Naval disaster that sparked a war of words

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Yorkshire Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock was blamed for the Royal Navy’s worst disaster in 100 years. But a new book attempts to restore his reputation. Chris Bond reports.

BY the middle of autumn in 1914, the fighting on the western front was already heading towards stalemate after the first Battle of Marne finally halted the German advance.

But if British soldiers were paying a high price on the fields of northern Europe, its Navy was buoyed by an early success at the Battle of Heligoland Bight. On August 28, the British fleet, consisting of submarines and destroyers, mounted attacks on German patrols off the coast of their North Sea base at Wilhemshaven.

The battle was fought in a confusion of fog and haze but ended with three German cruisers and a destroyer being sunk. No British ships were lost and back home the battle was seen as a great victory – the returning ships were met by cheering crowds and its admirals treated as heroes.

It was a welcome boost, but for a nation brought up on tales of triumph at Trafalgar and that liked to think of itself as rulers of the waves there was a burning desire to show the Germans what it was made of. On November 1, the Royal Navy had the chance to do just that when a British squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Cradcock, encountered a German fleet off the coast of central Chile. However, by the time the Battle of Coronel had finished, 1,660 British sailors, including Cradock, were dead, in Britain’s worst naval disaster for a 100 years.

It was a terrible blow that brought Britain’s control of the seas into question. The Admiralty and its First Lord, Winston Churchill, were critical of Cradock’s actions but in a new book, The Scapegoat: The Life and tragedy of a fighting admiral and Churchill’s role in his death, Steve Dunn attempts to restore the Yorkshireman’s reputation and show that he wasn’t to blame for the disaster.

Dunn has spent the past 20 years researching both Cradock and the events leading up to the ill-fated battle. “He’s largely been forgotten and those historians who did mention him usually followed the Churchill line that he disobeyed orders, and I want to right that wrong,” he says.

Cradock was tasked with intercepting a German squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Graf von Spee which it was feared would wreak havoc with vessels bringing vital supplies from South America to Britain. He had two older cruisers, HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth, along with a light cruiser and an auxiliary ship, up against a superior German force. “The ships he had were obsolete and he was up against a crack German squadron that had more armour and more speed.”

Dunn says Cradock had told superiors he needed reinforcements but had been told by both Churchill and the Admiralty that he had enough resources to do the job. The battle saw both the Good Hope and Monmouth lost with all hands, while the light cruiser HMS Glasgow escaped by the skin of its teeth. “I don’t want people to think this book is an attack on Churchill, who became one of our greatest war leaders, but in 1914 he was at the beginning of his naval and political career and wanted to shift blame for the catastrophe,” says Dunn.

It appears there was some confusion over what Cradock’s orders were, with Churchill telling his cabinet colleagues that he had been “insubordinate”. Almost a decade later, in his book The World Crisis, Churchill once again attempted to pin responsibility for the calamity at Coronel on Cradock. “I cannot accept for the Admiralty any share in the responsibility for this disaster,” he wrote.

But during his research Dunn discovered a quote from a survivor of the battle who said: “However weighty Mr Churchill’s pen, he cannot explain away the awful fact that a mistake was made by the authorities at home and not Admiral Cradock.”

Among those who stood up for Cradock was his friend and a former admiral himself, Francis Bridgeman. He wrote a stinging rebuke to Churchill in 1923, which began a war of words between the two men carried in the Press. He wrote a letter to the Yorkshire Post in April that year which prompted the newspaper to publish a measured editorial on the controversy.

Eventually the furore died down and Cradock slipped from view. But what about the man himself? A proud Yorkshireman, he was born at Hartforth Hall, near Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in 1862. He was packed off to the Royal Navy’s officer training school on the south coast at the age of 12. It was the start of an association with the Navy that would last for the next 40 years.

By 1914 he had worked his way up to rear admiral and some degree of fame. “Admirals were like the footballers of their day, they had a star following and were featured in magazines like Vanity Fair and on cigarette cards.”

Today, people might question why Cradock decided to take on von Spee even though he knew it would almost certainly end in defeat, but Dunn points out that failing to obey your orders in the British Navy was seen as professional suicide. “Kit was given orders to sink von Spee and was told he had enough ships to do it. He did question his instructions but his worries were ignored and he was left with no choice. He faced up to the impossible task with courage, which I think makes him a hero.”

Which is why, he says, it’s important we honour Cradock and all those who perished at sea. “The focus this year will be very much on the Western front but a lot of people also died at sea during the war. They were equally brave and it’s right that we remember them.”

The Scapegoat, published by Book Guild, is out now, priced £17.99.