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A British naval catastrophe saw the sinking of the Good Hope and the Monmouth in 1914

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, World War 1 on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about the First World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Catastrophe off Coronel, picture, image, illustration

In the catastrophe off Coronel the British lost the Good Hope and the Monmouth with all hands, by Graham Coton

The German colony in Valparaiso, Chile, was in party mood. It was hardly surprising, for into the port had sailed a victorious German battle squadron and its Commander-in-Chief, Admiral von Spee, aboard his flagship Scharnhorst. For his crushing victory over the British off Coronel, he was welcomed with a feast, and someone suggested a toast “To the damnation of the British Fleet!”

Von Spee refused it. Instead he said: “I drink to the memory of a gallant and honourable foe.” And when he was given a bouquet of flowers, he said: “They will do for my funeral.”

His gloomy reply was prophetic, yet for the moment he might well have rejoiced with the whole of Germany, for he had inflicted a total defeat on the world’s greatest navy. Trafalgar seemed a very distant memory on that November day in 1914.

Britain and France had gone to war with Germany and her allies in August. The British had not only the largest fleet in the world, but the biggest merchant navy and, as an island, nothing must be allowed to disrupt her shipping lanes, which would soon be carrying not only goods, but also troop ships from all parts of the Empire.

Yet Germany had rapidly expanded her fleet, and in the endless wastes of the Pacific and the Southern Ocean north of Antarctica, there were sea wolves ready to pounce on any victims that they found. As soon as war was declared von Spee, commanding the East Asiatic Squadron, sailed from the Chinese port of Tsingtan with the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the fast light cruisers, Dresden, Emden and Nurnberg. And there was another cruiser at large in the Pacific, the Leipzig.

Emden was sent to act as a lone raider, which she did for many successful weeks in the Indian Ocean, while the rest of the squadron vanished into the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty in London had its problems. The Home Fleet was covering its German opposite number, and vast numbers of warships were guarding the British expeditionary forces heading for the battlefronts. Matters were made worse when the Royal Navy’s professional chief, Admiral Battenberg, father of Lord Mountbatten, was forced to resign because he was of German birth.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, fortunately had a man to replace him as First Sea Lord, bringing back the difficult but brilliant Admiral Fisher from retirement. More than anyone else, Fisher had modernised the Royal Navy in the early years of the century. The Pacific was only one of their problems, but it was an immediate one.

In the South Atlantic was the South American squadron, based on the Falkland Islands, and commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock aboard the cruiser Good Hope. With him were the light cruiser Glasgow, the heavy cruiser Monmouth and the armed liner Otranto, all busily looking for Dresden, little knowing that she was now in the Pacific. The Admiralty could not even be sure whether von Spee was off South America or South Africa. However, the former was the more likely bet, and an old but powerful battleship, Canopus, was sent out to strengthen Cradock’s small fleet.

During September and October, they patrolled the South Atlantic and the South Pacific, rounding the Horn into the high winds, huge waves and snowstorms to the west of it, with only the outline of jagged mountains to look at and whales for company in the wild seas. Every ten days they had to return to the Falkland Islands base for the filthy job of coaling the ships, which took the best part of a day in those pre-oil times.

On October 31 off Coronel, Glasgow’s captain sent an urgent message to the flagship after overhearing Leipzig’s radio call sign. Cradock was not far off with the rest of his squadron except for Canopus, whose engines were under repair some 400 miles away. He ordered Glasgow to Coronel to send and pick up messages to and from London, and a German merchant ship sent news of her arrival to the Scharnhorst. Meanwhile, Glasgow left the port before von Spee reached the spot, and joined Admiral Cradock 50 miles out from Coronel.

On November 1st at 4 p.m. the two squadrons spotted each other, both admirals being startled at the size of the enemy. The British only expected to see Leipzig, the Germans Glasgow. In theory the British had the upper hand with the Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow and Otranto, and with only the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nurnberg against them, but in fact they were badly outgunned without Canopus’s 12-inch guns. Many have since said that Cradock should have turned tail and lived to fight another day in the company of Canopus, but that was not his way, or the Royal Navy’s way, and he prepared for action.

The battle began at 7 p.m. when Cradock’s ships were silhouetted against the western sky as the sun sank below the horizon. Scharnhorst was the first to open fire as the British sailed towards her. The third salvo destroyed the flagship’s forward gun turret, while Gneisenau soon had Monmouth ablaze. Before a single shell had landed on the German ships, Good Hope went down with all hands as debris from her shot 200 feet into the air. That was at 7.50, and at 9.28 Monmouth, too, disappeared into the depths. Again, there were no survivors. Now Glasgow and Otranto had to flee, for they would have been blown out of the water before getting into range of the German ships. Swiftly they made their escape into the night, leaving behind them a victorious enemy who had not suffered a single casualty. The greatest navy in the world, whatever excuses could be made, had suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat. And elsewhere things had gone wrong, for German ships had bombarded Yarmouth, a battleship had gone down after being struck by a German mine and a Russian cruiser – for Russia had come in on the British and French side – was sunk in Penang Roads off Malaya by Emden in a place where she should have been perfectly safe. It was a black week.

The end of the story is happier, from a British point of view, at least. While Glasgow licked her wounds at the Falkland Islands, two crack battle-cruisers, Inflexible and Invincible, were sent there under the command of Admiral Sturdee. Together with Canopus they made a formidable trio, and there were four more cruisers as well. Meanwhile, Admiral von Spee had sailed for the Falkland Islands, having fatally delayed in the Pacific. He arrived to see before him the three great ships and their attendant cruisers. The Royal Navy had a terrible revenge, for Scharnhorst was sent to the bottom, destroyed by the overwhelming fire power of the battle-cruisers, and Gneisenau was so badly damaged that her crew scuttled her to prevent her falling into enemy hands. Leipzig and Nurnberg also sank, and only Dresden escaped to fight another day until she also was destroyed three months later. The southern seas were safe again, but at what a price in British and German lives.

One comment on “A British naval catastrophe saw the sinking of the Good Hope and the Monmouth in 1914”

  1. 1. Pickles says:

    My great uncle, Able Seaman George King, was killed when HMS Monmouth was sunk in the Battle of Coronel. I believe he was just seventeen. When the telegram was delivered to my great grandmother some weeks later, a band was playing ‘Silent Night’ in the village since it was then quite close to Christmas, and thereafter that carol was never sung in the house, so sad were the memories it brought back. For many years we continued to avoid singing this lovely carol at Christmas out of respect for my grandmother, whose favourite youngest brother George was.

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