On 8 December 1914 German Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee, fresh from his victory at the Battle of Coronel in early November, was surprised by a British squadron sent to intercept him.
Spee was en route to destroy the British coaling and communication facilities at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. Unbeknown to him, a British squadron commanded by Vice Admiral F. D. Sturdee had arrived two days earlier and was lying in wait for him.
Spee sighted the British at Port Stanley and ordered his ships to withdraw. Sturdee’s battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible gave chase, supported by armoured cruisers. Spee also found himself under fire from the ageing British battleship Canopus, that had been beached in the harbour to provide a steady gun platform.
The sinking of the German fleet
The Germans were outgunned and the British warships also had the speed advantage. They soon caught up with the retreating German squadron and opened fire.
Spee’s flagship, the Scharnhorst, was the first of the two German armoured cruisers to be sunk. After attempting to turn and close the distance with the British warships, the Scharnhorst received several critical hits. At 16:17 in capsized, taking all the crew down with her into the ice-cold waters, including Spee and his two sons.
As Spee and the Scharnhorst turned around to try and face the pursuing British warships, the German admiral had commanded the Gneisenau, the other armoured cruiser, to disengage and escape. The attempt to flee failed, however, and the British ships sunk the Gneisenau not long after the Scharnhorst had capsized.
In total only 215 German sailors were rescued in time, mostly from the Gneisenau.
Two light cruisers, the Nürnberg and Leipzig, were also sunk, by the armoured cruisers Kent and Cornwall. Spee’s last warship, the light cruiser Dresden, escaped the clash, only to be cornered by British forces three months later and scuttled by her crew.
1,871 German sailors lost their lives during the Battle of the Falklands; the British meanwhile, lost only 10 men.
Victory in the Battle of the Falklands brought a much-needed morale boost to Britain following the embarrassment of defeat at Coronel. As for Spee, his defiance in the face of a superior British fleet turned him into a national hero back home, a martyr who epitomised German bravery and a refusal to surrender.
In 1934, Nazi Germany named a new heavy cruiser after Spee in his honour: Admiral Graf Spee. It was scuttled early on during World War Two after it was defeated by the Royal Navy at the Battle of the River Plate.