Sixty-six years ago today, two British naval task forces intercepted the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst as she attempted to attack two Murmansk-bound convoys. In a running fight with HMS Duke of York, a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers, and nine destroyers, Scharnhorst was sunk with the loss of more than 1,900 crewmen. The Battle of North Cape was fought in limited visibility, with Scharnhorst firing blindly for much of the fight. A fortuitous hit during an exchange with British cruisers earlier that morning had destroyed Scharnhorst’s radar mast.
The Royal Navy, equipped with functional radar and “flashless” powder, inflicted increasingly more serious damage to Scharnhorst through the course of the battle. Hits by 14-inch projectiles from Duke of York disabled Turret Anton, and eventually penetrated Scharnhorst’s armored belt. The hit at the belt destroyed No.1 Boiler Room and reduced her speed to 20 knots. The end came soon after, as Scharnhorst’s British pursuers pounded her with gunfire from 4.7-inch, 6-inch, 8-inch, and 14-inch guns. Illuminated under star shells fired by British cruisers, Scharnhorst fired back with her remaining 11-inch main and her secondary batteries. But without radar and in fading visibility, few hits were scored and no more major damage inflicted. Destroyers, including the Norwegian Stord, struck Scharnhorst repeatedly with torpedoes.
At approximately 1945, her sides stoved in and her topside a shambles, Scharnhorst rolled to starboard, and sank “with her propellers turning”. Only 36 crewmen were rescued from the freezing waters.
Designed like the “panzerschiffe” before her to outrun what she could not outgun, Scharnhorst and her equally famous sister Gneisenau were fast, powerful ships. When these two ships managed to break out into the Atlantic, they were perhaps the most successful of the Kriegsmarine’s commerce raiders, and their speed and armor made them tough opponents for all but the most powerful battleships.
Scharnhorst was known as “Lucky Scharnhorst” for her numerous successful forays into British-controlled waters (including the Channel Dash), and her ability to return often from these forays with significant damage. Due to be upgraded with six 15-inch guns in twin turrets in the place of her nine gun three-triple 11-inch battery, Scharnhorst was sunk before she could mount the new weapons. These would have increased her lethality significantly. In the end, though, the “lone wolf” raiders like Graf Spee, Bismarck, Scharnhorst, Tirpitz, and Gneisenau (heavily damaged and scuttled at Gdynia) did a small fraction of the damage inflicted by Donitz’s U-boat Wolf Packs.
There is a fitting final tribute to Scharnhorst, however. It came from Admiral Fraser, RN, commanding the British force. He told his gathered officers after the battle that, he hoped, “if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”.
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