December 2014’s item of the month presents two wonderfully personal accounts of the Battle of the Falkands, which took place off Port Stanley 100 years ago on 8 December 1914.
The first is a letter written by Vice-Admiral Robert Don Oliver (1895-1980), acting sub-lieutenant on HMS Inflexible, to his father, who was a major in the Reserve Royal Artillery [OLI/37]. The second is a journal kept by Midshipman Morice Blood serving in HMS Cornwall.
Success in the Falklands was a much needed change of fortune for the British navy after the loss of the armoured cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel, one month earlier. This humiliating defeat led to the Admiralty dispatching a new naval force, assembled under Vice-Admiral Sturdee. Von Spee’s squadron unwittingly encountered a superior British force already at Port Stanley which resulted in the loss of all but one of Von Spee's ships, the Dresden( eventually scuttled by the Germans themselves). This success re-addressed the balance of events during the early stages of the war.
The Letter [OLI/37]
Signing himself in the letter as ‘loving Bob’, Oliver became sub-lieutenant proper on 15 March 1915 and is described in his service record as ‘a good officer, takes charge well and full of grit.’ All crew in the Royal Navy had been anticipating action against the Germans since the outbreak of war and this is made clear by Oliver reflecting ‘to my surprise and delight there was the Gneisenau and a light cruiser just over the hill steering for the mouth of the harbour.’ He goes on to state that the Germans did not expect such a strong force to be waiting at the harbour. His recalling of events is vivid and engaging:
‘I have never before come across anything so beastly unpleasant as that continued shell fire. I had a lot to do in the fore-top; had to keep all my attention fixed on the enemy watching the fall of our shot, and I hardly noticed their fire for the first half hour or so, everybody was cool and collected, there was none of the excitement of a fight on shore or a football match but I could not help noticing them after a bit when they just missed the mast, and we could feel the blast of air…the worst part was the noise, a long drawn whine getting louder as the shell gets nearer…when you hear an extra loud one you know that it is coming close.’
What is interesting is that instead of elation at their victory, he recalls how desperately miserable he was about the sinking of the Leipzig and the drowning of so many of her crew. Along with commenting on how ‘bored stiff’ the crew were when their fire was no longer effective, his words add a sobering quality and insight into how sailors actually felt and managed their fears at sea.
The Journal [JOD/164/1]
Early on in his journal, young Blood recounts that they ‘could see five patches of smoke on the horizon, which marked the enemy’s ships, and we could see that we were closing on them appreciably and much to our joy we received permission to proceed independently and we immediately proceeded to catch up with the remainder of the fleet.’
Blood remembers that ‘one shell hit the depression nail of the after turret, went through the Q.D, and through the top corner of the Torpedo Lieut’s cabin, the Ward Room Pantry, through the floor of the pantry into a cabin in the Warrant Officer’s Flat, and burst on leaving the ship’s side, just in the cabin.’ Also he recalls that their funnel had 41 holes in it caused by a shell bursting a little way short and again narrowly avoiding more serious damage.
Personal accounts provide a much needed extra dimension to the conflicts at sea during World War One. Although logistical reports, orders and official records provide the detailed facts for analysis, the recorded psychology of crew and their experiences is vital to our appreciation of their bravery and valour.