Monday, July 2, 2012

Death at Sea - Part II, Battle of the Falklands

1:1250 scale SMS Scharnhorst by Navis

In Eric Dorn Brose's "novelistic history" Death at Sea, he engages in an extensive amount of speculation over how the Battle of the Falklands could have turned out differently.

The actual course of events is pretty straightforward and most histories treat the outcome as nearly pre-ordained:

On Dec. 7, 1914, a powerful British squadron comprised of two battle-cruisers, three armored cruisers and two light cruisers arrived at Port Stanley in the Falklands, where the pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus had already been grounded to act as a guard ship.The British began coaling their ships and conducting boiler maintenance in preparation for beginning operations to find the the German East Asiatic Squadron, under the command of Graf Maximilian von Spee, victor of Coronel.

The next morning , Spee approached the island, intent on a destructive raid, but was surprised by large caliber shots from the Canopus and drew off. Shortly most of the British force sortied and chased down Spee's doomed squadron, which was heavily outmatched. Only one light cruiser and one support vessel escaped the carnage.

And yet, was Spee doomed, really? Brose argues that Spee lost a golden opportunity to win a stunning victory in the Battle of the Falkands by aggressively closing in and attacking the British fleet in the harbor. There being little chance of outrunning the battle-cruisers anyway, due to their superior speed and longer-ranged guns, Spee could have accepted that battle was inevitable and tried to do as much damage as possible.

And a lot of damage was, indeed, possible. When the Germans approached the Briitsh squadron was in an embarrassing state. Most of the ships were in the midst of coaling, boilers were not lit and in the case of the light cruiser HMS Bristol, partially dismantled. Indeed, only the HMS Kent had steam up and was mobile,

A key limitation of steam-powered ships is the need to "raise steam" in order to get underway. In the technology of 1914 it could take one to two hours to fire up the boilers and raise enough steam to achieve full speed. When sighted Spee was within half an hour of being within effective gunnery range -- and as we saw at Coronel, German gunnery was highly effective. The Germans could have fired at the virtually immobile British force trapped in the harbor. Their main opposition at first would have been the Canopus, firing indirectly guided by a spotter on a nearby hill, and the one mobile British armored cruiser the Kent, which was  sister ship to the wholly inadequate Monmouth that Spee destroyed at Coronel. There's little reason to think the Kent would have fared better. Of the other armored cruisers, the Cornwall was yet another Monmouth sister ship while the Carnavan was similar in capability, with a handful of larger 7.5 inch guns instead of the all-6-inch battery of the Monmouths. None was a match for Spee's ships.

No, the main, really the only, threat to Spee was the battle-cruisers Invincible and Inflexible. In the open ocean, where they could use their superior speed and firepower, they definitely outmatched Spee's two armored cruisers. But under fire at close range in a harbor, not so much. Because the battle-cruisers sacrificed armored protection in order to purchase that high sped and heavy firepower and, in fact, they were not any more heavily armored than the German or British armored cruisers were. They all had the same 6-inch thick armored belt, which the German 8-inch gun could penetrate at battle ranges.

The awkward arrangement of turrets on the Invincibles was a factor as well,  with just one turret for and aft and the other two arranged as "wing" turrets en echelon. The bottom line was that the battle-cruisers, at best, had a broadside of six guns, and given the confines of the harbor might often have been reduced to two turrets. Altogether then, the entire British force would have had around a dozen or so heavy guns available to fire, and about as many 6-inchers. Spee's squadron would have had broadsides of 10 8-inchers and eight 5.9-inch guns, well-served. Given the demonstrated speed and accuracy of the German gunners, a very even fight. None of the British ships in the actual battle much distinguished themselves in the gunnery department, so there's little reason to think they'd have shot better under the duress of being caught in harbor.

So why didn't Spee attack? He had already demonstrated repeatedly that he was an aggressive, fighting admiral. Unfortunately, we can;t be sure, because he didn't survive the battle. No one the flagship did. And few did aboard the other German cruiser, either.

Here Brose proffers a reason I haven't seen mentioned in other accounts, and I can't tell from his notes on his sources whether he has a witness saying this, or whether it's another fictionalization. In any case, he blames  a case of miss-identification

According to Brose, the British battle-cruisers were spotted and correctly identified by the gunnery officer on the Gneisenau, but the captain of the Gneisenau refused to believe the report, passing on the Spee the erroneous report that the ships were Queen-class pre-dreadnoughts. Believing that the British force were slow, old battleships, Spee decided to simply slip away from shipos that could not chase him. This gave the British the chance to raise steam unmoloested and give chase and by the time Spee discovered thre truth, there was little he could do.

Yet even then the battle was not completely hopeless, Brose says. He points out that the battle-cruisers were, in fact, quite vulnerable to catastrophic loss. Indeed, the HMS Invincible herself, along with two other British battle-cruisers, would blow up during the Battle of Jutland a year-and-half later. According to Brose's account there was at least one close call from a German cruiser hit at the Falklands as well. A lucky German hit that destroyed one of the battle-cruiser might have changed the complexion of the battle immediately.

So, does Brose have a point? Could Spee have won at the Falklands?

It's the nature of counterfactuals that a definitive answer is not possible, but unlike the Carhart book on Gettysburg I criticized earlier, Brose seems to stick closely to the realities of time, space, tactics and weapons effects. Nearly all his speculative forays involve human decision and choices made between plausible alternatives.

It's my hope to take a look at the Brose's what-ifs in the future. I'm busy collecting the necessary ships to refight Coronel and the Falklands , including some of Brose's what-ifs.


  1. Seth:

    From what I remember reading in Robert Massie's Castles of Steel, Spee had used about half of his ammunition at Coronel, and was hoping to somehow make a run through the blockade to reunite with the High Seas Fleet. He may have been hoping to save his ammunition for such an attempt.

  2. Interesting review, and I look forward to seeing the final game product. I'm writing mainly to say that Gneisenau's gunnery office, Busche, who saw the battle cruisers, and whose remark was deemed incredible by his captain, is referenced in Richard Hough's The Pursuit of Admiral von Spee, but I don't have a page number now, the book isn't here on my desk.