(German Battleship, 1939) Tied to a mooring buoy in Wilhelmshaven Harbor, circa 1939, as men in a boat push off from her bow. Note anchors, ship’s badges on her bow and on the boat, and paired cables running down from her starboard bow chock. In mid-1939, Scharnhorst’s bow was greatly modified from the configuration seen here.
Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 15. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
The German Battleship Scharnhorst was the lead ship of her class which included just one other ship, the Gneisenau. She was laid down in June 1935, launched in October 1936, and commissioned in January of 1939. Her January 1939 sea trials identified a design flaw in the bow which caused flooding in the bow and forward gun turret during heavy seas. In response, within a few months of commissioning, Scharnhorst went back to the dockyard for six months of refit including the fitting of an “Atlantic bow.”
In November of 1939, the German Naval War Staff (Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine or OKM) sent Scharnhorst on 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.
Scharnhorst then went on to participate in Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Denmark and Norway. In April 1940 in the North Sea, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau faced off against the British battlecruiser HMS Renown. Scharnhorst suffered from malfunctions while Gneisenau took two direct hits and both ships used their superior speed to escape back to Kiel for repairs. In June, the two ships returned to the North Sea to disrupt British supply lines to Norway. The sister ships faced off against and sank the British carrier HMS Glorious and her two destroyer escorts. This action is notable since Scharnhorst achieved one of the longest range naval gunfire hits in history at a range of ~25,000 meters. Scharnhorst was damaged enough during the encounter to need temporary repairs prior to returning to Germany and survived numerous attacks from the RAF over the two weeks it took her to return to Kiel where her repairs required six months dock time.
Scharnhorst then participated in Operation Berlin which involved convoy raiding in the Atlantic with her sister ship. This action encompassed two separate raids lasting throughout early 1941 under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, who later commanded the Bismarck on her fateful voyage, and ultimately resulted in both ships being in port undergoing repairs when the Bismarck left for the North Atlantic.
In early 1942, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen all took part in Operation Cerberus, also known as the Channel Dash, where the three ships fled back to their home ports from France through the English Channel. Damaged from several mines during this action, the Scharnhorst spent four months in Kiel being repaired.
Finally, Scharnhorst went to Norway in early 1943 to join in the raids on Allied convoys to the Soviet Union. In December 1943, she led a raid against a convoy and was sunk in the Battle of the North Cape. Collected below are photographs of the Scharnhorst during her launch and commissioning.
[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]