North Cape, Norway December 26, 1943

On this date, the day after Christmas 1943, the German battle­ship (or battle­cruiser) Scharn­horst and her crew of 1,968 met their fate in the Battle of the North Cape off the northern tip of Norway. At 32,100 long tons, the sleek, 771‑ft, state-of-the-art war­ship with nine 11‑inch (28 cm) guns was laid down in 1935, christened in Octo­ber 1936, and com­mis­sioned into the Kriegs­marine (German fleet) in early 1939. In late Novem­ber of that year, less than three months after the Euro­pean War broke out over Germany’s inva­sion of Poland, Scharn­horst, along with her iden­ti­cal sister ship Gneise­nau, embarked on her first war­time patrol. Sinking a single mer­chant­man, the green­horn com­merce raiders escaped a British task force sent after them, arriving safely back in Wilhelms­haven, Germany’s main military port, on November 27, 1939.

Although fate smiled on the crew of the German war­ship in November 1939 and again in Febru­ary 1941 and twelve months later, it was fickle. When the ship was first being assembled in dry dock at Wilhelms­haven Naval Ship­yard in 1935, her supporting timbers abruptly gave way and the hull rolled onto her side. Sixty-one workers were killed and 110 injured. Three months passed before the hull was righted. Then, the night before the vessel was to be launched, her mooring lines snaped and she slid into the crowded Kiel harbor and smashed into two barges anchored in her path. On the flip side, Scharn­horst and Gneise­nau earned kudos from German Chan­cel­lor Adolf Hitler and Adm. Erich Raeder for sinking 21 Allied supply and mer­chant ships totaling 115,622 tons and cap­turing one between January and March 1941. The two com­merce raiders used their supe­rior speed to avoid a British task force bent on their destruc­tion, arriving on March 22 in the occu­pied French port of Brest. There Scharn­horst under­went engine repairs and both warships further repairs after suffering exten­sive bomb damage from a revenge­ful Royal Air Force. Nearly a year later, on Febru­ary 11–13, 1942, in heavy fog but under lucky stars, the two battle­wagons and their escorts suc­cess­fully pulled off a high-risk, day­light dash from Brest up the English Chan­nel to safety in Germany, escaping destruc­tion by British air and naval forces (bombers, torpe­do planes, destroyers, and torpe­do boats), though in Scharn­horst’s case incurring damage by striking two of the thou­sands of mines planted by both sides throughout the Channel and estuaries.

On December 25, 1943, Scharnhorst steamed out of her anchor­age in Alta Fjord (Alta­fjord) in Norway’s Far North. Alta Fjord was one of the anchor­ages from which the Kriegs­marine dis­patched raiding parties like Scharn­horst’s to inter­dict in­bound and out­bound Allied con­voys that delivered essen­tial supplies to the Soviet Union’s northern ports. The Royal Navy baited Rear Adm. Erich Bey, who com­manded Scharn­horst, with Soviet-bound Arctic convoy JW 55B, consisting of 19 cargo vessels escorted by 10 destroyers. The next day, Decem­ber 26, as Scharn­horst and her destroyer escorts searched out the convoy in poor weather and rough seas, two British cruisers detected the battle­ship off Norway’s Nord­kapp (North Cape). One of two 8‑in (20 cm) shells took out Scharn­horst’s forward radar, but the supe­rior speed of the battle­ship permitted her escape—and into the trap the British were laying. Just before 5:00 p.m. a British cruiser used para­chute flares to illu­mi­nate Scharn­horst , now absent her escorts, and, from 6.8 miles (10,900 meters) away, the British battle­ship HMS Duke of York opened fire with her 14‑inch (36 cm) cannons. Addi­tional shell­fire and torpedo hits from Duke of York and British and Nor­wegian war­ships pul­verized Scharn­horst. At 7:45 p.m. the German battle­ship turned propel­ler up and slid under the surf­ace. Just 36 sailors out of 1,968 aboard Scharnhorst survived the harrowing sinking.

Battle of the North Cape: Scharnhorst

Above: German battleship (Schlachtschiff) Scharnhorst at anchor some­time before August 1939, when her straight stem, low bow was replaced by a con­cave “Atlan­tic bow.” Two months later the war­ship was fully oper­a­tional. With triple steam tur­bines and triple three-bladed pro­pel­lers nearly 16 ft in dia­meter, Scharn­horst could out­run any pur­suing British capi­tal ship sent against her. At a cruising speed of 19 knots (22 mph), the war­ship had a maxi­mum range of 7,100 nau­ti­cal miles (8,200 miles); her sister ship, Gneise­nau, had a reduced maxi­mum range of 6,200 nau­ti­cal miles. Enabling Scharn­horst’s renown speed were her smaller naval guns, nine 11‑inch (28 cm) quick-firing guns (3.5 rounds per minute) in three 750‑ton triple turrets, two for­ward and one aft (see photo), com­pared with the newest and heavier British battle­ships with their 14‑in (36 cm) guns. The mas­sive British armor-piercing shells (1,590 lb) made for a dead­lier impact farther from their target. Scharn­horst’s main turret shells weighed between 727 lb and 694 lb depending on type. Her second­ary arma­ment con­sisted of twelve 5.9‑in (15 cm) quick-firing guns mounted in four twin turrets and four ped­es­tal mounts. There were also anti-aircraft bat­te­ries. In addi­tion, Scharn­horst had six 21‑in (53.3 cm) deck-mounted torpe­do tubes and 18 tor­pe­does after 1942 as well as three Arado Ar 196 cata­pult-launched recon­nais­sance float­planes. Scharn­horst had a crew of between 56 to 60 officers and 1,613 to 1,780 enlisted men.

Battle of the North Cape: HMS Duke of York, 1942Battle of the North Cape: Scharnhorst survivors, Scapa Flow, Scotland, 1-2-44

Left: Waves crash over the bow of HMS Duke of York as the power­ful new British battle­ship (launched 1940) steams at 20–25 knots (23–28.7 mph) during Arctic con­voy PQ 12 from Reykja­vik, Ice­land, to Mur­mansk in the Soviet Union. No ships were lost to the enemy in this out­bound convoy, although the Bismarck-class battle­ship Tirpitz (15‑in/­38 cm guns in four twin turrets) and three escorting destroyers were intent on wreaking havoc on PQ 12. From August 1941 to May 1945, with two inter­ruptions, 78 Arctic con­voys con­sisting of some 1,400 mer­chant ships escorted by air­craft and war­ships of the British Royal Navy, Royal Cana­dian Navy, and the U.S. Navy pro­vided valu­able mili­tary equip­ment and other supplies for the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. Scharn­horst and Tirpitz forced the British to retain signif­i­cant air and naval forces in the region to con­tain the two com­merce raiding battle­ships. (Other dangers took the form of the battle­ship Gneise­nau, the pocket battle­ship Luetzow, and heavy cruisers Prince Eugen, Admiral Hipper, and Admiral Scheer.) Scharn­horst was sunk by the Royal Navy in a night action on Decem­ber 26, 1943, off Norway’s North Cape, and Tirpitz was sunk by the Royal Air Force using bunker-busting Tall­boys on Novem­ber 12, 1944, at her anchorage near the Norwegian city of Tromsø.

Right: Toward the end of the day, Decem­ber 26, 1943, HMS Duke of York had scored seve­ral direct hits on her German prey, Scharn­horst, using her ten 14‑inch (36 cm) guns. Duke of York’s first salvo dis­abled Scharn­horst’s forward-most (A) turret. Another shell deto­nated in the No. 1 boiler room, causing the heavy war­ship to limp ahead at 8 knots (9.2 mph). Sensing his ship’s end, Adm. Bey radioed Fleet Com­mand: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.” Less than a half hour later, British and Nor­wegian destroyers had caught up with Scharn­horst, pouring shells and torpe­does into the stricken ship. At 7:00 p.m., from 5.9 miles (9,500 meters) away, Duke of York lobbed more salvos into the dying enemy. A round of 19 torpe­does finally sank Scharn­horst shortly before 8 p.m. Thirty-six survivors, shown blind­folded disem­barking at Britain’s Scapa Flow naval base in Scot­land on Janu­ary 2, 1944, were plucked from the frigid water before British ships were ordered away, even while shipwreck men could be heard crying out for rescue.

Documentary Featuring the Career of the German Battleship Scharnhorst