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SMS Gneisenau
SMS Gneisenau
SMS Gneisenau
Career (German Empire)
Name: Gneisenau
Namesake: August von Gneisenau[1]
Builder: AG Weser, Bremen
Laid down: 1904
Launched: 14 June 1906
Commissioned: 6 March 1908
Fate: Scuttled and sunk in action, Battle of the Falkland Islands, 8 December 1914
General characteristics
Class & type: Scharnhorst-class armored cruiser
Displacement: 12,985 t (12,780 long tons; 14,314 short tons)
Length: 144.6 m (474 ft)
Beam: 21.6 m (71 ft)
Draft: 8.37 m (27.5 ft)
  • 18 Schulz Thornycroft Boilers
  • 3 shaft triple expansion engines
  • 27,759 ihp (trials)
Speed: 23.6 knots (44 km/h)
  • 5,000 nmi (9,300 km; 5,800 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 2,200 nmi (4,100 km; 2,500 mi) at 20 kn (37 km/h; 23 mph)[2]
  • 38 officers
  • 726 enlisted men
  • 8 × 8.2 in (21 cm) (2 × 2, 4 × 1)
  • 6 × 5.9 in (15 cm) (6 × 1)
  • 18 × 3.45 in (8.8 cm) (18 × 1)
  • 4 × 17.7 in (45 cm) torpedo tubes
  • Belt: 6 in (15 cm)
  • Turrets: 7 in (18 cm)
  • Deck: 1.5 in (3.8 cm)–2.5 in (6.4 cm)

SMS Gneisenau was an armored cruiser of the German navy, part of the two-ship Scharnhorst class. She was named after August von Gneisenau, a Prussian general of the Napoleonic Wars. The ship was laid down in 1904 at the AG Weser dockyard in Bremen, launched in June 1906, and completed in March 1908, at a cost of over 19 million goldmarks. She was armed with a main battery of eight 21-centimeter (8.3 in) guns, had a top speed of 23.6 knots (43.7 km/h; 27.2 mph), and displaced 12,985 metric tons (12,780 long tons; 14,314 short tons) at full combat load.

Gneisenau was assigned to the German East Asia Squadron based in Tsingtao, China, along with Scharnhorst, in 1910. They served as the core of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee's fleet. After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the two ships, accompanied by three light cruisers and several colliers, sailed across the Pacific ocean—in the process evading the various Allied naval forces sent to intercept them—before arriving off the southern coast of South America. On 1 November 1914, Gneisenau and the rest of the East Asia Squadron encountered and overpowered a British squadron at the Battle of Coronel. The stinging defeat prompted the British Admiralty to detach two battlecruisers to hunt down and destroy von Spee's flotilla, which they accomplished at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.


Line-drawing of the Scharnhorst class

Gneisenau was laid down at the AG Weser shipyard in Bremen, Germany in 1904, under construction number 144. She was launched on 14 June 1906, and commissioned into the fleet nearly two years on 6 March 1908. The ship cost the German government 19,243,000 goldmarks.[3] The ship had been designed for service with the High Seas Fleet,[4] though they were found to be too weak for service with the battle fleet; instead they were deployed overseas, a role in which they performed well.[5]

Gneisenau was 144.6 meters (474 ft) long overall, and had a beam of 21.6 m (71 ft), a draft of 8.4 m (27 ft 7 in). The ship displaced 11,616 metric tons (11,433 long tons; 12,804 short tons) standard, and 12,985 t (12,780 long tons; 14,314 short tons) at full load. Gneisenau's crew consisted of 38 officers and 726 enlisted men. The ship was powered by coal-fired triple expansion engines that provided a top speed of 23.6 knots (43.7 km/h; 27.2 mph)[3]

Gneisenau's primary armament consisted of eight 21 cm (8.2 inch) SK L/40 guns,[lower-alpha 1] four in twin gun turrets, one fore and one aft of the main superstructure, and the remaining four were mounted in single wing turrets. Secondary armament included six 15 cm (5.9 inch) SK L/40 guns in MPL casemates,[lower-alpha 2] and eighteen 8.8 cm (3.45 inch) guns mounted in casemates. She was also equipped with four 44 cm (17 in) submerged torpedo tubes. One was mounted in the bow, one on each broadside, and the fourth was placed in the stern.[3]

Service history

Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, the former Chief of the General Staff, christened the ship at her commissioning on 6 March 1908.[6] Captain Franz von Hipper was the ship's first commanding officer; he took command of the ship the day she was commissioned. He was tasked with conducting the ship's shakedown cruise,[7] which lasted from 26 March to the middle of July. She officially joined the fleet on 12 July.[8] The ship then departed for Asia, though Hipper left the ship and went on to command the I Torpedo-boat Division in Kiel.[7] Gneisenau was assigned to the Ostasiengeschwader (East Asia Squadron), where in 1910 she joined Scharnhorst, which had been assigned to the unit the previous year. The two ships formed the core of the squadron, with Scharnhorst serving as the flagship.[3] The pair were crack gunnery ships;[9] Gneisenau won the Kaiser's Cup four times during her career: twice while in German waters in 1908 and 1909 and twice in Asia in 1910 and 1911,[8] and Scharnhorst's finished in second place in 1913 and 1914.[10][lower-alpha 3]

In June 1914, the annual summer cruise of the East Asia Squadron began; Gneisenau rendezvoused with Scharnhorst in Nagasaki, Japan, where they received a full supply of coal. They then sailed south, arriving in Truk in early July where they restocked their coal supplies. While en route, they received news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.[11] On 17 July, the East Asia Squadron arrived in Ponape in the Caroline Islands. Here, von Spee had access to the German radio network, where he learned of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia and the Russian mobilization. On 31 July, word came that the German ultimatum, which demanded the demobilization of Russia's armies, was set to expire. Von Spee ordered his ships be stripped for war.[lower-alpha 4] On 2 August, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered German mobilization against France and Russia.[12]

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I the East Asia Squadron consisted of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and the light cruisers Emden, Nürnberg, and Leipzig.[13] On 6 August 1914, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, the supply ship Titania, and the Japanese collier Fukoku Maru were still in Ponape;[14] von Spee had issued orders to recall the light cruisers, which had been dispersed on various cruises around the Pacific.[15] Nürnberg joined von Spee that day.[14] Von Spee decided the best place to concentrate his forces was Pagan Island in the northern Marianas Islands, a German possession in the central Pacific. All available colliers, supply ships, and passenger liners were ordered to meet the East Asia Squadron there.[16] On 11 August, von Spee arrived in Pagan; he was joined by several supply ships, as well as Emden and the auxiliary cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich.[17]

The flotilla was reinforced with the arrival of Emden and Nürnberg; the ships then departed the central Pacific, bound for Chile. On 13 August the captain of Emden, Commodore Karl von Müller, persuaded von Spee to detach his ship for commerce raiding.[18] On 14 August, the East Asia Squadron departed Pagan for Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.[19] The ships again coaled after their arrival on 20 August.[20] In order to keep the German high command informed, von Spee detached Nürnberg on 8 September to Honolulu to send word through neutral countries. Nürnberg brought back news of the Allied conquest of the German colony at Samoa; on 14 August, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sailed to Apia to investigate the situation, but found no suitable targets.[21]

At the Battle of Papeete on 22 September, Gneisenau and the rest of the East Asia Squadron bombarded the colony.[22] During the bombardment, the French gunboat Zélée was sunk by gunfire from the German ships. Fear of mines in the harbor prevented von Spee from seizing the coal that lay in the harbor.[23] By 12 October, Gneisenau and the rest of the squadron had reached Easter Island. There they were joined by Dresden and Leipzig, which had sailed from American waters.[24] Dresden was stationed in the Caribbean,[13] but had been in San Francisco when von Spee issued the order to consolidate German naval forces in the Pacific.[25] After a week off Easter Island, the ships departed for the Chilean mainland.[24]

Battle of Coronel

To oppose the German squadron off the coast of South America, the British had scant resources; under the command of Rear Admiral Christopher Craddock were the armored cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, and the auxiliary cruiser Otranto. This flotilla was reinforced by the elderly pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus and the armored cruiser Defence, the latter, however, did not arrive until after the Battle of Coronel.[26] Canopus was left behind by Craddock, who likely felt that her slow speed would prevent him from bringing the German ships to battle.[27]

On the evening of 26 October, Gneisenau and the rest of the squadron steamed out of Mas a Fuera, Chile, and headed eastward. Von Spee learned that Glasgow had been spotted in Coronel on the 31st, and so turned toward the port.[27] He arrived on the afternoon of 1 November, and to his surprise, encountered Good Hope, Monmouth, and Otranto as well as Glasgow. Canopus was still some 300 miles (480 km) behind, escorting the British colliers.[28] At 17:00, Glasgow spotted the Germans; Craddock formed a line with Good Hope in the lead, followed by Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto in the rear. Von Spee decided to hold off on engaging the British until the sun had set more, at which point the British ships would be silhouetted by the sun. At this point, Craddock realized the uselessness of Otranto in the line of battle, and so detached her.[29]

At 19:00, the German ships closed to attack.[29] In the span of five minutes, the German cruisers' guns had seriously damaged Good Hope, which was destroyed by a magazine explosion. Monmouth attempted to escape to the south; she was burning furiously and her guns had fallen silent.[30] Nürnberg closed to point-blank range of Monmouth and poured shells into her.[31] Glasgow was forced to abandon Monmouth after 20:20, before fleeing south and meeting with Canopus. Monmouth eventually capsized and sank at 21:18.[32] Over 1,600 men were killed in the sinking of the two armored cruisers, including Admiral Craddock; German losses were negligible. However, the German ships had expended over 40% of their ammunition supply.[29]

Battle of the Falkland Islands

Movement of forces at the Battle of the Falkland Islands

Once word of the defeat reached London, the Royal Navy set to organizing a force to hunt down and destroy the East Asia Squadron. To this end, the powerful new battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible were detached from the Grand Fleet and placed under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee.[33] The two ships left Devonport on 10 November, and while en route to the Falkland Islands, they were joined by the armored cruisers Carnarvon, Kent, and Cornwall, the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow, and the Otranto. The force of eight ships reached the Falklands by 7 December, where they immediately coaled.[34]

Gneisenau and Nürnberg, the first two ships in the German line, approached the Falklands on the same morning, with the intention of destroying the wireless transmitter there. Observers aboard Gneisenau spotted the two battlecruisers in the harbor of Port Stanley, and when 30.5 cm (12.0 in) shells were fired from Canopus, which had been beached as a guard ship, the Germans turned to flee.[34] The Germans took a south-easterly course at 22 kn (41 km/h; 25 mph). Von Spee formed his line with Gneisenau and Nürnberg ahead, Scharnhorst in the center, and Dresden and Leipzig astern.[35] The fast battlecruisers quickly got up steam and sailed out of the harbor to pursue the East Asia Squadron.[34]

By 13:20, the faster British ships had caught up with Gneisenau and the other cruisers, and began to fire at a range of 14 km (8.7 mi).[36] Von Spee realized his armored cruisers could not escape the much faster battlecruisers, and so ordered the three light cruisers to attempt to break away while he turned about to engage the British with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. However, Sturdee detached his armored and light cruisers to pursue the German light cruisers, while the battlecruisers dealt with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.[37] Inflexible attacked Gneisenau while Invincible opened fire at Scharnhorst. Sturdee attempted to widen the distance by turning two points to the north to prevent von Spee from closing to within the range of his smaller 8.2 in (21 cm) guns. Von Spee counteracted this maneuver by turning rapidly to the south, which forced Sturdee to turn south as well. This allowed Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to get close enough to engage with their secondary 5.9 in (15 cm) guns; their shooting was so effective that it forced the British to haul away temporarily.[38]

File:Scharnhorst Gneisenau at the Falklands.jpg

Scharnhorst rolls over and sinks while Gneisenau continues to fight

At 16:04, Scharnhorst was observed from Inflexible as having rapidly listed to port, and she sank at 16:17. Shortly before she sank, von Spee transmitted one last order to Gneisenau: "Endeavor to escape if your engines are still intact." Damage to the ship's boiler rooms had reduced her speed to 16 kn (30 km/h; 18 mph), however, and so the ship continued to fight on. Gneisenau scored a hit on Invincible as late as 17:15.[39] By 17:30, however, the ship was a burning wreck; she had a severe list to starboard and smoke poured from the ship, which came to a stop.[40] Ten minutes later, the British ships closed in and the flag on Gneisenau's foremast was struck; at 17:50, Sturdee ordered his ships to cease fire. Gneisenau's captain ordered the crew to scuttle the ship, as they had expended their ammunition and the engines were disabled. The ship slowly rolled over and sank, but not before allowing some 200 of the survivors time to escape. Of these men, many died quickly from exposure in the 39 °F (4 °C) water.[41] A total of 598 men of her crew were killed in the engagement.[3] Leipzig, and Nürnberg were also sunk. Only Dresden managed to escape, but she was eventually tracked to the Juan Fernandez Island and sunk. The complete destruction of the squadron killed some 2,200 German sailors and officers, including two of von Spee's sons.[36]



  1. In Imperial German Navy gun nomenclature, "SK" (Schnellfeuerkanone) denotes that the gun is quick firing, while the L/40 denotes the length of the gun. In this case, the L/40 gun is 40 calibers, meaning that the gun barrel is 40 times as long as it is in diameter.
  2. MPL stands for Mittel-Pivot-Lafette (Central pivot mounting). See: NavWeaps (Ammunition, Guns and Mountings).
  3. Kaiser Wilhelm II sponsored annual long-range gunnery competitions in the fleet, for each battle squadron and the cruiser squadrons.
  4. This meant the removal of all non-essential items, to include dress uniforms, tapestries, furniture, and other flammable objects. See: Hough, p. 17.


  1. Rüger, p. 160.
  2. Hough, p. 12.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Gröner, p. 52.
  4. Herwig, p. 44.
  5. Lyon, p. 142.
  6. Hildebrand Röhr & Steinmetz, pp. 211–212.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Philbin, p. 17.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hildebrand Röhr & Steinmetz, p. 212.
  9. Hough, p. 3.
  10. Strachan, p. 35.
  11. Hough, pp. 11–12.
  12. Hough, pp. 17–18.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Halpern, p. 66.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Halpern, p. 71.
  15. Hough, pp. 1–2.
  16. Hough, pp. 3–4.
  17. Hough, p. 5.
  18. Herwig, pp. 155–156.
  19. Hough, p. 23.
  20. Hough, p. 33.
  21. Strachan, p. 471.
  22. Strachan, p. 472.
  23. Halpern, p. 89.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Hawkins, p. 34.
  25. Hough, p. 2.
  26. Herwig, p. 156.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Halpern, p. 92.
  28. Halpern, pp. 92–93.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Halpern, p. 93.
  30. Potter Fredland & Adams, p. 205.
  31. Herwig, p. 157.
  32. Strachan, p. 36.
  33. Strachan, p. 41.
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Strachan, p. 47.
  35. Bennett, p. 115.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Herwig, p. 158.
  37. Bennett, p. 117.
  38. Bennett, p. 118.
  39. Bennett, p. 119.
  40. Bennett, pp. 119–120.
  41. Bennett, p. 120.


  • Bennett, Geoffrey (2005). Naval Battles of the First World War. London: Pen & Sword Military Classics. ISBN 978-1-84415-300-8. OCLC 57750267. 
  • Gröner, Erich (1990). German Warships: 1815–1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-790-6. OCLC 22101769. 
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  • Hawkins, Nigel (2002). Starvation Blockade: The Naval Blockades of WWI. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-85052-908-1. 
  • Herwig, Holger (1998) [1980]. "Luxury" Fleet: The Imperial German Navy 1888–1918. Amherst, New York: Humanity Books. ISBN 978-1-57392-286-9. OCLC 57239454. 
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  • Philbin, Tobias R., III (1982). Admiral von Hipper: The Inconvenient Hero. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner Publishing Co. ISBN 978-90-6032-200-0. 
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  • Strachan, Hew (2001). The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926191-8. 

Online sources

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