The Battle of the Falklands, 8 December 1914, saw the defeat of a squadron of German cruisers under Admiral Maximilian von Spee. On 1 November von Spee’s squadron of five modern cruisers had defeated a small British squadron under Admiral Christopher Cradock, at the Battle of Coronel, sinking two British cruisers with the loss of all hands.
The defeat had caused outrage in Britain. The new First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, responded by reinforcing British naval squadrons around the Atlantic, while the Japanese navy moved ships across the Pacific to prevent von Spee from escaping back into the Pacific.
Before the victory at Coronel von Spee had decided to move his squadron from the Pacific to the South Atlantic. After the battle he stuck to that plan, and by the start of December was in the Atlantic. Once there, he decided to attack the British coaling station on the Falkland Islands.
This was a serious error of judgement. The inevitable British response to the defeat at Coronel saw the formation of a new South American Squadron to replace the one lost at Coronel. Commanded by Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, this new squadron was built around two battle-cruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. Sturdee also had three armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and the Canopus, an elderly battleship that had been too slow take part in the disastrous expedition to Coronel. The two battle-cruisers were a match for the German squadron, faster and with 12-inch guns (compared to von Spee’s 8-inch guns). The battle-cruisers gained a bad reputation later in the war in clashes against German dreadnaughts, where their lack of armour left then vulnerable, but they were ideal for use against von Spee’s cruisers.
On 8 December von Spee approached the Falklands and discovered the British squadron. A long chase followed, but in the early afternoon Sturdee’s battle-cruisers had caught up with von Spee’s fleet. In an attempt to win time for the rest of his ships to escape, von Spee decided to fight with his two biggest ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. Inevitably the two German cruisers were sunk, with heavy losses. Of his remaining three ships, the Nürnberg and Leipzig were caught and sunk by Studee’s cruisers. Only the Dresden escaped, remaining at large until March 1915.
The battle of the Falklands and the destruction of the Dresden ended the German presence on the high seas. A number of armed merchantmen would slip through the Allied blockade but the main German naval threat outside the north sea would come from the U-boats.