Historical Article: Battle of Coronel
Curtis Szmania goes into detail about the naval battle in World War I that pit the British and German navy against each other at the port of Coronel.
The arms race that began during the closing of the 19th Century created tension between the great powers all across the globe. The naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany was the most important and the most competitive of them all, especially since the commissioning of the HMS Dreadnought. Germany had attained for itself a young and decent sized empire. They had several possessions in Africa, the South Pacific, a possession in China, and had expanded its borders in Europe. To protect this empire Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann, Secretary of the German Imperial Naval Office, promoted a fleet of cruisers to protect this far-flung empire. But he resigned in disgust and was replaced by the pro-battleship Alfred von Tirpitz. Once war broke out in 1914 the Germans had eight modern cruisers spread about the globe flexing German naval prowess overseas, although most of German industry was focused on building dreadnought class battleships. During the opening months of the war a naval engagement was fought on the outskirts of this young empire against the largest empire the world has ever seen. After the battle ended and the muzzle flashes seized the reputation of the long time prestigious Royal Navy had been turned on its head.
Map of the ship movements during the battle
Admiral Maximilian von Spee
After the guns opened-up in August, Admiral Maximilian von Spee formed a powerful cruiser squadron in the South Pacific with the SMS Scharnhorst and the SMS Gneisenau. The SMS Nürnberg, SMS Leipzig and SMS Dresden soon joined his group; and the five cruisers harassed French possessions in the South Pacific. Once Japan joined the Allies with its powerful fleet von Spee's cruisers were no longer safe in the Pacific. The British picked-up German radio messages being sent between the cruisers and broke the German radio code. They found out von Spee had decided to leave the Pacific for the South Atlantic in hopes of better hunting.
Admiral Christopher Cradock
HMS Good Hope
British Admiral Christopher Cradock, with the closest British naval force in the region, decided to intercept the German cruisers off the west coast of South America. Cradock was stationed out of the Falkland Islands and reacted quickly sailing through the Straights of Magellan into Chilean waters. He did so because the British Admiralty had given the order to do so, which was under the impression that Cradock's force was more than adequate to face von Spee's. His squadron consisted of the HMS Canopus, HMS Monmouth, HMS Good Hope, HMS Glasgow, and HMS Otranto. The first was an old battleship too slow to keep up with the rest, which were cruisers, and had been scheduled for an overhaul before the war. The ship was actually following behind the rest of the squadron with the colliers. The Monmouth and Good Hope were both armored cruisers while the Glasgow was a light cruiser. Although only a light cruiser, the Glasgow was the most reliable ship of the squadron with its trained crew. It was also capable of outgunning all the ships in the German squadron excluding the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Otranto was a converted liner armed with eight 4.7 inch guns, but lacked armor.
The German squadron leaving Valparaiso
Cradock was just recently reinforced by the Good Hope and the Canopus. The Good Hope had just been taken out of reserve and was fitted with a green crew. Also, the Monmouth's men were even greener than the Good Hopes, and its armament was lesser than a typical ship of her size. He made the Good Hope his flagship because it was faster than his current flagship. The Canopus was also just out of reserve and its men were also were raw recruits. With these reinforcements he was better prepared for the more powerful German squadron he was searching for. The HMS Defense was also promised as reinforcement, but this never came to fruition.
The Glasgow was sent ahead to the Chilean port of Coronel, to gather intelligence and messages from London, on October 29, 1914. While sailing, the Glasgow picked up radio traffic between the Leipzig and one of its colliers affirming that the German squadron was in the area. In response, the British squadron spread out at twenty mile intervals and swept north along the Chilean coast trying to locate the enemy.
The Glasgow reached Coronel at 1630 on the 1st of November and Von Spee learnt of its arrival from deciphering British radio messages. He was also aware of the two British armored cruisers following close behind. The Glasgow soon spotted the smoke of the Leipzig, and not much later, the smoke of the Dresden and two armored cruisers. The two armored cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope reached Coronel on the evening of 1st November, 1914.
Spee's battle line was as follows: Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Dresden. The Nürnberg was thirty miles to the north still traveling from Valparaiso. Cradocks battle line was the Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow and Otranto with the Canopus 300 miles far behind. It was planned that the faster cruisers and converted ocean liner were to stay within gun range of the much slower Canopus because it had greater firepower (although its guns were out-ranged by the British armored cruisers). But the battle didnt unfold that way and there is much debate as to why. Because it was dusk, Cradock had the opportunity to turn south and head towards the Canopus but he risked losing the German squadron in the night. It was either this, or because he was afraid of being court-martialed for cowardness that encouraged him to close-in on the German line.
To keep the element of surprise, and to prevent the enemy from targeting in on his vessels, von Spee opened fire on the British squadron at about 1930 in the evening. The German armored cruisers opened-up at about 11,400 yards with the help of the setting sun silhouetting the British ships. With eight 8.2 inch guns the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst could fire on the squadron out of range of the sixteen 6 inch guns of the Good Hope and the fourteen rapid firing 6 inch guns of the Monmouth. The only two guns Cradock could reach the German cruisers with were the two 9.2 inch guns of the Good Hope. So in essence, the British squadron didnt stand a chance.
With the help of the dimming light hiding its position, the third salvo from the Scharnhorst hit Good Hope disabling her forward 9.2 inch gun. Also, the third salvo of the Gneisenau had set the forward turret of the Monmouth on fire. The Monmouth and Good Hope were hit each over thirty times as the German crews maintained an accurate and rapid fire. As the battle went on and it got darker the Germans could train their sights on the fires burning aboard the armored cruisers. The British didn't have this luxury and had to aim according to the enemy muzzle flashes.
Further down the line the Leipzig and Glasgow engaged each other whilst Dresden fired on the Otranto. The Otranto was no match for the Dresden, lacking armor, and almost immediately pulled out of the line and fled. This allowed the Dresden to also engage the Glasgow. Von Spee thought Cradock was trying to attempt a torpedo attack when he closed in on the German line within 5,500 yards, so von Spee pulled back to increase the range. Cradock wasnt trying a torpedo attack but was only attempting to bring his 6 inch guns within range.
The Good Hopes magazine exploded shortly afterwards at 1950, and it drifted out of site sinking shortly thereafter. The Monmouth was listing to port and was also on fire. It couldn't return fire although its White Ensign was still flying. Seeing this devastation, the Glasgow fled the scene to escape imminent destruction and also to inform the Canopus to turn back. The Nürnberg arrived soon after and finished the Monmouth off with gunfire at close range. Seventy five gun flashes were observed by the fleeing Glasgow. The Good Hope and Monmouth lost all hands on board, a total of 1,600 men. This included Admiral Christopher Cradock, who was on the Good Hope.
Von Spee, hearing of the escape of the Glasgow and Otranto, sent the Leipzig and Dresden after them. The two German cruisers headed for the Falkland Islands while the rest of the fleet sailed back to Valparaiso for provisions and to re-coal. During the battle the Scharnhorst received two hits and the Gneisenau took four hits with three wounded.
The British had not suffered a defeat at sea since the War of 1812. And the Royal Navy's reputation of invincibility that it rode on for the last two centuries was forever scared. When news of the battle reached Britain the Admiralty responded quickly. A massive hunting operation was put together by the new First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, as the shockwave traveled through the British Empire. Elements from both the Royal Navy and the Japanese fleet were involved. The cherished British battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible were were sent to the South Atlantic. The chase ended on the 8th of December when von Spee's squadron was found and destroyed at the Battle of the Falklands.
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Article written by: Curtis Szmania, Staff Writer