It was a First World War naval disaster which called the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas into question at a crucial moment.
The Battle of Coronel led to the disgrace of a senior officer, who was held responsible for the humiliating reverse.
Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, known as Kit, met with his death on November 1, 1914 at Coronel alongside 1,600 of his men.
Now Midland author Steve Dunn has written a book in which he hopes to set the record straight and clear the name of a “brave, possibly rash, man with a proven record of heroism”.
Mr Dunn, from Barnt Green, in Worcestershire, said he believes that Rear Admiral Cradock was the subject of a grave injustice – with the cowardice of another senior officer in an earlier incident to blame for his “rash decision”.
The battle happened off the coast of central Chile 100 years ago next month – and in reality was the result of a series of misunderstandings.
The British force was outgunned by the German fleet, led by famous Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee. The Royal Navy group was unfortunately mainly composed of obsolete vessels crewed by reservists.
By contrast the German vessels were all modern and led by handpicked officers, and included the famous Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which massively out-ranged their British opponents.
Cradock had been handed rather inexact orders in which he had been told to “be prepared to meet them in company” – orders which were an effective death sentence should the force meet stronger opposition – which it did.
Mr Dunn said: “As November 1 approaches I’m determined to do what I can to make sure people know the true story.
“Cradock, who was badly advised and equipped, was given orders to engage with the enemy, even though he’d outlined his concerns.
“Because he believed it was his duty to follow orders he sought out the opposing German ships, knowing they were almost certainly doomed.”
The two fleets met in the late afternoon, Cradock desperately trying to close the range to his opponents, so their guns could actually hit them.
As the fleets got nearer, the German shelling became much more accurate and HMS Good Hope and Monmouth were soon in flames.
Cradock had earlier left the battleship Canopus behind, believing that the old ship was too slow to allow him freedom of movement.
Monmouth was silenced first, and soon after Good Hope ceased firing, exploding, breaking apart and sinking. There were no survivors from either British ship. Only three men were wounded in the German fleet.
In the aftermath, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill said of Cradock: “Feeling he could not bring the enemy immediately to action as long as he kept with Canopus, he decided to attack them with his fast ships alone, in the belief that even if he himself were destroyed...he would inflict damage on them which...would lead to their certain subsequent destruction.”
There was significant outcry after the disaster which was the Royal Navy’s first defeat since the battle of Lake Champlain in 1812.
Subsequently a large force was assembled and defeated Von Spee at the battle of the Falkland Islands.
But Mr Dunn believes that Cradock has been wrongly castigated for leaving the Canopus behind and blames an earlier admiralty scandal for the actions which have been described as “rash”.
A friend of Cradock, Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge, had been accused of cowardice just three months before.
In similar circumstances to the battle of Coronel, Troubridge, who commanded a squadron in the Mediterranean, allowed two German ships, the Goeben and Breslau, to escape. Troubridge’s ships which were outgunned – although they outnumbered the Germans – decided not to engage.
Mr Dunn said the subsequent censuring of the British commander had a big impact on Cradock’s decision making.
He said: “One of those reasons was the lack of offensive spirit, possibly cowardice, shown by Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge in the ‘Goeben’ incident.
“Troubridge’s assumed cowardice played a part in Cradock’s decision to engage in a hopeless battle.
“I became intrigued to understand the character of Troubridge who, when offered the opportunity for glory and fame, could act as he did.
“Secondly, it was a study in contrasts. Cradock was a brave, possibly rash, man with a proven record of heroism.
“Troubridge is only remembered for his less than aggressive decision on August 7. He turned out to be a complex character whose life encompassed marriage and separation to Una Vincenzo, a talented artist, his loss of her to Marguerite Radcliffe Hall, the first lesbian novelist to achieve both fame and notoriety and war service in the little known Balkan theatre.
“It makes for an interesting and compelling story of war, humiliation, loss and the society of the time.”
He added: “It’s important that people know my intention is to honour Cradock, as opposed to condemning Churchill, who became one of our country’s greatest war leaders.
“However, in 1914 he was at the beginning of his naval and political career and wanted to shift the blame for the catastrophe.
“He faced up to the impossible task with courage, which I think makes him a hero. I hope that my book goes some way towards honouring these brave sailors and restores Kit’s reputation on the 100th anniversary of his death. It’s certainly a story I think needs to be told.”
* The Scapegoat; the life and tragedy of a fighting Admiral and Churchill’s role in his death by Steve R Dunn is published by Book Guild. Available from Amazon (in hardback and e-book editions) and all good booksellers.