From the beginning, Sturdee’s intention to fight at a range beyond the reach of Spee’s guns had been frustrated by the Germans’ having the lee position. The dense smoke from the battle cruisers’ funnels was blowing toward the enemy, obscuring the British gun layers’ view of their targets. In addition, the discrepancy between the range of the British 12-inch and the German 8.2-inch guns was only about 3,000 yards, a narrow margin for Sturdee to find and maintain. For a few moments when the range dropped below 12,000 yards, the Germans fired rapidly and effectively. Then, at two o’clock, to ensure that a lucky German shot did not cripple one of his battle cruisers, Sturdee edged his ships away to port and opened the range to 16,000 yards, where Spee could not reach him. At the same time, he reduced speed to 22 knots to lessen the effects of funnel smoke. For the next fifteen minutes, there was a lull in the action and the two squadrons gradually drew apart.
In this first phase, despite the disparity in strength, the battle had been far from one-sided. In contrast to the rapidity and accuracy of German fire, British gunnery had been an embarrassment. During the first thirty minutes of action, the two battle cruisers fired a total of 210 rounds of 12-inch ammunition. Inflexible had scored three hits on Gneisenau, one below the waterline and another temporarily putting an 8.2-inch gun out of action, while Invincible could claim only one probable hit on Scharnhorst. At this rate the battle cruisers would empty their magazines without sinking the enemy. The primary cause of this bad shooting was smoke. The wind blowing from the northwest carried dense funnel smoke and clouds of cordite gas belching from the gun muzzles down toward the enemy, almost completely blinding Invincible’s gunners in the midships and stern turrets. The only clear views were those over the bow from A turret and that of the gunnery officer high in the foretop. Inflexible’s situation was even worse: she was smothered and blinded not only by her own smoke but also by Invincible’s smoke blowing across her line of vision. This excuse notwithstanding, the performance of the battle cruisers caused deep misgivings. “It is certainly damned bad shooting,” a friend said to Lieutenant Harold Hickling of Glasgow. “We were all dismayed at the battle cruisers’ gunnery, the large spread, the slow and ragged fire,” Hickling added later. “An occasional shot would fall close to the target while others would be far short or over.” An officer in Invincible’s P turret was alarmed to observe that “we did not seem to be hitting the Scharnhorst at all.” Said Hickling, “At this rate, it looks as if Sturdee, not von Spee, is going to be sunk.”
Excessive smoke was not the only cause of the slow, inaccurate gunfire of the battle cruisers. A British officer in the spotting top of Invincible, Lieutenant Commander Hubert Dannreuther, who happened to be a godson of the composer Richard Wagner, found that his excellent, German-made stereoscopic rangefinder was rendered useless not only by smoke, but also by the vibration caused by the ship’s high speed, and by the violent shaking of the mast whenever A turret fired. In Invincible’s P turret, conditions were impossible. The gun layers could see nothing except enemy gun flashes through enveloping clouds of smoke, and every time Q turret, across the deck, fired over them, everyone in P turret was deafened and dazed by the blast. On Inflexible, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner in the battle cruiser’s foretop was almost the only man aboard his ship who could judge the location of the enemy, and he, handicapped by the smoke from the flagship ahead, had great difficulty observing what damage his gunners were causing.
From afar, however, the battle appeared as a dramatic tableau. “With the sun still shining on them, the German ships looked as if they had been painted for the occasion,” said an officer on Kent, coming up astern. “I have never seen heavy guns fired with such rapidity and yet such control. Flash after flash traveled down their sides from head to stern, all their 5.9-inch and 8.2-inch guns firing every salvo. Of the British battle cruisers, less could be seen as their smoke drifted across their range. Their shells were hitting the German ships. . . . Four or five times, the white puff of a bursting shell could be seen on Gneisenau. . . . By some trick of the wind, the sounds were inaudible and the view was of silent combat, the two lines of ships steaming away to the east.”
In fact, the few large British shells that managed to hit were inflicting serious damage. “A shell grazed the third funnel and exploded on the upper deck above . . . ,” said Gneisenau’s Commander Pochhammer. “Large pieces of shrapnel ripped down and reached the coal bunkers, killing a stoker. A deck officer had both his forearms torn off. A second shell exploded on the main deck, destroying the ship’s boats. Fragments smashed into the officers’ mess and wounded the officers’ little pet black pig. Another hit aft entered the ship on the waterline, pierced the armored deck and lodged in an ammunition chamber . . . [which] was flooded to prevent further damage. . . . These three hits killed or wounded fifty men.”
Suddenly, Spee made another move: he turned and made off to the south, hoping that the pall of smoke over the British ships would obscure his flight and that in that direction he might find a cloud bank, a rain squall, a bank of fog. Said Pochhammer: “Every minute we gained before nightfall might decide our fate. The engines were still intact and were doing their best.” Because of the smoke surrounding their ship, it took a few minutes for Invincible’s officers to realize what was happening; by then, Spee had opened the distance to 17,000 yards. Once Sturdee understood, he swung his battle cruisers around and chased at 24 knots. He still had sufficient time and the afternoon remained bright. This second pursuit lasted forty minutes, during which the range was reduced to 15,000 yards; then the battle cruisers turned to port to free their broadsides. At 2:45 p.m., the British battle cruisers recommenced the cannonade.
Eight minutes after Sturdee opened fire, Spee abandoned his southerly flight, and for the second time took his two armored cruisers around to the east to accept battle. The German ships turned in unison and once again broadside salvos of 12-inch and 8.2-inch shells thundered from the opposing lines. Spee now was trying to come closer. The British were within range of his 8.2-inch guns, but he was maneuvering to close to 10,000 yards, where his secondary armament of 5.9-inch guns could come into play. Gradually, the two lines drew nearer; by 3:00 p.m., the range had diminished to just over 10,000 yards and, at extreme elevation, the port German 5.9-inch batteries opened fire. Invincible suffered more heavily as German gunners concentrated on her; for the next fifteen minutes, Sturdee’s flagship was hit repeatedly by both 8.2-inch and 5.9-inch shells. One 8.2-inch shell plunged through two decks and burst in the sick bay, which was empty. Somehow, on the British ships, this kind of luck seemed to hold; the ship was pummeled, but there were almost no casualties. When the canteen was wrecked, crew members cheerfully gathered up the cigarettes, cigars, chocolate, and tins of pineapple scattered across the deck. Not all the German shells exploded. One 8.2-inch shell cut the muzzle of a forward 4-inch gun, descended two decks, and came to rest unexploded in the admiral’s storeroom, nestling between his jams and a Gorgonzola cheese. An unexploded 5.9-inch shell passed through the chaplain’s quarters, entered the paymaster’s cabin, where it tumbled dozens of gold sovereigns from his money chest over the deck, and then passed harmlessly out the ship’s side.
The action was now at its most intense. The fire of the battle cruisers had become more accurate and both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were blanketed by huge waterspouts. Now German spotters, like the British, were greatly hampered and could not see whether they were hitting. “The thick clouds of smoke from the British funnels and guns obscured our targets so that, apart from masts, only the sterns were visible,” said Pochhammer. “Again we tried to shorten the distance but this time the enemy was careful not to let us approach and we knew that we were in for a battle of extermination.” Time after time, Scharnhorst shuddered as 12-inch shells pierced her deck armor and exploded in her mess decks and casements. One 12-inch shell hit a 5.9-inch gun, exploded, and tumbled gun and gun crew into the sea. Gneisenau was also suffering. A huge explosion smashed the starboard engine room; water flooded in and, when the pumps became unworkable, the compartment was abandoned. Splashes from 12-inch shells landing in the sea nearby were throwing huge volumes of water over the decks, sometimes extinguishing fires set by previous, more accurate shells.
By 3:15 p.m., the action had been under way for two and a quarter hours. From the spotting tops, the scene remained the same: a cloudless sky, a calm surface ruffled by a breeze, and, from the two groups of ships, clouds of black smoke punctured by the orange flashes of guns. On Invincible’s bridge, Sturdee sensed that time was passing, the afternoon waning, the matter dragging out. The smoke interference plaguing his gun layers was now so intolerable that the admiral led his battle cruisers around to port, back across their own wakes, navigating an arc from which they emerged at 3:30 p.m. on a southwesterly course with Inflexible leading. This placed the battle cruisers on the windward side of the German ships and for the first time they had a clear view of their targets. With Inflexible now in front, Verner was at last able to observe the enemy and the effects of his own ship’s gunnery. By 3:35 p.m., he said, “for the first time I experienced the luxury of complete immunity from every form of interference. . . . I was now in a position to enjoy the control officer’s paradise: a good target, no alterations of course, and no ‘next-aheads’ or own smoke to worry one.” During the turn, two of Scharnhorst’s 8.2-inch shells struck Invincible’s stern, wrecking the electric store and the paint shop, and a 5.9-inch shell exploded on the front plate of A turret between the two guns, which dented, but did not pierce, the armor. These hits on the British battle cruisers did nothing to reduce their fighting value.
Spee countered Sturdee’s turn by suddenly turning again himself, this time back to starboard, heading northwest as if to parry Sturdee by crossing his bows. In fact, Spee’s reason for swinging his ships was that so many guns on the Scharnhorst’s port side were out of action that he wished to bring his other broadside to bear. And, indeed, once the turn freed her disengaged side, the fresh starboard batteries opened a brisk fire. Gneisenau, not nearly so badly damaged and still firing all of her 8.2-inch guns, followed the flagship around and engaged Invincible. British shells crashed into the sea near the German ship and drove torrents of seawater across the ruins of her upper deck. Fire parties found themselves struggling to keep their feet in this surging flood. Worse, a hit on Gneisenau below the waterline flooded two boiler rooms, reducing her speed to 16 knots and giving her a list to port that made her port 5.9-inch guns unusable.
At this moment, when the two squadrons were trading blow for blow, an apparition appeared four miles to the east. A white-hulled, full-rigged, three-masted sailing ship, flying the Norwegian flag and bound for the Horn with all canvas spread, was, in the words of a British officer, “a truly lovely sight . . . as she ran free in the light breeze, for all the world like a herald of peace.”
Scharnhorst, still plunging ahead through a forest of waterspouts, now had been struck by at least forty heavy shells. And there was no respite; with implacable regularity, orange flames glowed from Invincible’s turrets and a few minutes later more 850-pound shells burst on Scharnhorst’s deck or plunged through to the compartments below. What surprised the British was the volume of fire still coming back from a ship as badly battered as Scharnhorst. Her upper works were a jungle of torn and twisted steel; her masts and her third funnel were gone and the first and second funnels were leaning against each other; her bridge and her boats were wrecked; clouds of white steam billowed up from the decks; an enormous rent was torn in her side plating near the stern; red and orange flames could be seen in her interior; and she was down three feet at the waterline. Yet still her battle ensign fluttered from a jury mast above the after control station and still her starboard batteries fired. From Invincible’s spotting top, Dannreuther reported, “She was being torn apart and was blazing and it seemed impossible that anyone could still be alive.” On Inflexible, Verner, astounded by the continuing salvos from the German armored cruisers, ordered his crews to fire “rapid independent,” with the result that at one point, P turret had three shells in the air at the same time, all of which were seen to land on or near the target. Yet the German fire continued. “We were most obviously hitting [Scharnhorst,] but I could not stop her firing. . . . I remember asking my rate operator, ‘What the devil can we do?’ ”
At about this time, a shell splinter cut the halyard of Spee’s personal flag on Scharnhorst and Captain Maerker on Gneisenau noticed that the admiral’s flag no longer flew from the flagship’s peak. If Spee was dead, Maerker would be in command of the squadron. He signaled: “Why is the admiral’s flag at half mast? Is the admiral dead?”
Spee replied, “No, I am all right so far. Have you hit anything?”
“The smoke prevents all observation,” Maerker said.
Spee’s last signal was characteristically generous and fatalistic. “You were right after all,” he said to Maerker, who had opposed the attack on the Falklands.
Nevertheless, for another half hour, Scharnhorst’s starboard batteries boomed out. Then, just before four o’clock, she stopped firing. Sturdee signaled her to surrender, but there was no reply. Instead, slowly and painfully, the German cruiser’s bows came around. Listing to port, with three of her four funnels and both her masts shot away, her bow so low that waves were washing over the forecastle, Scharnhorst staggered across the water toward her enemy. As she did so, Spee sent his last signal to Gneisenau: “Endeavor to escape if your engines are still intact.” At just that moment, Carnarvon arrived on the scene and opened fire with her 7.5-inch and 6-inch guns. These blows were gratuitous. With water pouring into her bow, Scharnhorst rolled over on her side. Then, at 4:17 p.m., her flag still flying, her propellers turning in the air, the armored cruiser went down, leaving behind a cloud of steam and smoke. Every one of the 800 men on board, including Admiral von Spee, went down with her. Sturdee’s battle cruisers, still under fire from Gneisenau, did not stop to look for survivors, and fifteen minutes later, when Carnarvon passed over the spot, her crew saw nothing in the water except wreckage.
Once her sister was gone, Gneisenau was subjected to an hour and a half of target practice by the two British battle cruisers. Salvos of 12-inch and smaller shells smashed into the ship, shattering her funnels, masts, and superstructure and flooding a boiler room and an engine room. The Germans still fired back, aiming mainly at Invincible and hitting the British flagship three times in fifteen minutes. One of these hits struck and bent the armored belt at the waterline; the result was the flooding of one of the battle cruiser’s compartments. But this success could not reverse the conclusion. The British ships, steaming in a single ragged line, were firing at a range of 10,000 yards, but so dense was the smoke that they still had difficulty in observing their own gunfire. At 4:45 p.m., no longer able to contain his frustration, Inflexible’s Phillimore abruptly turned out of line, reversed himself to port, and ran through the smoke clouds out into the sunlight. Gneisenau lay 11,000 yards away on his starboard beam. Now with a clear and slow-moving target at relatively close range, Inflexible opened a devastating fire. Phillimore had no order from Sturdee to make this turn, but the admiral understood and later approved. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Sturdee ordered reforming of the original battle line with his flagship leading. Much to Verner’s disgust, he found himself once again blinded by Invincible’s smoke.
For the Germans, there was no chance of escape; Maerker faced a choice between surrender and annihilation. He made his choice and held his ship on a convergence course with Invincible, ordering stokers from the wrecked boiler and engine rooms to fill out the ammunition parties feeding the starboard batteries. Even at the end, according to the gunnery officer, “the men with their powder-blackened faces and arms, [were] calmly doing their duty in a cloud of smoke that grew ever denser as the firing continued; the rattling of the guns running backwards and forwards; the cries of encouragement from the officers, the monotonous sound of the order transmitters, and the tinkle of the salvo bells. Unrecognizable corpses were thrust aside; on the walls were splashes of blood and brains.” Below, seawater was pouring into an engine room, a boiler room, and a dynamo room and over the sucking and swirling sounds of water came the cries of trapped and drowning men. Dense clouds of smoke and steam swirled through total darkness. As the dead and wounded grew in number, the size of the ammunition parties dwindled. The wireless station was destroyed and the wireless officer’s head blown off. In the medical dressing station, the ship’s doctor and the ship’s chaplain were killed.
It was time to end it. Sturdee brought his ships in and pounded Gneisenau from 4,000 yards. The vessel was a place of carnage. Her bridge and foremast were shot away, her upper deck a mass of twisted steel, half her crew dead or wounded. One of Carnarvon’s shots had buckled Gneisenau’s armored deck, jamming it against the steering gear and forcing the ship into a slow, involuntary turn to starboard. Yet despite this devastation, the armored cruiser’s port guns and fore turret continued to fire spasmodically. At 4:47 p.m., she ceased firing and no colors were seen, but it was uncertain whether she had struck—several times her colors had been shot away, and each time they had been hoisted again. At 5:08 p.m., her forward funnel crashed over the side. By 5:15 p.m., Gneisenau had been silent long enough for Sturdee to order “Cease Fire,” but before the signal could be hoisted, a jammed ammunition hoist on Gneisenau came free, shells again reached the cruiser’s fore turret, and a final, solitary shot was fired at Invincible. Grimly, the battle cruisers returned to work. A last British salvo was fired and she halted, rocking in the swell, water flooding in through the lower starboard gun ports. At 5:50, Sturdee repeated his signal to “Cease Fire.” Still, the German cruiser’s flag remained flying.
At 5:40 p.m., Maerker had given orders to scuttle the ship. The stern torpedoes were fired and the submerged tubes left open to the sea while explosive charges were fired in the main and starboard engine rooms. With thick smoke clinging to her decks and water gurgling and gushing through the hull, the ship rolled slowly over onto her starboard side. Gneisenau went down differently from Scharnhorst, submerging so slowly that men on deck were able to muster and climb down the ship’s sides as she heeled over. Survivors estimated that about 300 men were still alive at that time. Emerging on deck, the men, coal blackened from the bunkers and the engine rooms, carried the wounded with them and began putting on life belts. As the ship slowly heeled over, Captain Maerker ordered three cheers for the kaiser and there was a thin chorus of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” When the order “All men overboard” came, the men slid down the side and jumped into the water. At 6:00 p.m., Gneisenau sank and British seamen, watching from Inflexible, began to cheer until the captain ordered silence and commanded his men to stand at silent attention as their enemy went down.
When their ship went down, between 200 and 300 survivors were left struggling in the water. A misty, drizzling rain was falling, the sea was beginning to roughen, there was a biting wind, and the temperature of the water was 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The British battle cruisers, 4,000 yards away, carefully closed in on the survivors, attempting to repair and launch their own damaged boats, steaming slowly, lowering boats, and throwing ropes. All around the ships, rising and falling on the swell, men floated, some on hammocks, some on spars, some dead, some still alive and struggling, then drowning before a boat could reach them. A few German sailors were able by their own efforts to swim to the high steel sides of a British ship and be pulled in by ropes. Some were so numbed by the shock of cold water that they could not hold on to anything and drowned within sight of the rescuing boats and ships. Some were alive but too weak and, before they could be brought in, drifted helplessly away into the dark. The wind brought awful cries from the men in the water. “We cast overboard every rope end we had . . . ,” said a young English midshipman, “trying to throw to some poor wretch feebly struggling within a few yards of the ship’s side. If we missed him, the swell would carry him out of reach. We could do nothing but try for another man. . . . Some of the Germans floated away, calling for help. It was shocking to see the look on their faces as they drifted away and we could do nothing to save them.” Every effort was made; when Carnarvon with Stoddart on board reacted slowly in joining the rescue work, Sturdee dropped his mask of imperturbability. “Lower all your boats at once,” he signaled imperatively, and Carnarvon lowered three boats, which picked up twenty Germans. By 7:30 p.m., the rescue work was completed. Of Gneisenau’s complement of 850 men, Invincible had brought aboard 108, fourteen of whom were found to be dead after being lifted on deck. Inflexible picked up sixty-two, and Carnarvon twenty. Heinrich von Spee, the admiral’s son, did not survive.
One of those saved was Commander Pochhammer, second in command of Gneisenau. After the war, he recalled:
The ship inclined more and more. I had to hold tight to the wall of the bridge to avoid sliding . . . then Gneisenau pitched violently and the process of capsizing began. . . . I felt the ship giving way under me. I heard the roaring and surging of the water come nearer. . . . The sea invaded a corner of the bridge and caught me. . . . I was caught in a whirlpool and dragged into an abyss. The water eddied and murmured around me and droned in my ears. . . . I opened my eyes and noticed it was brighter. . . . I came to the surface. The sea was heaving. . . . I saw . . . [our ship] a hundred yards away, her keel in the air[;] the red paint on her bottom glistened in the sunset. In the water around me were men who gradually formed large and small groups. . . . Albatrosses with three to four yards wingspan surveyed the field of the dead and avidly sought prey. . . . It was a consoling though mournful sight to see the first of the English ships approaching . . . to see her brought to a standstill as near to us as appeared possible, her silent crew ranged along the side, throwing spars to help support us and making ready to launch boats. One boat was put in the water, then re-hoisted because obviously it was damaged and leaked. . . . The wind and the swell were slowly driving the English away from us. Eventually, two boats were launched . . . a smaller one . . . [came] in our direction, a sort of dinghy, four men were rowing . . . a young midshipman in the bow. A long life line was thrown to me . . . [but] I lacked strength to climb into the boat. The boat was half full of water. Eventually, the little boat bobbed alongside the giant, whose flanks had a dirty, yellow color. . . . I was quite unable to climb the rope ladder offered to me. A slip knot was passed under my arms . . . and then, all dripping, I found myself on a ship of His Britannic Majesty. From the hat bands I saw it was the Inflexible.
Wrapped in blankets, given a hot-water bottle and brandy, and placed in a bunk in the admiral’s quarters, Pochhammer was treated as a guest of honor. Even in the cabin, the German officer was cold; British warships, he discovered, were not heated by steam but by small electric stoves. Captain Phillimore came to see him and invited him to dinner in the officers’ wardroom. There, Pochhammer, who spoke English, was offered ham, eggs, sherry, and port. Gradually, other rescued German officers appeared. That evening, as the senior surviving officer of the East Asia Squadron, he was handed a message from Admiral Sturdee: “Flag to Inflexible. Please convey to Commander of Gneisenau: The Commander-in-Chief is very gratified that your life has been spared and we all feel that the Gneisenau fought in a most plucky manner to the end. We much admire the good gunnery of both ships. We sympathize with you in the loss of your admiral and so many officers and men. Unfortunately the two countries are at war. The officers of both navies who can count friends in the other have to carry out their country’s duty, which your admiral, captain and officers worthily maintained to the end.” Commander Pochhammer replied to Sturdee: “In the name of all our officers and men I thank Your Excellency very much for your kind words. We regret, as you, the course of the fight as we have learned to know during peacetime the English Navy and her officers. We are all most thankful for our good reception.” That night, falling asleep, Pochhammer felt the vibrations as Inflexible moved at high speed through the South Atlantic.
The pursuit of the German light cruisers continued through the afternoon into darkness. For over two hours, from 1:25 p.m. to 3:45 p.m., in a straightforward stern chase, Glasgow, Kent, and Cornwall raced south after Leipzig, Dresden, and Nürnberg. The pursuing British ships—two armored cruisers and a light cruiser—were overwhelmingly superior in armament: Kent and Cornwall each carried fourteen 6-inch guns and Glasgow had two 6-inch and ten 4-inch; if the British could catch the Germans, the outcome was certain. In this situation, however, success depended more on speed than on guns and, except in the case of Glasgow, the margin of speed was narrow.
When the three German light cruisers broke away to the south, they were ten to twelve miles ahead of their pursuers. Had their design speed still been applicable—Nürnberg’s and Dresden’s were over 24 knots, Leipzig’s 23—their chance of escape would have been excellent. Nominally, Glasgow, designed to reach 26½ knots, could catch them, but one ship could not possibly have overtaken and overwhelmed three. Here, however, design speeds did not apply. The German ships had been at sea for four months with no opportunity to clean their hulls, boilers, and condensers. Beyond decreased efficiency and slower speeds, any attempt to force these propulsion systems to generate sustained high speeds could actually pose a threat. Under the extreme pressures reached in a high-speed run, boilers and condenser tubes contaminated by the processing of millions of gallons of salt water might leak, rupture, even explode.
Glasgow quickly developed 27 knots and drew ahead of Cornwall and Kent. By 2:45 p.m., Luce, who was the senior officer on the three British cruisers, found himself nearly four miles ahead of his own two armored cruisers and within 12,000 yards of Leipzig. He opened fire with his bow 6-inch gun. One shell hit Leipzig, provoking her to turn sharply to port to reply with a 4.1-inch broadside. The first German salvo straddled Glasgow and when the next salvo scored two hits, Luce pulled back out of range. This reciprocal maneuver was repeated several times, but each time Leipzig turned to fire, she lost ground, giving the two slower British armored cruisers opportunity to creep up.
At 3:45 p.m., the German light cruiser force divided. Dresden, in the lead, turned to the southwest, Nürnberg turned east, and Leipzig continued south. Luce had to make a choice. For over an hour, his Glasgow, in front of Kent and Cornwall, had been firing at Leipzig, the rearmost of the German ships. The leading German ship, Dresden, already had a start on him of sixteen miles. The sky was clouding over; rain squalls were in the offing; at the earliest, if he pursued the distant Dresden, Luce could not come up within range until 5:30 p.m. He therefore decided to make sure of the two nearer, slower German ships and to let Dresden go. As the sky became overcast, then turned to mist and drizzle, Dresden grew fainter in the distance and eventually faded from sight.