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September 21, 2019

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Combat Information Center

Old Soldier's Story - Otto von Spee Writes Home about the Battle of Coronel

In 1912 Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee assumed command the German Far Eastern Squadron, based in the colony of Tsing-tao, on the Shantung Peninsula, in China. Composed of the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, two of the fastest ships in the world, with enviable records in marksmanship, as well as the protected cruisers Emden, Leipzig, and Nürenberg, the squadron was supposed to look after German interests in the Pacific. When World War I broke out, Spee sent Emden to raid British shipping in the Indian Ocean, and then headed across the Pacific, towards Cape Horn.

On November 1, 1914, the German squadron, joined by the cruiser Dresden, encountered a weaker British squadron off Cape Coronel, Chile. The German armored cruisers, faster and with greater firepower, engaged the British ships. The latter attempted to break off contact. As the smaller, slower, and weaker British ships tried to flee, the Germans pursued relentlessly. In less than an hour virtually the entire British squadron had been annihilated. Soon afterwards, the German squadron put in at a Chilean port, where it received orders to return home to Germany via Cape Horn.

A few hours after the Battle of Coronel, Lieutenant Otto von Spee, the son of the admiral, who was serving in Nürenberg, wrote a letter home in which he recounted the details of the recent engagement.

About 6:30 p.m. we sighted some smoke and a quarter of an hour later we saw flashes of guns in the twilight. We were soon able to distinguish the two lines: ours to the right with reddish fire, the English to the left with lighter colored whitish fire from the muzzles of their. guns. The darker it got the brighter these flashes appeared. On board our ship there was great anxiety as to who the enemy was, what his strength was, and the result of our, and the enemy's fire. About 7:15 we could make out masts and funnels, but not yet the number of ships engaged. Nor were we quite sure which was friend and which foe. Suddenly there was a terrible explosion. For several seconds we saw a glowing column in which white objects moved. It must have been a terrible sight nearer by. With breathless anxiety we awaited the Scharnhorst's next signals, from which to draw our conclusions as regarded the situation.

Then Scharnhorst made the general call sign and all ships replied simultaneously. We thus knew that the explosion had not occurred in one of our ships, and when soon afterwards the Scharnhorst ordered the light cruisers ahead for a torpedo attack, proceeding herself with Gneisenau at 17 knots, we knew that the action had been crowned with victory for our side. Still, we all felt rather depressed, as we had only acted as spectators. We now tried to join in the chase at our utmost speed. The moon was shining brightly, but rain squalls obscured our view from time to time. The wind was blowing from the south with a force of from 5 to 8, and as we were " pile-driving " against it at 21 knots the seas were coming continuously over the forecastle and into the conning tower. Scharnhorst, had ordered a general chase after the flying enemy, saying that both his Armoured cruisers were severely damaged, but that a light cruiser appeared to be practically intact. We thus heard that our big cruisers had had to do not only with the light cruiser Glasgow, but with her consorts, the Armoured cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth. A later wireless message told us that the armed merchant cruiser Otranto had also been present at first, but had sheered out after the third salvo and made off. About 7:45 we observed the last shots, after which we saw nothing more. About 8:5 the look out reported a column of smoke on the starboard bow, for which we at once steered. At first it seemed to approach, then the vessel steamed away from us at speed, for although we were going 21 knots she rapidly disappeared in the darkness. During the chase we had occasionally observed a cruiser looking something like the Leipzig or Emden, steering at first a parallel course to us, about two miles on the starboard beam, but then keeping away. When the other, fellow got away from us we turned to the second and found it to be the Monmouth, heavily damaged. She had a list of about 10 degrees to port. As we came nearer she heeled still more, so that she could no longer use her guns on the side turned towards us. We opened fire at short range. It was terrible for me to have to fire on the poor fellow who was no longer able to defend himself. But the colors were still flying and when we ceased fire for several minutes, he yet did not haul them down. So we ran up for a fresh attack and caused him to capsize by our gun fire. The ship sank with flying colors and we were unable to save a single man, firstly on account of the heavy sea, which made it impossible to lower a boat, but also because fresh columns of smoke were reported, which we hoped were enemies and for which we at once steered. Eventually we found they were our own big cruisers, also looking for the enemy.

After successfully rounding Cape Horn, on December 8, 1914, von Spee decided to raid the British-held Falkland Islands. There they encountered the British battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, with several other vessels, which outclassed the German squadron as much as it had outclassed the ships overwhelmed off Coronel. All but one of the German ships was lost, and thousands a men killed, among them the admiral, and both his sons, Otto and Heinz; British losses were six dead and 20 wounded.

 

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