at the end of the world
When is tradition, bravery, bravado, duty, and perhaps a bit of war fever just not enough? When is prudence the best path to take? When you find your pride and desire fighting with your calculating mind - what wins?
Familiar with the Battle of Coronel? Let me help. South America. 1914. Germany. Great Britain. Nothing?
Not unexpected; an Anglophile nation tries not to talk too much about the Mother Country's first defeat on the High Seas in over 100 years. Yes, minus SMS EMDEN, we are back to a glorious forgotten Fleet of the Damned - the German East Asia Squadron.
A Commander's currency is his Sailors and his ship(s). He should be careful in war how he expends them. Command decisions can have the lives of thousands - and sometimes millions riding on them.
Rear Admiral Cradock had his squadron reinforced by the armoured cruiser Good Hope. She had just come out of reserve and was manned by a very green crew of reservists and cadets but despite this Cradock transferred his flag to her as she was faster than his current ship. He was then given the task of finding Graf Spee and so headed for the Pacific. His squadron now consisted of Good Hope, the armoured cruiser Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow and the armed merchant cruiser Otranto. The squadron was inferior to the German squadron and so the old pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus was sent to bolster Cradock. Again she was straight out of reserve, slow (17 knots max.) and manned by reservists who had never fired her guns before, the guns being outranged by those of the German armoured cruisers. HMS Defence, an armoured cruiser, was also promised but never materialised. The Admiralty falsely gave Cradock the impression that they thought that this force was adequate for the task and he should engage Graf Spee if he could. The British squadron was to be based out of the Falkland Islands. When Canopus did finally turn up there it turned out that she had engine problems and was limited to 12 knots. Cradock decided to detach her from his main squadron, letting her follow at her own pace with his colliers.
On October 29 1914 Glasgow was sent to Coronel to pick up intelligence and whilst there she picked up radio transmissions between Leipzig and one of her colliers.
The squadron was reformed and spread out at 20 mile intervals to sweep north. There was little optimism in the British ships about the outcome should they meet the German squadron of modern ships with crack crews. Monmouth had an even less experienced crew than Good Hope and was an old design that had a poor reputation being badly under-armed for a ship of her size and too slow to run away. Otranto was a converted liner, too slow, armed with old 4.7 inch guns (eight carried) and with a large silhouette and no armour. Only Glasgow was a decent ship, a modern light cruiser with a regular crew, decent speed and capable of outgunning the German light cruisers, but not Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
The British Squadron, if you could call it that, was facing what? The SMS DRESDEN,GNEISENAU, LEIPZIG, NURNBERG, SCHARNHORST.
On November 1 at 1630 Glasgow sighted smoke from Leipzig and then minutes later the ship and the German armoured cruisers. Spee formed a battle line in the order Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Dresden, Nurnberg was thirty miles to the north, still returning from Valparaiso. The British line was ordered Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow and Otranto. Cradock had the opportunity of turning towards Canopus, 300 miles to the south, there not being sufficient light for Spee to catch him that day but that risked the losing Spee during the night.
The British turned towards the German line and at about 1930 at 12,000 yards the German armoured cruisers opened fire. The setting sun silhouetted the British squadron whilst the German ships were hard to see in the failing light. The third salvo from Scharnhorst hit Good hope, knocking out her forward 9.2 inch gun. Monmouth was also hit by the third salvo from Gneisenau, setting her forward turret on fire. The German gun crews maintained a rapid and accurate fire, both leading British cruisers being hit over thirty times, whilst the reply from the British was very ineffectual. The visibility deteriorated so that the Germans had to target the fires on the British ships whilst the British had to make do with aiming at the enemy gun flashes. Leipzig and Glasgow engaged each other whilst Dresden fired on Otranto which rapidly pulled out of the line and fled, enabling Dresden to also engage Glasgow. Cradock closed the range to 5,500 yards to bring his 6 inch guns to action. Spee interpreted this as an attempt to launch a torpedo attack and increased the range. At 1950 Good Hope suffered a magazine explosion, the crippled ship then drifting out of site and sinking soon afterwards. There were no survivors.
Monmouth was also in a bad way, being on fire and listing to port. Glasgow had been hit five times and seeing that Monmouth was beyond help fled to avoid certain destruction and to warn Canopus to turn back. Monmouth was unable to fire but her White Ensign was still flying. The newly arrived Nurberg found her and finished her off with gunfire at point blank, seventy five gun flashes being observed from Glasgow. Again there were no survivors.
War at sea is cold, hard, bloody, and industrial in its efficiency. Admiral Graf von Spee's report is, well, short and to the point,
Wind and swell were head on and the vessels had heavy going, especially the small cruisers on both sides. Observation and distance estimation were under a severe handicap because of the seas which washed over the bridges. The swell was so great that it obscured the aim of the gunners at the six inch guns on the middle deck, who could not see the sterns of the enemy ships at all and the bow but seldom. At 6.20 p.m., at a distance of 13,400 yards, I turned one point toward the enemy, and at 6.34 opened fire at a distance of 11,260 yards. The guns of both our armoured cruisers were effective, and by 6.39 already we could note the first hit on the Good Hope. I at once resumed a parallel course instead of bearing slightly toward the enemy.
The English opened their fire at this time. I assume that the heavy sea made more trouble for them than it did for us. Their two armoured cruisers remained covered by our fire, while they, so far as could be determined, hit the Scharnhorst but twice and the Gneisenau only four times.
At 6.53, when 6,500 yards apart, I ordered a course one point away from the enemy. They were firing more slowly at this time, while we were able to count numerous hits. We could see, among other things, that the top of the Monmouth's forward turret had been shot away and that a violent fire was burning in the turret. The Scharnhorst, it is thought, hit the Good Hope about thirty-five times.
In spite of our altered course the English changed theirs sufficiently so that the distance between us shrunk to 5,300 yards. There was reason to suspect that the enemy despaired of using his artillery effectively and was manoeuvring for a torpedo attack. The position of the moon, which had risen at 6 o'clock, was favourable to this move. Accordingly, I gradually opened up further distance between the squadrons by another deflection of the leading ship at 7.45. In the meantime it had grown dark. The range-finder on the Scharnhorst used the fire on the Monmouth as a guide for a time, though eventually all range-finding, aiming, and observation became so inexact that firing was stopped at 7.26.
At 7.23 a column of fire from an explosion was noticed between the stacks of the Good Hope. The Monmouth apparently stopped firing at 7.20. The small cruisers, including the Nürnberg, received by wireless at 7.30 the order to follow the enemy and to attack his ships with torpedoes. Vision was somewhat obscured at this time by a rain squall. The light cruisers were not able to find the Good Hope, but the Nürnberg encountered the Monmouth, and at 8.58 was able by shots at closest range to capsize her without a single shot being fired in return. Rescue work in the heavy sea was not to be thought of; especially as the Nürnberg immediately afterward believed she had sighted the smoke of another ship and had to prepare for a new attack.
The small cruisers had neither losses nor damage in the battle. On the Gneisenau there were two men slightly wounded. The crews of the ships went into the fight with enthusiasm; every one did his duty and played his part in the victory.
The CO of HMS GLASGOW, CAPT LUCE had a very British report,
Glasgow left Coronel 9 a.m. on November 1 to rejoin Good Hope (flagship), Monmouth and Otranto at rendezvous. At 2 p.m. flagship signalled that apparently from wireless calls there was an enemy ship to northward. Orders were given for squadron to spread N.E. by E. in the following order: Good Hope, Monmouth, Otranto, and Glasgow, speed to be worked up to 15 knots. 4.20 p.m., saw smoke; proved to be enemy ships, one small cruiser and two armoured cruisers. Glasgow reported to admiral, ships in sight were warned, and all concentrated on Good Hope. At 5 p.m. Good Hope was sighted.
At 5.47 p.m. squadron formed in line-ahead in following order: Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto. Enemy, who had turned south, were now in single line ahead 12 miles off, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau leading. 6.18 p.m., speed ordered to 17 knots, and flagship signalled Canopus, 'I am going to attack enemy now.' Enemy were now 15,000 yards away, and maintained this range, at the same time jamming wireless signals.
By this time sun was getting immediately behind us from enemy position, and while it remained above horizon we had advantage in light, but range too great. 6.55 p.m., sun set, and visibility conditions altered, our ships being silhouetted against afterglow, and failing light mad e enemy difficult to see. 7.30 p.m., enemy opened fire 12,000 yards, followed in quick succession by Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow. Two squadrons were now converging, and each ship engaged opposite number in the line. Growing darkness and heavy spray of head sea made firing difficult, particularly for main deck guns of Good Hope and Monmouth. Enemy firing salvos got range quickly, and their third salvo caused fire to break out on fore part of both ships, which were constantly on fire till 7.45 p.m. At 7.50 p.m. an immense explosion occurred on Good Hope amid ships, flames reaching 200 feet high. Total destruction must have followed. It was now quite dark.
Both sides continued firing at flashes of opposing guns. Monmouth was badly down by the bow, and turned away to get stern to sea, signalling to Glasgow to that effect. 8.30 p.m., Glasgow signalled to Monmouth 'Enemy following us,' but received no reply. Under rising moon enemy's ships were now seen approaching, and as Glasgow could render Monmouth no assistance, she proceeded at full speed to avoid destruction. 8.50 p.m., lost sight of enemy. 9.20 p.m., observed 75 flashes of fire, which was no doubt final attack on Monmouth.
Nothing could have been more admirable than conduct of officers and men throughout. Though it was most trying to receive great volume of fire without chance of returning it adequately, all kept perfectly cool, there was no wild firing, and discipline was the same as at battle practice. When target ceased to be visible, gun layers spontaneously ceased fire. The serious reverse sustained has entirely failed to impair the spirit of officers and ship's company, and it is our unanimous wish to meet the enemy again as soon as possible.
Most of all though, I think you can derive a lot of perspective on the message (signal as our RN folks say) from HMS CANOPUS. We should all be so brief and to the point.
COPY OF W/T SIGNAL
To Governor, Falkand Islands.
Date 7th. November 1914. 8.30 p.m.
Please send following message to British Minister Montevideo for Admiralty and Admiral, 5th. Cruiser Squadron.
At 4.40 p.m. Sunday, 1st. November, "CANOPUS" then in latitude 41.20 S., longitude 76.10 W., course N 10 W speed 9 knots, with colliers "BENBROOK" and "LANGOE", and XXXXXXXXXXX approximately 200 miles south of our cruisers "GOOD HOPE, MONMOUTH, GLASGOW and OTRANTO, intercepted XXXXX signal from GLASGOW to GOOD HOPE that enemy had been sighted.
CANOPUS raised steam full speed and proceeded to northward.
Signal sent from HMS Canopus
At 8.45 p.m. received first intimation that squadron had been engaged from GLASGOW. Signal read "Fear GOOD HOPE lost, our squadron scattered".
CANOPUS continued course to northward at full speed until 1 a.m. Monday, 2nd. November, in hope of rendering assistance to any ships being chased by superior force, Ship's position being signalled.
At 1 a.m. having had no communication except from GLASGOW since 6 p.m. 1st. November, made rendezvous with GLASGOW who was steering SW, 20 knots, and steered to cut off colliers and order them return to Falkland Islands.
3.30 a.m. Signalled colliers to return Falkland and altered course to southward and gave ship's position to GLASGOW with orders to overhaul CANOPUS and rendezvous Falklands. Reduced speed to 14 knots.
It was blowing southerly gale with heavy sea.
There was systematic jambing [sic] by enemy's ships from 4.30 p.m. 1st. November until 5 a.m. 2nd. November, rendering it most difficult to obtain signals.
GLASGOW passed ahead night of 2nd. and proceeded through Magellan Straits and made rendezvous with CANOPUS in Spiteful Bay, Friday, 6th. at daylight when CANOPUS escorted her to Falklands, she being short of coal and unseaworthy from gunfire and gale from S W.
OTRANTO'S position at 5 p.m., Monday, 2nd. November, was latitude 39.36 S., longitude 78.6 W., course S. 18 W., 17 knots. rendezvous at Falklands was signalled her.
Her position on Friday, 11 p.m., was latitude 55 S. Longitude 63 W., course N.25 E., speed 14 knots. She was ordered Monte Video by CANOPUS.
Over 1,600 men lost their lives in this short engagement at dusk. War at sea is like that, we forget it at our own peril.
Finally, did you sniff-and snort about the old Battleship HMS CANOPUS; just out of mothballs and manned by "nothing" but untrained reservists? Well, visit the OG Blog and pay the old lady and her crew the respect they’ve earned.