Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today is the Second Day of Christmas or as it is also known, the Feast of St. Stephen; and Boxing Day, oh for the days of Ali and Frazier… but I digress…
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.
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 true capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were classed as battleships by the Germans, but 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. In fact, their main battery was 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.
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.
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
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 to set the trap in motion.
Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. But Bey was new to command, he had been promoted to Konteradmiral on the day the force sailed, having taken the place of Admiral Oskar Kummetz who had left for Germany to take a long convalescent leave. Bey was an experienced commander, but all of his experience was on destroyers. He was a torpedo expert, but had never served aboard a battleship, or even a cruiser, and he was a a novice when it came to the large caliber guns aboard the Scharnhorst. His position was made worse by the fact that the task force staff had been thinned out by the Navy, for few expected it to be sent in combat.
However, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, had decided that given the right conditions, specifically that an exposed convey without heavy support which could be engaged with a high degree of success could be attacked. This convoy was JW-55B, which had been spotted by a German weather observation aircraft on the 22nd Of December. However, the weather was so foul that no further spotting of it or any other British ships was made. There was no question that further air reconnaissance was possible, Berlin was satisfied that the convoy had no support, as German Historian Wolfgang Zank wrote that Berlin followed its motto: “Was nicht gemeldet wird, ist auch nicht da” or “What isn’t reported, isn’t there.”
Bey wasn’t convinced while still transiting Alta Fjord, he radioed Berlin to inform the high command of how the weather would interfere with the operations of his five destroyers, after all he was a destroyerman and had commanded destroyers in such weather. He was attempting to get the mission called off, but Berlin insisted on the attack. Dönitz replied “I believe in your attacking spirit. Sieg Heil!” With no recourse, Bey put to sea.
However, his destroyers could not keep pace with Scharnhorst so Bey detached them and sailed alone to fight the enemy.
Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course. This action caused Bey to find nothing where he expected the convoy to be, but he did encounter and engage at long range Fraser’s cruisers including HMS Norfolk, HMS Sheffield both veterans of the the hunt for and sinking of the Bismarck and the HMS Belfast. Scharnhorst’s guns damaged the heavy cruiser Norfolk, but the radar directed fire of the British cruisers landed a hit which knocked out her search radar leaving the German ship virtually blind as the weather worsened and darkness set in.
Bey, thinking he had shaken his pursuers, set course for Alta Fjord at full speed, however, Belfast had maintained contact and Fraser with Duke of York closed the distance and at 1617 her radar picked up the German at a range of 45,500 yards. By 1632 she was 29,700 yards away. Scharnhorst was oblivious to the danger, and at 1648 Belfast illuminated the German ship and Duke of York opened fire at just under 12,000 yards scoring hits which disabled Scharnhorst’s forward turrets and destroyed her airplane hanger. Bey changed course and increased speed, briefly opening the range and momentarily giving the Germans hope, but that was not to be.
At 1820 Duke of York struck a devastating blow on the German ship. A 14” shell pierced the armored belt and exploded in Scharnhorst’s number one boiler room reducing her speed to just 10 knots. Quick repairs were made enabling the ship to steam at 22 knots, but now she was vulnerable to torpedo attacks by the British destroyers.
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.
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.
HMS Duke of York underway, and 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 surprise by their appearance. 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 Scharnhorst attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as being punished 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 at least 13 hits by Duke of York’s 14” shells and numerous torpedo hits, incapable of further resistance, the German ship capsized and sank, her massive screws still turning at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew. Admiral Bey was not among the survivors, though he was spotted in the water
As she sank bow first survivors attempted to abaneon ship. Günter Sträter, who survived amd was rescued noted:
“In the water now the sailors were looking to get the rafts”,… those who found a place on the rafts sang both verses of the song: ‘On a sailor’s grave, there are no roses blooming.’ I did not hear cries for help. It all happened exactly and without panic. “
Survivors were rescued by the British destroyers HMS wreck was discovered on October 3rd 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway. Of the ships engaged, only HMS Belfast survives, as a museum ship in the Thames River in London.
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.
Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel and the HMS Belfast moored as a Museum ship in the Thames River, London
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, in fact I expect them and predict that the United States Navy will see its share of nautical disasters when it faces well equipped and trained opponents.
All that being said, I really do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to do so again.