Tuesday 8 December 1914 – We Lost 95
On this morning Gneisenau and Nürnberg are detached from the main German squadron, which follows about 15 miles behind, to attack the wireless station and port facilities at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. At 08:30 they sight the wireless mast and smoke from Macedonia returning from patrol. They do not know that at 07:50 they have been sighted by a hill top spotter which signals Canopus which then signals the flagship Invincible via Glasgow. The British ships are still coaling and most ships, including the battlecruisers, will take a few hours to get up steam. If the Germans attack the British ships will be stationary targets and any ships which try to leave harbour will face the concentrated fire of the full German squadron. Sturdee orders steam to be raised and then goes and has breakfast!
At 09:00 the Germans make out the tripod masts of capital ships. They are unsure of what theses ships are but they know Canopus is in the area and they hope that these are pre-dreadnoughts, which they can easily outrun. Canopus is beached out of site of the German ships, behind hills but has set up a system for targeting using land based spotters. At 13,000 yards her forward turret fires but is well short, the massive shell splashes astonish the German ships who can see no enemy warships. The rear turret then fires using practice rounds which are already loaded for an expected practice shoot later. The blank shells ricochet off the sea one of them hitting the rearmost funnel of Gneisenau. The two German ships turned away. Canopus does not fire again but she has saved the British from a perilous situation.
By 09:45 Bristol has left the harbour, followed 15 minutes later by Invincible, Inflexible, Kent, Carnarvon and Cornwall. The German squadron has a 15-20 mile lead but with over eight hours of daylight left and fine weather the battlecruisers will be in action within hours. The German lookouts can now tell that the tripod masts belong to battlecruisers which at 25 knots are considerably faster than the 20 knots the German ships can manage. Spee sets course to the South East in the hope of finding bad weather. At first the British squadron stays together but the battlecruisers are being slowed down by the other ships and so they pull ahead on their own. At 12:47 at 16,500 yards the battlecruisers open fire, with little accuracy, taking half an hour to straddle the rear ship, Leipzig. Spee realises he is caught and turns his armoured cruisers to slow the British while ordering his light cruisers to try and escape. Sturdee has made contingency plans for this and Invincible, Inflexible and the trailing Carnarvon engage the armoured cruisers while the rest of the force set off after the light cruisers. The battlecruisers turn onto a parallel course to Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 14,000 yards. The Germans have the advantage of being in the lee position of the wind and the British gunnery is badly affected by their own smoke. The German shooting is excellent but at these long ranges their shells do little damage to the battlecruisers. The British also score a few hits which do more damage but they are unaware of this as the visibility prevents them from seeing these. In an attempt to gain the lee (smoke free) position Sturdee makes a sharp turn to the starboard towards Spee’s stern. While performing this turn the British are shrouded in their own smoke and Spee takes this opportunity to turn south, pulling out of firing range. It takes the British another 45 minute stern chase before they can resume firing.
At 14:50 the battlecruisers turn to port to bring their broadsides to bear. Spee decides that his only chance is to close the range and use his superior secondary armament but his change of course makes the smoke much less of a problem for the British. Their firing becomes much more accurate and both German ships, but especially Scharnhorst suffers severe damage and casualties. By now she has received over 50 hits, three funnels are down and she is on fire and listing. The range keeps shrinking and at 16:04 Scharnhorst lists suddenly to port and by 16:17 she has disappeared. As Gneisenau is still firing no rescue attempts are possible and her entire crew including Spee is lost. Invincible has received 22 hits, over half 8.2 inch, but these cause no serious damage and only one crew member is injured. Gneisenau keeps on alone, zigzagging to the southwest. At 17:15 she scores her last hit on Invincible before her ammunition runs out. The British stop firing soon afterwards and the burning German ship grinds to a halt, her crew opening the sea-cocks and abandoning ship, 190 crew from a total of 765 are rescued but many of these die from their wounds. Among those lost is Heinrich von Spee son of the Adirmal. Inflexible is only hit 3 times and has 1 killed and 3 injured.
While the big ships are fighting the smaller cruisers are having their own battles. The German light cruisers are in the order Dresden leading followed by Nürnberg and Leipzig while the British are led by Glasgow with Cornwall and Kent trying to keep up. At 14:45 Glasgow opens fire on Leipzig, Leipzig turning to port to reply, scoring two early hits while Glasgow’s fall short. Glasgow has to turn away, allowing Leipzig to resume her earlier course. The other German ships have not turned to help Leipzig but have carried on their escape attempt. Glasgow fires on Leipzig again, but this time the other German cruisers change course, Dresden to the southwest and Nürnberg to the southeast. Glasgow’s ploy of forcing Leipzig to turn and fire succeeds in slowing her so that at 16:17 Cornwall has her in range, Kent setting off after Nürnberg. Leipzig’s firing is good but she does not hit Glasgow and her shells do not do much damage to Cornwall. By 19:00 Leipzig’s mainmast and two funnels are down and she is on fire. When her ammunition is exhausted she makes an unsuccessful torpedo attack on Cornwall and then her crew prepares to abandon ship. Glasgow closes the range to finish her off as her flag is still flying, stopping when two green flares are fired by the crippled German cruiser. At 21:20 she rolls over and sinks leaving eighteen survivors. Cornwall has received eighteen hits but no casualties. Glasgow has received no damage after the two early hits which kill one and wounds four. Her boilers are damaged which reduces her speed enough for there to be no chance of catching Dresden which escapes.
Nürnberg has a 10-mile lead on Kent and is, on paper faster, but Nürnberg needs an engine overhaul and Kent’s crew work so hard that the old cruiser exceeds her designed horsepower, reaching 25 knots, being forced to burn all available wood on board and causing the whole ship to vibrate violently. By 17:00 the range is down to 12,000 yards and Nürnberg opens fire with the by now expected superb accuracy. When Kent returns fire ten minutes later her shells fall short. Once the range has fallen to 7,000 yards both sides start to score regular hits and Nürnberg gives up her escape attempt and turns to bring her broadside to action. By 17:30 the range is down to 3,000 yards and Kent’s heavier shells and thicker armour gives her the upper hand. An hour later, just as bad weather arrives which may have saved her two of Nürnberg’s boilers explode, reducing her speed. Kent is now able to easily outmanoeuver her opponent and within half an hour Nürnberg is dead in the water, at 19:26 she rolls over to starboard and sinks with only twelve survivors. Among those lost is another of Spee’s sons Otto. Kent has received thirty eight hits but only sixteen casualties, five of whom are fatal.
While these battles have been going on Bristol and Macedonia have sunk Spee’s colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, the other collier, Seydlitz escaping, eventually being interned in Argentina. Sturdee searches for the Dresden before returning to the Britain with the battlecruisers. There will be some criticism (mainly from the 1st Sea Lord Fisher) of him for letting Dresden escape and for the heavy ammunition expenditure of his battlecruisers (Invincible 513 12 inch rounds, Inflexible 661 12 inch rounds fired) but generally his clear victory is welcomed. He has destroyed Spee’s squadron without any serious damage to any of his ships and their shooting (6.5%) was considerably better than was managed by British (and German) battlecruisers at Dogger Bank and Jutland.
The trial of Adolf Ahlers, a naturalized British subject and the German consul at Sunderland, for high treason for having incited and assisted German reservists to return to Germany, begins in Britain.
Brigadier General Gorges, after a sharp fight, captures the first consignment of rolling stock in the Cameroons, which the Germans had moved with them in retreat. Four coaches, four trucks and two good trolleys fall into his hands.
The South African rebellion collapses as 1,200 rebels surrender.
The Royal Flying Corps Headquarters Wireless Unit is designated 9th (Wireless) Squadrons. It will continue to supply wireless machines to the other squadrons from St. Omer until March 1915.
- Rifleman George P Bulldeath(Rifle Brigade) is killed in action at age 30. His brother will be killed in August 1917.