Steel Fleet   Coronel and Falkland Annotated bibliography
Contents
bulletHirst, Lloyd, Coronel and After
bulletHough, Richard, Pursuit of von Spee
bulletPitt, Barrie, Coronel and Falkland
  Bennet, Geoffrey, Coronel and the Falklands, Batsford, 1962
Of all the Sixties histories of the battle this is the mature historical attempt with fairly deep analysis of some of the controversial aspects and competent research. It is an essential read for the historical context, along with the official history, Corbett's Naval Operations Vol I.

The author makes some excellent balanced presentations of difficult questions but sometimes leaves one hanging at the vital moment, like in this page note:

Immediately the news of the Falkland action was received, one of Sturdee's colleagues at the Admiralty wrote in a congratulatory letter: 'I have stated my opinion very strongly on the subject to (those here) who had been told that the dispatch of this squadron was a new move, the result of the advent of Fisher. I pointed out that you had arranged for a very similar squadron to be sent to South America directly we knew the Germans were crossing the Pacific, but that you had been overruled.' 

Clearly this is an interesting line of inquiry but one wishes for a little more forensics and a little less insouciance; who was this colleague? Is there no evidence of this overruling? It would be more satisfying to have this argument elaborated or dismissed as hearsay.

Hirst, Lloyd, Coronel and After, Peter Davies, 1934
This interesting little volume is the account of an intelligence officer of HMS Glasgow, "the only ship in either squadron which survived both engagements." Clearly informed by earlier controversies surrounding these battles the author, writing twenty years after the fact, affirms that quotations from his personal diary, "are verbatim copies of my entries and have not been edited in any way." Much of the remainder makes substantive claims on one or another side of most of the arguments at issue.

So while the underlying narrative is largely related in the neutral, eyewitness voice of a diarist there are frequent digressions, such as this comment on the subject of Cradock's reinforcement:

On this date (22nd September) I have a note in my diary that 'The Admiralty have changed their plan and Defence is not coming round to the Pacific with us.' This is significant, because it has several times been stated that when Whitehall cancelled the orders for Defence to join Cradock, the Admiral himself was not informed.

Sometimes an entry comes along which changes ones view somewhat of the context of the campaign, such as the mention that Cradock's command had been on half rations before the battle. Another verbatim entry, possibly relevant to the assumption that without the burden of AMC Otranto Cradock retained the choice of declining action at Coronel:

22 Oct 14 ... Monmouth report boilers defects and says she will be completely out of action by January. She has already been condemned twice.

The description of the movements and activities of HMS Glasgow, especially from the outbreak of war to the critical days before Coronel, is fascinating and embraces the search for SMS Dresden throughout. This overarching narrative of Glasgow's mission during the campaign spans two battles and ends where it began, pursuing Dresden. That there was an earlier phase of this search is often discounted or neglected in other histories; these two 'sister' ships seemed to often cross each other's path and met in three engagements .

It should be noted that the author spends considerable time on personal experiences which add colour to his narrative, such as his sojourn across West Falkland Island in mackintosh and puttees in search of mutton in which he apparently scared the womenfolk of a local shepherd witless by his sudden appearance in their remote kitchen. This episode ends with the unforgettable image of our erstwhile Ian Fleming, silhouetted by a brushfire he's set, semaphoring off into the twilight his signal to Glasgow "asking for a working party with two boats and some lashings for the legs of the sheep, as they would have to be brought off alive."

Nonetheless some actual issues of history are cast off with a single remark or brief diary entry so one has to be alert for these significant dates and details. On the other hand as an account of the entire campaign from a seemingly well-informed eyewitness who handled the actual telegrams between the fleet and Whitehall it is unique and arguably indispensable. Insights into the diplomatic niceties, such as they were, regarding neutrality and internment, particularly surrounding the final Dresden encounter, are provided in satisfying if anecdotal detail.

Hough, Richard, The Pursuit of Admiral von Spee, Allen and Unwin, 1969
This readable short book gives a refreshingly detailed look at the events leading up to Coronel and Falklands from the perspective of the German fleet. Working largely from von Spee's letters the period from the outbreak of war is elaborated and the pursuit is chronicled with detailed treatment of the decision to detach SMS Emden and the incursion on Apia, Samoa where von Spee clearly expected to find and confront HMAS Australia. Given the subsequent events at Falkland Islands this is an interesting insight.

No fan of Churchill's strategic grasp the author makes a compelling case for miscarriage of purpose and mismanagement of resources by the Admiralty in their dispositions and movements in response to the East Asia Squadron's passage across the Pacific.

He also provides a sympathetic but fatalistic explanation of Rear Admiral Cradock's reasoning which led him to be confronted at Coronel by overwhelming force to which he had no effective counter. Hough's description of the actual battles is among the more detailed of the narrative and popular histories. With a keen grasp of gunnery, fire control and naval engineering his descriptions of the manoeuvre and fire which shaped both Coronel and Falkland Islands is coherent, insightful and satisfying.

Equally critical of Sturdee's apparent misapprehension of the urgency of his mission and indifferent gunnery his description of the Falkland Island battle concentrates on some of the frustrating circumstances which hampered the prompt defeat of von Spee's two most powerful vessels.

The volume includes an appendix consisting of the fragmentary journal of a gunnery officer present at Falkland Islands this is an essential read of both engagements.

Pitt, Barrie, Coronel and Falkland, Cassel, 1960
A fan of this author's later writing might initially find this early work a bit florid but after very few pages the scale of the grim human drama surrounding these two bitter naval battles emerges and the warm prose seems almost welcome respite from the cold, harsh reality of the existential predicaments at issue; not to mention the inhospitable oceans themselves. From the author's account of the East Asia Squadron's Cape Horn passage after Coronel:

As [Gneisenau's] bow rose toward the curling head of the next wave and the ship crawled over its heaving back, the wind would scoop tons of solid water from the crest and hurl it down on her decks with the sound of toppling masonry. Green torrents, white-flecked with rage, raced along the waist, then sucked overboard with a reluctant sob as though in torment at their failure to drag the ship down with them. Back over the bows they came again, and then again, wrenching away the deck fittings, foaming around masts and funnels, reaching for unsecured prey.

As with the author's other books a prosy omniscience couched in the familiar jargon of naval and military service is used to animate a vivid, dynamic narrative while riding securely at the anchor of historical record. Unlike more sober histories his narrative delivers some fraction of the immediacy one assumes accompanied the original experience while remaining reasonably grounded in the prudence of hindsight and cross-checking of sources.

At the book's very outset the reader is warned of a hypothetical therein speculating on Admiral Graf von Spee's thinking as he considered the fateful choices urging him toward Port Stanley and doom. Reassuringly when the author's plausible argument is subsequently made it is based on the strict timeline of communications sent and received by von Spee as he steamed from victory at Coronel to the South Atlantic. Beyond a persuasive insight into the information available to von Spee over time it also suggests a fatal irony of miscommunication just as the fateful decision is made.

If there is a vulnerability in the author's treatment it is probably a consequence of his demonstrated ability to present a compelling, embracing narrative, as history's witness, and thereby spinning a ripping good yarn. Yet one wonders if fragments that might complicate or confound these narratives are sometimes omitted.

Nevertheless, in Coronel and Falklands the author finds an engaged yet impartial voice like the chorus of a Greek tragedy; in this case attending the violent and ironic drama of sacrifice, prestige and misapprehended duty which embraced the fate of both mortal protagonists in turn; as alike in character as they are dissimilar in temperament yet both doomed to heroic destruction along with almost the whole of their respective commands. And tragically those whom perish, often selflessly, do so in virtual ignominy, uncelebrated and far from home, in distant isolation and unforgiving, frigid waters, almost always denied even the few mercies reserved for those who fight under the rules governing contemporary naval warfare on the indifferent and perilous sea:

...most of them died of the shock within a few seconds of hitting the water, their corpses rocking away on the lumpy sea, out of the circle of reflected fire and into the darkness beyond.

The matching bookends of Coronel and Falkland, Cradock and von Spee, and the common theme of a fight to the death against overwhelming odds at the farthest extremity of the world, sets these tales apart and aptly suits them to the dramatic treatment provided by the young, talented and clearly enthusiastic Barrie Pitt.

Shaun Appleby 02 August 2014

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