A Courageous Epic of World War Two at Sea



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


scharnhorst in heavy seas

Scharnhorst (German battleship, 1939-1943) Taking water over the bow while steaming in heavy seas, possibly during the Atlantic sortie of January-March 1941. A 150mm twin gun turret is in the foreground. This is a screened image, taken from a contemporary publication. It has some abrasion damage in the upper center. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

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If ten people witness an event, each will give a slightly different eyewitness report. The more emotionally extreme the event, the more the eyewitness accounts will differ. This doesn’t mean people are telling lies. It means that we each see an event through our own unique perception, shaped by our emotional makeup. What makes history so fascinating to me is the variation in accounts of people who each witnessed the same event yet give completely different accounts.

Nothing illustrates this better than my previous two posts on the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and HMS Rawalpindi. To be consistent, I used the account of the sinking which appears in Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett. While his version differs from other versions of the engagement, I had to pick one or I would have driven myself bats. I chose Barnett since he based his account on a translation of the log of the Scharnhorst produced after the war by British naval intelligence.

This is what we know for sure: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered HMS Rawalpindi and after repeated requests for the ship to stop and surrender, they both fired on her. However, there is disagreement over who fired first. Barnett says the Germans fired first. Others say differently. We know Rawalpindi hit Scharnhorst with at least one shell which may, or may not have, caused some German casualties.

In an eyewitness account prepared for the BBC’s oral history project, Royston Alfred Leadbetter, a steward on the Rawalpindi, says:

After a short while the German ships opened fire – one on each side of us… Our guns opened up in retaliation, and we hit one of the ships several times causing some casualties.

Yet Naval-History.net, a website which presents a summary of the war diary of the British Admiralty, doesn’t quite agree. They claim the Rawalpindi hit Scharnhorst with one 6-inch shell (not two) which exploded on the quarter deck causing some splinter casualties among the crew. However, neither Barnett nor German accounts mention casualties.

While the Admiralty war diary can be useful, every war diary has the following limitation: it only records what is reported to the command echelon keeping the war diary and when it is reported. If any of this information turns out to be incorrect, and it often is, no one goes back and corrects the war diary since the value of a war diary is to ascertain which facts commanders had at a certain time and what actions they took based on those facts whether the facts ultimately proved correct or not.

We know that Rawalpindi sank and that both German ships actually stopped and fished a number of British sailors out of the water. But there is disagreement over how many sailors the Germans rescued and how many sailors British ships later rescued.

Another controversy is the number of guns on the Rawalpindi. This should be easy to find out but the various histories don’t agree. Engage the Enemy More Closely states the Rawalpindi had four 6-inch guns but other histories say the Rawalpindi had eight 6-inch guns. Once again steward Royston Alfred Leadbetter of the Rawalpindi contradicts Barnett’s account by saying:

Our guns, eight 6-inch made around 1900, were standard for Armed Merchant Cruisers.

Finally we come to the times at which various things happened. These are all over the map. You can take your pick. Barnett says the Germans opened fire at 1604. Naval-History.net says 1603. The Scharnhorst website, which offers no footnotes, says 15:45. Wikipedia, also without footnotes, says Scharnhorst opened fire at 1703. Much of this confusion is a result of the differences in how ships kept time.

I correspond from time to time with the distinguished naval historian, Mr. Vincent O’Hara, author of numerous works of naval history including:

The German Fleet At War 1939—1945;

Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945;

On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War

and others, all of which I commend to you without reservation.

Mr. O’Hara specializes in “drilling down” to very fine detail: when did ships encounter one another; how many shells did they fire; at what range; how many hits did they get, etc. To write books with this kind of detail, the author has to have some way of reconciling all the various accounts. I asked him about the saga of the Rawalpindi, which he has not written about, and how in the world he managed to reconcile all the different accounts of the naval actions he wrote about. This is what he told me:

When I reconcile accounts of sea battles I first look at the type of evidence I have, how far removed it is from the actual events, its nationality and the vested interest of the source. In an ideal situation I’ll have reports filed by participants from both sides and some first person accounts as well. An acceptable situation is where I have accounts written by historians that had access to said reports…

Basically I build a timeline listing all major facts and when they occurred. I map every action, at least with a sketch. I trace the linage of secondary accounts. Secondary accounts are often based on one source and if you can find that and assess its reliability, that’s a help. On your blog piece, the number of 6-inch weapons on the British AMC is a good example. Where did Barnett get this from? People have repeated it. Is he the first source, or does some earlier source state that as well?

Once I have all the “facts” listed by time and source, I reconcile. Often it’s a judgment call. My experience is that the more information you have the better sense things make… It’s a lot of fun and I don’t feel the need to do crossword puzzles or play war games or anything like that.

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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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