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The fate of the Scharnhorst

By Sakhal

The Scharnhorst is another example of the limitations that Germany had for its rearmament because of the Treaty of Versailles. The most important deficiencies of this battleship (which was actually a battlecruiser) lied in her armament, on which the projectists lacked continued experience. But despite the difficulties, this ship - whose life ended on the last days of 1943 during the Battle of Cape North - managed to put out of action one aircraft carrier and two destroyers of the Royal Navy. This article covers the typology of this remarkable warship, her historial and her difficult position in the Kriegsmarine, which was being overwhelmed by the Allied sea and air power during the last years of the war.

In 1932, France had laid down the "fast battleship" Dunkerque, which caused the "pocket battleships" (Panzerschiff) of the Deutschland class to become outclassed. In 1928 the Germans had prepared the plans for a ship of 19300 tonnes of standard displacement armed with three triple 280-millimeter turrets, even if these characteristics could have went against the dispositions from the Treaty of Versailles. Circa 1932 she was projected another "Panzerschiff" ship armed with four twin 305-millimeter turrets, three triple 150-millimeter turrets and four anti-aircraft cannons. Her 160000 horsepower could have provided a speed of 34 knots, but her armor was too weak.

The project of the Scharnhorst was made officially for a ship of 26410 tonnes of standard displacement with armor of medium thickness, three twin 380-millimeter turrets, high speed and a reasonable operational range. Because of the lack of experience of the project team regarding large high-speed warships, the hull was based in the battleship Mackensen from the First World War. Unfortunately, due to the limited number of projects developed since 1918, no project of an artillery turret was valid and, considering that it would take longer to project and built turrets rather than ships, until 1938-1939 it was not possible to obtain twin turrets even if they were based in projects from the First World War.

However, four triple 280-millimeter turrets had been already ordered and they were in construction. Their destination would be the fourth and fifth ships of the Deutschland class, which had been already projected. Two more of those turrets were ordered and they were incorporated to the Scharnhorst project as a provisional measure, and it was thought to replace them by 380-millimeter turrets in later date. Initially it was intended to install the whole secondary armament in twin turrets, but the utilization of machinery of almost twice the power than in the Mackensen, even if it was of modern design, meant that there was no space available for the central turrets. Because of this were used four single 150-millimeter mountings, initially ordered for the fourth and fifth ships of the Deutschland class. The best characteristic of the project was the adequate provision of directors for the anti-aircraft armament, even if a better utilization of the weight could have been made by installing secondary armament of double purpose.

The Scharnhorst was fitted with lighter high-pressure machines, but these resulted notoriously unrealiable because they were installed hastily before being well tested. The utilization of turbines instead of Diesel engines, to achieve the high speed required, brought a reduced operational range. One of the characteristics from the Mackensen which was kept was the low freeboard in the prow, and even after the reconstruction with an "Atlantic" prow the forecastle resulted too wet. This put these ships in notable disadvantage while on rough waters, as it happened during the encounter with the HMS Renown and during the Battle of Cape North.

Despite the mixed origins of the project, the Scharnhorst was a class of powerful warships, but these could have been much improved if they had installed the 380-millimeter cannons, for the 280- millimeter ones were not adequate for facing even an outdated battleship. These ships performed some incursions with efficiency, even if often disturbed by failures in the machinery and the limited operational range. Besides, the German Admiralty insisted that they should not face any important enemy warship, even an outdated one, because their armor, specially the horizontal one, was totally inadequate for withstanding the heaviest grenades.

After 1939 the Gneisenau could be differentiated from the Scharnhorst by the different position of the main mast, placed immediately after the funnel. Her historial from 1942 was similar to that of the Scharnhorst. She was severely damaged by a bomb that shattered her prow, so it was projected to reconstruct her with a longer and more seaworthy prow, as well as with the 380-millimeter cannons. But eventually this project was abandoned and the ship was scuttled without being ever repaired.

The fate of the Scharnhorst

The Scharnhorst in February 1942, in the time of the very short incursions in the English Channel. Note the artillery radars in the superstructure, the extra 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons and the Arado seaplane.

Class: Scharnhorst (Gneisenau and Scharnhorst)

Built in: Wilhelmshaven Shipyards

Authorized: 1934

Keel laid: 16 May 1935

Launched: 3 October 1936

Completed: 7 January 1939

Reconstructed: July-September 1939

Fate: Sunk the 26th December 1943

Length (as built): 229.8 meters

Length (after reconstruction): 234.9 meters

Beam: 30 meters

Draught: 8.2 meters

Displacement (normal): 35400 tonnes

Displacement (full load): 39520 tonnes

Engines: Twelve Wagner boilers; Brown-Boveri steam turbines of simple reduction; three propellers

Power (total): 165000 shaft horsepower

Fuel load (normal): 2800 tonnes

Fuel load (maximum): 6300 tonnes

Speed (maximum): 32 knots

Operational range: 8400 nautical miles at 17 knots

Armor: 170-250 millimeters in main belt; 30 millimeters in ends; 50 millimeters in upper deck; 20-50 millimeters in armored deck; 150-360 millimeters in main turrets; 200-350 millimeters in barbettes; 50-140 millimeters in secondary turrets

Armament: Nine 280-millimeter 54-caliber cannons (3 x 3); twelve 150-millimeter 55-caliber cannons (4 x 2 plus 4 x 1); fourteen 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (7 x 2); sixteen 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (8 x 2); eight 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (twenty-two in 1943); six 533-millimeter torpedo tubes (2 x 3); four reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 1840

Service history

21-17 November 1939: Sortie in the North Sea with the Gneisenau.

23 November 1939: Sinks the British merchant ship Rawalpindi.

April-June 1940: Campaign in Norway. Operations with the Gneisenau.

8 June 1940: Sinks the British aircraft carrier Glorious and the destroyers Acasta and Ardent. Hit by a torpedo from the Ardent; turret C and part of the machinery out of action; 2500 tonnes of water flood the hull.

9 April 1940: Exchange of fire with the British battleship Renown in the rough waters of Norway.

13 June 1940: Hit by bombs dropped by aircraft from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

June-November 1940: Repairs in Kiel.

22 January-23 March 1941: Sortie to the Atlantic with the Gneisenau. Sinks 22 ships of a convoy protected by the British battleships Ramillies (8th February), Malaya (7th March) and Rodney (15th March), which never faced in combat.

23 March 1941 - 11 February 1942: In Brest.

24 July 1941: Hit by five bombs from British bombers.

11-13 February 1942: Short raids in the English Channel with the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen.

12 February 1942: Attacked by British aircraft and light units. Hit by mines. Seriously damaged.

15 February-October 1942: Repairs in Kiel.

March 1943: In Norway.

6-9 September 1943: Raid with the Tirpitz upon Spitzbergen.

22-26 December 1943: Sortie against the convoy JW 55B in route towards Russia.

26 December 1943: Battle of Cape North. Sunk by the British battleship Duke of York and the cruisers Norfolk, Sheffield, Belfast and Jamaica. Also by the destroyers Savage, Saumarez and Scorpion, and the Norwegian Stord. The Norfolk is damaged but the Scharnhorst is hit by at least thirteen 356-millimeter grenades and eleven torpedoes. Only 36 crew members survive.

Historial of the Scharnhorst

Launched in 1936, the battlecruiser Scharnhorst, as her twin Gneisenau, was one of the units built with a very modern criteria which should constitute the backbone of the reborn Kriegsmarine. She took her name from another battlecruiser which during the First World War had distinguished herself as one of the most powerful and robust units of the High Seas Fleet, and it seemed indeed that in this new war the name of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst would be kept in a high position. Already at the beginning of the war the new unit had started to get fame; the 23rd November 1939 she had sunk by gunfire the British merchant cruiser Rawalpindi and later, along with her twin Gneisenau, she had been used for the corsair war in the Atlantic. The results had been good, because during a single campaign the two ships managed to sink 22 enemy units. Later, the 22nd February 1942, the Scharnhorst, this time together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, had forced her way across the English Channel, in broad daylight and in front of the eyes of the British, to arrive to German docks departing from her base in Brest. The humilliation was big for the British, who from the times of the Spanish Armada had not seen enemy ships in the Channel.

After the success of her transfer, it was decided that the Scharnhorst operated from September 1942 in company of the battleship Tirpitz against the Allied convoys in the Atlantic. This decision was fatal for the excellent ship which, after enemy midget submarines had managed to damage the Tirpitz immobilizing her during several months, had to fight on her own. In the encounter of the 26th December 1943, after the attempt of intercepting the convoy JW 55B in route towards Russia, the Scharnhorst fell in a trap and found herself in front of the battleship Duke of York, one of the most modern British units, armed with ten 356-millimeter cannons versus the nine 280-millimeter cannons of the German battlecruiser. The fight was long, but in the end, as it was logical, the Scharnhorst had to succumb. To the ears of the mariners onboard the British destroyers that navigated the area to gather the castaways, weakly arrived words from an old song of the German Navy: "In the tomb of the mariner roses do not bloom". They were 36 survivors out of 1900 men, who kept united within the waves while singing. This was what remained from the crew of the ill-fated battlecruiser. Not even one officer was among them.

Bad times for the Kriegsmarine

The 2nd February 1943 were published a series of dispositions as part of the plan prepared by the chief of the German Navy to comply with the order given by Hitler for the disarming or scrapping of the warships considered by the Fuhrer as useless for a modern war. The first disposition referred to the "cesation of all the works in battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, aircraft carriers and troop transport ships, with exception of the ships destined to training. The cesation of the works comprises as well the weapons and equipment provided for these ships, but it will be regulated in such a way to prevent that an unexpected interruption of the works could affect the exterior". Among the ships included in this disposition were the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The dispositions specified that "the defensive power of the ships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst for repelling enemy landings would be considered more effective if it were possible to transfer these ships serving as mobile heavy batteries to the epicenter of the fight, rather than mounting their turrets in a certain point of the coast where they would have a limited effectiveness of local character".

Among the ships that were susceptible of disarmament were considered those that were not necessary for training the new promotions of officers and mariners, specially of the submarine weapon, and ships whose operative utilization would be required only for a limited time. Such would be the case of the Tirpitz in Norway and the Scharnhorst in the Baltic Sea. The fifth disposition indicated that in the date of its publishing (2nd February 1943) continued in operative service the following ships: in the area of Norway, the Tirpitz until the autumn of 1943 and the Lutzow and Nurnberg until the 1st August of the same year; in the area of the Baltic Sea, the Scharnhorst until the 1st July 1943 and the Prinz Eugen until the 1st May of the same year, to serve later as training ship.

The fate of the Scharnhorst

The pride of the Kriegsmarine. From top to bottom: battleship Bismarck in 1941, battlecruiser Scharnhorst in 1942, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in 1942 and heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in 1939.

Categories: Ships - Naval Warfare - World War Two - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2016-09-20

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