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Death in the Arctic: The Sinking of the Scharnhorst at North Cape

Schlachtschiff Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was the Second Day of Christmas or as it is also known, the Feast of St. Stephen.

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorrow, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarineof the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred; Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed due to Hitler’s anger after the failure of a German task force during the Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942.

scharnhorst2Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

eeb893a0b92de4ae595de56fe0fd90caScharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenauwas further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

Admiral_Bruce_Fraser_1943_IWM_A_16489Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of EnigmaFraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_mapScharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

scharnhort_operation_ostfront_5Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

6050465664_e1f42ac7f8_oHMS Duke of York firing her main battery

Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”

While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered on October 3rd 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Scharnhorst_survivors_A_021202Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that 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”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea

The Battle of North Cape: The Death of the Scharnhorst

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few days I have posted a number of articles dealing with the tragedy of war during the Christmas season and I am continuing that on this day which is often called the Second Day of Christmas or the Feast of St. Stephen.

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorry, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Scharnhorst in port

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarineof the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

scharnhorst2

Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

eeb893a0b92de4ae595de56fe0fd90ca

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenauwas further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

Admiral_Bruce_Fraser_1943_IWM_A_16489

Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of EnigmaFraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_map

 

Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

scharnhort_operation_ostfront_5

Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

6050465664_e1f42ac7f8_o

HMS Duke of York firing at Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”

While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Scharnhorst_survivors_A_021202

Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that 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”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011

Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea

Death in the Arctic: Scharnhorst at North Cape

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorry, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Scharnhorst in port

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

scharnhorst2

Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

eeb893a0b92de4ae595de56fe0fd90ca

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenau was further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

Admiral_Bruce_Fraser_1943_IWM_A_16489

Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of Enigma Fraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_map

 

Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

scharnhort_operation_ostfront_5

Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

6050465664_e1f42ac7f8_o

HMS Duke of York firing at Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”

While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Scharnhorst_survivors_A_021202

Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that 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”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011

Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, world war two in europe

French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships

Richelieu in the 1950s

This is the second in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. This article covers the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. Part Three will deal with the British King George V Class and Part Four the American North Carolina and South Dakota Classes. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau . The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Dunkerque 1937

In the late 1920s the French Navy having concentrated on cruiser construction following the war realized the need to develop a class of Fast Battleships to counter the German Deutschland class Pocket Battleships but was limited by the Washington Treaty to just 70,000 tons which meant that in order to have a number of battleships that they would have to be smaller but still mount a significant armament. The new class of ship which the French termed a Fast Battleship was more like a battle cruiser being less heavily armed or armored than current battleships and less so than the new classes of ships being developed by other navies in the mid-1930s.  The Dunkerque class had a designed displacement of 26,500 tons and a top speed of 31 knots the ships mounted 8 13” guns in two quadruple turrets both mounted forward. This allowed all guns to fire forward during engagements to present the smallest possible silhouette to the enemy.  They employed all or nothing armor protection ensuring the strongest protection over vital spaces with their armor designed to protect the ships against German 11” gunfire from the Pocket Battleships or the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers. They also mounted a powerful dual purpose armament recognizing the need for defense against aircraft as well as surface ships.

Dunkerque Class:


Dunkerque was laid down on 24 December 1932, launched on 2 October 1935 and commissioned on 1 May 1937. Her sister Strasbourg followed and was laid down in 1934 and launched on 12 December 1936 and commissioned in 1939. When war was declared the two ships spent their time operating with the Royal Navy searching for German raiders and to escort convoys.

Strasbourg

When the Germans overran France in June 1940 the ships took refuge at Mers-el-Kibir where with other French Fleet units they were the target of the Royal Navy to keep them from being taken over by the Germans on 3 July 1940. Dunkerque was heavily damaged in the attack and sank with the loss of 210 sailors after being hit by 4 15” shells from the Battlecruiser HMS Hood and Battleships HMS Resolution and HMS Valiant a testament to their light armor protection.  Strasbourg escaped to Toulon with 5 destroyers where she joined the bulk of the French Fleet in the so called “Free Zone” of Vichy France. She was joined by Dunkerque following the completion of temporary repairs in February 1942.

Dunkerque entered drydock for permanent repairs and was there when the Germans occupied Vichy. Under threat of capture the Fleet was scuttled. Dunkerque was destroyed in drydock and declared a total loss. Both the Germans and Italians attempted scrapping operations and the wreck was further damaged by Allied bomber attacks.

The Hulk of the Dunkerque in1944

What was left of the hulk was refloated and finally scrapped in 1958. Strasbourg was scuttled but refloated by the Italian Navy in July 1943 and after the Italian surrender taken over by the Germans. Sunk again in an American air attack in August 1944 she was refloated and used as a test bed for underwater explosions until she was condemned.  She was sold for scrapping in 1955.

Richelieu Class


The Richelieu class was derived from the Dunkerque class in response to the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class.  With a standard displacement of 35,000 tons and a full load displacement of 48,950 tons the ships were the largest build for the French Navy until the commissioning of the Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle.  The ships shared the layout of the Dunkerque Class with their main battery of 8 15” guns mounted in quadruple turrets forward which like the Dunkerque’s allowed them to present the smallest silhouette possible to an opposing ship while being able to employ their entire main battery.   Their speed, protection and design were state of the art and comparable to their contemporaries in other navies.  They were capable of 32 knots at full speed and had a cruising range of 7671 miles at 20 knots.  The main battery was spaced far enough apart to ensure that a single hit could not put both turrets out of action and each turret was internally subdivided to prevent a single hit from knocking out all four guns. The mounted 9 6” dual purpose guns in three triple turrets aft and 24 4” AA guns in 12 twin-mounts located amidships.  During the war Richelieu was repaired and refitted in the US receiving 56 40mm Bofors AA guns in quadruple mounts and 48 20mm Oerlikon AA guns in place of her original 37mm cannons and 13.2 inch machine guns.

Richelieu arrives in New York in 1943

Richelieu was laid down in October 1935, launched in January 1939 and began sea trials in January 1940. When the Germans broke through the French defenses and threatened Brest Richelieu put to sea to French North Africa and was commissioned in June at Dakar. She was damaged by an aerial torpedo launched by a Swordfish Torpedo bomber from the HMS Hermes and received emergency repairs in Dakar. On 24 September she fought an engagement against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Dakar and was damaged by two 15” shells fired by the HMS Barham and was further damaged by a misfire in one of her turrets. Following the French return to the Allied camp she was sailed to New York for major repairs and modernization from January to November of 1943. Following this she operated with the British Home Fleet until March of 1944 when she was sent to the India Ocean to serve with the British Far East Fleet in operations against the Japanese until the end of the war. Following the war she took part in the initial stages of the campaign in French Indochina. She was placed in reserve in 1956 and struck from the Navy list and scrapped in 1968.

The Damaged Jean Bart at Casablanca

Her sister Jean Bart was laid down in December 1936 and launched on 6 March 1940.  Only 75% complete with untested engines and only one of her main battery turrets and no secondary armament installed Jean Bart put to sea to escape the German advance and sailed to Casablanca.  The navy attempted to ship her second main battery turret on a freighter but that ship was sunk by a U-boat enroute to Casablanca. She was at Casablanca when the Allies invaded North Africa and was attacked by the U.S. Navy when the Vichy government refused to surrender on 8 November 1942.  She was engaged by the Battleship USS Massachusetts and aircraft from the carrier USS Ranger and was damaged by several bombs and shells from the 16” guns of Massachusetts. She engaged Massachusetts with her one working turret but scored no hits. On the 10th she opened fire on the USS Augusta and was attacked again by aircraft from the Ranger which damaged her so that she had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking.  She remained in Dakar for the duration of the war as it was not feasible to sail her to the United States for completion. Following the war it was suggested that she be converted to an aircraft carrier but that was rejected and she was completed as a battleship and commissioned in 1949.  She took part in the Suez crisis of 1956, was decommissioned in 1957 and finally sold for struck in 1969 and sold for scrap in 1970.

Jean Bart in the 1950s

Both the Dunkerque and Richelieu class were ships of unrealized potential due to the French surrender and the deep divisions between the Vichy and Free French governments.  Had circumstances been different they might have played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean during the war. Once wonders how they might have done in open combat with their Italian contemporaries or even the German Bismarck and Tirpitz. Instead they and their brave crews had to battle the Axis powers as well as former allies in circumstances in which all the cards were against them. One of Richelieu’s 15” guns is mounted on the waterfront at Brest as a memorial to these brave ships and the men that sailed them.

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The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships

Vittorio Veneto and Littorio

This is the first in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covers the Italian Vittorio Veneto class, Part Two the French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes, Part Three the British King George V Class and Part Four the American North Carolina and South Dakota Classes. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Technically many of these ships were constructed after the expiration of the treaties but since most of the navies at least attempted to maintain a façade of compliance with them most were officially listed as complying with the treaty restrictions.

The Washington Treaty placed a limit on the displacement and armament of battleships. The London Treaty continued them which limited the displacement of new ships to 35,000 tons with the main battery being limited to 16” guns. Each of the treaty signatories as well as the Germans who had been bound by the much more stringent Treaty of Versailles restrictions endeavored to build to the limit of the treaty and if possible skirt the limitations in terms of displacement which allowed them to increase protection as well as more powerful engineering plants.

The Royal Italian Navy had not completed a battleship design since the Andria Doria Class which were constructed between 1912 and 1915 and modernized given an extensive modernization between 1937 and 1940.  A subsequent class the Francesco Caracciolo class was started during the First World War but no ships of the class were completed.

In the 1930s a new naval arms race was underway in the Mediterranean as the French Navy had begun a new class of Fast Battleships, the Dunkerque class which were designed to defeat the German Deutschland class “pocket battleships” and the follow on Richelieu Class. Mussolini saw the new French ships as a threat to the control of the Mediterranean and ordered the construction of a new class of battleships to help Italy achieve naval dominance in the Mediterranean.

The new ships were of a breathtaking design, large, fast and heavily armed officially listed as meeting the prescribed treaty limit of 35,000 tons they actually would displace 41,177 tons standard displacement and 45,963 tons full load. Armed with a main battery of 9 15” guns in triple turrets and a secondary armament of 12 6” and 12 3.5” guns along with 20 37mm and 30 20mm anti-aircraft guns and capable of 29 knots in service and with a relatively short range of 3900 miles at 20 knots they were formidable ships for operations in the Mediterranean. They were well protected although their Pugliese torpedo defense system proved inferior to traditional designs.

Their main armament though formidable was not without its flaws. The 15” guns had a very long range of 42 km or 26.6 miles and high muzzle velocity of 2900 fps. The high muzzle velocity led to a barrel life of only about half that of their counterparts and inconsistent shell fall patterns.  The guns also suffered from a slow rate of fire of only 1.3 rounds per gun a minute.

The Ships:

Vittorio Veneto in 1943

Vittorio Veneto: The Vittorio Veneto was laid down 1934 along with her sister the Littorio and was launched on 25 July 1937 and commissioned on 28 April 1940. She would see action numerous times and give a good account of herself against the British taking part in 56 war missions. She fought at the Battle of Cape Spartivento (Teulada) where she fired 19 salvos to drive off a 7 ship British cruiser squadron in a pitched battle that also included the battleship HMS Ramillies and battle cruiser HMS Renown. In 1941 she took part in the Battle of Cape Matapan where she was damaged by an aerial torpedo after driving off a British cruiser squadron. After repairs she was back in action and on 15 June 1942 participated in the Battle of Mid-June, where she and her sister ship Littorio successfully fenced off a large British convoy from Alexandria by their mere presence at sea.  She was also the first Italian battleship equipped with radar. She surrendered with the Italian fleet to the Allies on 8 September 1943 surviving furious German air attacks. She was interred at the Great Bitter Lakes in the Suez Canal. After the war she taken as war compensation and was returned to Italy and scrapped beginning in 1948.

Littorio

Littorio (later Italia): Littorio was laid down in 1934 and launched on 22 August 1937 and commissioned on 6 May 1940.  She participated in 43 operations including the Battle of Sirte and several actions against British convoys.  Following the Battle of Mid-June she was struck by an aerial torpedo dropped by a Wellington bomber. She was repaired and upon the removal of Mussolini from power was renamed Italia and surrendered with the Italian Fleet on 8 September 1943 being damaged by a Fritz-X radio controlled bomb. With her sister Vittorio Veneto she was interred in the Great Bitter Lake and was returned to Italy where she was decommissioned and scrapped beginning in 1948.

Roma

Roma: Roma was laid down 18 September 1938, launched on 9 June 1940 and commissioned 14 June 1942.  Despite her addition to the fleet she was not deployed due to a fuel shortage. She sailed with the Italian Fleet to surrender on 8 June under the guise of the fleet sailing to attack the Allied invasion fleet off Salerno. The Germans discovering the ruse launched air attacks by Dornier Do-217s armed with Fritz-X radio controlled bombs attacked the fleet as it transited the Strait of Bonafacio.

Roma exploding after being hit by Fritz-X radio guided bomb

Roma was hit by two of the missiles the first which flooded two boiler rooms and the aft engine room.  She was hit soon after by a second Fritz-X which hit in the forward engine room causing catastrophic damage and igniting the number two turret magazine blowing the turret off the ship and causing the ship to capsize and break in two as she sank carrying 1255 of her crew including Admiral Carlo Bergamini to their death. Roma was the first ship sunk by a radio controlled bomb, the forerunner of our current air launched anti-ship missiles.

The Fritz-X Radio Guided Bomb

Impero: Impero was laid down but never completed and scrapped after the war.

The Vittorio Veneto class was a sound design and operationally successful against the Royal Navy and the brave sailors of the Regina Marina who manned these fine ships should not be forgotten.

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Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau

Scharnhorst

The naval architects of Germany in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

Gneisenau

The next and first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battleships which in reality were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US North Carolina class.  Only the British Hood was their superior in speed.

Gneisenau Main Battery

As built they displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

Scharnhorst in Action Against HMS Glorious

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

The Channel Dash Seen from Prinz Eugen

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  This was Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942 and involved the ships making a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy although both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenau was further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Gneisenau Sunk as Blockship

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia. On Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey the Scharnhorst set sail with several destroyers undertook Operation Ostfront and the ensuing battle became known as the Battle of North Cape. This was to be an attack on two Russia bound convoys; however the orders were intercepted and decoded by the British which allowed Scharnhorst to be intercepted by the battleship HMS Duke of York four cruisers and a number of destroyers as she closed with the convoy after Bey had detached his escorting destroyers.  While attempting to escape she received damage that impacted her speed and maneuvering capabilities and was sunk with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Thus ended the careers of two of the most beautiful ships to grace the seas, though their careers were short they both survived frequent heavy battle damage to return and fight again.  Perhaps their greatest weakness was the inability of the German Navy to provide them adequate escort and the Luftwaffe being unable to protect them against air strike while in port.

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