The Scharnhorst had one of the the most prolific war time careers of any warship during World War II. It’s hard not to be interested in a vessel with such a dramatic story (and the history of the previous ship to bear the name Scharnhorst, for that matter), especially its final action: the Battle of the North Cape, which occurred 77 years ago today.
Before talking about her last stint in Norway and final battle, her impressive career is worth going over. Scharnhorst was launched in 1936 and was the first in a class of two German battleships: the other being Gneisenau. The Scharnhorst was the namesake of the class, laid down and launched before her sister, although Gneisenau was the the first to actually commission into the navy. The two ships were named after two previous cruisers of the Imperial German Navy in World War I that served under Admiral von Spee, which together sank a British force off Chile before being sunk themselves off of the Falkland Islands in two different battles.
The Happy Years
Together the twin ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were involved in numerous major operations. One of the first and most important was Operation Weserübung (the German invasion of Norway) in April 1940 where they escorted the northernmost taskforce to Narvik, and it was while en route to Narvik that that the twins encountered and engaged the British battlecruiser HMS Renown off of the Lofoten archipelago. Scharnhorst herself played a minor role in this action; she scored no hits while both Renown and Gneisenau hit each other repeatedly – the heavy seas washing over her bow turrets severely decreased her accuracy. Despite a theoretical advantage the Germans were the ones to break off the fight and make speed to the northeast, so for the twins this was a tactical defeat, but they did lead the British away from the destroyers and transports heading to Narvik, so they accomplished their main objective.
The action off Lofoten was followed two months later by Operation Juno, another foray into the Norwegian Sea, this time to intercept transport vessels evacuating the B.E.F. from Norway. This lead to the famous episode on June 8th when the twins sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her escorts, an event the Germans captured on film, by the way. See this documentary if you want to know further about this specific sandal.
It was during this action that Scharnhorst scored the single longest range hit in the history of naval gunnery, when one of her shells crashed into Glorious‘ flight deck and detonated in the hangar (and wrecking all of the aircraft) from over 26,000 yards away. But the fight wasn’t entirely one-sided, she also suffered her first war damage here when a torpedo fired from the British destroyers defending Glorious struck her starboard side, killing dozens of her crew and flooding one of the engine rooms.
Following this was even more success: Operation Berlin, a two month raiding mission to sink Merchant vessels in the Atlantic. At this point Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were becoming quite well known to the British press, who bestowed them with nicknames like “The Terrible Twins” and “Salmon and Gluckstein”. The final major success, and perhaps the highlight of the twins’ careers, was Operation Cerberus in February 1942. More famously known as the Channel Dash, the twins sailed through the English channel, in broad daylight, making it home safely despite late and impotent British attempts to stop them — completely undamaged by the British, although hilariously they were both damaged by German mines before making it all the way home, ensuring a long stay in port for repairs.
Something like Operation Cereberus occuring in any enemy’s backyard would have been embarrassing for that opponent, but it happened under the noses of what was then the supreme naval power: Great Britain. Indeed, the message Germany seemed to be broadcasting to the world was “Britannia cannot even rule its own waves.”
Unfortunately only rough times were ahead for the twins now. As already mentioned both ships hit mines on their way to port at Wilhelmshaven, meaning lengthy repair times. Over the next several months massive R.A.F. raids against them while they were still in dry dock took their toll: one did so much damage to Gneisenau her turrets would have to be replaced, so the Germans decided to go ahead and up the firepower to 380mm main guns. The only problem was that there weren’t any 380mm guns available — instead she would never go to sea again, constantly awaiting her refit before being scuttled in 1945 for use as a blockship, an inglorious end if ever there was one.
Scharnhorst on the other hand was repaired. Kurt-Caesar Hoffmann, who had been Scharnhorst‘s captain for the first half of the war during all of her success, was promoted to Admiral and sent to command all German naval forces in the Baltic after the success of the Channel Dash, replaced as captain by Friedrich Hüffmeier. Hitler was concerned about a possible Allied invasion of Norway, and so Scharnhorst was ordered to northern Norway, although it took multiple attempts (and a collision with a submarine) she was able to break out of the North Sea to northern Norway in March 1943 where she would join other German warships for both defending Norway and for use against the Allied Arctic convoys to Russia.
When Scharnhorst sailed to Norway she arrived in the Narvik area and joined the heavy cruiser Lützow and battleship Tirpitz at anchor in mid March. One week later all three ships sailed through the Barents Sea to Alta Fjord in the northernmost region of Norway. This would be Scharnhorst’s home for the next nine months. Most of this time was very quiet as the Allies had suspended the Artic convoys leaving only the occasional sortie for training maneuvers until Autumn to keep Scharnhorst active, otherwise she might as well have been a massive Nordic hotel.
It wasn’t until September that Scharnhorst got to see action again. That month she participated in a raid (Operation Zitronella) on the arctic island of Spitzbergen along with the much larger Tirpitz and nine destroyers. The goal was to destroy the Norwegian outposts and weather stations on the island and place their own, similar to what the Allies had done much in Operation Gauntlet. The force left Alta Fjord on September 6th and began leading troops at Spitzbergen early in the morning on the 9th. Scharnhorst and Tirpitz got into a fire fight with the coastal batteries defending the island (40mm bofors AA guns and 4” coastal guns) and quickly silenced them before landing troops at Barentsburg and further up the fjord (another event captured on film) to destroy the coal deposits among other facilities on the island.
Despite a sortie from the British Home Fleet to intercept them, the German force returned to Norway and went back to wasting away at anchor.
Battle of the North Cape
As winter approached grave misfortune fell upon the northern fleet. Less than two weeks after Operation Zitronella the British launched their own Operation Source, an attack by British midget submarines on the two German battleships at Alta Fjord. Tirpitz was crippled during this attack, leaving Scharnhorst as the only operational Kriegsmarine battleship. Later in October 1943, Hüffmeier was replaced as captain of Scharnhorst by Fritz Hintze, and most of her crew from previous operations were cycled out to other, more active ships, who were in turn replaced with inexperienced sailors. These would all have a drastic effect on things to come