Weather and history in the South Atlantic
Every now and then, while working at the logbooks, we come across a page which has a particularly compelling story to tell. My favourite page, so far, is the log of the battlecruiser HMS Invincible, for Tuesday, December 8th, 1914. It’s appealing not just because of the dramatic course of the day, but because of the way history and the weather, the two halves of the Old Weather project, come together to shape events.
Invincible starts that day moored in Port William, in the Falkland Islands, and the first entry in the log is 4 am, with a weather
report: light airs from the SSE, broken cloud, air temperature of 40F – quite a nice day, by the standards of the South Atlantic. A 4am weather report is a standard feature of these logs, but on this page, it’s the last we hear of the weather for some time, as the sailors are distracted by other events.
At 5am it’s still a normal day, the log records the coaling of the ship, and work to remove a cable fouling Invincible’s propeller. At 8am we’d normally expect another weather observation, instead we see the start of a flurry of activity: ‘strange vessels sighted … on horizon to southward’, ‘Stopped coaling’, ‘Action stations’, ‘Enemy in sight of Port William’. At 9:22 the first shots are fired ‘Canopus opened fire’ (Canopus was an older British battleship moored permanently at Port Stanley), and at 10:00 Invincible ‘Weighed and proceeded at full speed … in chase of German Squadron now observed to consist of Scharnhorst (flagship of Admiral Count von Spee), Gneisenau, Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig’.
The afternoon records in the log provide a live, first-hand report of the Battle of the Falkland Islands
(Wikipedia entry; details from naval-history.net). It ends, like all the best epics, with tragedy: ‘4.17 Scharnhorst sinks’, ‘6.2 Gneisenau sinks … proceeded at full speed to pick up survivors.’ That’s the end of the battle for the Invincible, but it took a further 5 hours for the crew to calm down sufficiently to remember their wider duties – the second weather observation of the day does not appear until midnight: Wind from WNW, force 4, pressure 29.5/51.
So history understandably limits our records of the weather for that day, but the weather also had a role to play in the battle: The German sailors, fleeing from the faster, more heavily armed British fleet, must have prayed for storms, rainfall, fog, heavy seas – anything to help them make their escape. Their prayers went unanswered, 1881 sailors died in the battle; Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, and Leipzig were all sunk – and their logbooks (and weather records) went down with them.