105 years old wreck of the cruiser SMS Scharnhorst discovered

On December 8, 1914, British ships sunk almost the entire German East Asian squadron off the Falkland Islands.

Wreck of the cruiser SMS Scharnhorst discovered, 2019.
Wreck of the cruiser SMS Scharnhorst discovered

Including their flagship, the cruiser SMS Scharnhorst under the command of Maximilian Graf von Spee.

Now, more than 100 years after the end of the First World War, a search expedition has found the wreck of the Scharnhorst on the seabed.

The First World War was not only raging in Europe

Already at the beginning of the war, but the British and Germans also fought several naval battles in the southern hemisphere.

Cruiser SMS Scharnhorst discovered, 2019.
Cruiser SMS Scharnhorst discovered

First, the German East Asia Squadron under Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee won a victory against a British squadron near Cape Coronel off the Chilean coast, resulting in Spee leading his ships into the Atlantic to the Falkland Islands. From there, another attack was to bring the port city of Port Stanley into German hands.

The dramatic end of a naval battle.

But this did not happen: When the two Great Cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau, as well as the small cruisers Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Dresden, arrived at Port Stanley on the morning of December 8, 1914, the superior British Navy was already there under the command of Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee.

He attacked the German squadron and pursued it with his more modern, faster battlecruisers. When Graf von Spee realized that he had no chance against the superior British forces, he confronted the British ships with his flagship Scharnhorst and with the Gneisenau to offer the three small cruisers and their crews the chance to escape.

After severe damage on both sides, the two German ships were finally sunk, followed a little later by the small cruisers Nuremberg and Leipzig. A total of 2200 German sailors died in this naval battle, including Count von Spee and two of his sons. The German East Asian squadron almost destroyed. 

However, where precisely the Scharnhorst and its accompanying ships sank at that time remained unknown for more than a hundred years. Already in December 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the naval battle, experts from the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust had searched in vain for the wreck of the Big Cruiser. 

Five years later, in autumn 2019, the underwater archaeologists and salvage experts carried out a new search expedition. This time four autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) helped, using sonar, echo sounder, and cameras to search around 4500 square kilometers of the seabed outside Port Stanley.

Wreck of the flagship found.

The search was a success: 180 kilometers off the coast of the Falkland Islands, the underwater experts have discovered the wreck of the SMS Scharnhorst. It lies on the seabed at a depth of 1610 meters and can be seen clearly in high-resolution sonar images. "The moment of discovery was extraordinary. 

We often hunt for shadows on the seabed, but when the Scharnhorst first appeared in the data flow, there was no doubt that it was one of the German ships," reports the marine archaeologist and expedition leader Mensun Bound. 

"One could even see the crater of the impact. We sent an ROV down for reconnaissance and found ourselves almost immediately in a debris field of war. Suddenly it emerged from the darkness with large weapons pointing in all directions."

The underwater archaeologists deliberately neither salvaged nor tampered with the shipwreck. Instead, they left it untouched and only took pictures of the wreck, which they want to evaluate further in the following weeks and months. 

"We will continue to search for the rest of the squadron over time to better understand the events of that day and ensure the protection of the site," says Bound. After the discovery of the wreck, a memorial ceremony of the naval battle took place on board the search ship. The area where the SMS Scharnhorst located is now to be declared a protected area by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust.

"As one of the many households affected by the heavy losses at the Battle of the Falklands on December 8, 1914, the discovery of the SMS Scharnhorst is bittersweet," says Wilhelm Graf von Spee, a descendant of the Admiral who died that day.

Source: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, 2019.