Monday, 8 December 2014

The battle of the Falklands - Von Spee's end

It was 5am ship's time when SMS Gneisenau and Nurnberg broke formation with the rest of the East Asiatic squadron and set a northerly course for the Falklands. Captain Maerker, along with Huhn and Lüdecke, had voiced his concerns at the meeting with Graf Spee on 6th December about the proposed landing but he had been overruled.

The two cruisers were to advance to the east of Cape Pembroke at 14 knots and survey the mouth of Port William and subdue any defences. Once the way is clear Nürnberg would head out towards Berkeley sound to scout out British shipping whilst Gneisnau lowered boats to survey the outer harbour of Port William for mines. Once clear Nurnberg would enter the harbour of Port Stanley and take on stores whilst Gneisnau advanced to the channel between the two anchorages and lowered cutters filled with marines to arrest the Governor under the cover of Nürnberg's guns. The two cruisers were due to return to the rest of the squadron by 19:30.

The only worry was that the British fleet might have taken shelter in Port William harbour after Coronel and been bolstered to form another line of defence. As they approached the islands the Gneisnau's chief gunnery officer Lieutenant -Commander Busch relayed that there was thick with dust and smoke. As at Tahiti the coal stores were being burnt to deny them to the Germans. He also reported four A frame style mast heads visible which meant that the battleship that they had heard was accompanying Craddock was here joined by another, there was also a cruiser advancing to the mouth of the harbour. If Gneisnau could sink her there then the rest of the British fleet would be bottled up and easy pickings. signalling Busch's observations to the Scharnhorst, Maerker was confident the vessels in the harbour would pose little threat. The German cruisers advanced, ensigns flying and guns presented. It was 9.20 am.

In London Winston Churchill received a telegram from the Governor of the Falklands saying;

Admiral Spee arrived at daylight this morning with all his ships and is now I'm action with Admiral Sturdee's whole fleet which was coaling.

The fear that gripped the Admiralty was that Sturdee had been caught napping and the German Admiral was tearing him apart at his leisure in port. This would be worse than Coronel and the Mediterranean debacle combined and would do immeasurable damage to British prestige, especially in the Southern American states but also embolden the German navy at home into action.
Canopus beached at the Falklands for support

Things were not as desperate as they seemed though. Sturdee's fleet were indeed coaling with their boilers no where near full steam but Sturdee's noted calmness under pressure could save a situation  that might make a hotter headed Commander flap and panic making the situation worse. Glasgow was the first to see the signal from the lookout point at Sapper's hill via Canopus and tried to signal Sturdee's flagship but the smoke and clouds of dust that hung over the harbour obscured the signal flags, finally the 3" salute cannon was fired to gain the admiral's attention. There quickly followed a report that German warships were approaching from the southeas . Sturdee took stock of his vessels dispositions. The two heavy battlencruisers had colliers filling their bunkers, Glasgow and Carnarvon were fully refuelled but like the rest of the squadron had no steam up. Bristol and Cornwall had low fuel stocks and had opened up engines for maintainence. Only HMS Kent had steam up but lacked fuel.

After a few moments quiet thought the Admiral ordered Kent to leave port, colliers to move away and the whole force to get steam up. It would take time but that was all he could do. He was depending on Canopus to give enough covering fire with Carnarvon and Kent to keep the two cruisers at bay. His orders given, Admiral Sturdee went below for breakfast.

Canopus fired her heavy guns at maximum range of 11,500 yards at 9.20 sending up great white spouts of water in front of Maerker's vessel. Then the improbable happened as the last shell struck the Armoured cruiser's funnel sending German crew scattering for cover. By a twist of fate it was a practice shell and did not explode. Shaken, Maerker ordered the ships turn east but when another salvo did not follow up he resumed their course towards the ports whilst sending a signal to the flagship that they had come under fire. His intention was still to bottle the British fleet up.

Admiral von Spee had different aims though. Coal was vital to his squadron's journey and fresh supplies would be very welcome but not at the expense of irreplacable ammunition which would be needed if they made it to the North sea and had to run the British blockade. They could also not afford to take any lame ducks with them, especially not one of his Armoured cruisers. The British squadron at the Falklands was of no consequence. They had already set the coal stocks aflame and all were at anchor. In the time it took them to get out of the harbour and get a full head of steam his forces would have disappeared into the blue and heading for the rendezvous point with fresh colliers. The British would never catch him, especially not the Queen class battleship the only ship that posed a serious threat. More importantly this lucky escape meant that they would never find him out in the blue in such numbers again as they would need to split up to sweep for him. Orders were issued to Maerker to turn his ships around and rejoin Scharnhorst and the rest of the squadron heading east at a steady pace whilst the three support vessels released to the south east. On the arrival of his detached ships von Spee turned his warships south to give the illusion they were heading around the Cape for the safety of Chilean waters or to lose the British amongst the islands and bad weather.

There has been debate over the German admiral's actions and why he didn't press the advantage. With hindsight it is easy to see that the Germans could have easily caught Sturdee napping and, as Churchill and Fisher feared, take the fleet apart at anchor or bottle them up and escape. On the bridge of Scharnhorst a century ago though von Spee was playing the long game and every decission was made with one eye on the final confrontation in the North sea preserving as much of his squadron for that bloody day had to be his primary duty. They had already come half way, why throw it away for nothing?

With the Germans well underway, Sturdee's fleet slowly brought their boilers up to steam by mixing oil and coal. Glasgow was the first to pull out of port at 9.45 followed by Carnarvon and the two battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible and the vessels began to give chase at 24 knots. The first major problem for Sturdee was that despite the icy clear and calm weather he could not see the East Asiatic Squadron. The amount of smoke being belched out from the two battlecruisers was obscuring the observers view. It was a particularly nasty thick acrid smoke caused by the burning of the mixed fuels. Sturdee quickly ordered Inflexible to his starboard quarter and Glasgow to his port and at the same time ordered the fleet to a more leisurely 19 knots so the armoured cruisers could keep up.There also followed a signal that the midday meal would still be served as normal at 11:45.

The three German support vessels were fleeing the Royal Navy at speed and separately to von Spee's warships. They had been ordered to head for Pitcairn island to await the East Asiatic or the outcome of the battle. Captain Fanshawe of the Bristol received a report that the German transports or colliers were making their way towards the Falklands at 11:00. Fearing the Germans were leading off the fleet so that an armed landing could take place Bristol was detached from the pursuit at 11:45 to locate the Auxiliary HMS Macedonia and find the German supply ships. If any of the raiders escaped they would be robbed of extra coal and supplies. He took Bristol west south west meeting the converted liner at 12:30 and turned towards Point Pleasant and together began their search of the area finding nothing over the next hour and a half.

There seemed only one logical course of action and he turned southeast, the direction von Spee's warships had been heading. It made sense that the supply ships would follow them at a distance or be heading for a rendezvous in the same direction. There soon came a message from Fitzroy, a small settlement near Point Pleasant. Two steamers had been spotted moving at full speed past the point and minutes later their smoke was spotted off to port from Bristol's conning tower. Fanshawe turned to investigate.

The Baden and Santa Isabel did not intend to be stopped and tried to run from the two British ships ignoring signals to stop for half an hour until at 15:30 Bristol opened fire on them. It was futile to resist and thinking of their crews lives the captains ordered a full stop. Fanshawe had been led to believe that these ships would be full of German Marines for the proposed landing and was ready to sink them as per Sturdee's extensive pre battle instructions, the white flags rapidly changed that and further investigation revealed their cargo of coal and food supplies.

At 19:00 with the prisoners removed to the Macedonia Fanshawe decided to follow his original order and both British ships opened fire before Bristol turned to follow Sturdee's line and leaving the Auxiliary to make certain the German ships sank.

By 12:20 Admiral Sturdee signalled Inflexible to "Engage the enemy" and together the two battle cruisers worked up speed to 26 knots and by 12:50 Inflexible was firing on the Leipzig at the rear of the German formation. Due to engine vibration and the smoke obscuring the rang finders the two turrets on each of Sturdee's battle cruisers took half an hour to sight and range con Spee's squadron.
SMS Scharnhorst

At 13:20 Admiral von Spee made the decision that could make or break his command. The British wanted his two Armoured cruisers destroyed and it would onlybe a matter of time before he would be forced into action, time in which Leipzig would take a critical hit. He would have to buy them time to escape. He might even be lucky and damage the British enough that he could still lead his squadron home but he doubted it. A signal was sent to the ligh-cruisers to break formation and escape as beast they could. He then signalled Gneisnau of his intention and together both ships turned East-north-east and commenced firing on the two battle cruisers.

The German Admiral's aim was to buy his light cruisers as much time as possible and to close the range so his 8.3" guns and if possible even closer and use his 5.9"s. His men were already performing well at ranging the British and then firing in ordered measured shots. One British officer commented;

The German firing was magnificent to watch. Perfect ripple salvoes all along their sides. A brown-coloured puff with a centre of flame marking each gun as it fired... They straddled us time after time.

 Sturdee on the other hand was struggling with bad gunnery. Not only were his reservist crews lacking in practice they were also struggling with the lack of visibility from all of their own smoke. The British whilst fighting at long range also found that they were losing out on accuracy and then Invincible took a hit forcing Sturdee to increase the range again. Von Spee seized on this opportunity to turn south again and try to escape again whilst they were out of range and hoped to encounter bad weather that could help them lose their pursuers. They managed to keep away for  forty minutes but ultimately Sturdee's top speed was too much for them and again the British shells fell about Scharnhorst and Gneisnau. The Germans turned on their axis and crossed the British T so as to bring their broadsides to bear. The manoeuvre did not work.

The German shells were accurate but they bounced off the Invincible and Inflexible's armoured decks where as the British 12" lyddite shells went through the German ships as if they were made of china causing death and destruction on the lower decks and shattering gun turrets. On Scharnhorst the Admiral's flag slipped to half mast and Maerker believed the Admiral dead and signalled Schultz (Scharnhorst's captain) to confirm it.
I am alright so far. You were right after all came the Admiral's reply. There was also one final order from Scharnhorst to Maerker to try and save his vessel if he could and then the flagship passed her sister ship heading straight for the British vessels. The battle had taken its toll on von Spee's flagship as she listed to port and her once proud engines pushed her at an ever decreasing speed and she was clearly taking on water. Pochhammer, the Gneisnau first officer later recalled seeing the flagship with;

Funnels are fallen, smoke was pouring out, flames were visible inside the vessel through shot holes and scuttles.But her guns crashed out furiously and without intermission.
Scharnhorst sinking

The Admiral was trying to buy time for his friend and son aboard Gneisnau and kept up a steady stream of fire on Invincible turning his ship to starboard for one last broadside. Scharnhorst's outer decks were beginning to flood as fires raged across her decks as she began to heel over to port and as the sea got to six foot from the fore turret she fired her last round then she slipped under the waves leaving a cloud of of steam, powder smoke and coal dust that left the crew of Gneisnau feeling a "boundless loneliness" and a fear of their own inevitable fate. Pochhammer felt the pall was saying "the Scharnhorst waits for the Gneisnau."

Maerker's vessel was in a poor state as well, her hull was holed and on fire. A shell had penetrated the after dressing room and not only killed the wounded being treated it also killed the Staff surgeon and the Squadron's Chaplin who was administering last rites. Pochhammer made a patrol below deck and reported to his Captain that there were piles of wreckage, dead and dying below decks and fires were breaking out. The engines were damaged and her speed much reduced. Despite von Spee's intentions and the high morale of his crew who were bringing up reserves to replace the dead and carrying up the ammunition to guns by hand in areas where mechanical hoists laid shattered, he knew escape was impossible. Both the Inflexible and Invincible had their guns trained on him and they were now joined by Stoddart on Carnarvon and between them they went about the business of taking out gun battery after battery pausing briefly thinking their work done but commencing again when a port battery squeezed out a final shot.

The battle was over and the German officers knew it. The Captain ordered the men on deck with anything that could float whilst another team opened the seacocks and planted charges. Officers were moving amongst the survivors issuing hammocks, wood from life boats and fittings when the vessel lurched starboard and those on deck pushed forward and over the port side and onto the Gneisnau's hull.

Many a clenched fist was brandished [at the British] and the men's fury found vent n full blooded seaman's oaths. Then the Captain, who preserved his wonted calm to the last, ordered three cheers for H.M the Emperor, and "Our good and gallant Gneisnau" and proceeded to sink the ship. Our crew, who had really given their utmost in endurance and courage, complied with enthusiasm and the strains of "Deutschland über alles" echoed through the ship with all its wonted vigour, followed by the hymn of the "Black, White and Red flag" which was flying riddled with shot, at the mainmast-head.

Inflexible picking up Gneisnau's survivors
The order was given to abandon ship and as she capsized two hundred men, including Pochhammer, Inflexible stopped to pick up survivors and in all 166 of her 764 compliment were pulled alive from the water and survived to serve the war in POW camps including Gneisnau's first officer Fregatten-kapitäin Pochhammer but not her captain or von Spee's youngest son Lieutenant Heinrich von Spee.
were plunged into the freezing 4° water which quickly claimed the wounded and weakened crewmen. The Albatrosses also descended on the wounded using razor sharp bills to tear at soft flesh and open wounds. The men were forced to try and defend themselves with the very flotsum they clung too, the effort tiring them out further and leaving them vulnerable to the cold.

The Kent, Glasgow and Cornwall pursued the light German units as fast as they could. Dresden was already pulling ahead of the other two Captain Luce of the Glasgow already believed that he could not bring that vessel to action before nightfall and signalled Cornwall that he would slow the Leipzig down so that the Cornwall could come up and sink her with its heavier guns. At 14:50 Luce opened fire and Captain Huhn responded by turning to present his broadside and firing off barrages, he knew that he could not escape and was prepared to give a good account for his vessel in the face of the enemy. Leipzig's navigational officer reported after the battle that his vessel's rate of fire was hampered by the fact only three of the starboard guns and only one port gun was occasionally able to fire on the enemy. This didn't stop the Leipzig striking the Glasgow and causing boiler damage that would stop her from chasing Dresden and concerned Luce enough to not close with her where the German's 4.1" guns would do more damage.

Cornwall closed to support Glasgow and at 16:42 Captain Ellerton's vessel blew Leipzig's foremast away and twenty minutes later struck the German with his full broadside which had set her on fire within an hour. After a patrol around the deck the chief gunnery officer reported to Captain Huhn that the guns were all spent and could offer no more resistance. Huhn stood philosophically for a moment before turning to his Chief torpedo officer and told him it was his turn. Leipzig tried to engage and strike the Glasgow and Cornwall but to no avail, the British heavy guns took their toll and the German cruiser slowed to a stop.

As Leipzig came under fire the Nürnberg and Dresden were going hell for leather to escape the British cruisers with the Dresden well ahead and HMS Kent doggedly pursuing Nürnberg. The British vessel's coal stocks were getting dangerously low but Captain Allen urged the stokers on and ordered all woodwork to be thrown on the fires to increase speed and despite her reputation as poor at holding her steam the ships engineers managed to coax the vessel to 25 knots which was over her commisioning top speed and well above what she was comfortable with, the over stretched engines were vibrating so much that the gun target controllers were next to useless!

The distance was down to seven miles and gradually closing until by 17:00 the Nürnberg opened fire with her stern guns hoping to deter her pursuers but to no avail, her shots sailed over the Kent.

Allen pushed his vessel harder to bring his 6"guns to bear and to narrow the chance of missing through the drizzle and fading light as well as the engine vibrations. Soon they began to return fire.

Despite Nürnberg's excellent rate of fire and accuracy her 4.1" shells could not penetrate the Armoured cruiser's plating. Kent on the other hand got in two lucky shots, one of which hit the after steering plane beneath the water line killing all save one in the compartment.

At 17:35 two of Nürnberg's overworked boilers blew and her speed was reduced to 18 knots. There was only one option open to von Schönberg - turn and fight to either disable the pursuer or go down with honour, he ordered his cruiser to turn 8 points to port to present her full broadside and fired.

Allen knew that his coal and the daylight were fading. If he wanted to stop the German cruiser he had to move to close range and trust that the Kent's armour could absorb the smaller vessel's shells. He brought Kent on a converging course at 6000 yards and the one sided exchange began.

By 18:00 the range had fallen to 3000 yards and although Nürnberg had managed to get a shell burst within one of Kent's gun turrets and one on the wireless room knocking out the communications the British ship was fairly undamaged. The German cruiser faired very differently and by 18.25 she had come to a dead stop, all but two guns were silent, her top mast had been shot away and fires were breaking out. Kent began to circle the crippled ship but the moment Nürnberg began to alter course, presumably to fire her other broadside, Allen gave the order to fire all his starboard guns at 3800 yards knocking out the forward guns and ravaging the forecastle before moving out of torpedo range and ceasing fire.

Nürnberg was barely afloat, the forecastle was decimated with no signs of life with a fire burning brightly under the bridge conning tower and she was starting to list and down by the stern. Still her flag flew defiantly and as Kent approached she opened fire again until five minutes later it was ripped down. Schönberg knew there was nothing left for his vessel and ordered his men to assemble on deck and to load the wounded into a lifeboat. With a final three cheers for the Kaiser the boat was lowered into the sea.

The Last man by Hans Bohrdt
Captain Allen had surveyed his lifeboats and found them all holed or shattered by shellfire and ordered his carpenters to begin repairs to the least damaged as quickly as possible. Within 20 minutes the gig andf cutter were also being lowered but it was too late. Nürnberg's boat of wounded had sunk due to its own damage and at 19:26 the cruiser suddenly heeled over to starboard and sank within four minutes taking the majority of the crew with her. The lifeboats moved forward but only managed to pull twelve men from the water alive, five were to die before reaching Kent or soon afterwards. As the ship sank the British saw some Germans clinging to some wreckage waving the Naval ensign attached to a staff and through the cold still night air heard them singing Deutschland über alles.

The Kent remained on station until 21:00 trying to search for survivors but no more of the crew of 322 could be found, including Lieutenant Otto von Spee, the admiral's eldest son and Captain von Schönberg.

Captain Allen later reported that;

I very much regret if my closing the enemy to such short range was the cause of so many casualties. If I erred in taking my ship too close to the enemy it was due to my extreme eagerness to sink her before she could escape, there were only a few hours of daylight left.

Kent had been struck 37 times during the fighting and had suffered four men dead and twelve wounded. Although it seems pretty much one sided the Kent came close to being destroyed. A German shell had burst against the A3 casemate and ignited some of the charges. A sheet of flame shot down the shell hoist into the ammunition corridor where another charge sat ready. Had this ignited the fire would have quickly spread into the magazine and caused a chain reaction that would have blown the ship up. Luckily Sergeant James Mates of the RMLI was stood at the bottom of the hoist and had the presence of mind to throw the charge away and flood the compartment. In gratitude but perhaps not fully recognising the danger that had been posed, the Admiralty awarded him the Military cross.

With a severe lack of coal the Kent began to limp back to Stanley at a fuel conserving dawdle that did not see them return to a very surprised Sturdee the following afternoon. With no W/T transmitter Allen had been unable to signal his status and Kent was presumed sunk.

Glasgow approached the smouldering wreck of Leipzig and signalled Captain Luce's message;

Am anxious to save life. Do you surrender?

Luce was still wary that although the guns had fallen silent and the German vessel clearly was near her end her Imperial ensign still flew from the foremast denoting she was still an active combatent despite being aflame at each end and her main mast and two funnels blown away. If he brought his ship in close would the German ship surprise him?

An ambush was far away from Huhn's mind. His ship was dying and he knew there was nothing more he could ask of her or the crew. Orders were sent out for the remaining crew to assemble amidships with life saving equipment and the sea cocks were opened to aid the vessel's sinking. After a brief address to the surviving 150 men and three cheers for the Kaiser he pointed to the flag fluttering from the mast and the inferno that was raging at its base.

If anyone can reach the ensign, they can haul it down, for we shall sink now.

Obediently one crewman rushed forward to the mast but was overcome by the flames before he could reach it. It was I of little consequence as the vessel was clearly mortally damaged and as soon as Huhn gave the order his men would leave the vessel and the battle would be over.

Through ill luck a gun fired, whether by mistake, design or a shell lodged in the barrel overheated in one of the many fires no one knows but the result was the same. Glasgow fearing she was under fire openned up with her main guns with deadly effect on the massed ranks of sailors. Blasts and shrapnel ricocheting off the conning tower blasted men to pieces, tore away limbs turning the decks into a charnel house awash with blood and the stench of cordite and death. Men scattered in panic hiding behind the gunshields or diving into the sea and swimming towards their aggressors but whilst the British thought there was still fight left in Leipzig they there would be no rescue. As the death toll rose the surviving fifty men clung to their cover as best they could and waited in terror for the violence to stop and in a lull managed to launch two green flares.
SMS Leipzig

Luce saw them and took this as the Germans attempting to communicate their surrender and at 20:12 and approached again signalling;

I am sending boats to save lives.

 At 20:45 the lifeboats were made ready for launch to pull Huhn's men to safety. Leipzig had no lifeboats left to launch, they had long been turned to splinters or burnt up. The surviving crew sat with their captain In the dark on the forecastle sharing his cigarettes and calmly waiting for the British boats to hit the water. Looking out into the black they saw the white hulled boats approach, their nightmare was nearly over. When the British reached 40 yards Huhn turned to his companions and ordered them over the side before turning and walking forward into the dark night, going down with his vessel.

The water was cold and with little light the men in the sea stood little chance as fatigue and wounds combined to sap them of their strength. They're splashing and cries soon diminished. The surviving officers blew their whistles and the four boats approached plucking men from the icy embrace of the sea. Glasgow's two boats pulled seven officers who's whistles saved their lives, and ten men, Cornwall's pulled one out one man. Out of a crew of 288 only 18 were saw the end of the battle.

After seven hours of combat Leipzig disappeared beneath the waves at 21:23. Von Spee's oldest and most obsolete vessel had acquitted itself well in the face of the enemy.

SMS Dresden escaped into a rain and fog squall and disappeared from the combat zone. The other survivor was the hospital ship Seydlitz. The former liner that was carrying some British prisoners (From the collier Drummuir) and supplies had been tailing von Spee's warships acting as a hospital ship but with the approach of Sturdee's squadron she used her superior speed to escape south slipping past Bristol. She finally disappeared into the darkness and around the cape. She came very close to disaster though as she passed within four miles of gunfire and explosions that turned out to be the death throes of Leipzig.

The battle of the Falklands was considered to be the most decisive naval battles of the First World War and saw the almost complete destruction of von Spee's force. The battle saw 2000 Germans killed and the rest taken prisoner for 10 British sailors killed and 20 wounded. It also closed the chapter of the regular Kaiserliche-marine hunting merchant ships. Outside of the North sea only Dresden and the estuary bound Konigsberg remained elusive.