Sea Battle Of the Falkland Islands

British Squadron, 10 Vessels Admiral F. D. Sturdee German Squadron, Five Vessels Admiral von Spee England took immediate steps to revenge the disaster to Cradock's squadron.

Rear Admiral F. D. Sturdee, chief of the naval staff, was put in command of a special squadron of seven cruisers which secretly steamed away to the South Atlantic. His fleet was joined by three more cruisers, including the Glasgow.

Upon arriving at his destination, Admiral Sturdee laid a trap for the Germans by sending a fictitious wireless message to the cruiser Canopus, bidding her proceed to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

As foreseen by Admiral Sturdee, this message was intercepted by the Germans. Admiral von Spee, who was heading for Cape Horn, thought it an easy matter to capture the Canopus at Fort Stanley. He reached the fort December 8 and was astounded to find Admiral Sturdee's entire fleet in waiting for him.

A furious sea-fight occurred, which resulted in the sinking of four of the five ships composing the German squadron. Only the Dresden escaped and she afterward became a raider. Many Germans were rescued from drowning by the Britishers, but the German losses exceeded 1000, while the British losses were trifling. Thus was destroyed the last German squadron upon open seas.


This stinging blow and the resultant danger aroused the new Board of Admiralty to energetic moves. Entering the Atlantic, the German squadron might scatter upon the trade routes or support the rebellion in South Africa. Again, it might double westward or northward in the Pacific, or pass in groups of three, as permitted by American rules, through the Panama Canal into the West Indies. Concerted measures Page 363 were taken against these possibilities. Despite the weakening of the Grand Fleet, the battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible under Admiral Sturdee, former Chief of Admiralty Staff, sailed on November 11 for the Falkland Islands. Their destination was kept a close secret, for had the slightest inkling of their mission reached German ears it would at once have been communicated to von Spee.

After the battle, the German admiral moved slowly southward, coaling from chartered vessels and prizes; and it was not until December 1 that he rounded the Horn. Even now, had he moved directly upon the Falklands, he would have encountered only the Canopus, but he again delayed several days to take coal from a prize. On December 7 the British battle cruisers and other ships picked up in passage arrived at the island base and at once began to coal.

Their coming was not a moment too soon. At 7.30 the next morning, while coaling was still in progress and fires were drawn in the Bristol, the signal station on the neck of land south of the harbor reported two strange vessels, which proved to be the Gneisenau and the Nürnberg, approaching from the southward. As they eased down to demolish the wireless station, the Canopus opened on them at about 11,000 yards by indirect fire. The two ships swerved off, and at 9.40, perceiving the dense clouds of smoke over the harbor and what appeared to be tripod masts, they fell back on their main force.

Hull down, and with about 15 miles' start, the Germans, had they scattered at this time might, most of them at least, have escaped, as they certainly would have if their approach had been made more cautiously and at a later period in the day. The British ships were now out, with the fast Glasgow well in the lead. In the chase that followed, Admiral van Spee checked speed somewhat to keep his squadron together. Though Admiral Sturdee for a time did the same, he was able at 12.50 to open on the rear ship Leipzig at 16,000 yards. At 1.20 the German light cruisers scattered to southwestward, followed by the Cornwall, Kent, and Glasgow. The 26-knot Bristol, had she been able to work up steam in time, would Page 364 have been invaluable in this pursuit; she was sent instead to destroy three enemy colliers or transports reported off the islands.

Between the larger ships the action continued at long range, for the superior speed of the battle cruisers enabled Admiral Sturdee to choose his distance, and his proper concern was to demolish the enemy with his own ships unscathed. At 2.05 he turned 8 points to starboard to clear the smoke blown down from the northwest and reduce the range, which had increased to 16,000 yards. Admiral von Spee also turned southward, and the stern chase was renewed without firing until 2.45. At this point both sides turned to port, the Germans now slightly in the rear and working in to 12,500 yards to use their 5.9-inch guns.

At 3.15 the British came completely about to avoid the smoke, and the Germans also turned, a little later, as if to cross their bows. (See diagram.) The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, though fighting gamely, were now beaten ships, the latter with upper works a "shambles of torn and twisted iron," and holes in her sides through which could be seen the red glow of flames. She turned on her beam-ends at 4.17 and sank with every man an board. At 6 o'clock, after a fight of extraordinary persistence, the Gneisenau opened her sea-cocks and went down. All her 8-inch ammunition had been expended, and 600 of her 850 men were disabled or killed. Some 200 were saved.

Against ships with 12-inch guns and four times their weight of broadside the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst made a creditable record of over 20 hits. The British, however, suffered no casualties or material injury. While Admiral Sturdee's tactics are thus justified, the prolongation of the battle left him no time to join in the light cruiser chase, and even opened the possibility, in the rain squalls of the late afternoon, that one of the armored cruisers might get away. In spite of a calm sea and excellent visibility during most of the action, the gunnery of the battle cruisers appears to have been less accurate at long range than in the later engagement off the Dogger Bank.

Following similar tactics, the Glasgow and Cornwall overtook Page 365Page 366 and finally silenced the Leipzig at 7 p.m., four hours after the Glasgow had first opened fire. Defiant to the last, like the Monmouth at Coronel, and with her ammunition gone, she sank at 9.25, carrying down all but 18 of her officers and crew. The Kent, stoking all her woodwork to increase steam, attained at 5 o'clock a position 12,000 yards from the Nürnberg, when the latter opened fire. At this late hour a long range action was out of the question. As the Nürnberg slowed down with two of her boilers burst, the Kent closed to 3000 yards and at 7.30 finished off her smaller opponent. The Dresden, making well above her schedule speed of 24 knots, had disappeared to southwestward early in the afternoon. Her escape entailed a long search, until, on March 14, 1915, she was destroyed by the Kent and Glasgow off Juan Fernandez, where she had taken refuge for repairs.

From Official British Naval History, Vol. I.
British Squadron
Name Type Guns Speed
Invincible Battle Cruiser 8–12″, 16–4″ 26.5
Inflexible Battle Cruiser 8–12″, 16–4″ 26.5
Carnarvon Armored Cruiser 4–7.5″, 6–6″ 23.0
Cornwall Armored Cruiser 14–6″ 23.5
Kent Armored Cruiser 14–6″ 23.0
Bristol Scout Cruiser 2–6″, 10–4″ 26.5
Glasgow Scout Cruiser 2–6″, 10–4″ 26.5
Canopus Coast Defense 4–12″, 12–6″ 16.5

German Squadron
Scharnhorst Armored Cruiser 8–8.2″, 6–6″ 23.5
Gneisenau Armored Cruiser 8–8.2″, 6–6″ 23.5
Leipzig Protected Cruiser 10–4″ 23.0
Nürnberg Scout Cruiser 10–4″ 24.0
Dresden Scout Cruiser 10–4″ 24.0

The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a British naval victory over the Imperial German Navy on 8 December 1914 during the First World War in the South Atlantic. The British, embarrassed by a defeat at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, sent a large force to track down and destroy the German cruiser squadron responsible.

Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee commanding the German squadron of two armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau, and three light cruisers, Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley on the Falkland Isles. A larger British squadron of two battlecruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, three armoured cruisers, HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall and HMS Kent, and two light cruisers, HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow, had arrived in the port only the day before.

Visibility was at its maximum: the sea was placid with a gentle breeze from the north west, the sun bright, the sky clear. The advance cruisers of the German squadron had been detected early on, and by nine o'clock that morning the British battlecruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit of the five German vessels, these having taken flight in line abreast to the south-east. All except Dresden were hunted down and sunk.


The British battlecruisers mounted eight 12-inch (305 mm) guns apiece, whereas Spee's SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau each had eight 8.24-inch (209 mm) guns. Additionally, the battlecruisers could make 25½ knots against Spee's 22½ knots. Thus the British battlecruisers could outrun their opponents and significantly outgun them. An obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship, HMS Canopus, had also been grounded at Stanley to give a stable gunnery platform and act as a make-shift fortress for the defence of the area.

Von Spee's squadron

Following Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's success on 1 November 1914 at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile, where his German East Asia Squadron sank the cruisers HMS Good Hope (Admiral Cradock's flagship) and HMS Monmouth, von Spee's force put into Valparaíso. As required under international law for belligerent ships in neutral countries, the ships left within 24 hours, moving to Mas Afuera, 400 miles off the Chilean coast. There they received news of the loss of SMS Emden, which had previously detached from the squadron and had been raiding in the Indian Ocean. They also learned of the fall of the German colony at Tsingtao in China, which had been their home port. On 15 November the squadron moved to Bahia San Quintin on the Chilean coast, where a ceremony was held to distribute 300 Iron Cross, second class, amongst the crew, and an Iron Cross, first class, awarded to Admiral Spee.

Spee also received recommendations to return to Germany, if he could. His ships had used half their ammunition at Coronel, which could not be replaced, and had difficulties obtaining coal. Intelligence reports suggested that the British ships Defence, Cornwall and Carnarvon were stationed in the river Plate, and that there had been no British warships at Stanley when recently visited by a steamer. Spee had been concerned about reports of a British battleship, the Canopus, but its location was unknown. On 26 November the squadron set sail for Cape Horn, which was reached on 1 December, then anchored at Picton Island, where they stayed for three days distributing coal from a captured British freighter, and hunting. On 6 December Spee proposed to raid the Falkland Islands before turning north. The raid was unnecessary, because the squadron already had as much coal as they could carry, and was opposed by most of Spee's captains, but he decided to proceed.

British preparations

On 30 October retired Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher was reappointed First Sea Lord to replace Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was forced to resign because of public outcry against a perceived German prince running the British navy.[3] On 3 November Fisher was advised that Spee had been sighted off Valparaiso and acted to reinforce Cradock by ordering HMS Defence, already sent to patrol the eastern coast of South America, to reinforce his squadron. On 4 November news of the defeat at Coronel arrived. As a result, the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible were ordered to leave the Grand Fleet and sail to Plymouth for overhaul and preparation for service abroad. Chief of Staff at the Admiralty was Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Fisher had a long standing disagreement with Sturdee, who had been one of those calling for his earlier dismissal as First Sea Lord in 1911, so he took the opportunity to appoint Sturdee Commander in Chief, South Atlantic and Pacific, to command the new squadron from Invincible.

On 11 November Invincible and Inflexible left Devonport, although repairs to Invincible were incomplete and she sailed with workmen still onboard. Despite the urgency of the situation and their maximum speed of around 25 knots, the ships travelled at a steady 10 knots. Running at high speed used a disproportionately greater quantity of coal, so to complete the long journey it was necessary to travel at the most economic speed. The two ships were also heavily loaded with supplies. Secrecy of the mission was considered important so as to surprise Spee, but on 17 November, Lieutenant Hirst from Glasgow heard locals discussing the forthcoming arrival of the ships while ashore at Cape Verde. The news failed to reach Spee. Sturdee arrived at the Abrolhos Rocks on 26 November, where Rear Admiral Stoddart awaited him with the remainder of the squadron.

Sturdee announced his intention to depart for the Falkland Islands on 29 November. From there, the fast light cruisers Glasgow and Bristol would patrol seeking Spee, summoning reinforcements if they found him. Captain Luce of Glasgow, who had been at the battle of Coronel, objected that there was no need to wait so long and persuaded Sturdee to depart a day early. The squadron was delayed during the journey for 12 hours when a cable towing targets for practice firing became wrapped around one propellor of Invincible, but the ships arrived on the morning of 7 December. The two light cruisers moored in the inner part of Stanley Harbour, while the larger ships remained in the deeper outer harbour of Port William. Divers set about removing the cable wrapped around Invincible's propellor. Cornwall extinguished her boiler fires to make repairs, and Bristol dismantled one of her engines. The famous ship SS Great Britain, reduced to the humble role of a coal bunker, played a part in the battle, supplying coal to the Invincible and the Inflexible. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was ordered to patrol the harbour, while Kent maintained steam in her boilers, ready to replace Macedonia the next day, 8 December. Spee's fleet arrived the morning of the 8th.


Spee's cruisers, the Gneisenau and Nürnberg, approached Stanley first. At the time, the entire British fleet was coaling. Had Spee pressed the attack, not only would Sturdee's ships have been easy targets[citation needed], but any ship that tried to leave would have faced the full firepower of the German ships. Having a vessel sunk might also have blocked the rest of the British squadron inside the harbour. Fortunately for the British, the Germans were surprised by gunfire from an unexpected source: the Canopus, which had been grounded as a guardship and was behind a hill. This was enough to check the Germans' advance. The sight of the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers confirmed that they were facing a better-equipped enemy. The Kent was already making way out of the harbour and had been ordered to pursue Spee's ships.

Made aware of the German ships, Sturdee had ordered the crews to breakfast, knowing that the Canopus had bought them time while steam was raised.

To Spee, with his crew battle-weary and his ships outgunned, 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. The British left port around 10:00 AM. Spee was ahead by 15 miles (24 km) but there was a lot of daylight left for the faster battlecruisers to catch up.

It was 13:00 when the British battlecruisers opened fire, but it took them half an hour to get the range of the Leipzig. Realising that he could not hope to outrun the fast British ships, Spee decided to engage them with his armoured cruisers alone, to give the light cruisers a chance to escape. They turned to fight just after 13:20. The German armoured cruisers had the advantage of being to windward of a freshening north-west breeze, causing the funnel smoke of the British to obscure their target practically throughout the action. Author Hans Pochhammer indicates that there was a long respite during the early stages of the battle, as the British attempted to force Admiral Spee away from his advantageous position, which they could not.

Despite initial success by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in striking Invincible, the British capital ships suffered little damage, thanks to their heavier armour. Spee then turned to escape, but the battlecruisers were within extreme firing range just forty minutes later.

Invincible and Inflexible engaged Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, while Sturdee detached his cruisers to chase the Leipzig and Nürnberg.

Inflexible and Invincible turned to fire broadsides at the armoured cruisers and Spee responded by trying to close the range. His flagship Scharnhorst took extensive damage with funnels flattened, fires and a list. The list became worse at 16:04 and she sank by 16:17. All hands were lost. Gneisenau continued to fire and evade until 17:15 by which time her ammunition had gone and her crew allowed her to sink, going down at 18:02. During her death throes, Admiral Sturdee continued to engage Gneisenau with his two battlecruisers and the cruiser Carnarvon, rather than detaching one of the battlecruisers to hunt down the escaping Dresden. Of the Gneisenau's crew, 190 were rescued from the water. The battlecruisers had received about 40 hits and lost one man, with four more injured.

Meanwhile, Nürnberg and Leipzig had run from the British cruisers. The Nürnberg was running at full speed but in need of maintenance, while the crew of the pursuing Kent were pushing her boilers and engines to the limit. Nurnberg finally turned to battle at 17:30. Kent had the advantage in shell weight and armour. Nurnberg suffered two boiler explosions around 18:30, giving the advantage in speed and manoeuvre to Kent. She then rolled over at 19:27 after a long chase. The cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall had chased down Leipzig. Glasgow closed to finish Leipzig which had run out of ammunition but was still flying her battle ensign. She fired two flares, so Glasgow halted fire. At 21:23, more than 80 miles (130 km) southeast of the Falklands, she rolled over, leaving only 18 survivors.


Ten British sailors were killed during the battle and 19 wounded; 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. A further 215 survivors were rescued and ended up prisoners on the British ships. Most of them were from the Gneisenau, five from the Nürnberg and 18 from the Leipzig. Out of the 765 officers and men from the Scharnhorst, only 7 survived.

Of the known German force of eight ships, two escaped: the auxiliary Seydlitz and the light cruiser Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before her captain was cornered by a British squadron off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915. After fighting a short battle, the Dresden's captain evacuated his ship, and then scuttled her by detonating the 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 (for example, see Felix von Luckner).

German auxiliaries

Sturdee noted that "information was received from the captain of HMS Bristol at 11:27 a.m. that three enemy ships had appeared off Port Pleasant (not many miles below Stanley on the east coast of East Falkland), probably colliers or transports. The captain was therefore directed to take charge also of the Macedonia under his orders and destroy the transports." At the end of his report, Sturdee returned briefly to the matter of the German transports. "HMS Macedonia reported that only two ships, steamers Baden and Santa Isabel were present: both ships were sunk after removal of the crews."

During the night of 7 December the German auxiliaries had steamed up under cover of darkness and anchored close inshore.

The German support vessels are believed to have been five. Two of these, the steamers Mera and Elinore Woermann, sailed from the River Plate on 4 December 1914 for an unspecified destination loaded with cement, rolls of barbed wire, entrenching equipment and provisions. It is thought that they had been headed for the Falklands; they returned to the River Plate on or about 11 December.

The collier Baden, about 7,500 tons, was a HAPAG ship built in 1913. The collier Santa Isabel, about 5,200 tons, was a Hamburg-Sud Amerika ship built in 1914. Both were modern colliers which would have made a useful addition to the British mercantile fleet if taken as prizes, yet they were both sunk within 50 miles (80 km) of Port Stanley. The two steamers were apparently overtaken by the Bristol and Macedonia at about 1 p.m and the crews "given ten minutes to abandon ship". The British boarding parties remained aboard the Santa Isabel for seven hours, and eight and a half hours aboard Baden before the colliers were sunk.

The fifth ship was the Norddeutscher Lloyd passenger liner Seydlitz, built at F. Schichau shipyard in 1903. Able to accommodate 2,000 persons, she was past her best, but could make 14 knots (26 km/h).[citation needed] The day before the outbreak of war, Seydlitz sailed from Sydney and reached Argentina unscathed, laying up at Bahía Blanca at the southern end of Buenos Aires province. Early in November 1914, she made the voyage from there to Valparaiso in Chile, which was the principal mobilisation centre for German reservists and volunteers from all parts of South America.

According to the memoirs (Graf Spees Letzte Fahrt, Leipzig, 1924) of Fregattenkapitän Hans Pochhammer, First Officer of the armoured cruiser SMS Gneisenau and senior surviving German officer of the Falklands battle, the German East Asia Squadron had been hiding in the Gulf of Penas along the southern coast of Chile during the latter part of November 1914, in order to load new stores and refit. It was joined there on or about December 21 by Seydlitz, arriving from Valparaiso. Pochhammer was mystified by this liner, for although bearing no outward markings, she was described as "a hospital ship". He could not understand the need for such a vessel, since each of the five warships had adequate medical facilities, sick bays and shared a total of eleven surgeons. Pochhammer was unable to gain access to Seydlitz, and no member of her alleged "medical staff" was ever seen.

Pochhammer confirms that the three auxiliaries were present at Picton Island in the Beagle Channel in early December 1914. They did not leave for the Falklands in company with the five warships on the evening of 7 December, and left earlier. Pochhammer states that during his captivity at Port Stanley, he was kept aboard HMS Macedonia for part of the time. In conversation with her officers, when he asked them what had become of Seydlitz he was told,

"She came out of Port Pleasant like a bat out of hell. Macedonia and Bristol had to take a steamer apiece allowing Seydlitz to head for the south and west and so escape, we all thought she was an armed merchant cruiser."

Upon her arrival in Argentine waters, Seydlitz put into San Antonio Oeste and declared herself to be "a hospital ship". The Argentine authorities were not deceived and interned her as a German naval auxiliary. She was interned there for the remainder of the war.