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. The Falkland Islanders were already on alert.  Christina Goss and Marion McLeod, working as maids to Muriel Fulton whose husband ran the sheep station at Fitzroy, spotted the German fleet when they were out riding.  They quickly rode back to report the sighting to Mrs. Felton, who  telephoned the details through to the War Office in Stanley. The girls took turns to ride back to Fitzroy Ridge and with the help of houseboy Albert Kiddle, relayed the ships movements for Mrs Fulton to report.

Spee was surprised to discover the presence of a powerful Royal Naval force at Stanley 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 at 13.20 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 Gneisenau, built in Bremen in 1904 and the Scharnhorst, built in Hamburg in 1905,  both now sustained substantial damage inflicted by HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. The Gneisenau had received a major hit that penetrated to her starboard engine room and disabled that engine at 15.30, leaving her with just two operational screws. Another hit at 15:45 knocked over her forward funnel, and at 16:00 her number 4 boiler room was disabled. The funnels of the Scharnhorst were destroyed, fires had broken out and she began to list. By this time, HMS Carnarvon had joined the battle and begun firing. The list on the Scharnhorst grew 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 was in need of maintenance, while the crew of the pursuing HMS Kent were pushing her 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 HMS Glasgow and HMS Cornwall had chased after the Leipzig; As Glasgow closed in the Leipzig was still flying her battle ensign but had run out of ammunition. Leipzig fired two flares, so Glasgow immediately ceased fire. At 21:23, more than 70 nautical miles (80 miles;  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.

Christina Goss and Marion McLeod each received an inscribed silver teapot. Mrs Felton received the OBE, the first Falkand Islander to be awarded the honour.

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

Further Reading: Latin America and the Great War