Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
'Twere enough had these steel leviathans
Been satisfied with one feast of prey;
They staid too long,
Now came a song
Of vengeance from the landlocked bay;
Great guns roared; they fled dismayed,
Before steel craft, still swifter made—
And in a breath
They'd met their death
And for their boldness dearly paid.
At the outbreak of the World War, in the summer of 1914, the British Grand Fleet at once took its position in Scotch waters facing the German ports. Here they did valiant work all through four long years of the struggle, completely shutting in all German craft except submarines, and rendering the power of the German navy practically harmless.
But when hostilities were declared there were, as usual at the beginning of all wars, war vessels and merchantmen of the various nations involved scattered here and there over the seas and in many ports. Among the few fighting ships Germany had away from home waters at this time was the squadron of Admiral Von Spee, which included the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau,—two very swift and powerful battle-cruisers,—as well as the Nurnberg, the Dresden, and the Leipzig, destroyers. This squadron was caught, by the edict of war, in the waters of the South Pacific. So quick had been the action of Great Britain in blockading Germany's coast that Von Spee found there was little chance for him to run into a home port had he chosen; but this did not greatly bother him, as he wished to strike some telling blows upon the enemy's interests before he left his present stalking grounds, and thought he would really have no trouble to get into a German harbor when the necessity finally arose.
Within a very short time, however, he began to think he might have his hands full. One day his wireless brought him word that Japan had joined forces with the enemy, and that a Japanese fleet was even then about to start out to look him up. As he had every good reason to avoid meeting the powerful Japanese flotilla, Von Spee made haste to strike his blows and get out of the locality. By diligent use of his wireless he gathered his far flung ships together in record time, and made for the coast of Chili, having learned by the same means of communication from German agents in Ecuador and Colombia that some victims awaited him at Coronel.
At Coronel, in the meantime, Admiral Cradock, of the British Royal Navy, had been lying in harbor with some very decrepit and poorly equipped warships. This squadron consisted of the antiquated battle-cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope, also the Glasgow and the Canopus, the latter second rate light-cruisers.
Admiral Cradock, outnumbered and without the ghost of a show in the beginning, put up a valiant fight when the two squadrons met. But the result was inevitable. The short and bitter fight witnessed the complete defeat of the British, the brave Cradock going down with his flag ship, only the Canopus and the Glasgow managing to escape.
Britain for a moment was dazed; the Admiralty was blamed not only by the public of England but by the governments and publics of her Allies. It was declared by one and all that poor Cradock should never have been permitted to be so far away from home with such wretched ships; and the Admiralty, nodding reluctantly, at once put the entire blame on Vice Admiral Sturdee, Chief of the War Staff, who, from his office in London, had had control of the ill-fated squadron in the South Pacific. This almost broke poor Sturdee's heart, for he had done the best he could; if Cradock had not been given better and more ships it was because he had thought they were more urgently needed elsewhere. He made up his mind that in only one way could he vindicate himself in the eyes of his compatriots and the Allies; he must, rather than throw off responsibility, take more on; he must cause a disaster to German naval craft that would compensate doubly for their victory over Cradock's squadron.
Under the light of incandescents, great maps of war glare white upon the walls. Like sheets of a woman's washing hung out to dry, they touch corner to corner around the big room. Benches, just below, make it possible for man to reach them—to insert and to withdraw any one of the scores of black blobs and little flags that stick into them, representing the positions of the four thousand ships whose movements are all under the instant beck and call of this room, though they may be thousands of miles away.
The shades are drawn. Not a ray of light leaks out of the strange apartment into the murk of the darkened streets of London—a London of startling, death-like quiet, a London hiding itself from the Zeppelin nighthawks of the enemy. Here in the innermost room of the new wing of the Admiralty building at Whitehall, is the "Chamber of Strategy" of the British War Staff. It is the real nerve center of the British Royal Navy.
Wireless telegraphy has transformed the Nelsons of to-day into mere subordinates. Their orders, even in the heat of battle, do not come from the deck of the flag-ship, but from the desk of an office in the heart of London, far, far away. When a squadron moves on the seas, it also moves on the huge map on the wall, be it British, American, German or Austrian. The moment a ship is destroyed by storm or battle, the tiny flag representing it on the map disappears with it. There is no roar of big guns at the Admiralty, no smoke of battle; and yet there is no lack of excitement, no lack of dramatic interest.
Just imagine yourself present at one of these tense moments—for instance, in the month of November, 1914. Little sparks of blue have not long ceased spitting out their message of the wiping out of Cradock's squadron at Coronel. All England is demanding naval revenge. Everybody looks sullenly at Admiral Sturdee.
A door of the inner chamber jerks open, a clatter of typewriters comes through, clerks are seen running hither and thither with baskets of letters. In bolts a heavy-set man, with square jaw and gray hair, and a plentiful display of gold braid bands almost to his elbow. This is Lord Fisher, Admiral of the Fleets, active master mind of all the British fighting ships. From him every fleet and squadron admiral must get his orders. It is chiefly to this strong man that Great Britain owes the wonderful strength of her present navy. At seventy-four he is the biggest man with the biggest job in the United Kingdom.
As Lord Fisher enters the chamber there is a growl from the square jaws, a savage snap of the teeth. He looks for all the world as if he were a bull just pricked by the picador's darts. He is thinking of Cradock. Poor Admiral Sturdee knows that well enough, and he feels none too easy as he beckons the First Sea Lord up to the table where he and his fellow junior officers have been gravely discussing some maps and plans. Scattered near are diverse mechanical drawing instruments and mathematical notations.
Admiral Sturdee directs the attention of Lord Fisher to these plans, and says a few words briefly. The gruff chief's eyes lighten up for a moment, a few of the scowling wrinkles thin out along his brow. But only for a moment, then he snarls out: "Fine enough plans, Sturdee! Why don't you carry them out yourself?"
"Will you let me?" cries Sturdee.
Sturdee's chance to redeem himself has come. Von Spee's ships had better watch out! Without a moment's delay Sturdee sits down and writes out his own orders to the commander of the British squadron which is to wreak vengeance for Admiral Cradock. The battle-cruisers are under repair. But no matter; the workmen can be taken along to complete their jobs while the vessels are under way, to be dropped off at the first coaling point!
It is touch and go. At the break of the signal the course is laid down the South American coast. A fight hovers near. There are great differences between the naval conditions of to-day and those of a hundred years ago. These lie in the greater speed of ships, in the longer range of guns, in the menace of the torpedo as fired from destroyers and submarines, in the menace of mines, and in the use of aircraft scouts, and of wireless telegraphy. In the Napoleonic era the ships, of wood, had a speed fully ten times slower than now, even under the most favorable conditions for them; and half the time they could not move at all owing to lack of wind. To-day the fastest destroyers will easily make twenty-five knots an hour in anything but the very roughest of weather. Then ships could not damage an enemy farther away than eight thousand yards; the vessels of to-day will sink an enemy at twenty-two thousand yards, or over eleven nautical miles' range. The torpedo is effective up to ten thousand yards, and this requires that a ship shall keep beyond this distance in order to be safe from this sort of peril.
From this it will be seen that the day of boarding and close-quarters fighting is a thing of the past. Practically all modern fighting is done at a distance of from one thousand to two thousand yards, preferably fifteen hundred, at which distance gun fire is very effective and the enemy can be plainly seen, in fair weather, with the naked eye.
To the east of the southern portion of South America lies the British group known as the Falkland Islands. On the larger of these islands—East Falkland—the British have a powerful wireless station. It was word from this station which had caused Admiral Sturdee, in London, to gulp with sudden joy, and forthwith prepare plans to visit it. The intelligence had come from a lady and her servants who lived on the island. This bright woman, whose home was on a high elevation and who possessed a strong glass, declared that she had recently seen several ships out at sea which she was quite sure were German and belonged to Von Spee's squadron. As the Glasgow and the Canopus, which had escaped from Von Spee in the fight off Coronel, had sought refuge in the harbor of Port Stanley, East Falkland, it was concluded that either the German admiral was in search of these or intended a general attack on the Falklands themselves.
The truth is, Von Spee had it up his sleeve to kill two birds with one stone. His scouts, which the lady had observed, had discovered the Glasgow and the Canopus in their places of refuge, and now it was the commander's intention to bombard the town and sink the two ships at the one operation.
We may judge then of his surprise when he came around Cape Horn only to find that in the meantime eight additional British warships had slipped into the harbor, and were waiting calmly to receive him. So swiftly and so secretly had every movement of Admiral Sturdee's been made that, for once at least, German intelligence efficiency had gone awry—as it did many a time later on during the war, despite scientific intrigue and the most extensive spy system the world has ever known.
It was about half-past nine in the morning that the German ships, Gneisenau and Nurnberg leading, and not yet having discovered the true situation, drew near to Port Stanley Harbor with their heavy guns trained on the tall wireless tower. Between them and the harbor was a long, low stretch of land running eastward, behind which lay the Canopus and the Glasgow. Suddenly the Germans were astonished to find themselves the target for a smart fire which swept across this low ground at a range of about six miles!
The two foe ships stopped, considered; then evidently deeming discretion the better part of valor, hoisted their colors and turned away. About the same time H.M.S. Invincible sighted other hostile ships nine or ten miles distant. At once signals went up from the British flag-ship ordering all ships to form in battle line and move forward to meet the enemy. As the squadron proceeded all five of Von Spee's ships could be plainly seen to the southeast. The day was fine, with a calm sea, a bright sun, a clear sky, and a light breeze from the northwest.
Careful observation of the German vessels soon made it apparent that they were afraid of an engagement, and were doing their best to get out of the neighborhood. Instead of bows forward, as at the beginning, sterns stared the British sailors in the face. The foe was running—running for dear life.
The British sea-dogs fairly bayed at this, like hounds after a fleeing fox. It would never do to be cheated of their prey like this—never! If the Grand Fleet up in the North Sea could not coax out the boastful German High Seas Fleet for a respectable little set-to, here at least they had a bunch of German craft where a protecting palisade of cowardly mines did not come between! Run, Von Spee! Dig in, Von Spee! If your legs are more nimble than Britain's, all well and good; if not—
Two signals run up on Admiral Sturdee's flag-ship, the Invincible. One says, "God save the King!" The other reads, "Give chase to the enemy!" A mighty cheer swells up from the decks of the five British warships; the sailors tumble over one another in their efforts to perform the duties the officers are calling out; the speed of the heavy ships increases noticeably.
It is a stern chase, for the enemy vessels too are swift and well-handled. But slowly the space between the two flying squadrons decreases. The destroyers, fleetest of all the ships, sway from side to side dizzly, the sea dashing over their fore decks in great roaring sheets, as they plunge along their way. Their crews on deck cling to objects as they work, to prevent being slithered off into the sea and lost; and in the wardroom officers studying charts are lashed to their seats so that they can hold their papers in both hands without being thrown across the cabin.
Through it all Admiral Sturdee stands on the bridge of his flag-ship with quickened pulse and eager heart. More than half the time his glass is at his eyes. Each time he drops it those eyes express greater satisfaction. Finally, a little past noon, he notes that he is within suitable range of the enemy. He decides to open the attack with the Invincible, the Inflexible, and the Glasgow. How the officers and crew of the last named vessel, especially, have longed for this moment! Forced to see their weak sister ships hammered to pieces before their very eyes, under Cradock a few weeks before, now they will have a chance for a sweet revenge.
The signal goes up, "Engage the enemy." It is the Inflexible that gets in the first shot, followed a minute later by the Invincible. Their big fifteen-inch guns jar the decks when they go off, but the men are used to this and pay no attention. The range is about eight miles—a little closer than necessary and within the danger zone of torpedoes, but Sturdee is eager to wind matters up quickly. The water spouts up a hundred feet in the air, showing that the shells have missed. Almost immediately the enemy replies, and similar jets of water shoot up a half-mile beyond the British.
The British ships now work around and fire a salvo of their heavy pieces, followed by their lighter batteries. Two of the German squadron give evidence of distress. A cheer goes up aboard the Invincible and the Glasgow. Then they notice that three of the hostile ships are making off to the eastward. Without further ado, the Glasgow, the Cornwall, and the Kent take up the chase.
While this pursuit is going on let us consider the movements of the heavier craft.
The Invincible engages Von Spee himself in his flag-ship, the Scharnhorst, and the Inflexible looks after the Gneisenau. These two German ships, after their temporary slowing up, now begin to make full speed away from the scene, and the fight that goes on is made while all vessels are under considerable headway. Sturdee and his crew are just as determined as ever that the foe flag-ship shall not get away.
Presently a good shot carries away the after funnel of the Scharnhorst. A few minutes later, the men in the foretop report that she is on fire. What a cheer goes up! But it is as nothing to that which arises a little later when the flames can be seen from dock, and great clouds of smoke arise, mixed with billows of white steam. The guns of the German, however, still roar forth, but at far longer intervals than before.
Shortly another shell bores its way into her hull, tearing a great ragged gap through which the British can see the red glow of the furnace of flames that is fast eating out the entrails of the doomed vessel. As she begins perceptibly to settle, however, her courageous crew continue to use those of her guns that are still undamaged. It is a brave effort that even the pursuers admire, hated as the Germans are, and a faint cheer goes up involuntarily from more than one Jack Tar's throat.
The Invincible realizes her present task is done. She turns her attention to assisting the Inflexible punish the Gneisenau, which has already been pretty well shot up, but is still making good speed and using her guns as she runs. By five o'clock she also has lost a funnel, and is on fire in several places. And yet, displaying the same heroism as her sister ship she struggles on her course, while her batteries continue to thunder out their defiance with constantly decreasing effectiveness, finally resorting to her last gun. An hour later she keels over and sinks. Here is an entry in the diary of one of her officers, taken after his rescue: "5:10, Hit, hit! 5:12, Hit! 5:14, Hit, hit, hit! 5:20, After turret gone. 5:40, Hit, hit! On fire everywhere. 5:41, Hit, hit! Flames breaking through all over. Sinking. 5:45, Hit! Men nearly half killed. 5:46, Hit, hit!"
After the last entry the officer evidently had something else to do than make notes in his diary. In the meantime boats had been lowered from the Invincible and the Inflexible, life-buoys and ropes were thrown to the unfortunates who could not be immediately reached, and in this way about three hundred of the Germans were saved, including the captain of the Inflexible. Admiral Von Spee went down with his ship apparently, as he could not be found among the saved.
While this action was going on the Glasgow and the Cornwall had fought and sunk the Leipzig. Like the other German craft she took fire fore and aft, and as the shades of night were closing in, she turned over on her port side and disappeared. None of her crew was saved, so sudden was her plunge into the depths.
ADMIRAL SIR FREDERICK STURDEE
Meanwhile the Kent was dealing with the Nurnberg, experiencing a long chase on account of the fact that she had very little fuel. When the stokers had done their best, and worked the ship up well above her official rate of speed, they reported that there was practically no coal left. This was bad news. It looked as if the Nurnberg would surely get away, for without fuel the Kent must soon begin to slow down and eventually stop altogether.
But the captain was equal to the occasion. He suggested breaking up the boats! No sooner mentioned than done. The small craft were taken from their davits and broken into bits, and fed to the hungry furnace. Even more, as it was seen additional wood was required, officers' chairs, chests, ladders,—everything which would burn and could be spared was given to the ax and fed into power. To make the flames hotter oil was put on the precious fuel.
In this way, and only in this way, did they gain on the Nurnberg sufficiently to round her up with their guns. She was riddled with shot, and went down like a lump of lead. As the ship sank the British sailors saw a group of men waving a German ensign fastened to a staff. The next moment they were swallowed up forever, but their heroic conduct was such as to make any enemy feel a tug of admiration and compassion in his heart for his adversary, no matter how bitter his natural attitude. Only five of the crew were picked up from this ship.
Of all the five German warships only one escaped. This was the fast light-cruiser Dresden, whose good luck was due entirely to the approach of evening and the shield of darkness. But this loss was more than made up at midnight, when Admiral Sturdee received a wireless message from H.M.S. Bristol to the effect that during the action two enemy transports had been destroyed near the Falklands.
On the whole it was a signal victory for the British. Moreover it was a great revenge. And to one man—he who engineered it—it brought a great blessing. Sturdee went back to the War Office in London with the heavy smirch that had beclouded his reputation gone completely—erased by his own gallant exploit. The Admiralty, London, England, all the Allies and all the Neutrals, paid him homage. He had redeemed himself nobly.
As for Sturdee himself, he stepped up to one of the great maps on the wall and plucked therefrom five tiny German flags that had been marking the vicinity of the Falkland Islands.
So Cradock and his gallant band did not die in vain. His defeat made a great moral victory.