Hero of the hour turned tables on German fleet
It was 102 years ago this week that the Royal Navy exacted spectacular revenge on the Imperial German Navy for one of our most embarrassing defeats of the First World War. As former News defence correspondent TIM KING reports, the victory in the South Atlantic came thanks to an admiral from the Meon Valley
THE Royal Navy’s revenge for the defeat at Coronel came little more than a month later on December 8, 1914, when Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee’s squadron was almost annhilated by the British force sent to hunt it down.
Hero of the hour was the C-in-C Atlantic and South Pacific Vice-Admiral Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee, of Meon Lea, Droxford.
Coronel, in which the Royal Navy lost HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope with all hands, was a disaster waiting to happen, as the squadron commander, Rear-Admiral Christopher Craddock, went into the battle off the coast of central Chile, with crews of reservists, outdated and under-armed ships.
Admiral Sturdee’s squadron was in a different league.
When news of Coronel reached the Admiralty, Sturdee was ordered to form a new battle squadron. The 20,000-ton battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible, each with eight 12in and 12 four-inch guns, were deployed from the North Sea Fleet and joined the armoured cruisers Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow, the latter, with the armed merchant cruiser Otranto, having survived Coronel.
The powerful squadron headed for Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, where the armed merchant cruiser Macedonia and the old battleship Canopus, which had to be beached in the harbour nearby, were waiting.
Canopus (12,950 tons) had been built in Portsmouth and completed in 1900, but by 1914 was outdated, very slow, continually broke down and did not take part in the Battle of Coronel, where her four 12in guns might have been useful.
Von Spee, meantime, had been persuaded by his captains to go to Port Stanley to replenish his coal supplies from the British base and then destroy the wireless station, not knowing that he was on a collision course with Sturdee’s squadron.
Canopus, which lay hidden by a hill and was not seen by Von Spee’s squadron which had been spotted by civilians heading to Port Stanley, surprised the Germans by firing the opening shots of the battle, buying time for the British fleet which was in the process of coaling ship and could have been caught with its bellbottoms down.
Amazingly, the coal bunker ship was one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, the SS Great Britain, which was launched by Prince Albert in 1843 and had to be scuttled in Sparrow Cove in the Falklands in 1886. She is now, of course, fully restored and sits in Bristol docks.
Coincidentally, her connection with the Royal Navy was reignited three months into the Second World War.
Almost 25 years to the day after the Battle of the Falklands, the powerful German pocket battleship Graf Spee was on the loose in the South Atlantic and her commanding officer, Captain Langsdorff, considered it an appropriate time for revenge, but the Battle of the River Plate on December 13, 1939 turned into another Graf Spee defeat.
The cruiser that bore the brunt of the damage in that engagement, HMS Exeter, had to put back to Port Stanley for repairs and some of the SS Great Britain’s ironwork was used to make her seaworthy.
Back to December 8, 1914. This time, it was Admiral Graf von Spee’s turn to be totally out-gunned and out-manoeuvred by a superior force with more modern ships and well-trained crews. He had also depleted supplies of ammunition, having used half of it at Coronel and been unable to replace it.
The battle turned into a stern chase as one by one the German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Nürnberg were caught and sunk. Only Dresden escaped, but ironically she was cornered off Chile on March 14, 1915 by Glasgow – which had escaped from her at Coronel – and so badly damaged that the crew scuttled her.
In the Battle of the Falklands, the Germans lost 1,871 men including Admiral Graf von Spee and both his sons.
Admiral Sturdee returned to his Droxford home in triumph and the village turned out to greet him when he was given a presentation at Droxford Station. His wife was given a large bouquet.
He later went on to command the 4th Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when his former Falklands flagship Invincible blew up and sank with the loss of 1,026 lives. He was knighted with the KCMG in 1916, promoted Admiral in 1917 and Admiral of the Fleet in 1921, when Parliament awarded him £10,000 with its thanks.
Not everybody thought him a hero. One biographer said he ‘never grasped the higher demands of war’ and that his victory in the Falklands was ‘both ironic and fortunate’, blaming him squarely for the defeat at Coronel in his then very short-lived tenure as Chief of the War Staff immediately before that battle.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver, then Director of the Intelligence Division, wrote that Sturdee was ‘a pompous man who would never listen to anyone else’s opinion. I could not stick him.’
But Portsmouth and the nation will be eternally indebted to him as the man who saved HMS Victory.
After he retired to Wargrave House, Camberley, Sturdee became President of the Society of Nautical Research, declaring his main aim was to preserve Victory which had been kept afloat in Portsmouth Harbour for various purposes since decommissioning 110 years earlier.
Nelson’s great flagship was in a sorry state of neglect and was almost scrapped after being holed in 1903 when HMS Neptune broke free and collided with her at the start of a tow to the breaker’s yard.
It was largely due to Sturdee that on January 12, 1922, she was moved from her moorings into No2 dry dock and he lived long enough to see the never-ending task of preserving her begin.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee, Baronet of the Falklands, died on May 7, 1925 at Camberley.
He was given a funeral with full naval honours. An overnight vigil was held over his coffin in St Paul’s Church, eight admirals acted as pall bearers, a 120-strong detachment from HMS Excellent fired a salute and six horses pulled the gun carriage on which the coffin was taken to nearby St Peter’s churchyard, Frimley, for burial.
A memorial window was installed in St Paul’s Church where he worshipped.
Amazingly, May 7, 2016, also marked the 251st anniversary of the launch at Chatham of Nelson’s flagship and he would surely agree it’s a fitting tribute to another admiral who did his duty that his gravestone in St Peter’s churchyard at Frimley is marked by a cross made from Victory’s timbers.