Battle of the Falkland Islands

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The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a naval engagement fought between elements of the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine on 8 December, 1914 near the Falkland Islands. It came a little over a month after the defeat of the South Atlantic Squadron at the Battle of Coronel and saw Graf von Spee's squadron effectively annihilated by a powerful British force under the command of Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee especially assembled to avenge Coronel.

British Dispositions

On 4 November, Vice-Admiral Sturdee was appointed Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic and South Pacific. The Northern boundary of his station was Latitude 5° North, bounded to the East and West by the Cape and Australian Stations, respectively. The battle cruisers Invincible (Captain Tufton P. H. Beamish) and Inflexible (Captain Richard F. Phillimore) were detached from the Grand Fleet and ordered first to Berehaven, then to Devonport. To replace the battle cruisers, the cruisers Minotaur, Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh and Black Prince were ordered to return from from overseas convoy service as soon as possible.

Following reports from "trustworthy Danish agents" that the Germans intended to send cruisers into the North Atlantic, on the 10th Princess Royal (Captain Osmond de B. Brock) was ordered detached from the Grand Fleet.

Invincible and Inflexible left Devonport on the 11th.

Princess Royal left on 12 November for Halifax to coal, then operate off New York with Suffolk, Essex and Caronia. That day that the battleship Canopus arrived at the Falkland Islands, mooring, signalled Captain Grant, "head and stern to cover entrance of harbour and obtain fire to S.E. over land."

Before leaving Abolhos Rocks, Sturdee issued Fighting Instructions on three sheets of foolscap paper, which read, in part:

The maximum enemy squadron likely to be met consists of two semi-armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and possibly some colliers. The main duty of the battle-cruisers is to deal with the armoured cruisers. The British armoured and light cruisers should not seek action with the enemy's armoured cruisers in the early stages, but, in the event of the enemy's light cruisers separating or trying to escape, make it their business to deal with them: … The battle-cruisers will seek out the enemy's armoured cruisers and engage them between 12,000 and 10,000 yards, closing to 8,000 yards as fire becomes effective. The armoured cruisers should avoid action with the enemy's armoured cruisers until either the latter have been damaged or, owing to a superior tactical position, their fire can be effectively used …[1]

Sturdee's squadron reached Port Stanley at 10:30 on 7 December, and was piloted through the minefield into Port William.

Cruiser Action

At 13:20 von Spee ordered Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg "to leave the line and try to escape". They then steered to the South while von Spee led Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off E.N.E.. In his Fighting Instructions issued before leaving the Abrolhos Rocks, Sturdee had written that his light and armoured cruisers should, "… in the event of the enemy's light cruisers separating or attempting to escape, make it their business to deal with them: …" Consequently, Glasgow, Cornwall and Kent swung to starboard and steered South after the fleeing German ships. Rear-Admiral Stoddart in the Carnarvon realised that his armoured cruiser wasn't fast enough to pursue the three German ships as directed, and continued in the chase of the German armoured cruisers.[2]

The Dresden began to pull ahead, while the Nürnberg began to lag behind. The British ships were disposed with Kent to Port, Cornwall in the centre and Glasgow to Starboard. Captain Ellerton of Cornwall signalled, "I will take centre target [Leipzig] if Kent take left [Nürnberg] and Glasgow take right [Dresden]." Captain Luce in Glasgow, the senior officer of the force, replied, "I fear I am only gaining slowly on [on the Dresden]. Having already engaged Leipzig I feel I must stand by you." Luce doubted his ability to bring Dresden to battle before nightfall and then defeat her. He chose instead to fight Leipzig and keep her engaged until Cornwall could bring her guns to bear. He slowed down to keep touch with Cornwall, and at 14:50 opened fire on Leipzig. Captain Haun replied by altering course so as to bring his 4.1-inch guns into action. Luce turned Glasgow to allow her after 6-inch gun to fire.[3]

The navigating officer of Leipzig later wrote:

Twenty minutes after fire had been opened the Leipzig received her first hit. A 6-inch shell struck the superstructure before the third funnel … passed through the upper deck into a bunker which happened to be the one in use. This caused a temporary diminution of the forced draught in Nos. 3 and 4 boiler-rooms. We succeeded in stopping up the hole sufficiently well with blankets and a heavy tub filled with water. Our fire was very severely hampered by the fact that only three guns on the starboard side, and occasionally the aftermost gun on the port side, were in action, [and] at such long range the salvoes followed each other very slowly and observation was very difficult.[4]

Glasgow closed to 11,000 yards, but the Leipzig's firing was accurate enough to deter Captain Luce from shortening the range further, and it took an hour for it to drop to 9,000 yards, when Luce's ship received two hits. Leipzig was observed to be firing from her opposite battery at Kent as she passed in pursuit of Nürnberg. At 16:17, Cornwall had closed enough and opened fire. Captain Haun of the Leipzig then made the decision to concentrate his fire on Cornwall rather than on the Glasgow, apparently a source of contention between the crews of the two British ships after the battle.[5]

Aftermath

In 1916, Captain Grant (by then a Rear-Admiral) of Canopus attempted to obtain a share of the Prize Money for his crew, based on the fact that his ship had fortified Port Stanley, by opening fire had driven off Gneisenau and Nürnberg, had safeguarded the coaling and revictualling of Sturdee's squadron on the 7th and 8th, had given the squadron adequate warning of the approach of the German squadron, that the ricochet shot which hit Gneisenau killed five of her crew. On 21 December, 1916 the President of the Prize Court, the Right Honourable Sir Samuel Evans, found that under the terms of the Naval Prize Act Canopus had not been part of the squadron which destroyed the German ships and dismissed the claim.[6] On 11 January the representative of Sturdee's squadron which had contested Grant's application unsuccessfully applied for costs, but the application was dismissed by the President of the Court.[7]

Myths

A Trap

In his memoirs a German spy claimed that after the Great War Admiral Sir W. Reginald Hall, Director of the Intelligence Division at the time of the Falkland Islands battle, had told him that von Spee had been lured to the islands by a fake signal sent by the British. This idea lacks credibility. Hall, a self-styled spymaster, was known for his outrageous claims, such as his boast that he tricked the Germans into bombing the home of a British High Court judge. Crucially, von Rintelen appears to be the only source for this story. Beesly, based on a rather weak reference in Hall's papers, suggests that it's a possibility,[8] but in the absence of hard evidence the notion cannot be taken seriously.

Dreyer Tables

Many record the low hit percentages of the British ships as being indicative of the weaknesses of the Dreyer Fire Control Table. It is, to quote one historian, "almost certain"[9] that neither battle cruiser was equipped with a functioning table at the time of the battle.[10]

The most likely reasons for bad hit percentages were both attributable to the fact that the fight was a long range one on bearings well ahead:

  • The Royal Navy (probably all navies in 1914) lacked a means of correcting for cross-tilt, which as their ships rolled would subject the salvoes to large and chaotic errors in deflection.
  • A spry enemy more interested in escape than combat can, under these circumstances, zig-zag and offset his position far enough in deflection during the long time-of-flight of the shells that you must guess where he might be when they get there. Even the World War II American battleships New Jersey and Iowa, with their extremely sophisticated fire control systems failed to bring the fleeing destroyer Nowaki to bay in 1944 under roughly similar circumstances.

In his report of the battle, Invincible's Gunnery Officer, Commander Dannreuther wrote:

Primary Control from Fore Top was used throughout. At times the control was very difficult as we were firing down wind the whole time and the view from aloft was much interfered with by gun smoke and funnel smoke
Range Finders were of little use and any form of range finder plotting was impossible owing to the difficulty of observation and high range. In fact as far as this particular action was concerned it would have made no difference if the ship had not had a single Range Finder or Dumaresq or any plotting outfit on board
During the latter part of the action with the Gneisenau (she) continually zig-zagged to try to avoid being hit, altering course every few minutes about two points either side of her normal course. This alteration of course could not be detected by Range Finder or by eye and continual spotting corrections were necessary. The rate being fairly high and changing every few minutes from opening to closing I found the only effective means was to keep the rate at zero and continually spot on the target. By this means we managed to hit her now and again.[11]

Coriolis Effect

An annoying urban legend persists that the Royal Navy's shooting at the Battle of the Falklands was poor due to their equipment applying corrections for Coriolis effect in the wrong direction, as the action was in the southern hemisphere rather than the northern. The truth is, however, that no contemporary aspect of Royal Navy equipment or procedure took Coriolis effect into consideration, an extremely minor deficiency. For, even if the fable were true, if the action took place on a nearly constant bearing, and at a range that changed only slowly, even a blatant mistreatment of Coriolis effect such as its negative consideration would therefore have been a constant error, and one unlikely to be large compared to other factors affecting the proper deflection to use (such as the zig-zagging of a fleeing enemy). This fact implies that the remedy for such a miscue would have been a single spotting correction for deflection which, once made, would counteract the error for the remainder of the action.

While I think it likely that later systems of firing incorporated Coriolis corrections, a system lacking such treatment which is designed primarily to bring fire upon a maneuvering enemy is not a sad system by any means. Taken in context, Coriolis errors are a constant source of deflection error and very small in degree. The need to fire repeated salvoes which for many reasons will require spotting to put them onto the target implies that a failure to handle Coriolis effect, or even handle it entirely backwards, would not prevent a shooter from hitting his target in a prolonged engagement.

See Also

Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 140-141.
  2. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 140-141.
  3. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. p. 154.
  4. Quoted in Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 154-155.
  5. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. p. 155.
  6. "The Prize Court" (Law). The Times. Friday, 22 December, 1916. Issue 41357, col A, p. 3.
  7. "The Prize Court" (Law). The Times. Friday, 12 January, 1917. Issue 41374, col A, p. 2.
  8. Beesly. p. 77.
  9. Brooks. Fire Control for British Dreadnoughts. p. 204.
  10. Friedman. Naval Firepower. p. 106.
  11. "Gunnery Remarks" and "Damage caused to H.M.S. "Invincible" by Gunfire...", with Invincible to C.-in-C. S. Atlantic & S. Pacific. 18 December 1914. The National Archives. ADM 137/304. Quoted in Brooks. Fire Control for British Dreadnoughts. p. 232.

Bibliography

  • Bennett, Geoffrey (1962). Coronel and the Falklands. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (November, 1920). Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.) Volume I. O.U. 5413 (late C.B. 917). Copy No 292 at The National Archives. ADM 186/605.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (October, 1923). Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.) Volume IX. O.U. 5413G (late C.B. 917(G)). Copy No 213 at The National Archives. ADM 186/617.