The South Atlantic is a stormy sea where there are few waters calm enough for a coal-burning warship to safely refuel. This is a primary reason why the British flag flies over the jagged, wind-swept Falkland Islands in 1914. Ownership of these remotest ocean peaks, and their natural harbor at Port Stanley, allows the admiralty to concentrate forces along the South American coast in the event of war, dominating international trade routes. British agents have already bought up all the coal ships south of Paraguay in anticipation of the East Asia Squadron, the Kaiser’s colonial fleet, coming this way in a bid to fight its way home or harass British commerce in the Atlantic.
The lookout post on Sapper Hill, the land feature in the background above, sights coal smoke on the horizon at four minutes before eight o’clock this morning and signals Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee’s cruisers, which are busy maintaining boilers and coaling in the harbor. Sturdee immediately orders all ships cleared for action, setting out in force at 9:45, when all of his ships have full steam up. Sturdee is a former intelligence officer who understands the value of radio silence, and he is lucky, for the Kaiser’s intelligence networks have failed to let Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee know that Sturdee’s command was sighted by South American agents while en route to the Falklands.
Spee, who recently inflicted the British Navy’s worst defeat in more than a century at Coronel partly on the strength of his own wireless silence, does not know his enemy is here. He sights coal smoke over Post Stanley at about 8:30, but assumes that the locals are setting fire to the coal stocks, as did Tahiti’s defenders when his squadron showed up on their horizon. It is not until an officer on his own ship, positioned at the rear of his column, sights the distinctive tripod masts of British warships at 9:00 that Spee understands his error.
If Spee had attacked immediately, the resulting battle would have been quite destructive and ugly, but it may perhaps have not been so one-sided. Instead, Spee signals the squadron to abort their mission; he had wanted to cut the telegraph lines at Port Stanley, destroy the radio transmitter on Wireless Ridge, requisition coal and supplies, and take the governor hostage in reprisal for the seizure of Samoa’s German governor by New Zealand troops. It is a mission profile that has already ended the legendary commerce-raiding cruise of the Emden, a ship that Spee detached from his own command while in the Central Pacific.
Had Spee arrived just two days ago, or two days from now, he would have found Port Stanley as empty as he expected. But even in that case, the result would likely have been the same as the Emden, which was destroyed when the wireless station at Direction Island signaled a nearby Australian cruiser; like the HMAS Sydney, Sturdee’s ships would have been nearby in either case, and responded to the alarm.
Taking perhaps a forty minute head start on his pursuers, Spee signals: “Do not accept action, head east at full speed.” At about half past noon, he is overhauled and outgunned by a British squadron flying the ‘General Chase’ signal, authorizing each captain to fight as he sees fit. Only the SMS Dresden, sister ship of the Emden, makes an escape with her faster turbine engines. The rest of Spee’s ships are too slow to break contact. At ten minutes before 1 PM, he stops running and turns to meet his destiny.
It is not a fair fight. Whereas Spee’s ship has deck-mounted 8.2-inch guns that actually outrange the British battlecruisers, they do little damage, and he has already used up half of his ammunition. The German admiralty has done an admirable job of pre-positioning colliers for its cruiser fleet, but has neglected to do the same for their magazines. By 2 PM, the heavier 12-inch turret-mounted guns of the Invincible and Inflexible are punching huge holes in the lighter armor of their targets. By 6 PM, only two hundred sailors of Spee’s 2,000-man command are still alive to be rescued from the subarctic night.
There are two standout moments that deserve mention in this slaughter. One is the richly-symbolic moment when the tall-masted sailing ship Fairport, which flies a Norwegian flag but is crewed by Frenchmen, unexpectedly finds herself in the midst of the battle. Having left Europe in July to cross the ocean under the slow pull of canvas and without a radio, they are completely unaware of the war until Sturdee’s helmsman steers right past her with guns blazing. It is a perfect illustration of the transitional technological picture of 1914 that led to so many naval intelligence failures for all sides.
The other moment takes place on board the HMS Kent, when Sergeant Mayes of the Royal Marine Artillery sees a German shell burst ignite cordite propellant charges improperly stored in a casemate. Courageously picking up a burning charge to throw it away and prevent a catastrophic explosion like the one that recently destroyed the HMS Bulwark, he then obtains a firehose and soaks the hallway, earning the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. It is another sign that the British Navy has a serious safety issue, one that is going unaddressed due to the admiralty’s rigid Nelsonian traditions.
During the evening, the transmitter on Wireless Ridge informs London of Sturdee’s victory in the Battle of the Falklands. The next morning, shipping insurance rates slide again, returning to near-normal now that the German cruiser threat has been neutralized. It is another important psychological boost for the world’s financial markets, which have slowly begun reopening in recent days. It is also a blow to the prestige of the German Navy, which is fighting for respect against superior numbers, and a discredit to the ruinous naval policy of Admiral Tirpitz. Finally, with the East Asia Squadron destroyed and the Kaiser’s Tsingtao colony in allied hands, the German imperial project has suffered the most catastrophic damage of all.