Throughout much of both World War I and World War II, the German Navy's surface vessels were confined to port by the efforts of the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force. However there were times when ships slipped out to cause havoc amongst the convoys crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This is the story of one of the biggest and fastest of the German surface raiders.

Battleship Scharnhorst (1939-1943)

The birth of Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst was a Gneisenau class battleship, built at Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The building contract was placed on the 25th January, 1934, with the Marinewerft (from 1935 the Kriegsmarine Werft) as a part of Adolf Hitler's rearmament program. The keel was laid on the 14th February 1934 on slipway no 2. However after new specifications had to be taken into account, it was scrapped and a new keel was laid down on the 15th June 1935.

She was launched on the 3rd October, 1936 and christened by the widow of Captain Felix Schultz, commander of the WWI armoured cruiser Scharnhorst. He had been lost at sea with his ship at the Battle of the Falkland Islands, on the 8th December 1914. She was commissioned on the 7th January, 1939 and refitted that same year with a new mainmast located further aft and a clipper bow to improve her seaworthiness.



Displacement: (standard) 32,060 tonnes, (full load) 38,430 tonnes
Dimensions: overall length 231 m, beam 30 m, maximum draft 9.9 m
Armour: main belt 13.8", turrets 3.9"-13.4", upper deck 2", armour deck 3.1"-4.3", conning tower 7.9"-13.8", torpedo bulkhead 1.8"

Weapon Systems

Main Armament: 9 x 11", 12 x 6"
Anti-aircraft guns: 14 x 4.1" (heavy flak), 16 x 1.5" (light flak), 14 x 0.8" (machine guns) (no. of AA guns increased from 1942 onwards)
Torpedos: 6 x 21" (1942 onwards)
Aircraft: 3 x Arado ar 196


Propulsion plant: 12 boilers, three Brown-Boveri turbines, 160,060 hp (maximum obtained)
Top Speed: 32 knots
Range: 7,100 nautical miles at 19 knots
Fuel capacity: 6,108 tonnes
Crew: 60 officers, 1,908 men (1943)

Operational History

Scharnhorst's first wartime operation was a sweep of the Iceland-Faroes passage in late November 1939 and her sister-ship, Gneisenau. On the 23rd November, they encountered the British auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.

Against all odds

The commander of HMS Rawalpindi was Captain Edward Coverley Kennedy, father of Sir Ludovic Kennedy, the writer and broadcaster (Sir Ludovic also made a documentary about the Bismarck). At 1545 hrs he saw what he thought was a German battlecruiser. He ordered Action Stations, followed swiftly by a command to change course to port to try to escape into a nearby fog bank. The radio operator was instructed to report the enemy sighting. However she was not fast enough to escape, Captain Hoffmann ordering the Rawalpindi to heave to. A second ship was sighted to starboard, which Kennedy believed to be a fellow member of the Northern Patrol, possibly a British heavy cruiser. However it was anything but that - it was Gneisenau!

Kennedy decided to fight, eventhough his ship had inferior armour and only eight 6" guns. Captain Hoffmann repeated signalled for the Rawalpindi to abandon ship, but he finally gave the order to open fire. Several 6" salvoes had no discernable effect on the battleships, and at 1600 hrs, after receiving many hits, a huge explosion ripped her in two. Only 38 of her original 276 crew survived.

The Rawalpindi's call for help had been received by Home Fleet and all available ships converged on her last known position, albeit too late for the auxiliary cruiser. The warships HMS Newcastle and HMS Delhi were the first to arrive on the scene, and although they too had insufficient firepower to engage the German vessels, they began to track the bigger ships. More destroyers and cruisers were fast approaching, along with the formidable battleship HMS Warspite and the battlecruisers HMS Hood and HMS Repulse. However bad weather allowed the Germans to slip away. Had the British ships been equiped with radar, it is doubtful the battleships would have escaped.

Operations "Nordmark" and "Weserübung"

Between the 18th and 20th February, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and a group of three destroyers made an unsuccessful raid as far as the Shetland Islands. The purpose of this mission (Operation "Nordmark") was to intercept British convoys between Bergen (Norway) and Britain. However no ships were sighted, and the German task force returned to Wilhelmshaven on the 20th.

On the 7th April, a large part of the German Fleet assembled for Operation "Weserübung", the occupation of Denmark and Norway. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were to be part of the main covering force for the invasion of Narvik and Trondheim. Allied vessels did not contest the landing.

At 0430 hrs on the 9th April, Gneisenau located a radar contact - both ships went to action stations. At around 0507 the enemy opened fire. At 0510 hrs the main guns on the Scharnhorst returned fire. The enemy was HMS Renown, a Renown Class battlecruiser, accompanied by nine "H-class" destroyers of the British 2nd Destroyer Flotilla. During the engagement, Scharnhorst's radar malfunctioned, making tracking her target difficult. By this time Gneisenau had been hit and Renown had found her range on Scharnhorst. However the German ship used her superior speed and maneuverability to escape unharmed. The two German ships disengaged. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, having met with the Admiral Hipper, headed back for Germany and reached Wilhelmshaven on the 12th April.

Operations "Juno" and "Berlin"

In May 1940, the German Naval High Command prepared an operation against supply convoys destined for the British army still fighting in northern Norway. The primary area of operations was convoys heading to Harstad, Andfjord and Vaagsfjord. Secondary targets were convoys directed to Trondheim, Saltdal, Bodo and Mo. The force comprised of Gneisenau (flagship), Scharnhorst, Admiral Hipper and four destroyers.

Operation "Juno" started on the 4th June 1940 at 0800 hrs, when the squadron left Kiel. A few merchant ships were sunk but the prize was won during Operation "Alphabet", the evacuation of all British and Allied forces from Norway, carried out between the 5th and 8th June 1940.

The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious had been detatched from the evacuation convoys and was preceeding back to Scapa Flow with only two destroyers as escort (HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta). Official reasons given for this was that her captain felt Glorious would be more of a liability to her convoy, problems with fuel status and the need to conduct a court-martial before a new commander took over. Whether these factors required Glorious to be detatched is debatable. However the decision to have only 12 of her 18 boilers lit, not to man the upper crow's nest position and not to have any aircraft patrolling the area reflect badly on Captain d'Oyly-Hughes, commander of the Glorious at the time.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau spotted smoke on the horizon at 1646, on the 8th June 1940 hrs. At 1658, it was identified as a British taskforce and the two ships turned to engage at 1700 hrs. Actions stations was signalled at 1702 hrs - the British only at 1720 hrs. When Glorious and her escorts realised German warships were closing, it was too late. Ardent and Acasta fired volley after volley of torpedos and made smoke, but without fighter cover (Glorious' planes weren't ready in time), all three vessels were doomed. By 1925 hrs, all 3 British ships had been sunk. Only 46 men were pulled from the sea, as many as 1,500 losing their lives.

On the 22nd January 1941, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed from Kiel to raid the Atlantic convoys in an operation codenamed "Berlin". They managed to avoid engagements with British cruisers and battleships, slipping away when they realised a convoy was heavily defended. Between then and the 19th March, the two ships sunk or captured 22 merchantmen, with a registered tonnage of around 113,690. Scharnhorst's personal record was 8 merchant vessels sunk.

Operation "Ostfront" - death of a giant

Having spent several months in Brest (northern France), repairing air-raid damage, Scharnhorst slipped through the English Channel with Gneisenau, Prinz Eugen and escort craft, between the 11th and 13th February 1942. The British caught off guard and couldn't stop the ships with air and surface attacks, though both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines during the latter part of the voyage. Scharnhorst was kept out of action with repair work on her steam powerplant until March 1943, when she went to northern Norway to join the battleship Tirpitz and other ships threatening the convoy route to the USSR.

On Christmas day 1943, Scharnhorst put to sea with a group of destroyers to attack two convoys (Operation "Ostfront"). However this was a trap that had been set by the British. Shadowing the westbound convoy were the cruisers, HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk and HMS Sheffield. A second group, comprising of the battleship HMS Duke of York, the cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers, were approaching from the west.

On the 26th, Scharnhorst was only an hour away from the Murmansk bound convoy. However she was unaware that Belfast had picked her up on her radar at 0830 hrs. At 0924 hrs, Belfast opened fire on Scharnhorst, with Norfolk and Sheffield joining in. Scharnhorst was taken completely by surprise, and a shell from Norfolk destroyed her radar. She disengaged and tried to reach the convoy again later on. However the cruisers intercepted her again and though she hit Norfolk, Rear-Admiral Bey decided to disengage and return to Norway (he had orders not to persist against a superior force). Her superior speed gained her ground but having set loose her slower destroyers, she was blind with no radar. Duke of York and her group were closing in. At 1647 hrs, Admiral Fraser (commander of the British taskgroup) ordered Belfast to open fire with star shells. Scharnhorst was illuminated and Duke of York opened fire.

Bey believed he could outrun his enemies but when one of her boiler rooms took a direct hit at 1824 hrs from Duke of York, her fate was sealed - Scharnhorst slowed to a mere 10 knots. Many of her guns had already been damaged and there was no way she could defend herself. She was alone. Though Bey decided to valiantly fight to the last shell, she began to sink at 1945 hrs, when one of her magazines detonated in a terrific explosion. It had been a particularly stormy day, as if the Norwegian sea was doing her best to sink the beast that had covered the German landings in Norway three years previously. The pain suffered by the occupation was to continue for another two years, but the sea claimed her prize. Scharnhorst, went to the bottom.

There were only 36 survivors out of a total crew of 1,968.


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