Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914, the German East Asiatic Squadron left its Chinese home port of Tsingtao on a three-month cruise. After the occupation of its base by the British and their allies the squadron was forced to cross the Pacific. Led by Vice Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee, the five cruisers – including the powerful Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – aimed to disrupt and destroy Allied shipping and secure supplies of coal and ammunition.

Four British cruisers under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock met Spee’s squadron off the coast of Chile as the sun set on 1 November 1914. Old and underpowered, waterlogged by heavy seas, and manned largely by reservists, they faced improbable odds against excellent German gunnery. Cradock’s flagship Good Hope was hit before she could open fire and was destroyed within half an hour. Although two British ships escaped, Monmouth struggled on for two hours before sinking in the darkness.

There were no survivors from either vessel: more than 1,650 sailors were lost. The Royal Navy resolved to avenge its first defeat for 100 years by hunting down Spee’s ships which had passed through the Straits of Magellan into the South Atlantic.

On 8 December 1914, the raiders approached Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, intending to attack its valuable wireless and coaling facilities. Instead they encountered a strong Royal Naval force under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee, including the formidable battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible, four armoured and two light cruisers. Unable to match their speed or strength, Spee’s squadron was pursued in the bright morning sunshine. Just after 1pm, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau turned to face the British guns.

Within three hours Scharnhorst was on fire before rolling over, flag high and propellers turning, to slip beneath the waves with all hands. Little more than an hour later, Gneisenau was shattered, flooded and ablaze. Her crew opened torpedo tubes and detonated charges on her hull. She slowly sank, while those on Invincible’s deck stood to attention in silence. Some 200 German survivors were hauled from the water and captured, but more than 1,800 sailors perished off the Falklands, among them Von Spee. The remaining cruisers were chased and sunk by dusk, except Dresden which was discovered off Chile the following March.

Eleven British seamen and marines were killed or died later of wounds as a result of the action.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Stanley Cemetery on the Falkland Islands contains the graves and memorials of more than 30 British servicemen of both world wars. Nine of those buried in the cemetery where laid to rest by the officers and men of HMS Kent who also erected a memorial which stands alongside the graves of their comrades.