Germany, like other major European powers of the time, had many colonial holdings across the globe. When war broke out in mid 1914, a squadron of German warships, led by admiral Maximilian von Spee, found itself in position to defend its holdings in the far east. Nevertheless, neither Spee nor his officers believed that they had a realistic chance of successfully defending German interests in the area, especially after Japan’s entry into the war as another of their enemies . . . together, the Japanese and the British represented a naval power too great to hope to overcome.
The only other alternative was to head home. The cruiser Emden was detached for independent raiding in the Indian Ocean, and it was intended that she would eventually attempt to head back to Germany by going around Africa. Successful at the Battle of Penang on late October (sinking the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet), the Emden commenced a raid on the Cocos Islands (NW of Australia), even attempting to land a contingent of troops in order to sabotage British facilities there. The Australian cruiser Sydney caught up with the Emden here, however, forcing the German cruiser to run aground (and out of the war) on November 9.
Meanwhile, Spee and the van of his squadron had been travelling the opposite way around the globe.
Making his way to the Western coast of South America, he surprised a contingent of British warships at the Battle of Coronel on November 1, sinking the cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth. He had, however, spent more than half of his ships’ supply of ammunition, an irreplaceable resource until he got back to a German port. Spee continued around Cape Horn, raided British merchants for coal, and finally proposed a raid on the Falkland islands on his way back to Germany. Though most of his officers opposed the idea, being intent to return to Germany as fast as possible, Spee decided to go on with the raid.
Unknown to him, however was the presence and size of a British squadron of warships. While Spee’s force consisted of 2 armored and 3 light cruisers, the British force had 2 battlecruisers, 3 armoured and 2 light cruisers as well as the support of a grounded pre-dreadnought battleship. The largest of Spee’s gun’s were 8.2 inches in diameter, whereas some of the British ships boasted 12-inch guns. Spee would be out-gunned and outnumbered in this battle. Worst of all, he was spotted approaching the base from the far end of the island by British colonials, and so the British commander, Doveton Sturdee, knew exactly what to expect.
Nevertheless, the Germans nearly caused a British catastrophe, for they arrived at the British base sooner than expected, as the squadron was coaling. Had Spee’s ships rushed in and sank even one ship as it attempted to leave the inlet base, the Germans would have caused disastrous damage, blocking the bay for the British. But the old, grounded warship Canopus fired on the Germans from behind a hill, and Spee, not knowing what to expect, checked his advance. Meanwhile, the British ships quickly got up steam and began pursuit.
By the time Spee realize that he was facing more and more powerful ships than in his own squadron, it was too late. Some of the German ships attempted to flee, but were run down some 80 miles later. In all, only the German light cruiser Dresden escaped. About 1,871 German sailors were killed, only 215 survivors of the sunken ships were rescued. In contrast, the British suffered very little, with their ships barely damaged and only 29 casualties.