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.

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.]

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.]