Check out the Pocket Battleship: Nazi Germany’s best warship in WWII?
Yes, there were definitely some really massive warships built in WWII. And yet, the so-called pocket battleship still gets a lot of attention in naval circles: Scharnhorst was far from the most heavily armed battleship deployed by the Kriegsmarine, but it was arguably the most successful. She and sister ship Gneisenau were laid down in 1935 with nine 283 millimeter guns with a range of twenty-five miles – significantly smaller than those on British battleships so as not to scare London about German rearmament.
Sometimes referred to as a “pocket” battleship, the Scharnhorst measured 234 meters, more than two football fields, and displaced forty-two thousand tons loaded with fuel, ammunition and a wartime crew of almost two thousand men. The ship’s three Swiss-built steam turbines enabled her to achieve broadside speeds of thirty-one knots or more, fast enough to outrun most warships. Indeed, the Scharnhorst was a battlecruiser designed to hunt and outmaneuver small ships rather than confront enemy battleships.
Scharnhorst’s guns were mounted in triple 750-ton turrets named Anton and Bruno at the bow and César at the stern. Twelve rapid-firing 150 millimeter guns provided additional firepower. The Scharnhorst’s two Seetakt radars, one forward and one aft, had a surface search range of about ten miles and were used primarily for gun laying. Three Arado 196 seaplanes served as the long-range “eyes” of the battlecruiser.
For air defense, the Scharnhorst also mounted seven twin 105-millimeter anti-flak turrets that could spit air-burst shells up to forty thousand feet high, and dozens of smaller thirty-seven and twenty millimeters for close defense. . She was well protected from long range blows by up to fourteen inches of Krupp cemented steel ringing her turrets, deck and hull. However, her two-inch deck armor was vulnerable.
Despite all her speed, the Scharnhorst was not very maneuverable and frequently returned to port damaged by heavy seas. During sea trials after her commissioning in January 1939, Scharnhorst’s bow took on so much water that she was quickly refitted with a flared “clipper style” bow.
Despite these flaws, the Scharnhorst proved to be much more than the other capital ships of the Kriegsmarine. On her first war cruise in November 1939 she sank the auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi. Then, in June 1940, the battlecruiser ambushed the carrier HMS Glorious, sinking it and two escorting destroyers, although Scharnhorst suffered a torpedo in combat.
As an outlaw continually thwarting justice, Scharnhorst was a notoriously “lucky” battleship, withstanding numerous British bomber attacks. In 1941 she managed to slip into the Atlantic and sink ten merchant ships, then escaped reprisals under cover of the sea gusts to call at Brest, France, where she was equipped with six torpedo tubes .
Badly damaged in an air raid in July 1941, Scharnhorst joined other German capital ships five months later in the famous “Channel Dash” which was staged under the nose of the British coastal defence, although it struck two mines in the process.
However, by 1943 German capital ships had fallen out of favor with Hitler after the Battle of the Barents Sea, a botched attack on an Arctic convoy carrying Allied aid for the Soviet Union. The Führer must have been dissuaded from scrapping all his capital ships.
As the Wehrmacht’s misfortunes in Russia mounted, in December 1943 Admiral Karl Donitz decided to attempt a surface sortie again targeting the Arctic convoys as they skirted German-occupied Norway and engaged Scharnhorst for the work.
However, not only were the British listening to Donitz’s radio messages, but the commander of the Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser, was already planning to lure the Scharnhorst into battle. Although the Royal Navy far outnumbered the German surface fighters, it had to devote disproportionate resources to guarding against possible sorties.
Fraser planned to use the JW 55B as bait, reinforcing his ten escort destroyers with three cruisers in “Force 1” under Vice Admiral Robert Burnett, who had just escorted an earlier convoy. Meanwhile, “Force 2” would roll out from the west, including the battleship Duke of York, the heavy cruiser Jamaica, and four S-class destroyers.
The British made no effort to prevent German patrol planes from spotting the convoy on 22 December. On Christmas Day, Fraser was delighted to learn that the Scharnhorst and five destroyers had left Altafjord at 7 p.m. under the command of Admiral Erich Bay.
However, the German force failed to contact the nineteen-ship convoy. This far north there was less than an hour of daylight and high winds were blowing heavy snowfall across the water. Bay deployed his destroyers to expand his search, ultimately depriving his flagship of badly needed support.
At 09:00, the Task Force 1 light cruiser Belfast picked up the Scharnhorst with her upper radar. The two sides eventually spotted each other about 7.5 miles away and exchanged fire. As Scharnhorst missed, she was hit twice. An 8-inch shell fatally shattered the battlecruiser’s radar, crippling her situational awareness and the accuracy of her guns.
Scharnhorst disengaged, while the British escorts withdrew to screen the convoy as Force 2 ran to support them. But Bey circled Scharnhorst and at noon he hit Force 1 a second time. This time the battlecruiser’s guns hit Norfolk twice, the massive 727-pound armor-piercing rounds passing through, knocking out a turret and a radar.
Bey then decided to return to port south with Force 1 in pursuit, though only the lighter Belfast could follow.
However, Force 2’s Duke of York’s most numerous and powerful radars finally spotted the Scharnhorst twenty-five miles away after 4 p.m. towards it from the west. Force 2 eventually opened fire from a distance of six miles.
Norman Scarth, a sailor aboard the destroyer Matchless described the moment in a BBC interview:
We all met and all hell broke loose. Even though it was pitch black, the sky was lit up, bright as day, by star shells, which shot across the sky like fireworks, providing brilliant light illuminating the area as wide as day.
A massive fourteen-inch shell jammed the Anton turret, silencing its triple guns. Another strike triggered an ammunition shot at Bruno, forcing the gun crew to flood the turret to avoid an explosion. Now only Caesar could retaliate – and she fired, in turn knocking out a radar on the Duke of York.
However, superior British fire-control radars gave British warships greater accuracy, while their no-flash loadout made them difficult to spot with the naked eye.
Bey tried to veer north away from Force 2, only to run into Force 1’s cruisers. The battlecruiser eventually began to veer away eastward at maximum speed. However, a long reach of fourteen feet sharply penetrated Scharnhorst’s belt armor and blew up one of her boiler rooms, reducing her speed to only twelve knots. Bey radioed to his superiors “We will continue to fight until the last shell is fired.”
As the British barrage relentlessly crippled Scharnhorst’s main guns, smaller British destroyers invaded to attempt torpedo fire. Some of Scharnhorst’s smaller guns remained active, however, and one fired a shell directly through Saumarez’s fire control tower, killing eleven crew. Meanwhile, the Norwegian destroyer Savage and Stord rushed within a mile of the beleaguered battlecruiser and launched three twenty-one inch torpedoes on her port side at about 7 p.m.
For almost an hour more, the British ships relentlessly pounded the crippled Scharnhorst, with shells and torpedoes. The latter were known to occasionally sink capital ships with only a few lucky hits. Scharnhorst, however, suffered nineteen torpedoes before finally capsizing.
As Scarth recounted:
She looked gorgeous and beautiful. . . She fired with all the weapons still at her disposal. Most of the big guns have been extinguished. They were gradually deactivated one by one. As we sped along, a twenty millimeter cannon fired tracer rounds from the Scharnhorst.
A twenty millimeter cannon was like a pea shooter compared to other cannons and it could have no role in this battle. . . And it’s one of the things that stays in my memory, a futile gesture but it was a gesture of defiance until the end.
Afterwards, Matchless and Scorpion recovered only thirty-six survivors from freezing arctic waters before being ordered to abandon the rest for fear of a counterattack.
German battleships never again engaged their British peers in battle. Fifty-seven years later, a Norwegian-led expedition located the mutilated wreck of the Scharnhorst 290 meters deep on the seabed.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and was a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, publishing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for war is boring.