Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War - D. A. Mackenzie

How the Oceans Were Made Free

On a November Sunday evening a brief but fierce battle was fought in the South Pacific Ocean, off the rocky coast of Chile, between squadrons of British and German cruisers. The wind had been blowing hard all day and a rough sea was running, with billows constantly breaking in white foam.

Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock was the British commander. His flagship, the Good Hope, belonged to the "Drake" class of the older armoured cruisers. She steamed at about 23 knots, and carried two 9.2-inch, sixteen 6-inch, and a dozen 12-pounder guns, and was fitted also with torpedo tubes. The other vessels were the Monmouth, one of the "County" class, of similar speed to the flagship, with fourteen 6-inch guns and a group of smaller ones; the light cruiser Glasgow, a modern war-ship capable of running at 25 knots, with two 6-inch and ten 4-inch guns; and the Otranto, a swift armed liner, used chiefly for scouting.

The German squadron was under the command of Admiral Graf von Spee. It consisted of five cruisers. These were the Scharnhorst (flagship) and the Gneisenau, two fast sister ships of modern type, heavily protected, and armed with eight 8.2-inch and six 5.9-inch guns, as well as a number of small quick-firers to resist torpedo-boat attack; and the Nurnberg, Dresden, and Leipzig, three light cruisers which could steam at from 22 to 25 knots, but carried no gun heavier than the 4.1.

Admiral Cradock had been searching for some weeks for these vessels, which had been acting as raiders and had concentrated to oppose him. He had left behind the slow pre-Dreadnought battleship Canopus, which is armed with four 12-inch, twelve 6-inch, and ten 12-pounder guns, when he hastened northward from the vicinity of Cape Horn, and on the day of the battle she was some 200 miles lower down the coast. After sighting the Germans, the commander gave chase, steaming southward. The two squadrons were running in parallel lines shortly before the battle commenced.

At first our vessels had the advantage of wind and light. But when the sun went down the German cruisers, which were nearest the coast, became blurred in the haze of the brief southern twilight. The British war-ships stood out sharply against the brightly coloured western horizon, presenting well-defined targets for the German gunners.

At twenty minutes to seven the Scharnhorst opened fire, and soon the action became general. The Otranto, not being armoured, had to withdraw to a safe distance.

At the outset the Germans secured an overwhelming advantage. The Good Hope was so badly struck that her two 9.2-inch guns were put out of action and she began to blaze forward. The Monmouth was also heavily hit, and flames were afterwards seen leaping from her foremost turret. After a time, however, these fires had been got under.

It was rapidly growing dusk. The British gunners could see only the flashes of the enemy's guns to assist them in taking aim, while their own ships remained well in view.

Once again, as the battle waxed fiercer, the Good Hope began to blaze. Then the flames reached her magazine, which blew up, sending aloft lurid tongues of flame over 200 feet in the air, and throwing her funnels overboard. She sank with all hands—about 900 officers and men, including the gallant Admiral Cradock.

The large German cruisers then concentrated their fire on the Monmouth, with the aid of searchlights, for the gathering darkness had been intensified by clouds of drifting smoke. As the Monmouth  was again burning, it became evident that her doom was sealed, but she fought on to hold back the enemy and allow the Glasgow, which had been badly holed, to escape under cover of night. The Glasgow  retired reluctantly. Had she waited, she would undoubtedly have shared the fate of the gallant Monmouth, which went down under a bewildering and deadly shower of German shells with her 540 officers and men.

News of this naval disaster created a painful impression throughout the British Empire, and surprise was expressed that the Germans should have been able to concentrate a stronger squadron than our own in the Pacific.

Considerable alarm was aroused on the Falkland Islands, which lie to the north-east of Cape Horn, in the South Atlantic Ocean, and are part of the British Empire. The capital is Port Stanley, a well-built town, charmingly situated on the shore of an estuary of East Falkland Island, which opens between flanking cliffs and twists inland like a Highland loch, forming the outer harbour of Port William and the inner Stanley harbour. On the peninsula, which juts out between the estuary and the ocean, is a powerful wireless station.

The Glasgow and Canopus hastened to Port Stanley soon after the naval disaster, and there received wireless orders to make for Montevideo. Meanwhile the Admiralty warned the Governor of the Falklands to expect a German raid. It was anticipated that Admiral von Spee would take forcible possession of Port Stanley, which has not only considerable food supplies in its mutton-canning factories, but also a large naval coal store and a coaling dock. The harbour could be used as a base for operations against our war-ships and trading vessels in the South Atlantic. Fear was also expressed that a destructive raid would be conducted against South Georgia, where millions of pounds worth of whale oil could be destroyed.

With true British pluck, the volunteers of the Falklands mustered to fight the Germans. This force, which has two machine-guns, numbers about 130 men, all of whom are good shots and excellent horsemen. A message from the Admiralty instructed the Governor: "If the enemy land, volunteers should fight, taking care to do so beyond range of the enemy's big guns. Retiring tactics should be adopted." This meant that Port Stanley would have to be evacuated. So the women and children and old men were sent inland, with as much luggage as could be removed.

But while the war-cloud lowered darkly over the islands, events suddenly took a happier turn. The Canopus  returned to Stanley harbour to assist in defending it. Some large guns were landed and mounted at commanding points, and mines were laid across the mouth of Port William harbour.

[Illustration] from Heroic Deeds of the Great War by D. A. Mackenzie

On 7th December, a strong fleet of British war-ships made sudden and unexpected appearance in Port William. It was under the command of Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, who had been in London when the Good Hope  and Monmouth  went down. The principal vessels were the two powerful Dreadnought cruisers, the Invincible  (flagship) and her sister ship the Inflexible, each armed with eight 12-inch guns and capable of steaming at 28 knots. Accompanying these were the Glasgow, which had been hurriedly repaired at Rio de Janeiro, the Bristol, and the older cruisers Carnarvon, Kent, Cornwall, and also the converted cruiser the Macedonia. Some of these vessels began to coal immediately after they cast anchor.

Next morning a sentinel on "Sapper Hill", which is situated near Port Stanley, sighted the German squadron. A hurried message was at once dispatched to the Invincible.

A flag-lieutenant, who was just getting up at the time, ran to Sir Doveton Sturdee and informed him of the approach of the Germans. The Admiral was engaged in shaving, and, glancing round with the razor in his hand, remarked very quietly, "That's all right. You had better go and get dressed. We'll see about the matter later." Then he resumed shaving. The incident recalls forcibly the familiar story of Sir Francis Drake and his game of bowls.

Admiral von Spee was unaware that so strong a British squadron awaited his arrival. He thought he would have to deal with but a few small ships.

The Scharnhorst  and Nurnberg  approached boldly the southern shore of Stanley peninsula to destroy the wireless station. But they sheered off suddenly when the battleship Canopus, lying in Stanley harbour, fired several rounds from her 12-inch guns, over the land, at a range of about 11 miles. One shell nearly struck the Scharnhorst.

When the British squadron put to sea, leaving the Canopus  behind to guard Port Stanley, Admiral von Spee's squadron was already in flight, steaming eastward. The Invincible  and Inflexible  had been sighted. It was a beautiful morning; the sky was almost cloudless, and a soft wind was blowing from the north-west. About half-past ten the German cruisers appeared as mere specks on the horizon, trailing wisps of smoke, the nearest being nearly 20 miles distant.

Then began a hot chase, the Dreadnought  cruisers forging ahead. About one o'clock their first shots were fired, striking the Leipzig  at a range of nearly 11 miles. She turned away to the south-west with the Nurnberg  and Dresden, pursued by the Glasgow, Cornwall, and Kent.

The Invincible  and Inflexible  hung on to the Scharnhorst  and Gneisenau, firing their 12-inch guns with great accuracy and rapidity over distances varying from 7 to 10 miles. Manoeuvre his vessels as he might, Admiral von Spee could not escape the deadly effects of the long-range fire, or get near enough to do any damage to his opponents. Fire broke out on board the Scharnhorst, and when the British shells holed her the red flames raging within were made visible. She listed heavily and sank at 4:17 p.m. with all hands—about 800 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee.

The Gneisenau  kept up the running fight for an hour and a half longer until, raked, riddled, and battered by the British Dreadnoughts, she toppled over and went down. About a hundred of her crew were rescued from drowning.

By this time the wind had freshened and the sea grown rough, and thick clouds were enveloping the sky. The Glasgow  and Cornwall  were engaging the Leipzig, which was sent to the bottom ere night fell. Early in the day the Bristol  and Macedonia  had sunk the two German colliers, but the transport escaped.

All the British vessels were accounted for after darkness came on except the Kent. She had gone in chase of the Nurnberg, and, as the Dresden  had made off at high speed, fears were entertained that the light British cruiser had got into difficulties with the two German cruisers, so the Glasgow set out in search of her.

All night long wireless calls were sent over the sea repeating Kent, Kent, Kent, Kent, but no answer came back. The cruiser, however, returned safely to Port William on the following afternoon, and reported having sunk the Nurnberg. Her silence was due to the fact that her wireless had been destroyed by a German shell.

She had distinguished herself by getting up a speed of 25 knots, although nominally a 21-knot vessel. This was accomplished by burning her boats and every available piece of wood on board, including trunks and furniture. Once she was in great peril. While fighting the Nurnberg, a shell set on fire some cordite charges in the casement and a flash of flame threatened her magazine. But Sergeant Mayes of the Marines picked up and threw aside a charge of cordite and extinguished the fire with a hose, thus saving the Kent  from the fate of the Good Hope. He has been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry medal.

By this brilliant victory Admiral Sturdee freed the oceans of the world. No German fleet remained outside home waters. Of Admiral von Spee's squadron the Dresden  alone escaped, but she was sunk three months later.

Soon after the Falklands battle Admiral Beatty, with a battle-cruiser squadron, gave chase to a German fleet of similar ships across the North Sea, sank the Blucher, and severely damaged the Derfinger  and Seydlits, which escaped, burning furiously, through a mine field.