Retro: Sheffield sailors lost in World War One naval battle

HMS Monmouth
HMS Monmouth
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Sheffield naval historian Ken Grainger of Woodhouse has written about the World War One naval battles of Coronel and the Falklands, which involved Sheffield sailors.

The article was originally written for the Sheffield Transport Study Group journal and Ken thought it might be of interest to Retro readers.

Because of its length, the article is being run in two parts. This is part one and part two will follow next week.

We’ve always been led to understand that it was the assassination at Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which began the chain of events which resulted in the Great War.

That’s true but if it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else.

Early 20th century Europe was a powder keg just waiting for any spark to ignite. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, newly-unified Germany’s sabre-rattling militarism and imperialistic ambitions, and the measures taken by her her rivals to contain her, had stretched tensions to breaking point.

Britain was not particularly alarmed by the Kaiser’s determination to match her naval strength. Not since Trafalgar, over 100 years ago, had Britain’s command of the seas been challenged.

In the interim the unrivalled might of the Royal Navy had administered the Pax Britannica, maintained the links between Britain’s widespread dominions and protected her worldwide trade.

But now the Kaiser was set on matching the strength of the Royal Navy by the creation of a High Seas Fleet and instigated a costly new Edwardian arms race, exacerbated by Britain’s introduction in 1906 of a revolutionary new breed of super battleships, the Dreadnoughts, bigger, faster and far more powerful than their forebears.

Britain argued – not unreasonably – that her navy posed no threat to land power Germany, but that Germany’s army, the mightiest in the world, would undoubtedly be a threat to her if she did not have naval supremacy.

At the outbreak of war, Germany had just one naval force away from home waters, Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron comprising the powerful modern cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau plus the light cruisers Nurnberg, Leipzig and Dresden.

They were superbly worked up, noted for the excellence of their gunnery and crewed by picked men, but Britain was determined to eliminate them.

In the widespread search east and west of Cape Horn, on November 1, 1914, it was the misfortune of Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock to meet then off the Chilean coast at Coronel with his two obsolete cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth, both of which had been retired to the reserve before the war, but now recommissioned with ill-trained crews of reservists.

Cradock also had under his command the old pre-Dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus which, even in tiptop condition – and she was far from that, capable of only 12 knots – could not hope to keep up with her consorts.

His ill-assorted squadron was completed by the Otranto, san armed passenger liner, and – his only modern and regular manned warship – the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, but her thin armour and light armament were little more of a match for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau than was Otranto.

Fully aware of the inadequacy of his squadron, Cradock had requested reinforcement by the newer and more powerful armed cruiser Defence.

The request was refused with Cradock being ambiguously instructed to be prepared to meet von Spee “in company”, with Canopus as a “citadel” affording his cruisers “absolute security”.

That decision was subsequently reversed, but not until it was too late, and when Cradock set out from Stanley on his fateful last voyage, he left the governor of the Falklands in no doubt that he did not expect to survive.

Nevertheless, it is dubious who was the more surprised when the two forces met, each expecting to encounter just one enemy ship.

On October 31, Cradock had sent Glasgow into Coronel harbour to collect despatches, and her presence was immediately transmitted to von Spee by the Gottingen, one of his supply ships which also happened to be in harbour.

Von spee hurried south to intercept Glasgow but his ships’ radio transmissions, being monitored by Glasgow, used only one radio call sign, that of Leipzig, which Cradock concluded to be alone.

Glasgow rejoined Cradock and in heavy seas the British squadron headed north in search of Leipzig.

It was Leipzig that first reported sighting the smoke of the British ships, being joined at full speed by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as they closed with Cradock’s squadron, the slower Nurnberg and Dresden following behind.

Within minutes, Glasgow an Otranto sighted the Germans’ smoke – and then three ships – 12 miles to the north.

We can never know just what ran through Christopher Cradock’s mind at that moment. His contemporaries unanimously agree that he would have been incapable of other than giving battle but he could have been under no illusion about the outcome when he confronted von Spee’s squadron.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau’s 16 8.2” guns were overwhelmingly more powerful than the British ships’ armament, with only Good Hope’s two 9.2” guns, mounted in single turrets fore and aft, capable of comparable range.

Cradock did know, though, that the Germans could not replenish the ammunition they would expend and that any damage he might be able to inflict so far from any German dockyard facilities wo7ukd be fatal.

His ships turned on to a converging course with von Spee’s.

The gods of war were not with Christopher Cradock and his men.

Von Spee used his ships’ superior speed to avoid battle while the sun was high and would have been in his gunners’ eyes, and then to dictate the range as the British ships were silhouetted against the afterglow of the setting sun while their German adversaries became increasingly indistinct against the gathering gloom of the Chilean coast.

And then an early hit put one of HMS Good Hope’s 9.2” guns – the only weapons capable of hurting von Spee’s ships – out of action.

An attempt to close the range to bring into action Good Hope and Monmouth’s 6” batteries – most of which were in casemates along their hulls and inoperable in the mountainous seas – were thwarted as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau stood off and continued the destruction.

Otranto fled to the west: her high and unarmoured profile would have been easy prey for von Spee’s cruisers.

As darkness fell, Good Hope and Monmouth were both on fire and continued to present clear targets to their foes, by now invisible other than by the momentary flashes of their guns.

Monmouth’s guns were the first to be silenced as she was left all but dead in the water and Good Hope’s attempts to close the range only resulted in ever more accurate fire from the Scharnhorst until, after a magazine explosion, unseen by anyone other than her doomed, crew, she slipped beneath the waves.

Gneisenau had by then added the weight of her broadsides to those of Leipzig and Dresden in engaging HMS Glasgow, the sacrifice of which would have served no purpose.

Damaged but still capable of 24 knots, she made her escape.

Nurnberg, the slowest of von Spee’s ships, arrived late on the scene and happened upon Monmouth, defenceless and slowly sinking but still refusing to surrender.

Nurnberg finished her off and, as with Good Hope, there were no survivors. 1,418 British seamen had lost their lives.

For the overwhelming majority of them the sea is their grave; just a few bodies were washed ashore and lie in a local cemetery.

Arriving back in Valparaiso on November 3, von Spee was greeted by German sympathisers but he himself was under no illusions.

Presented with a bouquet of flowers, he prophetically remarked that they would “do nicely for his funeral”.

A local anglophile castigated the Germans for failing to search for British lifeboats or survivors but that was an injustice.

The Germans hadn’t even been aware that Good Hope had sunk, concluding that she must have escaped when their searches for her were fruitless, but with Good Hope and Monmouth, if any of their boats had fortuitously survived the intense shellfire and infernos, it would have been impossible for them to be launched.

In the darkness there would have been no chance of spotting, let alone rescuing, any individuals from the heaving seas.

Their ordeal would have been mercifully brief in the icy cold water.

Next week: retribution at the Battle of the Falklands

n Thanks to Sheffield Local Studies Library and Picture Sheffield for allowing us to reproduce the sailors’ portraits.