Battle of Coronel

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The World War I naval Battle of Coronel took place on 1 November, 1914 off the coast of central Chile near the city of Coronel. German Kaiserliche Marine forces led by Vizeadmiral Graf Maximilian von Spee met and defeated a Royal Navy squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. This was Britain's first naval defeat since the Battle of Lake Champlain in the War of 1812 and the first of a British naval squadron since the Battle of Grand Port in 1810.

Background

The Royal Navy, with assistance from other Allied navies, had spent the early months of the war searching for Spee's German East Asia Squadron, fearing its potential for commerce-raiding in the Pacific. Spee left the German colony at Tsingtao in China, once Japan entered the war on Britain's side.

The British learned from an intercepted radio communication in early October of Spee's plan to prey upon shipping in the crucial trading routes along the west coast of South America. Patrolling in the area at that time was Admiral Cradock's West Indies Squadron, consisting of two armoured cruisers, H.M.S. Good Hope (Cradock's flagship) and H.M.S. Monmouth, the modern light cruiser H.M.S. Glasgow, and a converted liner, H.M.S. Otranto.

Cradock's fleet was by no means modern or particularly strong, and most of the crew were inexperienced. Spee had a formidable force of five vessels, led by the armoured cruisers S.M.S. Scharnhorst and S.M.S. Gneisenau plus a further three light cruisers, all modern ships with officers handpicked by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Nevertheless Cradock was ordered to confront Spee.

On 18 October, 1914 von Spee, having learned of the presence of the Glasgow, set off with all five warships from Valparaíso with the intention of destroying it.

Cradock, aware that his ships were outgunned by Spee's, had been waiting in the hope of reinforcements. The Admiralty dispatched the armoured cruiser H.M.S. Defence and the elderly battleship H.M.S. Canopus, the latter sent from London. Neither reached Cradock before battle commenced on 1 November, 1914.

Deciding that he could wait no longer, Cradock sailed from the Falkland Islands to a predetermined rendezvous point with the Glasgow at Coronel, the latter having been sent there to gather intelligence.

At this point, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, issued orders to Cradock on 28 October instructing him to halt, pending possible reinforcement from the Japanese navy. It is a moot point as to whether Cradock actually received Churchill's instructions; in any event, he shortly afterwards ordered his squadron to adopt an attacking formation.

Cradock received word, again via an intercepted radio signal on 31 October, that S.M.S. Leipzig, the slowest light cruiser in Spee's fleet, was in the area. He promptly took his squadron north to cut it off but instead found himself confronting Spee's entire force the following day at around 4.30pm.

At this stage, it is probable that the British could have escaped by sailing towards Canopus, then some 300 miles to the south; with the failing light Spee would most likely have lost contact with the British squadron. Instead, Cradock chose to stay and fight; however he did direct Otranto to escape.

Battle

Shortly after 1630, Leipzig sighted smoke and hauled out to Starboard to investigate. At 1640, Glasgow, having sighted and investigated smoke on the horizon, identified the enemy. Otranto, with Monmouth to the West, moved to support Glasgow, which increased to full speed and shaped course for the flagship, over fifty miles away, while sending a wireless message to Cradock informing him that Leipzig, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been sighted.[1] With plenty of sea room, Cradock could have turned South and fallen back on Canopus, steaming North with two colliers. He could not know that the Germans had steam only for 14 knots and were unaware of the presence of Good Hope and Monmouth.[2]

Footnotes

  1. Bennett. p. 26.
  2. Bennett. p. 27.

Bibliography

  • Admiralty War Staff, Intelligence Division (1915). Naval Engagement off Coronel on 1st November 1914. No. 996. Copy in Churchill Papers. Churchill Archives Centre. CHAR 13/59.
  • Bennett, Geoffrey (1962). Coronel and the Falklands. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (1920). Naval Staff Monographs. (Fleet Issue.): Volume I. Monograph 1.—Coronel. Monograph 2.—German Cruiser Squadron in the Pacific. Monograph 3.—Falklands. Monograph 4.—"Goeben" and "Breslau." O.U. 5413 (late C.B. 917.). Copy No. 292 at The National Archives. ADM 186/615.
  • Naval Staff, Training and Staff Duties Division (1923). Naval Staff Monographs (Historical): Fleet Issue. Volume IX. The Atlantic Ocean, 1914-1915, Including the Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands. O.U. 5413G (late C.B. 917(G)). Copy No. 213 at The National Archives. ADM 186/617.