The Scharnhorst, which sank during the Battle of the Falklands in 1914. Image: The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

It was one of the most famous armoured cruisers of the First World War, but it had remained lost for a century.

Now the wreck of SMS Scharnhorst has been located off the Falkland Islands.

Built in 1905, the Scharnhorst was sunk nine years later on 8 December 1914, during the early days of the First World War.

It played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, during which a British squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee pursued and defeated Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia squadron.

HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible inflicted serious damage on the Scharnhorst, ensuring it was the first ship to be sunk. The rest of the squadron, comprising the Gneisenau, Nürnberg, and Leipzig, were also destroyed, effectively eliminating the German East Asia squadron.

Some 2,000 German sailors died in the battle, including Graf von Spee and his two sons – Heinrich aboard the Gneisenau, and Otto aboard the Nürnberg.

Image: The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

An initial, unsuccessful search for the ship commenced on the centenary of the battle in December 2014. Five years later, the mission resumed with subsea search equipment. Four autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) were employed to search a box of approximately 4,500km2 of seabed.

By using equipment such as a side-scan sonar and a multi-beam echosounder, the Scharnhorst was discovered on the third day of the search.

It lies 181km south-east of Port Stanley, at a depth of 1,610 metres.

Describing the finding, Mensun Bound, the leader of the search, said: ‘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,’ he continued. ‘Suddenly she just came out of the gloom, with great guns poking in every direction.’

The wreck was not touched or in any way disturbed during the operation. The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, who coordinated the search, is now seeking to have the site formally protected in law.

This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.