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Battle of the Falkland Islands
The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a naval engagement of the First World War, fought between units of the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine on 8 December 1914. The British, reeling from the defeat at the Battle of Coronel sent a large force to destroy the German cruiser squadron. The result was a decisive victory for the British.
Fresh from his success at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, where the German force outgunned the British, sinking Admiral Cradock's flagship in the process, Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's German East Asia Squadron - whose primary target was merchant and troop shipping in the South Atlantic - sped towards Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. His intention was to raid the British radio station and coaling depot there.
Unknown to Spee however, a British squadron, including two fast, modern battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, were at that same time coaling at Port Stanley, sent by First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher to avenge the British defeat at Coronel.
Each of the British battlecruisers were fitted with eight 12-inch guns, whereas Spee's SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau each had 8.2-inch guns. The British cruisers were therefore significantly more powerful than Spee's - and Invincible and Inflexible were accompanied at Port Stanley by five other cruisers, all under the command of Vice Admiral Sturdee. These were the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall and HMS Kent; two light cruisers, HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow; and an old battleship, HMS Canopus, presently grounded at Port Stanley and used as a form of make-shift fortress.
Spee began his attack on 8 December 1914, intending to subsequently refuel north at the estuary of the River Plate. Whilst aware of shipping in the area, he mistakenly assumed them to belong to the Imperial Japanese Navy.
With his crew battle-weary and his ships out-gunned, the outcome was seemingly inevitable. Realising his danger too late — and having missed the golden opportunity to shell Sturdee's fleet while in port — Spee and his squadron dashed for the open sea, but at 10:00 were pursued by the British. Realising that he could not hope to outrun the fast British battlecruisers, Spee decided to bring about an engagement with his armoured cruisers, to let the light cruisers try to escape, just after 13:20.
Despite initial success by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in striking Invincible (commanded by Edward Bingham), and in then resuming a hasty escape, Sturdee managed to bring his powerful cruisers within extreme firing range some forty minutes later.
Four German cruisers were sunk, with Spee's flagship Scharnhorst sinking first, followed by Gneisenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig. The Scharnhorst was the first to go after being heavily hit by the Invincible and Inflexible and sank at 16:17 with all hands. The Gneisenau was next, going down at 18:02. The Nürnberg went down at 19:27 after a long chase with the light cruiser Kent while the other light cruisers, Glasgow and Cornwall, chased down the Leipzig, finally sinking her at 21:23 more than 80 miles southeast of the Falklands.
Ten British sailors were killed during the battle and 19 wounded, whilst none of the British ships was badly damaged. In contrast, 1,871 German sailors were killed in the encounter, including Admiral Spee and his two sons, plus 215 survivors were rescued and ended up prisoners on the British ships. Most of them from the Gneisenau, as well as five from the Nürnberg and 18 from the Leipzig. None of the 765 officers and men from the Scharnhorst survived.
The only German ship to escape was the light cruiser Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before her captain surrendered off the Juan Fernandez Islands on 14 March 1915. Evacuating his ship, he then scuttled her by detonating its main ammunition magazine.
As a consequence of the battle, German commerce raiding on the high seas by regular warships of the Kaiserliche Marine was brought to an end. However, Germany put several armed merchant vessels into service as commerce raiders until the end of the war (see Felix von Luckner, for example). These lone raiders would not utilize the "fleet-in-being" principle of von Spee.
- Description of the battle from the diary of Captain JD Allen RN (HMS Kent)
- Battle of the Falkland Islands
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