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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Coronel and The Falklands by Geoffrey Bennett (FP: 1962)

The British Navy Strategy in WW1 was deceptively simple. Concentrate the bulk of the British Forces at Scapa Flow and effectively blockade the German Imperial Navy it its harbours for the duration. With the German Navy neutralised in this way the left over British Forces could protect its merchant fleet as well as the far flung Empire whilst denying the use of the sea to its Enemies and their Allies. Unfortunately Germany knew all too well what the British intended so sent out a significant number of cruisers before war was declared with the express intention of using them as global commerce raiders. Needless to say the object of the British Forces positioned across the globe was to find and destroy these ships before they could do much harm. But the oceans are very large, especially to ships without radar, air reconnaissance and with only primitive short range radio’s. Inevitably a deadly cat and mouse game began as cruiser hunted cruiser. In this game the Germans where at a distinct disadvantage. Out of touch with home base for much of the time they were thrown back on their own initiative and their own resources (often taken from captured shipping or friendly ports as well as a few coal ships dispatched before war broke out). Worse was the lack of repair facilities outside Europe. The Germans relied on stealth, intimidation, luck and an extensive South American spy operation.

The British, meanwhile, held most of the cards (knew this) and had centuries of tradition to prove that the British Navy was practically untouchable anywhere they went. Unfortunately no one seemed to have fully explained this to Vice Admiral Graf von Spee, Commander of the German East Asiatic Squadron. Searching for Spee was Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock leading a rag-tag rather thrown together fleet of cruisers, armed merchantmen and an aging battleship from a by-gone age. Facing him, the Germans crewed state of the art armoured cruisers famed (rightly) for their crew’s efficiency and gunnery. Finally bumping into each other by accident of the Chilean port of Coronel Admiral Cradock decided to engage the enemy despite being outnumbered, outgunned and beset by bad weather. To top off everything else the sun was setting behind his ships nicely highlighting their positions. Seemingly to the Admiralties surprise and dismay the British Force was roundly beaten with heavy losses whilst the German ships took hardly any damage at all. The shock to the British people and especially the Royal Navy was profound. Nothing as disastrous as this had happened for generations. After much soul searching, recriminations, accusations and name calling the British Navy sent out over 30 ships into the area looking for the German squadron and for revenge. It was not long coming.

The nearest base to the action was that on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Here Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee decided to concentrate his forces prior to sending out ships to search for the enemy in the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Arriving later than expected he ordered all of his ships to rearm, coal and load supplies for the long voyages ahead. Unknown to him and his men aboard the capital ships around him the German Forces had already left the Pacific after been ordered to head for home port. On the way they intended to attack any targets of opportunity that presented themselves – starting with the British outpost on the Falklands.  Seeing the British ships in harbour and quickly engaged by the grounded Battleship, the Germans reversed course and made for the open sea. Unable to pursue until steam had been raised the Admiral did the only thing he could – have breakfast. As they left harbour less than an hour later the Admiral gave the order than every naval man dreams of: General Pursuit! The chase and subsequent exchanges lasted the rest of the day but gradually and inevitably the German ships were caught, engaged and destroyed except for a single light cruiser who managed to escape. So ended the threat from the German squadron though the fighting itself was far from over as the fabled Emden had already been dispatched into the Indian Ocean to cause untold havoc (but that’s another story!)

I bought this book about 40 years ago (I kid you not) and this is the first time I’ve read it from cover to cover. I bought it because I had joined the school War Game Club – I was a Geek even then - and the Battle of Coronel was the first one we ever fought on a table top. It was an interesting challenge to play the British. The trick was to survive long enough (10 simulated hours if memory served) to allow the old Battleship to catch up and beat off the German cruisers! So it was a great deal of fun, with a significant dollop of nostalgia, to finally read the full story of what really happened. Told with great style (and great photographs) this is a masterful study of sea battles largely forgotten in places far, far away. The author shows the courage and heroism displayed on both sides in a gentleman’s war fought with fair, style and not a little charm. It was a type of warfare rapidly going out of style in the killing fields of the Western Front and beyond. A delight to read and much recommended to anyone interesting in this little known aspect of WW1.

1 comment:

Ellie said...

The part the Navy played in WW1 has never been something that really grabbed me (I've been too focused on the female role, I think). Since reading Secret Warriors though, where Downing talks about the code breakers and naval strategy, I am interested in finding out more. Thanks for such an interesting post (as ever)!