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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We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us – and that will be that. Goodbye.

HMS Rawalpindi
German Battleship Scharnhorst at sea, circa 1939
German Battleship Gneisenau in 1939

These are the last known words of Captain Edward Kennedy, RN, commanding His Majesty’s Ship Rawalpindi. They were spoken to the Chief Engineer of the ship who had come onto the bridge after hearing the call to action stations. Captain Kennedy explained the situation: they had been sighted by not one, but two German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

When World War Two broke out, the Royal Navy was desperately short of warships. A number of older passenger liners were taken over by the Royal Navy, given rudimentary armament of a handful of old 6 inch guns, turned into “Armed Merchant Cruisers,” and sent to patrol critical sea lanes. One could hardly call them warships. They were unarmored, could not steam very fast, and were manned with untrained reservists. But the Royal Navy needed warships and so warships they became, if only in the imagination of the Admiralty.

23 November 1939 found HMS Rawalpindi in the middle of the Denmark Strait, a body of water between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The Denmark Strait was the best routing available to German warships trying to break out into the Atlantic. (The Bismarck took this same route in May of 1941 and sank HMS Hood in the Battle of the Denmark Strait.)

While different histories give different times and distances, the following is the best reconstruction I can come up with. Confusingly, German warships would have been using German war time – which was GMT plus two – to record entries into the log. However, they didn’t always do this.

1507 hrs. – Visibility is good and the sea is measured at Force 5 on the Beaufort scale. Here the records differ but the Scharnhorst spots the Rawalpindi at 22 to 25 kilometers.

Scharnhorst to Fleet Commander: “Large steamer sighted on parallel course…a large ship…two masts…one funnel.”

The German Fleet Commander, Vice-Admiral Marschall, was aboard the Gneisenau. He orders Scharnhorst to change course, increase speed, and investigate.

1532 hrs. – At a range of 21,000 yards or 19.2 kilometers, Scharnhorst ascertains the ship is probably a British armed merchant cruiser and goes to action stations.

1533 hrs. – Scharnhorst to Fleet Commander: “Large merchant vessel. Course approximately 180 degrees. Vessel turning away. I am closing her.”

1535 hrs. – Scharnhorst to the merchant ship: “To British merchant cruiser — heave to. Do not use radio. Where from and where bound?…What ship? Do not use your wireless.”

Rawalpindi acknowledges the signal from the Scharnhorst but that’s all. Captain Kennedy turns slightly away and goes to his maximum speed 17 knots. Scharnhorst and her sister ship, Gneisenau, can both make over 31 knots.

Scharnhorst closes rapidly on the Rawalpindi which has begun signalling the Admiralty that she has spotted a German battleship.

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

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia, the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command, and Warships of World War Two.]

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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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