Scharnhorst class heavy cruisers

The two ships of the Scharnhorst class were the best known German armoured cruisers of the First World War. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau earned their fame as part of Admiral von Spee’s East Asian Squadron. Under von Spee they fought and won the battle of Coronel, the first defeat suffered by the Royal Navy in a century.

The Scharnhorst class ships may have outclassed their opponents at Coronel, but they were actually very similar to the previous Roon class of cruisers, widely considered to have been unsatisfactory. Like the Roon class they were poorly armoured, making then vulnerable to heavy gunfire. With a speed to 23.5kts they were 10% faster than the earlier ships, but the biggest improvement in their design was that they carried twice the number of 8.3in guns as the earlier cruisers.

SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Scharnhorst

The Roon class ships had carried four 8.3in guns in twin turrets fore and aft, supported by a secondary armament of ten 5.9in guns carried in a central battery. In the Scharnhorst class ships the four upper 5.9in guns were replaced with 8.2in guns, giving them a total of eight main guns, and a broadside of six. 

From 1911 the two Scharnhorst class ships were the station ships at the German colony of Tsingtao. In August 1914 they formed part of Admiral von Spee’s East Asian Squadron. After a largely unsuccessful cruise in the south west Pacific, von Spee crossed the Pacific to the west coast of Chile. There he inflicted a crushing defeat on a British squadron at the battle of Coronel (1 November 1914). Their six gun broadside gave them an overwhelming advantage over the British squadron, whose best guns were the two 9.2in guns carried by HMS Good Hope.

The British responded with a massive movement of ships, and on 8 December von Spee ran into a British fleet at the Falklands that contained the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible. Both ships were destroyed in the resulting battle with heavy loss of life.

Plans of Scharnhorst Class Armoured Cruisers
Plans of Scharnhorst Class Armoured Cruisers

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






Ships in class

SMS Scharnhorst
SMS Gneisenau

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

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 November 2007), Scharnhorst class heavy cruisers ,

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