Grosser Kreuzer C was laid down at the AG Weser works in Bremen in 1904. Grosser Kreuzer, German for Grat Cruiser, was the type name given by the Imperial German Navy for the armored cruiser and subsequently the battle cruiser. As with their predreadnought battleship designs, German armored cruisers were generally lighter, slower and with a lesser armament than their contemporaries in the Royal Navy. Taken as a whole, the German armored cruisers were generally unsatisfactory designs, except the last design. Gosser Kreuzer C was one of the two ships of this last design, known as the Scharnhorst Klasse.
Grosser Kreuzer C was launched June 14, 1906 and was christened SMS Gneisenau. Named after August Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau (1760-1831), Prussian General Fieldmarshal and Chief of Staff to the Prussian Army under Blucher 1813-1815, the cruiser was the second ship in the unified German navy to carry the name. Gneisenau was completed on March 6, 1908 and her first commander was Kapitain zur See Franz Hipper, who went on to command the German battlecruisers during the First World War. Gneisenau and sister ship Scharnhorst were dispatched to be the nucleus of the German East Asiatic Squadron operating from the German base of Tsingtao, China.
In June 1914 the Gneisenau received her fifth commander, KptzS Julius Maerker. The East Asiatic Squadron, under the Command of Rear-Admiral Graf von Spee, was the strongest force that the Imperial Fleet had outside of the North Sea. Both armored cruisers had extraordinarily well trained crews and were noted for their excellent shooting. Immediately after Maerker assumed command, the entire squadron steamed out of Tsingtao for an extended cruise of the south Pacific. This was providential for the German Squadron, as it removed them far from British and Japanese squadrons when the First World War began in August 1914. Admiral von Spee decided to proceed easterly across the Pacific. His goal was to round South America and eventually attempt to rejoin the German Fleet. He would further attempt to cause as much mischief as possible to the British Empire in the course of the Odyssey.
On November 14, 1914 von Spee's squadron encountered the South Atlantic Cruiser Squadron of Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock fifty miles west of the port of Coronel in Chile. As the sun was setting, the squadrons engaged and the crack German gunnery was immediately telling on the British cruisers. The target of Gneisenau was the HMS Monmouth and almost at the start of the conflict Gneisenau blew off the front 6-inch turret from Monmouth. (Click for review of the Combrig HMS Monmouth) Although Gneisenau heavily damaged the Monmouth, the British cruiser did manage to break contact in the dark. Heavily damaged and taking water from the shattered bow, the Monmouth tried to escape to the west only to be discovered and sunk by the scout cruiser Nurnberg.
None of the German ships received any serious damage as a result of the Battle of Coronel, however, both German armored cruisers had expended over half their ammunition. Although they could purchase coal for continued steaming, the closest ammunition resupply was in Germany. They could not afford another engagement such as Coronel. Von Spee decided to round Cape Horn and make a raid on Port Stanley, the Falklands. He assumed that he would not encounter any force that would be remotely superior to his. Captain Maerker counseled against this, as Port Stanley was the most southern Atlantic port of any consequence in the British Empire and it was just possible that the East Asiatic Squadron, depleted of ammunition, might just encounter a British force at that port. Von Spee assured him they would not. Early on the morning of December 8, von Spee detached Gneisenau and Nurnberg, to reconnoiter Port Stanley. As they approached they saw clouds of smoke ascending into the sky over the port. Maerker assumed that the British were destroying their coal supplies to prevent its capture by the Germans. At 0900 Gneisenau was ten miles from Port Stanley when a report came down to Maerker from Lieutenant Commander Busche in the foretop. Busche reported that he counted four tripod masts in the harbor. That was impossible! Only dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers carried tripods and they would never be found in the South Atlantic. However, the next event was crystal clear, a large shell slammed into the side of Gneisenau from an unseen opponent. Although the shell did not explode, since the shell was fired from outside the gunnery range of Gneisenau, Maerker reported to von Spee that British forces were present; perhaps three armored cruisers and two predreadnought battleships. Von Spee ordered him to break off.
The shot that had struck the Gneisenau was a practice round from the predreadnought battleship Canopus that had been intentionally grounded in Port Stanly. She had fired indirect fire under the directions of a fire spotting party on a hill. In breaking off, the Canopus would pose no problem, nor would any slow predreadnought battleship, but the source of the smoke hanging over the harbor would be a different story. The source was not the destruction of coal stokes but was from the funnels of a squadron under Vice Admiral Sturdee ordered to hunt down von Spee. It had arrived the night before and was in the process of coaling when Gneisenau made her morning appearance. It was built around the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible. Gneisenau and Nurnberg rejoined the rest of the East Asiatic Squadron and assumed they had avoided action. It wasn't tat long before the two largest British ships that were chasing them surged ahead of the rest of the pack. What's more they were gaining on von Spee's squadron. When they were finally recognized as battlecruisers, the only hope for the German squadron was to find rain squalls or other bad weather, which would allow them to escape. Bad weather is the rule around the Falklands but not on December 8, 1914 which was unusually clear and fine. As the battlecruisers closed, Invincible engaged Scharnhorst and Inflexible engaged Gneisenau. Scharnhorst was the first to go, sinking at 1617 with von Spee and all hands. Gneisenau continued to flee to the southeast but now with two battlecruisers after her. Just as a rain squall was spotted in the distant south, Gneisenau's time had come. She had expended all of her ammunition, lost steam from her boilers and 600 of her crew were killed or wounded. Captain Maerker ordered her scuttled by opening the doors to the underwater torpedo tubes. At 1800 she followed the Scharnhorst but 190 survivors were rescued.
Less than two months ago Combrig released their first three British armored cruiser kits, including the HMS Monmouth. Now you can get the nemesis of the Monmouth, the Gneisenau. The latest two releases from Combrig are 1:700 scale resin and brass models of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. In this photographic review, you can see the detail of the resin castings. With the brass photo-etch fret, about the only thing that you have to add is railing. A complete review will appear in the review of the Combrig SMS Scharnhorst.
If it is time to add Grosser Kreuzer to your High Seas Fleet, the Combrig 1:700 scale SMS Gneisenau will more than suffice. This highly detailed kit replicates one of the best armored cruisers produced by Imperial Germany, which in the short span of 36 days went from overwhelming victory to overwhelming defeat.