The armored cruisers of the Imperial German Navy: the Scharnhorst

(To Francesco Sisto)

Lo Scharnhorst and his twin Gneisenau they were among the most powerful and strongest armored cruisers of the Imperial German Navy, and at the beginning of the First World War they stood out as the main units of the cruise squadron. It should be emphasized that their armament was now geared towards the single calibre, but these did not yet belong to the type of single calibre ships. The protection, as in other German heavy units, was very solid.

The cruiser Scharnhorst was laid down in 1905 at the Blohm & Voss shipyard, launched in March 1906 and commissioned in October 1907.

From 1909 the armored cruiser Scharnhorst it was deployed in the seas of the Far East, in the same year it ran aground and it seems that it no longer reached its initial speed.

From 1910, Admiral Maximilian von Spee's flag unit, at the time of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (June 28, 1914) he was in isolated navigation in the waters of the Pacific. The team gathered, with the cruiser Gneisenau, protected cruisers and auxiliary vessels.

Far from the mother country, with the United Kingdom (plus Australia and India), France and Japan enemies, Admiral von Spee decided to send the light cruiser Emden to carry out racing war in the Indian Ocean and planned to reach the Atlantic, where, with his cruisers, he could operate against warships and, if anything, disrupt enemy merchant traffic, using supplies and support organized by the German Empire.

While advancing southeast, the German squadron managed to knock out the French gunboat at Papeete (French Polynesia) Zelee (September 22, 1914).

On November 1, 1914, the squadron of the Imperial German Navy sailed off the Chilean coast; the British admiral Christopher Cradock with his team decided to give her battle… With decidedly less powerful units and inferior crews from the point of view of preparation, admiral Cradock challenged the German ships: the armored cruisers Scharnhorst e Gneisenau and two protected cruisers. With great skill, Admiral von Spee managed to obtain an advantageous tactical position for both sea and light. In the naval battle of Coronel two Royal Navy armored cruisers were quickly wiped out. Two other ships (a protected cruiser and an armed merchantman) managed to beat a retreat. It was a clear victory for the Imperial German Navy against the Royal Navy.

Once passed south of Cape Horn, the German squadron was preparing to attack the Falkland Islands, however the presence of Royal Navy battlecruisers convinced Admiral von Spee to abandon the enterprise. The British, initially taken by surprise, decided to pursue the German squadron and, thanks to the speed of their ships, managed to catch up with the German ships.

In battle of the Falklands (8 December 1914) British battlecruisers InvincibleInflexible (photo) – decidedly superior from an artillery point of view - they were "quietly" able to strike enemy ships several times.

The armored cruiser Scharnhorst, in an effort to give protection to the twin Gneisenau, approached the British ships to engage in battle and perhaps employ torpedoes. But the situation was now compromised… the cruiser was sinking. At approximately 16,15 she sank in the Atlantic with her propellers still running and flags flying. The entire crew lost their lives (including Admiral von Spee). The cruiser Gneisenau it will be eradicated a few hours later.

Il Dresden she was the only German vessel that managed to escape.

It can be said that in the battle of the Falklands there was no match; the Royal Navy squadron was virtually unscathed. only theInflexible was hit: the signs of about 23 impacts were counted, but the armor was more than able to withstand the blows. Furthermore, the shame of the Battle of Coronel was amply avenged.

As Jacques Mordal writes: the annihilation of von Spee's team marked the end of the racing warfare of the large surface ships on which the Imperial Navy had built the highest hopes1.

The armored cruiser Scharnhorst had a normal displacement of 11.616 tons, while at full load of 12.985 tons. The dimensions of her were 144,6 x 21,6 x 8,37 m.

The engine was made up of 3 triple-expansion 3-cylinder vertical engines, powered by 18 Marina-type boilers, 3 propellers; design power 26.000 CI with 22,5 knots, maximum at tests 28.783, with 23,5 knots. The vessel had a range of 5.120 miles at 12 knots.

The armament consisted of 8 cannons of 210/40, 6 of 150/40, 18 of 88/35; 4 x 450mm torpedo launchers.

The armor was composed as follows: 35-60 mm deck, 150 mm belt, 200 mm conning tower, 170 mm turrets.

The cruiser could count on a crew (including officers) of 840 men.

1 J. Mordal, Twenty-five centuries of sea warfare. From Salamis to Midway, Mursia, Milan, 1973, p.285