One of Scharnhorst’s guns (All images courtesy Falkands Maritime Heritage Trust/TVT)

Wreck of the Scharnhorst Discovered off Falkland Islands

The wreck of SMS Scharnhorst has been discovered off the Falkland Islands, the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust announced today (5 December 2019).

Launched in 1906, the German armoured cruiser was sunk by the Royal Navy battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible during the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The crucial naval struggle saw British Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee defeat Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron, the Royal Navy hunting down and sinking four German warships.

Vizeadmiral von Spee.

In one action, the British had destroyed all but one of the East Asia Squadron’s warships – the Imperial German Navy’s only overseas formation – greatly hampering its ability to commerce raid. Spee and his two sons became three of more than 1,850 German soldiers killed while just 10 British sailors died in the action, with no Royal Navy vessels lost. In his triumph, Sturdee avenged a crushing German victory at the Battle of Coronel the month before, when Spee sank two British armoured cruisers, killing 1,660 – among them Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock.

The trust seeks to locate the wrecks of all the German ships lost in the battle, having previously searched for the Scharnhorst in 2014. However, the illusive wreck was not located for another five years, during a second search.

Footage of the wreck site (courtesy FMHT/TVT Productions)

Marine archaeologist Mensun Bound headed the expedition from the subsea search vessel Seabed Constructor, deploying four AUVs to scour approximately 2,700 square miles (4,500km square) of seabed with side scan sonar and a multi-beam echo sounder. On the third day of searching, the cruiser’s resting place was found, 113 miles southeast of Port Stanley, upright and in good condition, at a depth of 5,280ft (1,610m).

She just came out of the gloom with great guns poking in every direction

Mensun Bound, stated: ” As a Falkland Islander and a marine archaeologist, a discovery of this significance is an unforgettable, poignant moment in my life.” Adding: “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 the First World War.

“The moment of discovery was extraordinary. We are often chasing shadows on the seabed, but when the Scharnhorst first appeared in the data flow, there was no doubt that this was one of the German fleet. You could even see the impact crater.
We sent down an ROV to explore and almost straight away we were into a debris field… Suddenly she just came out of the gloom with great guns poking in every direction.”

The Scharnhorst’s bow.

On board the search vessel, the team conducted an act of remembrance and the trust now seeks to have the site protected by law. The expedition was filmed by production company TVT and unedited footage has already revealed new information about this important episode in naval history and in the history of the Falklands, experts say.

Wilhelm Graf von Spee said: “[The] discovery of SMS Scharnhorst is bittersweet. We take comfort from the knowledge that the final resting place of so many has been found, and can now be preserved, whilst also being reminded of the huge waste of life.

“As a family we lost a father and his two sons on one day. Like the thousands of other families who suffered unimaginable loss during the First World War, we remember them and must ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain.”

The trust will continue to search for the remaining wreck sites. ∎

A scan of the wreck.

The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust is a charity with the aim of advancing the education of the public in the historical and social significance of the maritime heritage of the Falkland Islands.

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