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Wreck of WW1 German Battleship located off the Falklands

Wreck of WW1 German Battleship located off the Falklands

SMS Scharnhorst – Photo from the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced on 4 December 2019 that the wreck of SMS Scharnhorst has been located off the Falkland Islands. This German battleship was the flagship of Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee and was sunk in the Battle of the Falklands in the opening months of the First World War. The wreck of Scharnhorst lies approximately 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 mi) southeast of Stanley at a depth of 1,610 m (5,280 ft).

The Battle of the Falklands took place on 8 December 1914. A Royal Naval squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee persued, engaged and destroyed Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee’s German fleet, comprising the Gneisenau, Nürnberg,  Scharnhorst, and Leipzig.

A few weeks earlier, in a five hour battle fought off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914,  Spee’s fleet had overpowered the Royal Navy, sinking both British armoured ships and killing Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock and 1,570 crew. The Battle of Coronel, as it became known, was the first Royal Navy defeat in more than a century. The Germans suffered just three wounded men.  Under the Hague Convention warships were permitted to anchor on neutral territory for no more than 24 hours. At a reception at the German club in Valparaiso after the Battle of Coronel Spee stated:  “I am quite homeless. I cannot reach Germany. We possess no other secure harbour. I must plough the seas of the world doing as much mischief as I can, until my ammunition is exhausted, or a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me.”

Spee’s next piece of mischief-making would be his last. After rounding Cape Horn he attempted a raid on Port Stanley, believing it to be undefended. But he was surprised to discover the presence of a powerful Royal Naval force commanded by Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee who had been sent from the Admiralty after the defeat at Coronel with reinforcements. Realising they were outgunned, the German ships fled towards the open sea.

British warships set off in persuit but when they opened fire, shells initially kept falling to the left of their targets. This is due to deflection caused by the earth’s rotation, known as the Coriolis effect. In the northern hemisphere deflection is to the right, in the southern to the left. British naval gunners had adjusted their sights for the Coriolis effect for the northern hemisphere which sent the shells off course. Once they realised the mistake and recalculated their aim, shells were able to hit target.

The Scharnhorst, built in Hamburg in 1905,  sustained substantial damage inflicted by HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. Her funnels were destroyed, fires had broken out and she began to list. The list became worse at 16:04, and she sank by 16:17. The Gneisenau continued to fire until 17:15, by which time her ammunition had been exhausted, and her crew allowed her to sink at 18:02. One hundred and ninety of Gneisenau’s crew were rescued from the water. Both of the British battlecruisers had received about 40 hits between them from the German ships, with one crewman killed and four injured.

In the meantime the Nürnberg and Leipzig were trying to escape.  Nürnberg was running at full speed but in need of maintenance, while the crew of the pursuing Kent were pushing her boilers and engines to the limit. Nürnberg finally turned for battle at 17:30. Kent had the advantage in shell weight and armour. Nürnberg suffered two boiler explosions around 18:30, giving the advantage in speed and manoeuvrability to Kent. The German ship rolled over and sank at 19:27 after a long chase. The cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall had chased down Leipzig; Glasgow closed to finish Leipzig, which had run out of ammunition but was still flying her battle ensign. Leipzig fired two flares, so Glasgow ceased fire. At 21:23, more than 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) southeast of the Falklands, she also rolled over and sank, leaving only 18 survivors.

In total 1,871 Germans were killed, including von Spee and two of his sons, 215 were captured. British casualties amounted to 10 killed and 19 wounded.

The Battle of the Falklands is commemorated on 8 December each year.

Further Reading: Latin America and the Great War