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Sgt Stripes

Von Spee at the Falklands.

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Sgt Stripes

Just a general question. Did Admiral Von Spee make a big mistake when he took the German East Asia squadron to raid the Falkland Islands by not attacking the British ships in the harbour. I know his ships were out gunned and he only had half his ammunition but he could have inflicted sever damaged on the ships while they were trying to get out of the harbour. He must have knew that the royal navy's battlecruisers were faster and eventually his ships would be brought to battle.   

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Malcolm12hl

Much ink has been spilled on just this subject.  I don't think the answer is straightforward.  It is not clear exactly when Spee realised there were battle cruisers present, his forces were split at the onset (only Gneisenau and Nurnberg were performing the reconnaissance), and the sheer volume of concentrated fire that Sturdee's ships could have delivered, however, restricted they were by location and initial lack of mobility, would probably have cancelled out any initial German advantage.  For me, an equally interesting question is whether he should even have considered attacking the Falklands in the first place.  Having wasted more than a month after Coronel, why then attempt to attack one of the most likely places for the inevitable British hunting force to have been concentrated?

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Kimberley John Lindsay

Dear All,

Hindsight is easy...

Kindest regards,

Kim.

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TeeCeeCee

9Malcolm 12hl, I have a book that records that at 10:00am "... to the dismay and astonishment of the observers aboard Leipzig, two pairs of tripod masts - the recognition mark of 12" BCs were seen above the low-lying spit, proceeding towards Port William harbour."

 

 

As to the original question, Spee avoided the 1914 "Battle of Port William" as it was a defended harbour... and it was as the RN ships were making for the harbour exit that his men saw that they faced battlecruisers. From that point on Spees 'bad day' was going to get a lot worse. 

 

But if he was going to have a go and do a Copenhagen, (against an unknown foe) the time to do it was as soon as he got there. He may have been lucky in his smaller ships getting torpedoes into the BCs? while trading blows with unprepared ships in constrained waters? 

 

As they say, "fortune favours the bold" or "he who dares wins". 

 

With the benefit of hindsight, we know he was damned whatever he did that day. 

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Kimberley John Lindsay

Dear TeeCeeCee

Good work!

Very constructive, in contrast to my unqualified and unhelpful remark.

Kindest regards,

Kim.

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Malcolm12hl

Some of the historical accounts of the battle employ a fair bit of license and need to be treated with caution.  This is particularly the case with the German side of the battle due to limited survivor testimony. While over 100 of the Gneisenau's  crew were rescued, there were no survivors from Scharnhorst, and only a handful each from Leipzig and Nurnberg.  From the British side, detailed reports (including German survivor testimony) are available and were printed in one consolidated document, and if anybody interested is visiting the National Archives, the report in question can be found in ADM 137/3851.

 

There is always scope for speculation in counterfactual history, but evaluations of what might have happened had von Spee attacked rather than turning away should take account of the following:

- the Gneisenau and Nurnberg were first reported from the signal station on Sapper Hill at 08.00, at which time the battlecruisers were coaling with steam at two hours notice, while Kent, the guard ship, was at 30 minutes notice.

- at 8.45, Kent passed down the harbour and took up station at the entrance

- by about 9.15, the colliers had left the battlecruisers allowing all ships to open fire over the low intervening land if the Germans attempted to close the harbour

- at 9.20 Canopus opened fire on Gneisenau at 11,000 yards

- at 9.45 the battlecruisers weighed and began to leave the harbour

 

Malcolm

 

 

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michaeldr

The following accounts may be of interest here:-

 

From officers' letters as published in The Naval Review

 

We arrived at Stanley on December 7th and coaled at once. No one was expecting any Germans then, but next morning about 7 the look out station on the hill reported two men-of-war making towards the harbour, which were afterwards identified as the Gneisenau and Nürnberg. Of course they hadn't the least idea of anything being there. They came up as bold as brass; stopped off the wireless station and were leisurely clearing away their guns when the Canopus fired at them. They didn't hear the guns, but the shot pitched about 50 yards short of them and then there was a proper panic. People who were watching from the hill said the water fairly foamed over their stems as they started away. Men ran aloft to see what had fired the shots, but could see nothing. They were so agitated they forgot to fire at the wireless station and destroy it.”

 

Just before we left harbour the enemy came within range of an old battleship, the Canopus, we had rigged as harbour defence ship of whose existence the Germans did not know, and helped by observations from ashore she fired six 12-inch shots at them. They were all very near shaves but as during a test a few days before, this ship had hit a cask target with her guns it was distinctly bad luck she did not get a hit.”

 

Some of the yarns spun by the prisoners are very interesting. The German admiral had intended to take the fleet up to the River Plate, but just after coaling near Cape Horn he captured a British sailing ship with 3,000 tons of coal and so he decided he could afford a little jaunt to the Falklands en route. One prisoner said the plan was for the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst to come up and bombard the W/T station and draw out of harbour any men-of-war in port, when the rest of the squadron would come up and fight them. They expected at the most to meet only the Defence, Carnarvon and Glasgow, and perhaps Canopus, so thought they had a soft job on.”

 

NOTE BY HON. EDITOR.-This letter, written by the late Commander Rudolph H. C. Verner to his father, speaks for itself and shows what a great loss to the 'Service' his death was............... ........Arriving there, we found the Canopus which was doing duty as guardship and generally looking after the defence of the harbour. Bristol and Glasgow went up harbour to coal and one collier went alongside Carnarvon; the Macedonia armed merchantman remained outside on patrol duty, whilst the rest of us prepared for an all-night coaling. We had intended to take our coal from the Bristol's collier, but at about 4 p.m. this coal was found to be on fire, and the subsequent delay preventedus getting our collier alongside till 6 a.m. Tuesday the 8th.

At 8 o'clock to breakfast and just as we were turning to again at 8.30, we received reports of strange men-of-war in sight to the south. Orders for full speed were issued, and Kent and Glasgow which had steam up, were sent outside to keep an eye on things. We carried on coaling, but by 9 o'clock two enemy cruisers could be seen from aloft approaching rapidly, so cast off collier, manned the turrets with reduced crews, and commenced to shorten in cable. Whilst doing this, the Canopus fired two rounds of 12-inch at the advancing cruisers and "action" was sounded on board of us. I left the forecastle and went up to the foretop, where I received reports of "ready to open fire" and then cast about for some means of doing so. The enemy were now clearly visible some 18,000 yards away, one large and one small cruiser, whilst on the southern horizon three patches of smoke indicated the position of the remainder of the squadron. The trouble was that between us and the enemy was interposed a peninsula with irregular outline, and whilst I from aloft had a clear field of view, the guns could see nothing but rocks and sand. Having no director-firing arrangements, I ordered the guns to lay for the dark line at the water's edge (the high-water mark), and passed the "bearing of enemy" in the usual way, but to my very great relief the enemy after having received two more rounds from Canopus turned east and steamed in the direction of the harbour entrance. After continuing on this course for some 15 minutes they turned away S.E. to join their consorts, and I am very sure that I was not the only one who was glad to see them do so.”

Edited by michaeldr

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Sgt Stripes

Cheers for all your replies . As KJL says Hindsight is easy however if the rolls had been reversed, I would not have liked to have been the man who gave the order to turn away. All credit to Vice Admiral Sturdee and the men onboard the ships for getting up steam and out of the harbour quickly . Just one last point, Could the SS GREAT BRITIAN make a claim for a honour for her part in the Battle as she did supply coal for the two battlecruiser.    

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MikB

Whilst British battlecruisers proved catastrophically vulnerable to capital ship fire as at Jutland, the fighting at the Falklands was what they had been designed to do, and they were armoured to withstand armoured cruiser fire such as the Scharnhorsts could deliver. In fact, numerous hits from Spee's 21 cm guns caused few casualties and light damage.

 

Had Spee kept his fleet concentrated he might have done great harm to the British armoured and light cruisers as they emerged, and Leipzig and Nurnberg would probably have escaped, but it seems unlikely he would have been able to damage the battlecruisers enough to save his own armoured cruisers. However, if he'd managed to sink one of Sturdee's armoured or light cruisers in a position to block the harbour exit, his whole force might have escaped. Working up and executing such a plan in the face of such a surprise encounter, though, would've required a pretty superhuman speed of thought and organisation.

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