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Scharnhorst-class cruiser
A large warship steams at full speed; black smoke billows from its four funnels
SMS Scharnhorst
Class overview
Name: Scharnhorst-class cruiser
Operators:  Kaiserliche Marine
Preceded by: Roon class
Succeeded by: SMS Blücher
Completed: Two ordered and commissioned
Lost: 2
General characteristics
Type: Armored cruiser
Displacement: 12,781 t (12,579 long tons; 14,089 short tons)
Length: 474.7 ft (144.7 m)
Beam: 71 ft (22 m)
Draught: 27.5 ft (8.4 m)
  • 18 Schulz Thornycroft Boilers
  • 3 shaft triple expansion engines
  • 27,759 ihp (trials)
Speed: 22.7 knots (42 km/h)
  • 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)

The Scharnhorst class was the last traditional class of armored cruisers built by the Kaiserliche Marine. The class comprised two ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were larger than the Roon-class cruisers that preceded them; the extra size was used primarily to increase the main armament of 21 cm (8.2 inch) guns from four to eight. The ships were the first German cruiser to reach equality with their British counterparts.[1] The ships were named after 19th century Prussian army reformers, Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau.

Built for overseas service, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were assigned to the East Asia Squadron in 1909 and 1910, respectively. Scharnhorst relieved the old armored cruiser Fürst Bismarck as the squadron flagship, which had been on station since 1900. Both ships had short careers; shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the ships departed the German colony at Tsingtao. On 1 November 1914, the ships destroyed a British force at the Battle of Coronel and inflicted upon the Royal Navy its first defeat since the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814.[2] The East Asia Squadron, including both Scharnhorst-class ships, was subsequently annihilated at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December.


Left elevation and deck plan as depicted in Jane's Fighting Ships 1914

General characteristics

The ships of the class were 144.6 meters (474 ft) long overall, and 143.8 m (472 ft) long at the waterline. They had a beam of 21.6 m (71 ft), a draft of 8.4 m (27 ft 7 in), and 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. The ships' hulls were constructed of transverse and longitudinal steel frames, over which the outer hull plating was riveted. The vessels had 15 watertight compartments and a double bottom that ran for 50% of the length of the hull.[3]

The ships had a standard crew of 38 officers and 726 enlisted men. Scharnhorst, as the squadron flagship, had a larger crew, including an additional 14 officers and 62 men. Gneisenau, when serving as the squadron second command flagship, had an extra staff of 3 officers and 25 men. The ships carried a number of smaller vessels, including two picket boats, two launches, one pinnace, two cutters, three yawls, and one dinghy.[3]


The Scharnhorst-class ships used the same powerplant as in the preceding Roon class: three 3-cylinder triple expansion engines.[4] Each engine drove a single propeller; the center shaft on Scharnhorst was 4.7 m (15 ft) in diameter while the outer two were 5 m (16 ft) wide. Gneisenau's screws were slightly smaller, at 4.6 m (15 ft) wide on the center shaft and 4.8 m (16 ft) on the outer pair. The triple expansion engines were supplied with steam by 18 coal-fired marine-type boilers with 36 fire boxes. The engines were designed to provide 26,000 indicated horsepower, though on trials they achieved higher figures—28,782 ihp for Scharnhorst and 30,396 ihp for Gneisenau. The ships were rated at a top speed of 22.5 knots (41.7 km/h; 25.9 mph), though on trials Scharnhorst steamed at a maximum of 23.5 kn (43.5 km/h; 27.0 mph), while Gneisenau ran at 23.6 kn (43.7 km/h; 27.2 mph).[3] The vessels carried 800 t (790 long tons; 880 short tons) of coal normally, though they were capable of storing up to 2,000 t (2,000 long tons; 2,200 short tons) of coal. This provided a maximum range of 4,800 nautical miles (8,900 km; 5,500 mi) at a cruising speed of 14 kn (26 km/h; 16 mph).[5] The ships had a single rudder.[3]

The vessels also carried the same electrical plant as in the older Roon-class ships. It consisted of four turbo-generators that delivered 260 kilowatts at 110 volts.[6] The Scharnhorst-class ships were the last cruisers built by Germany to be equipped with generators that put out power at 110 volts; the subsequent design, Blücher, had generators that ran at 225 volts.[7]


A large turret with two guns on a warship

Forward gun turret on Scharnhorst

The ships' main battery 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. The 21 cm guns fired a 108 kg (238 lb) armor-piercing projectile at a muzzle velocity of 780 meters per second (2,559 ft/s). The guns had a rate of fire of between 4–5 rounds per minute.[8] The guns were supplied with a total of 700 rounds.[3] The guns mounted in the twin turrets could elevate to 30 degrees, which enabled a maximum range of 16,300 m (17,830 yards). The single turrets could only elevate to 16 degrees, and so their range was correspondingly lower at 12,400 m (13,560 yards). The twin turrets could train to approximately 150 degrees in either direction from the centerline.[8]

Secondary armament included six 15 cm (5.9 inch) SK L/40 guns in MPL casemates.[lower-alpha 2] These guns had a fired armor-piercing shells at a rate of 4–5 per minute. The ships carried 170 shells per gun, for a total of 1,020 rounds total. The guns could depress to −7 degrees and elevate to 20 degrees, for a maximum range of 13,700 m (14,990 yd). They were manually elevated and trained.[9]

The ships were also armed with eighteen 8.8 cm (3.45 inch) guns mounted in casemates. They fired 10 kg (22 lb) shells at a muzzle velocity of approximately 620 m/s (2,034 f/s). The ship carried 150 shells per gun, for a total of 2,700 rounds. They were capable of engaging targets out to 11,000 m (12,030 yd). As with the larger 15 cm guns, the 8.8 cm weapons were manually elevated and trained.[10]

As was customary for warships of the period, the Scharnhorst-class ships were equipped with four 45 cm (18 in) submerged torpedo tubes. One was mounted in the bow, one on each broadside, and the fourth was placed in the stern. The ships were supplied with a total of 11 torpedoes.[3] The weapons were the C/03 type, which weighed 662 kg (1,460 lb) and carried a 176 kg (388 lb) high explosive warhead. At a speed of 31 knots, the torpedoes had an effective range of 1,500 m (1,640 yd); when set at a slower speed of 26 knots, the weapons could hit targets out to twice the distance, at 3,000 m (3,280 yd).[11]


As was the standard for German warships, the ships of the Scharnhorst class were protected by Krupp armor. They had an armor belt that was 150 mm (5.9 in) thick in the central portion of the ship, where the most important areas were located. The belt decreased to 80 mm (3.1 in) on either end of the central citadel, and down to nothing at the bow and stern. The entire belt was backed with teak planking. The main armored deck ranged in thickness from 60 mm (2.4 in) over critical areas and down to 35 mm (1.4 in) elsewhere. The deck sloped down to the belt; this portion was between 40–55 mm (1.6–2.2 in) thick. The forward conning tower had 200 mm (7.9 in)-thick sides and a 30 mm (1.2 in)-thick roof. The rear conning tower was less well-armored, with sides that were only 50 mm (2.0 in) thick and a roof that was 20 mm (0.79 in) thick. The main battery gun turrets had 170 mm (6.7 in)-thick sides and 30 mm thick-roofs, while the amidships guns were protected with 150 mm-thick gun shields and 40 mm-thick roofs. The 15 cm guns were armored with 80 mm-thick shields.[3]

Service history

Upon commissioning, both ships of the class were assigned to the German East Asia Squadron, with Scharnhorst serving as Admiral Maximilian von Spee's flagship. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were regarded as well-trained vessels; both ships won awards for their excellence at gunnery.[12] At the start of World War I, the two ships were in the Caroline Islands on a routine cruise; the rest of von Spee's squadron was dispersed around the Pacific. The declaration of war by Japan on Germany convinced von Spee to consolidate his force with the cruisers Leipzig and Dresden from the American station, and head for Chile to refuel. The flotilla would then attempt to return to Germany via the Atlantic Ocean. Admiral von Spee also intended to attack the three British cruisers under the command of Admiral Christopher Cradock, and any British shipping encountered.[13] On 22 September, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau approached the island of Papeete in French Polynesia with the intention of seizing the coal stockpiled in the harbor. The ships conducted a short bombardment that resulted in the sinking of the old gunboat Zélée. However, von Spee feared that the harbor had been mined, and decided to avoid the risk. The French had also set fire to the coal stocks to prevent the Germans from using the coal.[14]

Battle of Coronel

At approximately 17:00 on 1 November 1914, the East Asia Squadron encountered Craddock's ships off Coronel. Because the German ships had an advantage in speed, von Spee was able to keep the distance to 18 kilometers, before closing to 12 km to engage the British flotilla at 19:00. Scharnhorst hit Good Hope some 34 times; at least one of the shells penetrated Good Hope's ammunition magazines, which resulted in a tremendous explosion that destroyed the ship. The light cruiser Nürnberg closed to point-blank range to attack Monmouth; after a severe pummeling, Monmouth sank as well. The British light cruiser Glasgow and the auxiliary cruiser Otranto both escaped under the cover of darkness. First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher remarked that it was "the saddest naval action of the war."[15] The defeat was the first to be inflicted on the Royal Navy since the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh. After news of the battle reached Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, he ordered 300 Iron Crosses to be awarded to the men of von Spee's squadron. After refueling in Valparaiso, the East Asia Squadron departed for the Falkland Islands, in order to destroy the British wireless transmitter located there.[15]

Battle of the Falkland Islands

A large warship lowers boats to pick up sailors floating in the open water

Inflexible picking up survivors from Gneisenau

Some six hours after news of the battle reached England, Admiral Fisher ordered Admiral John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, to detach the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible to hunt down the German ships. Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command of the flotilla, which also included the armored cruisers Carnarvon, Cornwall, Defence, and Kent, and the light cruisers Bristol and Glasgow, which had survived Coronel.[15] Sturdee's ships reached the Falklands by the morning of 8 December, shortly before von Spee's squadron arrived. The British spotted the East Asia Squadron at 09:40; von Spee was unaware that the British had sent the two battlecruisers, and when he observed them, he ordered his ships to withdraw. Despite the head start, the fast battlecruisers quickly caught up with the worn-out German ships, which had just completed a 16,000 mile voyage without repairs.[16]

At approximately 13:20, the battlecruisers opened fire at a range of 14 kilometers. After a two hour-long battle, Scharnhorst was dead in the water and listing heavily. The ship was sunk shortly thereafter. Gneisenau had been hit more than 50 times at close range; the crew gave three cheers for the Kaiser before the vessel sank. Nürnberg and Leipzig were also sunk, though Dresden managed to escape temporarily, before she too was destroyed off Juan Fernández Island. Some 2,200 men were killed, among them Admiral von Spee.[17]



  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).


  1. Herwig, p. 28.
  2. Gilbert, p. 102.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Gröner, p. 52.
  4. Gröner, p. 50.
  5. Herwig, p. 268.
  6. Gröner, p. 51.
  7. Gröner, p. 53.
  8. 8.0 8.1 NavWeaps (21 cm/40).
  9. NavWeaps (15 cm/40).
  10. NavWeaps (8.8 cm/35).
  11. NavWeaps (Torpedoes).
  12. Halpern, p. 66.
  13. Herwig, pp. 155–156.
  14. Halpern, p. 89.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Herwig, p. 157.
  16. Herwig, pp. 157–158.
  17. Herwig, p. 158.


  • Gilbert, Martin (2004). The First World War: A Complete History. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-7617-2. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 

Online sources

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