The Battle of the Falkland Islands I

The night was clear and the visibility exceptional even at two in the morning when officers on Scharnhorst’s bridge first made out the dark masses of the Falkland Islands on the northern horizon. The early summer dawn three hours later promised a rare, cloudless day, the first in weeks. At 5:30 a.m., Admiral von Spee signaled Gneisenau and Nürnberg to leave the squadron and proceed to reconnoiter Port Stanley. The admiral, with Scharnhorst, Dresden, and Leipzig, would remain to the south, while his three colliers waited off Port Pleasant, a bay twenty miles southwest of Port Stanley. As the sun came up, Captain Maerker and Commander Hans Pochhammer of Gneisenau got a better look at the coast, whose capes, bays, and hills they identified with the aid of compass, binoculars, and maps. On deck, a landing party was assembling; Pochhammer looked down from the bridge at the men in white gaiters carrying rifles, one oddly bringing his gas mask. As promised, the summer morning was near perfect: the sea was calm, with only a slight breeze from the northwest gently rippling the surface; the sky was high, clear, and azure. Port Stanley was hidden from the south by a range of low hills, but by seven o’clock, as they came closer, Maerker and Pochhammer could see their first target, the radio mast on Hooker’s Point. They also noticed, near the place where the Cape Pembroke lighthouse stood at the tip of a sandy, rock-strewn peninsula, a thin column of smoke. It appeared to rise from the funnel of a ship.

The British squadron began to coal early that summer morning. By 4:30 a.m., the collier Trelawny was secured to the port side of Invincible and at 5:30 a.m. all hands had been summoned to begin coaling. By two hours later, when the crew was piped to breakfast, 400 tons had been taken aboard. Coaling never resumed that day. Just after 7:30 a.m., a civilian lookout in the observation post on Sapper Hill saw two columns of smoke on the southwestern horizon. He raised his telescope, then picked up his telephone and reported to Canopus: “A four-funnel and a two-funnel man of war in sight steering northwards.” (Nürnberg had three funnels, but because of the angle of the approaching ship, the spotter missed one.)

At 7:45 a.m., Canopus received the Sapper Hill message. Because there was no land line between the grounded Canopus and Sturdee’s flagship in the outer harbor, Captain Grant could not pass along the message by telephone. And because Invincible was out of sight, hidden from him by intervening hills, he could not signal visually. Glasgow, however, was anchored in a place from which she could see both Canopus and Invincible. Accordingly, Canopus hoisted the signal “Enemy in sight.” Glasgow saw it and, at 7:56 a.m., Luce raised the same flags on his own mast. There was no response from Invincible, busy coaling and surrounded by a haze of coal dust. Impatiently, Luce, still in his pajamas, snapped at his signal officer, “Well, for God’s sake, do something. Fire a gun, send a boat, don’t stand there like a stuffed dummy.” The firing of a saluting gun and its report echoing through the harbor attracted attention. By training a powerful searchlight on Invincible’s bridge, Glasgow passed the message. Meanwhile, Luce said to his intelligence officer, “ ‘Mr. Hirst, go to the masthead and identify those ships.’ Halfway up,” Hirst said, “I was able to report, ‘Scharnhorst or Gneisenau with a light cruiser.’ ”

Spee had achieved complete surprise. Sturdee, not imagining the possibility of any threat to his squadron, had made minimal arrangements for its security. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was slowly patrolling outside the mouth of the harbor. The armored cruiser Kent, assigned to relieve Macedonia and the only warship that could get up full steam at less than two hours’ notice, was anchored in Port William. Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon, and Cornwall also were anchored in Port William; Bristol and Glasgow were in the inner harbor where Canopus was grounded. By eight o’clock, only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling and Carnarvon’s decks still were stacked with sacks of coal. Kent, Cornwall, Bristol, and Macedonia had not yet begun to replenish their bunkers; they would fight that day with what remained from Abrolhos. Bristol had closed down her fires for boiler cleaning and opened up both engines for repairs, and Cornwall had one engine under repair. In Cornwall’s wardroom, her officers, many already in civilian clothes, were breakfasting on kippers, marmalade, toast, and tea and making plans for a day of shooting hares and partridges on the moors behind the town.

The sound of Glasgow’s gun found Admiral Sturdee in the act of shaving. An officer raced to the admiral’s quarters, burst in, and announced that the Germans had arrived. Later, Sturdee was reported to have replied, “Send the men to breakfast.” After the war, Sturdee gave his own version of the moment: “He [Spee] came at a very convenient hour because I had just finished dressing and was able to give orders to raise steam at full speed and go down to a good breakfast.” It was said of Sturdee that “no man ever saw him rattled.” Nevertheless, while the admiral may have been pleased by the luck that had brought the enemy so obligingly to his doorstep, he may also have wondered whether perhaps the greater luck was on Spee’s side. The situation of the British squadron was awkward; Kent was the only warship ready to fight. It was possible that Spee might boldly approach Port Stanley harbor with his entire squadron and unleash a storm of 8.2-inch shells into the crowd of ships at anchor. In the confined space of the harbor, some British ships would mask the fire of others and Sturdee would be unable to bring more than a fraction of his superior armament to bear. Accurate salvos from Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might damage, even cripple, the battle cruisers. Even once the British ships raised steam, Spee still might stand off the harbor entrance and subject each vessel to a hail of shells or a volley of torpedoes as it emerged. With these apprehensions in every mind, all eyes were on the flagship to learn what steps Sturdee intended to take.

At 8:10, signal flags soared up Invincible’s halyards. Kent, the duty guard ship, was ordered to weigh anchor immediately and proceed out through the mine barrier to protect Macedonia and keep the enemy under observation. The battle cruisers were told to cast off their colliers so as to leave themselves freer to fire even while they were still at anchor. All ships were ordered to raise steam and report when they were ready to proceed at 12 knots. Carnarvon was to clear for action, to sail as soon as possible, and to “engage the enemy as they come around the corner” of Cape Pembroke. Canopus was to open fire as soon as Gneisenau and Nürnberg were within range. Macedonia, unfit for battle against warships, was ordered to return to harbor. Having issued his orders, Sturdee went to breakfast.

At 8:20 a.m., the observation station on Sapper Hill reported more smoke on the southwestern horizon. At 8:47, Canopus’s fire control station reported that the first two ships observed were now only eight miles off and that the new smoke appeared to be coming from three additional ships about twenty miles off. Meanwhile, bugles on all the ships in the harbor were sounding “Action,” the crews were busy casting off the colliers, smoke was pouring from many funnels, and the anchorage was covered with black haze. The engine room staffs aboard Cornwall and Bristol hurried to reassemble their dismantled machinery.

Sturdee’s breakfast was short. He was on deck at 8:45 a.m. to see Kent moving down the harbor to take up station beyond the lighthouse. “As we got near the harbor entrance,” said one of Kent’s officers, “I could see the smoke from two ships on our starboard over a low-lying ridge of sand.” It would be another hour before the battle cruisers and Carnarvon could weigh anchor, and still longer before Cornwall and Bristol were ready.

At the Admiralty, few details were known and the worst was feared. At 5:00 p.m. London time, Churchill was working in his room when Admiral Oliver, now Chief of Staff, entered with a message from the governor of the Falkland Islands: “Admiral Spee arrived at daylight this morning with all his ships and is now in action with Admiral Sturdee’s whole fleet which was coaling.” “These last three words sent a shiver up my spine,” said Churchill. “Had we been taken by surprise and, in spite of our superiority, mauled, unready, at anchor? ‘Can it mean that?’ I said to the Chief of Staff. ‘I hope not,’ was all he said.”

“As we approached,” said the commander of Gneisenau, “signs of life began to appear. Here and there behind the dunes, columns of dark yellow smoke began to ascend . . . as if stores [of coal] were being burned to prevent them falling into our hands. In any case, we had been seen, for among the mastheads which could be distinguished here and there through the smoke, two now broke away and proceeded slowly east towards the lighthouse. . . . There was no longer any doubt that warships were hidden behind the land. . . . We thought we could make out first two, then four, then six ships . . . and we wirelessed this news to Scharnhorst.”

The Germans, up to this point, had little premonition of serious danger. Then Gneisenau’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Johann Busche, staring through his binoculars from the spotting top on the foremast, believed that he saw something ominous: tripod masts. When he reported this to the bridge, Captain Maerker curtly dismissed the observation. Tripod masts meant dreadnoughts, Busche was told, and there were no dreadnoughts in the South Atlantic. Maerker continued to take Gneisenau and Nürnberg closer to their initial bombardment position four miles southwest of Cape Pembroke. He did not bother to pass Busche’s report along to Admiral von Spee.

As Gneisenau and Nürnberg drew closer, the 12-inch guns of Canopus, invisible to the German ships, were being elevated and trained on them by guidance from the shore observation post. When Maerker’s two ships were near Wolf’s Rock, six miles short of Cape Pembroke, they slowed their engines, turned, and glided to the northeast, swinging around to present their port broadsides to the wireless station. But Canopus, sitting on her mudbank, spoke first. As soon as her gunnery officer, ashore in the observa-tion post, judged the range to be down to 11,000 yards, he gave the signal. At 9:20 a.m., both 12-inch guns in the battleship’s forward turret fired. The reverberating roar shook the town and the harbor and produced shrill cries from circling flocks of seabirds. The shots fell short, but the Germans hoisted their battle flags, turned, and made away to the southeast. As they did so, Canopus tried again with another salvo at 12,000 yards. Again the shots were short, but this time by less, and some observers believed that one of the shells ricocheted, sending fragments into the base of a funnel on Gneisenau. With the Germans moving out of range, Canopus had played her part. She had saved the wireless station, the anchored ships, and the town from bombardment, and had provided Sturdee’s squadron with time to leave the harbor. Captain Grant ordered a cease-fire.

Captain Maerker had just signaled Spee that Gneisenau was about to open fire when he received a shock. Without warning, two gigantic mushrooms of water, each 150 feet high, rose out of the sea a thousand yards to port. This was heavy-caliber gunfire, although the guns themselves could not be seen. Immediately, Maerker hoisted his battle ensigns and turned away, but not before a second salvo spouted up 800 yards short of his ship. Before abandoning his mission, Maerker considered a final attempt to harm the enemy. The first British cruiser coming out of the harbor was recognized as a County-class ship (it was Kent) and Maerker, believing that she was trying to escape, increased speed to cut her off outside the entrance to Port William. Scarcely had he settled on a closing course, however, when he received a signal from Scharnhorst. This was not the unopposed landing Spee had planned. He had no wish to engage British armored cruisers or old battleships with 12-inch guns and he ordered Maerker to suspend operations and rejoin the flagship: “Do not accept action. Concentrate on course east by south. Proceed at full speed.” Spee retreated because, although he now knew that a 12-inch-gun ship or ships were present, he was certain that they were old battleships that his squadron could easily outrun. Maerker turned and made off at high speed toward the flagship twelve miles away.

By 9:45 a.m., Glasgow had come out of the harbor and joined Kent. The light cruiser’s captain, John Luce, carrying memories of Coronel, was eager to attack the Germans by himself, but he was ordered to remain out of range, trail the enemy, and keep Admiral Sturdee informed. At 9:50 a.m., the rest of the squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down the harbor. First came Carnarvon with Stoddart aboard, then Inflexible, Invincible, and Cornwall; only Bristol, still reassembling her engines, and Macedonia were left behind. At 10:30 a.m., as the last of the line of British ships cleared the Cape Pembroke lighthouse, five retreating plumes of smoke could be seen on the southwestern horizon. Three hours had passed since the enemy first came in sight, and Sturdee could be thankful for the fine weather. Had there been fog or mist, he might have had less than half an hour’s notice of Spee’s arrival. Instead, the sun was shining from a blue, cloudless sky, and a light northwesterly breeze scarcely ruffled the sea: ideal conditions for a long-range action. Everyone on both sides who survived the battle recalled the extraordinary weather: “The visibility of the fresh, calm atmosphere surpassed everything in the experience of sailors,” recalled Pochhammer of Gneisenau. “It was a perfect day,” wrote an officer on Inflexible, “very rare in these latitudes and it was a beautiful sight . . . when the British ships came around the point and all flags (we had five ensigns flying to make sure not all should be shot away) with the sun on them.” Aboard Invincible, a sublieutenant was “struck by the magnificent weather conditions and, seizing my camera, climbed up the mast into the main top. The air was biting cold as I . . . stood and watched the enemy . . . away to the southwest, five triangles of smoke on the horizon. It was a brilliant sunny day, visibility at its very maximum. And there they were, the squadron that we thought would keep us hunting the seas for many weary months . . . providentially delivered into our hands.”

The battle cruisers, their speed climbing to 25 knots, crept inexorably to the head of the line, passing Carnarvon, overtaking Kent, then alone with only Glasgow before them. From the flagship’s bridge, Sturdee, watching the smoke from the five fleeing ships, knew that, barring some wholly unforeseen circumstance, Spee was at his mercy. His force was superior; Invincible and Inflexible, just out of dry dock, could steam at 25 knots; Spee’s armored cruisers, after five months at sea, would be fortunate to manage 20. Thus, Sturdee could bring Spee’s armored cruisers within range of his 12-inch guns in less than three hours and then would have six hours before sunset to complete their destruction. The weather was beyond his control, but so far there was nothing to indicate any change in the prevailing near perfect conditions. Up Invincible’s halyard soared the signal “General Chase.”

Lieutenant Hirst of Glasgow afterward recalled: “No more glorious moment in the war do I remember than when the flagship hoisted the signal ‘General Chase.’ . . . Fifteen miles to the eastward lay the same ships which we had fought at Coronel and which had sent brave Admiral Cradock and our comrades to their death.” Glasgow, out in front and off to the side, had a splendid view of the British battle cruisers as they charged ahead, their bows cleaving the calm, blue sea with white bow waves curling away, their sterns buried under the water boiling in their wakes, their 12-inch-gun turrets training on the enemy with the barrels raised to maximum elevation. Above, on the masts and yards, Royal Navy battle ensigns stood out stiffly, the white color of the flags in stark contrast to the black smoke pouring from the funnels. There was no hurry; the admiral had a clear, empty ocean in front of him. Just as Spee at Coronel had been able to use his advantage of greater speed and heavier guns to destroy Cradock, so Sturdee would be able to use his own greater power and speed to destroy Spee. Each British battle cruiser carried eight 12-inch guns, firing shells weighing 850 pounds. The German armored cruisers carried eight 8.2-inch guns, each firing a shell of 275 pounds. Sturdee could use his speed to set the range; then, keeping his distance, use his big guns to pound Spee to pieces.

According to Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau, it was not until the chase was under way that the Germans were certain of the identity of the two big ships that had emerged from the harbor. “Two vessels soon detached themselves from the number of our pursuers; they seemed much faster and bigger than the others as their smoke was thicker, wider, more massive,” Pochhammer said. “All glasses were turned upon their hulls.” It was not long before the spacing of the three funnels and the unmistakable tripod masts forced the German seamen to confront “the possibility, even probability, that we were being chased by English battle cruisers . . . this was a very bitter pill for us to swallow. We choked a little . . . the throat contracted and stiffened, for it meant a life and death struggle, or rather a fight ending in honorable death.”

Meanwhile, Sturdee calmly set about making his tactical arrangements. He had difficulty seeing the enemy because of the volume of smoke belching from the battle cruisers’ funnels, but Glasgow reported the Germans twelve miles ahead, making 18 to 20 knots. Knowing that Spee could not escape, Sturdee decided to postpone an immediate engagement. He ordered Inflexible to haul out on Invincible’s starboard quarter, stationed Glasgow three miles ahead of Invincible on the port bow, and instructed Kent to drop back to his port beam. Soon, with the battle cruisers and Glasgow making 25 knots, he found that he was leaving his own armored cruisers behind. At eleven o’clock, the admiral signaled Carnarvon and Cornwall, five miles behind the battle cruisers, asking what their maximum speed was. Carnarvon replied 20 knots (actually, it was 18) and Cornwall 22. Not wanting his squadron scattered too widely, Sturdee reduced the speed of the battle cruisers from 25 to 24 knots and then to 20 knots to allow the squadron to come closer. These changes, in effect, nullified the signal for General Chase. Never-theless, so confident of the day’s outcome was Sturdee that, at 11:32 a.m., he signaled, “Ships’ companies have time for next meal.” Men who had begun the day shifting sacks of coal and were covered with grime now had an opportunity to wash and change clothes. “Picnic lunch in the wardroom,” wrote one of Invincible’s officers. “Tongue, bread, butter, and jam.” No one remained below, however, and soon the upper decks were lined with officers and men, sandwiches in hand, watching the five German ships on the horizon.

[Meanwhile, around 11:00 a.m., just as the British light cruiser Bristol came out of the harbor, the signal station on Mount Pleasant reported sighting three new ships—“transports or colliers”—about thirty miles to the south. There had been unfounded rumors that German nationals were gathering at South American ports to occupy and garrison the Falklands, and Sturdee ordered Bristol and Macedonia to intercept and destroy these ships. Two of the ships, which turned out to be the colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, were overtaken; their crews were taken off and both vessels were sunk by gunfire. Later, once the German squadron for which the coal had been intended had been sunk, the British regretted having destroyed such valuable cargo. The third German ship, the collier Seydlitz, escaped and was interned in Argentina.]

Aboard the German ships, the mood was somber. “Towards noon, the two battle cruisers . . . were about 18,500 yards away. Four other cruisers were observed,” said Pochhammer. “We took our meal at the usual time, eleven forty-five, but it passed off more quietly than usual, everybody being absorbed in his own thoughts.” As the meal finished, the thunder of heavy guns sounded across the water. “Drums and bugles summoned us to our battle stations. A brief handshake here and there, a farewell between particularly close friends, and the mess room emptied.” Soon after noon, Sturdee became impatient. It was evident that Stoddart’s flagship, Carnarvon, still six miles astern and unable to force more than 18 knots out of her engines, could not catch up. As Cornwall could manage 22, she was ordered to leave Carnarvon and come on ahead. Even this seemed too slow and Sturdee decided to begin his attack with the two battle cruisers. At 12:20 p.m., Captain Richard Phillimore came aft on Inflexible and told his men that the admiral had decided “to get along with the work.” The crew cheered and the battle cruisers again moved up to 25 knots.

Admiral von Spee, less than ten miles ahead, was heading southeast at 20 knots. Gneisenau and Nürnberg were 2,000 yards ahead of Scharnhorst, Dresden was on the flagship’s port beam, and Leipzig lagged behind. Gradually, this speed increased to 21 knots, except for Leipzig, which continued to fall behind. By 12:47 p.m., Sturdee had closed the range to Leipzig to 17,500 yards, and he hoisted the signal “Engage the enemy.”

At 12:55 p.m., there was flash, thunder, and smoke. The first shot was claimed by Captain Phillimore of Inflexible (known in the service as Fidgety Phill), who had opened fire at Leipzig with his A turret, a two-gun salvo at the range of 16,500 yards. This was 4,000 yards farther than any British dreadnought had ever fired at a live target, and from his post high in Inflexible’s foretop, her gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner, saw the shells fall 3,000 yards astern of the German squadron. Again Inflexible fired and Verner experienced “the roar from the forward turret guns and heavy masses of dark, chocolate-colored cordite smoke tumbling over the bow; a long wait and tall white ‘stalagmites’ growing out of the sea behind the distant enemy.” Soon after, Invincible opened fire with a two-gun salvo from her A turret, and high fountains of water rose from the sea a thousand yards short of the target. Within fifteen minutes, however, when the range was down to 13,000 yards, the tall splashes began straddling Leipzig. One salvo raised towering columns of water so close to the small ship that both sides lost sight of her and thought she had been hit.

Leipzig’s plight forced Spee to make a decision. Looking back, he could see the high bow waves of the battle cruisers, the clouds of black smoke pouring from their funnels, the jets of orange flame shooting out through smoke, and, after an agonizing wait, the towers of water rising soundlessly alongside the hapless light cruiser. The admiral made his choice. At 1:20 p.m., Invincible observed the German squadron splitting up: the three light cruisers were turning to starboard, to the southwest, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were turning to port, east-northeast, directly into the path of the onrushing battle cruisers. Spee had realized that the British combination of 12-inch guns and higher speed gave his squadron no chance in a prolonged chase and that it was only a matter of minutes before the lagging Leipzig received a crippling blow. In order to give his three light cruisers a chance to escape, he chose to hurl his armored cruisers against the British battle cruisers. “Gneisenau will accept action. Light cruisers part company and try to escape,” the admiral signaled. The German light cruisers immediately turned to starboard, their wakes curling away from Scharnhorst.

Sturdee had foreseen that the German squadron might do this. In three typewritten pages of instructions issued at Abrolhos Rocks, he had instructed that if, in an action, the East Asia Squadron divided itself, the British battle cruisers would see to the destruction of the German armored cruisers, while the British armored cruisers dealt with the German light cruisers. Therefore, as soon as Luce in Glasgow saw the German light cruisers turn away, and without any signal from Sturdee, he immediately left his position ahead of the battle cruisers and made for the fleeing German ships. Kent and Cornwall followed Luce in this new chase while Carnarvon, now ten miles astern and too slow to have any chance of overtaking the enemy light cruisers, continued in the wake of the battle cruisers.

As his light cruisers swung away to the southwest, Spee led Scharnhorst and Gneisenau around hard to port, to the northeast toward Invincible and Inflexible. The main action between the battle cruisers and the armored cruisers now began with the two admirals jockeying for position. Spee’s hope was to get as close to the enemy as he could with his shorter-range guns, just as Cradock had tried to do with Good Hope and Monmouth at Coronel. Sturdee understood this maneuver and, four minutes after Spee had turned toward him, he deliberately turned 90 degrees to port, parallel with the enemy. Sturdee was resolved to fight at his own range, beyond the reach of the German 8.2-inch guns (13,500 yards), but within range of his own 12-inch (16,400 yards). He meant to use against Spee the same tactics that Spee had used against Cradock.

The two squadrons now were running parallel toward the northeast, with Invincible training on Scharnhorst, and Inflexible on Gneisenau. At 1:30 p.m., the German cruisers, their guns elevated to achieve maximum range, opened fire. Their first salvos were short; then, with the range diminishing to 12,000 yards, the third salvo straddled Invincible and five columns of water shot up around her. Soon, all four ships were firing broadsides, which included their rear turrets. “The German firing was magnificent to watch,” said an officer on Invincible, “perfect ripple salvos all along their sides. A brown-colored puff with a center of flame marking each gun as it fired. . . . They straddled us time after time.” Scharnhorst, especially, lived up to her reputation as a crack gunnery ship, and at 1:44 p.m., she hit Invincible. The shell burst against the battle cruiser’s side armor, causing a heavy concussion but failing to penetrate.

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