The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a naval engagement of the First World War, fought between units of the British and German navies on 8 December 1914.
Fresh from his success at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile, where the German force outgunned British, sinking Admiral Cradock’s flagship in the process, Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s East Asia Cruiser Squadron – whose primary target was merchant and troop shipping in the South Atlantic – sped towards Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. His intention was to raid the British radio station and coaling depot there.
Unknown to Spee however, a British squadron, including two fast, modern battle cruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, were at that same time coaling at Port Stanley, sent by First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher to avenge the British defeat at Coronel.
Each of the British battle cruisers were fitted with eight 12-inch guns, whereas Spee’s SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau each had 8.2-inch guns. The British cruisers were therefore significantly more powerful than Spee’s – and Invincible and Inflexible were accompanied at Port Stanley by five other cruisers, all under the command of Vice Admiral Sturdee. These were the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall and HMS Kent; two light cruisers, HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow; and an old battleship, HMS Canopus, presently grounded at Port Stanley and used as a form of make-shift fortress.
Spee began his attack on 8 December 1914, intending to subsequently refuel north at the estuary of the River Plate. Whilst aware of shipping in the area, he mistakenly assumed them to belong to the Japanese navy.
With his crew battle-weary and his ships out-gunned, the outcome was seemingly inevitable. Realising his danger too late – and having missed the golden opportunity to shell Sturdee’s fleet while in port – Spee and his squadron dashed for the open sea, but at 10am were pursued by the British. Realising that he could not hope to outrun the fast British battle cruisers, Spee decided to bring about an engagement just after 1.20pm.
Despite initial success by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in striking HMS Invincible (commanded by Edward Bingham), and in then resuming a hasty escape, Sturdee managed to bring his powerful cruisers within extreme firing range some forty minutes later.
Four German cruisers were sunk, with Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst sinking rapidly first, followed by Gneisenau, Nurnberg and Leipzig.
Ten British sailors were killed during the battle, while none of the British ships were badly damaged. However 2,200 German sailors were killed or drowned in the encounter, including Admiral Spee and his two sons.
The only German ship to escape was the light cruiser SMS Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before its captain surrendered off the Juan Fernandez Islands on 14 March 1915. Evacuating his ship, he then scuttled it by detonating its main ammunition magazine.
As a consequence of the battle, German commerce raiding on the high seas was brought to an end.