Tuesday, February 10, 2009

SMS Scharnhorst

Figure 1: SMS Scharnhorst (German armored cruiser, 1907-1914) photographed by Arthur Renard, 30 Brunswickerstrasse, Kiel, possibly while running trials. The ship entered service on 24 October 1907. This print was received by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence on 7 May 1908. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: German Vice Admiral von Spee's cruiser squadron leaving Valparaiso, Chile, circa 3 November 1914, following the Battle of Coronel. The German ships are in the distance, with the armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the lead, followed by light cruiser Nürnberg. Chilean Navy warships in the middle distance include (from left to right): cruisers Esmeralda, O'Higgins and Blanco Encalda and old battleship Capitan Prat. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Scharnhorst at Wilhelmshaven before her trip to Asia. Click on photograph for larger picture.

Figure 4: Detail of the Scharnhorst's bow turret. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee (born 22 June 1861, died 8 December 1914). He was given command of the German East Asia Squadron in 1912 with the rank of Vice Admiral, based at Qingdao within the German concession in China. His officers had been handpicked by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, while his armored cruisers were among the newest in the fleet. After his victory over the Royal Navy at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914, Spee's force attempted a raid on the coaling station at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. In the ensuing Battle of the Falkland Islands, Spee's flagship, Scharnhorst, together with Gneisenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig were all lost, together with some 1,871 German sailors, including Spee's two sons. The admiral went down with his flagship. Only SMS Dresden managed to escape, though was eventually discovered in the Juan Fernández Islands. The ship was scuttled and the crew interned in Chile. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: The Battle of Coronel was one of the first naval clashes of arms in the war, November 1, 1914. Both in tactics and gunnery, the Germans triumphed. This painting depicts Sir Christopher Cradock's flagship Good Hope, sinking off the coast of Chile, having been blasted apart by deadly accurate fire from the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. German propagandists were quick to point out that this was the Royal Navy's first defeat since the War of 1812. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: HMS Invincible winding up to 26 knots in pursuit of the Scharnhorst, photographed from the cruiser Carnarvon. Note the thick funnel smoke enveloping the ship. Poor visibility and strong vibration in the fire control station atop the foremast contributed to the battlecruisers' wild shooting that day. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: At the Falklands, Scharnhorst went down with all hands, while Gneisenau fought on hopelessly for an additional 90 minutes, being scuttled at 5:40 and finally rolling over around 6 p.m. Here the battlecruiser Inflexible sends boats to pick up survivors from her vanquished foe. Of the ship's complement of 850 men, 176 were rescued, including Cmdr. Plochhammer, the ship's second-in-command. Admiral von Spee's two sons serving in the squadron were not among the survivors, nor was the Admiral. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the famous Prussian General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (1755-1813), SMS Scharnhorst was a 12,781-ton armored cruiser that was built by Blohm & Voss Shipyard at Hamburg, Germany, and was commissioned in October 1907. The ship was approximately 474 feet long and 71 feet wide, had a top speed of 22.7 knots, and a crew of 764 officers and men. Scharnhorst was armed with eight 8.2-inch guns, six 5.9-inch guns, eighteen 3.45-inch guns, and four 17.7-inch torpedo tubes.

In one of her first cruises, Scharnhorst ran aground in 1909 and took several months to repair. The ship then was sent to China to protect Germany’s colonial concession at Qingdao (formerly called Tsingtao) and was made the flagship of Germany’s East Asia Squadron, which also was based at Qingdao. The East Asia Squadron was placed under the command of the remarkable Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee (born 22 June 1861; died 8 December 1914), one of the legends of the German Navy. Von Spee was a German aristocrat who joined the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) in 1878. From 1887 to 1888, he commanded the Kamerun ports in German West Africa. Prior to World War I, he held a number of senior positions relating to weapons development and was appointed Chief of Staff of the North Sea Command in 1908. He became a Rear Admiral on 27 January 1910. He was given command of the German East Asia Squadron in 1912 with the rank of Vice-Admiral. Von Spee’s officers had been handpicked by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, while his armored cruisers were among the newest in the fleet.

At the start of World War I in August 1914, the German East Asia Squadron consisted of the heavy armored cruisers Scharnhorst (von Spee’s flagship) and her sister ship Gneisenau, as well as the light cruisers Dresden, Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. To avoid being cornered at Qingdao by the British Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, and the Imperial Japanese Navy (which had joined the Allied forces during World War I), von Spee decided to break out into the Pacific and return to Germany. He detached the light cruiser Emden (which eventually became one of the most famous warships of World War I) and sent it on its memorable commerce raiding expedition in the Indian Ocean. The rest of the squadron headed for South America, where they would go around Cape Horn and then travel north through the Atlantic and head back to Germany.

For almost three months, von Spee and his ships were chased by the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy all over the Pacific. Finally, on 1 November 1914, von Spee’s five ships were confronted by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock’s Falkland Islands Squadron, which consisted of two old armored cruisers, HMS Good Hope (Cradock’s flagship) and HMS Monmouth, the modern light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the converted liner HMS Otranto. The ships met off the coast of Chile not far from the port of Coronel. What followed was the Battle of Coronel, which turned out to be a lopsided victory for the Germans. Von Spee’s skillful tactics and superb gunnery simply overwhelmed the British task force. Good Hope and Monmouth were both sunk, taking with them 1,654 officers and men, including Rear Admiral Cradock. There were no survivors from either ship. Glasgow sustained five hits but no casualties, while Otranto escaped with no damages. Scharnhorst was hit twice (but neither shell exploded), while four shells struck Gneisenau, causing only minor damage. It was a stunning victory for the Germans and it was the first major naval defeat suffered by the Royal Navy since the War of 1812.

But the major problem for the Germans after the Battle of Coronel was that they had used up approximately half of their ammunition with absolutely no way of replacing it. The German Squadron proceeded around Cape Horn, but von Spee then decided to attack the British coaling station at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on his way north.

On 8 December 1914, von Spee and the five cruisers of the German East Asia Squadron attacked the Falkland Islands. What von Spee didn’t know was that a large British task force under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee had arrived at the Falklands the previous day. The British force consisted of two large and modern battlecruisers, HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible, three armoured cruisers, HMS Carnarvon, HMS Cornwall and HMS Kent, and two light cruisers, HMS Bristol and HMS Glasgow (which had fought at Coronel). Von Spee attacked the British ships while they were in port but, as soon as he saw that he was facing a much larger enemy force, decided to retreat and head away from the Falklands. Unfortunately for the Germans, the much larger and faster British ships left port when they saw the enemy and soon caught up to them. In a desperate attempt to save at least some of his squadron, von Spee decided to attack the British with his two largest ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, while ordering his light cruisers to scatter. He was trying to buy enough time for his light cruisers to escape while sacrificing himself and his heavy armored cruisers.

But von Spee’s plan didn’t work. The larger British ships pounded Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, sinking both of them. Scharnhorst’s entire crew, including Admiral von Spee, was lost. The British also managed to sink two other German light cruisers, Nurnberg and Leipzig. Only Dresden got away, but she was hunted down and sunk three months later off Valparaiso, Chile, by HMS Kent and, ironically, HMS Glasgow, the ship that survived the Battle of Coronel. The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a total disaster for the Germans, with the loss of four cruisers (eventually five, if you count Dresden’s destruction three months later), 1,871 men killed, and 215 men rescued from the water and captured. The British lost no ships and had only 10 killed and 19 wounded. The Royal Navy had certainly avenged the stinging loss at Coronel.

Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, along with SMS Scharnhorst and the other ships of the German East Asia Squadron, led the Royal Navy on a breathtaking chase across the Pacific, around Cape Horn, and finally to the Falkland Islands before being stopped. But it was only a matter of time before the superior numbers of the Royal Navy caught up with von Spee. As Winston Churchill said after the death of von Spee, “To steam at full speed or at a high speed for any length of time on any quest was to use up his life rapidly. He was a cut flower in a vase; fair to see, yet bound to die, and to die very soon if the water was not constantly renewed.” SMS Scharnhorst will forever be tied to the famous admiral who used her as his flagship and this duo went down in history as one of the most formidable foes ever faced by the Royal Navy.