- James Houser
December 8, 1914 - The Battle of the Falklands
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
December 8, 1914. World War I has made its way into the South Atlantic. The small German force of Admiral Maximilian von Spee, the only major Central Powers fleet still at large on the high seas, has fought its way from China to South America, but its journey ends today. Britannia still rules the waves, and at the Falkland Islands the British have a surprise waiting. The Imperial German Navy stares into its grave.
I realized very late this year that I have written basically nothing on the naval side of World War I. This is partly by accident and partly because of historical reality. The Battle of Jutland, World War I’s largest naval battle, occurred from May 31 to June 1, 1916, but I had those dates taken up with the Tulsa Race Riot and the Battle of Belleau Wood, aka another World War I post because I haven’t done enough of those! That’s the “accident” portion. The historical reality portion is that the German Navy, besides the U-Boat arm, had very little impact on the broader course of the war.
The German High Seas Fleet was a labor of love, painstakingly built up since the 1890s purely on the whims of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its large big-gun dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were a proud symbol of Germany’s new imperial ambitions. Germany was not a nation known for its naval efforts; the Navy would always be the red-headed stepchild compared to the Army, which had a long and proud tradition stretching back to Prussia. But Kaiser Wilhelm was particularly interested in developing a Navy due to his vision of Germany as a world power, and especially as a challenge to British naval supremacy. England and its shipyards had been the world’s dominant naval power for almost two and a half centuries, and had used this preeminence to gain an empire, vast wealth, and world power. Kaiser Wilhelm wanted the same thing, so he got to work.
The German Imperial Navy, though, was a strategic dead end. It was a solution in need of a problem. It did not come into being out of a necessity or a need to protect some vital strategic position, but rather because Kaiser Wilhelm and a small circle within Germany just kinda wanted it. See, militaries are supposed to exist to DO something, to fulfill some kind of mission, but Wilhelm and his cronies had created a force in need of a mission. As the High Seas Fleet got larger and larger, it needed a justification for its existence; hence, Germany began to acquire colonies.
By 1914, Germany had an overseas empire, though it didn’t even touch the massive realms of Britain or France. Hell, the Dutch and the Portuguese probably had larger domains, and those two don’t even factor into the European power structure. Germany’s overseas empire by 1914 consisted of four colonies in Africa (the future countries of Togo, Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania), several sets of Pacific islands, and finally the single city of Tsingtao in China. Without a seagoing navy, though, none of these were defensible. As it turned out, none of them were defensible even with a seagoing navy, because Germany’s naval rise did not go unnoticed.
In the years before World War I, Britain viewed Germany’s growing fleet with alarm. The British government believed that this buildup was directed at them, and of course they were right to assume that; they were the only big naval power in Europe, and any major buildup on the seas had to be for SOME purpose, so they obviously assumed it was directed at them. The Royal Navy started to build bigger and better battleships, taking the lead in 1906 with the construction of the HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first “all heavy gun” warship and the perfect combination of firepower and speed. The Dreadnought design would be the classic battleship, the yardstick by which all fleets were measured for the next two decades, and the possession of these massive vessels became a prestige symbol for any nation that could build them.
The naval arms race continued for a decade before World War I, but from the outset Germany had a disadvantage. They were trying to outbuild a country that depended on the Navy for its survival, while Germany’s Imperial fleet wasn’t built for any real strategic purpose; the historian Holger Herwig famously called it a “luxury fleet.” And it was a luxury. Britain never had to fear for its existence as long as the Navy was dominant, but Germany had land opponents to worry about. As it turned out, the Royal Navy would still be overwhelmingly powerful when World War I began, and the German battleship fleet, the Kaiser’s pride, would never play a major part in the conflict.
The Germans had gambled that their smaller fleet could challenge the British in favorable conditions and somehow gain a major victory. When World War I began, though, these hopes were dashed. Britain didn’t NEED to fight the German High Seas Fleet, unless it came out looking for a clash. All they really needed to do was maintain a blockade around Germany and starve their enemy out, while they controlled the rest of the world’s oceans. It would be Germany that would choose to fight a battle, and the one battle they started in World War I – the 1916 Battle of Jutland – basically came out to a draw. The German High Seas Fleet stuck its nose out, fought a brief clash with the British Home Fleet, then retreated back to its naval bases when it failed to gain a major victory. The fact that the Battle of Jutland was a victory for no one WAS a victory for the British, since it kept the German High Seas Fleet from affecting the course of the war. The status quo was unchanged.
Throughout World War I, the Royal Navy would deny Germany any supplies or resources from the outside world by sea. They were never going to sneak in and destroy the German Navy at port, but they didn’t need to; by keeping the blockade on the German coast, they nullified the German High Seas Fleet as a factor in the war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s gleaming battleships sat at anchor, soaking up men and material that could have gone elsewhere, waiting for the epic battle that would never come. The High Seas Fleet would make no difference one way or another to the outcome of the war; in every way, it truly was a luxury.
That, of course, didn’t stop the U-Boats from plying their trade across the Atlantic and wreaking havoc on British commerce. The German submarine war would have a significant effect on British shipping and communications, but also caught American ships in the crossfire and helped bring the United States into the war. This, then, was the contribution of the German Navy in World War I: by antagonizing the British before the war, to turn them into enemies, and by victimizing the United States during the war, to turn THEM into enemies. In short, the German Navy was worse than useless: it created problems where none had previously existed. Like I said, military forces are SUPPOSED to exist to fulfill some mission, otherwise they’re a burden and a problem for other countries. The German Navy existed to fulfill no mission, but just pissed off everyone else. Truly not the best move on anyone’s part.
But when World War I began, the German Navy wasn’t all sitting in the ports at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven where it could be easily bottled up. There were other ships out there, across the world in those handful of colonies and even in the Mediterranean, all caught far from home when the war began. And that’s what our story is about today.
As the British Home Fleet kept the German High Seas Fleet bottled up in the North Sea, ten German warships were left on the other side of the cork. At least ten German cruisers were stationed at various points around the globe. Their standing orders in the event of war were to carry out the style of naval warfare known as “surface raiding.” This concept involved fast, aggressive ships carrying out operations against enemy trade and commerce ships and avoiding major clashes with larger ships. This would not only hurt the enemy’s economy, but also – hopefully – draw ships away from British home waters and weaken their fleet, so that maybe the High Seas Fleet could manage to break free. The problem was that they were scattered, facing large British forces, and severely restricted when it came to refueling.
The jewel in the Kaiser’s crown, the largest force in foreign waters, was the East Asia Squadron of Admiral Maximilian von Spee. Based in Tsingtao, Germany’s treaty port in China, the East Asia Squadron consisted of the heavy armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, as well as the lighter cruisers Leipzig, Nurnberg, and Emden. The East Asia Squadron would be caught very far from home when war came. The British, French and Russians had ships all around the Pacific to counter this small but powerful force, but these ships were largely scattered and uncoordinated. In fact, the British warships had orders to prioritize the escort of convoys rather than the hunting of German warships, which would leave Von Spee to do whatever he wanted when the time came.
Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee was 53 years old, a proud member of the High Seas Fleet since 1878 and a German nobleman. He believed so powerfully in the Imperial Navy that he browbeat both of his sons into joining the fleet; both of these young men managed to get positions on Spee’s flagship, the Scharnhorst. Scharnhorst and its twin Gneisenau were not battleships, but were still tough little vessels. Each was crewed by about 760 men and contained 14 heavy guns, including eight 21cm guns and six 15cm guns. Von Spee was concerned, though, that they were not fast enough to undertake the kind of war that the Navy’s command wanted him to perform on the high seas. If the Navy wanted him to do raiding warfare, that was not what Scharnhorst or Gneisenau were built for.
The First World War caught Von Spee unawares. If the coming of the Great War seemed sudden to people in Europe, it must have been an epic shock for Von Spee. With no inkling of war on the horizon, life went on as usual in the Pacific in summer 1914. He prepared for a summer voyage that would take the squadron across Germany’s Pacific island possessions, including to New Guinea, from their base at Tsingtao. Many of his officers were planning to take leave after this long, leisurely trip, and return by railway to Germany once they returned to China. Von Spee’s squadron was scheduled to finish this expedition by September 20. They would never get to China, though, and most of its men would never see home again.
On July 7, Von Spee received a message from Berlin noting that the political situation in Europe was concerning. He was directed to a far corner of the Pacific at the island of Ponape, and on July 27 received another message stating that war seemed imminent. Imagine being on these ships, thousands of miles from home, and this being the only message you receive. Von Spee sprung into action. His little squadron was a small fish in a sea of big ones, and he needed to get all the supplies and make all the preparations he could while there was still time. He sent orders to the Emden, still at Tsingtao, to bring all the coal ships and transport ships they could muster, and dispatched the Leipzig to still-neutral America to purchase more coal. Von Spee knew the stakes. The Royal Navy would be looking for him as soon as war began, and his ability to refuel would be almost nil with the Union Jack breathing down his neck. Time to gird up and prepare.
As his fleet came back together in August, the first shots were being fired on the frontiers of Belgium and Serbia. Von Spee considered his options. Where could he go? The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would limit the speed of his squadron. The most lucrative targets – Australian ports some distance to the south – were all heavily guarded, and he knew British ships lurked in those waters. Since the Japanese were on the verge of joining the British in the war, a return to China was out of the question. Sailing towards Africa would just bring them into striking distance of the British in India. Here was where the German folly of their colonial system became apparent. Germany could not defend its colonies by sea; the British were so overwhelming that they had no safe harbor. Von Spee had only one choice: to make a break for the Americas, where there were plenty of neutral countries to resupply and fewer enemy ships. It was the only safe bet.
The captain of the Emden, Karl von Muller, verbally disagreed, and said that one aggressive ship sent out to the African coast might distract and confuse the enemy. Von Spee agreed, and sent the Emden and one coal ship out to the west to serve as a distraction, while he and his squadron sailed east for the coast of South America. The Emden would sink eight merchant ships, two light Allied warships, and bombard a port facility, taking 21 prizes and destroying ships valued at $10 million, before running into the Australian cruiser Sydney on November 9. The Australian ship hammered Emden, driving it onto a reef and forcing the German vessel to surrender. But Muller had accomplished his mission, and Spee was away.
Von Spee steamed east with his squadron as fast as he could, unaware that every other German ship on the world’s oceans was being hunted down and destroyed. The Konigsberg, a cruiser that started the war off the coast of Africa, had been blockaded in German East Africa in October; other ships had been rounded up or forced into port in the Mediterranean. (The fate of the Goeben and Breslau are for another day, though.) On his way east, Von Spee picked up the cruiser Dresden, which had been in the Caribbean and fled south to join his force. By October, Von Spee was finally finishing his crossing of the Pacific and approaching the coast of Chile in South America.
The British had learned of Von Spee’s plans to raid around South America, but found they had very few ships with which to oppose him. The admiral on the spot was Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock, a talented and aggressive officer who had been nevertheless sent to the relative backwater of the western Pacific. Cradock had two elderly heavy cruisers and one light cruiser, manned by naval reservists and horribly out of date; Von Spee’s ships were state-of-the-art, with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau lauded for their gunnery before the war. The Admiralty, led by First Lord Sir Winston Churchill, was adamant that Cradock should engage the enemy. He was reminded of the fate of Admiral Ernest Troubridge, who had let the Goeben and Breslau escape the Mediterranean and fall into Ottoman hands due to his fear of a confrontation with more modern ships. Troubridge was currently being court-martialed, and Cradock did not want to share his fate.
Cradock raced to confront the East Asia Squadron, and the two forces met off the coast of Chile near the city of Coronel. Neither side had expected to meet the other in force, but on November 1, 1914, they ran unexpectedly into each other. On paper, the firepower of the two forces was roughly the same, but Spee’s ships had the bigger guns and more modern fire control. The British had more guns on their ships in total, but at longer ranges these light guns were useless against the heavy-hitters of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Von Spee saw his opportunity, and bombarded the British ships at long range, beyond their ability to respond.
The Battle of Coronel was a total victory for the East Asia Squadron. Von Spee’s two heavy cruisers sank both the British heavy cruisers, each of which went down with all hands – including Cradock himself. Having engaged his more powerful enemy, heedless of the risks, Cradock had shared the fate of his men. Only his smaller ships escaped, obeying Cradock’s last orders to run for it. The East Asia Squadron had lived to fight another day.
But another day was not far off. Von Spee had won an easy victory, destroying two British warships at the cost of only three men injured – but had expended half his ammunition in the battle. He could pick up coal anywhere, but armor-piercing shells weren’t exactly available at Wal-Mart. The victory also drew every eye in the British Admiralty to Von Spee’s little squadron. The ugly truth was that the five ships of the East Asia Squadron were currently the only German surface ships at large in the world; all the others were locked up behind the Home Fleet, just as if they had been corked in a bottle. The British had resources to spare, and they intended to bring the hammer down on Von Spee.
The Germans began to move south to slide around the tip of South America, but their nemesis was on its way. Two modern battlecruisers, the Invincible and the Inflexible, were sprinting down from Britain under the command of Admiral Doveton Sturdee. The battlecruisers were fast, heavily armed ships with light armor: glass cannons, in other words. But they would be more than enough to deal with the Germans. Sturdee also cobbled together five light cruisers from various sources. The result was like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
Von Spee’s officers suggested returning to Germany, especially with half their ammunition burnt off, and everyone knew the British would be looking for them. Von Spee’s ships had been picking up British ships and scuttling them along their voyage, which gave them all the information they wanted. The hammer was coming, and they had best be heading for home. Von Spee assented, but under one condition: they would raid Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands along the way. It was on the way, after all, and he didn’t want this expedition to be a complete failure. By raiding the Falklands, though, Von Spee was pushing his luck. The raid wasn’t needed, since the squadron already had as much coal as they could carry. But Spee ordered the attack.
In retrospect, he really should have quit while he was ahead.
Von Spee’s squadron steamed towards the Falklands on December 8, 1914. His only real intention was to destroy the British radio and coal stations there before turning around and making tracks for home. Instead, imagine his surprise when the German ships pulled up and found Sturdee’s entire force happily refueling. If Von Spee had pressed his attack at that moment, with the British caught unawares, there is a possibility that he could have gained a victory, but the Germans didn’t know that at the time. All they saw was a pair of enormous battlecruisers, and that was enough. Suddenly awake to the danger he was in, Von Spee ordered his ships to make a break for it. The British, like an awakened giant, made steam and followed.
The Germans had a lead of about 15 miles, but the faster British battlecruisers outran Von Spee’s heavy, lumbering armored cruisers. At 1300, the British ships opened fire, even though they were still out of range. As the splashes of their shells came closer and closer, Von Spee realized that he had no choice but to turn and fight. The British had trouble seeing the Germans, since the breeze blew their smoke into the eyes of their gunners. The Germans were able to score a few hits early on in the fight, hitting the Invincible. But they did little damage, and the British were soon upon them.
The massive battlecruisers sent their shells whistling across the South Atlantic, smashing into Von Spee’s armored cruisers. Though Von Spee tried to close the distance and use his lighter guns, he was now on the receiving end of the punishment he had given Cradock a month before. He never stood a chance. The Scharnhorst was blasted apart, its funnels torn and set afire by the heavy shells.
At 1617, the Scharnhorst sank, taking Von Spee, both his sons, and all other hands down with her. Gneisenau lasted for another hour, maneuvering and firing, before she ran out of ammunition and was sunk at 1802. The Nurnburg was sunk by the British cruisers, while the Leipzig ran out of ammunition and was forced to surrender. Only the Dresden managed to escape and live to fight again. The rest of the East Asia Squadron was sliding to the bottom of the Atlantic, along with 2200 German crewmen. Only a few were rescued by the British.
The destruction of Von Spee’s squadron virtually ended the surface war on the high seas. By the end of 1914, except for the poor Dresden, the German flag had been practically swept from the seas. (The Dresden would lead a good chase, but eventually be hunted down and sunk in March 1915.) The German naval command could only rely on the submarine to fight its war on the ocean, but this would not be enough to save its colonies, which fell one after another. The colonies had been created almost solely to justify the fleet, but the fleet could not save them and the colonies could not survive. With Von Spee’s squadron went down the last hope for Germany as a true world empire.
In December 2019, the wreck of the Scharnhorst – the final resting place of Von Spee and his sons – was found by British Falklander and underwater archaeologist Mensun Bound. It is not just a grave for some very brave men, but a grave for the German Navy: truly a luxury fleet.