It began with disaster at Coronel – but turned into Britain’s one true maritime triumph of the war. Robert Fisk on the Royal Navy’s biggest day since Trafalgar
Flanders had its poppies, but Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee was offered a bouquet of arum lilies when he walked home from the German club in Valparaiso, Chile, in November 1914. “They will do very well for my grave,” he told the woman who gave him the flowers, and he took them back with him aboard SMS Scharnhorst.
Before Vice-Admiral von Spee’s victory at Coronel two days earlier, HMS Glasgow had sailed into battle with a crew fresh from the South American station, many of the members taking home parrots for their families in England. At action stations, 60 of the exotic birds were released from their cages with a chance to make it safely to the Chilean mainland. “They rose in a cloud of brilliant blues and greens and oranges,” a naval historian wrote later, but – fearful of the rising gale – the birds settled back on Glasgow’s upperworks. As the first salvoes thundered out from British and German ships, the birds crashed into the crew, lurched down the decks, sat on the 6in gun barrels as they fired or were swept overboard. Only 10 survived.
Nature and beauty took a prescient hand in the battles of Coronel and the Falklands in 1914, the greatest British naval engagement since Nelson won Trafalgar and – ultimately – the only real victory which the Royal Navy achieved in the Great War, more decisive than Jutland, more spectacular than Zeebrugge, forgotten now because of a puny, Thatcherite scrap that occurred in the same location 68 years later.
Even the names reflected history: Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, whose suicidal attack at Coronel reflected the crazed generalship of Douglas Haig; Von Spee, whose attack on the heavily defended Falklands was as disastrous as Erich Ludendorff’s last push on the Somme; and the imperishably named Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, who finally wiped out the German East Asiatic Squadron off the Falklands – so thoroughly that old Fisher at the Admiralty condemned his tactics.
This was jealousy of a high calibre; only Winston Churchill could soften Fisher’s anger with the mellow observation that it was the old boy’s foresight in sending more ships to the south Atlantic that allowed Sturdee to win. “This was your show… Your flair was quite true,” he wrote. Up to a point. Luck had a lot to do with it.
Von Spee and Cradock were at first uncertain of each other’s position off the coast of Chile in the autumn of 1914, but once they saw each other’s smoke, Cradock – outgunned but brought up on the spirit of Nelson, rather than on the more pragmatic and cautious land warrior’s code of a Wellington – believed he must take the offensive against the odds. No man to run away to fight again another day, he went down with his flagship, HMS Good Hope, the vessel burning like a beacon, its gun crews cremated at their posts. But Von Spee’s victory would doom him. His ships had used up much of their coal and ammunition.
Against the advice of a majority of his fellow captains, Von Spee made for the Falklands, its coaling station and ammunition dumps undefended – he thought – by the Royal Navy. He was trying to make it home across the Atlantic to Germany. Maybe he should have grasped the portents of beauty and hopelessness which he and the remnants of the British squadron witnessed on their way round the Horn. Von Spee’s crews stripped the wonderful four-masted French barque Valentine of her Cardiff coal and watched the slender, beautiful vessel slide gracefully into the waves, “like a dying bird in a poem by Heine”, as that most loquacious of naval writers, Barrie Pitt, would write.
The British crawled along a barren coastline, littered with names that might encapsulate an entire world war: Desolation Island, Fatal Bay, Dislocation Harbour, Useless Bay, Deceipt Island, Fury Harbour, Last Hope…
Which was what Von Spee confronted when he ordered his own Scharnhorst and Gneisenau cruisers to assault Port Stanley on 8 December 1914, only to find that Sturdee had arrived there first. And it was Sturdee who, in leisurely, Drake-like fashion (“Then send the men to breakfast,” he instructed his officers) sent his far superior vessels to meet the Germans.
One by one, they destroyed the lot. Inflexible and Invincible, Kent and Glasgow and Cornwall and Bristol, shelling the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and Nurnberg to bits, the rounds blowing up in gun casements, in wardrooms and in the very heart of the sick-bays of the German ships. The German gunners fought better than their British antagonists – the Brits were to admit this later.
The only other witnesses stood aboard a ghostly, white, fully rigged sailing ship – another relic of the world that was dying – which mysteriously appeared to port of the British battle cruisers and which reminded a British officer of Tennyson, “clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful”.
There were few German survivors – those who managed to jump, on fire, into the freezing waters died swiftly of shock. Nature turned against them in even more terrible ways. Contemporary newspapers record how the Nurnberg’s survivors, floundering amid the waves and clutching to the spars of their sunken ship, were attacked by flocks of vicious, sharp-beaked albatross.
It was indeed a famous victory, a clear-cut one which eluded the generals of the Western Front for almost four more years. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were to be re-born for Hitler’s war – the 1941 dash up the Channel (Operation Cerberus) was their greatest achievement – while Von Spee’s name suffered further humiliation when his namesake cruiser was scuttled in Montevideo Bay after being trapped by Ajax, Achilles and Exeter in the 1940 Battle of the River Plate.
Then came the Argentines in 1982 – who did what Von Spee failed to do; and then came Thatcher, and the world forgot Sturdee and Cradock and Inflexible and Invincible and Von Spee’s Valparaiso toast – before he received the lilies – to Cradock and his men as “a gallant and honourable foe”, and the German crews whose last act as their ships sunk beneath them was to cry three cheers for the Kaiser. Only the birds were witness to that. And the sailing ships were gone.