Saturday, 1 November 2014

Royal Navy's first loss - Coronel

TThe first of November 1914 became a historic date in the History of the Royal Navy and Admiral Christopher Craddock, who feared repercussions similar to Trowbridge, would not survive the day.

HMS Good Hope, Glasgow, and Monmouth along with their axillary Otranto were a long way from their Atlantic station as they approached Coronel on the Chilean coast.

Craddock, a professional and well liked flag officer had swept down the east coast of South America chasing the white whale that was SMS Dresden and any auxiliary vessels and the spectre of SMS Karlsruhe.

Terror of the Caribbean; SMS Karlsruhe
When the war started the German cruiser Karlsruhe was at Havana having relieved Dresden from her post and duties of flying the flag and protecting German interests and citizens during the Mexican revolution. Dresden had not left the Caribbean and was at Port au Prince. The threat that these two cruisers presented was very real. Both ships were fast modern and well armed and it would take quite a few vessels to track them down in the island filled Caribbean and like the corsairs of old Dresden and Karlsruhe could strike any vessel or port and colony at anytime working together or striking at opposite ends of the sea forcing the Royal Navy to divide their forces and commit a far larger force to find them.

The Caribbean sea is also the starting point for many journeys to Britain and a vital trade hub for vessels bringing merchandise south from the USA and raw materials from the South Americas as well as those coming through the Panama canal. Merchant trade would freeze up as Captains refused to sail and run the risk which could be crippling all because there were two German ships. There was also the lightly defended colonies that could be shelled or at worse have German Marines land and cause havoc amongst the populous.

Understandably Craddock saw that finding and defeating these enemies as quickly as possible as his number one priority. There were five cruiser squadrons operating around the Atlantic and Caribbean so dealing with any auxiliary cruisers could be coordinated at leisure but he would personally deal with these surface units with the vessels available in the Caribbean. From Vera Cruz on HMS Suffolk he ordered Essex and Lancaster to Halifax to cover New York and to reinforce the HMCS Niobe in case the German's went north. HMS Berwick was directed to Jamaica to defend Kingston and Bristol was sent south to join Glasgow off Pernambuco to watch the way south. It was a wide net and he would react with his armoured cruisers as soon as the two German light units appeared.

In London, the same wisdom at the Admiralty which interfered with the hunt for Goeben and Breslau and redistributed Admiral Jerram's forces and sabotaged the hunt for von Spee's fleet intervened again. The Admiralty believed the primary threat was the clutch of liners that were currently in New York harbour being armed to harass British trade. HMS Good Hope was detached from the Grand fleet for Halifax. Admiral Stoddart who's squadron was stationed at Cape Verde was ordered to detach Monmouth and send to Pernambuco and the Bristol was sent north with Essex, Lancaster and Suffolk to Sandy Hook.

Kapitän Kohler  had anchored Karlsruhe in a remote area of the Bahamas to rendezvous with the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm of the North German Lloyd line and a former Blue Riband winner (in 1902). They lay 120 miles north of Watling Island and began trading crew and equipment to bring the liner up Auxiliary status. Captain Grahn of the liner was demoted to First officer and Karlsruhe's Navigation officer Kapitanleutnant Thierfelder took command and began overseeing the transfer of equipment and crewmen.

HMS Berwick passed Karlsruhe in the night
Through a fluke of war Admiral Craddock's flagship on her northern journey came over the horizon onto the two German vessels miles from anywhere. Craddock couldn't believe his luck and ordered the Armoured Cruiser to intercept. Karlsruhe and Kronprinz Wilhelm began heading in different directions at full speed. Craddock prioritised catching the cruiser and set to chasing Kohler's vessel and signalled Bristol to reverse course and summoned up Berwick to try and cut off the German's retreat. Despite the speed of the German cruiser and the fact that she had only been commissioned that year compared to the eleven year old heavier vessel, Craddock managed to keep pace from 11am until nightfall when he finally lost contact. In the moonlight Captain Fanshawe of Bristol caught sight of the German vessel and opened fire at 7000 yards. Over the next two hours the vessels exchanged fire but to no avail and Kohler managed to slip away. Berwick prowled the Caribbean night searching for the German raider but to no avail. Craddock's luck had run out though, as his last cruiser swept for its' prey it changed course little knowing that just out of sight a desperate Kohler was fleeing. On the 12th August, with only 12 tonnes of coal left in her bunkers, Karlsruhe pulled in to Puerto Rico.

Craddock revaluated the situation and following reports that Dresden had passed the Amazon and was heading south and Karlsruhe was trailing behind her and with the lack of liners heading out of New York he decided to head south too. He transferred his flag to Good Hope, which was fractionally faster and left Suffolk and his already northerly stationed vessels to deal with any Auxiliary vessels and Karlsruhe should she change course. Craddock took Berwick and Bristol south to St Lucia to meet the French vessels Conde and Descartes on 23rd August. Meanwhile the Admiralty had also directed HMS Cornwall and the Auxiliaries Otranto and Macedonia to support the Glasgow and Monmouth. Craddock also considered, in agreement with the Admiralty that von Spee would probably be heading towards the Straits of Magellan. He began communicating with London and deploying his force to patrol the River Plate area whilst Glasgow and Monmouth were sent around the Magellan straits and requested information about von Spee. No one had sighted Scharnhorst and Gneisnau since early August in the Caroline Islands but they agreed that it was a possibility that von Spee could head that way.

Dresden had continued to sail south and had captured two merchant ships Hyades and Holmwood (on 14th and 24th August respectively) before learning that the Royal Navy was forming up on the Eastern end of the straits of Magellan. Kapitän von Ludecke put in to Hoste island to overhaul his engines on the 5th September and isolated his vessel laying low in case the British were sweeping the straits. After eleven days the repairs had been completed and von Ludecke had to make a decision as to what to do now. It would be too dangerous to return north to try and meet up with Karlsruhe would be met with British warships looking for him and sewing up German trade. Ahead of him was friendly but neutral Chile with a lack of British warships. There was also the promise of SMS Leipzig operating off the west coast of the Americas and the possibility of von Spees squadron. His decision was clear, even with out the orders from Berlin advising him to join Leipzig. He put to sea and headed around the straits.
On the 14th September Craddock received fresh instructions from London outlining what was expected of his squadron.

Leave sufficient force to deal with Dresden and Karlsruhe. Concentrate a squadron strong enough to meet Scharnhorst and Gneisnau, making Falkland Islands your coaling base. Canopus is on route to Abrolhos; Defence joins, keep at least Canopus and one 'County' class cruiser with your flagship. As soon as you have superior force, search Magellan Straits, being ready to return and cover Plate, or search north as far as Valparaiso. Break up German trade and destroy German cruisers.

His force now consisted of the armoured cruisers Monmouth, Good Hope, light cruiser Glasgow, the AMC Otranto, with the battleship Canopus inbound and the modern Armoured cruiser Defence which would prove invaluable against the von Spee's vessels and could keep pace with them should the German decide to run.

Then von Spee threw the British a curve ball. Despite Captain Maerker, the Commander of Gneisnau's consul not to, the Admiral had led his two Armoured Cruisers to Apia in Samoa and feinted North North West. The Admiralty reassessed this move and thought that the Germans weren't heading for South America but were disappearing into the Pacific again. They believed that Craddock would only be sweeping away German trade and merchant ships with perhaps a chance encounter with Leipzig or Dresden which should be caught in a pincer of Craddock and Newcastle, Rainbow, Idzumo and the IJN battleship Hizen coming down from the north. The Admiralty signalled Craddock to that effect on the 14th September requesting the Admiral's intentions.
HMS Canopus

The Admiral agreed with his superiors in London, the four vessels he had available were sufficient enough to police the German trade he did however have severe misgivings with
Canopus. The aging battleship had been due to be scrapped and was held under care with a reserve crew that had been augmented with reservists. There were also serious problems with the engines that were significantly reducing their speed. There was also a problem with the acting engineering officer who maintained that the engines could not produce a speed greater than 12 knots. Craddock believed that this millstone would only slow him down and would be of little benefit especially if von Spee's squadron wasn't present and even if they were there the lumbering leviathan would be left in the German's wake. His appraisal was to take Good Hope, Monmouth, Otranto and Glasgow on a sweep around the straits and leave Canopus to escort the colliers trailing along behind the rest of the fleet at her best speed. He made a full sweep of the Straits looking for Dresden in rough weather. Although there was evidence that the German vessel had been there, the British liner Ortega reported being chased by Dresden in early September to Craddock, von Ludecke however was nowhere to be seen. He divided his forces and took his cruisers back to recoal at the Falklands and sent Otranto on to Punta Arenas to interdict German trade. Once ready he ordered Glasgow and Monmouth back around the straits to sweep Orange bay whilst he waited at the Falklands in case von Ludecke doubled back around.

The Admiralty signalled Craddock on the 7th October with fresh intelligence;

It appears that Scharnhorst and Gneisnau are working across to South America. You must be prepared to meet them in company, possibly with a 'Dresden' (Either SMS Emden or Dresden) scouting for them. Canopus should accompany Glasgow, Monmouth and Otranto, to search and protect trade in combination. If you propose Good Hope to go, leave Monmouth on east coast.

Craddock responded that he was going to concentrate his forces with Canopus at the Falklands and that he was not going to allow his vessels currently on the west coast to travel north above Valparaiso. He also expressed concern that von Spee now had five vessels with (his two Armoured and three light cruisers) and also that Karlsruhe was operating again in the north and suggested to their Lordships that Essex be sent up north to relieve Cornwall which could then be sent to him. He also asked for an update on Defence.

Events began to overtake Craddock. The main thing was Karlsruhe. The German cruiser, after a hiatus to carry out engine and boiler repairs, was operating with success similar to Emden's of the coast of Brazil capturing 15 British and 1 Norweigan merchant vessel. The Admiralty were getting nervous about it and rediverted HMS Defence away from Craddock to sit with Admiral Stoddart's squadron which was patrolling the River Plate. The Admiralty were concerned that should Craddock have concentrate all the British ships and proceed around the straits then von Spee could out manoeuvre him, get behind him and shell the Falklands and Abrolhos coaling bases leaving the Royal Navy nowhere to coal below the Caribbean. Spee could then disappear. Battenberg and Churchill were shore that Craddock was going to only send Glasgow up to Valparaiso but concentrate the rest of his ships at the Falklands whilst Defence and Carnarvon formed a squadron off Rio.

They also signalled Stoddart to order him across from the African coast to head for Montevideo with his force of five vessels and the Defence trailing from Gibraltar.

When Canopus arrived on the 18th October Captain Grant reported to Cradock that his engines needed a refit and her boilers cleaned which would take five days, there was no guarantee that this would indeed would increase the speed. Craddock decided he had to go to the aid of Monmouth and Glasgow and set sail leaving orders for the Canopus to follow when able with the colliers. Before leaving he wrote a letter for Admiral Meux in England with instructions to send it should he be lost, he also buried his medals and decorations in the Governor's garden. Although the letter has been lost to the mists of time, it has been speculated that he wrote a defence of his actions so that he wouldn't face the same disgrace Trowbridge had or be made a scapegoat. He felt the Admiralty had stitched him into a corner and that should he fail to stop Spee he would be disgraced.

Indeed the Admiralty still believed that the situation on the west coast "seemed safe." They were full of faith that the Newcastle with the Japanese cruiser and battleship were heading south with all due haste and that Glasgow and Otranto would lead von Spee onto Craddock's cruisers and Canopus. Of course the ocean is a big place and there was every possibility they would miss one another which is where Stoddart's force was to form a second line. That is why they still withheld Defence which Craddock again requested and denied him on 28th October. Further to this, the IJN Hizen was still at Honolulu trying to capture the SMS Geier and nowhere near HMS Newcastle let alone chasing down von Spee from the north.

On the 13th October von Spee departed Easter Island with his force; Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, Nurnberg, Leipzig and Dresden with their flotilla of colliers. Spee was more than aware through reports from the German consul and agents throughout South America, that the British force was in the area. This would be his first test.

With Canopus some three hundred miles behind him (now moving at a faster speed when the Captain found the truth out about his engines capability.) with the colliers, Craddock ordered Glasgow to Coronel to send a message to the Admiralty whilst he spread his other ships into a search pattern of twenty miles apart to search for the Germans.

Spee received word that Glasgow had left Coronel and decided that he should give his men a taste of action and set sail to catch the light cruiser whilst she was alone. At the same time Craddock's men picked up a radio signature coming through clear as day.

"Le, Le, Le"

It was the Leipzig. Craddock, like his opposite number, decided to catch the light cruiser on her own. Obviously she hadn't met up with Spee's squadron and was still operating on her own. He ordered his vessels to find and engage her.

At 16:30 in rough seas and clear weather with interspersed squalls of rain Good Hope sighted smoke on the horizon. It wasn't Leipzig. It was Scharnhorst and Gneisnau supported by Dresden and Leipzig whilst the Nurnberg carried out a stop and search of a merchant vessel. He quickly brought his squadron into formation and using his speed to out pace the British kept them from closing knowing that he had the disadvantage of being on the shoreline side of Craddock. He kept up the dance until the sunset around 19:00. Then with his British force was silhouetted against the sunset.

At 12,000 yards the German armoured cruisers fired their first salvo first firing over their target and then short to judge the range. The third salvo struck Good Hope taking out the front gun turret killing the reservist officers and men who were trying to prepare for fire. The Good Hope caught fire. Moments later Monmouth was on fire as Gneisnau's shells struck home. Otranto had already fled the scene and Glasgow which was the only vessel crewed by regular Crews and gunners was opening fire on the Germans but her shells were falling short. She was also under fire from Leipzig and Dresden who were scoring hits. The gunners on Monmouth and Good Hope were also unable to return fire from the majority of their guns as they were too close to the waterline and in the rough seas they could not see the Germans. Further to that the German vessels were hard to spot against the coastline.

Craddock ordered his ships to close the range so that he could try and use his smaller guns and Good Hope and Monmouth charged forward, both aflame, Good Hope ploughed forward trying to fire and fearing that Craddock meant to launch torpedoes Spee ordered his vessels to scatter away from her and concentrate fire. Good Hope was struck by thirty five shells, the final one striking her forward magazine which sent a massive explosion through the ship and broke her apart sending 919 men, including Admiral Craddock, his dog Nelson and four Canadian midshipman (who were the first Canadian sailors killed) to the depths. The time was 19:50.

Monmouth was also aflame and taking on water. A shell from Gneisnau had struck the fore turret starting a fire that caused an ammunition explosion so violent that it blew the gun into the air and off the ship. She fell away and out of line with Good Hope at 19:35. Glasgow managed to close with her at 20:05 but could do very little to assist her. Captain Luce tried to encourage the vessel to turn North west but he received a reply that the she was so badly holed that should she turn she would sink even more quickly. With the moonlight behind them Luce made the decision to leave her behind and save his own vessel and protect Otranto.

Nurnberg closed with the stricken vessel and ordered her to surrender. Monmouth wouldn't or couldn't lower her flags and the German light cruiser fired a warning shot, the only response was Monmouth turning towards her so she fired her guns into the British vessel which promptly capsized at 21:58. In the rough seas and lack of light Leipzig tried to locate survivors but couldn't find any and the German squadron moved on leaving another 800 men dead in the cold seas.

Admiral von Spee was only certain that he had sunk Monmouth and was certain that Good Hope had eluded him at first but after searching the area was satisfied he had succeeded in turning back the British squadron.

I am well and almost beside myself with happiness one German sailor, Hans Stutterheim wrote in a
Scharnhorst coaling in Valparaiso showing signs of damage
letter home.

It was great news that was celebrated through Germany when von Spee reported it to the German consul in Valparaiso.

HMS Glasgow collected up Otranto and met up with Canopus and warned her of the German squadron and their ability. Luce took the stragglers back around the cape to the Falklands and safety. The Germans did not follow, they went to Valparaiso to repair and recoal. Letting the Glasgow escape would have deadly consequences for the Leipzig six weeks later...

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