Tragedy


Tragedy Page 1

Tragedy Page 2

Tragedy Page 3

I SAW the TRAGEDY of CORONEL
by J. D. Stephenson
Sick Berth Steward, HMS Glasgow

The battle of Coronel on November 1, 1914, was a sad blow to the hopes of the British Navy. Admiral Cradock’s encounter with the German Admiral von Spee’s squadron off Coronel led to the loss of the flagship, Good Hope, and the cruiser Monmouth, the British admiral going down with his ship. HMS Glasgow was in the thick of the fight but managed to escape. Thrilling incidents of the defeat, later to avenged at the battle of the Falkland Islands, are here narrated by a sick berth steward, J. D. Stephenson, who was aboard HMS Glasgow.

HE FOUGHT TO A FINISH

At the Battle of Coronel Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock maintained the highest traditions of the Royal Navy. It was of him and his comrades the Mr. Arthur Balfour, then First Lord of the Admiralty, said: “Theirs is an immortal place in the great roll of naval heroes.”
Elliot and Fry

Our commission on the South American station was just ending when the news that war had been declared reached us. Jack always likes to bring some mementoes home of his voyages, and in anticipation of an early return to England our men had been ashore at Rio de Janeiro buying curios. Parrots galore screamed on our mess-deck, all ditty-boxes were packed with gifts for friends at home and the men were light-heartedly talking of the good times they would have in dear old “Pompey,” when the fateful message arrived that swept away those rosy visions and put the grim visage of war before our faces.

Were we disappointed? Not at all! A sailor’s business is to fight, and nothing better fits his humour than a chance of doing so. The knowledge that the long-expected “scrap” with Germany had come at last filled us all on board the Glasgow with pleasurable excitement, and the orders to “clear for action” were joyfully obeyed. The parrots were liberated, all other disposable gear got rid of, and we put to sea ready for anything that might come along.

For two months we had a disappointing time. Although we searched hard we found nothing in the shape of an enemy. Then we captured a prize worth a quarter of a million, and that sent our spirits up with a bound. About this time we received information that the German cruiser Dresden, having sunk a British merchantman, was making her way from the Moroccan coast towards the south-east coast of America. Off we went after her.

So far we had been cruising alone. Now the Monmouth joined us, and glad we were to see her, as she was the first vessel of our Fleet that we had encountered for a very long time. Followed by the Monmouth we proceeded to Santa Cattarina, six hundred miles to the north, where we heard the Dresden was coaling. On the way there we got into touch with the Good Hope, commanded by Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock.

At Santa Cattarina we found no trace of the Dresden. The message we had received was a German wireless “fake.” Together with the Good Hope and the Monmouth we turned our bows south, and searched for the enemy in every likely hiding-place until we came to Port Edgar, in the Falkland Isles, where we stayed a few days.

LURED ACROSS THE SEAS

Here the rumour came to us that the Dresden had gone to South America; therefore we made for Punta Arenas, the most southerly town on the mainland. “She has gone towards Cape Horn,” was the new that greeted us there, and off we dashed after her. Some two days later we entered a place where our quarry was supposed to be hiding, but again she had eluded us. Everyone felt a bit sick at this.

Apparently the admiral did also, for he signalled to the squadron, “The admiral shares with the officers and ship’s companies of the squadron their great disappointment at not being brought into action. Nevertheless, the capture of the enemy is but a matter of time.” His statement proved true, but the time was a long one, and the Dresden was to lure us over many weary miles yet.

Leaving the chilly neighbourhood of Punta Arenas we went up the west coast. It was about this time we learned that the German armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been driven from Chinese waters by the Japanese, and were on the way to South America. In order to meet these powerful opponents we understood that we were to be reinforced by stronger units of our own Fleet, as all our squadron were small vessels.

Continuing our search of the coast, we arrived at Valparaiso, where we stayed for twenty-four hours in order to provision and get mails, none of which had reached us for two months. From Valparaiso we went southward again, and called in at Coronel, where several German ships were interned. As we entered this harbour at night a boat shot shoreward from one of the German vessels, and half an hour later a fire blazed up on one of the hills close by. “That’s a signal to some enemy ship outside!” exclaimed one of our men, and undoubtedly his surmise was right. Little did we think at the time what that signal meant or what a mournful tragedy the morrow held in store for us.

Leaving Coronel at 10am we picked up the Good Hope, the Monmouth, and the Otranto in about two hours. A very rough sea was running at the time. Boats could not be lowered, and papers for the admiral had to be conveyed to the Good Hope in a small cask, which was towed across her bows. While doing this we came close to the Good Hope and got our last clear look at her crew, although none of us at the time thought that we were bidding our comrades in the flagship a last farewell.

Knowing the enemy to be somewhere in the vicinity, Admiral Cradock opened his squadron to visual distance. The Glasgow turned northward and reached the extreme right. About 4pm we discovered three enemy ships by their smoke, and promptly reported the matter to the admiral. Boisterous weather still prevailed, but the sun was shining brilliantly.

Admiral Cradock took the lead in his flagship, directing the Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto to fall in behind him in the order named and advance upon the enemy. While getting into line the Monmouth passed quite close on our port side where I was standing, and we could see her men at their stations. Stalwart Royal Marines manned her after gun. They were stripped to their flannels ready for the fight, and seemed glad to be going into it. As they swept past our ship the Marines light heartedly called out “Good old Pompey!” This being a reference to the fact that nearly all Admiral Cradock’s ships were manned by Portsmouth crews. We gave the men a hearty answer to their greeting as their ship forged ahead of ours.

Onwards towards the enemy we went, with the challenge to action flying at the masthead, but the German ships did not appear anxious to accept it. By this time their number had increased to four, and they were clearly manoeuvring to get the advantage of the light, a thing which their superior speed enabled them to do successfully much to the disadvantage of the British Admiral.

While the sun shone upon the German ships it made them a good mark for our gunners, so they held off out of range until the sun, setting behind our squadron silhouetted its ships upon the skyline and made them conspicuous targets. Admiral Cradock could not prevent this move, for the enemy was his superior in all points of manoeuvring power. When the action opened I was on the upper deck watching the enemy’s ships in the distance.

Immediately the light was in their favour the Germans opened the action by directing some ranging shots at the Otranto. [The Otranto was a merchant vessel, armed only with four 4.7-in. guns.] Realizing that the Otranto would fall an easy prey to the enemy if she stayed in the firing line, Admiral Cradock ordered her to make her escape. Now the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau concentrated their fire upon the Good Hope and the Monmouth, whilst the two smaller German ships turned all their guns upon the Glasgow with devastating effect.

MERCILESS ONSLAUGHT

It was a most unequal contest, one in which our ships had no earthly chance of winning. Admiral von Spee’s squadron contained the best-trained gunners in the German Navy. His guns were heavier and could easily outrange ours. Consequently he was able to keep his ships clear of our salvos, whilst his own shot pounded our vessels to pieces. We were also heavily handicapped by the fact that owing to bad weather our ships, especially the Good Hope and the Monmouth, rolled so heavily that their mess-deck guns were nearly always under water and out of action. The larger cruisers of the enemy did not suffer from this disability, and his gun-power, preponderating in any case, was thus rendered crushingly overwhelming as compared with our own. We were indeed facing fearful odds.

When trying to describe the scene now looked on, one realizes the feebleness of words.

We were fighting elements that were against us and a formidable enemy whom we could not reach. Night was falling. How we wished its dark shades would hasten down and thus give us a chance of coming to closer grips with the foe while our ships were still capable of effective action!

Around the Glasgow enemy projectiles fell like hail. Salvo after salvo plunged into the water near by, just missing the ship as she rolled. And all the time we could see the doomed Good Hope being struck by shell upon shell and only able to reply with one or two of her guns.

For the enemy, firing at her was merely so much target practice, and while we, with feelings that can well be imaged, watched her being thus mercilessly battered, there came the roar of an explosion, a burst of flame lit up the centre of the Good Hope. Her funnels with the surrounding structure seemed to fly up into the air – then came darkness and empty sea where she had lain struggling heroically against fearful odds.

Our brave little flagship had been blotted out; battered into the ocean depths by sheer weight of enemy metal would, perhaps, be a more accurate way of describing the end.

Anger at the loss of the Good Hope stimulated the Glasgow’s crew to greater efforts. Our fire had the effect of making one of the German light cruisers that was attacking us fall out of line, but her place was at once taken by a third ligt cruiser which had now joined von Spee. Very soon, also, the damaged vessel had patched up sufficiently to resume, and the Glasgow fought all three of them at one time.

Both the German armoured cruisers had now turned their guns against the Monmouth, presumably thinking that their smaller consorts were good enough to finish us. But they were not, even in the proportion of three to one. All the same, they gave us a nasty battering. One shell from them passed above our sick bay, burst in the captain’s cabin and wreaked it. Another stuck us on the port side aft, just missed a propeller, and made a hole in the ship’s side which was big enough to push a hand-truck through.

So much damage did this shell cause that we had to prop up our deck with beams to keep it from falling in. Yet another shell missed one of our main steam pipes by only a hand’s breadth. If t had not missed the pipe there would have been no Glasgow left to tell of the Coronel fight. Six men who were at a gun close by where this shell burst had a miraculous escape, being only slightly injured by it. We also got two shells in our coal bunkers, but as the latter were full these shots did little harm.

Reproduced from 'The Great War - I Was There: Undying Memories of 1914-1918', by Sir John Hammerton.
Supplied by Monica Cook

 

Back to top