German Battleship Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst 1

Scharnhorst
(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.

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German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (left). On the christening platform, as the battleship Scharnhorst is launched at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, 3 October 1936. Among those also on the platform, just to the right of Hitler, are General Werner von Blomberg and Admiral Erich Raeder.

 

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Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939-1943). Ceremony on the ship’s after deck, with the Nazi-era naval ensign flying at the stern, circa early 1939. This may be the ship’s commissioning ceremony on 7 January 1939. Note snow on shore in the distance, stern anchor, and decoration on the ship.

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

HMS Hunter, Sunk During First Battle of Narvik 10 April 1940, Found in One Thousand Feet of Water – Part 19

 

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German battleship Scharnhorst sunk by the Royal Navy 26 December 1943 in the Battle of the North Cape.

Fearing the British could detect her radar waves, Scharnhorst proceeded without using her radar. Since her destroyer screen could not maintain station on the fast moving battleship because of heavy weather, the ship just left them behind, not reducing her speed. This had the effect of leaving the Scharnhorst completely blind. Literally out of nowhere fourteen inch shells from HMS Duke of York bracketed the Scharnhorst.

She was pounded into a flaming wreck by the radar controlled main-battery fire of the RN battleship HMS Duke of York, flagship of the British Home Fleet, and her heavy cruiser escort.

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Gun crews of HMS Duke of York under the ship’s 14 inch guns at Scapa Flow on 1 January 1944 after the sinking of the German warship Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943.

It is an interesting commentary on the utility of battleships in the modern era that HMS Duke of York was in commission less than ten years (1941-1951) before being withdrawn from service. She was broken up in 1957. She was a King George V class battleship of which five were built: HMS King George V, HMS Duke of York, HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Anson, and HMS Howe. All five were gradually withdrawn from service and scraped by 1957.

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Waves crashing over the bow, HMS Duke of York steaming at 20 to 25 knots during an Arctic convoy, PQ-12, to Russia (photographed from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious). Date 2 – 9 March 1942.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Wikipedia, and Wikipedia.]

HMS Hunter, Sunk During First Battle of Narvik 10 April 1940, Found in One Thousand Feet of Water – Part 18

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Wreck of German Destroyer Anton Schmitt in Narvik Harbor. Seen from the starboard bridge wing towards the bridge.

These new German destroyers which the Third Reich began building in the mid-1930s never fulfilled their promise. One of their major problems plain and simple: bad design. This was confirmed to me in an interview conducted on 22 January 2013 with Timothy Mulligan, PhD, world authority on the Kriegsmarine and U-Bootwaffe.

Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: The Men of Nazi Germany’s U-Boat Arm, 1939-1945 is a five star must read for anyone with an interest in the German U-Bootwaffe. There are a lot of amateur historians out there who have written a lot of nonsense on this subject. You will be enlightened and surprised by this book by professional historian and government archivist Tim Mulligan. The book is meticulously researched with every fact coming from the official records of the German U-Bootwaffe and personal surveys of surviving U-Boat officers undertaken by Mulligan.

Lone Wolf: The Life and Death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke has just been re-issued in paperback by the US Naval Institute Press, which has the odd habit of constantly letting its books go out of print. This is also a five star must read, both for the absolute meticulous nature of the research and for the fascinating figure of Werner Henke, the only German U-Boot Kommandant killed on American soil.

I had the true pleasure on Tuesday January 22nd of meeting and interviewing one of the two world authorities on the Kriegsmarine/U-Bootwaffe, Timothy P. Mulligan, PhD (the other being Jak P. Mallman-Showell). As a historian, Dr. Mulligan spent his career as an archivist with the US National Archives where he specialized in captured German naval records, German military records, as well as World War Two era US military and naval records. As a fluent German speaker, Dr. Mulligan read a huge volume of these records, including original copies of German war diaries.

Dr. Mulligan confirmed that the German destroyers were badly designed in a number of ways, one of the most egregious flaws being the destroyers were terrible “sea boats.” They took green water over their bows even in moderate weather which would cover the decks and seep below. And when I say ‘cover the decks’ I mean cover the open decks with water as far back as the stern, where men working on the depth charge racks could be up to their waists in swirling water from time to time. (A problem on the Graf Spee and her sister ships as well.) The Kriegsmarine had hoped to use these destroyers in the Atlantic but their inability to proceed in heavy weather made this impossible. (This is especially relevant in the Scharnhorst disaster when her destroyer screen could not steam at even moderate speed in the heavy seas and Scharnhorst just left them behind.)

Senior Kriegsmarine officers were so concerned about this flaw they had the destroyers dry-docked and their bows rebuilt to a new design they called the “Atlantic bow.” This did little to solve the problem according to Dr. Mulligan.

[Image courtesy of Z 22 Anton Schmitt.]

German Battleship Scharnhorst

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

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. Collected below are photographs of the Scharnhorst during the Norwegian campaign.

Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View on board, looking forward, while the ship was at sea in 1940. Probably taken during the Norwegian campaign, in April or June 1940. Note air identification marking on her fore deck. The ship is cleared for action, with deck edge stanchions and lifelines taken down.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) in the left middle distance with battleship Gneisenau at left and heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in right center. The warships are in a Norwegian port, probably Trondheim, in June 1940.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) firing her forward 283mm guns, during the engagement with the British aircraft carrier Glorious and her escorts, 8 June 1940. Photographed from the battleship Gneisenau.

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