Admiral von Spee’s Breakout in the Pacific, 1914

SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Scharnhorst

In 1914, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia and the United States all had possessions in the Pacific Ocean, and all had some naval presence in the region to protect those possessions. In the case of Germany, this meant a single naval squadron based in the one German-held port capable of supporting such a force, the Chinese city of Tsingtao. This force was too small to contest control of the seas, but it was quite large enough to make trouble for Allied forces in the region. It was clear at the outset of war that this squadron could not remain in the Far East; instead, it embarked on a four month voyage that occupied extensive enemy naval resources.

The core of the East Asiatic Squadron lay in the cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. These cruisers displaced nearly 13,000 tons, and were well-armed with fourteen guns, eight of which were 8.2 inches with the remainder at 5.9 inches. Moreover, their crews were renowned for their skill. Three light cruisers, Emden, Nuernberg and Leipzig, filled out the squadron. They were commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee.

These vessels made port at Tsingtao, the strategic center of Kiaochow, which the Germans held under lease from China. It was the only port in German hands suitable for such a force, and the Germans knew that it could not be held for long in the event of a determined attack. As it happened, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nuernberg were performing exercises among the Caroline Islands when war was declared. Foreseeing a blockade of Tsingtao and its eventual capture, von Spee ordered the Emden and the supply vessels that remained in port to rendezvous with him in the Carolines.

Von Spee determined that his squadron could not remain indefinitely in the Pacific, so he resolved to break out of the increasingly perilous Pacific into the South Atlantic, where if nothing else he would be closer to help from home. With this in mind, he wished to keep his ships together, to give them a fighting chance in the event of a concentrated attack and to avoid allowing them to be destroyed in detail. He made one exception: he permitted the Emden to leave the group and see how much damage it could inflict as a solitary commerce raider.

Circumstances largely validated von Spee’s assumptions. Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, and mounted an attack on Tsingtao a month later. The German colony capitulated on November 7; by that time, von Spee was at the other end of the Pacific, and enjoyed the height of his success.

Although the naval balance of power in the Pacific was such that von Spee was effectively lost in the midst of enemy territory, the sheer size of the ocean offered him some cover. His enemies’ behavior aided him, too: Allied naval operations included many conventional duties to safeguard lines of supply, but British and Japanese naval forces were also being employed in the capture of undefended German islands. Historians point out that this need not have been the first priority, as the spoils could have been scooped up after the East Asiatic Squadron had been defeated, but this misses a major point: Japan in particular was eager to grab its share of the spoils before Britain got there first.

Von Spee set his course for Chile, largely avoiding detection along the way. Several times, his squadron was seen by a passing vessel, and these reports substantiated Allied expectations that von Spee intended to reach the South American coast. In October, the squadron stopped at Easter Island, where it was met by two more German light cruisers, Leipzig and Dresden. Leipzig had been near California when war began, while Dresden came west from the South Atlantic. Both had performed some solitary raiding on the way, but now they raised the number of warships in von Spee’s squadron to five.

The British North America and West Indian Squadron had been operating in the Caribbean at the time. In the first weeks of the war, it had provided important services to the Royal Navy, but as the British blockade of Germany took hold, its role declined. This squadron was sent on an interception mission, although the German squadron was known to outclass the older British vessels. The cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth were older, lighter, and less heavily armed than the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and their crews were far less experienced. The light cruiser Glasgow was similar in its abilities to the German light cruisers, but the Otranto was a militarized civilian vessel. Additional support was necessary.

Because of the blockade, the Navy was unwilling to detach any modern vessels to assist Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, the commander of the squadron. Instead, it sent the Canopus, an outmoded battleship that promised to slow down the squadron’s progress. Cradock decided not to bring the Canopus with him in any engagement; one reasonable argument for this is that the German cruisers could easily evade any engagement that depended on the slower vessel, and Cradock meant to force a battle. So, he ordered the Canopus to protect his supply vessels while the rest of the squadron steamed ahead.

The two squadrons met off the Chilean coast on November 1, near Coronel. Cradock had hoped to deal with his opponents piecemeal, but when it became clear that he faced a stronger formation, he took the gamble. All of the German advantages, already enumerated, told in the battle; the Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk, and the Glasgow and Otranto were driven off. Damage to the German squadron was negligible.

Both sides withdrew to regroup and resupply. The Germans took port at Valparaiso and lingered there ten days. The remaining British vessels lately under Sir Christopher’s command regrouped at the Falklands, while the Royal Navy mobilized all of its warships in the Pacific and South Atlantic to prepare for any eventuality on von Spee’s part. Significantly, this included the dispatch of two battlecruisers, the Inflexible and Invincible, to the Falklands with Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee in command. Unlike Cradock, he had clear orders and the resources to fulfill them.

Von Spee had determined to resume his effort to break out into the South Atlantic, there to do some more raiding and possibly to seek a way back to Germany. As the latter prospect was mainly theoretical unless circumstances offered him a way to break through the British blockade, he moved slowly, expecting to spend a fair amount of time in the South Atlantic. He planned an attack on the Falklands without knowing that two battlecruisers were en route. The battlecruisers reached Port Stanley on December 7; von Spee arrived on the 8th.

The British were surprised by how close von Spee had come; the Germans were surprised by the strength of the British force. It took the British ships up to two hours to complete their preparations and engage fully, but the Germans were unable to extricate themselves in this time, and by the end of the day, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nuernberg and Leipzig had all been sunk. Von Spee and his two sons were killed in the battle. This time, the damage to British vessels was negligible.

The Dresden managed to escape from the battle, but to little effect. Pursued by the Kent and Glasgow, the Dresden was trapped in port at Cumberland Bay, on a Chilean island. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Dresden gave battle for a short time, but then was scuttled.

With the Emden and another light cruiser, the Karlsruhe, already lost, this marked the end of conventional threats from the German Navy at large on the high seas. Submarines and disguised auxiliary cruisers would remain an issue, but the major threat to Allied shipping on the oceans had been removed, and Allied navies could now resume normal activities. Admiral von Spee had given a grand chase, but he had always struggled against difficult odds; at the Falklands, his luck ran out.



Benbow, Tim.  The History of World War I: Naval Warfare 1914-1918.  Amber, 2012

Strachan, Hew.  The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001

Willmott, H.P.  World War I.  Covent Garden Books, 2003


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