In a crushing victory, a German naval squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee sinks two British armored cruisers with all aboard off the southern coast of Chile on November 1, 1914, in the Battle of Coronel.
World War I broke out on the European continent in August 1914; within months, it had spread by sea across the globe to South America. Previously stationed in the western Pacific, near China, Spee’s small East Asia Squadron made the two-month journey to Chile after Japan entered the war on August 22 and it was determined that the Germans could not stand up to the Japanese navy in the region. Neutral Chile, with its sizeable population of German immigrants and its ready supply of coal, would be a safer base from which to launch attacks against British shipping interests.
After eluding a large number of Japanese, British and Australian ships on its way, Spee’s ships encountered a British squadron commanded by Sir Christopher Cradock in the late afternoon of November 1, 1914. The Germans, with their newer, lighter ships, took quick advantage, opening fire at 7 pm. Cradock’s flagship, the Good Hope, was hit before its crew could return fire; it sank within half an hour. The Monmouth followed two hours later, after attempting to withdraw and being sunk by the light cruiser Nurnberg. No fewer than 1,600 British sailors, including Cradock himself, perished along with the two ships; it was the Royal Navy’s worst defeat in more than a century.
The quicker British ship Glasgow escaped the fray and fled south to warn another of Cradock’s ships, the Canopus, stationed in the Falkland Islands, of Spee’s proximity. In response, the British dispatched two battle cruisers, Inflexible and Invincible, from its Battle Cruiser Squadron in the North Sea. The two ships, commanded by Sir Doveton Sturdee, reached the Falklands on December 7; the following day they exacted their revenge on the aggressive Spee, sinking four German ships–including the Nurnberg and Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst–with 2,100 crew members aboard. Among the dead were Spee and his two sons, Otto and Heinrich. By the end of 1914, the German cruiser threat to Britain’s trade routes had been virtually eliminated; for the duration of the war, Germany’s chief weapon at sea would be its deadly U-boat submarines.