Naval Power in the Present War
PART II: Coronel, Falkland, and Dardanelles Engagements
By Lieutenant Charles C. Gill United States Navy
[The New York Times/Current History, February 1917]
This article is the second in a series contributed to CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE by Lieutenant Gill of the superdreadnought Oklahoma—with the sanction of the United States Naval Department for the purpose of deducing the lessons furnished by the naval events of the European war.
In following the naval developments of the present war it is of interest to note that nothing startling has happened to upset expert predictions, either as to the part sea power would take, or as to which of the belligerent navies would dominate. In the course of the fighting there have not been any great surprises. Generally speaking, results have squared with the degree and kind of naval preparations made by the respective warring nations during the previous years of peace. This war seems to have pretty well exposed the fetich that an untrained citizenry, armed with wonderful inventions supplied on the spur of the moment by native ingenuity, can be depended upon to overcome skilled armies and navies.
Neither an army nor a navy can be improvised, but it is an important difference between them that an army can be prepared more quickly and easily than can a navy. At the outbreak of this war Great Britain's army was small and relatively insignificant, but her powerful fleet was ready. Under the protection of this first line of defense a great army has in two and a half years been recruited from British possessions all over the world, and equipped and trained.
Navies cannot be so readily built up, and, unless there are marked discrepancies between the losses sustained by the belligerents, their relative naval strength will remain about the same. There is always the chance, of course, that one side or the other will hit upon some revolutionizing invention. It does not necessarily follow, because none has appeared in the first two and a half years of the conflict, that none will appear, or even that, had we been a party to the fighting, Yankee ingenuity would not have produced one; but there is, nevertheless, evidence that in shaping a policy of defense it is safer to heed the lessons of experience than to rely upon a mere theory of inventive abilities adequate to meet any situation. The large defense appropriation voted by the recent Congress indicates the attitude of the American people on this point.
The next step is to determine as accurately as possible just what these lessons of the war are. Careful analysis of the battles fought in previous wars has contributed much to naval science. There is, however, by reason of improvements in ships and guns, a continual changing of conditions, which affects the application of strategic and tactical principles. If useful conclusions are to be arrived at, it is advisable, therefore, to examine naval activities of the present war as closely as is possible in the light of all available information. In attempting this, the handicap of insufficient and unreliable data is admitted, but even if some of the premises are slightly in error, still, the inferences drawn will have value so long as they are logical and agree with accepted naval opinion.
Sea Events of Early Months
In the first month of the war there were no big naval battles. Liveliness, however, was shown in numerous ways. On Aug. 6, 1914, the British light cruiser Amphion was sunk by striking a mine in the North Sea. On Sept. 22, 1914, the British armored cruisers Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy, while patrolling in home waters, were sunk by a single German submarine. When the Aboukir was torpedoed, the two sister ships went to her assistance, thereby presenting easy targets to the waiting submarine. By this disaster the obvious lesson was learned that areas near torpedoed ships are dangerous, and should be avoided by large vessels, or at least approached with caution.
In the early months of the war, besides using mines and submarines, both sides were busy mobilizing their fighting strength and making various strategical dispositions of ships and fleets. Incident to this and to commerce destroying carried on in all parts of the world, there were some brisk encounters between single ships and a few minor engagements between cruiser detachments. A noteworthy piece of fighting occurred off Heligoland Bight on Aug. 28, 1914, when the Germans lost three light cruisers and one destroyer, while the British suffered minor damages, without losing any ships.
The chief point of interest in this spirited action is that Admiral Beatty, in supporting his light cruisers and destroyers, dared mines and torpedoes, took six battle cruisers almost under the guns of the German fortress, struck his blow, evaded submarine attacks by manoeuvring, and escaped without losing a ship.
These activities are interesting, and sometimes important in result; but the scope of this paper is limited to a consideration of the more important operations. The first to be taken up is the battle off Coronel, in which a German cruiser squadron defeated a British cruiser squadron.
The Battle Off Coronel
At the beginning of the war the British armored cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth, together with the light cruiser Glasgow and transport Otranto, were in Atlantic waters off the coast of the Americas. These ships rendezvoused off Brazil and proceeded south around Cape Horn, evidently with the mission to find and destroy German vessels. The old battleship Canopus was also in these waters, but apparently did not cruise in company with the other ships because of her inferior speed.
At this time German ships in the Pacific included the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the light cruiser Nürnberg, and the light cruiser Leipzig. These ships in the Pacific, together with the light cruiser Dresden, then in South Atlantic waters, proceeded at the outbreak of the war, apparently in accordance with a prearranged plan, to rendezvous off the coast of Western South America.
Comparing the strategic dispositions of the belligerents in this rather remote theatre of war, it is seen that in the latter part of October, 1914, the British Admiral, Sir Christopher Cradock, had under his command two armored cruisers, one light cruiser, and one battleship, while the German Admiral, Count von Spee, had two armored cruisers and three light cruisers, thus giving the British a superiority of about 8,000 tons in displacement and about 2,200 pounds in weight of broadside. These figures, however, are misleading, because they do not truly measure the fighting values of the two groups. The German ships were newer and their squadron more homogeneous in both guns and speed. The British ships were a heterogeneous collection of less modern vessels, with the principal fighting strength in an old battleship of only sixteen knots speed, which did not get into the engagement at all. With the Canopus out of the battle line, the Germans had considerable advantage in tonnage and in weight of broadside.
The information now available seems to afford evidence of superior strategy on the part of Germany. All the more credit is due on account of Germany's marked inferiority in total of sea power, with consequently greater difficulties confronting Admiral Spee, beset as he was by Japanese squadrons as well as by British squadrons, and without any naval bases in which to seek refuge and comfort.
The movements of these squadrons up to the day of the battle have been considered as strategical because they were in preparation for fighting. We now turn to the tactical phases which have to do with the execution of the fighting.
Positions of Opposing Squadrons
On the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1914, the British squadron was spread out in scouting formation, steaming along the coast of Chile, looking for enemy ships. The light cruiser Glasgow had been dispatched to Coronel to send cables. She left there at 9 A. M., Nov. 1, and while steaming to the northward sighted the German squadron at about 4 P. M. At about 5 P. M. the British ships formed in line ahead, the Good Hope leading, followed by the Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto. The battleship Canopus was about 250 miles to the southward. Admiral von Spee formed his ships in line ahead, the Scharnhorst leading, followed by the Gneisenau, with the Dresden about one mile in the rear and the Nürnberg far behind. At 6:07 P. M. the two squadrons were on nearly parallel southerly courses, about 15,000 yards apart, with the German line inshore.
There was a heavy sea and strong wind from one to two points to the eastward of south, and the German ships were able to make their course a little to the westward of south, bringing this heavy sea on their unengaged bow. On, the other hand, the British carried wind and sea a little on the engaged bow, a marked disadvantage, making their six-inch guns, especially the lower tier, practically useless. It is to be noted that the German 8.2-inch guns were mounted higher and were better for fighting in a seaway. Practically all that the British had to oppose the twelve 8.2-inch guns of the Germans were two old 9.2-inch turret guns on board the Good Hope. An additional disadvantage was that the British ships were silhouetted against the twilight sky, supplying an excellent point of aim for the Germans.
At this time Admiral Cradock was no doubt doing some hard thinking. Should he engage with such big odds against him? There was the Canopus, his main fighting strength, 250 miles to the southward. By bearing off sharply to the westward, even at this late hour, the speeds of the two squadrons were so nearly equal that he could have avoided engaging that night and by morning he could have most likely joined up with the Canopus and fought the battle on a more equal footing. It would be interesting to know what thoughts flashed through the Admiral's mind and what counsels prevailed upon him to make the courageous but fateful decision embodied in his signal to the Canopus at 6:18 P. M., "I am going to attack the enemy now."
Admiral Spee's Report
The two squadrons gradually neared each other on converging courses, and Vice Admiral von Spee describes the battle as follows:
Wind and swell were head on and the vessels had heavy going, especially the small cruisers on both sides. Observation and distance estimation were under a severe handicap because of the seas which washed over the bridges. The swell was so great that it obscured the aim of the gunners at the six-inch guns on the middle deck, who could not see the sterns of the enemy ships at all and the bows but seldom. At 6:20 P. M., at a distance of 13,400 yards, I turned one point toward the enemy, and at 6:34 opened fire at a distance of 11,260 yards. The guns of both our armored cruisers were effective, and by 6:39 already we could note the first hit on the Good Hope. I at once resumed a parallel course instead of bearing slightly toward the enemy.
The English opened their fire at this time. I assume that the heavy sea made more trouble for them than it did for us. Their two armored cruisers remained covered by our fire, while they, so far as could be determined, hit the Scharnhorst but twice and the Gneisenau only four times.
At 6:53, when 6,500 yards apart, I ordered a course one point away from the enemy. They were firing more slowly at this time, while we were able to count numerous hits. We could see, among other things, that the top of the Monmouth's forward turret had been shot away and that a violent fire was burning in the turret. The Scharnhorst, it is thought, hit the Good Hope about thirty-five times.
In spite of our altered course the English changed theirs sufficiently so that the distance between us shrunk to 5,300 yards. There was reason to suspect that the enemy despaired of using his artillery effectively and was manoeuvring for a torpedo attack. The position of the moon, which had risen at 6 o'clock, was favorable to this move. Accordingly I gradually opened up further distances between the squadrons by another deflection of the leading ship at 7:45. In the meantime it had grown dark. The range finders on the Scharnhorst used the fire on the Monmouth as a guide for a time, though eventually all range finding, aiming, and observations became so inexact that firing was stopped at 7:26.
At 7:23 a column of fire from an explosion was noticed between the stacks of the Good Hope. The Monmouth apparently stopped firing at 7:20. The small cruisers, including the Nürnberg, received by wireless at 7:30 the order to follow the enemy and to attack his ships with torpedoes. Vision was somewhat obscured at this time by a rain squall. The light cruisers were not able to find the Good Hope, but the Nürnberg encountered the Monmouth, and at 8:58 was able by shots at closest range to capsize her without a single shot being fired in return. Rescue work in the heavy sea was not to be thought of, especially as the Nürnberg immediately afterward believed she had sighted the smoke of another ship and had to prepare for a new attack.
The small cruisers had neither losses nor damage in the battle. On the Gneisenau there were two men slightly wounded. The crews of the ships went into the fight with enthusiasm, every one did his duty and played his part in the victory.
In concluding the account of this battle it may be said that little criticism can be advanced against the tactics used by Vice Admiral Spee. He appears to have manoeuvred so as to secure the advantage of light, wind, and sea. He also seems to have suited himself as regards the range. The Good Hope and Monmouth were destroyed, the Glasgow had a narrow and lucky escape, while the German losses were two slightly wounded.
Falkland Island Engagement
After the battle off Coronel, while the German squadron coaled at Valparaiso and made its way in no great hurry around Cape Horn, the British were not idle. Within ten days of the receipt of the news of the British disaster in the South Pacific the dreadnought battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible, under command of Vice Admiral Sturdee, were on their way to the Falkland Islands, a wireless and coaling station off the southeast coast of South America. It would appear that Admiral Spee contemplated an attack on the Falklands, and it would also appear that he did not anticipate the vigorous and alert strategy of his enemy. Had he done so he surely would have either tried to time his visit earlier or else have abandoned it entirely.
As a matter of ordinary precaution it seems strange that he did not send a scout ship ahead to reconnoitre, or at least he might have planned to arrive in the late afternoon, which would have given His ships a good chance to escape from a superior force under cover of darkness. On the other hand, little criticism can be made of England's strategy, which provided, on the morning of Dec. 8, when the German squadron hove in sight of the lookout ship off the Falkland harbor entrance, an opposing fighting force at anchor within, consisting of two battle cruisers, the Invincible and Inflexible; three armored cruisers, the Carnarvon, Cornwall, and Kent; the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow, and the predreadnought battleship Canopus.
The German squadron was the same as off Coronel two armored cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and three light cruisers, the Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden.
The total tonnage of the British ships was 87,000 nearly three times that of the German total, which was 35,500, while the total weight of the British broadside was 9,566 kilograms, nearly five times that of the German total, which was 2,032 kilograms.
In addition to the above-mentioned fighting ships, the converted cruiser Macedonia was acting as a lookout ship for the British, and the steamships Baden and Santa Isabel were in the train of the German squadron. The British ships had arrived at 10:30 A. M. the day before and had begun coaling at once. At the time of the engagement the battle cruisers, though not filled up, had plenty of fuel on board, and the fact that they were a little light in draft favored their speed.
At 8 A. M. the German ships were sighted, and orders were given to raise steam for full speed. The high land hid the main British force, and at 9:20 the Gneisenau and the Nürnberg, with guns trained on the wireless station, had closed to within 11,000 yards of the Canopus, which opened fire at them across the low land with her twelve-inch guns. The Germans hoisted their colors and turned away from their hidden foe, but a few minutes later turned to port, as though to close on the Kent, at the entrance of the harbor. Then the British battle cruisers were sighted, and the two German ships altered course and increased their speed to join their consorts.
At 9:45 A. M. the British squadron, less the Bristol, got under way and headed for the German ships, which were clearly in sight hull down. The sea was calm, with a light breeze from the northwest. The visibility was at a maximum, under a bright sun in a clear sky. At 10:20 signal for a general chase was made, but the battle cruisers eased speed to twenty knots, to allow the other cruisers to get in station.
Tactics of the Battle
Three enemy ships, probably transports or colliers, were sighted off Port Pleasant, and the Bristol was ordered to take the Macedonia in company and destroy the transports. It is to be noted that the Bristol, a sister ship to the Glasgow, was faster and better armed than any of the German light cruisers, and was also three and one-half knots faster than the British armored cruisers Carnarvon, Cornwall, and Kent. The reasons for sending a twenty-six-and-one- half-knot ship instead of a twenty-three-knot ship after the transports are not very clear, especially as the Bristol and the Glasgow were the only two ships besides the battle cruisers fast enough to catch the Nürnberg and the Dresden.
The British squadron, as a unit, was not able to close on the German squadron, and at 11:20 Vice Admiral Sturdee decided to attack with his faster ships, the Invincible, Inflexible, and Glasgow. These three all had a speed of twenty-six and one-half knots, and were able to close quickly on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had a speed of only twenty-three and one-half knots. At 12:55 the battle cruisers opened fire on the German light cruiser Leipzig at a range of 16,500 to 15,000 yards. A half hour later the German light cruisers turned to the southwest and spread, in an effort to escape. The armored cruisers Cornwall and Kent and the light cruiser Glasgow gave chase, while the battle cruisers and the Carnarvon kept on after the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Admiral Sturdee kept, for the most part, at a range of between 16,000 and 12,000 yards, destroying the enemy with his twelve-inch guns in rather leisurely fashion, without getting within the effective range of the German 8.2-inch guns. At 4:17 P. M. the Scharnhorst sank, with her flag flying. The Gneisenau kept up the unequal fight, but at 6 P. M. she also sank with her flag flying.
In the chase after the light cruisers the Glasgow was the only ship with superior speed, but she was able to engage the Nürnberg and Leipzig, delaying them enough to give the Cornwall and Kent a chance to get into action. The Leipzig sank at 9 P. M. and the Nürnberg was sunk by the Kent at 7:27 P. M.
The Dresden escaped. Hindsight is always better than foresight, and we should be slow to criticise without knowing full particulars, but one cannot help wondering at the tactical disposition of the Bristol and questioning if the Dresden would have escaped had the Bristol been on hand to help the Glasgow. The Bristol, to be sure, accomplished her assigned mission in destroying the German steamships. But could not the three-knot slower armored cruiser Carnarvon have done this equally well? As it was, the Carnarvon served no useful purpose, and no avail was made of the valuable speed asset of the Bristol.
The British lost nine killed and about the same number wounded. All the German ships except the Dresden were sunk, and only about 200 men were saved from the total complements.
This decisive naval action gave the Allies practically undisputed control of the high seas.
The Dardanelles Operations
Turning now from the South Atlantic to South European waters, the next event to be taken up is the attack on the Dardanelles, an attempt on the part of the Allies to cut off Asia Minor from Turkey, capture Constantinople, and open up ship communication with Russia's Black Sea ports.
If this enterprise had succeeded it would have completely changed the Balkan situation to the advantage of the allied cause; but it failed, and, measured by the losses in ships, in soldiers, and in prestige, it was a costly failure. In view of the confusing tangle of rumors, half-truths and truths, we had better not try to look too closely at the details, but rather limit our present discussion to the broader and more general aspects of the operations.
The allied fleet at the Dardanelles included the British ships, one superdreadnought, one battle cruiser, sixteen predreadnoughts, and nine cruisers; seven French predreadnoughts, three French cruisers, and one Russian cruiser. Altogether, a powerful fleet of twenty-four battleships and fourteen cruisers, with attending destroyers, submarines, and auxiliaries. It is reported that later this fleet was reinforced by monitors and cruisers especially fitted to resist mines and torpedoes.
Just what the plan of attack was is not very clear. In fact, there seems to have been a lack of definite plan, or, if there was one, it may be that unity of action was lacking. There is a report that miscarriage in the arrangements for collecting and transporting troops caused much delay. Finally, it appears to have been decided to make an attempt to dominate the forts with the gunfire of the fleet.
On March 18, 1915, a violent attack was begun, in which three battleships were lost and other vessels damaged. The Commander in Chief, Vice Admiral Garden, had been incapacitated by illness two days before the attack. His successor, Vice Admiral de Robeck, made this significant report on the day following the attack: "The power of the fleet to dominate the fortresses by superiority of fire seems to be established. Various other dangers and difficulties will have to be encountered, but nothing has happened which justifies the belief that the cost of the undertaking will exceed what has always been expected and provided for."
It appears, however, that due to improperly loaded transports and general mismanagement the army was not ready and orders were received to discontinue this naval attack and wait. About six weeks later (April 25 to 26) took place the famous combined land and sea attack, in which the allied troops attained at a great cost a slight footing on the peninsula. The guns of the fleet afforded a covering fire for the troops, but do not appear to have made a very heavy bombardment at the time of this landing. The Turks evidently had made the most of the six weeks' delay and were well prepared. On June 4 attempts to advance were made without great success.
On Aug. 6 to 8, having been strengthened by reinforcements, the Allies made another great effort, in which the navy took an important part. This battle also was unsuccessful. There was not much hard fighting after the month of August. Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander in Chief, asked for numerous reinforcements, but they were denied, and he was recalled to England. In the early part of the following January the allied armies evacuated the ground they had fought so hard to gain and reembarked. The Allies lost five British predreadnoughts, one French predreadnought, and about 120,000 men. The cost of the expedition, ship losses not included, was about $1,000,000,000.
The decision to attempt forcing the Dardanelles has been much criticised, and it appears indeed to have been a formidable undertaking. But whether or not it was unwise to attempt it is a debatable question. A successful attack upon the Dardanelles might well have become of the very first importance and produced results which would have quickly been felt in the main eastern and western theatres of the war. Consider for a moment the position of Russia at that time: A vast empire, with millions of men mobilized, crammed with surplus stores of wheat, yet for all practical purposes more cut off from the rest of the world than Germany. The White Sea was ice-bound, and Archangel, which is indifferently served by its railway, would not be open until some time in May. The Baltic was practically sealed. The way to the Black Sea was closed by the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. Vladivostok was too far away to be of much use. Russia was in bonds, and it was the duty of her allies to burst them if they could. Immeasurable advantages would follow from the opening of a clear way to Odessa. Ships laden with wheat would stream outward and ships laden with the stores and equipment, which Russia so greatly needs, would stream inward. Moreover, the resources of fighting men, food supplies, and raw materials from Turkey in Asia would be cut off from the Central Powers and any possible menace to India, the Suez, and Egypt removed.
The political results would have been equally great. The effect upon the hesitancy of the Balkan kingdoms and other neutrals would have been instant, and would have counteracted the impression created by the successful German operations against the Russians. The fall of Constantinople would probably further have meant the collapse of the Turkish offensive. The Turks would never survive a blow at their heart. The bombardment of the Dardanelles, therefore, if the Allies had been able to carry it to its logical conclusion, would have had far-reaching effects on the conduct of the war.
It is interesting here to note the analogy between the circumstances influencing the Allies to attempt to force the Dardanelles and the circumstances during our civil war which influenced the North to open up the Mississippi. In the civil war it was desired to cut the Confederacy in two, so as to shut off the resources of Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana from the Confederate armies and at the same time to open up communications between the Gulf and the Northern States via the Mississippi and its tributaries. Moreover, just as forcing the Dardanelles would have been a deterrent to Bulgaria's entering the war on the side of the Central Powers and would perhaps have influenced Greece and Rumania to declare for the Allies, so Farragut's capture of New Orleans deterred France from action hostile to the Union and caused Louis Napoleon to abandon his scheme to dispatch a formidable fleet to the mouth of the Mississippi and join an equal force from England with the object of repudiating the blockade as ineffectual and demanding free egress and ingress for merchantmen.
There is also some analogy between the conditions confronting Admiral Farragut, requiring him to force his way by the Confederate forts in the lower Mississippi on his way to attack New Orleans, and the conditions facing Admiral de Robeck, supposing that his mission was to force the Dardanelles in order to attack Constantinople. Admiral Farragut was brilliantly successful in running the forts and capturing New Orleans, while the Dardanelles operations ended in bitter disappointment to the Allies. It would not be wise to push the analogy too closely, because such a method of argument is full of pitfalls, and erroneous inferences might be drawn; but one cannot help reflecting upon and comparing the circumstances, methods, and results attending these two great enterprises.
Instead of condemning offhand this attempt to capture Constantinople as foolhardy in conception, it might be better to bear in mind the confident tone of Admiral de Robeck's report after the naval attack of March 18, and to ponder other possible causes of failure. Failure certainly was never due to lack of fighting qualities in the allied sailors and soldiers, for there is probably no more heroic page in history than that recording the brave deeds done in this struggle for the Dardanelles.
It is thus seen that in the first year of the war the allied navies converted potential control of the high seas into active control. The German cruisers in American and Far Eastern waters were skillfully drawn away from enemy-infested areas and concentrated under the command of Vice Admiral Spee off the west coast of South America. Here they gained a brief respite by defeating an inferior British squadron. But they were doomed ships, and it was only a question of time before the more powerful enemy navies would find and destroy them. This happened in the Falkland Islands engagement, which took place a month after the German victory off Coronel. Disregarding a few scattered commerce destroyers, the destruction of Admiral Spec's squadron gave the Allies practically undisputed control over all waters not closely adjacent to enemy home ports.
The undertaking at the Dardanelles was a different kind of strategic problem in that it was an attempt to wrest from Turkey waterways over which she had exercised authority practically since the beginning of history. This enterprise failed; and the potential defensive power proved adequate when put to the test of active resistance. So far these naval events supply corroborative evidence to inductions grounded in the experience of past wars, thus clarifying rather than confusing the principles already more or less firmly established.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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