Disaster at Sea

One of a Series

This series of posts follows Hew Strachan’s book The First World War. The book is also the basis for the video of the same name.


As mentioned in another post, the war was planned by the Austria-Hungary Empire in collusion with Germany and was intended to be limited in scope and duration. Austria-Hungary wanted to annex Serbia, and it used the murder of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Serbian nationalists as cause célèbre, a rationale for its motives and a catalyst for action. In July 1914, in the weeks following the murders, events quickly escalated, culminating with the commencement of hostilities against Serbia by Austria-Hungary on 28 July. Serbia’s ally, Russia, began to mobilize its forces, and Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August. France was in the process of mobilizing, and Germany declared war on France. Britain entered on 4 August by declaring war on Germany. This “limited war” quickly escalated to a world-wide conflict.

Not widely known these days is that 100 years ago Germany had a colonial empire that spanned the globe. These colonies were seen as immediate prizes of war by Great Britain and its dominions in those regions:

New Zealand occupied German Samoa (later Western Samoa) on 30 August 1914. On 11 September, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force landed on the island of Neu Pommern (later New Britain), which formed part of German New Guinea. On 28 October, the German cruiser SMS Emden sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug in the Battle of Penang. Japan seized Germany’s Micronesian colonies and, after the Siege of Tsingtao, the German coaling port of Qingdao in the Chinese Shandong peninsula. As Vienna refused to withdraw the Austro-Hungarian cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth from Tsingtao, Japan declared war not only on Germany, but also on Austria-Hungary; the ship participated in the defense of Tsingtao where it was sunk in November 1914. Within a few months, the Allied forces had seized all the German territories in the Pacific; only isolated commerce raiders and a few holdouts in New Guinea remained.

[Some links deleted]

And that set the stage for early engagements with the far-flung German fleet. At Germany’s base on the Shantung Peninsula German commander Graff von Spee had the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both armored cruisers and also the light cruisers DresdenEmdenLeipzig and Nürnberg.

But in mid-August, with Japan not yet in the war, Spee’s quandary was that his squadron was not – in local terms – the inferior force. As a professional sailor and as an admiral, Spee’s temperamental preference was to keep his squadron united and under his own control, and to exercise maritime dominance while he could. On 12 August he received a signal warning him of Japan’s probable entry to the war, but he did not revise his intentions. He had already resolved to direct his squadron south-east towards Chile. Chile was neutral, but was reported to be well disposed towards Germany and could provide coal. The Entente naval chain was weakest in this quarter of the Pacific.

When Spee told his captains what he intended, Karl von Müller of the Emden disagreed. Spee’s scheme would keep his command intact , but it would do so at the price of the principles of cruiser war, and it would not threaten Britain’s commerce at its most vulnerable points . Spee agreed to the extent that he allowed Müller to detach the Emden from the squadron and to make for the Bay of Bengal.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1287-1295). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

The subsequent history of the Emden would make a novel in itself.

Over two months, beginning on 10 September, the Emden raided Madras and Penang, captured twenty-three vessels, and sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. Müller applied the principles of cruiser warfare to brilliant effect. Although his exploits created chaos in British trade in the Indian Ocean , he was lionised as much by the British press as the German. On 9 November the Emden was surprised and sunk by an Australian light cruiser as she was raiding the wireless station on the Cocos Islands. Even then the Emden’s exploits were not over. Müller had put a landing party ashore on Direction Island. It seized a schooner and sailed to the Yemen. After crossing to the Red Sea, it braved the desert, despite attacks by hostile Arabs, and reached Damascus and then Constantinople . A German journalist greeted the party on its arrival by asking its commander, Hellmuth von Mücke, which he would prefer, a bath or Rhine wine: ‘Rhine wine,’ replied von Mücke.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1294-1302). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Meanwhile von Spee and his fleet continued toward their doom. This was before the days when a nuclear powered vessel could sail the seas for years without refueling. This was even before the days of oil-fired boilers. These ships had to stop for coal periodically, and the coal had to be already there and for sale. Von Spee had to stop periodically at known coaling stations, and this limited the places the British had to look for him.

The expeditious destruction of Germany’s wireless stations in the region cut von Spee off from his sources of intelligence, but it also forced him into radio silence, which made it hard for the British to find him. He learned that Samoa had fallen by reading an American newspaper. When he raided Papeete on 22 September a French steamer radioed his presence. He determined to head for Chile, a neutral country and and one willing to sell the Germans coal.

One of those looking for von Spee was Sir Christopher Cradock, in command of the Royal Navy’s Western Atlantic Squadron.

The Admiralty’s orders to Cradock were ambiguous – the consequence of an offensive-minded First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who could not resist the temptation offered by the wireless to direct operations from London on the basis of outdated intelligence . The Admiralty certainly told Cradock that it was his job to seek out the enemy, and only by leaving [HMS] Canopus did it seem that he would have the speed to do so. The trouble was that [without Canopus] he now lacked the firepower to be effective when he found Spee.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1322-1325). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Here we may be seeing for the first time the Churchill who was destined to manage much of the future war with Germany.

Cradock took his fleet into the southeast Pacific and found von Spee of the coast of Chile.

Spee used only one vessel, the light cruiser Leipzig, to transmit wireless signals. Cradock heard the signals and fancied that he might catch the Leipzig in isolation. In fact, Spee’s squadron had rendezvoused with two cruisers , including the Leipzig, off Easter Island. Cradock used HMS Glasgow in exactly the same way. The Germans heard the Glasgow’s signals and closed with her off Coronel at about 4.30 p.m. on 1 November. Cradock could still have escaped. He did not. He closed up to the Glasgow. While the setting sun was in the Germans’ eyes, his ships had a temporary advantage, but as soon as it sank over the horizon the British ships were silhouetted against a reddening sky. Spee kept his distance until the light was right, and then at 7 p.m . opened fire. His theoretical broadside was 4,442 lb to the British 2,875 lb. In practice , the British guns were mounted lower on the ship than the Germans‘, and the rough seas meant that water flooded the casemates, so up to half of them could not be used. Cradock’s flagship, Good Hope, was hit before she opened fire and sank within half an hour; HMS Monmouth followed two hours later.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1326-1334). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Von Spee was realistic about the outcome. His fleet was still hunted, and escape and continue fighting with no hope of ever returning to Germany was all that was left to him. He sailed into the southwest Atlantic and to his doom.

Spee could have given the Falklands a wide berth, but once again his propensity for action got the better of him , even though his shell stocks were running low. As the Gneisenau closed on Cape Pembroke, its senior gunnery officer spotted the three-legged tripod masts characteristic of Dreadnoughts, the all-big-gun battleships pioneered by the British in 1905. Spee turned away, confident that he had the speed to outdistance battleships – if indeed they were there. But battle cruisers had been developed by Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, for action exactly like this. They combined the hitting power of the battleship with the manoeuvrability of the cruiser. Not only did they mount 12-inch guns, but they could make speeds of up to 25 knots (as opposed to the Dreadnought battleship’s 21 knots). They forfeited deck armour to do so, but when on the oceans, with plenty of manoeuvring space, the risk was – it seemed – neutralised by their ability to engage at great ranges and at great speed.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1341-1348). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

From Wikipedia: Eduard Rothert - Eduard Rothert, Karten und Skizzen zum Weltkrieg, Druck und Verlag von A. Bagel, Düsseldorf, 1916.

From Wikipedia: Eduard Rothert – Eduard Rothert, Karten und Skizzen zum Weltkrieg, Druck und Verlag von A. Bagel, Düsseldorf, 1916.

Von Spee’s two armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were sunk, and von Spee was among the dead. And that was not the end of the family tragedy.

One of Spee’s two sons, Heinrich, drowned with the Gneisenau. The other, Otto , was on the light cruiser, Nürnberg. She was overhauled and sunk, as was Leipzig. Only Dresden escaped : she was not run down until 14 March. By the end of 1914 the German cruiser threat to Britain’s maritime trade was all but eliminated. So large was Britain’s merchant fleet that the achievements of Spee, Müller and others were in statistical terms insignificant. By January 1915 German surface vessels had accounted for 215,000 of the 273,000 tons of merchant shipping sunk, but that was only 2 per cent of British commercial tonnage.

Strachan, Hew (2005-04-05). The First World War (Kindle Locations 1357-1361). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

It was 100 years ago today, 8 December 1914. The British suffered 10 killed, 19 wounded and no ships lost. It was the end of the German surface fleet for the remainder of the war. Subsequently, U-boats were to figure prominently in the German Navy’s war effort, possibly to the detriment of that country.

One of those ironies of history came out of this battle. Subsequently the rebuilt German navy named one of its pocket battleships after Graf von Spee. In the opening months of The Second World War this ship roamed the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, sinking and capturing shipping of the Allied powers, plus some others. Just a few hundred miles from where Admiral Graff von Spee met his end and 25 years later, almost to the day, the British Navy caught up with the Graff Spee and cornered it in Montevideo harbor, where it was subsequently scuttled.

3 thoughts on “Disaster at Sea

  1. Pingback: Turning Point | Skeptical Analysis

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  3. Pingback: Years of Living Dangerously | Skeptical Analysis

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