A happy day for Kaiser Wilhelm

A happy day for Kaiser Wilhelm
By Arthur Ives

When the First World War started, in 1914, the Imperial German Navy had a fleet of warships that were intended for just one thing – destroying the British navy. Kaiser Wilhelm’s hatred of Britain was long-standing, because of his alleged feelings of inferiority to his British relatives.

So he built a faster racing yacht and a bigger, more sumptuous steam yacht to outdo the aging Victoria and Albert. Also, with the wily Admiral Tirpitzs, he set about building a navy superior to Britain’s Grand Fleet.

An assassination in the Balkan city of Sarajevo just happened to catch them a little flatfooted. A number of German warships were aboard, some a long way from home. At the end of July, 1914, they were widely scattered and not, in total, a very menacing force. Two light cruisers, Dresden and Karlsrume, were in the West Indies. The light cruiser Leipzig was off the west coast of America and, in China and based in Tsingtsao, was the powerful East Asiatic Squadron under the brilliant and efficient vice-admiral, Graf von Spee.

On Aug. 6, Spee slipped out of Ponape in the German held Caroline Islands. He was on his way home, under orders to attack British shipping on the way.

Which way would he go? The possibilities scared the British so much that troops from Australia and New Zealand were held up until adequate protection could be provided.

Meanwhile, Spee sailed east. He detached a light cruiser to Honolulu for supplies and on Sept. 30 attacked Papeete, capital of Tahiti. French installations were shelled and he sank a gunboat .He was on his way to South America, where Germany had allies.

When he concentrated his forces at the lonely island of Mas-a-Fuera, he had two armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each 11,600 tonnes with eight modern 8.2 inch guns and six 5.9 inch guns, and capable of steaming at 24 knots. He also had three slightly varied light cruisers – Nurnberg, Dresden and Leipzig –of around 3,200 tonnes, each carrying 10 4.1 inch guns at speeds ranging from 22 to 24.5 knots.

The British scraped up a few old ships and hoped for the best. From Esquimalt, the old cruiser Rainbow was sent south on patrol, probably devoutly hoping not to find anything more than an armed merchantman. In near panic, the Royal Canadian Navy brought two submarines from the US – quite a cloak and dagger affair, with transfer at midnight out in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Vice-Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock was given the two old armored cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth, the new light-cruiser Glasgow and the slow and useless armed liner Otranto to go and find Spee. He protested and requested at least one modern armored cruiser. His request was denied.

Instead, the old battleship Canopus, with four ancient 12-inch gins and a speed of 17 knots, was ordered to join him. Her Engineer-Commander, had been on board for some time and doted on her engines. Fearful that they would be damaged, he spent the voyage in his cabin writing false reports of defects and limiting her speed to 12 knots.

Meanwhile, Kit Craddock was described by a contemporary as brave as a loin but not very bright. He never spoke to his Flag-Captain, so he was unable to discuss the mission with him.

His flagship, HMS Good Hope, was built in 1902 and displaced 14,100 tonnes with a speed of 23.5 knots. She had two 9.2 inch guns and 16 six-inch guns, most of which were on lower desks and could not be worked in any sort of a sea. HMS Monmouth had the same problem. She was built in 1903 and was of 9,300 tonnes and carried 14 six-inch guns at a speed of 23 knots. On the other hand, HMS Glasgow was a fine, new light cruiser of 4,800 tonnes. She had two six-inch guns and 10 four-inch guns at a speed of 25 knots. The Otranto was next to useless.

Craddock sailed from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on Oct. 22, 1914. Canopus, which had only just arrived was ordered to join him as soon as possible, Glasgow and Monmouth were already on patrol on the South Pacific, based on the Chronos Archiplelago, where they were joined by Otranto.

Craddock joined them on Oct. 26 but he had no definite intelligence on which to act. Wireless in those days was not very reliable and the Andes blocked any communication eastwards. Long distance signals were still sent by cable to the nearest consul.

Next day, he sent Glasgow to Coronel, Chile, halfway between Valparaiso and Santiago, in search of news. There were several German merchant ships in the harbour. They still had their radio aerials rigged and one of them was busy transmitting a lengthy message, describing Glasgow and her visit. It was obvious the enemy was very near, for the reply was loud and the ship was using the call sign of Leipzig.

Meanwhile, Spee and his squadron had sailed from Mas-a-Fuera. Then he sailed southwest to find Glasgow. At the same time, Craddock was steaming to the northwest looking for Leipzig. Soon, smoke was sighted. With difficulty, the lookouts identified the German ships and both squadrons worked up to full power.

The lagged Canopus was still 500 km away and striving valiantly to make good time.

By then, her engineer-captain was under arrest and below desks in the sick bay.

It was blowing hard from the south and a heavy sea was running. It was impossible to use the lower guns on the two armored cruisers. What would Craddock do? He could have sacrificed the slow Otranto and used his speed to retire towards Canopus but that might mean losing her, too. Against the odds, he decided to stay and fight. It was a disastrous decision.

By 5.30 in the evening, the squadron was in line ahead, the useless Otranto in the rear. They were now on a southerly course with the German ships some 20,000 metres to the east and brilliantly lit up by the setting sun.

Spee’s ships opened the ball at 11,300 metres with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau firing ripple salvos. The second salvo bracketed Good Hope. With machine like precision, the two old cruisers were quickly battered and on fire. By now, it was so dark the British could only see the German gun flashes, while they were clearly silhouetted by the afterglow of the sunset. Otranto had wisely steamed away into the oblivion of the night. Little Glasgow did her valiant best but it was of little good.

Suddenly, the flames on Good Hope multiplied many times over, until they seemed to consume the very sky itself, as the ship and her crew ceased to exist. (One of them was this writers’ uncle. Oddly enough he was the only one of some 20 or so of his family who gave his life while serving in the two world wars. A lucky family, this.)

Monmouth clung to life a little longer. She was badly holed forward and down by the bows but most of the fires were out. She could only steam slowly astern in the heavy seas. Spee was closing in for the kill. With sadness and regret, Glasgow steamed away at full speed into the shelter of the night. She could do no more.

By the light of the moon, Nurnberg, which had been steaming hard to get into the fight, sighted the crippled Monmouth. She attacked with a torpedo, but missed. She then opened fire at only 300 metres away. At 8.58 pm, Monmouth heeled over and sank with her ensign still flying. Again, not a soul was saved.

Vice-Admiral Spee put into Valpariso with his squadron after the battle. The German community rejoiced and feted them, but the German admiral was under no delusions about his fate. He knew British retribution would be swift and terrible. He would not see the Fatherland again.

Now it is history, of course: Spee and his fine ships were annihilated at the Battle of the Falklands, a short time later, and the first gun was fired by the old Canopus. Only the little Dresden escaped. After many weeks she was run to earth, very appropriately, by Glasgow at Mas-a-Fuera, with the help of HMS Kent, a sister ship of the ill-fated Monmouth, she was so battered by gunfire, while at anchor, that her captain surrendered to save further loss of life. The date was March 14, 1915. Christopher Craddock and his men were avenged.

The above article was published in a Canadian newspaper in September/October 1986. I am still trying to identify the newspaper so that I may give them due credit.
Supplied by Monica Cook.


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