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Sir  Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock (1862–1914), by unknown photographer, 1914Sir Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock (1862–1914), by unknown photographer, 1914
Cradock, Sir Christopher George Francis Maurice (1862–1914), naval officer, was born on 2 July 1862 at Hartforth, Richmond, Yorkshire, the fourth son of Christopher Cradock (d. 1896) and his wife, Georgina, daughter of Major Gordon Duff, 92nd highlanders. Cradock entered the navy via the training ship Britannia in 1875. In the long period of unchallenged British naval supremacy during the nineteenth century it is not surprising that it was in campaigning on land that Kit (as he was generally known) Cradock would acquire a reputation for great gallantry. The term ‘knightly’ was easily applied to this very model of a late Victorian naval officer who never married. Tall, alert, and always immaculately dressed with a neatly trimmed beard, the well-spoken Cradock had a reputation as a fine sportsman and seaman. As commander in the Royal Naval College Britannia in 1895 he reminded the future Admiral Andrew Cunningham of Sir Francis Drake. Cradock also published, notably Sporting Notes in the Far East (1889) followed by Wrinkles in Seamanship (1894). His best-known work was Whispers from the Fleet (1907), a series of anecdotes and maxims providing common-sense advice for young officers that would also be carefully examined by historians after his death for possible explanations of his motives.

In 1884 Cradock served with the naval brigade on garrison duties in Upper Egypt. In 1891 he was with the eastern Sudan field force as aide-de-camp to the governor-general of the Red Sea and was present at the battle of Tokar and occupation of Affafit. He was awarded the khedive's bronze star with clasp and appointed to the order of the Mejidiye (fourth class). He served in the royal yacht (1894–6) and was commander in Britannia, where he was also master of the Britannia beagles. Cradock was in Chinese waters as commander of the dispatch vessel Alacrity during the Boxer uprising in 1900. He distinguished himself leading the British naval contingent in the capture of the Taku (Dagu) forts on 17 July and later commanding the naval brigade in the relief of the Tientsin (Tianjin) settlement and Admiral Sir Edward Seymour's column at Siku. He was also with the naval brigade at the capture of Peiyang (Beiyang) arsenal, Tientsin. The future Admiral Roger Keyes wrote of Cradock's ‘fiery, ardent spirit’ in action (Keyes, 210). Cradock was mentioned in dispatches, won the China medal with clasps, promotion to captain in April 1901, and was made a CB in June 1902. He was an aide-de-camp to Edward VII (1909–10) and was promoted rear-admiral in August 1910. Cradock was rear-admiral in the Atlantic Fleet (1911–12), and in December 1911 played an important role in the operations that rescued the princess royal and her husband, the duke of Fife, after the P. & O. liner Delhi was wrecked on the Moroccan coast near Cape Spartel. He was awarded the Board of Trade silver medal for gallantry in saving life at sea and in 1912 was made KCVO by George V ‘for personal services’. In February 1913 Cradock received command of the North America and West Indies station and was subsequently praised for his action in helping to save British and American life and property during this turbulent period in Mexican history.

When the First World War began Cradock's 4th cruiser squadron in the West Indies consisted of four old County-class armoured cruisers and a light cruiser. Cradock, flying his flag in the Suffolk, was initially concerned with the protection of British trade. There were only two German cruisers, Dresden and Karlsruhe, on the western side of the Atlantic, but the area to be covered and the volume of shipping was immense and it was generally expected that the Germans would convert some of their fast liners into armed merchant cruisers. The Germans eventually ordered the Dresden into the Pacific but the Karlsruhe managed to avoid British forces and caused considerable trouble and loss before she was destroyed by an internal explosion. The Admiralty in the meantime reinforced North American waters, especially to cover the important troop convoys from Canada. Cradock shifted his flag to one of the reinforcements, the armoured cruiser Good Hope, and, with the northern waters secure, switched his attention to the south. He was slowly proceeding down the western coast of South America searching for German raiders and attacking German trade when a potential menace appeared from the other side of the world. The Germans had a powerful east Asiatic squadron including the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau under Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee based at Tsingtao (Qingdao). Japan's entry into the war on the side of the entente doomed Tsingtao but Spee's squadron was able to get away and work its way eastward across the Pacific. The Admiralty found Cradock had the nearest British force once they had sufficient intelligence to indicate that the Germans were heading for the west coast of South America. On 14 September the Admiralty ordered Cradock to concentrate a squadron that would be strong enough to meet the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and to keep the old battleship Canopus and at least one County-class cruiser with his flagship until reinforcements in the form of the armoured cruiser Defence arrived from the Mediterranean. Once he had superior force, Cradock was to proceed to the Strait of Magellan to search for the Germans, ready either to search the Chilean coast as far as Valparaíso or to return to the east coast to the area of the River Plate. Cradock was now standing into danger for he did not enjoy superior force. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were armed with eight 8.2 inch and six 5.9 inch guns and had the reputation of being crack ships. Good Hope had two 9.2 inch and sixteen 6 inch guns and Monmouth sixteen 6 inch guns but neither could use them in their lower casements in a heavy sea. In contrast, the guns in the German ships were mounted higher above the water and less affected by heavy seas. Furthermore, Monmouth had been hastily pulled out of the dockyard and manned with a scratch crew of coastguardsmen and boys. Canopus was also manned by a scratch crew of naval reservists and coastguards and her old 12 inch guns were actually outranged by the German 8.2 inch guns. In addition her new crew had little opportunity for gunnery exercises and were probably at a low standard of efficiency. The biggest problem, however, was the low speed of Canopus. Cradock must have known there would be little chance of bringing the German cruisers to action if his squadron was tied to the best speed of this elderly battleship, although these defects were exaggerated by the engineer commander of the Canopus who had apparently broken down under the strain of war. Cradock also had a light cruiser, the Glasgow, and the armed merchant cruiser Otranto, but the latter was merely a converted liner not meant to engage in action with real warships. These ships were more than offset by Spee's potential three protected cruisers, the Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden.

The responsibilities for what would happen have been debated and one will never know exactly what was in Cradock's mind, what he thought the Admiralty expected him to do, and what the first lord, Winston Churchill, and first sea lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, assumed he would do. Churchill and Battenberg were aware of the disparity in strength and thought Cradock should merely detach the light cruiser Glasgow to search the west coast of South America while keeping his squadron concentrated with Canopus at the Falklands until the Defence, unfortunately delayed, arrived. Apparently this was never made clear to Cradock, who had Admiralty orders ‘to search and protect trade in combination’ and interpreted his orders as implying the Admiralty considered his force adequate and that his primary objective was to engage the Germans, something clearly impossible if tied to the Canopus. There is nothing in Cradock's record of bold and gallant action in the Sudan and China to indicate he would have been inclined to protest against the odds and the Admiralty apparently—and despite Churchill's subsequent denial of responsibility—did nothing to discourage him in the belief the Germans were his primary objective. Furthermore, he had the recent example of the court martial of Rear-Admiral Troubridge for failing to engage the battle cruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean at the commencement of the war in the belief this constituted the ‘superior force’ with which the Admiralty had ordered him to avoid engagement. Cradock may also have sensed that regardless of the outcome of any action it would be the Germans who could not afford to sustain damage far from home and with little likelihood of replenishing any large calibre ammunition they might expend. Arthur Balfour, the first lord in 1916, stressed this point when a memorial to Cradock was unveiled in York Minster that year. The Admiralty on 3 November belatedly ordered Cradock to remain concentrated with Canopus until Defence arrived, but the signal was too late for by this time the battle with the Germans had already taken place and Cradock and over 1600 of his men were dead.

Cradock, acting on wireless intercepts from the Leipzig, had been searching for the single German cruiser near the Chilean port of Coronel when he encountered Spee's force late in the day on 1 November. The Canopus was approximately 300 miles astern, convoying Cradock's colliers. Cradock detached the Otranto which could do little and engaged with Good Hope, Monmouth, and Glasgow. The battle began as the sun was setting and Cradock tried to close and force the action while the Germans would have the setting sun in their eyes. It was a desperate and bold manoeuvre in keeping with Cradock's traditional actions, but Spee refused to be drawn and once the setting sun dropped below the horizon it would be the German ships who were largely obscured in the dusk while the British were silhouetted in the afterglow. The German superior gunnery quickly told and first Good Hope and then Monmouth were sunk with all hands. Only the Glasgow escaped to warn Canopus.

Coronel was the most serious British defeat in a naval action in over a century although in little over a month Cradock would be avenged and Spee's squadron virtually annihilated by Admiral Sturdee's battle cruisers at the Falklands on 8 December. The debate will continue as to whether Cradock was acting in a quixotic and unflinching but mindless manner in accepting a battle he knew he could not win or, on the other hand, was pushed into doing so by ambiguous Admiralty orders that in his mind at least left him little honourable choice. In this vein, as Balfour later put it, his courageous unselfishness and neglect of personal interest and ambition had shown a wise judgement in the interests of his country and ‘there never was a nobler act’ (Bennett, 106). Churchill may have been aware of the dilemma when a few weeks after Coronel he advised Admiral Beatty: ‘Steer midway between Troubridge & Cradock & all will be well. Cradock preferred’ (Ranft, 1.166).

Paul G. Halpern


G. Bennett, Coronel and the Falklands (1962) · The Royal Navy list, or, Who's who in the navy (1915) · R. Keyes, Adventures ashore and afloat (1939) · J. S. Corbett, Naval operations, 1 (1920) · A. Cunningham [first Viscount Cunningham], A sailor's odyssey: the autobiography of admiral of the fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1951) · The Beatty papers: selections from the private and official correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, ed. B. Ranft, 1, Navy RS, 128 (1989) · The Times (7 Nov 1914) · The Times (14 Nov 1914) · The Times (21 Nov 1914) · A. Gordon, The rules of the game: Jutland and British naval command (1996) · W. S. Chalmers, The life and letters of David, Earl Beatty (1951) · W. James, The sky was always blue (1951) · A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: the Royal Navy in the Fisher era, 1904–1919, 5 vols. (1961–70), vol. 2 · W. S. Churchill, The world crisis [2nd edn], 1 (1923) · WWW, 1897–1915 · Burke, Gen. GB (1939) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1915)


BL, corresp. with Lord Keyes  



BFINA, documentary footage


photograph, 1914, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · A. S. Cope, group portrait, oils, 1921 (Naval officers of World War I, 1914–18), NPG

Wealth at death  

£1055 4s. 11d.: administration with will, 13 April 1915, CGPLA Eng. & Wales