Battle of Gotland (July, 2, 1915)

Lake Tanganyika
Reichsmarine vs Russian Navy

Fire on the Baltic

The fact that the Baltic did not saw naval major battles like Heligoland or Jutland don’t have to mask the myriad of naval actions that occurred in this war between the Russian Navy -albeit reduced after the crippling losses of 1905 in this theater- and the powerful Reichsmarine, that kept the bulk of the Hochseeflotte facing the north sea, waiting for opportunities to engage the Royal Navy.

This battle of Gotland, also called Battle of Åland Islands occurred nearby one of the largest island (if not the largest) of the baltic sea, the fortress guarding Swedish east coast. These already seen (and will see) many other clashes between German and Russian ships, but also testified of age-old clashes between Russians and Swedes in the past. This was a serious gun battle between cruisers of many types from both sides, the Germans loosing eventually the Albatross, and the Russian retiring with two badly damaged armoured cruisers.

Blueprint of the SMS Albatross

The day before the battle of Gotland, Kommodore Johannes Von Karf had been ordered to anchor a vast minefield off the Aäland Islands, closing the Gulf of Bothnia. He departed with the minelayer cruiser Albatross (frigate captain Fritz West), escorted by the armoured cruiser Roon, and the SMS Augsburg, Lübeck, as well as 12 destroyers. Following Odensholm’s action on 26 August, the Russians seized the codebooks and signals from the Hochseeflotte, and thus intercepted messages, enabling them to know the squadron’s exact departure. On the 2nd, a force comprising the armoured cruisers Admiral Makaroff and Bayan, assisted by the cruisers Oleg and Bogatyr sailed from Saint-Petersburg under the orders of Rear Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev in the hope of intercepting it. This force was joined and assisted by a British submersible.

SMS roon (1907), this class preceded the Scharnhorst and was strongly related

On the morning of the 2d, the German fleet was mooring mines in front of the Aaland Islands, when the black plumes of the Russian squadron were spotted. Immediately the operations in progress were abandoned, and the ships turned and headed south. However, the time to carry out the maneuver, the Russian cruisers were at gun range, and the slowest cruiser, SMS Albatross was catch and fired upon. The ship only had a few 88 mm pieces to oppose 203 and 152 mm guns on the Russian cruisers. This resembled quickly therefore to a real execution. However, the Roon and two light cruisers replied, but the duel of artillery was not conclusive. The two fleets advanced in parallel, heading south, and arrived off Gotland when Von Karf was informed of the arrival of two other armoured cruisers, the Prinz Heinrich and the Prinz Adalbert, which just sailed to the rescue. The balance was about to swap in favor of the Germans.

The minelaying cruiser Albatross failed after her fight against the Oleg and the Bogatyr.

The Russians for their part, brought out the Rurik, one of the most powerful armoured cruisers in the world, assisted by the destroyer Novik, no less formidable. They just set sail at the time the news of the clash off the Aaland Islands, and force-steamed south-west in an attempt to cut off Von Karf’s retreat. The threat was very serious, and the battle began to swap again, and this time, taking on a disastrous scale for the Germans. The Albatross, caught by the Oleg and Bogatyr, was severely hit, her machines partially drowned, drifting, silenced, crippled, and eventually ran aground on a sand bank off Gotland. Meanwhile Von Karf from his flagship Admiral Roon, was attacked by the Bayan and Makaroff, being hit several times and severely damaged. Getting the news of the arrival of the Rurik Von karf decided to break off the fight and retreat south-east towards Königsberg.

Russian cruiser Bayan

The two German armoured cruisers which came to reinforce, just informed of Von Karf’s decision to retreat, decided to head south, but the Prinz Adalbert was intercepted by British submarine E9 waiting in ambush, and was torpedoed. She survived thanks to the promptness of her crew, clogging the leaks with Makaroff slippers, and thus avoiding the entire engine room being submerged. The cruiser dragged herself to the coast and ran aground on a sand bank off Danzig. She would be later towed and repaired, but shortly after her return in service, on 23 October, she will be torpedoed once again, this time by E8, and sent to the bottom for good.

Russian Cruiser Oleg

In the end, Russian losses were difficult to evaluate but it is clear that the Bayan and Makaroff received some hits. The exact balance of the Russian side remains mysterious. In any case, the verdict was severe for the Germans, who, without ever suspecting being spied on or capable to explain the sudden arrival of the Russians to this point, lost the Albatross, which they never attempted to tow. Her surviving crew reached the boats in good order, sailing to the coast of Gotland (Sweden), and from there rejoined Germany afterwards. The Albatross was towed to be broken up later in 1921. The Germans were also deprived of the Roon and Prinz Adalbert, in repairs for long months. Worst still, mines of the Aaland Islands were quickly raised dredged by the Russians. So in the end, we have to see this battle of Gotland as a Russian tactical and strategic victory (three ships eliminated and a minefield).

Lake Tanganyika’s naval battles

Lake Tanganyika
Reichsmarine vs Royal Navy

Probably the strangest naval battle of ww1

Lake Tanganyika was one of the largest watery surface in Africa, as much as deep and of dynamic hydrography. Fed by several rivers this largest African Great Lake could only be compared to the American great lakes. It was a production of the Albertine Rift, western part of the East African Rift. This was the second oldest freshwater lake in the world, and the second largest by volume, plus second deepest, and the scene of probably the strangest naval battle of ww1, preceded by an epic British expedition from South Africa and through Congo.

German East Africa map in 1913

For the control of East Africa

On the strategic level, it ensured control for the Royal Navy of this very large coastal area, bordering Belgian Congo (West) and German East Africa. The Germans confidently had three ships without rivals in the whole lake, including two gunboats and a converted freighter, as an auxiliary cruiser, under the orders of Graf (Count) Goetzen. Against all odds, an eccentric London RN staff pushpaper, Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson conveyed three dismantled crafts by rail, road and river to Albertville and mounted a surprise attack, leading to two battles seeing the end of the African dreams of Wilhelm II.

German Company of Askaris

German presence and strategic assets

Gustav Adolf Graf von Götzen, former governor of German East Africa, set up a network of bases and a fleet of three ships, armed, to control the lake, meaning being able to land forces at any point of the bordering countries for reinforcement, flanking and rear actions, in no time compared to land moves. This was a most crucial strategic asset for the domination of East Africa. Deutsch-Ostafrika was colonized from 1885 onwards, eventually culminating with a grab of 384,180 square miles (995,000 km2), areas now represented as Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. A seven and a half million was governed by just 5,300 Europeans, which can pick at will in just such large manpower to develop the colonies and raise armies. Protection laid in the hands of a small 260 men Schutztruppe, assisted by more than 2650 Africans and 2700 Landsturm, reservist settlers, a bit like the antiquity’s Kleruch.

Objectives in 1914 were highlighted by the press in a popular concept of MittleAfrika which mirrored the alliance between Central powers in Europe and consisted in invading Belgian Congo, by then one of the largest colonial landmass worldwide (See German claims map, 1917). This would allow to link German colonies in the East with those South-West and west. However the German colonial Army here suffered from the same limitations than opposite forces: Troops were merely seen as an occupation force with police duties, and although well-trained, infantry was only given second-grade armaments fit for repressing indigenous insurgency: Old, black-powder Model 1871 rifle, and a few also old field guns drawn from reserves scratched to the bottom. Moreover these forces were largely spread along many outposts throughout the territory, with poor communication lines, and certainly not capable of mounting a quick offensive in force.

German claims in Africa, 1917

Gradually, objectives for newly-arrived Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck in 1911-1912, were to pin down as many allied troops as possible, preventing them to join the fight in Europe. First objective was to threaten the British vital Uganda Railway, thus drawing a British invasion force in East Africa where he can play a defensive war, and even fight a guerrilla campaign. For the Belgian Congo led by Jules Renkin, German nearby presence was also conceived as a threat, but also as an opportunity to expand controlled territories, possibly traded with the Portuguese. A victory there would be also a strong propaganda asset in Belgium, to avenge the 1914 invasion. Soon enough the Germans would take control of the Tanganiyka, and the control of the seas would triggered a naval battle.

Graf Von Goëtzen, in construction, in harbour, and blueprint. She will soon receive a very potent 105 mm QF gun from SMS Königsberg.

African Naval Battle: Rufiji Delta

Although this is a subject for another post, here are the events that saw SMS Königsberg, originally in the Indian Ocean was soon in action at the Battle of Zanzibar, sinking the old protected cruiser HMS Pegasus, and retiring soon after into the Rufiji River delta. The British Cape Squadron soon enclosed it in a blocus perimeter. The squadron was lead by an old pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath two shallow-draught monitors (former Brazilian ordered ships) and the whole affair was quickly wrapped up on 11 July 1915. Guns of the Pegasus (“Peggy guns”) were salvaged for further operations, while the crew of Königsberg did the same with the 4.1 in (100 mm) guns, quickly carried out by Schutztruppe for other operations and widely used until the end of hostilities.

German raids on the west coast

Lake Tanganyika was this giant highway for German troops right on the Congo border, laying ostensibly on the map as a contention point in all reunion of the general staff over the African theater. To escort and carry troops the Germans soon armed a fleet of three steamers and two unarmed motor boats. One of these armed steamers, the 60 t Hedwig von Wissman was given four pom-pom guns and the 45 t Kingani. First, the Wissman raided the port of Lukuga on 22 August, damaging the sole Belgian armed steamer Alexandre Delcommune. She was sunk after another raid. In November 1914, this time, British African Lakes Corporation’s steamer Cecil Rhodes was also sunk. Following this the Germans launched another raid on northern Rhodesia, which was repelled, but it was followed by other raids on British possessions and the bombardments of Lukuga. The Belgians had indeed at least two armoured shore batteries at Lukunga (they still exist today) obtained from British 12-pounder guns, armed barges and other minor crafts. The fear of these German raids was such that the Belgian steamer Baron Dhanis, stored in parts on its berth and certainly larger than the Kingani or Wissman was never assembled. The Aforementioned 12-pounder guns were given by the British to the Belgians to arm this ship.

Belgian floatplanes on the lake

British preparations

Meanwhile in London in April 1915, John R. Lee met Sir Henry Jackson at the Admiralty to discuss options. He was a veteran of the Second Boer War and knew the Germans ships and locations on the Tanganyika. Intelligence bring them the prospect of seeing this time a ship big enough to carry troops in addition to an even superior firepower: The KMS Graf von Götzen was about to be launched in the fortified port of Kigoma. Previously she was built in parts at Meyer shipyard at Papenburg, disassembled and conveyed by rail in 5000 crates from Dar-es-Salaam to Kigoma to be assembled in secret. This was a 67 m ship long (220 ft), 1,575 tons dwarving any other vessel on the lake. In response, Lee devise a plan to carry there three motor gunboats that would outrun and outmaneuver the larger German ships. Moreover they had to carry a 6,400 m (7,000 yd) range guns that would just allow them to pummel the German Ships while staying out of harm. The advantage of a small ship also was to avoid them to be carried in parts and assembled, keeping the surprise and avoiding any German attack preventing their launch. The bold plan was approved, and given to Jackson’s junior Admiral David Gamble, while Lee gave the details to his subordinate, Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.

Belgian shore artillery, as of today.

About Geoffrey Spicer-Simson

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson was once described by Giles Folden as “a man court-martialled for wrecking his own ships, an inveterate liar and a wearer of skirts.“. He was unlikely to be given any command as being unable to pass this rank because of his repeated blunders and behaviour. He was very much put in the closet by the Admiralty, supervising the transfer of merchant seamen into the navy. However he was not devoid or resources, if not unconventional. In 1905 he indeed imagine that two destroyers would hold a steel cable between them to cut the periscopes or catch German submarines. In August 1914, his ship HMS Niger was torpedoed and sunk at Ramsgate while he was entertaining his guest on the shore. He was given by default (by the lack of officers) the command of a small ship to patrol the Gambia river. He was given this mission eventually and prepared to assemble a team of 27 men, plus the requisition of two motor boats previously built by Thornycroft for the Greek Government. When in Africa, Simson still went on with his eccentricities, wearing at all time a tiny skirt, and after his December victory, performing some sort of ritual bath twice a week in front of the locals that quickly saw in him a natural leader and went to revere him. Heavily tattooed, he was soon named “lord of the loincloth”.

Geoffrey spicer-Simson

Simson’s preparations

The small motorboats were 40-foot-long (12 m), and were small enough to be carried by rail. They would have been named cat and dog but this was rejected by the Navy, but Simson then (as a test joke?) submitted Mimi and Toutou, which was accepted (these were popular surnames, even familiar bynames in French for cats and dogs). While crews from the Royal Naval Reserve were assembled, Simson started to modify the ships: They were given a Maxim guns and a 3-pounder Hotchkiss gun, and were tested on the Thames. Extra steel linings were also fitted to protect the petrol tanks. In june, trials went on, with fire training on fixed targets at speed. This showed the guns recoil was such they needed to be solidly bolted. When all was ready, both ships were loaded in SS Llanstephen Castle as well as everything that was to be carried by rail, properly packed in crates. This included special trailers designed to carry the ships by rail.

Belgian steamer Baron Dhanis

The expedition (June-October 1915)

At the same time the British freighter departed on June 15, British Intelligence has confirmed that previously on 8 June, German Graf von Götzen was launched and prepared for trials. During the trip through the Atlantic, towards South Africa (10,000 nautical miles or 16,000 km, 17 days at sea), Simson tried to prepare the land expedition, a 4,800 km (3,000 mi) trip inland, including deep jungle, waterfalls, hostile bugs and predators, and a 1,800 m mountain range. From the Cape, all was stored on a train bound to Elisabethville, reach on 26 July. From there, all had to be discharged and placed in a convoy of carts pulled by teams of oxen and steam tractors, for a bush trip 235 km (146 mi) long to the newt railway from Sankisia to Bukama. Then at Bukama, the whole materiel and ships had to be unloaded and again placed on carts to be carried voyage down the Lualaba River. The trip on this one was again an adventurous affair, the ships and barges running aground several times, then were loaded on a Belgian river steamer on Lake Kisale and ended they voyage at Kabalo on 22 October. From there, again, the whole convoy had to be loaded on rail, to reach the outskirts of the Belgian port of Lukuga. Upon arrival, an exhausted Simson had to confer with Belgian local Commandant Stinghlamber, and naval commander Goor.

First operations

Paradoxically, the German’s position on the lake has been just considerably strengthened again with the delivery of salvaged guns from KMS Konigsberg, recently sunk at the battle of Zanzibar. These 10.5 cm SK L/40 naval guns could be manned as the rest of the crews were drawn from the merchant fleet of the Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linie. One of these Schnelladekanone or QF guns was mounted on the Graf Goetzen, an unrivalled firepower, not match by the British 3-dpr at that stage.

German crew loading a 10.5 cm QF gun from Königsberg mounted on the Goetzen.

Meanwhile, the British made preparations to operate the Mimi and Toutou. The Belgians, led by Goor, can only muster an unnamed two guns-barge of the “Dix-Tonne” type, Netta, a motor boat, and a whaler fitted with an outboard motor. Real firepower came from the shore batteries. Goor nevertheless hoped to have the Baron Dhanis in commission soon, and plan to recover and repair the Alexandre Delcommune as soon as possible. But their major asset was a pair of recently arrived and mounted floatplanes, which can be used both for observation and strafing. The Germans do not have any significant AA at that time.

HMS Fifi, ex-Kingani

Seeking to know the work advancement level on the Baron Dhanis, a potential threat for the Götzen if she was caught in port off guard, German commander Zimmer ordered the Kingani (cdr. Rosenthal) to sail for a recoignition of Lukunga. Rosenthal arrived and saw the new harbour at Kalemie where the British motor boats were just been prepared. She returned on 1st December, but was this time spotted and rebuffed by the Belgian’s shore batteries. Undaunted, Rosenthal came back at night, going as far as swimming himself to see the Belgian slipways close and personal, then ventured inland to observe Spicer-Simson’s camp. Not able to find back the Kingani while in the dark, he was caught at dawn by a Belgian sentinel and made prisoner. He however would be able to send a message to Zimmer written in urine via a contact, not reaching him however for monthes. Meanwhile the British struck.

Simson on board the Netta.

Mimi and Toutou beats the Kingani

Both ships were ready and launched on 22 and 23 of December. The 24, they had been fitted with their planned armament and fuelled, made brief trials. However on 26 December, while Simpson was conducting a religious office (following Christmas), Kingani, now led by Sub-Lieutenant Junge was spotted on its way to Kalemie. He was found himself chased by Mimi and Toutou quickly out of the harbour, and ordered to increase speed. But he was doomed from then on. Kingani’s unique six-pounder gun was forward-firing. The two motorboats soon catch her, both wings, pummeling her with their three-pounder guns while staying our of reach. After 11 minutes, Kingani’s main gun was badly hit, and Junge and two petty officers, Penne and Schwarz killed. Eventually its engine was hit too, and eventually the surviving chief engineer hauled down the colors and surrendered. Captured, the ship was towed back to Lukunga, repaired and renamed Fifi, a fitting common dog’s (Parisian caniche) name, although it could also had been also suggested by the wife of a Belgian officer that had a caged bird. By doing so, the Fifi was given the extra 12-dpr left ashore, fitted at the bow.

Simson after Kingani’s capture

Hedwig von Wissmann’s turn.

While Spicer-Simson was promoted to commander, receiving the admiralty and Colonial Office congratulations, the Germans could not investigate the disappearance of their ship. Both sides left the bad season pass, and only in mid-January, the Germans sent the larger Hedwig von Wissmann in recognition. Meanwhile, working at frantic pace, the Belgians were able to repair the Alexandre DelCommune, renamed vengeur (“Avenger”). Hedwig’s commander Odebrecht staying ahead of the Belgian defences had nothing worthy of a report, ordered back to Lukuga on 8 February, for a Rendezvous with Zimmer’s Götzen. She was spotted en route off Lukunga the following day, and a combined Anglo-Belgian flotilla left (without Toutou, under repairs) to intercept her. Odebrecht spotted the flotilla back and continued toward the shore, then making sharp turn to port at 09:30 perhaps to lure the flotilla towards the approaching Götzen. Fifi opened fire first but was left behind by the force of the recoil. Mimi then overpassed her, but still, she was able to catch the German ships, firing with her lighter 3-pdr until Odebrecht, having a short range stern weapon was obliged to engage in a turn to use her bow gun. Both ships engaged in a spiralling duel. Eventually Fifi’s gun jammed and was unable to fire at the German ship, that turned again and headed to the Götzen. Fifi however successfully get rid of the jamming, fired and hit Hedwig’s hull and damaged her engines, starting a fire. The situation was so bad that Odebrecht ordered to abandon ship and place scuttling charges. The crew was captured and the ship sank. For the anecdote, the ship’s German naval ensign was the first captured in WW1.

Short S327 Floatplane

Götzen fate and the end of German’s African adventure.

The flotilla returned back home when the following day, Götzen appeared offshore. However Spicer-Simson forbade an attack, pereffering to search for a ship worthy of a duel, and eventually spotted the St George on Stanleyville’s lake, which he had dismantled, carried to Lake Tanganyika and reassembled there, delaying any action to May 1916. Menawhile, a Belgian force managed to capture Kigoma and a British one secured a path toward Bismarckburg. Eventually the flotilla now counting Mimi, Toutou, Fifi and Vengeur arrived off Bismarckburg on 5 June. However the latter having a fort, Spicer-Simson decided to retire to Kituta. Simson would learn afterwards that the guns were in fact dummies, and the Germans managed to escape with a fleet of Dhows. Soon the Belgians received four British Short Type 827 floatplanes and were able to flew reconnaissance missions over the lake. Meanwhile Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered Zimmer to disarm his ship for the profit of the army, receiving dummies instead. When the Belgians captured Kigoma, the Götzen was driven south of Kigoma Bay to be scuttled on 26 July by a depth of 20 m. Therefore by mid-1916, control of the lake was assured. This would not prevent the war to drag on in East Africa for two more years, Von Lettow-Vorbeck despite having smaller forces maintaining all along a masterfully executed guerilla war, pinning down as expected allied forces far from the home front. But the way the lake was secured remains a story too colorful to ignore.

Hedwig Von Wissman


Video- Documentary about the events

The Dardanelles Campaign (February 1915)

Dardanelles map
Turkish Navy vs Royal Navy


It was Churchill personal quest to attack the “soft underbelly” of the entente powers, reminds something ? Fortunately for the allies, this bloody campaign was halted in early 1916 instead of the campaign of Italy that lasted two solid years on a far bigger scale. Indeed at that time Turkey was seen very much as the “sick man” of Europe and an apparent easy target. Ousting Turkey from the war would have also allowed the control of the black sea, and opening a second front against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the south of the German Empire. It was all about underestimating the resolve of the Turks to hold their ground.

Graphic map of the Dardanelles

The latter, after the regime change, aimed at modernizing the fleet and ordered several dreadnoughts to the UK, in addition to the battleships already acquired from Germany. The seizure of these ships at the outbreak of war (already paid) ulcered the Turkish government, but soon the unexpected support of two recent German ships together with the well trained crews of Admiral Souchon presented whole new possibilities and convinced Turkey to enter the war together with the Central powers, with ambitions over an arch-enemy, Russia, and in the middle east, targeting French and British interests.

Path to the campaign

Resentment against Great Britain, which had strategic interests in the Middle East, was greatly aided by the Kaiser’s privileged relations with Sultan Mohammed and Mustafa Kemal. It began with the closing of the Dardanelles strait to allied trade in October 1914. On the 28th, the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli made a coastal raid against Russia, attacking Sevastopol and Odessa, and sinking several ships. The answer was Russia’s declaration of war to the Turks on November 2, followed by the British on the 6th. A Turkish offensive was launched in December in the Caucasus, stopped by the Russians, but at the price of an obvious drain on the numbers Opposed to the Germans in the west. As a result, the Tsar formally requested the help of Great Britain in January. Sir Winston Churchill, who had already studied the contingencies of a capture of the Dardanelles, considered opposition feeble, which can be taken by a bold combined naval operation. He therefore found the pretext sought for the operation.

Combined allied fleet en route to the Dardanelles

The campaign’s preparations

Vice-Admiral Carden, in charge of the Mediterranean squadron, was contacted on 11 January by Churchill to drawn a precise plan for the attack of the Dardanelles. Carden developed a strategy based on a battleship/minesweeper/submersible triptych. Like the Crimean campaign 60 years earlier, the fleet had to muzzle the forts covering the area, allowing minesweepers to clear waters. Submarines then had to cross the strait defenses as far as possible, entering the Marmara Sea and disrupt Turkish traffic, blockading Constantinople, and sink the fleet if attempting an outbreak against the allies.

On January 13th, the operation was approved by the council of war and Carden received 14 pre-dreadnoughts battleships (the most modern being kept the Grand Fleet), but also the very modern Queen Elizabeth, and the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible. France was solicited also as a major player in the Mediterranean, and sent a squadron of four pre-dreadnoughts (Gaulois, Bouvet, Suffren, Charlemagne) together with destroyers. Russia for its part mobilized a single cruiser, the Askold. The whole system was complemented by many light vessels for a combined fleet of 90 ships. The allies settled at Lemnos, but at the time of the operations, they rejoined Imbros, not far from the strait, and still far enough from Turkish fire range. Land forces were also set up and trained in Egypt for an amphibious operation under the command of Army Corps Commander John. S. Keyes, which included several Royal Marines contingents, the 29th Regular Infantry Division, and a strong contingent of New Zealanders and Australians (the famous ANZACs).

French troops at Lemnos, 1915.

First operations (19 Feb. 1915)

In fact, a “live test” was carried out long before any formal declaration of war. That was the action of November, 3, 1914 performed by the battle cruisers Indomitable and Indefatigable assisted by French battleships Vérité and Suffren. Each battleship had to aim at a fort in particular. The fort of Sedd-ul Bahr was put out of action after 10 minutes of bombardment. After these encouraging results, Carden was allowed to continue the development of his plan. On the other hand, surprise was lost and the Turks received a stronger support from German artillery experts, with better lookouts and training.

The first phase began on 19 February 1915 at 7:30 am. Four destroyers advanced alongside the HMS Cornwallis, the first to open fire, soon joined by HMS Vengeance,had to silence forts Oranhiye Tepe and Kum Kale on the southern tip of the entrance to the Strait (see map below). Both had Krupp 240 mm guns with a very effective sight control.

Map by the author of the Dardanelles landing zones and defenses.

As can be seen on this map, the bulk of the Turkish defenses were staggered in depth, which gave them a perfect defense of the passes of the strait as well as the north coast of Galipolli. These forts totaled 80 heavy pieces including 6x 355 mm cannons, 6x 150 mm Howitzer, and the remainder 240 and 280 mm artillery pieces. No less than 10 minefields (370 mines, later increased) barring the bottom of Erin Keui Bay and Sari Sighlar Bay, the narrowest passage. Two anti-submersible nets barred the entrance and exit of it, all under crossing fire from the forts, of which only the most important ones appears on the map.

February 19-21 bombardments

On the 19th of February, three English battleships and the Suffren, firing at 10,000 meters for a quarter of an hour, temporarily silenced the forts of Kum Kale, Oraniye Tepe, Ertrugul and Sed-Ul Bahir, which had already been badly damaged. But the expected results were delayed. The offensive resumed on the 21st, stopped because of the weather and resumed on the 25th, but the Turks had evacuated the defense forts at the entrance of the strait to concentrate on the forts of the pass between Dardanos and Canakkale. In any eventuality, the Royal Marines landed and finally took the forts, encountering little resistance. But the bombardment was to resume from 26 to 31 February and concentrated on Erin Kui Bay on the 1st of March.

HMS Canopus firing

Minesweepers in action

After the bay was cleaned of artillery threats, minelayers entered the fray, English as well as French. The British ones were requisitioned converted trawlers, with a crew composed partly of civilians and officers. They had a shearing machine behind the mines submerged a few yards below the surface, and these were brought up to the surface and gunned or blasted. The operation lasted between the fall of February and early march, and on March, 4th, HMS Queen Elizabeth big guns were brought to bear on Gaba Tepe, in the Gulf of Saros, the forts of the interior defenses which range was inferior to the battleship. On March, 8, at night, the small Turkish minelayer Nusret layed a new minefield parallel to the coast in Erin Keui Bay.

The Turks observed that the British ships leaving the bay were turning to the port while aiming straight into specific area where a minefield could be wisely placed. On the night of March, 13, the cruiser HMS Amethyst, leading 6 minesweepers, cleared the first minefield of the bay. But at night this was still a perilous task, and the Turkish forts, alerted, added to the confusion. A total of four minesweepers were literally riddled by fire, and the Amethyst barely escaped destruction after being hit by a large caliber. Churchill received these first reports, and had Carden relieved of his command, replaced by Rear-Admiral John de Robeck. The latter had in view a general offensive of the whole fleet in order to close the action before the Turks were ready for a better defense.

March, 18 general offensive

The high point of the offensive against the Dardanelles took place from March 18: Rear-Admiral John de Robeck, bearing his mark on the Vengeance, mobilized no less than three battleship rows comprising successively the Queen Elisabeth, Nelson, Agamemnon and Inflexible (Bearing the mark of Carden), in the second line the 4 French battleships (including the Suffren bearing the mark of Rear Admiral Guépratte) and the Vengeance, Irresistible, Albion and Ocean in the third line, flanks being protected by HMS Majestic, Prince George, Swiftsure and Triumph, with the Canopus and Cornwallis in reserve. The objective was to silence the defenses surrounding the first 5 minefields. The Royal Navy thus used wisely its numerous old pre-dreadnoughts, of little use for the Grand Fleet.

Rolling Thunder

From 11 am to 1:25 pm, a continuous rolling fire succeeded in silencing or destroying the Turkish forts. The task was not easy. The artillery pieces were well protected by massive concrete works (Built under German supervision), while more than 50 lighter guns were remarkably hidden in the foothills of the coast, leaving only embrasures covered with branches, only revealed by their brief muzzle blast. Torpedo tubes and searchlights were also hidden for night offensives, while fake batteries were prominently displayed. Moreover, crew were trained for accurate and fast-firing, and lower batteries offering little frontal surface, were hardly destructible. In most cases only debris obstructed embrasures and interfered with Turkish fire. The cannons themselves could only be neutralized by an assault of naval companies. On the 17th, the Nusret had returned to the bay and layed the last available mines, which will cause havoc and compromise the whole operation.

Suffren and other battleships are badly damaged

The bombardment on both sides was severe, but Turkish firing revealed itsel not as precise. The fort of Rumelia-Medjidieh had held particularly long. The Suffren, Gaulois, Agamemnon and Inflexible suffered severe hits. For the anecdote, an orchestra played on the rear deck of the Suffren for more than an hour, before the intensity of the fire became too dangerous to go on. Later, a 240 mm shell would destroy a 164 mm barbette, entering through the casemate’s sighting window, decapitating the firing officer, and then enter the loading room setting fire to 200 kgs powder B charges. The ensuring ball of fire would burn alive all the servants inside the barbette. The fire control room had been devastated later by a shell, all internal communications cut off.

Worse, a flaming 164 mm charge fell into the powder bunker, where 6 tons were stored. Unfortunately the six servants evacuating the room failed to open the valves to drown it. Battery’s chief Lannuzel however stayed inside to check the filling, and drowned. Another large caliber exploded in the chimney, destroyed the fans and obturated the cooling ducts. In a few minutes the heating chamber’s temperature exceeded sixty degrees, men collapsed at their post. On her side the Bouvet’s marble (extractor of burnt gases from the gun barrel) broke down, servants were asphyxiated. On the Inflexible, the turrets’s servants had also been killed. De Robeck decided to remove the battleships and to commit his second line assisted by the Swiftsure and Majestic.

The Bouvet sinking

The Bouvet is lost, the Inflexible almost followed

Retiring after two hours of almost uninterrupted fire the Bouvet was the last to depart, preceded by the Suffren, Gaulois and Charlemagne. While veering to starboard (right) she struck a mine laid by the Nusret. Its unprotected hull was blown open and torn along its length and the flood was severe and fast. In 45 seconds, the ship began to roll on its side, and capsized from the rear, then sank vertically prow in the air. She sank with 23 officers and 619 sailors. 47 survivors would be gathered by British destroyer Mosquito, while under Turkish fire. She was not the first loss: At about 4 pm HMS Inflexible also hit hard turned to starboard when retiring, but also came into the same minefield as the Bouvet. The explosion killed 60 and injured a hundred, many trapped by the automatic closure systems in the flooded compartments (a bit like on the Titanic). Thanks to its modern protection however, the battlecruiser was able to retire at a slow speed from the bay and managed to run aground on a sand bank on the island of Tenedos, sparing the crew and allowing future repairs.

Battleship Bouvet in the Dardanelles

Battleships Irresistible and Ocean are lost

The battleship HMS Irresistible, in turn, hit a mine when also veering to starboard (the configuration of the bay and radius of these mastodons left no other choice). Her machinery compartments were flooded, but the leaks were contained also by the crew’s plugs and multiple partitioning. However, pressure inside these flooded partitions and uncontrolled infiltration made certain its capsize at some point. As the crew was preparing to evacuate, the HMS Ocean approached to take her in tow. The shallows of the shore made the operation dangerous, and at about six o’clock the Ocean struck a mine in turn, blasting her rudder.

Now she became uncontrollable and also began to fill up. The two ships, immobilized, were at the mercy of Turkish artillery, which against all expectations had cased fire, deprived of ammunitions. Then “naval dust” came to rescue the large crews, then evacuated the zone in haste with the falling evening. Thinking the ships still afloat could possibly be recovered by the Turks, a destroyer was sent to torpedo them at night. After searching for them for four hours, she saw nothing: Both battleships had sunk. The results of the day had been a triumph for the Ottoman Empire, causing the Royal Navy the worst losses in its history since Trafalgar !

HMS Irresistible sinking in the Dardanelles

Landings at Gallipoli

The landings: 25-28 April 1915

This crushing naval failure did not cost De Robeck post, as Churchill, fully assuming his responsibilities, had to explain himself to a raging House of Commons. Henceforth, instead of persevering in this direction, the HQ would try to take the forts on by troops landed on a shore seeming defenseless. On February 22, 70,000 men were assembled under the command of Sir Ian Hamilton, forming the MEF (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force). Preparations lasted a month. The Turks who expected this offensive judiciously chose the most favorable points for an amphibious operation and fortified them with lines of trenches, barbed wire, machine gun nests, mortars and casemates supported by Howitzers. A first disembarkation was planned on Cape Helles, the troops had to cross 11 km and reach the plateau of Kilitbahir which commanded the peninsula, and later the town of Krithia and the Achi Baba hill on which heavy artillery pieces were to be placed for support.

ANZAC cove

On D-Day, April 25th, three battleships landed the first wave, followed by those carried by the destroyers Usk, Ribble, Chelmer, Scourge, Foxhound, Colne and Beagle, assisted and covered by the HMS London, Prince of Wales and Queen, the Majestic and Triumph, the Bacchante in the rear, troops taking place on boats. An error had been made at the site of the landing which took place further north, in a place now called “Anzac Creek.” In spite of the numerous troops disembarked, Turkish lines held firm, inflicting terrible losses on the 29th Division and Commonwealth troops, advancing a meter at a time. The firing of the battleships was not very accurate, despite seaplanes observations from the Ark Royal and balloons from Manica which corrected the fire. The first lines would finally be taken in the evening.

HMS Majestic leaving Mudros harbor to cover landings on April, 25.

Ships of the line’s fire was found ineffective and the troops felt the same sense of helplessness than their brothers in arms stucked in trenches on the western front. The situation differed according to the beaches. At the beaches V, W, and X, farther south of Cape Helles, the artillery preparation had been considerable, but not on “Anzac Cove” conceived as a surprise. The troops, mostly Australian, arrived in front of intact enemy lines. The artillery support only came after, but was restrained by safety concerns when the troops advanced inward. Another landing took place on the beach “S”, at Kum Kale, French troops supported by the Cornwallis, who took the village and held it in spite of Turkish counter-attacks.

Unfortunately, losses of the British Forces were such that the French were ordered leave the village and reinforce the MEF stuck on the west coast of the peninsula. Naval support was not effective against entrenched positions, but much more on Turkish troops moving on open ground to counterattack on the 27th and 28th. The Queen Elizabeth proved its worth by stopping the first offensive with a single salvo, While the second was literally annihilated by 381 mm shrapnells provided for the operation. She also showed precision when on the 27th she sank at long indirect range off Gaba Tepe a Turkish transport crossing the strait, spotted by a balloon.

The failure of Land operations

Faced with obstinate resistance by the Turks masterfully commanded by general Helmuth von Sanders, the offensive never reached its original objectives. The troops disembarked at Cape Helles and never came to the sight of Krithia, while those of “Anzac Cove” advanced only a few kilometers, the interior heights remaining to the enemy. Their situation was untenable because the terrain configuration made Turkish weaponry very effective ion the open, crossing fire covering the whole area. Trenches were dug but all assaults were doomed. Many superior officers lost their lives there. Troops were only supplied by night, but the evacuation of the wounded remained problematic.

Queen Elisabeth at Lemnos, 1915

It was not until May 1st that combined forces managed to form a shallow bridgehead. But the forehead remained frozen. On May 6, Hamilton decided to land in Suvla Bay and launch an attack on Kereves-Dere and Achi Baba. This will be a bloody failure, despite a new attempt with fresh troops on the 15th. More seriously, the support of the navy was now compromised: On May 12, the Turkish TB Muavenet managed to torpedo HMS Goliath, sending it to the bottom. Later, the 25th, the HMS Triumph was sunk by U21. Two days later, the same submarine also sank HMS Majestic. In the face of such losses the Admiralty decided to withdraw all battleships still in support, starting with the Queen Elizabeth that sailed to Egypt wisely. From now on only cruisers and destroyers will provide cover, as well as some “improvised monitors” made with requisitioned local ships and artillery pieces.

Turkish Battleship Messudieh. This old ironclad has been rebuilt but was still considered merely as a glorified coast guard.

Trying to Unlock the front

The last attempt to break the deadlock was carried out on 6th August: There were plans for two attacks south, on Cape Helles and Sari-Bari. The latter is led by the Anzac and totally failed. The second met with little resistance but negligence and nonchalance of the officers prevented any progresses, leaving time for the Turks to fortify their positions and send reinforcements. When Hamilton arrived, it was too late. This last failure further aggravated first Lord of the Sea’s point -Winston Churchill- while Hamilton was replaced by Munro. The latter was seconded by Kitchener, and the two came to the conclusion that the lack of effective support, with continuous fire by large Turkish pieces and the coming winter compromised any progresses.

The final decision to withdraw troops came when the situation in the Balkans deteriorated rapidly. Allied troops, some 100,000 men, were evacuated without much losses from October 1915 to January 1916, but soon disembarked at Salonica to support the Greek front. The largest amphibious operation of the First World War ended for the Allies as a crushing failure: Constantinople was secured, the government and population’s resolve highest than never, while the allies lost 7 battleships and left 250,000 men on the ground, dead and wounded.

Submarine’s revenge

And so were gone the troops, the big guns of the fleet, and with them any hope to secure the Dardanelles. But that did not bring an halt to the operations against the Turks in this area. The amphibious operation failure was compensated by the success of one of the branches of this plan, left aside until now: Submersibles. Despite the difficulties, English and French subs attempted to cross the Straits defenses. On December 13, 1914, the British submarine B13 succeeded in crossing all minefields, the two nets, and reached the bay of Sari Sighlar, south of Cannakale. She caught the old Messoudieh, anchored as a battery, and torpedoed her. The battleship sank in ten minutes, carrying more than 600 men with it. However miraculously most left the ship which hull still emerged, perforating it get out. The exploit of the B11 went on as she managed to come back through. Captain Holbrook was the first to receive the Victoria Cross for this feat.

Australian submarine AE2

On French side, submarine Saphir also passed through the defenses on 15 January, but ran aground on Nagara, and was scuttled. The British E15 attempted the same in April 17, but ran aground on Sari Sighlar after being caught by the strong currents. She was destroyed by fort Dardanos gunfire, the crew taken prisoner without being able to scuttle it. On 26 April the Australian submarine AE2 was the first to cross the Strait entirely, reaching the the Marmara Sea, but a week rampage ended without tangible results, partly because of torpedoes detonator shortages. On the 29th she was spotted and sunk by the Turkish torpedo-boat Sultanhissar.

On 27th of April, another submarine, Commander Boyle’s E14, also crossed the Marmara Sea, fired all his torpedoes, firing her gun, and sinking a large tonnage. She returned back, Boyle received the Victoria Cross. Trade in the sea of ​​marmara was interrupted for some time. Boyle would made later two further crossings without any hindrance, still inflicting losses on Turkish traffic, despite the installation of a new net in Erin Keui Bay. On May, 23, E11 did the same, sinking 11 ships, including three in the same port on the coast of Thrace. On August, 8, during a new attempt she sank the battleship Hayredin Barbarossa, a 1890s ex-German ship armed with three double 280mm turrets. There were also individual exploits of loners, such as Lieutenant Lyon, swimming to the coast from the E2, and managing packed TNT on a railway bridge. He never came back. Lt. Hugues did the same from E11. He derailed a train and won the D.S.O. On July, 17, E7 attacked a coastal railway by gunfire, stopped and destroyed two trains.

British submarine B11

There were also brave but unlucky attempts like the case of the E7, entangled in the first net, and the French Mariotte on July 27. The Joule was sunk on the 1st of May by a mine. The Turquoise story was edifying: She succeeded in crossing the strait on 28 October, penetrated into the Marmara Sea, sank some ships, but upon her return ran aground at the foot of a fort and was captured intact. The Turks towed her, renamed and put back into service in Turkish colors. The submarine also bring with it documents detailing allied operations and a rendezvous with the British submarine E20. When the latter arrived at the appointed time without knowing it, she was torpedoed by the U14 in ambush. In the end, the allies had sunk two Turkish battleships, a destroyer, 5 gunboats, 9 troop carriers, 7 suppliers and 200 steamers and various ships, literally emptying the Sea of ​​Marmara.

Battleship Heyreddin Barbarossa
Turkish Battleship Heyreddin Barbarossa, sunk by E11

The hard lessons of the Dardanelles were not lost. If no other similar amphibious operation was undertaken in WW1 (apart from a 1918 project in the Baltic), new concepts were born that would bore fruit during the Second World War. Allied losses has been imputable to the forts but mines and submersibles. Fortunately the ships sunk were of little use in a modern battle line. Amphibious support seemed to be the only suitable task of those big guns battleship, a foretaste of their growing use in WW2. For the last few years, ultra-modern ships equipped with single, double or triple-caliber turrets for coastal support benefited from all the advances in terms of range, accuracy, and enhanced shells. Many monitors were indeed built to serve in the Adriatic by the Italians and the British in the Channel.


This campaign was also the occasion for a raising fame blue-eyed Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, to show his brillance as a commander and leader in the field. To this day the Dardanelles campaign is cherished by the memory of both the Turks which saw it as a brillant victory, and the Australians, which blood spilled on these bone-dry shores helped shaping a national identity. Memorials and cemeteries of all sides involved are still maintained with care, and veterans of the Anzacs visited these battlefields in the 1950-70s, followed by a trail of documentaries and Peter Weir’s movie in the 1981 starring a young Mel Gibson, “Gallipoli“.

Dunkirk (26 May-4 June 1940)

dunkirk map

A legendary Retreat

That’s a name that will probably stays forever with a bitter-sweet taste for the British public and collective imagination, but its memory is still vivid after many documentaries and two movies (the first 1958) like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The name of the last harbor this side of the channel, pocket of resistance for the bulk of the defeated British and French Armies. Hope in despair.

Isle of Man steam ferry SS Mona’s Queen sinking after striking a mine off Dunkirk, 29 May 1940

And the the extraordinary mobilization of both the military, ground troops doing rearguard fighting, both navies loosing about 12 destroyers in the process, the Air Force, trying to contain the Luftwaffe, civilians volunteering to get the men out despite the odds, and finally the controversial “good will” gesture of Hitler that kept Panzers out of the perimeter to the last minute. This all combined for the “miracle of Dunkirk” allowing to carry back to UK far more British troops, the BEF being the cream of the small Professional British Army, and many thousand Frenchmen fighting a brave rearguard action in the outskirt of the city. As Churchill stated “a war is not won by evacuations”.

German E-Boote (British designation) or Schnellboot. They had a range of 800 nmi (1,500 km; 920 mi) at 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph). Larger German R-Boote (Räumboote) or fast minelayers/minesweepers would later rampage through the Channel. There are countless reports of allied ships sunk by torpedoes and mines, yet Kriegsmarine actions between a costly Norwegian campaign and the aborted late summer invasion (Operation Sea Lion) are yet to fully unfold. At least Bourrasque is recorded to have been sunk by E-boats S-23 and S-26 on 31 May, Wakeful by S-30 on 29 May, and Grafton by U-29 the same day.

*As a personal note i would add Dunkirk touches me in a very personal way. My father was born there, carried away under bombs. Still family on this side resides here. Spent a sizeable part of my childhood there, in front of these very beaches. My father played as a kid with none-exploded ammunitions, found numerous bones, and ventured in and around rusting hulks like the destroyed Bourrasque that layed there for some time before demolition.
My grandfather worked for a shipping company here, and my great-grandfather was a great banks schooner captain, also operating from Dunkirk. Needless to say we both saw Nolan’s eponymous movie two weeks ago. Overall a great movie, with a single odd detail about one filmed area included at the beginning in street fighting that was actually filmed in Bray-Dunes, not Dunkirk.

Premices of the campaign

When the Norway theater seems sold, much of the international attention shifted away from Scandinavia, as Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Germans, Sweden remaining neutral, and Finland was partly dismembered by the USSR after a rough winter campaign. The western front suddenly exploded in May 1940, with the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium. This pincer movement of the Wehrmacht, the awaited thrust to the north being supported by a surprise onslaught from the Ardennes, trapping near a Million men, were the best allies has to offer. On May 20, Heinz Guderian’s panzers reached Abbeville, closing the trap.

One of the largest losses after the campaign was Cunard’s SS Lancastria, sunk off St Nazaire on June, 17, 1940, in Operation Ariel* (see below)

Allied forces retreated, bombarded by the Luftwaffe on roads still encumbered with civilians, to the only major port in the Pas de Calais: Dunkirk. It could be translated as the “church in the dunes” in Flemish. Dunkirk was already famous in 1914-1918, by its strategic position in the North Sea. Weygand was in favor of a large counter-attack at Arras so that his forces heading south could make their junction with the still preserved divisions, but Lord Gort opposed him and quickly receives the assent of the war cabinet. It was on May 26, that the decision fell, that an evacuation was decided from Dunkirk.

Medway Queen, one of the antiquated Paddled steamer that symbolized the scope of the mobilization

Operation Dynamo

This encirclement continued around Dunkirk pocket, where the Admiralty envisaged a bold but extremely risky evacuation plan, the Dynamo plan. The brain of this operation, dubbed “Dynamo” was Admiral Ramsay. In a few days he committed the Royal Navy and in June, he mobilized literally everything that could float to be sent to the English Channel. But neither the Kriegsmarine nor the Luftwaffe remained impassive. While on the ground the pressure increased, seven German divisions were held at a distance by the 30,000 French soldiers of General Molinier, encircled near Lille by Rommel, who protected this operation, fighting for four days until the last cartridge. The suburbs of the city were to assaulted by panzergrenadiers, while Goering made great efforts to annihilate the pocket of Dunkirk by the air, effectively destroying ships at the wharf, preventing troops to be evacuated any other way but the beach.

Hitler’s unexpected respite

In the midst of this terrible retreat, an unexpected respite came from the Fuhrer himself, through the intermediary of General-in-Chief Von Runstedt.

Bourrasque sinking
Famous photo of the Bourrasque, sunk at Dunkirk. The French lost four destroyers, the British seven.

Debates and controversy still rages about this decision. For some the latter was indeed anxious about Guderian’s race to the sea and possible flank counterattacks, more concerned about the capture of Paris. For others he wanted to spare the British for signing a possible truth. This respite allowed sleepless German troops running on pervitine to rest while waiting for the arrival of the fuel, and the allies to establish a real evacuation corridor between Lille and Dunkirk, still under the threat of the Luftwaffe. The decision was wildly criticized among Wehrmacht officers themselves.

Soldier waiting in line to be carried

But this town is preparing for the 25th of May, when the “Battle of Dunkirk” is about to take place, to live the worst moment of its history. The British Admiralty, under the direction of Vice-Admiral Ramsay, and under the urging of Lord Gort, is developing a rescue and evacuation operation that is still unprecedented in history: It will be Dynamo. It is a matter of saving, in the absence of material, abandoned for lack of time and priority, men, starting with 300,000 strong British Expeditionary Force, the blossom of the army and empire. By saving the “Tommies”, by all means, Ramsay and Churchill prepared the mainland to repel a future invasion.

Famous photo showing a Tommie trying to fire on a strafing German plane

In spite of the proximity of the British coast, Dover, the main English harbour is 60 km away, but the “Z road” passes in front of the German artillery at Calais. The two other roads are either threatened by mines, still in the process of being disengaged, or by the S-Bootes operating from Belgium, and of course the Luftwaffe, freshly installed at airfields in north-western France. The British still have two assets: the Royal Navy to carry out the evacuation and the Royal Air Force to protect it.

British destroyer HMS Keith, sunk at Dunkirk, like HMS Basilisk, Wakeful, Grenade, Havant.

And there is another difficulty: The port of Dunkirk had a limited capacity and only two serviceable jetties, and soon the Luftwaffe sow death and destruction: On May 28, a massive first raid of 400 aircraft, among which 180 Stukas transforms the Port in living hell. The day after, 400 bombers protected by 180 Me109 went one, sinking a freighter that would crush the city water supply at the bottom.

The huge oil tanks went ablaze and an acrid “night” envelops the city for several days, ironically preventing the Luftwaffe to perform other operations than limited strafing. Jetties were soon crowded, freighter sunk in the harbor blocked approaches and only the wooden eastern mole remains free, while the bulk of the troops had to embark from the beaches, and to cross miles of shallow water and swim to large vessels expected. In fact most had to content themselves with waiting offshore for a number of small boats to commute (from June 1st). Among these were improbable ships like paddle steamers, a fire boat, and a Thames River “sludge hopper”.

British troops trying to defend against screeming Stukas diving, conveying some idea of the chaos (Feature film re-enactment)

Soon the very large Atlantic beaches of Dunkirk, once a famous holiday’s resort, went cluttered with columns of tired, hungry and thirsty men advancing in the water up to their necks to access ships under Stukas’s relentless strafing and the clatter of artillery brought round the perimeter from the city. The defense was assured by the rear guard of the French all along. The latter had almost 500,000 men at the beginning, but less than 123,000 would take their chance through the channel, with 35,000 remaining behind. Churchill insisted that on June 3, to try to save the French rear-guard, hoping the French will continue the fight.

French destroyer Le Foudroyant, sunk at Dunkirk

In spite of the efforts of the RAF, limited in range (they could only operate one hour over Dunkirk, and many rarely ventured above the beaches, having spent their supply in dogfight at sea in between). The RAF lost 145 planes downed in nine days of fighting. It has been less spared than destroyers of the Royal Navy, for which clear orders had been passed at some point. The Luftwaffe had almost hands free and caused a carnage: Of the 39 British destroyers dispatched on the spot (and later withdrawn), six are sunk, for a dozen in all including four for the French, who lost as of the 27th the Sirroco and the Jaguar.

Amazing 1-shot Peter Robertson sequence for Joe Wright’s movie “Atonement”.

Losses were heavier for freighters and ferries, but precisely the swarm of hundreds of light units dispatched on the spot, yachts, trawlers, ferries, barges, sometimes simple rowboats, maneuvered by courageous civilians were spared precisely because of their size and could approach the beaches and carry out men in droves. Their contribution was more symbolic than other ships as they had been only informed on may 31, 18h00, and saved 26 500 men or less than 10% of the total. In all perhaps 1200 boats and ships participated in the bulk of the evacuation the last days.

Royal Daffodil, one of the steamers that participated in the evacuation cdts:

Operation Dynamo extended itself for 9 days, ending on 4 June in the middle of the night, to complete the evacuation of the British, and part of the French, who remained in the rear to defend the perimeter Of Dunkirk until there was nothing more to do. 75,000 were to be evacuated after the last Tommy was out, but 35,000 of them left behind would surrender on June 4 after 11 am, with the arrival of the panzergrenadiers who fought house by house and captured the remaining center of the city. These men, headed by General Beaufrere would be sent to Germany in the camps and some later returned to France, while those among the evacuees did so later at the demand of a government now in peace with Germany.

Only a small fraction would stay and constitute the initial core of the Free French. It should be mentioned that the French Army there deployed colonial troops from Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia made a sizeable part of those left behind to defend the perimeter (like the 8e régiment de zouaves). There was also on the British side a small detachment of Canadian troops but also Indian auxiliaries at Dunkirk. Not known is also the story of 29 Dutch trawlers and coasters fleeing German occupation that also helped evacuating 23 000 troops making several trips and loosing seven ships.

RMS Lady of Mann, which evacuated thousands. This 1930 ship operated for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company at Barrow-in-Furness.

For the French the episode would retain a certain bitterness for those “guarding the back” to be left behind, and lack of communication at some point with Admiral Abrial ensured a sense of “treason”, hoping until then the British were just moving their troops in another theater of operation like Britanny. Weygand and others from the general staff would also accuse Gort’s last move to wreck the Arras counterstroke. The alliance was definitely broken at the conference of Briare when Churchill announced his refusal to commit the RAF for a battle of France he estimated lost and in August operation “catapult” would certainly fuel a resentment (well fed by German propaganda) that durably hampered efforts of De Gaulle to recruit for his Free French Army in exile (only 3,000 would join from the men rescued at Dunkirk).

All in all, 9 destroyers has been sunk, 19 more damaged, 200 other ships, small crafts and boats sunk and about 200 damaged. Ground-wise, the British lost 68,000 BEF troops, with over 6500 killed, 13,000 wounded, 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles and 65,000 other vehicles, 416,000 tons of stores, including 68,000 of ammunition and 162,000 of fuel and nearly all of the 445 tanks committed.

An aerial reconstitution of the bombings of Dunkirk by the Luftwaffe

Dunkirk, however, remained a pivot point -alternative scenario with the complete BEF killed or captured would have significantly weakened British resolve and/or perhaps add grave consequence above the rest of the war, particularly in Africa and the Suez canal.

This was however seen as a victory, 365,675 men being evacuated instead of the 50,000 originally planned, although Churchill, lucid, said at the time (“wars are not won with evacuations”). This became a watchword for all the British soldiers engaged (remember Dunkirk), especially on D-Day in June 1944. Although carried out with total improvisation and phlegm, this evacuation marked the end of all organized military resistance in continental Western Europe, announcing heavy clouds for the future. However “Dunkirk spirit” would made a lot to smith British resolve, personified by Churchill’s arguably most famous speech at Parliament on June 4, 1940 “we shall fight on the beaches…”

Forgotten evacuations: Operation Cycle & Ariel (10-25 june)

Many could think after Dunkirk all allies troops still remaining on the continent were trapped. Nothing could be further form the truth. Dynamo was indeed followed by Operation Cycle, an evacuation from Le Havre on 10-13 june. This helped evacuating part of the Highlanders (however over 6,000 Highlanders were taken prisoner on 12 June) and the French retreating to St Valery-en-Caux (Normandy).

Operation Ariel took place two weeks after Dynamo, where the remainder of British, French but also Polish and Czech forces still trapped at St Nazaire and Nantes were evacuated. Troops were also evacuated on the Atlantic coast from (north to south) Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, La Pallice, Bordeaux, and Bayonne. This was fortunately not always under threat of the Luftwaffe. In all this represented another 191,870 troops.
Operation Ariel will saw one of the most vivid tragedies with the sinking of SS Lancastria. The 1920, 16,243 GRT liner operated by Cunard embarked between 5000 and 9000 civilians when it was attacked by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Some 1200 tons leaking fuel would transform the scene into a raging inferno, and those not burned and drowned were killed by strafing planes. 2,477 were saved however.

Sources/read more
British Equipments lost at Dunkirk
Evacuation of dunkirk in colour
Facts about Dunkirk – BBC Stats
About the soldiers left behind


Dunkirk War Drama 1958 John Mills
For the French side of the events, see also Henri Verneuil’s 1964 Week end at Dunkirk.

Battle of Santiago de Cuba (july, 3, 1898)

Engraving of the Battle of Santiago
Spanish Armada vs US Navy

Cuba’s decisive naval battle

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba, was seen by some as a naval “execution squad”, as US ships (with large firepower superiority) just awaited the Spanish squadron to leave and force its way out of Santiago’s bay. Some duelling occurred nevertheless, but the fate of the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean was decided this 3th of July, and all but precipitated the end of the war (and of the Spanish Empire).

Forces in Metropolitan Spain

By the time the war erupted over Cuba (and the sparkle which was the explosion of the Maine), Spain had its only ironclads and battleships, the Pelayo, and older Vitoria and Numancia in drydocks at La Seyne at Toulon, while the Mendez Nunez was in reserve, as well as the coastal battery Duque de Tetuan (1874) and the training ship Puigcerda, a monitor from 1874. The Emperador Carlos V and the Princesa de Asturias has been freshly accepted into service but were stationed at Cadiz and Cartagena, carrying out patrols during the war. Most of the torpedo boats were also stationed in Spain.

Author’s map of the battle of Santiago

Cervera’s squadron

In Cuban waters, the colonial squadron at the time of declaration of war was composed of a few minor units, while a strong squadron was just being assembled at the Cape Verde Islands, headed by Admiral Ocquendo. He commanded the armoured cruisers Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, Cristobal Colon, the destroyers Furor, Terror and Pluto, under the command of the best Spanish admiral, the respected Pascual Cervera y Topete. This officer and Gentleman, 59, was a former minister of the navy with 47 years under his belt, notably in Cuba that he knew well, as well as in the Far East. Cultured, polite, competent, courageous, he was appreciated by the court but much more by his men.

Spanish armoured cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa

At the time of declaration of war, Cervera proposed to Madrid that the fleet waited in the Canary Islands, as the U.S. Navy would not fail to track the coastal metropolitan areas, combining his forces with the squadron of Cartagena, sent as reinforcement. He planned to take in a pincer the “Yankees” and inflict them a crushing defeat. All his commanders had approved the plan. But to his dismay he learned that his orders were instead to defend Cuba as quickly as possible. He then departed in the same sad resolution than Admiral Sir Charles Cradock, sent to sacrifice against Spee’s superior ships off the Falklands.

He knew well that on paper his forces were outclassed by number and tonnage by the American ships, compounded by the fact they suffered from a poor supply of shells, had breech blocks issues left unaddressed, lack of maintenance (no fooling) such as Vizcaya could barely sustain 12 knots, not to mention the Cristobal Colon, which was so fresh she still then missed her main guns.

Cristobal Colon
Profile of the Cristóbal Colón prior to the battle. Notice the forward turret is there, but the gun is absent. A dummy one was fitted at the rear. It would have been one 254 mm (10 in)/45 cal. gun. Secondary armament comprised still two 8 in (203 mm)/45 cal. guns
and fourteen single 152 mm (6 in) guns. She has been sold shortly after completion to the Spanish Navy at Genoa on 16 May 1897.


Nonetheless the fleet leaved St. Vincent on April 29, 1898. A long detour which -it was believed- the squadron would run out quickly from coal, therefore the Americans thought it would rather join the fortified port of Puerto Rico first. Meanwhile on May 1, far away in Cavite (Manila Bay) in the Philippines, an American fleet sank at anchor, by surprise, the Spanish Pacific fleet. Back in the Carribean, Sampson knew he must also necessarily score points, even if only for the sport. But Cervera’s squadron was a far more serious prey than the collection of old colonial gunboats in the Far East. On May, 4, Admiral Sampson tried to intercept Cervera on its way to Cuba. On May 11, Sampason arrived at San Juan, and began to shell the harbor, thinking Cervera was there already. Faced with the evidence of his absence, he decided to sail back to Key West. He was to coal in Martinique and headed for Curacao.

Battleship USS Iowa

Then he returned to Key West where he was joined by Schley’s squadron on May 18. Key West was not far from Havana, so it seems unlikely that Cervera would try to risk lifting the blockade. It was believed the squadron would settle in the south of Cuba, to be anchored under the protection of the fortified ports in this area, at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The combined American squadron, now under the command of Schley sailed to Cienfuegos. American confidence in the outcome of the battle ahead is such that the US Navy squadron is surrounded by a picturesque array of luxury yachts attending a “picnic” in case. However some of these Yachts has been equipped after requisition, such as USS Gloucester, sharing his part in the heart of the battle.

USS Brooklyn (ACR3), perhaps the most recognizable and famous American armoured cruiser of that era.

Arrival and deployment

The 22, at Cienfuegos, the eye in the telescope, Admiral Schley observed the apple mast emerging from the hills hiding the harbor, judging how many ships are present, but failed to identify them formally. Are they those of Cervera? The next day a messenger joined the squadron with a message confirming Sampson’s order to stay put. A few hours later, he received another one ordering to sail quickly to Santiago, as rumors indicated the Spanish Admiral was anchored.

But Schley then still felt that the presence of cervera at Cienfuegos was still possible. On 25, Sampson’s cruiser arrived with the first copy of the message, reiterating the order to steam to the port of Santiago, that he hid reluctantly. At dusk, he learned by the commander that Cubans resistants signalled by three shafts of light from the window of a house near to the harbour the Spanish fleet was there. Schley received later formal confirmation from other sources. He could then no longer remain in doubt.

Another view of the USS Brooklyn, the battle’s hero

Coaling and preparing for battle

Schley could not intervene however right away: He was to wait for Weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and his coaling fleet still struggling to separate, like the Merrimack still tied due to serious problems of boilers. At 20 nautical miles from Santiago, he sent three ships to try to see the Spanish fleet. They come back empty. Schley decided nevertheless, fearful of falling short of coal decided to return to Key West to refuel, to the dismay and wrath of the Secretary of the Navy for whom that move confined to insubordination. He sent an urgent telegram on May, 27 classified “top priority” by which he intimated Schley to stay.

Idealized painting of the battle, showing Schley’s brooklyn leading the line. In reality this clean “battle line” duel never happened.

Fortunately, the admiral gave up on the idea to leave the area, even before receiving the telegram, as the sea calmed down, and the coaler Merrimack eventually be able to deliver his payload and exit. He the took all his squadron on May 29, and parked his battleline in front of the mouth of the harbor. He could see from there the glow of sunset falling on the Cristobal Colon and planned action for the next day at dawn.

First shots on the Cristobal Colon

As planned the next day, American ships opened fired and the duel was rapidly unequal but yet, shells missed. The Colon escaped and joined the rest of the squadron, to be placed directly under the protection of Santiago’s forts. The day after, Sampson joined Schley’s squadron.

Santiago’s siege

U.S. forces began a fully-fledged siege of the harbour. Cervera had its only exit cut off, but still had the possible double cover of darkness and bad weather. But still, the sea remains of oil. For their part the two admirals do not intended to force the Bay: Large batteries commanding the mouth of the harbor and approaches were a real threat, not to mention long-range batteries in the fortified port itself, and mines laid across the mouth. On the other hand, they could wait for General Schaft that landed nearby, aimed at taking the city and harbour with his troops and capturing forts and batteries, forcing Cervera to leave the harbor.

Meanwhile Sampson, who hoisted his mark on the Armoured Cruiser New York, just developed an ingenious plan thanks to the inspiration of RP Hobson, a naval lieutenant and brilliant engineer: They were to send the old Merrimack through the mouth, lights off, machines shut, helped by the currents and momentum. Then the steamer would to be scuttled after maneuvering across the entrance and firmly anchored with her carefully placed charges set to detonate and scuttle her. Thus, she was to cut off any possibility of retirement for Cervera’s squadron.

Illustration of the battle.

The operation was conducted on the night of June 2-3, but proved a failure: The steamer, still hampered by boiler pressure problems was poorly operated, and eventually scuttled but into a position and place still allowing Cervera to escape. For his part, the latter had in a few days carried ashore most of his sailors with all weapons available to strengthen lines of defense to the rear against Schaft, which was approaching dangerously. Before news of the American commando arrived, “Captain General” Blanco, governor, and commander in chief of Cuba, ordered Cervera to leave the harbor in force, yet still unmanned and under-supplied.

Cervera’s options

Cervera studied his (bleak) possibilities: Exiting by night was to take the risk of managing his way across in the narrow mouth of course and always possible collision with the Merrimack. After careful consideration, he decided to sail on Sunday, July 3rd, at nine in the morning hours, when traditional religious services in the United States Navy took place (Yamamoto had this detail in mind years later when planning his attack on Hawaii). From Saturday two o’clock in the afternoon, boilers had to be set in motion while the sailors stationed at the front lines in the back of the town would return urgently to prepare the ships to depart.

Cristobal Colon
Cristobal Colon. A recent armoured cruiser built in Italy (Garibaldi class), she was so new that the main battery has not yet even been installed.

Cervera’s squadron strength

The Spanish squadron consisted of the cruisers Almirante Oquendo, Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, and Cristóbal Colón plus Villaamil’s destroyers Pluton and Furor. The 7,000 tons cruisers were not heavily armored, nor armed at least compared to the US battleships. With At best they displayed two 11 inch guns and ten 5.5 inch guns (Infanta Teresa Class) each. In addition the condition of the ships was rather poor, The breech mechanisms were dangerously faulty, boilers were in need of repair, some even needed intensive fouling treatment in drydock. The best protected was the Italian-built armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, but she still lacked her main battery, dummy guns being placed. Crews were also poorly-trained, mostly in gunnery drills, concentrating on rapid fire at regular intervals.

The Battle

Cervera leaves the bay

On July 3, at 9:00, as expected, the Spanish squadron set off. Watchmen in the flagship of Commodore Schley (USS Brooklyn), saw multiple smoke plumes rising from behind the hills and gave the alarm. Schley sent the small and fast yacht Vixen to inquire about the Spanish preparation state in case of a sortie. But despite his precautions, Schley had to acknowledge also the disappearance at dawn of the cruisers New Orleans and Newark, left coaling in Guantanamo, escorted by the battleship Massachusetts. This by the way unlocked a new massive opportunity in the West.

USS New York, Sampson’s flagship. A powerful armoured cruiser by 1890s standard.

Sampson, on USS New York, sailed from his position to “close the gap.” The latter and the Brooklyn were now the only two units that can effectively intercept Cervera’s squadron, at both ends of the pincer. At 9:35 on a glassy sea and bright sunshine, Cervera on board Infanta Maria Teresa followed the pilot guiding his way to the mouth. His ships followed at intervals of 7 minutes. Brooklyn’s watchman saw the plume of smoke moving behind the hill, closing to the entrance and gave the alarm, quickly confirmed by Schley himself. Battle flags were drawn to the apple of the masts, but Sampson on USS New York had then disappeared from view and was not informed.

The duel starts

The duel began between Maria Teresa and the battleship Iowa, across the mouth. It was almost an execution: The Spanish admiral ship, going at full speed, could only present part of her front battery and a few pieces in barbettes, while the squadron formed in a semicircle presented almost all its broadside. The whole horizon barred with black silhouettes which could explode with multiple lights -followed by detonations at any moment. Fortunately for Cervera, there was not a breath of wind, and thick white smoke partially hid her ship and he fired. He fired a second time, but missed despite the closing distance. At seven miles east of Santiago, Sampson had an interview with the General when one of his watchers signaled the white fumes of the Spanish guns. He spotted the Teresa and realized that the time had come. He ordered his his huge cruiser to turn for “crossing the T” of Cervera’s line of battle. At this distance it was still impossible however to predict if Cervera would escape east or west.

Cervera’s chivalrous diversion

Cervera also quickly studied his options and decided to practicing one of these chivalrous gestures which was the pride of the Spanish crown: Heading due west towards the Brooklyn, he would try to ram her, allowing the rest of the squadron to respond effectively to the Americans and escape to the east, apparently empty of USS New York, as none were able to follow them. As expected, the subterfuge worked and the battleship Texas, very close to the Brooklyn, believed that Cervera was to sail due west, and began his maneuver, dragging the rest of the squadron. The Brooklyn was the only one that effectively turned her prow east (by mistake, not prescience!).

Through the fog generated by the greasy smoke lingering and spreading to the surface due to lack of wind, one of the watchmen of USS Texas suddenly spotted with amazement the emerging white bow of a cruiser, adorned with the stripped coat of arms and Eagle. He shouted “Brooklyn straight ahead!” and thanks to the presence of mind of the mate who manned the bar on “full astern”, and the readiness of the helmsman, the Texas avoided a fatal collision…

Wreck of the Vizcaya

Leaving the bay, Cervera saw the Brooklyn coming eastward with him over the side. Declining a ramming, he then confirmed his early heading west to deceive the US Fleet. Penetrating deeper into the American fire square, he drew all the shots, while Colon and Vizcaya started to escape by shaving the coast. Banking heavily, Maria Teresa was hit by a large caliber that destroyed the bridge, killing all present officers including the captain. Cervera then took personal command of the ship which began to burn, fire spreading dangerously into the corridors at the rear, next to the ammunition bunkers, which could not be drowned. Cervera decided to save his men while allowing some hope to continue the fight from the shore: He turned his ship towards the beach hoping to ran aground. The American ships still could not follow their boilers being only half of their maximum heat or even cold. These same measures ordered the night before to prevent the ships falling short of coal weighed heavily on the action.

Cruiser Almirante Oquendo is next

Situation of the cruiser Almirante Oquendo then changed dramatically. The cruiser, just passing the harbour’s mouth and was left alone until then. But because fire subsided on the Maria Teresa, now helpless and burning like a torch, they pointed their sights on the unfortunate cruiser. The Ocquendo fired back, but all her guns were silenced one after the other. After less than half an hour, officers were all killed as more than half of her, and she ran aground in turn, less than a mile from Teresa. But at that precise moment of impact at 10:30, her hull was so battered that she that broke in two in a tremendous explosion.

Spanish Cruiser Almirante Oquendo- Wikipedia

Spanish destroyer’s turn

Finally, the hull was achieved by fire from destroyers Furor, Terror, followed by Pluto. The first two escaped, zig-Zagging between high geysers of large calibers, but the Pluto received an impact of large caliber (330 mm) on its rear deck, destroying its engine room and distorting her rudder. Veering sharply to the coast, she almost immediately struck a reef, destroying its bow. Fortunately her crew jumped out and swam to shore in minutes. The irony of all this was these were the world’s first practical destroyers, due to Captain’s Villaamil vision, but they never went into action as planned.

Furor chased by USS Iowa. The Furor class, creation of Aug. Villaamil was arguably the first purpose-built destroyer worldwide.

Meanwhile for the Furor, situation was not better: First impact on the bridge killed officers and the bar went stuck at its highest incidence just when ordered a tight turn. Like the Bismarck years later, the unfortunate destroyer began to turn around, turning into a sitting duck. Unable to replicate with its inadequate guns, she was quickly evacuated, just before another shell 330 mm landed in the engine room, sending pieces of boilers brought to white into the blue. Water rushed immediately and the Furor sank in an instant. In thirty minutes, two cruisers and two destroyers has been destroyed. Schley could savor his victory by advance.

Vizcaya’s deperate duel

The kill board however was not yet fully completed: The USS Brooklyn, followed by Texas and Oregon were chasing the slow Vizcaya, closing along the coast. Battleship Iowa and the yacht Gloucester fished survivors, leaving Indiana behind, still heating up. A tremendous artillery duel began at close range (900 meters) between the Vizcaya, protecting Colon’s escape, and USS Brooklyn, sandwiching her as in Nelson’s finest hours. At such distance, all guns erupted, even machine guns crackled with rage. For a bit Schley and his crew felt their own finest time has come.

Regular exercises of American gunners began to bear fruit. While reloading slower because the officers asked them to take time before fine-tuning the sights, their hits multiplied to the point that a sailor was baffled not to see any white plumes misses. For their part the Spanish gunners were a little faster, and had the advantage of a thicker hull armor. But 1898 was the only fiscal year where gunnery practices were curtailed, leading to some imprecision in return fire. At one point, the Brooklyn suffered a 280 mm shell that penetrated the hull just below the bridge but did not explode, injuring two sailors superficially. A moment later another shell decapitated a gunnery lookout standing in the sight top.

But the next moment, a hit at the stern of the Vizcaya blew the torpedo tube and the ship began to burn furiously, pouring blinding smoke on the unfortunate gunners. The fate of the vessel was sealed. Slowly but surely all her guns were put out of action, so much so that after a while, there were thoughts of preparing the ship for ramming, or beaching the ship, like the other two. The commander was seriously wounded, the second took over, and after a quick “vote” with the officers and men presents to see if something more could be done for the crown and honor of Spain, it was decided to ground the cruiser onto the beach.

Vizcaya’s men ordeal

Seeing the ship heading towards the coast, the Brooklyn and Texas ceased fire. Texas’s crew was rejoicing, starting a song of victory when Captain Philips ordered them to be quiet, saying “Do not sing, boys, those poor devils are dying”… Indeed, from there they could see small red and white spots in a macabre and sobering picture of scorched and twisted corpses littering the bridges, sometimes emerging from open wounds of the hull. The Vizcaya was transformed into a floating hell, with a continuous rumbling in the background. The fire became so intense masts began to writhe under the heat. Planks of the bridge that did not burn gave way, opening the buckling mess of steel raised to red by pressure. The entire ship’s belly was just a huge boiler vomiting tortured men and parts from all its reddish orifices.

The Vizcaya explodes, hull split in two

But for the survivors ordeal was not over: Jumping to the water knowing what would be the pain of a salty water in contact with their burned flesh and open wounds, they had to remain afterwards immersed intermittently to escape gunfire from Cuban resistant firing from ashore or attending the show passively, capturing those washed ashore. They eventually decided to go after the representatives of the hated regime, swimming painfully to shore, yet inflicting them another horrible death with machetes and guns. The scene was such that Commander Evans, from USS Iowa, who had launched all his boats to pick up survivors, sent one with an officer voicing ahead to discourage Cubans to continue their killing, under the threat of a volley of his large guns.

Gun on Vizcaya’s wreck

Spanish sailors seeing the massacre playing ashore began to turn back for the rescuing Americans despite their exhaustion, but had to contend with sharks, attracted and maddened by the smell of blood, barring their way back and striking at random. This horror went to the very doorsteps of the American boats: The first master of Iowa, Jeffrey Davis, recalled giving a hand to an officer, heavily burned and calling for help. As he leaned to grab his forearm, he saw a gray spinning close to the board, and next fell back into the boat, with the trunk of the unfortunate: A shark just took the rest.

Cristobal Colon’s fate

The Cristobal Colon, meanwhile, seemed to left his pursuers. She was now chased by the Brooklyn, whose machines were still not yet fully heated, the Oregon, whose crew redoubled efforts. Finally, Texas, to the rear, continued on her course. The hunt lasted for two hours, to the point the Cuban coast was about 110 Kilometers away. The Colon was making then twenty knots and distances stretched, but soon a fateful decision was made to spare coals stock and reduce consumption.

Schley was jubilant: The Spanish cruiser seemed to put more miles between his own ships and her, but he knew that soon the coast’s shape would oblige the Iberian cruiser to change course, this time closing the gap with her pursuers. On the bridge of Colon, the commander studied his options. He knew full well that in one hour his exhausted drivers, toiling in the hell of the engine room (over 50° at full steam) would have ran off Asturias coal and commence feeding the local low quality coal instead. As expected, at nine in the evening, while the coast was starting to get closer, the smoke plume still visible on the horizon from USS Oregon changed imperceptibly. Slowly but surely, they began to distinguish a shiny black bow with hints of red in the setting sun, until large main guns were ready to bear, and later close enough that the 203 mm from the Spanish ship came also within range. The final duel between the two vessels began.

wreck of Admiral Ocquendo
Wreck of he Almirante Ocquendo

End duel

On the sixth salvo, the Spanish ship was now cornered to the coast which now barring the way. The Captain decided not to be caught: Despite honors commanded, he noticed a group of reefs in order to ran aground her ship, then scuttle her. It was done and sailors and officers quietly gained their boats and aimed to the shore, waiting to surrender to the Americans. When Admiral Sampson arrived at full speed on the USS New York, it was all over. He could only watch the wreck of the Colon marking out the side, ripped, twisted, whence torrents of thick curls. He could also see the bridge crowded with men from the USS Indiana and Iowa, a ballet of boats pulling bodies tossed like puppets on black water.

USS Oregon leaving California to join the Caribbean in 1898, nicknamed “the bulldog of the fleet” she was the fastest and most recent battleship of the US Navy.

In the whole Cervera’s squadron, only the small, but aptly named Terror had survived. The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was over. The Spanish Empire not only had lost the same day his best admiral, taken prisoner along with 1600 men and 70 officers but had to deplore 323 dead or missing and 151 injured, the loss of the best fleet, and its possessions in the Caribbean, this, a few months after the fall of the Philippines. Only a handful of the crews successfully joined the lines defending the city. The Americans had lost one officer and deplored nine minor injuries and one seriously. Santiago will fall on July 17, resisting over two weeks against much superior forces.

Wreck of the Almirante Ocquendo in 1899.
Wreck of the Almirante Ocquendo in 1899.


The battle’s lessons were numerous, although the whole affair was very much one-sided, between a cornered admiral with inadequate ships trying to escape a veritable “execution squad” of battleships and armoured cruisers blockading Santiago’s bay. It showed some difference in gunnery practices, but probably the most intriguing fact was the postwar Sampson-Schley Controversy. The whole point among naval officers was to determine which commanding officer deserved credit for the victory. When Sampson’s New York approached Schley’s Brooklyn, the latter singalled by flag “The enemy has surrendered” and “We have gained a great victory”, on which Sampson answered later with a “terse and seemed needlessly brusque” message according to naval Historian Joseph G. Dawson and tension grew between the men, but really exploded when the press decided to choose its champion, Sampson’s Fourth of July Victory, after his cable to Secretary Long. This was heavily resented by many in the fleet, moreover Schley.

On July, 5, Kentucky Congressman Albert S. Berry argued publicly that “Schley is the real hero of the incident” and that his actions deserved much of the credit for the American victory. The controversy gained momentum in the press, sides were chosen, with more credits to Schley be given on the popular opinion though a young cinema, Thomas Edison making an acclaimed film of the battle. Of course this divided the Academy and Officer corps as well, Alfred Thayer Mahan backing Sampson. When Secretary Long proposed the two officers being promoted Vice-admiral, Sampson was promoted first despite his lower rank in the promotions list which was seemed by many as “a great injustice” and the case was eventually ported to a court of inquiry which opened on September 12, 1901 at the Washington Navy Yard, with 14 charges of negligence over Schley, finding he did not “project the right image of a naval officer”. Schley did appealed to Theodore Roosevelt which called for an end to all public disputes but the affair somewhat tarnished what was otherwise a true, legitimate naval victory.

The Reina Mercedes, abandoned in Santiago Bay because of engine troubles. This unprotected cruiser was captured by the U.S. Navy and used as a receiving ship until 1957 as the USS Reina Mercedes. Two other colonial cruisers (Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon) were also reclassified as gunboats in US service?


The effects of this victory resonated less in the Spanish Congress as well as the popular press, than on elites who saw the last ships down with a final dream of matching Charles V Empire. In August, deprived of any support from the metropolis, Cuba surrendered and Spain sued for Peace in August. The war was over. Meanwhile a legend was forged on land, on San Juan hill: a stocky, highly energetic officer shouting orders to “Battler Joe” Wheeler (a celebrity of the former Confederate Army), with mustaches and little round glasses, climbed under fire at the head of his dismounted Rough Riders and entered the legend. Former Assistant Secretary of State for the Navy, avid reader of Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt was also an adept of the Monroe doctrine. He was elected 12 years later, President of the United States. A great lover of hunting and nature, he was also the driving force behind a navy that will raise in a matter of 15 years, to a level close to the Royal Navy, making it known worldwide through the acclaim “great white fleet” cruise. See US Navy in ww1.


Fernando Villamil Fernando Villaamil: A competent Spanish naval officer, designer of the first destroyer warship in history (Furor) and for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba as the highest ranking Spanish officer killed that day, of an heroic death.

Winfield Scott Schley:

A rear admiral in the United States Navy and the hero of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, Schley was debated over Sampson about who really won the battle. He was put in command of the Flying Squadron, with U.S.S. Brooklyn (CA-3) as his flagship. His ships engaged that day probably the best cruisers of the Spanish Navy, the Teresa, the Vizcaya, and the Colon. His duel with the Vizcaya could have turned more vicious if that was not for the help of the USS Oregon. His maneuvers were later magnified by the press and perhaps gave him more credits that he actually deserved.

Almirante Cervera

Almirante Pascual Cervera y Topete:

A highly decorated veteran of the Spanish Navy, which also distinguished himself during the Carlist Wars. Later as head of Spain’s Ministry of Navy, he attempted a number of far-reaching reforms but eventually resigned. At Cuba he led a brilliant circumnavigation of U.S. naval forces but did not had the necessary ships to face the US Navy there, his position being betrayed by the governor. Leaving Santiago to try leave the blockade ended in failure, but Cervera was upon his returned cleaned of any competence failings after the trial for the loss of his command, mostly because of the effort of his crew and was honored by the Republican Navy years after, naming a cruiser after him.

Admiral William T. Sampson

. Due to his senior position of command, Sampson was generally given full credits for his victory at Santiago. A New Yorker, pure product of the United States Naval Academy, he served in the Union Navy in 1864 with the monitor Patapsco of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In the 1880s he was a Superintendent of the Naval Academy, and he became Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in the 1890s. He was also appointed as commander of the battleship Iowa in 1897 and led the enquiry for the destruction of the Maine. A rear admiral in 1898 his flagship was the armoured cruiser USS New York. He undertook the Cuban blockade and bombarded San Juan before being sent to intercept Cervera’s squadron.


About the battle

About the 1898 war – Crucible of an Empire

This article is part of a Triptych: The war of 1898.

Links & Sources
Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860–1905

Battle of Manila May, 1, 1898

battle of Manila bay
Spanish Armada vs US Navy

Map of Manila’s battle actions (public domain)

Swapping an Empire for Another

The origins

The war of 1898 which emerged from the question of the independence of Cuba from Spanish so-perceived tyrannic colonial rule, was resolved rapidly through two naval battles. Strangely the first one did not occurred in the Caribbeans, but far away in Asia, in the maze of tropical islands called the Philippines. Thus remote possession of the Spanish Empire was all that left from its former Empire there since 1565, but still, a vital trade and materials provider (notably rubber), which was defended by a squadron while the capital Manila was well protected by a chain of forts all along the bay, easy to close and defend. The American attack came as a surprise (the local forces were not prepared, neither to the ferocity of the assault, nor to fight in any way).

USS Olympia
USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the battle. It has been preserved and can be visited in the Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia. Illustration by the author.

The battle and its consequences

It was called soon a “splendid example of a splendid naval action” with tremendous consequences. For Spain, the fall of its Asian operating base (soon Guam followed) and the beginning of the end, confirmed at Cuba in July, which precipitated the end of the war. It proved that despite falling to near oblivion after the civil war, the American Navy was no longer a Joke for European powers. It changed the lives of all Filipino, that much like their Cuban counterparts, lived under a harsh colonial regime and developed resistance movements. First perceived like liberators, the new power however settled in a quasi-colonialist fashion, going as far as ordering fierce repressions leaving the impression to the locals of having swapped an imperialist power for another.

Dewey on the lookout post of the USS Olympia, a painting now at Vermont State.

The Battle of Manila was mainly a surprise attack by a U.S. Navy squadron on the Spanish Pacific Squadron anchored at Manila Bay. Complete destruction of the fleet prevented any reinforcements to Cuba and offered the United States a brand new platform in Asia for future expansions and its fleet support in this area. The victory was all the more dazzling for the Navy, its realization was daring, hazardous and risky, ended with no casualties but minor injuries, a feat rarely achieved for the scale of such battle. The strong impression it left, conducted the Japanese to apply the very same tactic at Port Arthur against the Russians some seven years later. This surprise attack and preventive strike would inaugurate a kind of action soon famous in warfare in general, in a sense prefiguring the blitzkrieg. Like Napoleon once stated, the “best defence is attack”. This success was largely celebrated and do well for the war nickname “the splendid little war” soon relayed by all the press, in the US and abroad.

Cruiser USS Raleigh (C8) circa 1900
Cruiser USS Raleigh (C8) circa 1900

Commodore Dewey’s Pacific Squadron

It all started with the plans reviewed by the Admiralty in the event of confrontation with Spain, a few years ago. That’s when Commodore George Dewey, then based in Hong Kong, was appointed to head the U.S. Pacific fleet at the insistence of the personal assistant to the secretary at the Naval affairs of the White House, Theodore Roosevelt. His squadron was quite thin in Asia in terms of impact force, especially compared to the Spanish fleet, reinforced by many land-based coastal batteries. His squadron included the cruiser USS Olympia, USS Boston, gunboat USS Petrel and the very old steam paddle USS Monocacy. That was only a mere fraction of the US Navy at that time, which bulk was facing Cuba.

Gunboat USS Petrel, circa 1900
Gunboat USS Petrel, circa 1900

Intelligence of the Armada

In addition, knowledge of the Spanish forces in the sector was meager, based on assumption that the bulk of the fleet was anchored in Manila, which was confirmed later by the American consul there, Oscar. F. Williams. Lieutenant Upham (USS Olympia) was also there in civilian disguise, roaming in the capital of the Philippines to try to glean detailed information on ships in harbour and movements. Finally Dewey himself has his own personal sources, form an American businessman who went there regularly and also passed more valuable information.

Cruiser Castilla
Spanish cruiser Castilla with full rigging in the 1880s.

State of Dewey’s squadron

But the supply of ammunition (as well as coal quality) was a real problem for the US squadron. Dewey’s ships had, few days before the battle, not yet received a quarter of their shell stock. Supply ships were hard to find and charter, many companies and crews refused to take the risk. The cruiser USS Baltimore, dry-docked, has her hull cleaned and repainted in dark gray within 48 hours, a more suitable livery than the classic peacetime classic “black hull, white and canvas superstructures” for naval operations. However, reinforcements arrived on the eve of the battle, with some equipment for the fleet and ammunition to complete inventories (40% Empty), accompanied by the cruiser USS Raleigh and a Customs patrol boat, the USS MacCulloch. Still later after the departure of the squadron, the gunboat USS Concord joined the group. Other depot ships were also collected for the purposes of last-minute supplies. At the outbreak of war, the squadron has coaled after many difficulties, but was now ready to depart, and morale was very high.

USS Baltimore (C3) starboard bow view in 1891. Notice the reduced military masts.

State of the Armada in Manila

Meanwhile the local Spanish pacific fleet was managed by Admiral Don Patricio y Montojo Pasaron, whose fleet included the cruisers Don Antonio de Ulloa, Don Juan de Austria, Reina Cristina, Castilla, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, and the gunboat Marques del Duero. Stationed at Manila Bay, they were deployed in front of Subic Bay, which defenses has been considerably reinforced after the outbreak of war. At the last minute, spare battery from the old gunboats Don Antonio and General Lezo were placed on coastal fortifications, as well as the guns of the cruiser Velasco. Castilla was also in such bad condition that its 150 mm (6 in) guns were landed, but left shortly before the attack on the beach instead of being swiftly mounted in position. The entrance of Subic Bay was mined, as well as that of the harbor of Manila. But if Subic bay of a tactical standpoint remains an excellent choice, no fortification was there, and there was a risk that the planned batteries carried by land could not be installed on schedule. Shallow water of the area also allowed in the worst case ships to be sunk on purpose to serve as fixed batteries. It also rendered a fleet moves difficult, lowering speed and easing the work of coastal artillery batteries.

Revenue cutter USRC McCulloch circa 1900
Revenue cutter USRC McCulloch circa 1900.

The battle

First moves

Since Montojo’s forces gradually showed signs of a defensive stance, most of the action and initiative would came from the Americans: On April 28, Montojo learned the departure of Commodore Dewey’s squadron. In emergency, he tried to install some extra guns, but officers in charge warned him that the defenses would not be ready on time. In addition he received a message from one of the highlights of Subic bay that Dewey already had sent some vanguard units in recognition. Therefore Montojo preferred to retreat under the protection of the guns of Manila and emboss his ships in front of the fortified Sangley Point, and the battery of Ulloa on Cavite. Vessels were sunk by opening valves, still able to continue firing, solidly planted on the sand. The cruiser Castilla, partly disarmed, has her sides protected by two old collier hulls filled with sand shells. Other preparations were in progress when the American fleet stood at the entrance of the bay. The latter could hear from the bridge the distant roar of the city of Manilla.

Engraving by J.D. Gleason (USN archives)n

Dewey prepares at Luzon

On april 30, the fleet arrived in Luzon. Dewey sent USS Boston and USS Concord in recognition of Subic, and USS Baltimore, which followed them in front of the fleet, received an erroneous report alleging artillery duels, quickly rectified. It was agreed that the Spanish fleet was no longer in Subic. Dewey turned to his Chief of Staff and said, “Now we have them!”. The ship’s bridges were prepared in case of fire by throwing overboard all that was made of wood, except on the ship bearing the Admiral’s flag, the USS Olympia. Tons of sand were also thrown on bridges to allow grip because of probable seawater from plumes and blood, and certain sensitive parts were protected with thick cloth soaked in vinegar, as was done traditionally to ensure no fire can take root or spread.

Dewey’s approach to the Bay

The fleet headed for the entrance of the bay, protected by islands and islets, forming two more or less wide entries: Boca Chica and Boca Grande. This was dangerous because of its many reefs and narrows, although the maneuvers was feasible. Boca Grande entrance was marked by the forts of the island of Caballo and El Frail, and Boca Chica was even narrower and more heavily defended, notably by the island of Corregidor, surrounded by fortresses able to deliver (at least in theory) a punishing crossfire. Dewey did finally move his squadron in Boca Grande, at 23 pm, lights off except the pilot stern that allowed the battle line to follow. His line passed between Caballo and El Fraile north to south, included leading USS Olympia, followed by the steamer USS Nanshan, Zafiro, McCulloch, and Petrel, then the USS Raleigh, Concord and Boston.

Forts are the first to fire

The poor coal used by USS McCulloch made that little flame that arose from her high chimney an easy pick for the watchman of fort El Fraile, which promptly ordered to open fire. The first salvo fell between Raleigh and Petrel. The whole line answered, and quickly silenced the battery. However, the telegraphist was able to sent an alert at 2 am to Admiral Montojo, already on his feat after hearing the rumbling in the distance, frowned behind the hills of Cavite.

Painting of the battle by J.G. Tyler (USN archives)
Painting of the battle by J.G. Tyler (USN archives)

Spanish Actions Station

He sounded the rally and crew hurried to put away, or throw overboard everything that was a source of bursts, removing the boats, placing here and there many sandbags. Dewey line of battle went up quietly in the middle of the bay, and at 4:00, the armada signaled the general steadiness for combat. The men were at post, cruisers ready from the tip from Cavite to the batteries of Sangley Canaco. The Spanish fleet was forming a line of stepped defence in front of the city of Cavite, the Velasco drawing the battle line to the east of the fort at Sangley. The Zafiro, the Nanshan and McCulloch, the first two unarmed, were eventually sent back into the bay as observers, while the line drawn by the Olympia arrived at Manila, finding only cicilian steamers, tacked through the course to the southeast toward Cavite.

Dewey’s First pass

Dewey’s squadron was walking very slowly, at 3 knots, as he hoped that his vessels still could remain unspotted. However, Don Juan of Austria watchman saw at 4:45 am, still dark, the fire arose from U.S. ships chimneys and gave the alarm. The American line was then at 5 o’clock in the morning, dawn, under fire of the heavy batteries of the forts of Manila. Two cruisers responded with strict orders to use ammunition against these forts with economy, sparing them for the enemy ships. Montojo, seeing the artillery duel in front of Manila, decided to allow his ships to sail in an emergency and lay a few mines blocking Dewey, a risky maneuver performed by his admiral ship, cruiser Reina Cristina. Dewey spotted then at at 5:15 pm the light of the guns of Fort Canacao (one 120 mm/5-in gun) and Sangley Point (two 150 mm or 6-in guns), soon followed by those of Spanish cruisers.

Engraving of the battle, USN archive photo funds
Engraving of the battle, USN archive photo funds

Only 35 minutes later he ordered a counter fire when everyone was ready. The two 203 mm guns (6 in) of the USS Olympia front turret thundered, followed by those of other vessels of his squadron. By presenting the Spanish his ship’s prow first, Dewey did not run a great risk. But soon the Olympia began to turn course East to present its broadside, quickly followed by whole line, opening fire at point-blank range (400 meters).

First, the Reina Cristina was badly hit, after few impacts sparking a fire and knockout her main artillery. Dewey initiated to bring a turning movement, the famous “spiral” in reduced mode (6-8 knots, approx. 10-12 km/h), precisely in order to concentrate his fire back to the north, then back again from the east, each time bearing all its broadside. The line was far enough, however, to avoid the shallows of Canacao’s bay.

Drawing of the battle by W.G. Wood
Drawing of the battle by W.G. Wood – USN photos archives

Dewey’s incredible withdrawal

At 7:30 am, Dewey suddenly learned that his main battery had only fifteen rounds left. The situation still could turn out badly very quickly. He decided, though men were still ready to fight, to withdraw to replenish his ships, and allowed his men to take a breakfast, while always under Spanish range. This reckless feat was later noted in the press as further evidence of the extraordinary American confidence over the final issue (or arrogance). But in truth the inventory had been misinterpreted, because only fifteen rounds has been fired by gunners in all that time, taking even more time for aiming than the exercise!… This was repeated later at Santiago.

USS Olympia leading the battle line in Manila Bay
USS Olympia leading the battle line in Manila Bay

But the results seemed to pay off at this distance, with more than 2% hits (at the time was a good result). The retreat order given by Dewey in any case was not well received by the crews, especially the gunners and their officers which suddenly had to provide a detailed report of losses in men and ammunition remaining while those from the boiler rooms had to run along the ships to check for damage. Confusion even shortly reigned aboard the Olympia, which amid the smoke of the fire falsely spotted a torpedo attack from two Spanish steamers, quickly knocked out by small quick-firing pieces. It turned out later that these were two small civilian boats, wrong place, wrong time.

Cruiser Alfonso XII class. 1885, 3000T, wooden hulled with iron plating. The Reina Cristina was present at Manila. She had (in theory) six Hontoria 152 mm.

Dewey’s second pass

After this surrealist pause, unique in naval warfare, Deweys resumed his attack. Meanwhile indeed, the Spanish did not remain idle. Not only they replicated feverishly, but they also attempted an attack in the old style, Don Juan de Austria and Reina Cristina placing themselves in position to launch a ramming attack. When spotting the manoeuver, a barrage of fire kept them at bay. The Cristina, already deprived of its firing direction, was therefore struck by other shells, one of which entered her hospital room and the other penetrated its rear ammunition store. The latter started to burst but did not explode, promptly drowned by pumps. Nonetheless the fire quickly spread elsewhere and soon ran out of control. Later on, with only a handful of gunners remaining, half her crew ashore, and most officers killed or wounded, Montojo decided to scuttle his flagship. Taking a skiff, he quickly joined the cruiser Isla de Cuba to raise his mark and give orders. The Don Antonio de Ulloa was soon disabled and scuttled as well in shallow water, so that the crew remained on board and resumed firing. Despite the short distance, the poorly trained Spanish gunners scored almost no hit. The Castilla followed suite and was also evacuated and scuttled. Montojo ordered the remaining ships to sail towards Bacoor Bay to pursue the fight, and be scuttled in shallow water. They eventually surrendered before it took place.

Spanish cruiser/gunboat Isla de Luzon.

The battle ends

The American fleet had taken several hits buy almost without damage and no casualties. The only serious hit was taken by the USS Baltimore, that struck the freeboard, ricocheted off the bridge, crossed a deckhouse, bounced inside the shield of a 6 inch from the opposite side, ricocheted a second time on the bridge and buried itself without exploding… There was eventually 8 minor injuries as a result of sparks and splinters. More fear than harm.

Wreck of the Castilla

At 11h 16 pm, the cease-fire became evident as the Spanish squadron appeared to have been completely knockout. However there was a final artillery duel between USS Baltimore and the still undamaged Canacao and Sangley forts, which were silenced in turn. Yet Dewey was warned that the crew of Don Antonio de Ulloa, although half submerged, was still firing with the last usable gun. In fact this was not true, but a rain of shells quickly fell on the already wrecked ship, slaughtering survivors. Yet the last remaining sailors did not capped their flag. American gunners themselves were impressed by the bravado of these Spanish crews. Gunboat USS Petrel was ordered to enter the harbor, checking unit still able to fight and then be back to make a report. Off the town of Cavite, she wiped out and silenced another battery with her 6 inches guns.

Sunken wreck of the Reina Cristina


At noon, the case was made. All Spanish ships were reported permanently disabled. Montojo noted in his report 127 dead and 214 injured. The heavy batteries of Manila however, were still able to sink any American ships, but incredibly stood quiet for fear of reprisals. The only two American deaths were due to the chief engineer of the McCulloch, Randall, having a heart attack during Boca Grande maneuvers, and Captain Charles Gridley, already ill, which directed Olympia’s fire from blockhouse, transformed into real oven under the scorching sun of the region. He too badly suffered from the heat, but died a month later at Kobe, back home.
Later, the Americans would seize the cruisers Isla de Cuba and Isla de Luzon, repair them, and resumed their service in the US Navy as gunboats under their original names. In 1912, the Isla de Cuba was also sold in Venezuela, which kept it in service until the late 40. As for the Olympia, the Isla de Cuba was preserved and is currently the visiting centerpiece of Independence Seaport Museum, at Philadelphia.

Sunset victory

At sunset, the USS Olympia came quietly to the mooring at the waterfront of Manila, all flags were raised like for a parade, sailors and officers aligned in perfectly clean uniforms, and the full orchestra dressed in regalia lined up on the rear deck, beginning a series repertoire of songs in honor of the defeated man of the day, Montojo, and the gallantry of the entire Spanish fleet.
The astonished Manilese came to hear these tunes on the docks, while echoing from Cavite continuous explosions of the last stocks of ammunitions in still smoldering wrecks.

The flag is raised over the fortifications

Manila’s control

While the Spanish fleet was clearly out of action, Dewey still did not controlled the city, which unlike Cuba, became the prey of insurgents. The entire American squadron cannot not even muster a company capable of reaching the governor palace. Dewey then took the decision after news of his victory cabled, to set up a naval blockade of Manila Harbour until reddition of the officials. He was promised troops quickly. In town, several persistent rumors spoke of an alliance between Germany and Spain, in Habsburg memory. Some even predicted an imminent declaration of war by Germany, another rumor pretended an army of 10,000 Germans from Tsing Tao just landed at Subic… However, the Filipino independence movement was quickly sent into action, and revolutionaries under the leadership of Vicente Catalan, provoked the mutiny of the steamer Compania de Filipinas, July 5, 1898. Spanish officers were executed, and the ship rallied Manila, with other steamer crews. Promoted “Admiral of the Mosquito Fleet” and flying a provisional flag of the Philippine Republic, Catalan ordered to paint false barbettes on the hull and installed on the main deck dummy guns made with copper pipes painted black. Thus disguised as “cruiser”, the Compania of Filipinas, a former Tobacco carrier, rallied Subic Bay in order to obtain the surrender of the garrison of the fort, under the threat of his “guns”.

Filipino guerrillas, 1899

Philippines Control

But the Spanish garrison refused and Catalan decided to send a company to finish them. Preparations went on, when the sailors of the improvised cruiser discovered with amazement the “real” German cruiser Irene nearby. The latter raised on her mast a recognition signal and summons the company to stop. The Filipino steamer was seen indeed by the Germans as a “pirate”, the Philippine Republic being not recognized. Meanwhile a diplomatic waltz took place in Europe, each nation sending vessels to “show the flag” in these waters. The Filipino mock cruiser was no match and hoisted the white flag. Informed of the situation, Dewey sent the Concord and Raleigh to intervene and require in turn the Spanish surrender. The Irene, seeing the American ships arrived, went quietly mooring on the other side of Isla Grande, and after a warning shot from Commander Coghlan of USS Raleigh, the garrison stir in turn the white flag.

Reassured by the hope of surrendering to regular troops, the Spanish garrison left the fort in good order and joined the Raleigh. Coghlan, however, had been ordered to assign prisoners to Catalan, while the latter was ordered to hand them over to the Governor of Manila. The Philippine “independence” was granted by the Treaty of Paris signed Dec. 10, 1898, but in reality the first elected president, Emilio Aguinaldo, was seen as a puppet of the White House by the majority of former revolutionaries who took over arms. U.S. military presence, was soon dragged into a new bloody and bitter insurgency war.

New threats and challenges

Later, U.S. troops also had to face the revolt of the indigenous Moros. US presence solidified in the interwar as former Spanish bases were developed and strengthened, fortified over the years 20-30, to the point of building a “concrete battleship”. In 1941, General MacArthur directed the U.S. forces in the Philippines, and considered the approaches to Manila (by jungle or sea), impregnable. It was December 1941, but that’s another story…


Admiral Patricio Montojo

Born in Ferrol, in Galicia (naval base, shipyard and major industrial hub), Montojo was graduated from the Naval School in Cadiz and spend years in the Philippines fighting the Moros. He was commander also of the Cuba squadron and later Río de la Plata. Montojo was wounded during the Manila Bay battle, as was one of his two sons, and was court-martialled after the war in Madrid, and imprisoned. He was released later, thanks to the intervention of his subordinates and …Dewey himself.

Georges Dewey

Cdr Georges Dewey

A graduated from the naval Academy, born in Montpelier, Vermont, he was also a decorated veteran of the civil war, for his service on the USS Mississippi, ramming the CSS Manassas. He also took part in the Battle of Port Hudson, and promoted by Farragut, commanded the USS Agawam, USS Colorado and fought at Ft Fisher. As a commodore he was assigned to the Pacific Squadron in 1893 and acted masterfully at the head of his squadron from the USS Olympia at the battle, for which he became a hero after the war, being offered multiple decorations and a priceless sword by the president.

spanish-american war
This article is part of three dedicated to the Spanish-American War

Battle of the Falklands (8 December 1914)

German Navy vs Royal Navy
8 December 1914

British Revenge over Von Spee

Just as Newsweek frontpage stated in 1982, the “Empire Strikes Back” in December 1914. Like then and earlier, the Royal Navy departed for the Falklands. This remote, cold corner of the South Atlantic, not far from the Argentinian coast and infamous Cape Horn, was the theater of the last battle of Admiral Maximilian Von Spee, after a long and successful -if not legendary- cruise throughout the pacific. His Pacific squadron indeed concluded its odyssey back home by sinking the only obstacle in its way -Admiral Cradock’s Falklands squadron, which was soundly defeated at Coronel in November, off the Chilean coast (battle of Coronel). That was also the first naval defeat of the Royal navy since a century, which could not be left unaddressed. The mood felt like after the sinking of the Hood in 1941, the entire Royal Navy focused on taking revenge.

HMS Invincible

Von Spee’s next move

The purpose of the German Admiral then was to make his squadron pass into the South Atlantic, where he intended to attack Britain’s commercial traffic with Argentina (meat) and Chile (nitrate), and Possibly to join the metropolitan fleet. The route was free for Spee, who after a short stop at Valparaiso, where he embarked many exiled Germans (for a return to Germany), and after consulting the Naval HQ by the intermediary of the embassy, warning him against this project, he set course to the south. On the way, he captured four tall ships, before passing Cape Horn with his entire squadron on December 2nd. The initial route, passing 100 miles to the south to avoid being spotted from the coast, had to be abandoned because his worn out light cruisers couldn’t cope with very rough seas, even after it was necessary to throw over tons of Charcoal to lighten the hulls and avoid “plow share” effects. The squadron, therefore, returned twenty miles from the coast, and passed through less troubled weather.

SMS Scharnhost
SMS Scharnhorst

The Royal Navy mobilize

Meanwhile, the outcry caused by Coronel’s defeat caused some heads rolling in the Admiralty: Fisher took the lead as first Lord, immediately establishing a plan to join the Falklands with superior forces. He mobilized the two Invincible class battlecruisers, plus the HMS Queen Mary, previously sent to the West Indies in order to intercept Von Spee, although the latter managed to get through the British net. Eventually the Mediterranean fleet based at Gibraltar was mobilized, despite what the Dardanelles operations required, was scrambled and put in alert to intercept the German forces in case they attempted to reach the North Atlantic.

Postumhous symbolic funerals of Admiral Sir Cradock in port Stanley after the battle of Coronel.

Frederick Doveton Sturdee The Royal Navy solicited half of the available battlecruisers force and the two aforesaid, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sturdee, set sail for the Falklands. Fisher projected that Von Spee should probably try to take the Falklands first, settle there in order to launch raids on the British traffic. Therefore it was vital to get there before him. In addition, local authorities send a message by telegraphy (captured by Spee) confirming the departure HMS Canopus for South Africa where a revolt would have broken out. The message was a forgery, and Spee, after crossing Cape Horn, capturing a British sailboat to refuel, lost three days and left the auxiliary steamer fleet in the maze of islands of this area, thinking he could land a party to take Port Stanley.

Sturdee arrived at the Falklands

At 7:30 am, Studee’s squadron arrived at the Falklands, before Spee, who unknowingly ran into a trap. Immediately the ships resupplied because Sturdee was asked by Fisher to resume his search for the German squadron as soon as possible. What Spee knows then, however, is that a Japanese squadron is at his heels from the Pacific, so no return is possible. Sturdee, who is unaware of Von Spee’s crossing on December, 2, still thinks he can find him before his crossing of Cape Horn. The black fumes of the German squadron are spotted by an English lookout. Immediately the alarm is raised, but the ships are in bad position, still coaling, their machines are cold, barges are at couple.

HMS Invincible racing towards the Falklands
HMS Invincible racing towards the Falklands

The two fleets spots each other

Fortunately for them Von Spee had at that time only have his vanguard with the Gneisenau and Nürnberg, and has to wait for the rest of his ships to catch up. Moreover, form that afar, if he spots masts and funnels, he does not identify which ships are present. On the British side, only the HMS Canopus is available immediately for action, the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow whereas the cruisers Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, are also taking supplies. At 9:20 am, HMS Canopus, been deliberately stranded on a sand bank with the tide for stability, opened fire at 11,000 meters while everywhere else crews feverishly prepared for action. Spee had a unique opportunity to change things by sinking the Kent, sailing a parallel course to the exit of the harbor, which could have blocked Port Stanley. Joined by the rest of his forces, he could have the shelled the trapped, immobile English squadron while keeping his mobility.

Map of the battle of the Falklands, 1914

The battle starts

However at war, nothing unfolds according to plan. Hans Pochammer, captain of the SMS Gneisenau, eventually identified and signaled to Von Spee the presence of the two English battlecruisers, spotting their tripod masts. For the British squadron, the weather was superb and visibility was perfect, and the crew just achieved a lightning fast preparation. Henceforth, all ships freed themselves of their moorings, ascended the anchors, while a black smoke rose above them. One can imagine then the effect produced by seven black plumes, while Von Spee expected to find not a single ship in Port Stanley!

HMS Canopus, firing the opening shots of the battle

The Admiral knew that his units were no match for battlecruisers, much more powerful and faster. Furthermore the Canopus then was hidden, firing from behind a hill, so it was invisible Von Spee’s lookouts, saving Sturdee valuable time. When the HMS Kent finally set sail for the harbour’s entrance, the whole squadron followed her. At 10:00 am, a “general hunt” flag climb to the mast of the Invincible, and the British squadron prepare to laid waste to the rest of Spee’squadron, the last ships arriving in the meantime. The latter renounced duelling with Kent. Aware of of the upcoming challenge, he ordered his light cruisers to escape. He was going to make a fighting retreat with his two armoured cruisers…


Sturdee, whose two battlecruisers reach 25 knots versus 22 for the Germans, caught them at 12:47 and opened fire at maximum elevation. The first sheaves fall near the Leipzig, but despite the perfectly flat sea, spotters are embarrassed by the torrents of greasy smoke coming out of the funnels, the engines being pushed full throttle. It is more than 13:00 PM when the Gneisenau receives three hits. Through the roof of the 210 mm casemate aft starboard, the middle deck, and the ammunition hold which had to be drowned in emergency. While the distance allowed to fire back, the Germans could not replicate, their targets being Masked by smoke. They managed eventually to hit the HMS Invincible, only a slight damage. The two armoured cruisers then attempted to change course, but the British seemed not to notice it. The German’s new position is however betrayed by HMS Carnarvon, which spotted the move. The duel resumed, but the British are still not close enough and fires at wide elevation. Shells following a parabolic trajectory penetrated the poorly protected bridges of both German Cruisers. In addition, Sturdee detached his three cruisers to chase the Leipzig and the Nürnberg out.

Russian map of the battle

Deadly broadsides

The two battlecruisers then managed to present a broadside, being able to go take a parallel course to the German line at around 3:00 pm, while Spee could do nothing but come closer in order to replicate, exposing him even more. Around 3:30 pm, Spee enjoyed an unexpected and almost supernatural respite: A large white three-masted tall ship coming from nowhere crossed the route of the English battlecruisers, which -maritime code obliged- altered course and slowed to let it pass, sail having priority over steam !… The latter thanked them courteously as in regatta time. But a few minutes later, firing resumed, Sturdee willing to wrap it up before day’s fall. At 4:00 pm, the two German cruisers has been hit many times more by heavy caliber, were prey of flames, in particular the Scharnhorst which bears the mark of the Admiral. The latter now targeted by the two British ships, became a raging inferno and a wreck, signalling to the Gneisenau by searchlight to try to escape. At 4:04 Spee’s ship was slowed down, heeling heavily, her chimneys all crippled and the artillery muted.

Peak of the battle, the Scharnhost capsizes, the Gneisenau flees.

Spee’s final stand

What passed through Spee’s mind at that time ? He brought her flagship closer to his adversaries as if trying to launch a torpedo attack or even try to ram them. The British ships after trying to decipher the move unleashed a full broadside, secondary guns included, and put a quick end to the Maneuver: At 4:17 pm, the proud Scharnhorst began to sink forward rapidly, disappearing with 795 crewmen, including the two sons of the admiral. If that was not cruel enough, survivors are condemned to drawn or freeze to death: In their haste to finish off the squadron, the British ships immediately aimed at the fleeing Gneisenau, not stopping. Around 5:15 pm, the latter exhausted all his ammunition while receiving new hits: She could not sustain more than 16 knots. The two battlecruisers then separated, the Invincible passing by the front at 10,000 meters crossing the T, while the other sailed for the other side of the German ship. At 5:20 pm, SMS Gneisenau, silenced and immobilized, bunkers submerged, began to list. Major Maerker decided to evacuate and scuttle her. The Gneisenau would capsize at 5:35 PM, but this time 190 survivors would be recovered in time from the icy waters (famous photo), including Captain Pochammer, telling later the battle from the German perspective.

Job not done

If the battle of the Falklands seems over, for Sturdee, it’s “job not done”. There are still two light cruisers left to be caught and sent to the bottom. The Dresden meanwhile has taken very early a south-west heading. Three British ships are in hot pursuit, including the two old battleships. The Germans still have good hope: They are 12 miles ahead and night is coming. HMS Kent, however, which chases the Nürnberg, is older and slower, but pushed its engines beyond maximal designed speed, all boilers red hot. The ship managed to reach 25 knots, two more than what is normal. For her part the German cruiser was to make due with worn out machines subjected to heavy strain since the month of August, plus human exhaustion.

SMS Nürnberg

Nürnberg’s end

At 5:30 pm, it’s nearly game over, as Nürnberg’s commander believes that he could no longer flee more from an enemy while under fire and not at least trying to replicate. He changed course and engaged the fight. The duel was to the advantage of the British armoured cruiser, better armed and protected. In spite of this, the Nürnberg closed at 2700 meters – close range at cruiser standard – bearing all its pieces. In one hour and a half the German ship hit fourty times, but the well-protected British cruiser had only a few wounded and one dead to deplore, while the Nuremberg is devastated.

At 6.30 pm, the German cruiser indeed had suffered two boiler outbreaks, speed falling down to a few knots, and had no steering. At 7:00 pm, she had exhausted all her ammunition and was in flames from bow to stern. The commander had the colors struck down to allow his men evacuating without being shelled. The cruiser started to list quickly and at 7:27 pm capsized and sank. Survivors, few in number because the duel had been a slaughterfest, were only 17 to take place aboard Kent’s two only yoals… Her other boats had been riddled with shrapnel during the fight and were unusable.

HMS Glasgow

Glasgow’s revenge

The SMS Leipzig meanwhile was chased by HMS Glasgow, survivor of the battle of Coronel. Suffering the same worn out conditions, the older German cruiser is caught and 150 mm shells rain down its tail. The commander of the German ship decided to drop the distance voluntarily and turn to engage a duel with its own 105 mm pieces. An artillery exchange on semi-parallel chasing course then engaged, but thanks to its superior speed, the British cruiser gradually reduced the gap with the Leipzig, finding a parallel course offering a full broadside. The German ship handicapped by its light shells was heavily pounded, and the situation turned worse as the Cornwall, just catching up entered the fray and opened fire. The latter added not less than fourteen 6 in guns, so the duel turned into a real execution…

SMS Leipzig

Leipzig’s end

Soon the Leipzig lost its front sights while the central steering wheel steering post has been disabled, receiving only orders by voice relayed in chain until the end. Leipzig’s artillery pieces are also shut down one after the other. But the cruiser still stood firm despite the rain of steel and the duel went on, amazingly, for two more hours with all guns available. At 19:00, she only had left her torpedoes, but then maneuvered only at 16 Knots and the torpedoes missed their targets. The commander decided to scuttle the ship, survivors climbing onto the deck.

Damage on the HMS Kent after the battle

Through Glasgow’s sights, observers wonders: The German cruiser was no longer moving, and its crew hidden by the smoke of the fires, was invisible on the deck. Crucially no pavilion rose to the apple of her only remaining mast. The British were even unaware that the crippled cruiser had launched its last torpedoes and was completely defenseless. Therefore still considering the ship a threat, they decided to open fire, making a carnage on the deck. Immediately, fault of a flag, two flares of distress are fired. The British ships ceased fire and boats were laid down. But before arriving, the burning carcass of what was the Leipzig capsized and sank rapidly leaving only 18 shocked survivors.

SMS Dresden


That was the end of the battle. Indeed, the Dresden was in fact the only cruiser able to escape. She succeeded in reaching the maze of islands of the Terra de Fuego, hiding in for a while. She went off by March 14, 1915, and without orders nor hope to return home or finding a suitable base to attempt raids in the Atlantic, had no other alternative than to present the white flag to the first warship on sight. The commander thus spared the lives of his men, avoiding a final useless sacrifice.

Survivors of the Gneisenau being rescued by the Inflexible

For the British, who have cleared Coronel’s heavy blow on Royal Navy’s prestige, victory is total. They only deplored a few dead and injured on the Invincible, Kent and Glasgow but not a single loss on the Inflexible and Cornwall. But above all, the German presence elsewhere than in the North Sea comes to an end. Any threat to the precious blood lines of the empire disappears for long (until the submarine threat became obvious). The few remaining isolated units would be cornered and sunk, and by mid-1915 the only remaining German naval forces would be permanently confined to the Baltic, with the Skagerrak strait shut. Only submersibles would from then on try to reverse the situation, reaching a new height with the the loss of the Lusitania and its consequences. That was the end of a major naval chapter in ww1.

Sources/Read more

Battle of the Falkland Islands

J.J. Antier & Paul Chack, Histoire maritime de la première guerre mondiale

Battle of Cape Sarytch (18 November 1914)

Turkish Navy vs Russian Navy
18 November 1914

Prologue: New recruits for the Turkish fleet:

In August 1914, the declaration took by surprise all German units stationed outside the metropolis. These forces remote from home comprised initially the Pacific squadron under Von Spee (see battles of Coronel and the Falklands), but also of the cruiser Königsberg and the old gunboat Geier in East Africa, the Panther and Eber in West Africa (Cameroon), the Condor and Cormoran in Oceania, and the German Mediterranean squadron, stationed in Dar es Salaam (see the “Goeben’s run“). The two German ships, a battle-cruiser and a light cruiser, had fled to Constantinople since August 10 and had officially joined the Turkish navy since the 16th, with the consequent entry of Turkey alongside the central empires. The Goeben would be renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim later, but the Breslau became almost immediately the Midilli. The crew remained the same, and officers willfully exchanged their cap against the fez. The two ships now showing the red flag and crescent of the “sublime gate.”

admiral souchon and staff

Why this battle ?

Admiral Andrei Augustovich Ebergard The two ships were now the de facto spearhead of the Turkish fleet. They could attack mercantile traffic in the Black Sea, and strike Crimea and the Russian coasts by shelling coastal fortifications. A raid of the Turkish fleet against Sevastopol was no longer desirable but could not be foreseen. The fleet of the Black Sea was commanded by Vice-Admiral Andrei Augustovich Ebergard (or Eberhardt). It consisted of the pre-dreadnoughts battleships Evstafi, Ioann Zlaloust, Pantelimon (the former Potemkin), Tri Sviatitelia, and Rostislav, and several cruisers. The battleship crews had been trained in the technique of concentrating the firing of several ships on a single one, which had been learned at the expense of the Russo-Japanese War, and which required the use of one of the battleships as is, placed at the center of the line and correcting the shooting of the other ships by radio.

battleship goeben

Admiral Souchon On 29 October diplomatic relations between Turkey and Russia were broken off. If the Turkish fleet, now reinforced, was now more threatening, the Russians awaited the completion of three modern dreadnoughts that were to restore the balance (the Imperatritza Mariya). On 15 November Eberhardt gathered his forces at Sebastopol (5 battleships and the cruisers Pamiat Azovia, Almaz and Kagul, as well as 13 destroyers) and tackled to raid the fortifications of Trebizond. He arrived there on the 17th, shelled the coast, and then ascended it to find possible enemy ships at anchor. Failing to find any valuable targets, he changed course for Sevastopol. For his part, Admiral Souchon, who commanded the Goeben, thought that a raid against the Russians would be relatively easy. The latter whom he considered to be undermined by political troubles after the 1905 mutiny and commanded by incompetent officers of best, also featured slow, obsolete ships. Informed by the headquarters of Constantinople of the raid of the Russian fleet, he set sail at 15:30 hoping to intercept him.

Turkish Cruiser Midilli

Order of battle

Souchon traveled up the Anatolian coast and first headed towards Sinope, but received by radio the news of a course change from Eberhardt to Sevastopol. He also headed north, hoping to catch up with his fleet. Indeed, the Goeben and Midilli could easily exceed 25 knots. But Souchon believed that the Russian fleet had to sail at the rate of the slowest units, like the Old Tri Sviatitelia, while himself had to stick to 15 knots, sparing the fuel reserves. On the morning of the 18th, Souchon was in sight of the Crimea, by a very dense fog. He sent the Midilli as a scout, while himself hit at 18 knots.

Battleship Pantelimon (ex-Potemkine)

On his side the Russian Admiral had divided his forces as follows: He placed his three cruisers in a vanguard, in one line (Pamiat Azova, Almaz and Kagul) and then followed himself 6.4 km behind, with a battle line on board battleship Evstafi, followed by Ioann Zlatoust, Pantelimon, Tri Sviatitelia and Rostislav. The latter two were slow, and when the Admiral ordered the speed to rise to 14 knots, only widening the gap that existed between the ships initially (457 meters). The line of battleship itself was followed and framed by two lines of destroyers.

Battleship Rostislav

The battle starts

Around 12:10, the Midilli and the Almaz saw at the same time. The two units flipped over to get back to the bulk of their fleet. The Russian cruisers then departed from the bulk of the forces and the Goeben headed east-southeast to face the Russian line. The two lines came in frontally. But if the tension and enthusiasm were palpable on board the Goeben, Admiral Eberhardt was very anxious on his side: The enemy’s line ship was still not visible. On paper, the Evstafi and the two battleships that followed immediately had 12 pieces of 305 mm of an old model against the latest Krupp batterie of ten 280 mm of the Goeben, less powerful but more accurate, faster to the point of being able to deliver almost two volleys for one. The armor of the Russian battleships had been defined before the Russo-Japanese War and was therefore poorly arranged, while the Goeben had internal armored bulkheads of 220 mm running over all the vital parts of the ship, and although theoretically less protected, Had for him its much superior speed. Finally, in the Russian tactics of fire concentration, it was the second battleship, Ioann Zlaloust, which had to correct by radio the firing of the other two.

Battleships are trying to catch up

Commander Galanin, oboard the leading battleship, was impatient to see the Admiral ordering the classical maneuver of “closing the T”, ie tacking all his ships in a course perpendicular to that presumed of the enemy in order to present a full broadside all his battleships. The maneuver had to be ordered quickly to have time to be executed by ships not exceeding 15 knots. But Eberhardt hesitated. He did not want to expose his ships while maneuvering. The German battle cruiser indeed could force the pace, arrive from a slightly different route to that planned, taking advantage of both the fog and its speed, bypass The Russian line and fall back on his rear before successively engaging his units starting with the weakest at the tail, whereas the line of fire of his ships were in a blind angle… On board battleship Ioann Zlaloust, the fire control lead ship for the whole line which followed at 450 meters, did not see the change of course of the Evstafi nor the German ship, such dense was the fog.

Battleship Ioann Zlalouts
Battleship Johan Zlatoust

Goeben’s manoeuvers

The Goeben, for his part, had spotted the leading ship and in turn tried to “bar the T” by heading south, in order to present all his battery. The distance fal rapidly to 7040 meters, and Eberhardt, to the great relief of his men, decided that he could not wait further and opened fire at approximately 12:20. Only his front turret gave voice, for his maneuver to place himself in parallel was not yet completed. When his rear turret entered the dance, he also gave all his secondary battery pieces in view of the distance, letting the Goeben believe that he was gunned down by the whole line of Russian battleships. On the side of the second battleship was the Evstafi and its departures of fire, but not the German ship. The telemeters gave an erroneous first report, estimating the Goeben at 11,000 meters. He opened the fire followed by the Tri Sviatitelia, whose blows fell, of course, too long, while the Pantelimon gave up temporarily, and that the Rostislav engaged the Midilli whom he could see.

Goeben at full speed

The engagement

The German and Russian reports diverge on certain points of the battle, but it seems that it was the Russian battleship Evstafi who shot first, with a good aim since the Goeben was touched twice in its freeboard. Moreover, the Goeben was slow to adjust its rise because the Russian ships were now advancing parallel to the coast, merging with the fog. But once a shooting solution was found, the first burst fell too long, although a shell smashed the front chimney, thereby simultaneously knocking out the radio sighting station, preventing during all the engagement the command ship to correct the firing of the other units that followed.

The Russian Battle line in the battle of Cape Sarytch

Her second salvo fell too short, but the next two put two blows to the goal each. The Russian ship, on the other hand, replied with powerful 203 and 150 mm secondary parts, even though the Goeben’s battery contained only 150 mm, which apparently did not come into action. The Goeben, to the stupefaction of Souchon who greatly underestimated the Russians, was struck by some other impacts, not very serious (the German reports are vague).

Then distance decreased to 6000 meters and towards 12h35, SMS Goeben disappeared from sight of the Russian battleship in vanguard. She took advantage of the cover of the mist. Although this fact is still debated, it is hard to believe that Goeben intentionally wanted to do battle in the thick of the fog. Her captain was also afraid of the nearby coastal batteries of Sebastopol, for his parallel race with the Russians was now leading him straight on. Still, 10 minutes later, Eberhardt ordered the squadron to head back to the harbour. German reports of the action of Cape Sarytch will attest that only 19 heavy caliber shells were fired during the engagement.

Tri Svitatelia
Battleship Tri Sviatitelia

The port side casemate had been hit hard by a 305 mm, and one gun was HS, its servants killed instantly. It is possible that the sharpness and density of the Russian fire disconcerted Souchon. It is also true that the range of his ship was not inferior, but he had the sight because of his position in relation to the coast and that the fog was indeed too thick to continue the engagement with success. Actually, and whatever opinion the Germans had at the time of the Russians, a battle cruiser could not face 5 battleships and hope to emerge unscathed… One thinks what would have happened had the weather been fine, which is common in the Black Sea.

Damage of the battleship Evstafi after the battle


In the end, the Goeben was doing quite well: If the 150 mm ammunition magazine located under the affected casemate had caught fire, the explosion that followed would have been catastrophic. There were about 16 victims on the German side, 33 dead and 25 wounded on the Russian side. The casemate was quickly repaired, as the Goeben made another sortie on December 6, but its activity became more modest until the end of the war. On the Russian side one could not speak of victory. Eberhardt had to fight against the fog since he had had a unique opportunity to sink the German ship thanks to a clear superiority of fire.



Staff, Gary (2014). German Battlecruisers of World War One: Design, Construction and Operations. Naval Institute Press
Halpern, Paul G. (11 October 2012). A Naval History of World War I. Naval Institute Press.
O’Hara, Vincent P. (2017). Clash of Fleets – Naval Institute Press
Battle_of_Cape_Sarych (wikipedia)
Russian Navy (Fr)
About the Turkish fleet in 1914 – (Fr)

Battle of Coronel (1st November 1914)

German Navy vs Royal Navy
1st November 1914

Graf Spee’s far east squadron in Valparaiso, Chile, about to sail afte the battle, Nov. 3, 1914

The first British defeat since 100 years

Long before the famous 1980s Falklands conflict, the Royal Navy had already crossed fire in this remote corner of the globe. This time it was against German forces, Graf Von Spee’s Far Eastern Squadron arriving from the Pacific, that was going to sail into the Atlantic and cause havoc on trade.

Admiral Graf Von Spee Apart from the confrontation with Heligoland, which had limited results, the first battle of Coronel was the single greatest naval event before the end of 1914. Its main protagonist was a Prussian aristocrat of the old school, National hero in his country after his epic on the other side of the world: The Count (Graf) Maximilian Von Spee.

Admiral Von Spee

This man, born in Denmark in 1861 and who spent most of his career in Africa, had become rear-admiral at 49. He was 53 when he was about to deliver the two battles of his life in a few months. He was promoted Vice-Admiral in 1912 and was given the task of the Far East squadron, consisting of partly obsolete ships, light cruisers and cruisers, based at Tsing Tao, the old German trading post in China. In June 1914, far from the noises of war, the crew of the two armoured cruisers was all to the enthusiasm of a beautiful cruise in the turquoise waters of the South Pacific. Then by wireless, he is asked to return to the colony. At the time of the declaration of war, all that was not necessary for combat was landed, and the cruisers who had time were repainted in two shades of grey, the other retaining for some time their beautiful white colonial livery. But the squadron could not remain on the spot, for fear of being destroyed at anchor, or intercepted en route by Allied British, Australian, Russian and Japanese fleets.

Armoured Cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, named after a Prussian General in the Napoleonic wars.

Von Spee prepared to send part of his squadron, including the two cruisers of the Scharnhorst class cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), light cruiser Nürnberg, two of the Dresden class (Dresden and Emden), and the old Leipzig. The rest of the squadron consisted of ships of lesser tonnage, four gunboats of the Iltis class, and three river gunboats, the Tsingtau, Otter and Vaterland, S90 torpedo boat and the tanker Titania.

German light cruiser SMS Nürnberg. Late into the fight, she nevertheless caught the escaping, badly damaged HMS Monmouth almost by chance in the obscurity, trying to reach the Canopus.

A trapped squadron

After having assembled all the officers in the square of the Scharnhorst, which bore his mark, he discussed the best possible options. 1-He could tried to return to Germany and add his forces to the Hochseeflotte, but the risk was far too great in view of the proximity of the Grand Fleet and several closely guarded roads at the approach of the North Sea. 2-He could also attempt a privateer’s war to weaken allied traffic on all the seas of the globe, especially in the heavily defended southern hemisphere. This option seems the least risky and the most promising, and eventually pass Cape Horn and carry the war into the Atlantic. It was a real convoy of more than twenty ships which had taken shape, counting the 5 cruisers (the Emden had detached from the group on 14 August to deliver its own racing war in the Indian Ocean and make diversion). Von Spee measured the risks: He was to cross the vast South Pacific, but at 10 knots to save coal and keeping pace with the oldest, slowest steamers.

From Samoa to Tahiti

On board German ships, sailors were eager to fight. Von Spee confered one more time with officers and decided en route to attempt a raid on the Samoa Islands with his two armoured cruisers, to draw the attention of the British Navy, while hoping to find some enemy vessels at anchor. He fell on the islands at dawn, September 14th, but only to find the Apia’s wharf empty, and the Union Jack floating on the city. Apart a bombardment that would surely hurt his fellow citizens more than the British troops, he can not seriously consider taking back the city with his only two marines companies.

Von Spee biopic – The Great War channel.

Reluctantly, he resolve to change course and join Tahiti in order to shell Papeete, where a few French ships reside. He arrived on September 22 at dawn. German ships were not expected, they were no lookouts, and the two ships just maneuvered between the shallows to stand in battle line. Once spotted at last, the French evacuated the city and prepared the meager “coastal batteries” available: Guns of the gunboat Zelée, which have been landed and camouflaged previously. They fired a few warning shots, but remained silent to avoid being spotted when the two German vessels replied with their heavy artillery.

Von Spee now seek to disembark a company, since he thinks he is dealing with a weak garrison – which is true. The French then maneuvered and scuttled the Zélée across the pass, obstructing it. The two German ships then open fire on the city, quickly set ablaze. Von Spee realized that he will no longer be able to land his troops, or proceed to supply coal and food, and retire. His ultimate goal became to return to Chile, refuel, and then cross Cape Horn before engaging in a much more fruitful trade war in the Atlantic. The British, who received report from the squadron’s position are preparing to block his way. Leaving the rest of the convoy and refueling, the three light German cruisers (Nürnberg, Leipzig, Dresden), joined the two armoured cruisers.

Von Spee’s ships path

Sir Cradock’s Falklands squadron

Sir Christopher Cradock Meanwhile, miles apart in Port Stanley, a British Navy squadron is awaiting orders from Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. Nicknamed the “old Gentleman”, he is also an old refined aristocrat. Von Spee even knew him well personally during his stopovers in peace time. The two men respect each other. But now both are about to do their duty. Cradock’s squadron is the only one that can oppose the German ships on their way in the Atlantic. It consists of the Good Hope, an armoured cruiser, the cruisers Monmouth and Glasgow and the Otranto, an auxiliary cruiser, converted liner. Unfortunately, this squadron also includes the old battleship Canopus, but the latter had a considerable delay to heat his boilers, and would not sail in time. She only could make 12 knots and therefore layed behind.

Armoured cruiser HMS Good Hope

Cradock has been informed since the beginning of October of the imminent arrival of the Germans. He asked the Admiralty repeatedly for reinforcements, refused: The only other ships available were ordered to be kept in reserve on the other side of Cape Horn, in case the Germans passed in force. The old Admiral has no illusions about his fate: He has his own grave dug in the Falklands’s governor garden, deposited his medals, knowing his true steel sepulture would be at the bottom of the sea soon. He wrote his Testament, bids farewell to his family and the sailed following day for the cape of Good Hope (Even more Ironically named in this occurrence). His squadron set sail on October 22, headed southwest, crossed Cape Horn, and then headed north to cross the Germans.


He knows hen that Von Spee commanded two armoured cruisers, and that in the meantime his squadron was reinforced by the other three cruisers. This gives them a distinct advantage: HMS Good Hope had a more powerful artillery (240 mm) on paper, but these guns are old, with ancient sights, and can offer only one salvo for two for the Germans. As for the Monmouth, she was one of the least protected cruisers in the Royal Navy, an unfortunate experiment imposed by budget cuts. The HMS Glasgow was fairly well armed and fast, but less efficient in heavy weather. The Otranto has almost no military value. Worse still, Cradock’s ships are composed of reservists hastily mobilized and insufficiently trained…

Prelude to the battle

On 31 October, Von Spee was advised by wireless that an English cruiser had been seen entering the port of Coronel in Chile. Spee rallied directly the area from the northeast, leaving the Nürnberg behind off the Chilean coast, hoping to intercept the cruiser as it leaves. At the end of the afternoon (4:20 pm), Scharnhorst’s lookouts spotted three ships, later identified as British cruisers. HMS Monmouth and Glasgow are followed by the Otranto, sailing west-northwest, joined by the Good Hope at 17:20, taking the lead of the battle line, before changing course to present a broadside to the Germans. War pavilions are erected, and Von Spee prepares his ships for battle.

Armoured cruiser HMS Monmouth

A game of light and shadow

There is nearly a gale, disturbing lookouts of the two fleets, and making fire more imprecise, but the initial configuration is not clearly to the advantage of the Germans: The British ships indeed come from the south, far at sea compared to the Germans, which are coming from the North and arranged in a line along the coast. It is then 18:20. With the falling darkness, the Germans still have sunlight blinding their telemetric sights, while the British can see the metallic silhouette of the German ships shining out on the dark cliffs of Chile. Von Spee knows it, and try to stay out of reach as long as he can. The British are approaching, but not fast enough, allowing the setting sun to finally reverse the situation completely: Now the German ships are plunged in the dark and merging with the cliffs, while on the contrary Cradock ships are showing in Chinese shadows on the horizon. they are now a target of choice for the gunners of the two armoured cruisers who pass for the best of the fleet.

Rush hour

At 6.34 pm, the Scharnhorst, at the head, opened fire on the Good Hope, while the Gneisenau immediately followed on the HMS Monmouth and the Dresden on HMS Glasgow. SMS Nurnberg was still way behind. Cradock by then still hope to left the German ships and join the Canopus, which would have given him a decisive advantage, but the Germans stand precisely between him and the coast. The fight quickly turns to the advantage of the Germans who in the third salvo put the front turret of the Good Hope ablaze. The Monmouth is also also, loosing both turrets. The Otranto, in order not to be a useless victim, moves away from the battle.

As for the two light cruisers which clash at the end of the line, their salvos are lost at sea because of gale force waves. The struggle becomes fierce as the two British armoured cruisers takes more hits, burning wildly, all the communication lines destroyed. Gunners now shoot by view only. Distance soon fell to 6000 meters and the obscurity increase. Now the British ships are burning this makes the Germans firing much more precise and devastating. The secondary artillery of both English ships still cannot enter into action because or the high wave crests, and the main artillery soon silenced.

At 19:00, the distance fell to 5000 meters. Von Spee decides to take some distance, fearing a possible torpedo attack. The Gneisenau is hit by the Monmouth (three casualties). At 19:20, the Scharnhorst gives the coup de grace: One of her shells lands between chimneys 2 and 3 on the Good Hope which explodes and sank rapidly with all hands. As he foresaw, the “old Gentleman” followed his crew to the end… On the HMS Monmouth sides, things are equally gloomy. She fled, taking advantage of the falling night, at low speed, dodging the last shells.

British light cruiser HMS Glasgow

The end

The unequal battle is closing to its conclusion. The Monmouth takes advantage of the attention drawn for a while on the Good Hope, in an attempt to escape and extinguish its fires, as does HMS Glasgow in the dark. The commander of the latter then proposed to the Monmouth to take her in tow, but the latter refused, preferring to see the Glasgow escape sooner than risking to see both caught in such a bad posture. At 20:50, HMS Monmouth sails towards the coast at low speed, her blackened hull smoking, riddled with gaping holes through which yellow-orange lights still flickers.

Battleship HMS Canopus. She never was ready on time to join the battle

By then the Nürnberg just joined the fray, and by luck fall on the British ship, but she is unable to recognize the Monmouth and don’t open fire, fearing a friendly fire. Monmouth’s crew, rather than knocking down the flag and being rescued, decided to fight to the last man, despite having almost no cannon left but still one of their searchlights, which which they light their war pavilion. It’s an execution. The Nuremberg opens fire at point-blank range and achieve rapidly the sinking British ship. No survivors either. The Germans will later defend their non-assistance by pleading a nearly impossible rescue by night, in game winds and fearing possible British reinforcements (like the Canopus)… After this disaster the Otranto is left with HMS Glasgow, hit five times with low amage, that took a long loop in order to cross the HMS Canopus path.

Details of the battle

Night’s sorrow

Although reunited, the two ships would not find Von Spee in the dark. The German squadron is retreating to Valparaiso. The Count squashed a champagne bottle in the square of the officers of the Scharnhorst while Schnapps flowed for sailors mad with joy. For the first time in more than a century, the Royal Navy is defeated at sea. Plus, the whole squadron had only three wounded to deplore (none fatally). As for damages, they could be repaired within a few hours. To do this, the squadron stops in Valparaiso from 2 to 3, to respect the 24 hours regulations for any belligerent in a neutral port, after refueling and gathering food. Von Spee regretted to not find the Glasgow and complete his destruction. Moreover he was afraid of the 12 inches armed Canopus still was looking for him. He then began a cautious run in the South Pacific, temporarily avoiding passage through the Cape Horn.

Painting of the battle by Hans Bohrdt

The British are Stunned

On the British side, the battle results are appealing: On November 2, News Headlines all tells the Cape Horn squadron and its famous admiral final doom. The House of Commons is agitated, demands explanations from the Admiralty. But this one has changed minds since Lord Fisher is appointed on the eve of the battle, as first lord of the sea in place of the old prince of Battenberg. Teaming Sir Winston Churchill, he decide to “take things in hand”. Indeed, Von Spee threatens the Chilean nitrate (vital for English shells) route, and the Argentinian beef route, providing half the needs of the population. Von Spee fate is sealed. There will be a sequel, the second battle of the Falklands, in shape of a revenge…

Battle of Yalu (1894)

Battle of the yellow sea
Japanese vs Chinese Navy, 17 September 1894

The first major naval battle of the industrial era

Less well known than Tsushima, the battle of Yalu River is nevertheless one of the few naval battles that occurred at the end of the Century, with relatively modern ships. Other contemporary examples had been the battle of Cuba, and of Manila Bay in 1898, opposing a young American navy and the old Spanish Empire.

Yalu was not a prelude to Tsushima as adversaries were not judged -from the Japanese point of view- of the same caliber (The Russian navy vs. the Chinese one). But both were a mirror of the young, ambitious and aggressive Japanese Navy which was seen as an instrument of imperial challenge after the end of the Meiji era and the rise of nationalists. China, on the other end, was still mined by corrupted officials and had a too conciliant international policy that allowed foreign concessions and fed imperialist appetites from nearly all industrial nations, Japan included. The old empire indeed was seen largely as a large untapped industrial market, and Western commercial interventions were backed up by force if needed. Throughout the XIXth century several wars (with Britain, France, the USA) saw all-out easy victories, as the Chinese fleet mostly counted armed junks and few modern vessels.

Context: The first Sino-Japanese war

The first Sino-Japanese war was motivated over influence of Korea.
The second one was of course set in the XXth century and lasted from the early 1930s to 1945. What happened was a shift in dominance from a weakened Qing Empire, unable to modernize its military to Japan’s after a successful Meiji Restoration. As a result of the war, China was humiliated, loosing Korea as a tributary state, and Japan only left with more resolve and confidence in its rising star.

The war erupted after a casus belli, First Punic war style: On June 4, the Korean king, Gojong, seek help from the Qing government in suppressing the Donghak Rebellion, and the latter complied, sending general Yuan Shikai as its plenipotentiary before the main contingent of 28,000 men. But this was seen by the Japanese as a violation by the Convention of Tientsin, as they claimed to have not been informed. In response, the latter sent a 8,000-troop expeditionary force (Oshima Composite Brigade) in Korea. Any reform of the Korean government was refused, and later when the Koreans asked the Japanese troops to leave, the latter bluntly refusing. As events unfolded, in early June, the brigade occupied the Royal Palace in Seoul and replaced officials by a pro-Japanese government, which was understandably seen as an outrage by the Qing Empire.

Opposing Forces


On land, the Qing army has no national army. As a whole, there were separate forces based on ethnicity, and sub-divided into independent regional commands. There was however a local Beiyang Army, born from the Huai Army (experienced by dealing with the Taiping rebels), well-equipped with modernized equipment and well trained. This force would bear the bulk of the Japanese assault. However this forced was also largely unsupported as pleas for help from other regional armies failed. Despite of this, pronostics by International experts saw it crushing the Japanese.

Battleship Ting Yuen. The Japanese has nothing equivalent in 1894.

The local Beiyang fleet was also the best of the whole Empire, pat of the four modernised Chinese navies in the late Qing dynasty: Northern (Beiyang), Southern (Nanking), Foochow and Canton. From 1880, China started to order ships abroad, modernize its training, with the aid of a few British Officers. The modernized Foochow fleet however was entirely sunk by the French Navy over Indochina in 1884, and it’s later rebuilding was largely supported by British and Germans, while Japan was at that time purchasing ships from France. It should be noted also that the fleet lacked ammunitions and more modern ships, as funds were embezzled by corrupt officials (even during the war), the Empress Dowager Cixi even spending military funds on renovating the Summer Palace.

Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan
Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan (King yan class).

In 1894, The Beiyang fleet was considered first-rate in Asia, largely supported by Li Hongzhang, Viceroy of Zhili. She counted two ironclads called “armoured turret ships” (Ting Yen class), 8000 tons German-built battleships, but also the armoured cruisers King Yuen, Lai Yuen, protected cruisers Chih Yuen, Ching Yuen, Torpedo Cruisers Tsi Yuen, Kuang Ping class, Chaoyong, Yangwei, and the coastal warship Pingyuan.


On land, the Japanese infantry, first trained and formed by French officers, has been from 1885 onwards re-modelled after the Prussian model. This army was well equipped with German guns, had Western, high level standard doctrines, military system and organization. Mobility was improved by enhancing logistics, transportation, and structures. In 1894, 120,000 men and four divisions were mobilized.

A bit like the American Navy in 1898, the Japanese Navy was seen largely as a young underdog in 1894. Officers has been formed by the British Navy, and an academy was set up for technical training and background by France. Therefore the Jeune Ecole came to influence largely Japan’s first fleet, largely based on cruisers supported by torpedo boats, that were in theory to render battleships obsolete.

Matsushima, built by engineer Emile Bertin, flagship of the Japanese navy at Yalu.

The first expansion bill was passed, ordering 46 vessels, including 2 cruisers in 1881. Orders were delivered mainly to French and British yards, while the Yokosuka yard was refit by French engineer Emile Bertin in 1886, allowing to built large all-iron hull ships. The first HTE engines were introduced in 1892 and the first VTE in 1890 (Cruiser Oshima). A new naval plan was passed in 1893, this time largely leaning towards British yards, but none of the ships would enter service before the war broke out.

As of july 1894, the Japanese mustered virtually all their available warships into one combined force. This counted 9 Protected Cruisers, Matsushima (flagship), Itsukushima, Hashidate, Naniwa, Takachiho, Yaeyama, Akitsushima, Yoshino, Izumi, the cruiser Chiyoda, the Armored Corvettes Hiei, Kongō, and the old Ironclad Warship Fusō.

25 July 1894, Battle of Pungdo

Also called the sinking of the Kow-shing, it was a small scale engagement, between the cruiser Naniwa (detached from the Japanese flying squadron off Asan bay), and the Chinese cruiser Tsi-yuan and gunboat Kwang-yi, both at sea to reinforce the escort (gunboat Tsao-kiang) of the transport Kow-shing. Guns blazed for an hour, after which the damaged Chinese cruiser fled, the Kwang-yi ran aground to avoid sinking, and the Kow-shing sank, with nearly all hands. Some were rescued by the gunboats Itlis (German) and Lion (French). The Kwang-yi was a 2,134-ton British merchant vessel from the Indochina Steam Navigation Company of London, carrying 1,100 troops plus supplies and equipment and one Prussian officer. This led to a diplomatic crisis with Great Britain. However Naniwa’s captain Tōgō Heihachirō became a celebrity in Japan for this feat.

Japanese cruiser naniwa
Japanese cruiser Naniwa

Meanwhile the Battle of Seonghwan and Battle of Pyongyang (1894) would make the headlines. After a first engagement at Asan in August, the Japanese had free hands to converge from four direction on Pyongyang. The city fell on 15 September. According to posterior accounts, the Chinese lost 2,000 killed and around 4,000 wounded. However, the bulk of the action would take place two years after at sea.

17 September 1894, prelude to battle

At that time, the Beiyang fleet was located off the mouth of the Yalu River. The latter was crossing the northern border between Korea and China, ending in the yellow sea. The name in Manchu, signified “the boundary between two countries”. It should be noted that there was a second battle of the Yalu, this time with the Russian Empire ground forces in 1904 and the site was also crucially nearby major battles of 1950. Japanese objective was simple, as command of the yellow sea would allow Japan to transport troops to the mainland. However the Chinese fleet was a tough nut to crack, with two battleships (the Japanese had none).

Chinese armoured cruiser Chao Yong
Chinese cruiser Chao Yong, as built, on the Thames (1880). She was armed with two 254 mm (10.0 in) cannons, four 120 mm (4.7 in) cannons and 12 smaller guns. She was very similar to the previous Chilean Arturo Prat.

At some point Li Hongzhang recommended the Beiyang fleet to be kept safely in Lüshunkou (Port Arthur), a naval stronghold, safe from a naval engagement far at sea that would be at the advantage of the fast and agile Japanese. However the Guangxu Emperor insisted that convoys passed safely, and this required neutralizing the Japanese fleet in any case; In fact the battle occurred while the Beiyang fleet was back from the mouth of the Yalu River, escorting a convoy, and then intercepted by the Japanese.

Japanese armoured cruiser Matsushima, Japanese flagship. She was badly burnt and nearly lost, showing this was never an easy fight.

Respective Strengths

On paper, the Chinese advantage with big guns and armour was completed by the presence of Western naval advisors: Prussian Army Major Constantin von Hanneken, appointed to Admiral Ding Ruchang and W. F. Tyler, (Royal Navy Reserve) his assistant. Philo McGiffin (former U.S. Navy ensign, Weihaiwei naval academy instructor) appointed to Jingyuan as co-commander. It seems however that the gunners did not had sufficient practice, a result of a serious lack of ammunition. The fleet was arranged in a line facing southward, with the two battleships in the center. There was another group of four ships, that had to catch up and would not be ready before 14:30.

The Japanese Combined Fleet comprised, in addition of the flying squadron described above (Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima, and Naniwa, under command of Tsuboi Kōzō), consisted in a main fleet: Cruisers Matsushima (flagship), Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, ironclads Fusō and Hiei, under command of Admiral Itō Sukeyuki.

Japanese Ironclad Fuso
Japanese Ironclad Fuso (1877), after rebuilt at Yokosuka (July 1894). Slower, she was heavily engaged, hit many times by 6-inch (152 mm) shells, but none penetrated.

Three protagonists of the battle: Baron Tsuboi Kozo (Jap. combined fleet), Admiral Ding Ruchang (Beiyang Fleet) and co-commander Philo Mc Giffin (here at the hospital after the battle). He became a national celebrity in the US after the war.

Start of the battle

When the two battle lines approached each other, the Chinese fleet formation had somewhat been broken into a rough wedge, due to bad signal interpretation, and diverging speeds. Admiral Sukeyuki Ito ordered the flying squadron to engage the Chinese right flank. The Chinese however opened fire at a range of 5,000 metres (5,500 yd), and missed because of extreme dispersion, while the Japanese waited patiently for twenty minutes, closing range for maximal effect. Their maneuver consisted in heading diagonally across the Beiyang Fleet at twice the speed, making them difficult to hit. They then headed straight for the center, then, puzzling the Chinese, moved around the right flank and started to pummel the weakest ships.

The Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei.

The Chinese right flank is dislocated

After holding their fire until the last possible moment, the Japanese unleashed it on the Chaoyong and Yangwei, which were battered and soon rendered inapt for any further engagement. The squadron then turned northward to face Chinese reinforcements coming from the Yalu river, but doing this, it circled round the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Japanese main squadron starting the same manoeuver as the flying one, ended the other way, completing the encirclement of the Chinese fleet. Therefore, the Beiyang Fleet ended sandwiched between the two Japanese squadrons, a classic of the Royal Navy, giving a much-needed local superiority against the center battleships.

Western Illustration of the Chinese battleships

The Chinese center is fully engaged

Dingyuan and Zhenyuan hulls, according to their excellent protection, suffered little damage, but following the French Jeune Ecole practice, the Japanese targeted the weaker superstructures. Soon, both ships were ablaze and suffered many casualties. Mostly the crews were cut to pieces by the numerous quick-firing secondary and tertiary guns of the Japanese, which were now close enough to have every single one speaking.

Matsushima attacking Chinese warships (Shunsai Toshimasa)

The Chinese left flees and partly escapes

Meanwhile cruiser Zhiyuan broke the line and attempted to ram the Japanese cruiser, and latter tried to rally fleeing ships from the left wing. She was soon caught, battered and sunk by the flying squadron. The trap was not properly closed, as in chasing (and destroying) the cruiser Jingyuan, leaving other ships fleeing northwards unmolested. Eventually Admiral Itō completed the annihilation of what’s remained in the circle, targeting superstructures, but doing so, also taking serious damage: The Yoshino, Akagi, Hiei, Saikyō Maru were hit and/or put out of action. The Matsushima probably suffered most, as two 12-inch shells penetrated the deck, blasted ready rounds, putting the ship ablaze and forcing the admiral to carry his mark to Hashidate.

“Battle of the Yellow sea” by Korechika

End of the battle

The engagement ceased at sunset, when most ships from the Beiyang fleet had been sunk, seriously damaged and fled, but the two battleships remained, although short of ammunitions. As a result, they were able to retire and fight another day. However ultimately the Japanese would sink the Ting Yuen (on February, 6, 1895), torpedoed by TB.26 at the battle of Wei Hai Wei, while the Chen Yuan was engaged heavily by Japanese army guns three days after, sunk in shallow waters and would be later refloated, repaired, and reused by the Japanese (renamed Chin Yen). She would be used as a flagship in 1904, but was retired eventually in 1910 and used afterwards for training in home waters.

Both Chao Yung class protected cruisers were sunk, the Chi Yuan, badly damaged, would be captured later in February 1895, the Chih Yuan (namesake for the class) was also sunk and the Ching Yuan also captured in 1895, as well as the armoured cruiser Ping Yuen, while both King Yuan armoured cruisers would be sunk, one in this battle, the other at Wei-Hai-Wei.

Yalu battle map 1894
Global map of the battle, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

Post battle analysis

Admiral Ding’s decision not to change formation had been pointed out, but this was due to the unwillingness of Dingyuan’s captain to not change formation himself, pass the order to other ships, while the flying bridge of the flagship was later destroyed, Ding apparently injured and the mainmast later destroyed, leaving no way to signal orders. Meanwhile the Chinese fleet wisely reorganized itself in three-ships self-supporting formations. From some time, when distances fell below 3000 m, Chinese 12-inch (305 mm) and 8.2-inch (208 mm) guns apparently failed to score any hit. One of the “legends” of the battle was that Chinese heavily varnished and polished wooden decks burnt more easily.

Jiyuan and Guangjia turned and fled as soon as the Japanese opened fire, therefore weakening the Chinese position, however the full encirclement never happened as the flying squadron was soon diverted to oppose the rallying Chinese ships, previously escorting a convoy (cruisers Kuang Ping and Pingyuan, Fu Lung and Choi Ti TBs). Slower Hiei, Saikyō Maru and Akagi had been severaly hit by the Chinese left, therefore diverting more ships in support. One of the Chinese heroes of the battle had been Zhiyuan’s captain: Whereas his ships was crippled and burning, rather than fleeing he decided to ram and opportunity target, the nearby cruiser Naniwa. However, the slow cruiser never made it. The Japanese immediately concentrated their fire and sank it.

It has been said that the rapid-fire guns (and fast ships) has been a factor, as opposed to a relative lack of training and lack of ammunition from the Beiyang Fleet. Indeed, if the two battleships had been able to fire more, and with more precision, there was no doubt the Japanese would had been at a serious disadvantage as none of their ships was protected enough. The Matsushima (flagship) was seriously crippled, the Hiei would be in repairs for the duration of the war, the Akagi was burnt from stern to stem, and the converted liner Saikyō Maru, after taking four 12-in hits was definitely out of the way. It was a bold gamble and afterwards a major propaganda victory.

Saikyō Maru, Japanese wooden block painting.

The tactical result was indeed overall, and despite later analysis, favorable to the Japanese, which strictly lost no ship, and strategically “cleaned” the Yellow sea of Chinese escorts. On a strategic level, without Chinese reinforcement, the whole campaign’s ultimate fate made no doubt. Lessons for the Japanese has been to take battleships more into consideration (in fact the Chinese Chen Yuan became the first Japanese battleship), therefore departing a bit from French tactics, but keeping agility and maneuvering at heart. There is no doubt that some of the veterans were still present in 1905 with the confidence to undertake a whole new challenge: The destruction of two entire Russian fleets, then the world’s third largest naval power…

Chinese movie about the battle, 2012 (no subtitles).

Aftermath of the battle

At first, the Chinese government denied this defeat, as a sizeable part of the fleet was able to retire at Weihaiwei. But Viceroy Li Hongzhang and Admiral Ding Ruchang served as scapegoats. International press praised the “rapid assimilation of Western tactics and training” by the Japanese that had taken a “much bigger adversary”. Some analysts however pointed out this battle as a near-draw.

Blueprint of Japanese Cruiser Chiyoda.

The battle of Yalu did not ended the hostilities: This victory secured the Japanese position, to launch a crossing of the Yalu, and invade Manchuria. This was followed by the Fall of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) and the sack of the city and massacre of the whole population. In Jan-Feb. 1895, the Fall of Weihaiwei followed. This was a sea-land battle, with the navy actively participating, the Japanese operations against fortified positions behind the cover of the cruisers Yoshino, Akitsushima, and Naniwa of the “flying squadron”. This secured most coastal access to the route of Beijing. In March, the Japanese occupied the Pescadores Islands (west coast of Taiwan). The Treaty of Shimonoseki was eventually signed on 17 April 1895 and the war was officially over.

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