On 4 December this year, a team lead by British marine archaeologist Mensum Bound announced that they had found the wreck of the German armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst in 1,610 m (5,280 ft) of water, 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands. The announcement followed a search that began in 2014 for the ships of Adm. Maximillian Graf von Spee’s ill-fated East Asia Squadron, sunk in the opening months of World War I at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.
Named for the Prussian military reformer Gerhardt von Scharnhorst, Seiner Majestät Schiff (‘His Majesty’s Ship’) Scharnhorst was launched on 23 March 1906. Her one sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was launched on 14 June 1906. The Scharnhorst class, as they were known (Gneisenau was ordered first, but a shipyard strike delayed her construction), displaced 12,780 long tons with a full load. They were 144.6 meters (474 ft 5 in) in length, 21.6 m (70 ft 10 in) in beam, with a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 in). Their triple-expansion engines produced 26,000 metric horsepower (19,000 kW) for a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. The ships had a main armament of eight 8.3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns and a secondary armament of eighteen casemated 3.5-inch gun. In addition, they had four torpedo tubes – one forward, one aft, and two broadside. Their armour ranged from 8 to 15 cm (3.1 to 5.9 in), with the maximum thickness along the waterline and at the midships ‘citadel’. They were superior to earlier German designs and were a match for any non-capital ship of their day.
Scharnhorst was commissioned on 24 October 1907 and after completing her trials, she was assigned to the High Seas Fleet, where she participated in training exercises and fleet manoeuvres. In March 1909, she was reassigned to the East Asia Squadron, where she ‘flew the flag’ touring Germany’s East Asian and Pacific colonies. In March 1911, she was joined by the Gneisenau and on 4 December she became the flagship of the squadron’s new commander, Konteradmiral (Rear-Admiral) von Spee. Promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) the following year, von Spee would retain command of the East Asia Squadron for the remainder of its existence.
In August 1914, when war finally broke out, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been in service for less than seven years, but they were already obsolete. The intervening period had seen a revolution in warship design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, armoured cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were less heavily armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. Their role was to act as the ‘eyes’ of a battle-group and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight. They could also operate on detached duties or – as with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the lead ships of a squadron in distant waters.
All this changed in 1906, when British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher came up with the idea of an ‘all-big-gun’ warship, which dispensed with secondary and intermediate calibre guns and was powered by the new Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines. The first ship built to this design was HMS Dreadnought. At 20,730 long tons, she displaced only slightly more than the preceding Lord Nelson class battleships, but at 21 knots she was significantly faster, and she had more than twice the firepower of any other ship afloat. With ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships rendered obsolete at a stroke, a naval arms race broke out between Britain and Germany – but Adm. Fisher had another brainwave up his sleeve.
What would happen if you put big guns into a fast but lightly armoured ship? The result was HMS Invincible. Comparable in displacement and armament to HMS Dreadnought, she could make an astounding 25.5 knots – but at the expense of armour. Launched in 1907, the Royal Navy classified her as an armoured cruiser, but the media referred to her variously as a dreadnought cruiser, a battleship-cruiser, and finally as a battlecruiser. In November 1911, the Royal Navy adopted the latter term.
At the outbreak of hostilities, von Spee’s squadron comprised the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. On 13 August, the Emden, commanded by Karl von Muller, was detached to act as a commerce raider. Emden captured over twenty Allied freighters and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet before she was finally overpowered by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands. Von Spee’s squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden.
On 1 November, von Spee’s ships encountered the British Fourth Cruiser Squadron off Coronel, Chile. The resulting Battle of Coronel was a one-sided affair. The British force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, comprised the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flag) and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the armed merchantman HMS Otranto. Cradock, on the lookout for the Germans, had left behind the elderly but sturdy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, whose 12-inch guns could at least have kept Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at bay. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands; only Glasgow and Otranto escaped the rout. The German squadron suffered minimal casualties and damage – but they had expended over half of their ammunition in the battle.
Word of the defeat soon reached London, where Fisher wasted no time in dispatching the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s ships. Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command. On 26 November, the battlecruisers rendezvoused with the remnants of Cradock’s force, along with the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon, and Cornwall, and the light cruiser Bristol. The force proceeded to the Falkland Islands where HMS Canopus was grounded at Port Stanley to act as a guardship.
Meanwhile, von Spee’s squadron had captured a British collier and now had all the coal they needed, but there was no possibility of replenishing their ammunition. Von Spee decided to return to Germany, but first he proposed to attack the Royal Navy base on Falkland Islands. His captains mostly opposed the plan, but they were overruled.
On the morning of 8 December 1914, the East Asia Squadron was sighted by civilians at Fitzroy, who alerted the navy base at Port Stanley. The entire British squadron was coaling, but as von Spee’s ships approached Stanley the Canopus opened fire and Kent was making her way out of the harbour. With the bulk of the British ships still at anchor, von Spee might yet have been able to press home his attack. But sighting the tripod masts of the battlecruisers, he realised that he was up against a superior force and decided to make a run for it.
It was 10:00 before the battlecruisers left port and von Spee’s ships were 13 nautical miles ahead. But Invincible and Inflexible could outrun and outgun Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By 13:00, the battlecruisers had closed the range and opened fire. To give his smaller ships a chance of escape, von Spee turned back with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and engaged the British ships. Scharnhorst repeatedly attempted to close to within torpedo range of the battlecruisers, but without success. By 16:04, her smokestacks had been shot away, she was on fire, and listing. At 16:17, she sank with all hands; the British ships, still in action against the Gneisenau, were unable to attempt any rescue of survivors. The Gneisenau fought on bravely, but at 18:06 she finally succumbed. Invincible and Inflexible hastened to pick up survivors, but only 190 men were rescued. Meanwhile, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden fled the battle, hotly pursued by Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall. Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk with the loss of all but a handful of men; Dresden escaped though she was later cornered and sunk off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915.
German losses were 1,871 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. A total of 215 survived. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.
The Battle of the Falkland Islands proved to be the finest hour for the battlecruiser. The light armour was its Achilles heel: three were lost at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and in 1941, HMS Hood was sunk while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. In the mid-1930s, the new German navy, the Kriegsmarine, built two battleships named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Again, though, they were no match for British capital ships and the second Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape. The Gneisenau, which was undergoing a refit that would have upgraded her armament, was scrapped on Hitler’s orders. Adm. von Spee was commemorated by the ‘panzerschiff’ Graff Spee, which was scuttled at Montevideo on 20 December 1939 on the orders of her captain, KptzS Hans Langsdorff, after sustaining heavy damage from British warships at the Battle of the River Plate. Three days later, Langsdorff killed himself despite having conducted himself in an entirely honourable manner throughout.
To this day, 8 December is a public holiday in the Falklands, and on that day in 2014 – the hundredth anniversary of the battle – the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust instigated a search for von Spee’s ships. The search was unsuccessful, but a second attempt was made in December this year with four deep-sea robot submarines operated from the search vessel Seabed Constructor. After just three days the Scharnhorst was located. She is standing upright in a debris field, her hull largely intact although little remains of her superstructure. The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust will seek to have the site protected in law. The search for the three other ships sunk in the battle will continue.