SMS Scharnhorst

The SMS Scharnhorst was the nameship of the Scharnhorst class of heavy cruisers. The two members of that class (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) were almost twin sisters, with the same design and the same service career. From 1911 both ships were the station ships at Tsingtao, German’s colony in China. At the outbreak of the First World War they were under the command of Admiral Maximilian von Spee. His first concern was to escape from the China station, where he faced both the powerful Japanese fleet and the prospect of a clash with the two British ships on the China station, HMS Minotaur and HMS Defence, which outgunned the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.

SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Scharnhorst

After an unsuccessful period in the south Pacific, von Spee decided to transfer his squadron into the South Atlantic. By October he had command of five ships, having been joined by three light cruisers (Liepzig, Dresden and Nürnberg). This required a journey around the southern tip of South America.

The British soon learnt of von Spee’s plans. The commander of the South American Station, Admiral Cradock, decided to take his cruisers into the Pacific. On 1 November 1914 at Coronel the two squadrons clashed. The big guns on Gneisenau and Scharnhorst outranged all but two of the British guns. Von Spee also had the advantage of the weather and of surprise, attacking in the evening darkness. Of Cradock’s three cruisers, two (Monmouth and Good Hope) were sunk with all hands. Only the Glasgow survived.

The main 8.2in guns of SMS Scharnhorst
The main 8.2in guns
of SMS Scharnhorst

SMS Scharnhorst, c.1907-8

Having defeated Cradock, von Spee continued into the South Atlantic. There he made a fatal mistake. News of the defeat at Coronel had galvanised the Royal Navy and reinforcements had been dispatched to the Cape, South American and West African stations to catch von Spee. The most dangerous ships sent south were the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible. This was exactly the sort of duty at which they excelled. Each ship carried eight 12in guns and could outrun the German ships.

On 8 December von Spee attempted to raid the Falkland Islands, where the British had a coaling station. The Invincible and Inflexible had arrived at the Falklands on the previous day. A ranging shot from the older British battleship Canopus convinced von Spee not to risk an attack on the British ships while they were taking on coal, and instead he turned and attempted to escape. When the Invincible and Inflexible caught up with his fleeing squadron, von Spee turned back with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau in an attempt to allow the rest of the fleet to escape. The Scharnhorst was first to be lost, with all of her crew, including Admiral von Spee.

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



22 March 1906


4 November 1907


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 Scharnhorst ,

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