Military Wiki
SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Scharnhorst
Career (German Empire)
Name: Scharnhorst
Namesake: Gerhard von Scharnhorst[1]
Ordered: 1904
Laid down: January 1905
Launched: 22 March 1906
Commissioned: 24 October 1907
Fate: Sunk in action, First 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: 22.7 knots (42 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]
  • 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 Scharnhorst was an 12,985 t (12,780 long tons; 14,314 short tons) armored cruiser of the Imperial German Navy, built at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. She was the lead ship of her class, which also included her sister SMS Gneisenau. Scharnhorst and her sister were enlarged versions of the preceding Roon class; they were equipped with a greater number of main guns and a higher top speed. The ship was named after the Prussian reformer General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and commissioned into service on 24 October 1907.

Scharnhorst was assigned to the German East Asia Squadron based in Tsingtao, China, along with Gneisenau, in 1911. 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, Scharnhorst 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 dispatch 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.


Scharnhorst was laid down at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany in 1905, under construction number 175. She was launched on 23 March 1906, and commissioned into the fleet a year and a half later on 24 October 1907. The ship cost the German government 20,319,000 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]

Guns on SMS Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst was 144.6 meters (474 ft) long overall, and had a beam of 21.6 m (71 ft), a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 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. Scharnhorst's crew consisted of 52 officers and 788 enlisted men; of these, 14 officers and 62 enlisted men were assigned to the squadron commander's staff, and were additional to the standard complement.[3]

Scharnhorst'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

In 1909, Scharnhorst was assigned to the Ostasiengeschwader (East Asia Squadron); Gneisenau followed in 1910. The two ships formed the core of the squadron, with Scharnhorst serving as the flagship.[3] They were crack gunnery ships; Gneisenau had won the Kaiser's Cup twice,[6] and Scharnhorst finished in second place in 1913 and 1914.[7]

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 would restock their coal supplies. While en route, they received news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.[8] On 17 July, the East Asia Squadron arrived in Ponape in the Caroline Islands. Von Spee now had access to the German radio network, and he learned of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia and the Russian mobilization against Austria-Hungary and possibly Germany. On 31 July word came that the German ultimatum that Russia demobilize its armies was set to expire. Von Spee ordered his ships be stripped for war.[lower-alpha 3] On 2 August, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered German mobilization against Russia and its ally, France.[9]

World War I

SMS Scharnhorst

When the First World War broke out, Scharnhorst was Admiral Maximilian von Spee's flagship in the East Asia Squadron. The squadron consisted of Scharnhorst, her sister ship Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nürnberg, and Leipzig.[10] On 6 August 1914, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, the supply ship Titania, and the Japanese collier Fukoku Maru were still in Ponape.[11] Von Spee had issued orders to recall the light cruisers, which had been dispersed on cruises around the Pacific.[12] Nürnberg joined von Spee that day.[11] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau regrouped with Emden and Nürnberg; all four then departed the central Pacific, bound for Chile. On 13 August Commodore Karl von Müller, captain of the Emden, persuaded von Spee to detach his ship as a commerce raider. By this time, the squadron had been reinforced by the arrival of Dresden and Leipzig.[15] Dresden was stationed in the Caribbean,[10] but had been in San Francisco when von Spee issued the order to consolidate German naval forces.[16] On 14 August, the East Asia Squadron departed Pagan for Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, with Scharnhorst in the lead.[17] The ships again coaled after their arrival on 20 August.[18]

To keep the German high command informed, on 8 September von Spee detached Nürnberg to Honolulu to send word through neutral countries. Nürnberg returned with news of the Allied conquest of the German colony at Samoa. On 14 August, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed to Apia to investigate the situation, but found no suitable targets.[19] At the Battle of Papeete on 22 September, Scharnhorst and the rest of the East Asia Squadron bombarded the colony.[20] During the bombardment, the French gunboat Zélée was sunk by German gunfire. Fear of mines in the harbor prevented von Spee from seizing the coal in the harbor.[21] By 12 October, Scharnhorst and the rest of the squadron had reached Easter Island. There they were joined by Dresden and Leipzig, which had sailed from American waters. After a week in the area, the ships departed for Chile.[22]

Battle of Coronel

Scharnhorst steaming at high speed

The British had scant resources to oppose the German squadron off the coast of South America. Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock commanded the armored cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth, the light cruiser Glasgow, and the auxiliary cruiser Otranto. The flotilla was reinforced by the elderly pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus and the armored cruiser Defence. However, the latter did not arrive until after the Battle of Coronel.[23] Canopus was left behind by Cradock, who likely felt her slow speed would prevent him from bringing the German ships to battle.[24]

On the evening of 26 October, Scharnhorst 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 turned towards the port.[24] He arrived on the afternoon of 1 November; to his surprise, he encountered Good Hope, Monmouth, and Otranto as well as Glasgow. Canopus was still some 300 miles (480 km) behind, with the British colliers.[25] At 17:00, Glasgow spotted the German ships. Cradock formed a line of battle with Good Hope in the lead, followed by Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto in the rear. Von Spee decided to hold off engaging until the sun had set more, at which point the British ships would be silhouetted by the sun. Cradock realized the uselessness of Otranto in the line of battle and detached her.[26]

At 19:00, the German ships closed to attack.[26] Scharnhorst engaged Good Hope and hit her at least 35 times. One of the shells penetrated an ammunition magazine, which destroyed Good Hope in a huge explosion at 19:57.[7] At the same time, Nürnberg closed to point-blank range of Monmouth and poured shells into her.[27] Glasgow was forced to abandon Monmouth after 20:20, before fleeing south and meeting with Canopus. Monmouth eventually capsized and sank at 21:18.[28] More than 1,600 men were killed in the sinking of the two armored cruisers, including Admiral Cradock. German losses were negligible. However, the German ships had expended over 40% of their ammunition supply.[26] Scharnhorst was hit twice during the engagement, but both shells failed to explode.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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 German fleet turned to flee.[30] The Germans took a south-easterly course at 22 kn (41 km/h; 25 mph). Scharnhorst was the center ship, with Gneisenau and Nürnberg ahead and Dresden and Leipzig astern.[31] The fast battlecruisers quickly got up steam and sailed out of the harbor to pursue the slower East Asia Squadron.[30]

Scharnhorst rolls over and sinks while Gneisenau continues to fight

By 13:20, the British ships had caught up with Scharnhorst and the other cruisers and began firing at a range of 14 km (8.7 mi).[32] Von Spee realized his armored cruisers could not escape the much faster battlecruisers, and ordered the three light cruisers to attempt to break away while he turned about to face the British with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. However, Sturdee detached his armored and light cruisers to pursue the German light cruisers, while the battlecruisers dealt with the outgunned Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.[33] Invincible opened fire at Scharnhorst while Inflexible attacked Gneisenau. 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 numerous secondary 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 accurate that it forced the British to haul away.[34]

By 15:30, Scharnhorst had been holed in several places below the waterline, her third funnel had been destroyed, and she was burning badly. She was also low in the water, drawing some 3 ft (0.91 m) more than normal. At 16:04, Scharnhorst was observed from Inflexible as having rapidly listed to port, and she sank at 16:17.[35] All 860 officers and men on board, including von Spee, went down with the ship.[3] Gneisenau, 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 about 2,200 German sailors and officers, including two of von Spee's sons.[32]



  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. 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. Gardiner & Gray, p. 142.
  6. Hough, p. 3.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Strachan, p. 35.
  8. Hough, pp. 11–12.
  9. Hough, pp. 17–18.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Halpern, p. 66.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Halpern, p. 71.
  12. Hough, pp. 1–2.
  13. Hough, pp. 3–4.
  14. Hough, p. 5.
  15. Herwig, pp. 155–156.
  16. Hough, p. 2.
  17. Hough, p. 23.
  18. Hough, p. 33.
  19. Strachan, p. 471.
  20. Strachan, p. 472.
  21. Halpern, p. 89.
  22. Hawkins, p. 34.
  23. Herwig, p. 156.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Halpern, p. 92.
  25. Halpern, pp. 92–93.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Halpern, p. 93.
  27. Herwig, p. 157.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Strachan, p. 36.
  29. Strachan, p. 41.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Strachan, p. 47.
  31. Bennett, p. 115.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Herwig, p. 158.
  33. Bennett, p. 117.
  34. Bennett, p. 118.
  35. Bennett, p. 119.


  • Bennett, Geoffrey (2005). Naval Battles of the First World War. London: Pen & Sword Military Classics. ISBN 978-1-84415-300-8. OCLC 57750267. 
  • Gardiner, Robert; Gray, Randal, eds (1985). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships: 1906–1921. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-907-8. 
  • Gröner, Erich (1990). German Warships: 1815–1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-790-6. OCLC 22101769. 
  • Halpern, Paul G. (1995). A Naval History of World War I. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-55750-352-7. OCLC 57447525. 
  • 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. 
  • Hough, Richard (1980). Falklands 1914: The Pursuit of Admiral Von Spee. Periscope Publishing. ISBN 978-1-904381-12-9. 
  • Rüger, Jan (2007). The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521875765. OCLC 124025616. 
  • Strachan, Hew (2001). The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926191-8. 

Online sources

Coordinates: 52°29′58″S 56°9′59″W / 52.49944°S 56.16639°W / -52.49944; -56.16639

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