Monday, December 08, 2014

December 8th, 1914

- Further attacks by the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army against the Russian 3rd Army fail to make any significant gains, while the situation on the southern flank of Roth's group around Limanowa worsens - in addition to the advance of the Russian VIII Corps, the Russian XIV Corps is a mere two days march away.  Conrad urges the commander of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army to hasten his attacks, and the latter decides that, as he does not have sufficient force in position to both attack Bartfeld and advance towards Neusandez, the latter operation should take priority.  Two division and assorted battalions that had been assembled to attack Bartfeld are placed under the command of General Szurmay and ordered to move northwest against Neusandez.

- The Austro-Hungarian 6th Army today falls back across the Kolubara River, having been shattered in the fighting of the prior five days.  Many of its battalions are down to two hundred men, supply columns have been destroyed by Serbian units that have broken through, and some units have now completely run out of ammunition.  At Valjevo, the Austro-Hungarian 50th Division hastily retreats before scouting elements of the Serbian I Dunav Division, and the latter are able to temporarily enter the city.  The episode convinces General Potiorek that 6th Army is no longer combat effective, and will be unable to hold the line of the Kolubara.

- In Mesopotamia the Ottoman defenders of Qurna are disheartened by the British success in occupying the opposite river bank, and more than half the garrison retreats northwards in the early morning hours.  The remainder believe they have been outmaneouvred again when a small British force commandeers two sailboats and effects a river crossing just north of Qurna.  At 1140pm, a small steamer carrying three Ottoman officers approaches one of the British sloops and they offer to surrender Qurna if the garrison is allowed to march out.  The commander of the sloop refuses, and is soon able to badger the Ottomans into an unconditional surrender.

- For the past several weeks, the shattered remnants of C. F. Beyers' commando has been on the run since it was defeated on November 16th, and today it disintegrates when Beyers drowns attempting to cross the Vaal River.  Beyers' death removes a leading rebel figure from the scene, and eliminates the last major rebel commando within South Africa - the only significant forces now are those commanded by Maritz and Kemp just over the border with German South-West Africa.

- At 2am this morning the warships of the German East Asiatic Squadron first sight the Falklands Islands on the northern horizon, and at 530am Admiral Spee splits his force - Gneisenau and Nürnberg will sail into Port Stanley to send landing parties ashore and bombard the town while Scharnhorst, Dresden, and Leipzig remain just out of sight over the horizon, ready to assist.  The weather is perfect, with clear skies and only a slight breeze, making visibility ideal.  The German warships have no idea that they are sailing into mortal danger.

The approach of the German East Asiatic Squadron to the Falklands Islands.

At 7am Gneisenau and Nürnberg sight their first target, a radio mast on Hooker's Point.  The harbour at Port Stanley itself is masked by the line of hills on which the radio mast sits and which reaches out to Cape Pembroke, but the Germans can see the mastheads of a number of ships in Port Stanley and smoke rising as they get underway.  Gneisenau's gunnery officer, up in the spotting top of the foremast, reports that he sees tripod masts - ominous news, as tripod masts mean dreadnoughts.  Gneisenau's captain dismisses the report - there are obviously no dreadnoughts or battlecruisers in the South Atlantic, as they are all in the North Sea facing the High Seas Fleet.

At 920am, just as Gneisenau and Nürnberg are about to open fire on the wireless station, two explosions are sighted a thousand yards to port, followed shortly by two more eight hundred yards away.  The size of the detonations clearly indicate 12-inch shells, a stunning surprise to the Germans.  Such large-calibre gunnery means they are facing warships larger than cruisers, and deduce that a pre-dreadnought battleship must be at Port Stanley.  They are correct - the shells are coming from Canopus, beached in the harbour as a defensive battery, its fire directed by gunner observors on land such that it can fire without the ship actually seeing the enemy.  Thus the first shots of the Battle of the Falklands Islands are fired by the warship that was left behind prior to the Battle of Coronel.

The Battle of the Falklands Islands, December 8th, 1914.

Spee decides to abort the attack on Port Stanley, as 12-inch guns could wreck havoc on his squadron and there are more enemy warships that appear to be preparing to exit Port Stanley to engage the Germans.  However, Spee's squadron can also easily outrun a pre-dreadnought, so Gneisenau and Nürnberg are ordered to sail east to rejoin the rest of the German East Asiatic Squadron.

When Gneisenau and Nürnberg were first sighted by British observers ashore just after 730am, they caught Admiral Sturdee and his squadron completely by surprise.  There had been no indication or intelligence to suggest that the Falklands Islands themselves might be a target of the German East Asiatic Squadron.  The British warships are not prepared for action - only the armoured cruiser Kent is able to immediately steam out of the harbour, as the rest are in various stages of coaling or undergoing repairs.  Sturdee quickly issues orders for all warships to raise steam to prepare to sail as soon as possible - his initial fear is that if the Germans sail up to the harbour entrance they might be able to devastate his squadron while it is still at anchor and cannot maneouvre.  Spee's order to retreat alleviates that concern, however, and now Sturdee realizes his advantage. He knows his two battlecruisers can make 25 knots, while Spee's warships can only make 20 knots at most.  Sturdee knows that he will inevitably catch up to the Germans, and then the larger main armament of Invincible and Inflexible will surely guarantee the annihilation of the enemy.  Spee's only chance of escape is poor weather, but the day is exceptionally calm and there is no change of fog or rain in which the German squadron could hide.  By 1030am all of Sturdee's warships have sailed out of Port Stanley and round Cape Pembroke in pursuit of the enemy.

As the German East Asiatic Squadron sails eastwards at its top speed, it can see in the distance British warships in pursuit, and all eyes strain to identify the enemy.  They can see two larger warships that gradually but inexorably overtake the other enemy vessels and begin to close the gap between the two squadrons.  It soon becomes clear that their pursuers include two battlecruisers.  It is a bitter moment for the German East Asiatic Squadron - every sailor knows the overwhelming superiority battlecruisers have over their own ships, and that the day will likely end in their destruction.

The view from the maintop on Invincible as it overhauls the German warships, whose smoke is visible on the

For several hours the British pursue the Germans, the battlecruisers drawing ever closer.  At 1255pm, the first shot of the battle is fired by Inflexible, targeting the light cruiser Leipzig.  Invincible soon joins in, and within fifteen minutes British salvos are straddling the German ship.  Spee decides that he must try to save at least part of his squadron.  He orders his three light cruisers to separate and attempt to escape, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau will turn to fight the battlecruisers.  The latter maneouvre is undoubtedly doomed, but Spee hopes it will prove a sufficient distraction to allow the light cruisers to escape.  Sturdee had anticipated this, however, and the armoured cruisers Kent and Cornwall as well as Glasgow are sent after the German light cruisers while Inflexible and Invincible focus on the two enemy armoured cruisers.

Inflexible opens fire on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

By 130pm the British battlecruisers and German armoured cruisers open fire on each other.  The Germans live up to their reputation as crack shots, their salvos consistently straddling the British, while British fire is widely inaccurate - in the first thirty minutes, of 210 rounds fired only four hit the target.  Still, the larger shells of the British guns mean each hit is significantly more damaging than several from the German guns.  For the next two hours damage accumulates on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau - the former has several main guns knocked out, and the latter has two boiler rooms flooded and its speed reduced to 16 knots.  Just before 4pm, its upper deck completely wrecked and three of four funnels shot away, Scharnhorst ceases fire.  Sturdee signals the German warship to surrender, but there was no reply.  Spee's last signal is instead to Gneisenau, conceding that he had been wrong to order the attack on the Falklands.  Scharnhorst's bow sinks ever deeper into the waves until it rolls onto its side and sinks at 417pm.  Of the eight hundred man crew, including Admiral Spee, there are no survivors.  For the next hour and a half, the already-battered Gneisenau endures what amounts to target practice by the British battlecruisers.  At 540 its captain orders the ship scuttled, and it sinks at 6pm.  Between two and three hundred survivors are in the water, and the battlecruisers begin rescue efforts, ultimately pulling 176 from the frigid waters.

Inflexible standing by to pick up survivors from Gneisenau.  The photograph is taken from Invincible.

The three German light cruisers hardly fare better.  As they sailed south in an attempt to escape, they are pursued by the light cruiser Glasgow and the armoured cruisers Kent and Cornwall.  After four months at sea the Germans are several knots below their design speed, which allows the British to slowly close the distance.  At 345pm the three light cruisers go their separate ways - Dresden to the southwest, Nürnberg to the east, and Leipzig to the south.  The pursuing British have to choose how to continue the pursuit, and with Dresden maintaining a fractionally greater speed than the other two light cruisers, the decision is made by the captain of Glasgow to let Dresden go to ensure the destruction of the other two.  While Dresden slips away, Nürnberg and Leipzig are chased down over the next several hours and, once the armoured cruisers are in range, battered into submission - the former sinking at 727pm, and the latter at 923pm.  Only seven survivors are saved from Nürnberg and eighteen from Leipzig.

Damage on the upper deck of Kent.

By nightfall the annihilation of the German East Asiatic Squadron is complete.  Only Dresden survives, fleeing the scene as rapidly as possible westward, its only hope to return to the Pacific.  Admiral Spee, as well as two of his sons who were serving aboard his warships, are lost.  British casualties are negligible - one on Glasgow, four on Kent when a gun position was hit - as the vast majority of German hits failed to penetrate the armour of the British warships.  The Germans had fought well, scoring a much higher hit rate than their counterparts, but it hardly mattered.  For the British, it is a matter of concern that only 5% of their shots, but it is overshadowed by the sheer scale of the victory - the Battle of the Falklands is as decisive victory for the British as the Battle of Coronel was for the Germans.  It does much to restore the luster of the Royal Navy after early setbacks, and is celebrated throughout Britain as a restatement of naval hegemony.  The victory is seen as a particular vindication for the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher.  It was his vision that brought the battlecruiser to life, and at the Falklands it fulfilled its strategic role perfectly - have the speed to catch anything it can sink.

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