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 British 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 the loss at 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.

Von Spee's Plan

Von Spee's East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg arrived at the Falkland Islands on the morning of 8 December, a day after Sturdee's squadron . Their intention was to destroy the local facilities and wireless station.

The Falkland Islanders had expected to be attacked by Spee since 25 November, when they learnt that Spee had defeated a British squadron at Coronel. They had formed a local defence force in case of invasion, whilst Captain Heathcoat Grant had deliberately beached the pre-dreadnought battleship H.M.S. Canopus on mud to protect the harbour. A signal station had been established on Sapper Hill in order to watch for enemy ships and to direct Canopus's fire. A row of electric mines laid across the entrance to the outer harbour.

The 1938 edition of Naval Operations, the British Official History, revised after the publication of the German Official History, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918, says that Spee expected to meet only the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, the armoured cruiser Carnarvon, and possibly the armoured cruisers H.M.S. Defence and Cornwall and the light cruiser Glasgow. The Germans knew that they could outrun Canopus and had heavier guns than all the others except Defence and Carnarvon.[2]

Spee's plan was that Gneisenau and Nürnberg would carry out the attack, with the rest of his squadron standing off in support. They would enter Port Stanley behind a line of minesweeping boats. Gneisenau would take the Governor on board, whilst Nürnberg would enter the inner harbour and destroy the dockyard and wireless station. If hostile warships were present, they would withdraw to the rest of the squadron.

At 07:50 the British look outs spotted Gneisenau and Nürnberg approaching. Coaling had been slow because the first of Sturdee's own colliers had only just arrived at the Falklands to join three that were already there. Only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling. The battlecruisers and Bristol were coaling and the other three ships had not yet started to do so. Kent, as guardship, had steam at 30 minutes notice and the others were at two hours notice, except Bristol which needed engine repairs, so was at six hours notice. [3]

At 08:00 the Germans spotted wireless masts and heavy smoke, which they initially assumed was the British burning their coal stocks. Gneisenau's gunnery officer, Kapitänleutnant Busch, is believed to have reported seeing tripod masts, which would have meant that British dreadnought battlecruisers or battleships were present. However, his report was not believed. [4]

The following account is based on Sturdee's Despatch, available from the [World War I Document Archive], unless otherwise footnoted.

The signal from Sapper Hill reached Sturdee at 0800. He ordered Kent was to weigh anchor and the squadron to raise steam for full speed.. Twenty minutes later the signal station reported another column of smoke to the south. Kent took up station at the harbour entrance at 0845 and two minutes later Canopus reported that the first two ships were eight miles away and that the second column of smoke seemed to come from two ships about 20 miles away.

At 09:20 Canopus opened fire on the two leading enemy ships at 11,000 yards. They turned away. Their masts and smoke were now visible at a range of 17,000 yards from Invincible's upper bridge. A few minutes later the Germans changed course, as if to close on Kent, but then changed course and increased speed in order to join their consorts, apparently having spotted the battlecruisers.

Glasgow weighed anchor at 09:40 in order to join Kent and 5 minutes later Carnarvon, Inflexible, Invincible and Cornwall weighed anchor and left harbour in that order. The sea was calm, the sun bright, the sky clear and visibility at its maximum. There was a light breeze from the north west. The five German ships became visible once the squadron had passed Cape Pembroke Light.

Canopus missed the German ships, but the size of water splashes from her shells indicated that they were from 12 inch guns. Spee ordered his ships to turn away after Gneisenau reported that there were six enemy warships present.

The Naval Staff Monograph says the Germans saw the six British ships leaving the harbour at 10:00, but identified them as being two pre-dreadnought battleships, three armoured cruisers and a light cruiser and did not realise that could see that the two largest ships were battlecruisers rather than pre-dreadnoughts until 10:20. The Germans were then heading east at 20 knots, The subsequent battle was so one sided that the Naval Staff Monograph concludes its account at this point by saying that 'von Spee knew that his hour had come.'[5]

Naval Operations states that the Germans identified the battlecruisers at 09:40. Whenever they made the identification, it came as a great shock to them. There had been US newspaper reports that Invincible had been sent south, but Spee was unaware of them.[6]

Spee's squadron could out run but not out fight pre-dreadnoughts. It could neither out run nor out fight battlecruisers. Withdrawing was the best action if he thought that he faced pre-dreadnoughts, but if he had realised that he faced battlecruisers, his only chance would have been to attack the first ship to leave harbour, Kent, in the hope of sinking her and obstructing the exit of the rest of the British squadron.

By the time that the battlecruisers had been identified, Spee's only hope was that his doomed armoured cruisers could hold the British off for long enough that his three light cruisers might escape in order to carry out commerce raiding. Sir Julian Corbett writes in Naval Operations that in doing so Spee had taken 'a decision which did him and his service the highest honour.'[7]

Armoured Cruiser Action

Sturdee gave the signal for a general chase at 10:20. The battlecruisers and Glasgow reduced their speed to 20 knots at 11:15 in order to allow the armoured cruisers to close up to them He decided to attack the enemy with the battlecruisers and Glasgow and at 12:47 signalled 'Open fire and engage the enemy.' Eight minutes later Inflexible fired the first shots at a range of 16,500 yards at Leipzig, the closest ship, which was dropping back from the rest of her squadron.

From 13:20, when the range was down to 15,000 yards, the action split into the battle split into two separate actions as a result of von Spee's decision to sacrifice his armoured cruisers, their crews and himself in order to give his light cruisers a chance to escape.

At 13:25 the Germans turned to port, opening fire five minutes later. Sturdee wanted to keep the range between 13,500 yards (the maximum of the German 8.2 inch guns) and 16,400 yards (the maximum of the British 12 inch guns). Spee wanted to close to less than the 12,000 yard range of his 5.9 inch guns.[8]

Soon afterwards, Sturdee ordered a turn and by 14:000 the range had opened to 16,450 yards. The Germans turned away 10 minutes later, beginning another chase. The battlecruisers opened fire at 14:45. The Germans turned at 14:53, opening fire two minutes later.

Naval Operations says that the German 5.9 inch guns were in range by 14:59, but had little effect at their maximum range. The smoke from the battlecruisers was making gunnery very difficult for both sides, but Gneisenau was listing by 15:10. Five minutes later, Scharnhorst, which was on fire and whose fire was slackening, lost a funnel.[9]

At 15:30 Scharnhorst turned, apparently to bring her starboard guns into action. She was on fire and steam was coming from her. She listed suddenly listed heavily to port with her colours were still flying and at 16:17 sank with all hands.

Gneisenau's forward funnel fell at 17:08 and her fire slackened, but one of her shells hit Invincible at 17:15. She turned towards Invincible 15 minutes later. Sturdee ordered 'Cease fire', but cancelled it before the signal flags had been raised after Gneisenau fired a single gun.

The three British ships closed on Gneisenau at 17:40. One of her flags appeared to be hauled down, but another was still flying. Ten minutes later Sturdee signalled 'Cease fire.' At 18:00 Gneisenau suddenly turned over and sank.

She had been pounded from 4,000 yards before being scuttled on the orders of Kapitän Julius Maerker. He did not survive, but Hans Pochhammer, his second in command, did. Invincible picked up 108 survivors, Inflexible fetched 62 and Carnarvon an additional 20. Over 2,000 Germans were killed or drowned.[10]

Invincible suffered no significant damage and no casualties, Carnarvon was not hit and Inflexible had one man killed and three wounded.[11]

Light 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]


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.[16] 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.[17]


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,[18] 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"[19] that neither battle cruiser was equipped with a functioning table at the time of the battle.[20]

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.[21]

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


  1. Quoted in Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 140-141.
  2. Corbett. Naval Operations. p. 411.
  3. Naval Staff. Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.) Volume I. p. 163.
  4. Naval Staff. Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.) Volume I. p. 166.
  5. Naval Staff. Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.) Volume I . pp. 163.
  6. Corbett. Naval Operations. p. 416.
  7. Corbett. Naval Operations. p. 419.
  8. Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. pp. 122-23.
  9. Corbett. Naval Operations. pp. 421-26.
  10. Bennett. Naval Battles of the First World War. p. 105.
  11. Corbett. Naval Operations. pp. 425-26.
  12. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 140-141.
  13. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. p. 154.
  14. Quoted in Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. pp. 154-155.
  15. Bennett. Coronel and the Falklands. p. 155.
  16. "The Prize Court" (Law). The Times. Friday, 22 December, 1916. Issue 41357, col A, p. 3.
  17. "The Prize Court" (Law). The Times. Friday, 12 January, 1917. Issue 41374, col A, p. 2.
  18. Beesly. p. 77.
  19. Brooks. Fire Control for British Dreadnoughts. p. 204.
  20. Friedman. Naval Firepower. p. 106.
  21. "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.


  • Bennett, Geoffrey (1962). Coronel and the Falklands. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.
  • Bennett, Geoffrey (1974). Naval Battles of the First World War. London: Pan Books Ltd.
  • Corbett, Sir Julian (1968). Naval Operations Volume I. London: London: HMSO.
  • Marder, Arthur (1965). From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow Volume II. Barnsley: Seaforth.
  • 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.