Marine archaeologists have uncovered the century-old wreck of a German warship sunk in the south Atlantic during the First World War.
Eerie footage captured by a remote submersible shows the massive vessel lying upright with a number of guns visible. Despite the depth – more than 1.6km beneath the waves – the extraordinarily clear images reveal details on the deck and even lettering on a plaque fixed to the hull.
A sonar-generated 3D image reveals her funnels have been completely destroyed, while the foremost gun turret can be clearly seen.
Researchers have been hunting for the Scharnhorst and other ships from her unit for five years.
Mensun Bound, a marine archaeologist who led 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.
“We sent down an ROV to explore and almost straight away we were into a debris field that said ‘battle’. Suddenly she just came out of the gloom with great guns poking in every direction.”
Scharnhorst, a 13,000-ton armoured cruiser, was the flagship of the German imperial navy’s east Asia raiding squadron, commanded by Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee and based in China.
At the outbreak of the First World War she and the rest of the squadron sailed to a German-held island in the central Pacific. In late October 1914 they were operating off the coast of Chile.
It was there, near Coronel, that Von Spee’s force encountered a royal navy squadron patrolling the region to defend shipping against German raids.
His two best ships, Scharnhorst and her sister vessel Gneisenau, outgunned their British counterparts and the royal navy detachment was severely battered; 1,660 officers and men were killed and two armoured cruisers sunk.
Shocked by the defeat, the admiralty dispatched two modern battlecruisers – Invincible and Inflexible – which were bigger, faster and better-armed than the German armoured cruisers, bristling with eight 12in guns apiece.
When Von Spee tried to raid the British base at Port Stanley, on the Falkland Islands, on 8 December 1914, he was spotted early and forced to retreat. The royal navy gave chase and despite the Germans’ head start, caught up to them and engaged.
In the end, more than 1,800 German sailors died – including Von Spee and his two sons – and 215 more were captured. Four German warships were sunk.
Wilhelm Graf von Spee, head of the Graf von Spee family, said following the discovery of Scharnhorst’s wreck: “Speaking as one of the many families affected by the heavy casualties suffered on 8 December, 1914, at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, 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 Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust wants to have the site of the battle formally protected by law.
Mr Bound added: “As a Falkland Islander and a marine archaeologist, a discovery of this significance is an unforgettable, poignant moment in my life. Our work on this important project is not done.
“We will continue to assess the images that we have captured and, in time continue to search for the remainder of the fleet, in order to provide greater understanding of the events of that day, and to ensure the protection of the site.”