Scharnhorst in 1939, as completed with straight stem

Scharnhorst in 1939, as completed with straight stem

Scharnhorst with "Atlantic", or "clipper" bow and funnel cap. She was considered one of the most beautiful ships ever built in this configuration.

Scharnhorst with “Atlantic”, or “clipper” bow and funnel cap. In this configuration, she was considered one of the most beautiful warships ever to sail.

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.

The painting "Sinking of Scharnhorst" shows Duke of York and cruisers to starboard of the battlecruiser, Scharnhorst illuminated and being struck in the starboard bow by a torpedo from the destroyers running down her beam.

The painting “Sinking of Scharnhorst” shows Duke of York and cruisers to starboard of the battlecruiser, Scharnhorst illuminated and being struck in the starboard bow by a torpedo from the destroyers running down her beam.

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”.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in History, Navy

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    Nice story about a dramatic sea battle, nowadays often forgotten outside the UK. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s after-battle statement to his officers is truly memorable.

    Interestingly, HMS Duke of York and Fraser would turn up together again, this time in Tokyo Bay. DOY was flagship of the British Pacific Fleet and Fraser was CO, and also the signatory for the UK at the Japanese surrender ceremony. In fact the chairs used for the document signing came from Duke of York’s wardroom. They’ve been on display in the USNA Museum for decades.

  • Maineiac

    Good post, interesting story.

  • Chuck Hill

    It has always been difficult to classify Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Before and during the war they were classified as battlecruisers, because the Germans understated their displacement. Unlike other battlecruisers no protection was sacrificed for speed. In fact their protection scheme was very similar to that of the Bismark. While they were advertised as 27,000 tons, they actually displaced almost 35,000 tons standard.

    One of the reasons she found herself in this position was was that she has sailed without her signals intelligence team (B-Dienst) which might have warned her of the presence of Duk of York.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Excellent point. We speak of “information dominance”, and the British exhibited just what the term means IMHO. The Royal Navy was reading the Kriegsmarine’s mail, and was able to put Force 1 (BB Duke of York and CA Jamaica) and Force 2 (CLs Belfast, Sheffield, and Norfolk) right where they needed to be to intercept the German force. Admiral Bey had no such luxury, as the B-Dienst detachment was not aboard Scharnhorst.

    If I am not mistaken, the Germans classified Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as battleships almost immediately after their completion. The trade-off for speed was three 11-inch triple turrets instead of four twin 15-inch similar to the Badens of the last war and Bismarcks of their war.

  • Chuck Hill

    There was the plan to replace the 11 inchers with 15 inchers almost from the beginning but it was never a priority.

    Before the invention of Radar, ranges in the North Sea were generally limited by visibility. The Germans had generally sacrificed theoretical gun range for better armor, but with radar, the larger guns’ theoretical advantage was realized.

    Beautiful and successful ships. Not many battleships managed to sink an aircraft carrier.

  • Chuck Hill

    Of course if they had gone to 15 inch guns, they would have replace triple 11″ with twin 15″ turrets, leaving her with only 6 guns. Except in speed, they would have still been at a substantial disadvantage relative to other new 35,000 ton battleships, particularly the American ships with 9×16″.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Very true, but at least at conception, neither Gneisenau nor Scharnhorst was envisioned slugging it out with a dreadnought battleship, English or American. They were designed to outrun what they could not outgun. But for British SIGINT of the German Naval codes, and a 14-in hit at long range (the hit that destroyed No. 1 boiler room), it is likely Scharnhorst would have outrun her pursuers at North Cape as well.

    The only British vessels capable of catching these ships in 1940 were Renown, Repulse, and Hood. Both Renown and Repulse lacked the armor to stand up to the German units, particularly if they had been re-armed with 6×15-in guns. The British Rs only carried 6×15-in themselves. Hood, with 8×15-in, would have had her hands full with an opponent as well protected as Gneisenau or Scharnhorst with a 6×15-in main battery.

    Both the German ships could have outrun the US North Carolinas (28 knots and loads of vibrations), and the South Dakotas (26-27 knots) and would not have had, theoretically, to slug it out with either.