WWI German battlecruiser wreck discovered off Falkland Islands

The wreck of SMS Scharnhorst, a sunken armored battlecruiser of the German Navy, has been located off the Falkland Islands, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust said. 

The Scharnhorst, the flagship of Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron, was sunk in December 1914 during the Battle of the Falkland Islands, a crucial naval battle in the early days of the First World War.

This discovery is said to be a major breakthrough in the quest to locate all of the ships that comprised the German squadron lost during the battle.

The search began on the centenary of the Battle in December 2014 but was initially unsuccessful. Five years later, the mission was resumed using advanced subsea search equipment. Working from the subsea search vessel, Seabed Constructor, the search operation involved the deployment of four Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), exploring a search box of approximately 4,500km2 of seabed.

Working methodically through the designated search area, and using equipment including side scan sonar and a multi-beam echo-sounder, Scharnhorst was discovered on the third day of the search 98 nautical miles southeast of Port Stanley at a depth of 1,610 meters.

“After a search that began five years ago, on the centenary of the battle, we are very proud to be able to shed further light on what was a defining point in WWI, and therefore a landmark moment in modern history,” Mensun Bound, the leader of the search, said.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands followed the Battle of Coronel, fought off the coast of Chile in November 1914, where Graf von Spee’s fleet overpowered the Royal Navy and in which 1,600 British sailors perished. A month later a British squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee defeated Graf von Spee’s squadron, comprising the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig. The action was particularly important because as a consequence of the battle, the German East Asia Squadron, Germany’s only permanent overseas naval formation, effectively ceased to exist, bringing an end to commerce raiding by German warships.

The Scharnhorst, built in Hamburg in 1905, was the first to be sunk, having sustained substantial damage inflicted by HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible. Tragically, 2,200 German sailors died, including Graf von Spee himself and his two sons – Heinrich aboard the Gneisenau, and Otto aboard the Nürnberg.

“It is less than a month since Remembrance Day, when we commemorated the millions who died in the First World War and subsequent conflicts. One episode in that conflict was the Battle of the Falklands in 1914,” Donald Lamont, Chairman of The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, noted.

The search we organised had as its aim the locating of all ships of the German squadron, so that we may learn more about the Battle and commemorate all who perished in it. The site of the wrecks can now be protected,” Lamont added.

The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust is now seeking to have the site formerly protected in law. The wreck was not touched or in any way disturbed during the operation.

SMS Scharnhorst
Photo: TVT Productions

Photo: Photo: TVT Productions