Saturday, 6 January 2018

Battle of Coronel 1914

We're getting back into some naval wargaming using General Quarters (which is - from experience - a much better rule set than Victory at Sea).  We're digging out the WW1 fleets for these and played Dogger Bank on Thursday (which ended as a draw although the German ships - as would be expected - took a battering from the superior Royal Navy forces with only the Derflinger escaping relatively unscathed.

Still, a chance now for the German Navy to exact revenge as next Thursday we're doing the Battle of Coronel.

The Battle of Coronel was a First World War Imperial German Naval victory over the Royal Navy on 1 November 1914, off the coast of central Chile near the city of Coronel. The East Asia Squadron (Ostasiengeschwader or Kreuzergeschwader) of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) led by Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee met and defeated the British West Indies Squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock.

The engagement probably took place as a result of misunderstandings. Neither admiral expected to meet the other in full force. Once the two met, Cradock understood his orders were to fight to the end, despite the odds heavily against him. Although Spee had an easy victory, destroying two enemy armoured cruisers for just three men injured, the engagement also cost him almost half his supply of ammunition, which was irreplaceable. Shock at the British losses led the Admiralty to send more ships including two modern battlecruisers, which in turn destroyed Spee and the majority of his squadron on 8 December at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, with assistance from other Allied naval and land forces in the Far East, had captured the German colonies of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, Yap, Nauru and Samoa early in the war, instead of searching for the German East Asiatic Squadron (Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee), which had abandoned its base at the German concession at Tsingtao in China, in the expectation of war with Japan. The East Asiatic Squadron rendezvoused at Pagan Island in the Marianas (early August 1914) and Japan entered the war against Germany on 23 August 1914. Spee intended to establish a temporary domination of the Pacific, paralysing commerce. Eventually, recognising the German squadron's potential for commerce raiding in the Pacific, the British Admiralty decided to destroy the squadron and searched the western Pacific Ocean after the East Asiatic Squadron had conducted the Bombardment of Papeete (22 September 1914), where a French steamer reported its presence.

The German squadron leaves their Chilean port

On 4 October 1914, the British learned from intercepted radio messages that Spee planned to attack shipping on the trade routes along the west coast of South America. Having correctly guessed the intention of the German commander, Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock patrolled the area with the 4th Cruiser Squadron, consisting of the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flagship) and HMS Monmouth, the modern light cruiser HMS Glasgow, three other light cruisers, HMS Otranto a converted liner and two other armed merchantmen. The Admiralty had planned to reinforce the squadron by sending the newer and more powerful armoured cruiser HMS Defence from the Mediterranean but temporarily diverted this ship to patrol the western Atlantic. Defence reached Montevideo two days after the battle and instead, Cradock received the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus.

The change of plan meant that the British squadron comprised obsolete or under-armed vessels, crewed by inexperienced naval reservists.[citation needed] Monmouth and Good Hope possessed a large number of 6-inch guns but only Good Hope was equipped with two 9.2-inch guns mounted in single turrets. Spee had a formidable force of five modern vessels (the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg), led by officers hand-picked by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau carried eight 8.2-inch guns each, which gave them an overwhelming advantage in range and firepower; the crews of both ships had earned accolades for their gunnery before the war.


The Admiralty ordered Cradock to "be prepared to meet them in company", with no effort made to clarify what action he was expected to take should he find Spee. On receiving his orders, Cradock asked the Admiralty for permission to split his fleet into two forces, each able to face Spee independently. The two groups would operate on the east and west coasts of South America to counter the possibility of Spee slipping past Cradock and raiding into the Atlantic Ocean. The Admiralty agreed and established the east coast squadron (Rear-Admiral Archibald Stoddart), consisting of three cruisers and two armed merchantmen.

The remaining vessels formed the west coast squadron, which was reinforced by Canopus on 18 October. Reprieved from scrapping by the outbreak of war and badly in need of overhaul, Canopus had a top speed of only 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph), about two-thirds her design speed and just over half that of the remainder of the squadron. (After the fleet sailed, it was found that the ship could make 16 kn (30 km/h; 18 mph) and that the senior engineer was mentally ill.)

The Admiralty agreed that with Canopus the fleet would be too slow to force an engagement with the German cruisers and that without Canopus the west coast squadron stood no chance. Cradock sailed from the Falklands on 20 October, still under the impression that Defence would soon arrive and with Admiralty orders to attack German merchant ships and to seek out the East Asiatic Squadron. As the British squadron rounded Cape Horn, wireless transmissions from Leipzig increased in power and it seemed that the British would catch the ship while isolated but Spee had made rendezvous with Leipzig on 14 October and had enforced wireless silence on the other ships.

On 31 October, Glasgow entered Coronel harbour to collect messages and news from the British consul. Also in harbour was a supply ship—Göttingen—working for Spee, which immediately radioed with the news of the British ship entering harbour. Glasgow was listening to radio traffic, which suggested that German warships were close. Matters were confused, because the German ships had been instructed to all use the same call sign, that of Leipzig. Spee decided to move his ships to Coronel, to trap Glasgow, while Admiral Cradock hurried north to catch Leipzig. Neither side realised the other's main force was nearby.

The Battle

At 09:15 on 1 November, Glasgow left port to meet Cradock at noon, 40 mi (34.8 nmi; 64.4 km) west of Coronel. Seas were stormy so that it was impossible to send a boat between the ships to deliver the messages, which had to be transferred on a line floated in the sea. At 13:50, the ships formed into a line of battle 15 mi (13.0 nmi; 24.1 km) apart and started to steam north at 10 nautical miles (19 km; 12 mi) searching for Leipzig. At 16:17 Leipzig accompanied by the other German ships, spotted smoke from the line of British ships. Spee ordered full speed so that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Leipzig were approaching the British at 20 nautical miles (37 km; 23 mi), with the slower light cruisers Dresden and Nürnberg some way behind.

At 16:20, Glasgow and Otranto saw smoke to the north and then three ships at a range of 12 mi (10.4 nmi; 19.3 km). The British reversed direction, so that both fleets were moving south, and a chase began which lasted 90 minutes. Cradock was faced with a choice; he could either take his three cruisers capable of 20 kn (23 mph; 37 km/h), abandon Otranto and run from the Germans, or stay and fight with Otranto, which could only manage 16 kn (18 mph; 30 km/h). The German ships slowed at a range of 15,000 yd (13,720 m) to reorganise themselves for best positions, and to await best visibility, when the British to their west would be outlined against the setting sun.

At 17:10, Cradock decided he must fight, and drew his ships closer together. He changed course to south-east and attempted to close upon the German ships while the sun remained high. Spee declined to engage and turned his faster ships away, maintaining the distance between the forces which sailed roughly parallel at a distance of 14,000 yd (12,800 m). At 18:18, Cradock again attempted to close, steering directly towards the enemy, which once again turned away to a greater range of 18,000 yd (16,460 m). At 18:50, the sun set; Spee closed to 12,000 yd (10,970 m) and commenced firing.

The German ships had sixteen 21 cm (8 in) guns of comparable range to the two 9.2 in (234 mm) guns on Good Hope. One of these was hit within five minutes of the engagement's starting. Of the remaining 6 in (152 mm) guns on the British ships, most were in casemates along the sides of the ships, which continually flooded if the gun doors were opened to fire in heavy seas. The merchant cruiser Otranto—having only 4 in (100 mm) guns and being a much larger target than the other ships—retired west at full speed.

With the British 6 in (152 mm) guns having insufficient range to match the German 21 cm (8 in) guns, Cradock attempted to close on the German ships. By 19:30, he had reached 6,000 yd (5,490 m) but as he closed, the German fire became correspondingly more accurate. Good Hope and Monmouth caught fire, presenting easy targets to the German gunners now that darkness had fallen, whereas the German ships had disappeared into the dark. Monmouth was first to be silenced. Good Hope continued firing, continuing to close on the German ships and receiving more and more fire. By 19:50, she had also ceased firing; subsequently her forward section exploded, then she broke apart and sank, with no-one witness to the sinking.

Scharnhorst switched firing towards Monmouth while Gneisenau joined Leipzig and Dresden which had been engaging Glasgow. The German light cruisers had only 10.5 cm (4 in) guns, which had left Glasgow relatively unscathed but these were now joined by the 21 cm (8 in) guns of Gneisenau.

John Luce, captain of Glasgow, determined that nothing was to be gained by staying and attempting to fight. It was noticed that each time he fired, the flash of his guns was used by the Germans to aim a new salvo, so he also ceased firing. One compartment of the ship was flooded but she could still manage 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h). He returned first to Monmouth, which was now dark but still afloat. Nothing was to be done for the ship, which was sinking slowly but would attempt to beach on the Chilean coast. Glasgow turned south and departed.

There was some confusion amongst the German ships as to the fate of the two armoured cruisers, which had disappeared into the dark once they ceased firing, and a hunt began. Leipzig saw something burning, but on approaching found only wreckage. Nürnberg—slower than the other German ships—arrived late at the battle and sighted Monmouth, listing and badly damaged but still moving. After pointedly directing his searchlights at the ship's ensign, an invitation to surrender—which was declined—he opened fire, finally sinking the ship. Without firm information, Spee decided that Good Hope had escaped and called off the search at 22:15. Mindful of the reports that a British battleship was around somewhere, he turned north.

With no survivors from either Good Hope or Monmouth, 1,600 British officers and men were dead, including Admiral Cradock.

HMS Good Hope

Glasgow and Otranto both escaped (the former suffering five hits and five wounded men). Just two shells had struck Scharnhorst, neither of which exploded: one 6-inch shell hit above the armour belt and penetrated to a storeroom where, in Spee's words, "the creature just lay there as a kind of greeting." Another struck a funnel. In return, Scharnhorst had managed at least 35 hits on Good Hope, but at the expense of 422 21 cm (8 in) shells, leaving her with 350. Four shells had struck Gneisenau, one of which nearly flooded the officers' wardroom. A shell from Glasgow struck her after turret and temporarily knocked it out.Three of Gneisenau's men were wounded; she expended 244 of her shells and had 528 left.

Spee commented on the British tactics. He had been misinformed that the battleship Canopus sighted in the area was a relatively modern Queen class battleship, whereas it was similar appearing, old and barely seaworthy Canopus-class battleship but had four 12-inch and ten 6-inch guns. Spee believed he would have lost the engagement had all the British ships been together. Despite his victory he was pessimistic with regard to the real harm done to the British navy and also to his own chances of survival. Cradock had been less convinced of the value of Canopus, which was too slow at 12 knots to allow his other ships freedom of movement and was manned only by inexperienced reservists.

The official explanation of the defeat as presented to the House of Commons by Winston Churchill stated: "feeling he could not bring the enemy immediately to action as long as he kept with Canopus, he decided to attack them with his fast ships alone, in the belief that even if he himself were destroyed... he would inflict damage on them which ...would lead to their certain subsequent destruction."

On 3 November, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nürnberg entered Valparaiso harbour to a welcome by the German population. Spee refused to join in the celebrations; when presented with a bouquet of flowers, he refused them, commenting that "these will do nicely for my grave". He was to die with most of the men on his ships approximately one month later at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, on 8 December 1914.

Note to Russ : Looking at my German Fleet I only appear to have Scharnhorst and not Gneisenau.  Got Dresden, Leipzig and Nurnberg.  May have to use a Magdeburg class instead.


Russ Fewtrell said...

Good stuff Phil. Note taken on the German fleet, let me see what I have in my lead mountain I will come back to you shortly.

Got a few things wrong at Dogger Bank with the rules, firstly the starting distances will be scaled correctly with the battle. I should have used cm instead of inches. Secondly on the straddle table I think I might have diddle the Germans because I think at the ranges the British ships were firing from they could not penetrate the German armour so this would have meant only half damage. Not to worry still a good game and the result was a draw.

Ian said...

This should be another good test of the rules. May be worthwhile fighting this scenario again but with HMS Defence on the British side?

Phil Broeders said...

And / or HMS Canopus. Would make it a very even battle.

mark shakespeare said...

Nice intro Phil

Phil Broeders said...

Thanks Mark.

Russ Fewtrell said...

All ships painted and ready for the game Phil. Had to use an Argyle class cruiser for one of the ships but hey who will notice apart from Ian Shaw who is bound to come over and tell me!

Russ Fewtrell said...

Forgot to mention I am assuming you can field all the German fleet OK? I have the 4 British ships done