World War I: Battle of Coronel

Armored Cruiser SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Scharnhorst. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Center

Battle of Coronel - Conflict:

The Battle of Coronel was fought off central Chile in the early months of World War I (1914-1918).

Battle of Coronel - Date:

Graf Maximilian von Spee won his victory on November 1, 1914.

Fleets & Commanders:

Royal Navy

  • Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock
  • Armored Cruisers HMS Good Hope & HMS Monmouth
  • Light Cruiser HMS Glasgow
  • Converted Liner HMS Otranto

Kaiserliche Marine

Battle of Coronel - Background:

Based at Tsingtao, China, the German East Asiatic Squadron was the only German naval squadron overseas at the outbreak of World War I. Composed of the armored cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau, as well as two light cruisers, the fleet was commanded by Admiral Maximilian von Spee. An elite unit of modern ships, von Spee had personally selected the officers and crews. With the war's start in August 1914, von Spee began making plans to abandon his base at Tsingtao before he was trapped by British, Australian, and Japanese forces.

Charting a course across the Pacific, the squadron commenced a campaign of commerce raiding and frequented British and French islands seeking targets. While at Pagan, Captain Karl von Muller asked if he could take his ship, the light cruiser Emden on a solo cruise through the Indian Ocean. This request was granted and von Spee continued on with three ships. After sailing to Easter Island, his squadron was reinforced in mid-October 1914, by the light cruisers Leipzig and Dresden. With this force, von Spee intended to prey upon British and French shipping on the west coast of South America.

Battle of Coronel - British Response:

Alerted to von Spee's presence, the British Royal Navy began making plans to intercept and destroy his squadron. The closest force in the area was Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock's West Indies Squadron, consisting of the older armored cruisers HMS Good Hope (flagship) and HMS Monmouth, as well as the modern light cruiser HMS Glasgow and the converted liner HMS Otranto. Aware that Cradock's force was badly outgunned, the Admiralty dispatched the elderly battleship HMS Canopus and the armored cruiser HMS Defence. From his base in the Falklands, Cradock sent Glasgow ahead into the Pacific to scout for von Spee.

By late October, Cradock decided that he could not wait any longer for Canopus and Defence to arrive and sailed for the Pacific unreinforced. Rendezvousing with Glasgow off Coronel, Chile, Cradock prepared to search for von Spee. On October 28, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill issued orders to Cradock to avoid a confrontation as reinforcements might be available from the Japanese. It is not clear whether Cradock received this message. Three days later, the British commander learned via a radio intercept that one of von Spee's light cruisers, SMS Leipzig was in the area.

Battle of Coronel - Cradock Crushed:

Moving to cut off the German ship, Cradock steamed north and ordered his squadron into battle formation. At 4:30 PM, Leipzig was sighted, however it was accompanied by von Spee's entire squadron. Rather than turn and run south towards Canopus, which was 300 miles away, Cradock opted to stay and fight, though he did direct Otranto to flee. Maneuvering his faster, larger ships out of range of the British, von Spee opened fire around 7:00 PM, when Cradock's force was clearly silhouetted by the setting sun. Hitting the British with accurate fire, Scharnhorst crippled Good Hope with its third salvo.

Fifty-seven minutes later, Good Hope sank with all hands, including Cradock. Monmouth was hit badly as well, with its green crew of recruits and reservists fighting valiantly though ineffectively. With his ship burning and disabled, Monmouth's captain ordered Glasgow to flee and warn Canopus, rather than attempt to tow his ship to safety. Monmouth was finished off by the light cruiser SMS Nurnberg and sank at 9:18 PM with no survivors. Though pursued by Leipzig and Dresden, both Glasgow and Otranto were able to make good their escape.

Battle of Coronel - Aftermath:

The defeat off Coronel was the first suffered by a British fleet at sea in a century and unleashed a wave of outrage across Britain. In order to deal with the threat posed by von Spee, the Admiralty assembled a large task force centered on the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. Commanded by Admiral Sir Frederick Sturdee, this force sunk all but the light cruiser Dresden at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on December 8, 1914. Admiral von Spee was killed when his flagship, Scharnhorst sank.

Casualties at Coronel were one-sided. Cradock lost 1,654 killed and both of his armored cruisers. The Germans escaped with only three wounded.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Coronel." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Battle of Coronel. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Coronel." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).