Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Wreck of Von Spee's Flagship Was Found in 2019


SMS Scharnhorst 

In the fall of 2019, the wreck of the World War One German armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst was located off the Falkland Islands, 98 nautical miles southeast of Port Stanley. where it was sunk by the British navy the first year of the Great War  The man-of-war  was the flagship of German Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee's East Asia Squadron.

It was sunk on 8 December 1914 with more than 800 men on board, including Vice-Admiral von Spee himself. The leader of the search for the wreckage said the moment of discovery was "extraordinary."

The search for SMS Scharnhorst began in 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Falkland Islands, but was not successful at first. Search teams resumed their operation in 2019 using a sub-sea vessel, the Seabed Constructor, and four autonomous underwater vehicles. They found the Scharnhorst on the third day of the search, at a depth of 1,610m (5,282ft). The wreck was not disturbed during the operation, and the Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust is seeking to have the site formally protected in law.

Deck Gun on SMS Scharnhorst

The armored cruiser had played a key role in the Battle of Coronel, fought between the British Royal Navy and Germany's Imperial Navy off the coast of Chile. It was Britain's first naval defeat of World War One, and it was a devastating one. The Germans sank two of the four British ships with the loss of more than 1,600 lives. Not a single German sailor died. 

The defeat at Coronel sent shock waves through the British Empire and beyond. The Royal Navy dispatched ships from the North Sea down to the South Atlantic and confronted the Germans at the Falkland Islands five weeks later.  The British squadron pursued and engaged the German squadron and caught it on 8 December 1914. Modern battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible inflicted substantial damage on SMS Scharnhorst, causing it to sink with all 860 people on board. The Royal Navy then gave pursuit to the remaining German ships. Vice-Admiral von Spee's two sons also died, Heinrich on board SMS Gneisenau and Otto aboard the light cruiser SMS Leipzig. In total, 2,200 German sailors died in the battle.

Tribute to Von Spee and His Sons

The head of the von Spee family said that the discovery of the wreck was "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," Wilhelm Graf von Spee said.

"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 Battle of the Falkland Islands had a lasting effect on World War One because as a result, the East Asia Squadron, Germany's only permanent overseas naval formation, effectively ceased to exist and could no longer engage in commerce raiding.

Sources:  BBC; The Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

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