A month after German naval forces led by Admiral Maximilian von Spee inflicted the Royal Navy’s first defeat in a century by sinking two British cruisers with all hands off the southern coast of Chile, Spee’s squadron attempts to raid the Falkland Islands, located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, only to be thwarted by the British navy. Under the command of Admiral Doveton Sturdee, the British seamen sought vengeance on behalf of their defeated fellows.
Spee could have given the Falklands a wide berth, but he brought his fleet close to British squadrons anchored in Cape Pembroke in the Falkland Islands, confident he could outdistance the slow British Dreadnoughts, or big battleships, he saw in the port. Instead, the German light cruisers, damaged by the long voyage and heavy use, soon found themselves pursued by two swift battle cruisers, Inflexible and Invincible, designed by Britain’s famous First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, to combine speed and maneuverability with heavy hitting power.
Inflexible opened fire on the German ships from 16,500 yards, careful to stay outside the range of the German guns. Spee’s flagship, Scharnhorst was sunk first, with the admiral aboard; his two sons, on the Gneisenau and NÜrnberg, also went down with their ships. All told, Germany lost four warships and more than 2,000 sailors in the Falkland Islands, compared with only 10 British deaths.
Historians have referred to the Battle of the Falkland Islands as the most decisive naval battle of World War I. It gave the Allies a huge, much-needed surge of confidence on the seas, especially important because other areas of the war—the Western Front, Gallipoli—were not proceeding as hoped. The battle also represents one of the last important instances of old-style naval warfare, between ships and sailors and their guns alone, without the aid or interference of airplanes, submarines, or underwater minefields.