SMS Scharnhorst (1906)

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.

Captain Hornblower in Space: Naval Warfare and Science Fiction

Some years ago came across a personal website whose owner had listed his favourite works of science fiction and had included the Hornblower novels. He had stated that he was quite serious in classifying the adventures of C.S. Forester’s inestimable hero as science fiction.

In fact difference between stories about Nelson’s navy and some science fiction is not as great as you might imagine. The adventures of Horatio Hornblower heavily involve a technology that is not, at the current time, in use by mankind. They differ from science fiction only in that the technology they involve has been superseded; as opposed to yet to be invented.

Consider huge fighting machines, the most powerful fighting machines in the world. Constructed of wood and powered by the wind, they sail the oceans of the world. They can operate alone, or in great fleets. They can be at sea for literally years at a time, never touching port, being re-provisioned from tenders. It does begin to sound a bit like a science fiction story, set on a world a couple of centuries behind present-day Earth.

Of course, these stories are not science fiction, they are based firmly on historical fact. But it would be interesting to see how much science fiction they have inspired. The late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was inspired in part by the Hornblower novels – one Next Generation episode features a Federation starship named the USS Sutherland, in honour of the 74 gun ship-of-the-line skippered by Hornblower in one of his many run-ins with the French. And when – many years ago now, of course – Star Trek premiered on BBC Television, the Radio Times very aptly introduced Captain James T. Kirk as a “space-going Captain Hornblower” .

Naval warfare in the days of sail might have also at least partly inspired an ingenious series of novels by the late Bob Shaw. The “Ragged Astronaut” trilogy envisaged a war between the humanoid inhabitants of two planets so close together that their atmospheres touched. Though technologically about as advanced as the Earth of Napoleonic times, the Landers and Overlanders were able to constrict a fleet of “wooden spaceships” which fought in the gravitationally neutral plane between the twin planets (Shaw got round the scientific implausibility of such a planetary system by setting the series in a parallel universe where different laws of physics and mathematics applied – for example the mathematical constant pi was exactly three).

Naval warfare has made its mark on science fiction in other ways. How often, for example, is the term “battlecruiser” encountered in novels and movies dealing with space warfare? “Battlecruiser” conjures up a vision of a fast, powerful warship. It somehow sounds more impressive than a battleship, the latter suggestive of a sturdy but lumbering battlewagon. Up to and during World War I, this was in fact a fairly accurate picture, and even admirals were seduced by battleship-sized warships, mounting comparable firepower, but capable of much greater speed.

The battlecruiser was the brainchild of the remarkable Admiral Sir John Fisher, who revolutionised warship design in the early years of the last century. At that time 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 lightly armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. In an era before radar and aircraft, they acted as the “eyes” of a battle-group, and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight.

Many years ago, I explained this to a friend over a few beers and he asked me what would happen if you put a high-calibre armament into a fast, lightly armoured ship. “You’d have a battlecruiser”, I said. In fact it isn’t quite as simple as that. In 1906 Fisher came up with the idea of an “all-big-gun” warship. HMS Dreadnought dispensed with secondary armament and used Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines as prime movers. She displaced no more than any other battleship of the time but she was significantly faster and had more than twice the fire-power of any other ship afloat.

HMS Invincible was a spinoff from this design – she was even faster, comparably armed (actually she dropped a couple of 12-inch guns) but her hull was only lightly armoured. Adm. Fisher believed that her speed would keep her out of trouble. The press dubbed the new ship a “battleship-cruiser” and later (because it was somewhat easier on the tongue) a “battlecruiser”.

Battlecruisers scored an early success. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 found a powerful German battle group in the South Atlantic under the command of Admiral Maximillian von Spee, who was flying his flag in the heavy cruiser SMS Scharnhorst (not to be confused with the later battleship of that name). On 1 November 1914, von Spee’s fleet annihilated a British force at Coronel off the coast of Chile. The cruisers HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were sunk with all hands and only the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and an auxilliary vessel escaped the rout.

Not for the last time, a British military debacle in the South Atlantic led to a swift counterstroke, and two Invincible-class battlecruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee were dispatched on a mission of retribution. On 8 December 1914 the two fleets clashed off the Falkland Islands and Scharnhorst and her sister ship Gneisenau proved to be no match for the British battlecruisers, which could both outrun them and outgun them. The tables were turned, and although von Spee’s ships put up a courageous fight, only the light cruiser SMS Dresden (temporarily) escaped destruction. Despite the best efforts of the British to rescue survivors, 1871 German sailors lost their lives, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

But the battlecruiser’s light hull armour was to prove its Achilles heel. The British lost three spectacularly at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, leading Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty to memorably complain that “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. The truth was that battlecruisers were simply not capable of slugging it out on an equal basis with battleships and Fisher’s contention that “speed is armour” proved to be tragically naive. Sadly, the lessons of Jutland weren’t properly learned and in 1941, HMS Hood, one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world, suffered the same fate while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Only three men survived.

By this time, advances in naval technology had made the type obsolete and battleships capable of thirty knots were being built, including the magnificent Iowa class, which saw active service with the US Navy as late as the 1990s.

Battleships and aircraft carriers are the largest moveable fighting machines ever constructed, and the temptation to envisage space-going equivalents has proved irresistible to many a SF writer. I myself made use of it (and many other concepts) in my unpublished novel The War in Time’s River. Though this work never found a buyer, I was rather flattered that many of its ideas were subsequently used in the highly-acclaimed SF drama series Babylon 5, though (to the best of my knowledge) nobody involved with the series ever saw a draft of my story.

© Christopher Seddon 2008