History of the Scharnhorst
Scharnhorst was a German capital ship, alternatively described as a battleship or battlecruiser, of Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine. She was the lead ship of her class, which included her sister ship Gneisenau. The ship was built at the Kriegsmarinewerft dockyard in Wilhelmshaven; she was laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched a year and four months later on 3 October 1936. Completed in January 1939, the ship was armed with a main battery of nine 28 cm (11 in) C/34 guns in three triple turrets. Plans to replace these weapons with six 38 cm (15 in) SK C/34 guns in twin turrets were never carried out.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau operated together for much of the early portion of World War II, including sorties into the Atlantic to raid British merchant shipping. During her first operation, Scharnhorst sank the armed merchant HMS Rawalpindi in a short engagement (November 1939). Scharnhorst and Gneisenau participated in Operation Weserübung (April–June 1940), the German invasion of Norway. During operations off Norway, the two ships engaged the battlecruiser HMS Renown and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious as well as her escort destroyers Acasta and Ardent. In that engagement Scharnhorst achieved one of the longest-range naval gunfire hits in history.
In early 1942, after British bombing raids, the two ships made the Channel Dash up the English Channel from occupied France to Germany. In early 1943, Scharnhorst joined the Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz in Norway to interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union. Scharnhorst and several destroyers sortied from Norway to attack a convoy but British naval patrols intercepted the German force. During the Battle of the North Cape (26 December 1943), the Royal Navy battleship HMS Duke of York and her escorts sank Scharnhorst. Only 36 men survived, out of a crew of 1,968.
The Battle of North Cape 1943
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; Tirpitz had been badly damaged, and the four remaining heavy cruisers were committed to the Baltic. During a conference with Hitler on 19–20 December, Großadmiral Karl Dönitz decided to employ Scharnhorst against the next Allied convoy that presented itself. Erich Bey, by now promoted to Konteradmiral, was given command of the task force.
On 22 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 (740 kilometres; 460 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 25 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 26 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 those of their opponents.
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 able to read the ciphered Enigma 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 (74 kilometres; 46 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.
An hour after making the turn, Bey deployed his destroyers in a line screening Scharnhorst, which remained 10 nmi (19 km; 12 mi) behind. Half an hour later, Scharnhorst's loudspeakers called the crew to battle stations in preparation for the attack. At 08:40, Belfast picked up Scharnhorst on her radar. Unaware that they had been detected, the Germans 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 (12,000 yd). 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 20.3 cm (8 in) 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 28 cm shells. The first shell hit the forward superstructure and disabled Norfolk's gunnery radar. The second 28 cm 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 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 m (12,000 yd); Scharnhorst quickly returned the fire. Five minutes after opening fire, one of Duke of York's 14 in (35.6 cm) 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 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 thereafter, another 14 in shell struck the ventilation trunk attached to Bruno, which caused the turret to be flooded with noxious propellant gases 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 in 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 (15 km/h; 9.2 mph). Temporary repairs allowed Scharnhorst to return to 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph). She managed to add 5,000 m (5,500 yd) to the distance between her and Duke of York, while straddling the ship with several salvos. Shell splinters rained on Duke of York and disabled the fire-control radar.
At 18:42, Duke of York ceased fire, having fired 52 salvos and having scored at least 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. The torpedoes slowed Scharnhorst to 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph), which allowed Duke of York to close to 9,100 m (10,000 yd). 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 list to starboard. At 19:45, the ship went down by the bow, with her propellers still slowly turning. British ships began searching for survivors, but were soon ordered away after just a few were pulled out of the water even though voices could still be heard calling for help from the darkness. Of the crew of 1,968 officers and enlisted men, only 36 men survived.