SMS Scharnhorst (1906-1914)

The wreck of SMS Scharnhorst lies in about 1610 metres of water (about a mile down) some 113 miles (181km) southeast of the Falklands in the south Atlantic. She was discovered on 12th April, 2019 by the Falkland-born maritime archaeologist, Mensun Bound, during a FMHT-funded expedition that had been trying to find her since 2014.

Using a specialist subsea engineering vessel, The Seabed Constructor, operated by the Anglo-American underwater search-and-survey company, Ocean Infinity, the expedition deployed four autonomous underwater search vehicles and an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) to locate the wreckage.  

The Scharnhorst has lain there since being sunk by the Royal Navy during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914. She sits upright on the ocean floor.  Most of her superstructure is gone or lies around the wreck, but much of her hull, including her two main centre-line turrets, remains intact.  The wreck was not disturbed during the operation and the Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust is seeking to have the site formally protected in law.

Key Facts:

Coal-powered German armoured cruiser

WWI Admiral’s Flagship

Size: 12,985 tons, 476 ft
Launched: Hamburg, 23rd March 1906
Fate: Sunk by the Royal Navy

SMS Scharnhorst was the flagship of WW1 German Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee.  More than 800 officers and men, including von Spee, died when she went down with all hands after being pounded with 12-inch shells by the Royal Navy Battlecruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee.

The British task force had been sent to the Falklands after von Spee and his squadron of German cruisers, including the Scharnhorst, had sunk two British armoured cruisers, HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher “Kit” Cradock on 1st November 1914 at Coronel, off the coast of Chile. There were no survivors and 1,600 Royal Navy officers and men died, including Cradock.  It was Britain’s first naval defeat since 1812 and the first of World War One.  Not a single German sailor died.

During the battle of the Falkland Islands, which took place just over a month later, Admiral Sturdee’s task force of seven war ships, and a pre-Dreadnought grounded in Port Stanley harbour, sank not  only the Scharnhorst, but also another German armoured cruiser, SMS Gneisenau, and two more light cruisers, SMS Nürnberg and SMS Leipzig. In all, more than 1,800 German sailors were killed and more than 200 captured. Only one of the German fleet of five warships escaped.  British casualties amounted to 10 dead and less than 20 wounded. Vice-Admiral von Spee was hailed as a hero in Germany for not surrendering, and in 1934, a new armoured cruiser (nicknamed a “pocket battleship”) was named after him – Admiral Graf Spee – and launched by his daughter.

SMS Scharnhorst was built and launched in Hamburg, at the Blohm & Voss shipyard, on 23rd March 1906.  The lead ship of a pair armoured cruisers – the other was SMS Gneisenau.  She was named after a renowned Prussian army officer, General von Scharnhorst, and was just under 475 feet long, with 32 guns and four torpedo tubes.  Her main armament consisted of eight 8.3 inch guns mounted in four twin turrets. Her main armour-piercing shells weighed 238 lbs each (108kg) and they could be fired at between four and five rounds a minute. The Scharnhorst carried 700 of them, with a maximum  range of 17,800 yards (16,300m), which is just over 10 miles (16 kms).

She was powered by three triple-expansion steam engines, driving three propellers, fuelled by 18 coal powered boilers.  Her top speed was 22.5 knots and she had a cruising radius of 4,800 nautical miles (that’s about 5,500 normal miles).  Armour protection included an armoured deck up to 2.4 inches (6cm) thick and armour around her main gun turrets more than seven inches (18cm) thick.  Her secondary batteries had armour of more than five inches thick (13cm). Her crew comprised 52 officers and 788 naval ratings.

The Scharnhorst was assigned to Kaiser Wilhelm’s East Asia Squadron in March 1909 and the ship’s company quickly gained a reputation for accuracy with their armaments, winning the Kaiser’s coveted squadron  “shooting prize” in 1910.  The East Asia Squadron which was based in China, was Germany’s only permanent overseas naval deployment, and operated mainly in the Pacific.  In 1912 it was placed under the command of the 51-year-old Danish-born Konteradmiral Maximilian von Spee (Konteradmiral was the second lowest flag officer rank in the German navy).

With the outbreak of war, in 1914, von Spee, by now promoted to Vizeadmiral, took SMS Scharnhorst (his flagship) and his squadron of the Gneisenau and light cruisers, Nürnberg and Leipzig, on a raiding party in French Polynesia in September 1914, where they sank ships and attacked land batteries.  When von Spee learned there was a British cruiser, HMS Glasgow, moored in Coronel in Chile, he decided to try and sink her – setting in motion the chain of events that would ultimately lead to the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December, 1914.

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