Warship Wednesday September 24, 2014, the Kaiser’s Far Eastern leviathans

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday September 24, 2014, the Kaiser’s Far Eastern leviathans

Scharnhorst, 1907. Click to bigup.

Scharnhorst, 1907. Click to bigup.

Here we see the armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst of the Kaiserliche Marine, the Imperial German Navy. The huge cruiser, along with her only sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s muscle in the Pacific Ocean for their brief existence.

When old Willy picked up the concession (in a lease like the Brits did with Hong Kong) from the old Manchu Chinese government at Tsingtao (Qingdao, pronounced “Ching-dow”) in 1898, he added that Chinese port to a growing list of islands he bought from Spain after the Spanish American War (they weren’t using them anymore) as well as the new colony of German New Guinea. What’s a list of oddball far-flung colonies without a fleet to protect them though, right? This meant an upgrade to the small German East Asia Squadron (Ostasiengeschwader) from a handful of rusty gunboats and obsolete cruisers to something more dramatic.

With the Russians and Japanese mixing it up right on the German Far East’s door in 1904, the Kaiser pushed for a pair of very large, very well-equipped armored cruisers to be the core of a new Teutonic blue-water fleet in the Pacific. As the Grand Admiral of the Kaiserliche Marine was none other than Alfred von Tirpitz, former commander of the run-down East Asia Squadron, the Kaiser found easy support. This led to the Scharnhorst-class.

Scharnhorst and her sister were very distinctive with their four large funnels.

Scharnhorst and her sister were very distinctive in profile with their four large funnels and two masts fore and aft.

These ships were huge, comparable to pre-Dreadnought style battleships only with less armor (remember that later). At nearly 13,000-tons and over 474-feet long, they commanded respect when they sailed into a foreign port in the Pacific–, which was the point. Able to steam at 22-knots, they could outpace older battleships while upto 7-inches of armor protected them from smaller vessels. An impressive main battery of eight 8.3-inch (210mm) guns, backed up by a further two dozen 5.9 and 3.5-inch guns gave her both the firepower of a heavy cruiser and a light cruiser all in one hull. In short, these ships were built to tie down British and French battleships in the Pacific in the event of a coming war– keeping them away from the all-important Atlantic.

The two cruisers each had four double turrets with stout 210mm guns

The two cruisers each had tw0 double turrets and four single mounts, each with stout Krupp-made 8.3-inch/210mm guns

The crews of these ships were blessed with a fire control center and artillery pieces that worked better than hoped, as evidenced by the fact that between 1909 and 1914, these two cruisers consistently won the Kaiser’s Cup naval gunnery contests, often coming in first and second place when stacked up against the rest of the fleet.

The German Armored cruiser Gneisenau. Date unknown.

The German Armored cruiser Gneisenau. Date unknown.

Scharnhorst was laid down in 1905 at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, while her sister Gneisenau was simultaneously being built at AG Weser dockyard in Bremen. Germany, being short of naval heroes, named these two ships after a pair of Prussian generals during the Napoleonic Wars. Scharnhorst was completed first and sent to Tsingtao, where her 750+ crew made a big splash on the local scene. Gneisenau followed within a year.


The two white-hulled cruisers, among the largest warships of any nation in the world’s largest Ocean, were joined by an ever-increasing cast of small and fast light cruisers (SMS Dresden, SMS Emden, SMS Leipzig, and SMS Nurnberg) until the Kaiser had a half dozen new ships to protect his little slice of Germany in Asia. The commander of the force, Vice Admiral Maximilian, Reichsgraf von Spee, chose Scharnhorst for his flag. A wily veteran with over 30-years of colonial service under his feet, Von Spee was the perfect commander for what was coming next.



When World War One broke open in August 1914, the ships of the East Asia Squadron were spread around the Pacific at their pre-war stations. Von Spee wisely left Tsingtao, just ahead of a large Japanese force that would place the concession under siege with a preordained outcome.

Bringing his forces together in the Northern Marianas islands (then a German colony, now a U.S. territory, after capture from the Japanese in WWII, what a story!), Spee detached the fast ship Emden to meet her fate as an independent raider, while taking his five remaining cruisers to a place the British and French fleets that were hunting him never imagined– the South American coast

After just missing a British fleet at Samoa, and bombarding the French at Tahiti (where the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank the French gunboat Zélée and the captured freighter Walküre in a very one-sided battle that was more of a waste of ammunition than anything else was), Von Spee made for Chile in the hopes of catching British shipping headed to and from the Atlantic.

The German steamer "Walküre" sunk in the harbor of Papeete, Tahiti, when the German cruisers "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" shelled the town

The German steamer Walküre sunk in the harbor of Papeete, Tahiti, when the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau shelled the town

What he found was a force of four cruisers led by British Rear Adm. Sir Christopher Cradock.

On All Saints Day 1914, now coming up on its 100th anniversary, Craddock and Von Spee fought it out. While it would seem that four British cruisers, with a navy of long traditions in coming out on top in ship-to-ship engagements at sea, would best the five German cruisers, it would only seem that way.

By large matter of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau‘s enormous advantage in gunnery skills and armor/armament, the Germans smashed Craddock’s fleet at what is now known as the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. It was simply a case of who had more large guns. The Germans had sixteen 8.3-inch guns against just two British 9.2-inchers. The engagement ended with the deaths of some 1500 British sailors, and the cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth at the bottom of the ocean. The Germans sailed away largely unscathed.

Sinking of the HMS Good Hope.  The 14,388-ton Drake-class armoured cruiser was formidible when designed in the 1890s, but she only had two breechloading 9.2-inch Mk 10 guns that could be used in the battle. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau gave her no chance.

Sinking of the HMS Good Hope. The 14,388-ton Drake-class armored cruiser was formidable when designed in the 1890s, but she only had two breech-loading 9.2-inch Mk 10 guns that could be used in the battle. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau gave her no chance.

Von Spee then rounded the bottom of South America and made for the British crown colony of the Falkland Islands, then an important coaling station and stop-over point for Cape-bound ships. His ships low on coal, low on ammunition, and starting their fourth month on the run, were surprised when they met Vice Adm. Doveton Sturdee’s strong force that consisted of two new 20,000-ton HMS Invincible class battle-cruisers, backed up by five smaller cruisers and the old battleship HMS Canopus on December 8, 1914. In a direct mirror image of the Battle of Coronel, Von Spee was doomed.

Chart of the engagement, showing Sturdee's chase of Von Spee's fleet. Click to make much larger. From Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18213/18213-h/18213-h.htm

Chart of the engagement, showing Sturdee’s chase of Von Spee’s fleet. Click to make much larger. From Project Gutenberg

Again, it came down to who had more heavy guns. The British this time had 16 quick firing 12-inch guns against the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau’s sixteen 8.3-inchers. Engaging the now-fleeing Germans at extreme range, the Scharnhorst turned into the two British battlecruisers, taking Invincible and Inflexible on in turns while Von Spee ordered the rest of his squadron to try to escape. However, it was no match By 16:17, ablaze and listing, she capsized. In the end, Scharnhorst took every single man who was aboard her that day, including Von Spee, to the bottom of the Atlantic.

The British were so pleased in the destruction of Scharnhorst that not one but two pieces of martial art were soon produced to celebrate it.


Sinking of the Scharnhorst painted by Admiral Thomas Jacques Somerscales currently on display at the Royal Museums Greenwich

Sinking of the Scharnhorst painted by Admiral Thomas Jacques Somerscales currently on display at the Royal Museums Greenwich



Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914 by British Artist William Lionel Wyllie, showing Scharnhorst slipping below the waves as Gneisenau battles on

Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914 by British Artist William Lionel Wyllie, showing Scharnhorst slipping below the waves as Gneisenau battles on

Gneisenau’s life would only be scant minutes longer. Her engines barely able to break 16-knots against the Invincible and Inflexible’s 25, they soon caught up to her and at 17:50, out of ammunition and dead in the water, the mighty cruiser joined her sister in the depths. While a few of her crew were picked up by the British battlecruisers, over 600 perished.

HMS Inflexible picking up German sailors from Gneisenau after the battle

HMS Inflexible picking up German sailors from Gneisenau after the battle

Later the same day they Royal Navy caught up to Nurnberg and Leipzig, completing a near hat trick of destroying the German East Asia Squadron in a single day. Dresden, out of coal and ammunition, scuttled herself in Chilean waters in March 1915, while her intelligence officer, a young Lt. Canaris, later to lead the Abwher in WWII, managed to escape destruction with her.

The Royal Navy had avenged the shame of Coronel. However, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would in turn be avenged at Jutland in 1916 when accurate large caliber shells of the German High Seas Fleet sent HMS Invincible to Valhalla while Inflexible, whose crew watched their sister ship vaporize, only narrowly avoided a salvo of torpedoes.

Scharnhorst’s battleflag was recovered; legend has it from a waterproof shell tube tied to the leg of a German bosun’s mate, and returned to Germany where it disappeared in 1945. Likely, it is hanging on a wall in Russia somewhere.

To the ships lost at Coronel, there is a memorial run by the British.

As far as a memorial to these, two armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were remembered in a pair of later German battlecruisers who, as fate would have it, were destroyed by the British in another World War. Von Spee himself, who not only lost his life at the Battle of the Falklands but those of his two sons, was memorialized in a pocket battleship that carried his name, before being the only German capital ship to be sunk in South America in another strange twist of fate.

As a side note, the Germans set up a brewery in Tsingtao, in part to provide good beer for the fleet still stands and is well known and even loved today as the best German beer in China. So if you ever run across one, pour out the first sip for Adm. Maximillian Von Spee and the 2200 sailors of the German East Asian Squadron that never saw their homeland again.





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: 23.6 knots (44 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)
Crew: 38 officers, 726 enlisted men
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)


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