"In no other naval engagement of the Great War was there such a satisfying and decisive victory for the British. It more than made up for the defeat off Coronel, and the Grand Fleet in the North Sea was not able to repeat the South Atlantic success."
(Captain J.D. Allen, HMS Kent)
In December 1914, the Far East Naval Squadron of the German Imperial Fleet faced a British naval squadron at the Falkland Islands. The Germans received the worst of the encounter; Admiral Maximilian von Spee lost his life, sinking along with his ship, the SMS Scharnhorst. The event closed a short but fascinating epic starring Spee and his sailors.
Born in Copenhagen the 22nd of June 1861, Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubert Graf von Spee spent his career in the German Imperial Navy, in which he enlisted at the age of 17. In the years preceding the outbreak of the Great War he was named Major Chief of Staff of the North Sea Command in 1908, Rear Admiral in 1910, and Commander of the Far East Naval Squadron in 1912. The squadron was deployed at the port of Tsingtao, in China. Spee's command included two battleships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and three light battleships, the Emden, the Nuernberg and the Leipzig.
The goal of the Tsingtao naval squadron was to protect German commercial interests in the East and establish a rapid intervention force in case commercial convoys needed help. Spee was seen to be competent and capable of having friendly relations with the surrounding Asian countries, in particular China and Japan. The outbreak of the conflict in Europe, however, placed him in a particularly difficult position. Their naval group was reduced and the British, Japanese and Australian marines constituted a constant threat to their survival.
At the beginning of the conflict, the naval group was fragmented and the ships were used in various routine operations. Tsingtao was vulnerable and could not be considered a safe port. To worsen the situation, the British fleet had eliminated the underwater cables that allowed communications with Germany. Spee decided to unite the fleet at the Mariana Islands, and then attempt to find a route toward Germany. He counted on the pro-German sympathies of a South American country, such as Chile, to provide necessary supplies to face the Atlantic. Meanwhile, he authorized one of the fleet’s light battleships, the Emden commanded by von Mueller, to launch a solitary mission to raid commercial routes in the Indian Ocean. The initial successes were encouraging, intercepting 29 ships and sinking those that belonged to Alliance countries. In a daring mission in November of 1914, von Mueller’s vessel managed to infiltrate the British port of Penang, in northern Malaysia, sinking the Russian battleship Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet.
After a raid in French Polynesia and supplying itself with coal at Easter Island, the German naval squadron decided to round Cape Horn and head toward the Atlantic. At that moment, the only loss was the light battleship Geier, sent to Hawaii to collect information, unable to join the fleet due to mechanical problems. In November 1914, the German squadron met the Coronel, with the British West Indies naval squadron. The Germans had the best of the battle that followed, sinking the battleships HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth. In the same month, however, the Japanese conquered the port of Tsingtao.
Despite the clear technical inferiority of the German naval squadron, their successes in the piracy campaign attracted the attention of the British Navy, which decided to end the activities of von Spee. Two new battleships, equipped with innovative weapons and improved manoeuvrability, were sent to the Falkland Islands to set a trap for Spee.
In an attempt to reach the Atlantic to attempt the route to Europe, Spee decided to attack the British port at the Falkland Islands to destroy the telegraph station and load a further supply of coal. Unfortunately for the German naval group, the new British battleships, commanded by Admiral Sturdee, were in the port for supplies. The encounter ended the epic of Spee and his small naval group, and the German officer went down with his ship.