Cruiser Fire

90th Anniversary of the Naval Battle of Coronel

Cruiser Fire off Santa Maria Island

At the beginning of World War 1, part of the British fleet was destroyed by German military ships. Nearly 1,500 sailors died, when the first great confrontation between the two European powers took place in Chilean waters on Sunday 1st November 1914.

Claudette Medina Veneges

Context: World War 1
Date: 1st November 1914
Location: Santa Maria Island, off the Chilean city of Coronel

The calm community of Coronel did not suspect that 45 miles out to sea a bloody naval battle was unfolding, that would enter the historic annuls of the world.

And, today, little or nothing is known about the inhabitants of this carboniferous zone as opposed to the first encounter off its coast, of the powerful squadrons of Germany and Great Britain. At present, only a monolith, erected in 1989 in 21st May Plaza remembers the tragic episode. The plate reads ‘In memory of the 1418 officers and sailors of the British military squadron and their Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, who sacrificed their lives in the Naval Battle of Coronel. Their only tomb is the sea.’

Professor Mario Gutierrez Corodova, Coronel, author of the book ‘Coronel of Yesterday and Today’, thinks that the battle is not studied as it should be. ‘In Chile, the history books hardly mention it. If fact, the international text approach the subject better.’

But, what really passed between both squadrons that day.

Today, 90 years after the event, ‘El Sur’ remembers the naval confrontation between the two European powers which took place shortly after the outbreak of the Great War.

German Power

When war erupted, in August 1914, some of the military ships from the German fleet were operating to the North East of the Philippines. These units were commanded by Admiral Maximilian Graf (Count) Von Spee, who chose to cross the Pacific towards the south, the idea was to pass the Cape Horn into the Atlantic and return to Germany. Under his command, he had the armoured cruisers: the flagship Scharnhorst, Dresden, Nürnberg, Leipzig and the Gneisenau.

The British with their powerful naval force were anchored in the Falkland Islands; however some of the ships had crossed the Pacific to hinder the operations of the German fleet. The commander of the British units in the South Atlantic was Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. The British had detected through telegraphic interceptions the presence of the German ships that went to Magallanes. Cradock had no hesitation in attacking although his own naval force was inferior.

The English squadron was composed of the battleship Canopus, already obsolete; the flagship Good Hope – commanded by Christopher Cradock; Monmouth; Glasgow and Otranto.

The book ‘Coronel of Yesterday and Today’ states that the encounter was only one battle, in which the English succumbed under the German force. Its aim was to be invincible in the sea: to die first, before staining the honour of its mother country. In the battle, more than 1,500 died, including Rear Admiral Cradock at his command post aboard the cruiser Good Hope, on fire the ship sunk like the Monmouth.

The historian of the University of Conception, Mario Valdes, told ‘El Sur’ that the Germans, after their naval victory changed course and went north to Valparaiso, where they were received with a great banquet by the residents of the colony. Soon, the Germans sailed south to the Atlantic and to engage the rest of the British fleet stationed at the Falklands. But there, their luck ran out.

The British, with a new determination and significant naval support sent to the Falklands sank the Scharnhorst – flagship of Vice Admiral Von Spee – and left only the Dresden afloat, but very deteriorated, so that they could flee towards the Pacific and hide in the channels the South of Chile, until she was found by British ships in the Bay of Cumberland, at Juan Fernandez Island in 1915. In the Battle of the Atlantic more than 2,000 Germans die, amongst them Von Spee, and the action meant the naval decline of the German Empire.

Thus ‘El Sur’ reported it.

The newspaper ‘El Sur’ also published information on the Battle of Coronel. In the edition of Wednesday 4th November 1914, on page 2, the correspondent in Valparaiso wrote:

‘English – German naval combat’, he says in the title of the article. And further down, he continues:

Location: off Santa Maria Island on Sunday. An English ship is sunk and another damaged. In addition to this news, our correspondent also sent us part of the official report from the Military Ministry, by the General Director of the Navy, Vice Admiral Goni, about the naval action of which we are speaking. Here is the text of both reports: yesterday at 11 in the morning the German squadron anchored (in Valparaiso), composing the battleships Scharnhorst, of 11,600 tons: Gneisenau, of 11,600, and the cruiser the Nürnberg of 3,500. They come under the command of Vice Admiral Von Spee. He visited Admiral Goni, but did not call on any other authority. The ships will stay in the harbour for the prescribed time.

Shortly after the three ships anchored, the rumour began to circulate that they had entered the port following a bitter naval action in which they had defeated an equal number of British ships. Looking for trustworthy versions about this rumour we have obtained, from the mouth of the German Consul in Valparaiso the following data, it was reported to us as the written exposition that had been given by Admiral Graf Von Spee, Commander in Chief of the German squadron: 1st November, between six and seven in the evening, at the time it was raining hard and the weather was very poor, off Coronel we found the English military ships Good Hope, of 14,500 tons; Glasgow, of 4,600; Monmouth, of 9,900, and the coal transport Otranto.

Immediately a bitter combat between all ships ensued, that developed the most active fire by all guns. During the combat the English cruiser Monmouth was sunk. On the other English cruiser, Good Hope, that was the flagship, we heard and perceived a great explosion. We saw that the ship was on fire, but the dark prevented us from seeing what happened to her. The cruiser Glasgow and transport Otranto, they also received damage, what we cannot say, because like the Good Hope they disappeared in the dark. As far as our ships, Scharnhorst and Nürnberg received no damage. Only Gneisenau, they had minor loses, six wounded. The other German ships who stayed out (of Valparaiso) received no damage.

A past that divides

In Coronel there are no commemorations or memorials. Except for a plaque installed in 1989 by the English to honour their fallen.

In Conception, the German Consul, Herbert Siller, that the date is not necessary motive of homage, “since is a matter of things of war, which is not worthwhile to recall, because today a German-British friendship exists, and the enemies of yesterday are today friends”. Siller said that if some time is organized an act with delegations of both countries, in sign of friendship, he would no have objection in participating. “But, so far, we do not commemorate, far from it ".

The above is a translated copy of an article in the Chilean newpaper 'El Sur', dated November 1, 2004.
This is the only commemoration that I was able to find for the 90th anniversery of the battle.


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