A Courageous Epic of World War Two at Sea

The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi Fights German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau

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1602 hrs. – At a range of 9,000 yards or 8.2 kilometers, Scharnhorst repeats: “Heave to!” and fires a warning shot across the bow of the Rawalpindi.

The Germans were puzzled. What in the hell was the Captain of the British ship thinking? To the credit of the Germans they signaled several more times before opening fire.

Scharnhorst: “Heave to!”

No response from Rawalpindi although the forward lookouts report to Kennedy that a second German battleship is coming up fast astern of Scharnhorst.

Scharnhorst: “Abandon your ship!”

Rawalpindi does not slow down and actually begins to drop smoke floats overboard in an attempt to create a smoke screen.

1604 hrs. – Scharnhorst opens fire with her main battery of 11 inch guns.

Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Firing her forward 283mm (11″) guns, during exercises in the winter of 1939-40.

1607 hrs. – Rawalpindi opens fire. One of her shells hits the Scharnhorst but bounces off the armor of the German ship.

Rawalpindi has been hit and is on fire.

1611 hrs. – Gneisenau opens fire.

Rawalpindi quickly becomes a flaming wreck.

1617 hrs. – Germans cease fire.

From Rawalpindi to German ships, signal repeated, “Please send boats.”

The Scharnhorst drops boats and they are on the scene in fifteen minutes but most of the crew is already dead. Killed in action. 270 British sailors perish. The Germans fish 27 British sailors out of the water. Another 11 are later rescued by a British cruiser which has steamed to the location. Captain Edward Kennedy, called out of retirement at age 60 to command Rawalpindi, is not among the survivors.

I’m sure Kennedy never thought of surrendering. No British warship had surrendered on the high seas in more than one hundred fifty years. He did what was expected in the Royal Navy: he closed with the enemy.

Writes historian Gerhard L Weinberg in A World At Arms: A Global History of World War Two (Four stars):

…evident in the first months of the naval war was the extraordinary willingness of British naval ships to run whatever risks seemed appropriate to fight it out regardless of losses in specific engagements.

I could not say it better.

Source: Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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