Revenge at Sea: The Battle of the Falkland Islands, 8 December 1914

Track Chart of Battles off the Falkland Isles, 8th December 1914Track Chart of Battles off the Falkland Isles, 8th December 1914, by an anonymous maker, drawn in 1914. Repro ID: F5655. ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonAn anonymous British sailor, who served on board the armoured cruiser HMS Cornwall during the early years of the First World War, produced the featured manuscript chart.

The chart contains the tracks of warships of the Royal Navy and German navy which were involved in The Battle of the Falkland Islands (8 December 1914), an engagement which resulted in a decisive victory for the British, thus avenging a serious defeat by the enemy forces just one month before, off the coast of Chile.

In this previous action, the Battle of Coronel (1 November 1914), the small British cruiser squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock was defeated by the German East Asiatic Squadron under Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee, and resulted in the loss of the two armoured cruisers Good Hope (Cradock’s flagship) and Monmouth with all hands and the rapid withdrawal of the surviving vessels the light cruiser Glasgow and armed merchant cruiser Otranto.

The chart records the movements of warships of both sides, during two different stages of the Falkland’s battle, firstly the contest of the Cornwall and Glasgow against the light cruiser SMS Leipzig, and the fighting between the large battle cruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible and the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The author of the chart was an eye-witness (on the Cornwall), to the events that occurred on that day and apart from providing the courses of the warships; he also includes a progress report and comments of the encounter between the smaller British and German vessels from commencement to conclusion.

The British Admiralty, on receiving news of the disastrous result of the Battle of Coronel, quickly dispatched to the South Atlantic, the powerful battle cruisers Invincible (flagship) and Inflexible, under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. He was given orders to locate and destroy the enemy squadron. The two dreadnoughts sailed south and reached the Falkland Islands on 7 December 1915. On the way they arranged a rendezvous with other Royal Navy warships, the armoured cruisers Carnarvon; Cornwall and Kent and light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow, while the armed merchant cruiser Macedonia and old battleship Canopus were also waiting at the destination. This considerable armed force anchored in Port Stanley harbour, where they proceeded with caution.

HMS Cornwall HMS Cornwall, a Monmouth Class armoured cruiser of 9,800 tons, built at Pembroke in 1902. With her main armament of 14-6 inch guns, she assisted in the destruction of the German light cruiser Leipzig at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914. The anonymous author of the chart served on this ship during this engagement. Repro ID N01144 © NMM London

Meanwhile Graf von Spee had left the Pacific, via Cape Horn, and entered the South Atlantic with his squadron, consisting of the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst (flagship); and Gneisenau, and light cruisers Dresden; Nurnberg and Leipzig. His intention was to return home to Germany, but on the way he made the fatal resolve to attack and destroy the Falkland’s base installations, which he believed to be undefended.

On the 8 December 1914, Gneisenau and Nurnburg, sent on ahead of the main body of the German flotilla, observed to their surprise the large concentration of British warships gathered at Port Stanley. Graf von Spee realised that he was confronted by a superior British squadron and made a course to the south-east at full speed in an effort to escape. Sturdee, also initially unprepared for the appearance of the enemy, soon sailed from the harbour in pursuit, and gradually overhauled the fleeing German force, his ships opening fire at 13.00.

Graf von Spee instructed his light cruisers to disperse and attempt to escape, while he turned round his two larger armoured cruisers to engage the British vessels in battle. His aim was to divert and delay the enemy ships chasing him, allowing his smaller vessels time to hopefully get away. In a long-range action lasting four hours, the German ships were assaulted by the 12-inch guns of the opposing battle cruisers. The Scharnhorst finally sank at 16.13, with the loss of her entire crew and Graf von Spee, and nearly two hours later at 18.00 the battered Gneisenau also disappeared beneath the waves.

Admiral Graf von Spee’s brave decision was in vain and his sacrifice failed to save his light cruisers from a similar fate, as the Royal Navy extracted their reprisal for the Coronel humiliation. The Kent caught up with the Nurnberg and sank her while elsewhere the Cornwall and Glasgow pursued and eventually overtook the Leipzig. The resulting engagement, a running fight between the latter mentioned warships is described in some detail by the producer of the chart, who experienced the action on board the armoured cruiser Cornwall.

The light cruiser Glasgow was positioned ahead of the Cornwall when they located the Leipzig and at 14.17 shots were exchanged between the rival forces. The Glasgow is mentioned as firing at the enemy on a number of occasions and receiving shots back, losing a ‘bit of foremost funnel’ and a ‘bit of 2nd [sic] funnel’ during some ‘hard firing between Glasgow and German’.

At 16.17 Cornwall was in range of the enemy and also opened fire on the Leipzig with her 6-inch ‘fore turret guns and also a port broadside’, reporting hits on the opposing vessel. The German light cruiser defended herself with determination, returning shots with accuracy. The chart maker mentions the ‘hot firing’ and ‘heavy firing’ and remarks that on no less than 14 occasions the Leipzig ‘hit us’. The Cornwall continued to unleash a number of ‘broadside’ attacks, on the Leipzig, bombarding and severely punishing the German light cruiser with her superior fire power, and is confirmed to be to be ‘hitting her hard’. Eventually weight of shell advantage was decisive in settling the outcome of the fight.

At 18.55, the author notes of the damaged Leipzig that she is ‘well on fire’, but she continued to resist the two British cruisers until, three hours later the enemy ship was blazing fore and aft, with all of her guns now put out of action. The British ships ceased their assault on the courageous foe and her end is graphically portrayed in the narrative. At 19.43 a ‘sheet of flame shot up from the enemy’ and a minute later at 19.44 ‘a red ball went up into the air’. At 19.45, the ‘enemy’s main mast fell overboard’. The mortally wounded Leipzig survived for nearly another two hours, before rolling over and sinking at 21.23. Of her complement of 286, only seven officers and about 13 crewmen were rescued, the Cornwall managing to discover ‘four survivors picked up by our boat’.

Out of Graf von Spee’s squadron of five ships, only the Dresden succeeded in temporarily evading extermination. In March 1915, three months after the Battle of the Falkland Islands, she was found sheltering at Mas Afuera island, in Juan Fernandez, by the Kent and Glasgow, and was scuttled by her crew to avoid capture. The end of the Dresden marked a successful completion to Sturdee’s task, the resolution by the Royal Navy, to totally destroy a maritime enemy force, and gain retribution for a previous military reversal at sea.

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