49: Admiral Spee's Great Adventure Pt. 2


In 1914 Vice Admiral Spee led his ships halfway around the world from China to South America, what happens when they get there?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 49. Last week we spent the episode following the journeys of the German and British fleets that were destined to meet at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of South America. This week we will jump right into the confrontation before spending some time discussing the aftermath. After the aftermath we will follow the fate of Spee’s squadron after they rounded the southern tip of South America and started making their way north. Just to quickly review the two squadrons that were going to meet each other Spee had 2 armored cruisers the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau along with 3 light cruisers the Leipzig, Dresden, and Nurnberg. Facing him was Cradock with 2 armored cruisers the Good Hope and Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, which I think I erroneously called an armored cruiser last episode, and the armed merchant cruiser Otranto. After Cradock left the Falkland Islands with his ships he went through the straits of Magellan and into the Pacific ocean where he began to make his way north. As they got closer to each other they were both using the limited number of wireless transmissions from the other group of ships to close in on each other. You can think of it like a game of Marco Polo with each wireless transmission made by either side like calling out Marco and Polo to give a clue to their location. They both knew that they were playing this game though and as such they both subtlety manipulated the situation to their advantage. On the German side Spee played a game where he made sure that all wireless transmissions were sent and received by the Leipzig. He would communicate what he needed sent to the men aboard the Leipzig by signal light or signal flag where they would then send it out. He hoped that this would obscure the true size of his squadron from the British, and it would work. As Cradock moved north he fully believed that he was moving in on just one German ship, a light cruiser named Leipzig. This would be easy pickings for his ships, he hoped to pick off the ship quickly, especially if it was separated from the other ships. Cradock was very sparing with his wireless communications as he moved in, hoping to completely obscure his ships from the Germans. On November 1st, the two squadrons moved in close to each other and planned for contact with whatever ships they found. At this point neither knew the true size of the enemy squadron. The British still believed they were only going to face one ships while the Germans didn’t really have any idea at all other than there were ships.

The first ship sighted by the Germans was the light cruiser Glasgow and the British, very quickly began to realize that there were more ships than just 1 light cruiser. Spee, was still confident and continued to close in on the British ships, for Cradock however, the decisions were slightly more complex. First, he had his armed merchant cruiser, the Otranto, with him. While searching for, what he believed, was a single German ship the Otranto had been an asset, giving him another set of eyes while searching. Now, however, with several German warships moving in the Otranto became a liability. It had no chance against even the smallest German ship so Cradock quickly told it to retreat as fast as it could. The next problem for Cradock was that his fleet as a whole could not retreat, even if he had wanted to. His ships were slower and stood no chance of getting anywhere safe, unless it was a port where they would be trapped. The groups of ships were only 20 miles from the shore so getting into a nearby port may have been possible, but it would have meant taking his ships out of the war completely. How the rules of the seas worked was that ships could go into a neutral port, which all of the South American ports were, however if they stayed in one of those ports for more than a few days then they had to be interned for the rest of the war. This was a way for neutral countries to take advantage, economically, of the war by supplying all of the ships of the sea, while at the same time not allowing neutral countries to give more time to one country or another. If Cradock chose this route it would be seen as a cowardly defeat, which he wasn’t something that he would do. Also, you will notice that up to this point in the episode, and during the course of the battle, I won’t mention the word Canopus, the name of the battleship that Cradock also had under his command, this is because Cradock had pushed ahead in front of the aging battleship, leaving it with his supply ships far from the battle. With the ships that he did have he made the choice to close in and force an action with his grossly inferior fleet. Once he made the decision to move in he knew that he had to close in and close fast, because the light would begin failing soon, it was already after 6PM when the ships were sighting. It was also imperative that Cradock close the distance so that his guns could reach the German ships. His guns couldn’t shoot as far as the Germans so there were a few thousand yards during which he would be vulnerable and unable to shoot back. While the slower British ships were closing in Spee was able to use his speed advantage to move around and edge away from Cradock a bit to delay the fighting until closer to 7PM. Spee’s big problem was one of vision, the position of the two groups of ships meant that his gunners were facing directly into the setting sun, hardly an ideal position for gunnery. Because of this fact Spee wanted to wait as long as possible, to allow the sun to set and fortunately for him this wasn’t a problem due to the previously mentioned speed advantage.

At 6:50PM the sun went below the horizon and Spee moved in on his prey. At a range of 11,000 yards Spee told his ships to open fire. The Scharnhorst targetted the Good Hope, the Gneisenau targeted the Monmouth, Leipzig targetted Glasgow, and the Dresden was sent to try and chase down the Otranto. The action would now truly begin, an action that Winston Churchill would call “the saddest naval action in the war.” After only a few minutes of firing the Scharnhorst had hit the Good Hope several times and it was on fire, just a few minutes later the Monmouth was in a similar situation with fire raging on its deck. As the sun sank completely and it became darker the flaming British ships became giant lit targets for the Germans to shoot at. The German ships continued to close in, firing as they came, like wolves approaching wounded prey. At 7:30 the Monmouth stopped firing, at 7:50 the Good Hope, the flagship of the British fleet suffered an explosion below decks and sank within minutes. The Germans were now within range of the British guns, but it was simply too late and the British just weren’t able to offer any real resistance. There was one British ship still fighting though, and that ship was the Glasgow that was still, somehow, surviving. The Glasgow had first engaged the Leipzig, and then the Dresden as well, then the Gneisenau on top of the other two, it was doding back and forth firing her small guns for all that they were worth. A bit after 8PM though, it became apparent how the fight was going to go, with the two larger British ships out of action there just wasn’t much a light cruiser like the Glasgow could do. Captain Luce, the Captain of the Glasgow could see that it was hopeless and since his ship hadn’t been damaged in any important way he knew that he might have a chance of outrunning the Germans. Before leaving the scene the Glasgow approached the burning Monmouth to see if there was any assistance that they could render, but Luce didn’t feel that his ship could help. “I felt that I could not help her but must be destroyed with her if we remained. With great reluctance, I therefore turned to the northwest and increased to full speed.” While the other German ships were busy with the Glasgow the Nurnberg moved in to finish off the wounded Monmouth. The British ship, even in its injured state, wouldn’t strike its colors, the naval symbol of surrender. So the German ship closed in and gave the last final shots. One of Spee’s sons, Otto, would be on the Nurnberg and witness this incident would say “It was terrible to have to fire on poor fellows who were no longer able to defend themselves, but their colors were still flying and when we ceased fire for several minutes they did not haul them down.” The Monmouth finally went down a bit after 9PM. From the two largest British ships, the Good Hope and the Monmouth, there would be very few survivors. 1600 Royal Navy sailors went down with the ships. For the Germans the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been hit a combined total of just 6 times with no major damage, the German light cruisers barely had a scratch among them. The Germans were excited, and after leaving a ship behind to search for survivors they continued on to the South American coast near Valpariso. The three surviving British ships, the Otranto, Glasgow, and Canopus, that hadn’t even participated in the battle, all retreated towards the straits of Magellan. The Glasgow and Canopus would reach the Falkland islands at Port Stanley on November 8th where they would wait to take their part in the final stage of our story.

The news of the crushing British defeat reached London on November 4th. The reaction was of course sadness at first, especially in the press, the loss of so many men from the Royal Navy such a cornerstone of the British society was tragic. But, in the cold calculus of modern war, it wasn’t really a huge setback for the British. In total they lost 2 old armored cruisers, ships that didn’t stand a chance against the German High Seas Fleet, these losses amounted to the smallest reduction of total Royal Navy power. With this being the largest Royal Navy defeat in many many years what took the biggest hit was the British naval prestige, something that we have talked about so much up to this point. Naval command in London did realize they had to do something about Spee now though, and they needed to stop messing around. The Defence and several other British ships were in the Falkland islands and there was a pretty good chance that those ships could beat the Germans, but the British were not in the mood to settle for a “pretty good chance” they started looking at what they could send to decisively move the odds in their favor. What their eyes landed on were the Battlecruisers. The battlecruisers were strong, fast, and had been built to hunt down German cruisers. With these facts in mind the original plan was to send one battlecruiser to the South Atlantic but that plan was changed just a few hours later to send two, the Inflexible and the Invincible. Both of these ships had been built in 1908 and they carried 8 12 inch guns and had a stop speed of 25 knots. One of them, honestly, would have been enough to take on both German armored cruisers. These ships had to be practically pried from Admiral Jellicoe’s hands, as commander of the Grand Fleet tasked with keeping the German High Seas Fleet bottled up he resisted any move that would take away any of his ships, in this case Jellicoe wasn’t given a choice. The two ships were put under the command of Vice Admiral Frederick Doveton Sturdee and he would be made the commader of all of the British ships in the South Atlantic when he arrived on station. Sturdee and his ships sailed from England in the last few days of October and would arrive in the Falklands at the end of November. Along with their big guns they also brought tons of mail and supplies to the ships already on station which I am sure made them the most popular ships in the fleet on their arrival. A critical fact in the upcoming events was that Spee did not hear of their arrival in the Falklands and would not plan for their participation in the next confrontation.

On the German side, after the victory Spee took his fleet to Valparaiso to get supplies before moving on, but he wasn’t necessarily in a huge hurry. To quote Castles of Steel “there was more than weariness to Spee’s procrastination. He was an aggressive, skilled commander in battle, but when he considered the strength of his squadron in opposition to the overwhelming, worldwide of the British navy, he tended to gloom and fatalism” The German high command wanted Spee to make for Germany, and this was a fine idea I guess, but it meant going through the entire British fleet to get there, something that had odds that rounded to zero. The commanders of Spee’s ships also didn’t agree on what they thought the squadron should do. Most of them wanted to get back to Germany, or at least try, but Spee came down firmly against this options seeing it for the low percentage play that it was, but he also had other concerns with moving into the North Atlantic. First, the ships were running short of ammunition, they had used about half of their stores of shells up to this point and there was no way for them to replenish their stock. Unlike coal and food it was impossible to find shells in neutral ports. The second problem was coal. As the German ships moved closer and closer to the north Atlantic and home the availability of coal would decrease. It would simply be harder to arrange for ships to meet him with fresh coal and harder for his supply ships to go find it and bring it back. It would also take time to load the coal onto his ships which meant having his ships stationary for multiple hours in hostile waters. Lets talk a bit more about coal for just a second before moving on. Coal had to be loaded onto the ships by hand, off of one ship, put into bags, and then moved to the other ship and dumped. This was a long, hot, sweaty, and dusty process that took a good deal of energy out of the men. As a mentioned earlier the ships went through it at a pretty good clip so he would have to coal several times between South America and home. If he coaled as soon as he rounded the tip of South America he would still need several more full loads to make his way up to the Atlantic and this meant wireless signals out to ships to meet him, which the British could intercept, these messages would include fixed locations where he would be for a lengthy duration while waiting for the ships and loading from them, static locations that the British would know due to the wireless. I’m sure how you can see that all of this would be very risky when the Royal Navy is hunting for you. Spee wrote in his diary around this time on what he thought his long term plan would probably be after the Falklands “I cannot reach Germany; we possess no other secure harbour; I must plough the seas of the world doing as much mischief as I can, till my ammunition is exhausted, or till a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me.” As sort of a way to delay the decision on what to do once they were in the Atlantic Spee decided to head to the Falkland Islands and lead a small attack on the Naval base there. This was a valid military target, it had a wireless station that the British used fairly often and also housed a British resupply station that military ships often used before going through the straits. So at the end of November the German ships rounded Cape Horn and made their way north towards the islands. As the Germans approached Port Stanley he sent the Nurnberg and Gneisenau ahead to bombard the harbor.

The Gneisenau and Nurnberg approached Port Stanley in the early morning of December 8th 1914, at 8AM they suddenly found themselves in a situation for which they were not prepared and that they did not expect, they were under fire. At 11,000 yards the Canopus, the ship that had been too old to participate at Coronel began firing on them. After the ship had arrived at the islands it had been run aground to act as a fixed gun emplacement should the German ships show up and it was at this moment, this one singular moment that it had its moment in the sunlight. As soon as the Germans determined what was happening they sent a message to Spee and began to beat a hasty retreat back to their other ships. What Spee could not have known, and would never get a chance to find out, was that this was his only moment to win the battle, or even really have any chance at all at doing damage to the British ships. When the two German ships had approached the island the British ships had been coaling and were immobile, they were sitting ducks in the harbor surrounded by huge clouds of coal dust that obscured all vision. If Spee would have attached at that very moment, with all of his ships, and hit the British as hard as he could have then there is a chance, still a small one but a chance, that he could have won the day. As I said though, he could not have known this fact and all he knew was that his ships were under fire from a location where he did not expect to find any war ships. He told the Gneisenau and Nurnberg to break contact and proceed at maximum speed towards him and the other ships. Spee then took all of his ships and began to run. It wouldn’t be until 10AM that the British were finally able to move out of their anchorage, but even the two hour headstart that Spee had wouldn’t make a difference in the long run. One other small little fact that Spee didn’t know was that the British had 2 Battlecruisers in their ranks, two battlecruisers fresh from drydock in England. They could make 25 knots, may 26 if they had to, Spee’s ships on the other hand hadn’t seen any port facilities in a very long time and 5 months of travel had taken their toll, if they were lucky they could make 20. 5 Knots is roughly 5.75 miles per hour or 9.25 kilometers per hour for our non-American listeners. So even with a two hour headstart the 5 knot speed difference would only buy Spee a few hours worth of a headstart. At this point the Germans didn’t know about the Battlecruisers and they wouldn’t know until the British ships drew near enough to see, and then they realized the situation there were in. See would write “the possibility, even probability that we were being chased by English battle cruisers…this was a very bitter pill for us to swallow” This is one of those moments that you usually only see at sea during the war, and a moment for which I feel truly sorry for the German sailors. They were just straight up doomed, and they all knew it, they couldn’t outrun the British ships forever, no matter how hard they worked, but it would be a slow and agonizing wait for the inevitable as they closed in. Around noon the British Battlecruisers slowed a bit to let the other ships catch up, and to grab a bite for lunch, but they never stopped gaining on the Germans. Just a bit before 1PM, at a range of 16,500 yards the front guns of the first British ship in line, the Inflexible, opened fire at the Leipzig. These didn’t hit, the opening ranging salvo never does, but it finally forced Spee to make a decision on what to do. From his ship Spee could see many things. He could see the onrushing British ships, smoke billowing from their stacks and now the flash of their guns, he could see the Leipzig, beginning to have shells fall all around her, he could see his other two light cruisers, making better speed than the Leipzig, but not fast enough, he could see his two armored cruisers, and he knew nothing could save them. So Spee made a decision, at 1:20PM the two armored cruisers, Spee’s great warhorses, turned to port while the light cruisers turned to starboard, away from the British. Spee had made his decision, he had turned his armored cruisers right at the British. His plan was to hopefully delay the British long enough that his light cruisers might be able to escape. It was a suicide mission, and Spee was very much aware of this fact. With the decision made the entire affair became a game of math. The British ships outranged the Germans by a solid 2,000 yards, so to do damage Spee had to quickly close the distance. He raced towards the British at top speed, he zigged, he sagged, anything to try to avoid the shells, and all the time he kept coming on. The British, while at a heavy disadvantage, had their own problems though. Due to the wind and their direction of travel the smoke from their boilers stayed right over top of the ships, hanging like a thick mist, preventing them from properly seeing and shelling the Germans. This meant that the ships had to keep veering away from the Germans at an angle to get out of the haze. This movement often meant that the British would drift too far away from the Germans, preventing either side from firing, so the British would have to move closer, while trying to stay within that magic 2,000 buffer. Always, Spee kept moving closer. At 1:30 he was close enough and was able to fire at maximum range. After firing several rounds at the British, and seeing their smoke problems, Spee raced south, hoping to move away from the British and get some breathing room. The British caught back up at2:45PM and began to once again open fire. Again Spee raced in close, this time close enough for his ships to use their smaller 5.9 inch guns as well as their main armament. All this time though, as the Germans were closing and firing they were receiving damage from the British shells, and it was starting to wear the ships down. At least at this moment they were positioned to do their maximum damage to the British ships, but it was still very much a losing game. The Scharnhorst, being focused by the British shops soon found itself smoking all along its length from the shells that had hit it. The ship was still miraculously able to make full speed, but it had been hit something like 50 times by British shells. A sailor on the Invincible would say “She was being torn apart and was blazing and it seemed impossible that anyone could still be alive” At 4PM, it was finally time for the voyage of the Scharnhorst to come to an end, heavily listing to port and with her funnels shot away the ship finally stopped firing. Spee sent his last signal to Gneisenau right before the end “Endeavor to escape if your engines are still intact” At 4:17PM, its flag still flying, the German ship heeled over and went down. Atll 860 men aboard went down with the ship. With the Scharnhorst down the Gneisenau continued to fight. For another 2 hours she kept fighting and firing. At 5:40PM the captain gave the order to scuttle the ship. A German sailor on board “the men left their stations in perfect order and the wounded comrades were carried above. Hardly any staircases and ladders were left, but the sheet-iron crumpled up in numerous places offered a support sufficient for climing on deck through the breaches.” At 6:02PM the Gneisenau finally sank, 400 men had made it off, but only 200 would be rescued by the British. The icy cold water meant that many men succumbed to the cold before they could be fished out of the water. Vice Admiral Sturdee would send the this message to the captain of the Inflexible, who had picked up most of the survivors “Flag to Inflexible. Please convey to Command of Gneisenau: The commander in chief is very gratified that your life has been spared and we all feel that the Gneisinau fought in a most plucky manner to the end. We much admire the good gunnery of both ships.” The Nurnberg and Leipzig were chased down by the British light cruisers and the Nurnberg was sank at 7:30 and the Leipzig at 9:30. With the sinking of the Leipzig we have come at last to the end of Vice Admiral Spee’s Great Adventure. They had travelled 15,000 miles from China to meet their end near the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Of the 2,500 men aboard the ships only a few hundred would survive their date with destiny on December 8th, 1914. The German ships had led the British on a merry chase halfway around the globe, had been a squadron of the British navy which was a rare then, but in the end a bit of bad luck and the inevitability of facing a much stronger foe finally caught up with the German sailors. Thank you for listening, and talk to you next week.