SMS Gneisenau

The SMS Gneisenau was a Scharnhorst class heavy cruiser, one of the last of that type built by Germany before the emergence of the battlecruiser. The Gneisenau and her sister ship the Scharnhorst were not considered suitable for the fleet cooperation role, having limited armour protection, but they did carry considerably more firepower than earlier German cruisers, with eight 8.2in guns, double the number carried on the previous Roon or Prinz Adalbert class heavy cruisers.

The Gneisenau compared well to the older British cruisers that she would encounter at the battle of Coronel. Only one, the Good Hope, with two 9.2in guns, could outrange her 8.2in guns, while the best the rest of the British squadron could offer were 6in guns.

From 1911 the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst were the station ships at the German colony of Tsingtao. At the outbreak of the First World War they were part of the East Asian Squadron under Admiral von Spee. His first priority was to escape into the south Pacific, away from the powerful Japanese fleet and the British cruisers on the China station, HMS Minotaur and HMS Defence, which outgunned him.

Von Spee did not have much success in the South Pacific and so decided to head into the South Atlantic. That brought his expanded squadron of five ships (Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Liepzig, Dresden and Nürnberg) into contact with the British South American Squadron under Admiral Cradock. At the Battle of Coronel von Spee inflicted the first defeat on the Royal Navy for a century. The bigger guns on the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst outranged all but two guns in the British squadron. Two British heavy cruisers, the Monmouth and Good Hope were sunk with all hands.

The Gneisenau did not survive her triumph for long. On 8 December 1914 Admiral von Spee attacked the British coaling station on the Falkland Islands. There he discovered the British battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible. In the ensuing battle of the Falklands four of the five German ships were sunk (only the light cruiser Dresden escaped). Gneisenau survived longer than the Scharnhorst but was eventually scuttled by her crew. Only 190 of her 764 crew survived to be picked up by the British.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed


Armour – belt


 - turret


 - deck

2in at thickest


474ft 9in


Eight 8.2in guns
Six 5.9in
Eighteen 3.5in
Four machine guns
Four 17.7in torpedo tubes

Crew complement



14 June 1906


6 March 1908


8 December 1914

Before the Battlecruiser - The Big Cruiser in the World’s Navies 1865-1910, Aidan Dodson. Looks at the development and careers of the ‘big cruiser’, the most heavily armed cruisers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a type that eventually evolved in the battlecruiser. Covers the development of the type, its combat experience while still state of the art, its role in the First World War, as well as looking at the technical specifications of all of the ships that fell into this category (Read Full Review)
cover cover cover


Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 August 2007), SMS Gneisenau ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy