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German Battleship Scharnhorst : Better Than Bismarck

German Battleship Scharnhorst


The German battleship Scharnhorst and her distinguished wartime career, sadly not as researched and not as famous as say Bismarck but far more successful and far more eventful, a fascinating story of a truly underrated ship.

The ship was launched on the 3rd of October 1936, witnessed by Adolf Hitler, Minister of War Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg, and the widow of Kapitän zur See Schultz, the commander of the armored cruiser Scharnhorst, which had been sunk at the Battle of the Falkland Islands during World War I. Fitting-out work was completed by January 1939. Scharnhorst was commissioned into the fleet on the 9th of January for sea trials, which revealed a dangerous tendency to ship considerable amounts of water in heavy seas. This caused flooding in the bow and damaged electrical systems in the forward gun turret. As a result, she went back to the dockyard for extensive modification of the bow. The original straight stem was replaced with a raised “Atlantic bow.” A raked funnel cap was also installed during the reconstruction, along with an enlarged aircraft hangar; the main mast was also moved further aft. The modifications were completed by November 1939, by which time the ship was finally fully operational.

Scharnhorst’s first operation was on the 21st of November 1939. The ship, in company with her sister Gneisenau, the light cruiser Köln, and nine destroyers, was to patrol the area between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The intent of the operation was to draw out British units and ease the pressure on the Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee, which was being pursued in the South Atlantic. Two days later, the German flotilla intercepted the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi. At 16:07, lookouts aboard Scharnhorst spotted the vessel, and less than an hour later Scharnhorst had closed the range. At 17:03, Scharnhorst opened fire, and three minutes later a salvo of her 28 cm guns hit Rawalpindi’s bridge, killing the captain and the majority of the officers. During the brief engagement, Rawalpindi managed to score a hit on Scharnhorst, which caused minor damage.

By 17:16, Rawalpindi was burning badly and in the process of sinking. Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, aboard Gneisenau, ordered Scharnhorst to pick up survivors. These rescue operations were interrupted by the appearance of the cruiser Newcastle. The German force quickly fled north and made a dash south through the North Sea. Four Allied capital ships, the British Hood, Nelson and Rodney, and the French Dunkerque, followed in pursuit. The Germans reached Wilhelmshaven on the 27th of November, and on the trip both battleships incurred significant damage from heavy seas and winds. Scharnhorst was repaired in Wilhelmshaven, and while in dock, her boilers were overhauled.

Following the completion of repairs, Scharnhorst went into the Baltic Sea for gunnery training. Heavy ice in the Baltic kept the ship there until February 1940 when she could return to Wilhelmshaven, arriving on the 5th of February. She was then assigned to the forces participating in the invasion of Denmark and Norway. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were the covering force for the assaults on Narvik and Trondheim; the two ships left Wilhelmshaven on the morning of the 7th of April. They were joined by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Later that day, at around 14:30, the three ships came under attack by a force of British bombers, which failed to make any hits. Although heavy winds caused significant structural damage that evening, flooding contaminated a portion of Scharnhorst’s fuel stores.

German battleships Scharnhorst (left) and Gneisenau

At 09:15 the following morning, Admiral Hipper was detached to reinforce the destroyers at Narvik, which had reported engaging British forces. Early on the 9th of April, the two ships encountered the British battlecruiser HMS Renown. Gneisenau’s radar picked up a radar contact at 04:30, which prompted the crews of both vessels to go to combat stations. Half an hour later, Scharnhorst’s navigator spotted gun flashes from Renown firing at Gneisenau, the Germans returned fire three minutes later. Gneisenau was hit twice in the opening portion of the engagement, and one shell disabled her rear gun turret. Scharnhorst’s radar malfunctioned, which prevented her from being able to effectively engage Renown during the battle. At 05:18, the British battlecruiser shifted fire to Scharnhorst, which maneuvered to avoid the falling shells. By 07:15, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had used their superior speed to escape from the pursuing Renown. Heavy seas and the high speed with which the pair of battleships escaped caused them to ship large amounts of water forward. Scharnhorst’s forward turret was put out of action by severe flooding. Mechanical problems with her starboard turbines developed after running at full speed, which forced the ships to reduce speed to 25 knots.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had reached a point north-west of Lofoten, Norway, by 12:00 on the 9th of April. The two ships then turned west for 24 hours while temporary repairs were affected. After a day of steaming west, the ships turned south and rendezvoused with Admiral Hipper on the 12th of April. An RAF patrol aircraft spotted the three ships that day, which prompted an air attack. The German warships were protected by poor visibility, however, and the three ships safely reached port later that day. Scharnhorst returned to Germany, and was repaired at the Deutsche Werke in Kiel. During the repair process, the aircraft catapult that had been installed on the rear gun turret was removed.

The two ships left Wilhelmshaven on the 4th of June to return to Norway. They were joined by Admiral Hipper and four destroyers. The purpose of the sortie was to interrupt Allied efforts to resupply the Norwegians and to relieve the pressure on German troops fighting in Norway. On the 7th of June, the squadron rendezvoused with the tanker Dithmarschen to refuel Admiral Hipper and the four destroyers. The next day, a British corvette was discovered and sunk, along with the oil tanker Oil Pioneer. The Germans then launched their Arado 196 float planes to search for more Allied vessels. Admiral Hipper and the destroyers were sent to destroy Orama, a 19,500 long tons passenger ship, while Atlantis, a hospital ship, was allowed to proceed unmolested. Admiral Marschall detached Admiral Hipper and the four destroyers to refuel in Trondheim, while he would steam to the Harstad area.

At 17:45, the German battleships spotted the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and two escorting destroyers, HMS Ardent and Acasta, at a range of some 40,000 m. At 18:32 Scharnhorst opened fire with her main armament on Glorious, at a range of 26,000 m. Six minutes after opening fire, Scharnhorst scored a hit at a range of 25,600 m. The shell struck the carrier’s upper hangar and started a large fire. Less than ten minutes later, a shell from Gneisenau struck the bridge and killed Glorious’ captain. The two destroyers attempted to cover Glorious with smoke screens, but the German battleships could track the carrier with their radar. By 18:26 the range had fallen to 24,100 m and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were firing full salvos at the carrier. After approximately an hour of shooting, the German battleships sent Glorious to the bottom. They also sank the two destroyers. As Acasta sank, one of the 4 torpedoes she had fired hit Scharnhorst at 19:39. Acasta also hit Scharnhorst’s forward superfiring turret with her 4.7″ QF guns, which did negligible damage. The torpedo hit caused serious damage; it tore a hole 14 by 6 meters and allowed 2,500 tons of water into the ship. The rear turret was disabled and 48 men were killed. The flooding caused a 5 degree list, increased the stern draft by almost a meter, and forced Scharnhorst to reduce speed to 20 knots. The ship’s machinery was also significantly damaged by the flooding, and the starboard propeller shaft was destroyed.

Scharnhorst firing against the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, which subsequently sank

The damage was severe enough to force Scharnhorst to put it into Trondheim for temporary repairs. She reached port on the afternoon of the 9th of June, where the repair shop Huaskaran was waiting. The following day a reconnaissance plane from RAF Coastal Command spotted the ship, and a raid by twelve Hudson bombers took place on the 11th of June. The Hudsons dropped thirty-six 227 lb armor-piercing bombs, which all missed. The Royal Navy joined in the attacks on the ship by sending the battleship Rodney and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. On the 13th of June, Ark Royal launched fifteen Skua dive bombers; German fighters intercepted the attackers and shot eight of them down. The other seven made it past the air defenses and attacked Scharnhorst, but only scored one hit, and the bomb failed to detonate and repairs were completed by the 20th of June, which permitted the ship to return to Germany. While Scharnhorst was en route under heavy escort on the 21st of June, the British launched two air attacks, six Swordfish torpedo bombers in the first and nine Beaufort bombers in the second. Both were driven off by anti-aircraft fire and fighters. The Germans intercepted British radio traffic that indicated the Royal Navy was at sea, which prompted Scharnhorst to make for Stavanger. British warships were within 35 nmi of Scharnhorst’s position when she turned to Stavanger. The next day, Scharnhorst left Stavanger for Kiel, where repairs were carried out, lasting some six months.

Following the completion of repairs, Scharnhorst underwent trials in the Baltic before returning to Kiel in December 1940. There she joined Gneisenau, in preparation for Operation Berlin, a planned raid into the Atlantic Ocean designed to wreak havoc on the Allied shipping lanes. Severe storms caused damage to Gneisenau but Scharnhorst was undamaged. The two ships were forced to put into port during the storm, Scharnhorst went to Gotenhafen while Gneisenau went to Kiel for repairs. Repairs were quickly completed, and on 22 January 1941, the two ships, under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, left port for the North Atlantic. They were detected in the Skagerrak and the heavy units of the British Home Fleet deployed to cover the passage between Iceland and the Faroes. The Germans’ radar detected the British at long range, which allowed Lütjens to avoid the British patrols, with the aid of a squall. By the 3rd of February, the two battleships had evaded the last British cruiser patrol, and had broken into the open Atlantic.

On the 6th of February, the two ships refueled from the tanker Schlettstadt south of Cape Farewell. Shortly after 08:30 on 8 February, lookouts spotted convoy HX 106, escorted by the battleship Ramillies. Lütjens’ orders prohibited him from engaging Allied capital ships, and so the attack was called off. Scharnhorst’s commander, KzS Hoffmann, however, closed to 23,000 meters in an attempt to lure Ramillies away from the convoy so that Gneisenau could attack the convoy. Lütjens ordered Hoffmann to rejoin the flagship immediately. The two battleships steamed off to the northwest to search for more shipping. On the 22nd of February, the pair spotted an empty convoy sailing west, which dispersed at the appearance of the battleships. Scharnhorst managed to sink only one ship during the encounter, destroying the 6000 ton tanker Lustrous.

Lütjens then decided to move to a new area, as the surviving members of the dispersed convoy had sent distress signals. He chose the Cape Town-Gibraltar convoy route, and positioned himself to the northwest of Cape Verde. The two ships encountered another convoy, escorted by the battleship Malaya, on the 8th of March. Lütjens again forbade an attack, but he shadowed the convoy and directed U-boats to attack. A pair of U-boats sank a total of 28,488 tons of shipping on the night of 8–9 March. Malaya turned on the two battleships and closed to 24,000 meters, well within the range of the Germans’ guns, but Lütjens refused to be drawn into an engagement. He instead turned toward the mid-Atlantic, where Scharnhorst sank the Greek cargo ship Marathon. The two ships then refueled from the tankers Uckermark and Ermland on the 12th of March.

On the 15th of March, the two battleships, with the two tankers in company, encountered a dispersed convoy in the mid-Atlantic. Scharnhorst sank two ships. Several days later, the main body of the convoy was located, and Scharnhorst sank another seven ships totaling 27,277 tons. One of the surviving ships radioed the location of the German battleships, which summoned the powerful British battleships HMS Rodney and King George V. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau used their high speed to escape in a squall, and the intervention by the British battleships convinced Lütjens that the chances of further success were small. He therefore decided to head for Brest in occupied France, which the ships reached on 22 March. Throughout the operation, Scharnhorst had difficulties with the superheater tubes in her boilers. Repair work lasted until July, which caused the ship to be unavailable during Operation Rheinübung, the failure by the new battleship Bismarck in May 1941.

A map depicting the cruises of the German warships Admiral ScheerAdmiral Hipper, Scharnhost and Gneisenau in the Atlantic between January and May 1941

After repairs were completed in July, Scharnhorst went to La Pallice for trials on the 21st, where she easily steamed at 30 knots. She did not return to Brest to avoid an undesirable concentration of heavy units in one port as the Prinz Eugen had arrived there on the 21st of July with Bismarck sunk, so she moored alongside at La Pallice on 23 July. The RAF had planned a large, complicated raid on the capital ships in Brest for the night of 24 July, but an aerial reconnaissance photograph of Scharnhorst in her berth at La Pallice caused a last minute alteration to the operation. The Halifax heavy bombers of the RAF flew the extra 200 miles to reach Scharnhorst and the rest of the raid on Brest went ahead as planned, with Prinz Eugen and Gneisenau as their principal targets. The 15 Halifaxes attacked Scharnhorst at her moorings. They scored five hits in an almost straight line on the starboard side, parallel to the centerline. Three of the bombs were 1,001 lb armor-piercing bombs, and the other two were 500 lb high-explosive bombs. One of the bombs hit the deck just forward of the starboard 15 cm twin turret next to the conning tower. It passed through the upper and middle decks before exploding on the main armored deck, which contained the blast. The joints with the torpedo bulkhead were weakened enough to cause leaking. The second 500 Ib bomb fell forward of the rear main battery turret and penetrated the first two decks. It also exploded on the armored deck and tore a small hole in it. The explosion caused splinter damage and disabled the ammunition hoists for the 37 mm anti-aircraft guns.

IWM description : “Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight attack on German warships docked at Brest, France. Two Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF fly towards the dry docks in which the battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU are berthed (right), and over which a smoke screen is rapidly spreading.”. IWM gives photgraph label as “Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF bombing the German battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU in dry-dock at Brest, France.”

Two bombs hit amidships between the 15 cm and 10.5 cm gun turrets, both failed to explode and instead penetrated the ship completely. The first went through each deck and exited the ship through the double bottom, while the other was deflected by the torpedo bulkhead and penetrated the hull beneath the side belt armor. The third bomb hit aft of the rear 28 cm turret, about 3 m (9.8 ft) from the side of the ship. It too failed to detonate, and passed through the side of the hull, which was not protected by the main armor belt. These three hits caused significant flooding and an 8 degree list to starboard. The forward and rear gun turrets were temporarily disabled, along with half of her anti-aircraft battery. Two men were killed and fifteen were injured in the attack. Damage-control teams managed to correct the list with counter-flooding, and although the draft increased by 1 m, Scharnhorst was able to leave for Brest at 19:30. On the morning of 25 July, one of the escorting destroyers shot down a British patrol plane. The ship reached Brest later that day and went into dry dock for repairs, which took 4 months. While the damage was being repaired, a new radar system was installed aft, the power output for the forward radar was increased to 100 kW, and the new 53.3 cm torpedo tubes were installed.

The strategic position following the damage to Scharnhorst was serious. Gneisenau was still being repaired following torpedo damage on 6 April and then bomb damage on the 9th –10th of April. The Prinz Eugen had been seriously damaged by a bomb on 1 July. Bismarck had been sunk on 27 May. All German capital ships deployed to the Atlantic were therefore out of action. In addition, Tirpitz was still working up and not ready for service; Lützow had been seriously damaged by a torpedo on 13 June 1941; Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper were in dockyards for maintenance.

On 12 January 1942, the German Naval Command, in a conference with Hitler, made the decision to return Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to Germany. The intention was to deploy the vessels to Norway to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union. The so-called “Channel Dash”, codenamed Operation Cerberus, would avoid the increasingly effective Allied radar and patrol aircraft in the Atlantic. Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax, Scharnhorst’s first commander, was given command of the operation. In early February, minesweepers swept a route through the English Channel undetected by the British. Then at 23:00 on 11 February, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen left Brest. They entered the Channel an hour later, the three ships sped at 27 knots hugging the French coast along the whole voyage. The British failed to detect their departure, as the submarine that had been tasked with observing the port had withdrawn to recharge its batteries. By 06:30, they had passed Cherbourg, at which point they were joined by a flotilla of torpedo boats. The torpedo boats were led by Kapitän Erich Bey, aboard the destroyer Z29. Adolf Galland directed the Luftwaffe fighter and bomber forces during Cerberus. The fighters flew at masthead-height to avoid detection by the British radar network. Liaison officers were present on all three ships. German aircraft arrived later to jam British radar with chaff. By 13:00, the ships had cleared the Strait of Dover, half an hour later, a flight of six Swordfish torpedo bombers, with Spitfire escort, attacked the Germans. The British failed to penetrate the Luftwaffe fighter shield, and all six Swordfish were destroyed in flight.

Aerial reconnaissance photo of Scharnhorst in Kiel after the Channel Dash

Scharnhorst did not make the voyage unscathed, at 15:31 she struck an air-dropped magnetic mine in the mouth of the Scheldt, abreast of the forward superfiring turret. The blast damaged the ship’s circuit breakers and knocked out her electrical system for 20 minutes. The explosive shock caused serious damage; turret Bruno was jammed, as were the twin and single 15 cm mounts on the port side. The blast also damaged the fuel oil pumps and the bearings in the turbo-generators, which brought the ship to a halt. The power outage disabled the emergency shut-off switches to the boilers and turbines, which could not be turned off until power was restored. The explosion tore a large gash in the side of the hull and allowed 1,220 tons of water into the ship which flooded 30 watertight spaces within five main watertight compartments. Scharnhorst took on a list of one degree and was down by the bows by a meter.

While the ship was immobilized, Admiral Ciliax transferred to Z29. The engine room crews managed to restart the turbines after about 20 minutes which permitted a speed of 27 knots. At around the time the last turbine was restarted, a single bomber dropped several bombs approximately 90 metres off Scharnhorst’s port side, which caused no damage. Once the ship was back under way, twelve Beauforts launched a 10-minute attack that was beaten off by anti-aircraft fire and the escorting Luftwaffe fighters. The British carried out a series of attacks that were all unsuccessful, Scharnhorst’s anti-aircraft guns were red-hot by the end of the action, and one 20 mm gun had burst from the strain it had  fired that much.

The ship struck another mine off Terschelling on the starboard side at 22:34. The mine briefly knocked out the power system and temporarily disabled the rudders. Two of the three turbines were jammed, and the third had to be turned off. Another 300 tons tons of water flooded ten watertight spaces in four main compartments. Only the centerline shaft was operational, which permitted a speed of only 10 knots. Partial power was eventually restored to the starboard turbine, which allowed speed to be increased to 14 knots. The shock damaged the rotating parts of all of the ship’s gun turrets, and three of the 15 cm turrets were seriously jammed. By 08:00 Scharnhorst had reached the Jade Bight but ice prevented the ship from entering Wilhelmshaven. While waiting outside the port, Admiral Ciliax returned to the ship. The ice had been cleared by noon, permitting Scharnhorst’s entrance to Wilhelmshaven. Two days later, Scharnhorst went to Kiel for permanent repairs. Work was conducted in a floating dry dock and lasted until July 1942. Afterward, another round of trials were conducted in the Baltic, which revealed the necessity of replacing several of the boiler tubes.

In early August 1942, Scharnhorst conducted exercises in cooperation with several U-boats. During the maneuvers, she collided with the German submarine U-523, which caused damage that necessitated dry-docking for repairs again. Work was completed by September, and the ship conducted further training in the Baltic. Scharnhorst steamed to Gotenhafen in late October for a new rudder, the design of which was based on the lessons learned from the torpedoing of Prinz Eugen and Lützow earlier in the year. Boiler and turbine troubles kept the ship in Germany for the remainder of 1942. By December, only two of the three shafts were operational and a complete overhaul of the propulsion system was required. In early January 1943, the ship was back in service, and after trials, left Germany on 7 January in company with Prinz Eugen and five destroyers. Reports of heavy activity in British airfields near the coast prompted the force to return to port. Another attempt to reach Norway was canceled under similar circumstances. On the 8th of March, however, poor weather grounded the British bombers so Scharnhorst and four destroyers were able to make the journey to Norway. A severe storm off Bergen forced the destroyers to seek shelter but Scharnhorst was able to continue on at the reduced speed of 17 knots. At 16:00 on the 14th of March, Scharnhorst dropped anchor in Bogen Bay outside Narvik. There she met Lützow and the battleship Tirpitz.

On the 22nd of March, Scharnhorst, Tirpitz, and Lützow steamed to Altafjord for repairs to damage incurred in heavy storms. In early April, Scharnhorst, Tirpitz, and nine destroyers conducted a training mission to Bear Island in the Arctic Ocean. On the 8th, a serious internal explosion occurred in the aft auxiliary machinery space above the armor deck. The explosion killed or injured 34 men and prompted the crew to flood the magazines for turret Caesar as a precaution against a magazine explosion. A repair ship completed work on the vessel in two weeks. Fuel shortages prevented major operations for the next six months, during which Scharnhorst was able to conduct only short training maneuvers.

Scharnhorst, Tirpitz, and nine destroyers embarked from Altafjord on an offensive on the 6th of September known as Operation Zitronella; the ships were tasked with bombarding the island of Spitzbergen. During the operation, Scharnhorst destroyed a battery of two 3.0 inch guns and shelled fuel tanks, coal mines, harbor facilities, and military installations. Of particular importance was the weather station that was transmitting weather information to the Allies, which was used to schedule convoys to the Soviet Union. The destroyers landed some 1,000 troops, which pushed the Norwegian garrison into the mountains, completing the mission without major loss. On the 22nd of September, a pair of British X-craft mini-submarines attacked and seriously damaged Tirpitz, which reduced the Arctic Task Force to Scharnhorst and her five escorting destroyers.

On the 25th of November 1943 Scharnhorst carried out a two-hour full-power trial achieving 29.6 knots from her 1940 trials where she had attained 31.14 knots.

With the rapidly deteriorating military situation for the German Army on the Eastern Front, it became increasingly important to interrupt the flow of supplies from the Western Allies to the Soviet Union. By December 1943, the German Army was forced into continuous retreat. The Luftwaffe had been seriously weakened by four long years of war, and increasing Allied anti-submarine capabilities were steadily degrading the effectiveness of the U-boats. The only effective weapon at the disposal of the Germans in Norway was Scharnhorst as Tirpitz was badly damaged, and the four remaining heavy cruisers were committed to the Baltic. During a conference with Hitler on the 19th –20 of December, Admiral Karl Dönitz decided to employ Scharnhorst against the next Allied convoy that presented itself. Erich Bey, by now promoted to admiral, was given command of the task force.

On the 22nd of December Dönitz ordered Bey to be ready to go to sea on a three-hour notice. Later that day, reconnaissance aircraft located a convoy of some 20 transports escorted by cruisers and destroyers approximately 400 nautical miles west of Tromsø. The convoy was spotted again two days later, and it was determined that the course was definitively toward the Soviet Union. A U-boat reported the convoy’s location at 09:00 on the 25th of December and Dönitz ordered Scharnhorst into action. In his instructions to Bey, Dönitz advised him to break off the engagement if presented with superior forces, but to remain aggressive. Bey planned to attack the convoy at 10:00 on the 26th of December if the conditions were favorable for the attack. At this time of year, there was only 45 minutes of full daylight and six hours of twilight, which significantly limited Bey’s operational freedom. The Germans were concerned with developments in Allied radar-directed fire control, which allowed British battleships to fire with great accuracy in the darkness, German radar capabilities lagged behind especially the British.

Scharnhorst and her five destroyers left port at around 19:00 and were in the open sea four hours later. At 03:19, Bey received instructions from the Fleet Command that Scharnhorst was to conduct the attack alone if heavy seas interfered with the destroyers’ ability to fight. Unbeknown to the Germans, the British were reading the radio transmissions between Scharnhorst and the Fleet Command; Admirals Robert Burnett and Bruce Fraser were aware of Bey’s plan for the attack on the convoy and could position their forces accordingly. At 07:03, Scharnhorst was some 40 nautical miles  southwest of Bear Island when she made a turn that would put her in position to attack the convoy at 10:00. Admiral Burnett, commanding the three cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield escorting Convoy JW 55B, placed his ships between the convoy and Scharnhorst’s expected direction of attack. Fraser in the powerful battleship Duke of York, along with the cruiser Jamaica and four destroyers, moved to a position southwest of Scharnhorst to block a possible escape attempt.

HMS Duke of York in the Arctic escorting a convoy

An hour after making the turn, Bey deployed his destroyers in a line screening Scharnhorst, which remained 10 miles behind. Half an hour later, Scharnhorst’s loudspeakers called the crew to battle stations in preparation for the attack. At 08:40, HMS Belfast picked up Scharnhorst on her radar. The Germans were unaware that they had been detected, and they had turned off their radar to prevent the British from picking up on the signals. At 09:21, Belfast’s lookouts spotted Scharnhorst at a range of 11,000 m. The cruiser opened fire three minutes later, followed by Norfolk two minutes after. Scharnhorst fired a salvo from turret Caesar before turning and increasing speed to disengage from the cruisers. The battleship was hit twice by shells, the first failed to explode and caused negligible damage, but the second struck the forward rangefinders and destroyed the radar antenna. The aft radar, which possessed only a limited forward arc, was the ship’s only remaining radar capability.


Scharnhorst turned south and attempted to work around the cruisers, but the superior British radar prevented Bey from successfully carrying out the maneuver. By 12:00, Scharnhorst was to the northeast of the convoy, but Belfast had reestablished radar contact; it took the cruisers twenty minutes to close the range and begin firing. Scharnhorst detected the cruisers with her aft radar and opened fire with her main battery guns before turning away to disengage a second time. Shortly before 12:25, Scharnhorst hit Norfolk twice with 11inch shells. The first shell hit the forward superstructure and disabled Norfolk’s gunnery radar. The second round struck the ship’s “X” barbette and disabled the turret. Scharnhorst then turned again and increased speed, in the hopes of escaping the cruisers and finding the convoy. Burnett chose to keep his distance and shadow Scharnhorst with radar while Fraser made his way to the scene in HMS Duke of York. Meanwhile, the five German destroyers continued searching for the convoy without success. At 13:15, Bey decided to return to base, and at 13:43, he dismissed the destroyers and instructed them to return to port.

At 16:17, Duke of York made radar contact with Scharnhorst; thirty minutes later, Belfast illuminated the German battleship with star shells. At 16:50, Duke of York opened fire at a range of 11,000 meters, Scharnhorst quickly returned fire. Five minutes after opening fire, one of Duke of York’s 14 inch shells struck Scharnhorst abreast of her forward gun turret. The shell hit jammed the turret’s training gears, putting it out of action. Shell splinters then started a fire in the ammunition magazine, which forced the Germans to flood both forward magazines to prevent an explosion. The water was quickly drained from turret Bruno’s magazine. The ship was now fighting with only two-thirds of her main battery. Shortly  another 14 inch shell struck the ventilation trunk attached to Bruno, which caused the turret to be flooded with noxious propellant gasses every time the breeches were opened. A third shell hit the deck next to turret Caesar and caused some flooding, shell splinters caused significant casualties. At 17:30, shells struck the forward 15 cm gun turrets and destroyed them both.

At around 18:00, another 14 inch shell struck the ship on the starboard side, passed through the thin upper belt armor, and exploded in the number 1 boiler room. It caused significant damage to the ship’s propulsion system and slowed the ship to 8 knots. Temporary repairs allowed Scharnhorst to return to 22 knots. She managed to add 5,000 meters to the distance between her and Duke of York, while straddling the ship with several salvos. Shell splinters rained on the Duke of York and disabled the fire-control radar.

At 18:42, Duke of York ceased fire, having fired 52 salvos and having scored a minimum of 13 hits, but Scharnhorst was pulling away. Many of these hits had badly damaged the ship’s secondary armament, which left her open to destroyer attacks, which Fraser ordered. 

The destroyers Scorpion and HNoMS Stord launched a total of eight torpedoes at 18:50, four of which hit. One torpedo exploded abreast of turret Bruno, which caused it to jam. The second torpedo hit the ship on the port side and caused some minor flooding, and the third struck toward the rear of the ship and damaged the port propeller shaft. 

The fourth hit the ship in the bow. 

Survivors from Scharnhorst disembarking in Scapa Flow, Orkney

The torpedoes slowed Scharnhorst to 12 knots which allowed the Duke of York to close to 9,100 meters. With only turret Caesar operational, all available men were sent to retrieve ammunition from the forward turrets to keep the last heavy guns supplied. Fraser then ordered Jamaica and Belfast to move into range and finish the crippled ship off with torpedoes. After several more torpedo hits, Scharnhorst settled further into the water and began to starboard. At 19:45, the ship went down by the bow, with her propellers still turning. British ships began searching for survivors, but were soon ordered away after just a few were pulled out of the water with voices calling for help from the darkness. Of the crew of 1,968 officers and enlisted men, only 36 men survived, ending the Scharnhorsts career.

German Battleship Scharnhorst Written by Harry Gillespie

Harry Gillespie is a naval historian who resides with his wife in the United Kingdom.

Read more of Harry’s Work:

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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The Italian Cruiser Trieste

USS Washington (BB-56)

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau : Germany’s Raiders of World War 2

The Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee German Cruiser AKA “Pocket Battleship” & WW2

Battle of Cape Matapan 1941 : Italy’s Greatest Naval Defeat

HMS Royal Oak’s Sinking At Scapa Flow By U-47 HMS Victorious During Operation Pedestal

RMS Carmania & SMS Cap Trafalgar : The World’s First Battle Between Former Ocean Liners

Italian Submarine Leonardo Da Vinci : The Most Successful Non-German Submarine In The Atlantic Theater of WW2

The 2nd Bismarck Sinking Of WW2

Prinz Eugen & Her Active WW2 Career

HMS Nelson & HMS Rodney : The Last Torpedo Battleships

HMS Warspite & the Second Battle of Narvik

The Altmark Incident

German Battleship Scharnhorst

*certain passages are from Wikipedia