 31st May 1916 in the First World War

• The officer from SMS Dresden who went to negotiate with Captain Luce at Mas-a-fuera on 14th March 1915 was Oberleutnant zur See Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris escaped from internment in Chile and returned to Germany. In the Second World War as an admiral Canaris commanded the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service. Canaris was executed by the Nazis for conspiring against Hitler.
• Admiral Sturdee was created a baronet for his services in the Battle of the Falklands, subsequently becoming admiral of the fleet.
• The battle cruiser HMS Invincible had an eventful and tragic career in the Great War. She was one of the battle cruisers at the Battle of Heligoland Bight. After the Battle of the Falkland Islands Invincible returned to the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow. At the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 the Invincible received a shell in one of her magazines and blew up with only 6 survivors. Lost with Invincible was the commander of the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron, Rear Admiral Hood. A battle cruiser was built and commissioned in 1920, named ‘Hood’ after the admiral’s 18th Century ancestor. HMS Hood received a hit in one of her magazines from the German battleship Bismark in the Denmark Strait on 24th May 1941 and blew up, much as Invincible blew up at Jutland, with only three survivors. The Battle in Denmark Strait was almost exactly 25 years after Jutland. HMS Defence was also lost at Jutland.

HMS Invincible exploding at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 in the First World War. Only 6 of the crew survived, including Lieutenant Commander Dannreuther

•Assistant Paymaster Gordon Findlay of HMS Invincible wrote a novel based closely on his experiences in the ship, ‘A Naval Digression’, under the name ‘GF’ (quoted above). Findlay was still serving in Invincible at the time of Jutland, but was on leave when the Grand Fleet took to sea to meet the German High Seas Fleet on 31st May 1916 and Invincible was sunk with six survivors. C.S.Forester when researching the Royal Navy in the Second World War was told by an old Kent hand that during the pursuit of Nürnberg every hand who could be spared from his duties was sent aft to help lift the bows and increase speed (see ‘The Ship’ Penguin Books 1949 page 125).

• Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Duckworth RN, whose photographs appear above, was an officer on HMS Invincible. He appears to be referred to in Gordon Findlay’s book ‘A Naval Digression by GF’ as owning the camera jointly with the ship’s surgeon. The arrangement appeared to be common in the Royal Navy during the Great War, photographs taken being sold to the newspapers. When the ship was in action the surgeon’s duties would have kept him below. A member of the pay staff, having no battle role, would be able to go on deck and take photographs, for some of Duckworth’s shots from the mast, presumably hence the partnership.

• A second Scharnhorst was built for the Kreigsmarine in the 1930s. This Scharnhorst was sunk by a British Fleet on 26th December 1943 off the northern Norwegian coast.

German ship ‘Scharnhorst sinking’ in the Second World War: Battleship Scharnhorst built for the Third Reich in the 1930s, sunk by a British Fleet on 26th December 1943 in the Battle of the North Cape off the coast of Northern Norway in the Second World War: picture by C.E. Turner

References for the Battle of the Falkland Islands:
• Naval Operations in the Great War Volume 1 by Sir Julian Corbett
• Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War 1
• Times History of the Great War Volume 2
• A Naval Digression by GF

The previous battle in the First World War is the Battle of Coronel

The next battle in the First World War is the Battle of the Dogger Bank


Falklands, battle of the

Falklands, battle of the, 1914. After dispatching Craddock's squadron at the battle of Coronel, von Spee's ships rounded Cape Horn and on 8 December 1914 attacked the British installations at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. However, the Germans unexpectedly found themselves fighting a much stronger British squadron. As soon as news of Craddock's defeat had reached London, the Admiralty had dispatched two of its most powerful battle-cruisers to the south Atlantic under Vice-Admiral Sturdee, who now proceeded to sink all but one of von Spee's ships. The battle marked the end of any serious threat to British merchant shipping from German surface cruisers.

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The Empire Strikes Back: The First Battle of the Falkland Islands 1914

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.


The Battle of the Falkland Islands 8 December 1914

Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst (flag) and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg arrived at the Falkland Islands on the morning of 8 December. Their intention was to destroy the local facilities and wireless station

These were the ships that had won the Battle of Coronel on 1 November. The previous entry in this series described the intervening events, including the despatch of the battlecruisers, HMS Invincible (flag of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee) and Inflexible to the South Atlantic.

The Falkland Islanders had expected to be attacked by Spee since they learnt of Coronel on 25 November. They had formed a local defence force in case of invasion, whilst Captain Heathcoat Grant had deliberately beached the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus on mud to protect the harbour. A signal station had been established on Sapper Hill in order to watch for enemy ships and to direct Canopus’ fire. A row of electric mines laid across the entrance to the outer harbour.

However, Sturdee’s force, also including the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon (flag of Rear Admiral Sir Archibald Stoddart ), Cornwall and Kent and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow had arrived at the Falklands the day before with the intention of coaling before heading for Cape Horn in search of Spee. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Macedonia was also present. Another AMC, HMS Orama, was escorting Sturdee’s colliers to the Falklands.

The Naval Staff Monograph, written in 1921, says that German prisoners later told the British that the only ships that Spee expected to meet were HMS Canopus, Carnarvon, Kent, Cornwall, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle and possibly Defence at the Falklands. This probably does not mean that he expected to encounter all of them.

The 1938 edition of Naval Operations, the British Official History, which was revised after the publication of the German Official History, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918, says Canopus, Carnarvon, and possibly Defence, Cornwall, and Glasgow.[1] The Germans could outrun Canopus and had heavier guns than all the others except Defence. Any British ships present would probably be coaling, so vulnerable to attack.

Spee’s plan was that Gneisenau and Nürnberg would carry out the attack, with the rest of his squadron standing off in support. They would enter Port Stanley behind a line of minesweeping boats. Gneisenau would take the Governor on board, whilst Nürnberg would enter the inner harbour and destroy the dockyard and wireless station. If hostile warships were present, they would withdraw to the rest of the squadron.

At 7:50 am the look outs spotted Gneisenau and Nürnberg approaching. Coaling had been slow because the first of Sturdee’s own colliers, had only just arrived at the Falklands to join three that were already there. Only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling. the battlecruisers and Bristol were coaling and the other three ships had not yet started to do so. Kent, as guardship, had steam at 30 minutes notice and the others were at two hours notice, except Bristol which needed engine repairs, so was at six hours notice.[2]

At 8 am the Germans spotted wireless masts and heavy smoke, which they initially assumed was the British burning their coal stocks. Gneisenau’s gunnery office, Kapitänleutnant Busch, is believed to have reported seeing tripod masts, which would have meant that British dreadnought battlecruisers or battleships were present. However, his report was not believed.[3]

The following account is based on Sturdee’s Despatch, available from this link to ‘The World War I Primary Documents Archive’, unless otherwise footnoted.

8:00 am: The signal from Sapper Hill reached Sturdee. He ordered Kent was to weigh anchor and the squadron to raise steam for full speed.

8:20 am: The signal station reported another column of smoke to the south.

8:45 am: Kent took up station at the harbour entrance.

8:47 am: Canopus reported that the first two ships were eight miles away and that the second column of smoke seemed to come from two ships about 20 miles away.

8:50 am: The signal station reported a further column of smoke to the south. Macedonia was ordered to weigh anchor and await orders.

9:20 am: Canopus opened fire on the two leading enemy ships at 11,000 yards. They turned away. Their masts and smoke were now visible at a range of 17,000 yards from Invincible’s upper bridge. A few minutes later the Germans changed course, as if to close on Kent, but then changed course and increased speed in order to join their consorts, apparently having spotted the battlecruisers.

9:40 am: Glasgow weighed anchor in order to join Kent.

9:45 am: Carnarvon, Inflexible, Invincible and Cornwall weighed anchor and left harbour in that order. The sea was calm, the sun bright, the sky clear and visibility at its maximum. There was a light breeze from the north west. The five German ships became visible once the squadron had passed Cape Pembroke Light.

Canopus missed the German ships, but the size of water splashes from her shells indicated that they were from 12 inch guns. Spee ordered his ships to turn away after Gneisenau reported that there were six enemy warships present.

The Naval Staff Monograph says the Germans saw the six British ships leaving the harbour at 10 am, but identified them as being two pre-dreadnought battleships, three armoured cruisers and a light cruiser and did not realise that could see that the two largest ships were battlecruisers rather than pre-dreadnoughts until 10:20am. The Germans were then heading east at 20 knots, The subsequent battle was so one sided that the Naval Staff Monograph concludes its account at this point by saying that ‘von Spee knew that his hour had come.’[4]

Naval Operations states that the Germans identified the battlecruisers at 9:40 am. Whenever they made the identification, it came as a great shock to them. There had been US newspaper reports that Invincible had been sent south, but Spee was unaware of them.[5]

Spee’s squadron could out run but not out fight pre-dreadnoughts. It could neither out run nor out fight battlecruisers. Withdrawing was the best action if he thought that he faced pre-dreadnoughts, but if he had realised that he faced battlecruisers, his only chance would have been to attack the first ship to leave harbour, Kent, in the hope of sinking her and obstructing the exit of the rest of the British squadron.

By the time that the battlecruisers had been identified, Spee’s only hope was that his doomed armoured cruisers could hold the British off for long enough that his three light cruisers might escape in order to carry out commerce raiding. The following table shows that the British had an overwhelming superiority.

Ship Completed Tonnage Speed (knots) Guns Weight of Broadside (lbs)
Scharnhorst 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Gneisenau 1907 11,420 23.8 8 x 8.2″ 1,957
6 x 5.9″
Nürnberg 1908 3,400 23.0 10 x 4.1″ 176
Leipzig 1906 3,200 23.3 10 x 4.1″ 176
Dresden 1909 3,592 24.5 10 X 4.1″ 176
German Total 33,032 4,442
Invincible 1909 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Inflexible 1908 17,373 25.5 8 x 12″ 5,100
16 x 4″
Carnarvon 1905 10,850 22.0 4 x 7.5″ 900
6 x 6″
Cornwall 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Kent 1903 9,800 22.4 14 x 6″ 900
Glasgow 1911 4,800 25.3 2 x 6″ 325
10 x 4″
British Total 69,996 13,225

Sources: R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985) pp. 24-25, <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Carnarvon>&gt [accessed 8 December 2014], Marder, A. J., From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919. 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), vol. ii, p. 109, 122. Cornwall and Kent have been assumed to be identical to their sister Monmouth.

Kent and Leipzig both had reputations as being poor sailors that rarely achieved the designed speeds quoted above. The Germans ships were all in poor condition after four months of cruising.[6] Bristol and Macedonia have been omitted because they did not take part in the main action.

10:20 am: The signal for a general chase was given.

11:15 am: Speed reduced to 20 knots in order to allow the armoured cruisers to close up to the faster battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:20 pm: Sturdee decided to attack the enemy with the battlecruisers and Glasgow.

12:47 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Open fire and engage the enemy.’

12:55 pm: Inflexible fired the first shots at a range of 16,500 yards at Leipzig, the closest ship, which was dropping back from the rest of her squadron.

1:20 pm: The range was down to 15,000 yards. The three German light cruisers now turned away to the south west. Sturdee ordered Kent, Glasgow and Cornwall to follow them, whilst the battlecruisers and Carnarvon concentrated on the German armoured cruisers. Thereafter, the battle split into two separate actions.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Falkland_Islands#mediaviewer/File:Falklandschlacht.jpg. Originally from Eduard Rothert, Karten und Skizzen zum Weltkrieg, Druck und Verlag von A. Bagel, Düsseldorf, 1916

Naval Operations says that Spee had taken ‘a decision which did him and his service the highest honour.’[7] He would sacrifice himself, his two armoured cruisers and their crews in order to preserve the three light cruisers, which could then raid Allied commerce.

Action with the Armoured Cruisers:

1:25 pm: The Germans turned to port, opening fire five minutes later. Sturdee wanted to keep the range between 13,500 yards (the maximum of the German 8.2 inch guns) and 16,400 yards (the maximum of the British 12 inch guns). Spee wanted to close to less than the 12,000 yard range of his 5.9 inch guns.[8]

1:30 pm: The Germans opened fire. Soon afterwards, Sturdee ordered a turn.

2:00 pm: The range had opened to 16,450 yards.

2:10 pm: The Germans turned away and another chase began.

2:45 pm: The battlecruisers opened fire.

2:53 pm: The Germans turned.

2:55 pm: The Germans opened fire.

Naval Operations says that the German 5.9 inch guns were in range by 2:59 pm, but had little effect at their maximum range. The smoke from the battlecruisers was making gunnery very difficult for both sides, but Gneisenau was listing by 3:10 pm. Five minutes later, Scharnhorst, which was on fire and whose fire was slackening, lost a funnel.[9]

3:30 pm: Scharnhorst turned, apparently to bring her starboard guns into action. She was on fire and steam was coming from her. Around 4:00 pm (the linked file says 4:40 pm but this must be a typo), she listed heavily to port. Her colours were still flying.

4:17 pm: Scharnhorst sank with all hands.

5:08 pm: Gneisenau’s forward funnel fell and her fire slackened.

5:15 pm: A shell from Gneisenau hit Invincible.

5:30 pm: Gneisenau turned towards Invincible. Sturdee ordered ‘Cease fire’, but cancelled it before it had been raised after Gneisenau fired a single gun.

5:40 pm: The three British ships closed on Gneisenau. One of her flags appeared to be hauled down, but another was still flying.

5:50 pm: Sturdee signalled ‘Cease fire.’

6:00 pm: Gneisenau suddenly turned over and sank.

She had been pounded from 4,000 yards before being scuttled on the orders of Kapitän Julius Maerker. He did not survive, but Hans Pochhammer, his second in command, did. Invincible picked 108 men, 14 of whom were found to be dead, Inflexible 62 and Carnarvon 20.[10]

Invincible suffered no significant damage and no casualties, Carnarvon was not hit and Inflexible had one man killed and three wounded.[11]

Action with the Light Cruisers

3:00 pm. Glasgow exchanged shots with Leipzig at 12,000 yards.

The British 6 inch and German 4.1 inch guns could fire at this range, but not the British 4 inch guns. Captain John Luce of Glasgow successfully aimed to entice Leipzig to turn towards his ship, thus delaying her in order to allow the British armoured cruisers to catch up.[12]

3:36 pm: Cornwall ordered Kent to attack Nürnberg, the enemy ship closest to her.

4:00 pm: The weather changed, considerably reducing visibility. This helped Dresden, the fastest German ship, to escape. Only Glasgow was fast enough to catch her, but she was busy with Leipzig.

4:17 pm: Cornwall opened fire on Leipzig.

5:00 pm: Kent, whose engine room crew performed excellently, contrary to her reputation as a poor sailor, was in gun range of Nürnberg.

Robert Massie says that she was faster because the lack of coal on board made her light. Her crew made up for this by feeding as much wood as they could spare. including furniture, ladders, doors and even deck timbers into her furnaces.[13]

6:35 pm: Nürnberg was on fire and ceased fire. Kent closed to 3,300 yards, but re-opened fire after seeing that the German ship was still flying her colours. They were taken down after five minutes according to British reports, which Naval Operations says was ‘no shame’ it notes that the German Official History denies that they were hauled down.[14] At Coronel Nürnberg had been forced to carry on firing at the helpless HMS Monmouth when she refused to strike her colours.

Kent was only able to launch two hastily repaired boats. They were on their way to Leipzig when she sank just before 7:30 pm. The British searched until 9:00 pm, but was able to find only twelve men alive, five of whom later died.[15]

Sturdee’s report said that four men were killed and 12 wounded on Kent, but naval-history.net lists five men killed and 11 wounded, with three of the latter later dying.

Most of Kent’s casualties were inflicted by a single shell that struck a gunport. It caused a flash that went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Without the courage and quick thinking of Royal Marine Sergeant Charles Mayes, this would most likely to have caused an explosion that would have destroyed the ship. Mayes was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross for man of his rank. Sturdee’s Despatch stated that:

A shell burst and ignited some cordite charges in the casemate a flash of flame went down the hoist into the ammunition passage. Sergeant Mayes picked up a charge of cordite and threw it away. He then got hold of a fire hose and flooded the compartment, extinguishing the fire in some empty shell bags which were burning. The extinction of this fire saved a disaster which might have led to the loss of the ship.

However, the Admiralty failed to learn the lessons of this near disaster, with the result that three battlecruisers, including Invincible, blew up at Jutland in 1916.[16]

7:17 pm: Leipzig was on fire and Cornwall and Glasgow ceased fire.

Naval Operations says that ‘[n]o ship could have done better against such odds’ than Leipzig.[17] She was no longer firing, but she was moving through the water, her colours were flying and she Leipzig sea cocks had been opened in order to scuttle her.

According to Massie, the Germans were unable to pull their flag down because of a fire round the mast. They fired two green distress signals at 8:12 pm, which Luce took to be a sign of surrender. The British launched boats at 8:45 pm. Leipzig sank at 9:23 pm. Only 18 of her crew were rescued.[18] Glasgow had five men wounded, one of whom later died. Cornwall suffered no casualties.

In the late morning Bristol and Macedonia were ordered to see in response to a report from a local woman, Mrs Felton, that there were three ships off Port Pleasant. There was a possibility that they might have been transports carrying troops recruited from German residents of South America.[19]

There were actually two, the Baden and Santa Isabel, and they were carrying coal. Captain Basil Fanshawe of Bristol obeyed the letter of Sturdee’s orders and sank them, after taking off their crews. He did not then know that the British had defeated Spee’s squadron. The third collier, the Seydlitz, managed to evade the British and was interned in Argentina in January 1915.[20]

All but one warship and one collier of Spee’s squadron had been sunk. Only 201 German sailors were rescued, and it is not clear from the sources quoted whether or not all of them lived. The ships sunk had total crews of at least 2,140, which may not include Spee’s staff on his flagship.[21]

Spee, the captains of all the ships sunk and his two sons, Otto on Nürnberg and Heinrich on Gneisenau, were amongst the dead. The British lost 6 dead and 19 wounded, with 4 of the wounded later dying.

Sturdee was acclaimed for his victory, except by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher. Sturdee received a baronetcy in January 1916. Fisher, however, had not forgotten that Sturdee had been on the other side in his feud with Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. He initially refused to allow Sturdee to return home until Dresden had been sunk, but this was vetoed by Winston Churchill, the First Lord.

Fisher argued that he should take much of the credit for his decision to send two battlecruisers after Spee, that Sturdee’s poor dispositions had led to the defeat at Coronel and that he had been lucky to encounter Spee at the Falklands. These comments were fair, but his criticisms of Sturdee for taking a long time and using a lot of ammunition to defeat an inferior enemy were not. Sturdee could not risk damage to his battlecruisers solely in order to win more quickly.

Sturdee’s performance in both his roles in 1914 shows that he was a man more suited to sea command than to shore based staff duties.

The British victory at the Falkland Islands removed the main German surface threat to Allied merchant shipping. This meant that a large number of RN warships could now be recalled to home waters, increasing the Grand Fleet’s superiority over the High Seas Fleet.

[1]Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. i. p. 165 J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 411

[5] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p, 416.

[8] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. ii, pp. 122-23.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 421-22.

[10] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), pp. 272-74.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, pp. 425-26.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 432 and note 1.

[16] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 110.

[17] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 429.

[19] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 99.

[20] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 433.

[21] Bennett, Naval Battles, p. 122. 765 on each armoured cruiser, 290 on Leipzig and 320 on Nurnberg.


Von Spee Destroyed

Arriving the next morning, Spee sent Gneisenau and Nurnberg to scout the harbor. As they approached they were surprised by fire from Canopus which was largely hidden from view by a hill. Had Spee pressed his attack at this point, he may have scored a victory as Sturdee's ships were cooling and ill-prepared for battle. Rather, realizing he was badly out-gunned, von Spee broke off and headed for open water around 10:00 AM. Dispatching Kent to track the Germans, Sturdee ordered his ships to raise steam and set out in pursuit.

Though von Spee had a 15-mile head start, Sturdee was able to use his battlecruisers' superior speed to run down the tired German ships. Around 1:00, the British opened fire on Leipzig at the end of the German line. Twenty minutes later, von Spee, realizing he could not escape, turned to engage the British with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the hope of giving his light cruisers time to flee. Taking advantage of the wind, which caused the funnel smoke from the British ships to obscure the Germans, von Spee succeeded in striking Invincible. Though hit several times, the damage was light due to the ship's heavy armor.

Turning away, von Spee again attempted to escape. Detaching three of his cruisers to pursue Nurnberg and Leipzig, Sturdee pressed the attack on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Firing full broadsides, the battlecruisers pummeled the two German ships. In an attempt to fight back, von Spee tried to close the range, but to no avail. Scharnhorst was put out of action and sank at 4:17, with von Spee aboard. Gneisenau followed a short time later and sank at 6:02. While the heavy ships were engaging, Kent succeeded in running down and destroying Nurnberg, while Cornwall and Glasgow finished off Leipzig.


Battle of the Falkland Islands 1914

In a decisive sea battle near the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, the British Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee secured victory over his German adversary Admiral Graf Von Spee. It came five weeks after Von Spee had overpowered an inferior British squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Cradock off Coronel in Chile on 1 November. The Royal Navy lost two armoured cruisers and all 1,600 hands in the traumatic defeat at Coronel, causing the Admiralty immediately to move fresh ships south in order to prevent Von Spee breaking into the South Atlantic. Sturdee lay in wait for Von Spee’s cruiser squadron, which it was correctly anticipated would attempt to attack Port Stanley and Port William on East Falkland Island.

Sturdee was victorious partly because his squadron included two of the Royal Navy’s more powerful warships, HMS Inflexible, commanded by Captain R F Phillimore, and her sister ship HMS Invincible under Captain P T H Beamish, which served as Sturdee’s flagship. These battle-cruisers outperformed the German armoured cruisers in speed and armament, enabling them to catch the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst as they withdrew at speed after breaking off from their planned attack on the Falklands. After several hours’ pursuit, the British battle-cruisers sank both German cruisers, while three other German cruisers and some support vessels were sunk by other ships in Sturdee’s squadron.

Both British battle-cruisers experienced technical difficulties arising from firing large-calibre guns while at high speed. Depending on course and wind direction, the problems included smoke from the ships’ own funnels and guns obscuring gunnery control positions on the masts. The photograph of Inflexible taken during trials on the Clyde in 1908 illustrates how funnel smoke could restrict observation.

HMS Inflexible fired as many as 600 twelve inch shells during the pursuit of the Gneisenau, exhausting most of her magazine stock. Von Spee and about 1,800 of his sailors perished as result of the near total destruction of his squadron. Inflexible rescued 62 of the 190 survivors from the Gneisenau. The British acknowledged that German gunnery during the battle was generally outstanding, resulting in 22 hits on Invincible, but with no losses among her crew. HMS Inflexible was only hit three times, but two men were wounded, and one was killed: Able Seaman Neil Livingstone (Royal Fleet Reserve, B3593), born in Argyll in 1879. He was one of ten fatalities in the entire British squadron.

Inflexible was designed as new type of armoured cruiser, known from 1912 as the battle-cruiser. Her two sister ships Invincible and Indomitable were respectively built by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. at Elswick on the Tyne, and by Fairfield’s at Govan on the Clyde. Inflexible was laid down at John Brown & Co.’s yard at Clydebank on 5 February 1906, launched on 26 June 1907, and completed in October 1908. The shipyard’s photographers captured her construction and trials, as they did for all vessels built at Clydebank. The resulting images form part of a huge series of photographs in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ records preserved in the National Records of Scotland.

Further reading: Geoffrey Bennett, ‘Coronel and the Falklands’ (BT Batsford, 1962) Ian Johnston, ‘Clydebank Battlecruisers: Forgotten Photographs from John Brown’s Shipyard’ (Seaforth, 2011).

All featured photographs are from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Collection, Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland.


THE BATTLE OF THE FALKLAND ISLANDS, 8 DECEMBER 1914

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All Rights Reserved except for Fair Dealing exceptions otherwise permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended and revised.

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If you are interested in the full range of licenses available for this material, please contact one of our collections sales and licensing teams.


On this day in history: 8th December 1914 ‘Battle of the Falklands’

A WWI Royal Navy task force, commanded by Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, took on an Imperial German Navy superfleet, led by Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee less than 100 nautical miles from Port Stanley. In just a few hours, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible and five other British warships sank two German armoured cruisers and two light cruisers, including Admiral von Spee’s flagship, SMS Scharnhorst . Almost 1,900 of the Kaiser’s sailors die, including von Spee and his two sons. British casualties amount to 10 killed and less than 20 wounded. Von Spee’s German squadron had been attempting to raid the supply base at Stanley and seize the radio station.

A month earlier, on November 1st 1914, at the Battle of Coronel – Von Spee’s ships sink two British cruisers with 1,600 sailors losing their lives

The victory was revenge for a heavy defeat inflicted by Vice-Admiral von Spee on a Royal Navy fleet off the coast of Chile, at the Battle of Coronel, a month before, on November 1st 1914. In that action von Spee’s fleet sank two British cruisers, killing around 1,600 Royal Navy sailors, including the fleet commander, Admiral Christopher Craddock. It’s said that only three German sailors were wounded in the action.


Watch the video: Falklands 1914: Von Spees Last Stand (November 2021).