By Kelly Bell
Because the victorious Allies had destroyed Imperial Germany’s fleet after World War I, Adolf Hitler had no choice but to construct a new navy after he came to power. As a result, new battleships, battlecruisers, pocket battleships, and heavy and light cruisers were built during the 1930s. Among these was the battlecruiser KMS Scharnhorst, one of Nazi Germany’s new generation of fighting ships that were too fast to be kept bottled up in the North Sea like their Imperial predecessors had been 25 years earlier. German capital ships were at large in the Atlantic during wartime, and the Royal Navy was hard pressed to bring them to bay while simultaneously dealing with menacing packs of U-boats that continually raided merchant shipping.
Still, in many instances these warships failed to live up to expectations, largely because they were so few in number. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, chief of the Kriegsmarine, initiated his Z-Plan for building the German surface fleet during the 1930s. However, the construction effort was nowhere near completion with the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. Other factors were also involved.
Captain Hans Langsdorff scuttled Graf Spee outside Montevideo, Uruguay harbor on December 12, 1939, rather than face a feeble British flotilla he believed was much more powerful than it actually was. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill got away with committing virtually his entire North Atlantic fleet to hunting down the battleship Bismarck without losing any merchant ships. While much of the Royal Navy’s resources were off hunting down and sinking the Bismarck, other free-ranging German commerce raiders somehow failed to locate any of the lumbering, unprotected convoys. Scharnhorst’s star-crossed career was the most fascinatingly bedeviled of all. (Take a deeper dive into the history of the Second World War’s European Theater inside WWII History magazine.)
The KMS Scharnhorst: A Damned Ship
At 31,800 tons, the KMS Scharnhorst was lighter and much faster than older British battleships or battlecruisers. Although her 11-inch rifles were smaller than the 15-inchers of the Royal Navy’s battlecruisers Hood, Repulse, and Renown, she had much thicker armor. She was also fitted with a newfangled device called radar, enabling her gunners to accurately shell targets that were over the horizon. Regardless, all of Scharnhorst’s menacing armament and state-of-the-art systems were, some believed, more than offset by an element rumored to have dogged her even before her construction was completed. She was damned.
While the ship was being constructed in drydock, her supporting timbers abruptly gave way, and the huge hull rolled onto its side crushing to death 61 skilled workers and injuring 110 more. Jittery work crews had to be conscripted for the three-month job of righting the vessel, and when the subsequently delayed launch date arrived so did Hitler, Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and Admiral Karl Donitz, commander of the navy’s U-boat arm, all eager to witness this deadly marvel of the New Germany splash into her native element.
She stood them up. During the previous night Scharnhorst had snapped her mooring lines and slid of her own accord into Kiel’s crowded harbor, pulverizing two barges anchored in her premature path. Despite the circumstances, it was a victory of sorts. She was finally completed and in operation, which was more than had been expected by many.
After months of bitter international debate, the free city of Danzig was a mere backwater of the land battle when the Polish campaign commenced. The garrison was reduced by offshore bombardment. The German Navy flotilla dispatched to the scene experienced negligible return fire, for all the good this did Scharnhorst. During the shelling one of her big guns exploded, killing nine men. The ventilation system shorted out in another turret, suffocating the 12-man crew.
After her self-inflicted damage was repaired, Scharnhorst, accompanied by her identical sister ship Gneisenau, embarked on her first wartime patrol. This sortie was not highly successful, with only a single merchantman sunk, and this vessel, Rawalpindi, got off a radio message that alerted the British to the raiders’ whereabouts. However, the Germans pulled off a dazzling escape, hiding out near the Arctic Circle until the arrival of inclement weather and then steaming undetected through the middle of a huge task force (the Royal Navy did not yet have radar) sent to intercept them, arriving safely at Wilhelmshaven on November 27, 1939.
No Luck Off Norway
The following spring Hitler was forced to commit virtually his entire surface fleet in the invasion of Norway due to the lack of a common land border. Between enemy action and atrocious weather, the naval contingent suffered unexpectedly heavy casualties, losing 10 destroyers in the assault on Narvik alone.
Meanwhile, Scharnhorst was off Oslo participating in the bombardment of the city’s shore batteries, which turned out to be much more formidable than Danzig’s. She came away from the battle crippled. Gneisenau towed her out of the combat area, and her engineers patched her up sufficiently to enable her to limp homeward by night and hide from the Royal Air Force by day. Entering the Elbe River on the last leg of her journey home, she collided in the darkness with the Bremen, Germany’s largest passenger liner. KMS Scharnhorst’s armor-plated prow was barely dented, but Bremen was severely holed and settled into the shallow water as a sitting duck for the British bombers that soon pounded her into junk.
Following extensive repairs, Scharnhorst resumed patrolling the Atlantic, and on June 9, 1940, she and Gneisenau happened upon the fleet evacuating the last Allied forces to leave Nazi-occupied Norway. British and Norwegian troops were being ferried to England with a number of old Gloster Gladiator biplanes aboard the aircraft carrier Glorious. The planes were used primarily for reconnaissance but could launch torpedoes. Before any of them could take off in the contrary wind, however, the German ships’ heavy guns had reduced the flotilla and its escorts to floating wreckage. The destroyer Acasta was burning and taking on water when her captain had a great idea.
The Germans were 10 miles south of their targets and firing their main guns head-on when Acasta suddenly veered eastward and then made a 180-degree turn at full steam. Unnoticed by her distant attackers, the British destroyer had fired a full spread of torpedoes during the brief moments in her direction change when she was facing the Germans. Every man on the German battlecruisers was baffled by the strange maneuver, but they kept firing and adjusting direction to port to keep facing their westward-bound quarry.
Nine minutes later Scharnhorst’s starboard hull was ripped open just below the waterline by a torpedo fired from the Acasta. The explosion and subsequent flooding killed 47 sailors. Gneisenau escorted her damaged sister to the Norwegian port of Trondheim for emergency repairs and then to Kiel for refit.
On February 8, 1941, the twin battlecruisers slipped through the Denmark Strait and reentered the Atlantic to participate in the Kriegsmarine highly successful worldwide offensive against Allied shipping in the first half of that year. Commanded by Admiral Gunther Lutjens (who was soon to be killed in action as commander of the battleship Bismarck), the two dreadnoughts sank 21 supply and merchant ships totaling 115,622 tons and captured one. Whenever the Royal Navy pinpointed the raiders’ location, the Germans used their superior speed to outdistance their frustrated foes. On March 23, they docked at the occupied French port of Brest, where Scharnhorst was idled several months for major engine repairs.
Between Scharnhorst’s sick motors and the bomb damage inflicted on Gneisenau by the Royal Air Force while she was moored, it was autumn before the German battlecruisers were operational again, and even then bombers pinned them down in the harbor until the evening of February 11, 1942, when, acting on orders directly from Hitler they slipped out of Brest in a heavy fog and headed north at full speed in company with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in a desperate attempt to reach Norway.
The Kriegsmarine high command had desperately opposed the plan as too risky, but Hitler was convinced the Allies were preparing to invade Norway and, as he had foreseen, they never dreamed he would send his precious surface raiders into the heavily patrolled English Channel. The movement was codenamed Operation Cerberus.
A skilled and experienced naval commander, Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax led the Brest squadron on its northward sprint. Luftwaffe General Adolf Galland assembled a force of 250 Messerschmitt Me-109 and Focke Wulf FW-190 fighters for the crucial task of air cover, and Luftwaffe Director of Communications General Wolfgang Martini was assigned the task of jamming the British radar system.
Hugging the French coastline, the warships would stay out of range of English coastal batteries while their own coastal gunners could support them against any unfriendly warships that might attack. The vessels left Brest at nightfall.
Royal Navy Caught Off-Guard
After covering the 240-mile stretch from Brest to Cherbourg under cover of darkness, the Germans entered the Channel at dawn so that the fighters could give them vital cover throughout the daylight leg of the trip. During the moonless night the three capital ships had been joined by six destroyers and a number of minesweepers, gunboats, and other smaller craft whose crews were determined to see them safely through to their linkup with the rest of the fleet in the Norwegian fjords.
Scharnhorst was in the lead, and on her bridge Ciliax noted with little surprise the absence of hostile aircraft in the cold, gray midwinter skies. The weather was not ideal for air patrols, and Martini was doing an excellent job of jamming the Britons’ radar, so much so that the operators did not realize their blank sets were the result of deliberate interference. They attributed them to the foul weather.
The run was uneventful until 10:42 am, when two British Supermarine Spitfire fighters happened to pass overhead. All along the English coast the alert sounded, but the shocked Allies reacted with disbelief and hesitation. As Hitler had foreseen, they had been taken totally by surprise. The Dover coastal batteries gamely opened up on the distant targets, but their 9-inch shells fell a full mile short. After wasting 33 rounds, the artillery fell silent.
Attacked by Air
By noon the task force had traversed the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and Calais, and was only 200 miles short of its destination. It was there that it encountered its first hostile ships. A squadron of torpedo boats churned from Dover harbor and attacked at 35 knots through the roiling swells. Scharnhorst and the destroyers drove them off with a blizzard of shells. The torpedo boats managed to launch a few missiles, but all missed.
At this point, six Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes swooped down on the squadron. Eight months earlier the Swordfish had been the only British plane capable of crippling the Bismarck so that she could not escape her pursuers, but Bismarck had had no air cover. On this dreary day Galland’s Me-109s and FW-190s savaged the Swordfish. Lowering their landing gear so that they could fly slowly enough to stay on the lumbering biplanes’ tails, the Germans quickly shot down every one, ending another impotent jab at the convoy.
The main danger to the German naval squadron turned out to be thousands of mines both sides had planted throughout the Channel. German minesweepers had toiled for days clearing an avenue through the fields but only had time to complete a narrow opening a half mile wide in places. Shortly after the torpedo planes attacked, a massive underwater explosion convulsed Scharnhorst as she strayed out of the safe corridor. As she shuddered to a complete stop, her admiral quickly abandoned her. Ciliax ordered the destroyer Z-29 alongside and leaped from his stricken ship onto the smaller one. Assuming repairs to his flagship would be fatally lengthy, Ciliax left her in the care of her engineers and rushed to catch up with the fleet’s main body.
At this point the German ships came under attack from a ragged pack of Bristol Beaufort light bombers and Lockheed Hudson medium bombers. This assault, too, came to naught as all the bombs missed. This was uncharacteristically good luck for Scharnhorst as the British were so preoccupied with the fleet’s main body they failed to notice the stationary battlecruiser to the rear long enough for her engineers to patch her up sufficiently to resume the dangerous trek.
The German ships had reached the widest part of the Channel, off Belgium, when the Allies made their last attempt to inflict serious damage. Six World War I-era destroyers normally used only for coast patrol charged out of the mouth of the Thames River in an attempt to intercept but were mistakenly bombed by RAF twin-engine Handley Page Hampden bombers. Amazingly, all the bombs missed, and at 3:17 pm the destroyers Campbell, Worcester, and Vivacious, in a show of suicidal bravado, bore down on Gneisenau while the other three went after Prinz Eugen. When the little attackers turned broadside so they could launch torpedoes, Gneisenau opened up on them from the close range of 3,000 yards, wrecking Worcester with three salvoes while the remaining five destroyers prudently ducked into a fog bank.
As daylight waned on the frigid afternoon, Gneisenau’s and Prinz Eugen’s antiaircraft batteries and covering Luftwaffe fighters repeatedly turned back attacking bombers. Nightfall and inclement weather soon suspended all air operations. Just before 8 pm, Gneisenau was skirting the Frisian Islands when a mine seriously holed her. Scharnhorst, meanwhile, blundered into a second mine, sustaining sufficient damage to her brand new hull to drydock her for yet another round of lengthy repairs.
Two weeks after their brazen sprint so embarrassed the British, while Scharnhorst was having her gaping wounds welded shut, RAF bombers severely damaged Gneisenau while she was docked at Kiel. Gneisenau was towed to the Baltic port of Gotenhafen, where naval engineers tried to patch her up, but the attempt had to be abandoned because of a lack of essential materials. She never left the harbor. Three years later she was scuttled to prevent her from falling into the hands of the advancing Soviet Red Army.
Repairing Scharnhorst was time consuming because of the scarcity of so many essential materials. Relentless Allied air raids on Germany’s manufacturing and industrial facilities were beginning to tell, and the battlecruiser’s return to seaworthiness was delayed for six months. For the bulk of 1943, she and the 50,000-ton battleship Tirpitz rode at anchor in Norway’s Altenfjord, where their mere presence prompted the jittery British to set aside a substantial portion of the Home Fleet for the sole purpose of keeping a watchful eye on the potentially lethal raiders. The Royal Navy would soon have more to do than stand idle watch.
On December 19, 1943, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance pilot spotted a 20-ship convoy escorted by 14 or 15 destroyers and cruisers. The German high command suspected poor visibility had caused the airmen to mistake cargo-carrying vessels as warships and that the escort was smaller than reported.
On Christmas Day, Scharnhorst was sent out alone for the first time in her career, and bad luck struck again. Her commander was Admiral Erich Bey, who had never before commanded a ship of such size. Furthermore, because of Christmas leaves the vessel was undermanned.
Had there been sufficient available fuel for Tirpitz to come along, it is sobering to consider the havoc that would likely have been wrought in the Allied shipping lanes, but the Kriegsmarine had only enough fuel for the smaller warship and her escort of five destroyers.
“The Fight is Not to be Half Finished!”
Bey was uneasy about the severe weather. His destroyers were pitching wildly in the heavy seas, which would make aiming their guns with any degree of accuracy extremely difficult. Furthermore, their rudders and propellers were spending almost as much time out of the water between swells as they were in it, making steering a full-time, imprecise job.
In a thinly veiled plea to abort the mission, Bey radioed Narvik: “Use of destroyer weapons gravely impaired.” It was ignored. The task force had to sail. Admiral Dönitz had promised Hitler a major victory at sea, and the Führer was pressuring his naval chieftain to produce. Dönitz’s reply was clear and uncompromising: “The fight is not to be half finished!” However, the operation was already unraveling.
By breaking radio silence Bey had alerted the Royal Navy that something was afoot in the Far North, and the British Admiralty was determined that there would be no repeat of the previous year’s dismal showing during the Channel dash. The British response was immediate, forceful, and effective.
The Germans’ target was convoy JW55B, whose escort had indeed been overestimated. Concerned with providing an antisubmarine screen, the British had assigned just 10 destroyers and no cruisers to shepherd the freighters. Unknown to the hunters, however, news of their general whereabouts was spreading rapidly across the wintry North Atlantic.
Vice Admiral R.L. Burnett’s force, including the cruisers Belfast, Sheffield, and Norfolk, was escorting a convoy returning empty from Murmansk. Leaving these ships in the Barents Sea, Burnett made for the trouble spot at top speed. Also, Admiral Bruce Fraser’s squadron of four destroyers, the cruiser Jamaica, and the battleship Duke of York was making top speed from off the south coast of Iceland.
Worried about betraying his position, Bey was sailing blind, having turned off his surface search radar. Just before 8 am on December 26, he was bewildered at the convoy’s not being where he had expected it and ordered his destroyers to veer southwest to search for their quarry. It was an ill-advised move in such stormy weather and protracted polar darkness, for Bey quickly lost contact with the smaller ships. From that point Scharnhorst and her skeleton crew were completely alone.
The British had already noted this fact. The implications were clear. If Hitler was desperate enough to send out a solitary dreadnought, Germany must be in even worse straits than they had imagined. If they could eliminate this last significant, active Nazi surface raider, complete control of the Atlantic would be theirs and the end of the war would be in sight. Meanwhile, there was a Wagnerian drama to act out.
Setting a Trap For Scharnhorst
At 8:40 am, Belfast’s radar detected a large vessel 17 miles ahead. Forty minutes later it was positively identified as Scharnhorst.
Bey was frantically searching for the elusive convoy. He had no way of knowing that Fraser had sent it north to a safer position. Suddenly, a flare exploded overhead. Six minutes later, at 9:30, a rain of 8-inch shells from Norfolk, firing from 13,000 yards, bracketed his ship.
On the bridge, Captain Fritz Hintze had just switched on his forward radar to get a fix on his attackers when a shell slammed into the foremast, wrecking the aerial and leaving him with only aft radar. Belfast and Sheffield were also closing, so Bey turned his ship around and fled southeast at full speed, easily outdistancing his foes. Should his vessel be severely damaged and still manage to escape, there would be little hope for repair in hard-pressed Germany.
Burnett suspected that Bey would attempt to lure him a great distance from the convoy, wheel around in a great arc, and with Scharnhorst’s superior speed double back to the lumbering supply ships that would then be protected only by the destroyers. Moreover, Burnett realized the German raider would be virtually impossible to track down without air support, which was ruled out by the weather.
Returning to JW55B, Burnett dispatched four destroyers to aid the cruisers in laying a trap for Scharnhorst. Steaming 10 miles out in front of the convoy, they commenced zigzagging in front of the merchant ships.
“We Shall Fight to the Last Shell!”
As Burnett had suspected, Bey came at them from dead ahead just as the brief Arctic winter day was dawning about noon. Upon sighting the hostile vessels, Bey again headed southeast at top speed, this time firing on the British. The destroyers tried to get in position for a torpedo attack but were outrun.
Norfolk was severely damaged in the exchange, but the Germans were discouraged from further attempts to assail the convoy. They churned away to the southeast at 31 knots.
Some confusion surrounds the battle’s final stage. Since none of Scharnhorst’s officers survived, there is no way of knowing why her crew failed to react to the menace of Fraser’s warships approaching from the west at 24 knots, for they had been shadowed by Luftwaffe night fighters for several hours. The Germans’ radio may have been wrecked in the same exchange that knocked out the radar. Regardless, Bey continued blithely straight ahead until he blundered directly into Fraser’s heavy warships.
Just before 5 pm, Belfast scattered star shells in the inky sky above Scharnhorst, and 13 miles away Duke of York opened fire with her 14-inch guns. Unlike her sister ships, the Duke of York was new and state of the art, but her heavier armament gave her opponent a four-knot edge in speed. When the Germans knocked out Duke of York’s radar, the Nazi dreadnought had an excellent chance to escape, but Fraser, noting how Bey was swinging his ship from side to side to fire broadsides, had the Duke of York fire a broadside in the direction he guessed his target would next swerve. Predictably, the German ship swung directly into the path of the storm of shells.
His vessel immobilized by the barrage, Bey radioed Berlin, “We shall fight to the last shell!” German sailors transferred their heavy, 11-inch shells by hand from the wrecked forward turrets to the aft guns and desperately continued to defend themselves, but at 7:12 pm, Belfast knocked out the last aft turret, leaving the Germans with only two 5.9-inch cannons. These kept firing until just before 8 pm, when the stricken ship suddenly turned on end and sank bow first. This brought to an end the last traditional surface battle fought in the Atlantic.
Only 36 sailors from Hitler’s last sleek gray lady survived to be plucked from the icy water by the British, but Scharnhorst did not take her hex with her.
Two crewmen managed to paddle a raft to a nearby island, for all the good it did them. Several months later their frozen bodies were found there. Immediately after landing, they had been killed by the explosion of their faulty oil heater. Surviving the Allies and the icy Atlantic were long shots, but there was no escaping the curse of the KMS Scharnhorst.