On the morning of 8 December 1914 just before 0800, British Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee received word that the German ships he had been searching for had appeared in the frigid South Atlantic waters off Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The day before, Sturdee had arrived from England with reinforcements for the remnants of a British cruiser force that had been shattered in the first defeat the Royal Navy had suffered in a century.
Five weeks earlier, Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s Südsee-Geschwader, consisting of the powerful armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, along with cruisers Nürnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden, had routed Rear Admiral Cradock’s undergunned and outmanned cruiser squadron at Coronel, off the coast of Chile. Cradock went down with his flagship Good Hope (which sank with all hands) when, pounded to a wreck by Scharnhorst, her forward magazine exploded. Monmouth, Cradock’s other armored cruiser, was also lost with all hands under the fire of Gneisenau and Leipzig.
Sturdee’s reinforcements were battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, 20,0o0 ton vessels armed with eight 12-inch guns, capable of 26.5 knots, and the armored cruisers Kent and Cornwall. Along with Glasgow and the elderly pre-dreadnought Canopus, Sturdee held a decisive advantage in both gun power and speed over his adversary. Von Spee was entirely unaware of the presence of the British capital ships, which held a 6-knot speed advantage over Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both of which were badly in need of overhaul and a hull-scraping. Spee’s sixteen 8.2-inch guns were more than a match for Cradock’s armored cruisers, but were entirely outmatched by the heavier British batteries of Inflexible and Invincible.
The opening salvoes were fired by Canopus, masked by the landmass of Sapper Hill. Unaware as of yet of the presence of two battlecruisers, Spee canceled the planned bombardment, still believing he could disengage and outrun the British cruisers and the elderly battleship. It was not until near mid-day that horrified German lookouts spotted the distinctive fighting tops of the British capital units. In a running fight that the German vessels had little chance of escaping, Scharnhorst succumbed to her wounds and rolled over at 1615. Gneisenau would fight gamely on until the last of her guns were destroyed, and at 1800 she was ordered scuttled by her captain. Admiral Graf von Spee was not among the 190 survivors plucked from the icy waters.
The battle had some final acts to play out. Kent sank Nürnberg at 1930, and in the darkening seas Glasgow and Cornwall hunted down and sank Leipzig. Only Dresden of Spee’s Südsee-Geshwader escaped, to be sunk in March of 1915. (Among Dresden’s officers was a young Oberleutnant-zur-see named Wilhelm Canaris, who would go on to famed service in the next war.)
The Battle of the Falklands cost the Imperial German Navy the lives of more than 1,800 sailors. British losses were ten killed and 19 wounded. While the victory of Sturdee’s squadron was complete, and avenged Cradock at Coronel, some unflattering issues revealed themselves. The primary was that British gunnery left much to be desired. The sinking of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took more than five hours, and 1,174 rounds of 12-inch ammunition from the battlecruisers. Even considering Sturdee’s prudent tactics of fighting at or beyond the range of the guns of his opponent, his capital units expended more than half of their ammunition to score fewer than thirty hits on the two German cruisers. British gunnery shortcomings, the skill and bravery of their German opponents, and the toughness of the German ships, would manifest themselves at Jutland eighteen months later.
In one of history’s ironies, Admiral Graf von Spee’s namesake panzerschiff, KMS Graf Spee, would meet its end almost exactly 25 years later, in December of 1939 in the waters of the South Atlantic once again. She was scuttled because it was rumored that she was awaited outside Montevideo by British dreadnoughts.