German Battleship Scharnhorst

I have written in greater depth about the German battleship Scharnhorst.

The streak of bad omens for the Scharnhorst continued when her first commander went on prolonged sick leave after only a short tenure on the ship. Finally, in November 1939, Scharnhorst began her first operation along with her sister ship Gneisenau, with whom she operated throughout the majority of her career.

Scharnhorst‘s first operation was a sortie into the North Atlantic between Iceland and the Faroe Islands where she sank the British axillary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi. (You can read my account of this battle here.) This mission was intended to take British pressure off of the Admiral Graf Spee operating in the South Atlantic and was conducted prior to major training.

After her return to Wilhelmshaven for minor repairs from splinter damage resulting from her first mission, Scharnhorst spent the winter of 1939-40 in the Baltic Sea for gunnery training. This proved to be a longer training session than normal since heavy ice kept Scharnhorst trapped in the Baltic until February 1940. Collected below are photographs of the Scharnhorst from her winter gunnery practice.

Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View looking aft on the foredeck, with anchor handling gear in the foreground and two triple 283mm gun turrets beyond. Taken during the winter of 1939-40, at Kiel. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 9.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View of the after 283mm (11″) triple gun turret and its aircraft catapult, circa winter 1939-40. View looks forward, with the tripod mainmast and naval ensign in the background. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 14.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Detail view of the rangefinder hood on the right side of the after 283mm (11″) gun turret, during the winter 1939-40. View looks forward, with the ship’s mainmast and flag visible in the background. Note light coating of snow or ice on the turret. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View from the forward superstructure, looking toward the bow, as the ship throws spray while underway during the winter of 1939-40. Note ice accumulated on her triple 283mm (11″) gun turrets. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Firing her forward 283mm (11″) guns, during exercises in the winter of 1939-40. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.

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

Two Minutes To Live

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjörður in May 1942 before the sailing of Convoy PQ-17 (which was decimated by German forces after the Admiralty on 4 July 1942 ordered the escort to ‘scatter’). Behind the destroyer HMS Icarus (front left) is the Russian tanker SS Azerbaijan.
Aboard HMS Sheffield during an Arctic Convoy Escort Patrol in December 1941 during the short time each day that the sun is seen during winter. In the background are merchant ships of the convoy.
Ice forming on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield whilst she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia.

Convoys to the USSR formed up in Iceland and proceeded north in waters so cold you had only two minutes to live if your ship was torpedoed and you ended up in the water instead of a lifeboat. Two minutes. That’s why the letters “PQ” put the fear of God into mariners during the Second World War. Why? Because this two letter prefix was the code used to designate an outbound convoy to the Soviet Union.

Like many things in life, the two letters were chosen on the fly. Commander Russell of His Majesty’s Royal Navy was the Admiralty planner charged with organizing the first supply convoy to the Soviet Union. A convoy code prefix was needed and needed quickly. So the initials of Commander Russell’s first (Peter) and middle (Quellyn) names were used and these convoys were designated as “PQ.” When the ships came back from the Soviet Union the convoy prefix was changed to “QP.” (Source: Convoy: Merchant Sailors At War 1939-1945 by Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie.)

The PQ convoys steamed from Hvalfjörður, a fjord in northwest Iceland. The fjord is 30km in length and 5km in width. What is unusual about this anchorage is that the weather was so appalling that even in this protected fjord, anchored ships would keep steam up. The wind could blow so strongly that ships would often have to steam ahead at one or two knots. This action did not move forward, the wind was too strong, but it kept them from dragging their anchors. And this was just the beginning of the journey. It went downhill from there.

After leaving Hvalfjörður, convoys would steam northeast into the Norwegian Sea. Norway had been seized by Germany in April of 1940 so once the convoys had steamed for a day or two they were in range of German airfields in Norway. The Luftwaffe mounted sustained attacks against these Allied convoys and sank dozens of merchant ships over the course of the war. (A total of one hundred five Allied merchant ships were sent to the bottom by a combination of attacks by U-Boats and aircraft.)

Arctic convoys steamed all the war around Norway, gradually turning east into the Barents Sea and then steaming southeast to Murmansk, the only Russian port which remained ice free year round. The destination was no safer than the journey since Murmansk was less than twenty minutes flying time from German lines. The Luftwaffe pounded the anchorage in Murmansk constantly. Merchant crewmen and military armed guard detachments had to man their anti-aircraft guns twenty-four hours a day.

It was a brutal campaign and everyone who participated in the Arctic convoys has said either in writing or verbal interviews that the Germans were not the worst enemy – if that’s possible – the worst enemy was the cold.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]