Based at the far eastern port of Tsingtao, the Kaiser’s East Asia Squadron (see above) was the most powerful single European naval force in the Pacific at the outbreak of war. Admiral Turpitz has justified the expensive construction of the High Seas Fleet as a contingency to relieve Tsingtao and the East Asia Squadron in the event of war. At least, that was the theory. Now that Germany fights an actual conflict against fellow European powers, the Kaiser’s battlewagons remain shut up in harbor — and Tsingtao is under siege.
Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee was cruising in Germany’s Pacific island territories when the war was declared. Then when Japan joined the war at Britain’s invitation, Tsingtao was suddenly besieged by an imperial fleet larger than his own, and he was forced to scrap prewar plans. After agreeing to Captain Karl von Müller’s suggestion that the Emden be dispatched to the Indian Ocean to provide a grand distraction for the British admiralty with commerce raiding, Spee sent the Leipzig to Hawaii with cables for Berlin — and then, upon her rejoining his force, he began using only the Leipzig‘s radio.
This has disguised the location of his main force from the British admiralty. As a result of the deception and his generally-poor intelligence, Admiral Christopher Cradock leads an inferior force into disaster today against Spee’s entire squadron. It will be the worst defeat the British navy has suffered since the Battle of Chesapeake Bay sealed the success of the American Revolution in 1781.
Both sides hear one another before they see one another, yet radio direction-finding technology has not been invented yet, so Cradock’s force is spreading out at fifteen-mile intervals to sweep the coastal waters of Chile in a north-by-northwest direction when they encounter Spee’s force cruising southwards about fifteen miles to their east at 4:20 in the afternoon. Cradock immediately orders his force to redeploy in line, but keeps the range open until nearly dark, when his ships are silhouetted against the horizon. This turns out to be a very misguided move.
Whereas Cradock’s flagship is crewed by reservists — including an incompetent chief engineer — Spee’s crack crews have won the German navy’s coveted gunnery award for two years in a row. Now their own ships are practically invisible against the darkening sky, but their targets are easily sighted and ranged in the failing light. German hits soon set the Monmouth and Good Hope ablaze, turning them into easy targets in the swirling Pacific waves.
The SS Otranto, a converted civilian steamer that has no business in a battle of armored ships, has already fled the scene with Cradock’s blessing. A few minutes before 8:00 PM, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow witnesses the Good Hope erupt in a fiery explosion that is soon snuffed out by the water as she sinks. She was the only ship in Cradock’s force whose guns had the same range as Spee’s, and now he dies with her.
The fighting and dying are not done yet, however. The Glasgow beats a retreat, signalling the armored cruiser Monmouth of her intentions. But she receives no reply, and at about 9:20 PM her crew observes a series of six dozen flashes from that direction; they are the Nürnberg‘s guns administering the coup de grace from point-blank range. As the most northerly of Spee’s ships, her captain arrived last, and has offered his foe a chance to surrender by shining a spotlight on Monmouth’s ensign. When no one struck the colors, he finished the bloody business with professional detachment .
Sixteen hundred British sailors are dead. It is the latest disaster suffered by a navy and admiralty that have consistently sent inferior forces into harm’s way, misjudged the threats of naval mines and U-boats, and have yet to draw out the Kaiser’s beloved High Seas Fleet for the decisive final battle both navies yearn to fight. One of the primary causes of prewar European tension, the prewar naval arms race is being tested in battle — to the advantage of Germany, but without a decisive outcome.
The Battle of Coronel is an undisputed victory for Spee, whose command is unscathed. Yet he remains pessimistic, as there is no safe harbor in the South Atlantic at which he can refuel his coal-burning ships. Nor can he remain hidden forever in the thousand inlets and natural harbors of Chile while that country’s neutral government looks the other way. To get home, Spee must fight his way through the much-larger British navy and its base in the Falkland Islands — without the support of the High Seas Fleet — and he knows exactly what that means.