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

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

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau : Germany’s Raiders of World War 2 When one thinks of German capital ships and how dangerous they are, most people think of Bismarck, Tirpitz, and maybe the cruiser Graf Spee.

But most people haven’t heard of Operation Berlin, the time 2 German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau successfully broke out and raided the convoy lanes and influenced Bismarck’s fateful mission. 

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Scharnhorst crew

Admiral Lutjens was the commander-in-chief of the operation, he would go on to command the cruise of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and try to follow Berlin’s success.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed from Kiel on 22 January 1941 after some delay. They were spotted by the Royal Navy going through the Great Belt and a response was assembled.

Admiral Sir John Tovey sailed with a strong force of three battleships, eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers in anticipation of intercepting the battleships in the Iceland—Faroe Islands Passage. Instead, Lütjens(pictured below) took his flotilla through the Denmark Strait which he would go on to do with the Bismarck, where he was positioned to intercept convoys between Canada and the United Kingdom.

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His first action was when Convoy HX 106 was intercepted, but the attack was aborted when the escorting battleship of the convoy HMS Ramillies was spotted. Lütjens had orders to strictly avoid any action with enemy capital ships. Ramillies failed to make an accurate identification of the German battleships but managed to protect the convoy.

After refueling at sea, the German battleships missed the interception of convoy HX 111 but managed to intercept an empty convoy returning to the U.S. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau managed to sink five ships but the convoy managed to report the attack. The German squadron then moved south to the Azores to intercept the convoy routes that ran between West Africa and Britain.

Another convoy was sighted but again could not be attacked due to the presence of the Queen Elizabeth class battleship HMS Malaya(below in New York City’s East River). Scharnhorst and Gneisenau decided to shadow the convoy and guide in U-boat wolf packs to attack the convoy. 

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Lutjens moved back to Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to the western Atlantic to sink a freighter en route. Two unescorted convoys were found attacked and 16 ships were either sunk or captured. One of the ships called Chilean Reefer managed to cause the Germans severe problems. It made smoke, radioed an accurate position, and returned Gneisenau’s fire with its small deck gun.

The Admiral decided to withdraw and destroy the ship from a safe distance with the battleship’s main guns. 

During this action, HMS Rodney(below) appeared on the scene to respond to the freighter’s distress calls. The German ships ran for safety while the battleship Rodney picked up survivors.

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The German ships with their position located were ordered back to Brest. On the 21st of March, they received air and sea reinforcements and docked in port the next day.

In total, they sailed nearly 18,000 miles in 60 days and destroyed (or) captured 22 ships.

Most important to the success of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was that they were supported by supply ships and the tankers Uckermark, Ermland, Schlettstadt, Friedrich Breme, and Esso Hamburg which Lutjens intended to use with his unsuccessful raid with the Bismarck in May 1941.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau : Germany’s Raiders of World War 2 Written by Harry Gillespie

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

Read more of Harry’s Work:

The Altmark Incident

The Bismarck : The Myth and Reality of The Battleship Bismarck

Battle of Taranto : The Battle that Changed Warfare

The Assault On Mount Kent : A Glorious Day for the SAS in the Falkands

SAS Raid On Pebble Island 1982

The Bismarck : The Myth and Reality of The Battleship Bismarck

HMS Warspite & the Second Battle of Narvik

Operation Chariot : St Nazaire Raid

Sinking Of HMS Royal Oak By U-47

HMS Nelson & HMS Rodney : The Last Torpedo Battleships

Prinz Eugen & Her Active WW2 Career

The 2nd Bismarck Sinking Of WW2

Italian Submarine Leonardo Da Vinci : Best NON German Submarine

RMS Carmania & SMS Cap Trafalgar : World’s 1st Battle of Ocean Liners

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

The Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee German Cruiser, Pocket Battleship

Bismarck firing on HMS HOOD in the Battle of the Denmarck Strait 24-May-1941, shot from Prinz Eugen