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The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, privateers in the North Seas


If the pocket battleship Graf Spee lived a short but glorious life, if the Bismarck distinguished itself by destroying the fetish ship of the British navy and by mobilizing half of its troops for its destruction, other German ships stood out, especially in the race against the Allied convoys in the Atlantic and in the North. Among them, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, which gave the Home Fleet a lot of cold sweats ...


Flash race in the North Atlantic (November 1939)

The Scharnhorst and her sistership the Gneisenau were a new genre of battle cruisers. Launched in 1936, they moved over 30,000 tons, had nine 280mm guns as their main armament, and could travel at over 30 knots. Unlike heavy battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, they were directly intended for the harassment of enemy convoys, real corsairs of the twentieth century.

The two ships quickly caught on. Indeed, Great Britain owes its survival to its mastery of the seas, and the Reich intends to challenge it. To do this, he created a veritable privateer fleet, intended to harass and destroy convoys bound for England. The danger is great with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and a few others like class cruisers Hipper, but also the pocket battleship Graf Spee, which began its attacks in the South Atlantic in September 1939. Admiral Raeder sends the two sisterships together to the North Atlantic to break the blockade, before attacking the convoys. From November 23, 1939, they faced their first adversary between the Faroes and Iceland; this is the cruiser Rawalpindi, who proves unable to resist the blows of Scharnhorst. The privateers are however reported to the Home Fleet and chased. It was then decided to bring the cruisers back to Germany, and one still wonders why the Germans did not push their advantage further ... Meanwhile, the Graf Spee knew his tragic fate.

The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau in Norway (April-June 1940)

The second fact of arms of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau intervened during the Narvik campaign in April 1940. The two ships were responsible for escorting the regiment of the 3e mountain division, direction Narvik precisely. Immediately, the Home Fleet sent a squadron to intercept them. It was on April 9, when they began to enter the Norwegian fjords, that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau are spotted and chased by the British battle cruiser Renown. But, although they were more than up to the task of overcoming the old ship, the German privateers prefer to flee ...

However, the Norwegian campaign is still in its infancy, and it only takes a short month for the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst are back in the fjords. Narvik has already been evacuated by the Allies, and Germany wants to drive home the point while in France its panzers sweep everything in their path. The squadron of the two battle cruisers stumbles upon elements of the British fleet, which are far to be expected! An oil tanker and a liner are sunk, a hospital ship spared, then the aircraft carrier Glorious which is at the end of the German guns. The English vessel had advanced to its death without launching an aerial scout, and it is far too late by the time it sees the predators appear; despite heroic resistance and the help of his two destroyers, he was sunk and his escort with him. But one of the two destroyers, theAcasta, still managed to torpedo the Scharnhorst, and this one must return to the port, escorted by his twin brother the Gneisenau. They in turn were chased by the British, and aircraft from theArk royal attack them; but it was wasted because of the appalling weather conditions, and the only bomb that hit the Scharnhorst... do not explode! On the other hand, a few days later, the Gneisenau is torpedoed this time by a submarine. The two privateers are therefore intended to remain in dry dock for a while. Worse, they had barely returned to service and had to cancel their new trip, due to heavy seas which damaged the Gneisenau

In the shadow of Bismarck (April-May 1941)

The following months are hardly glorious for the two twin buildings! They attempt a new raid, but turn back when they find that the targeted convoy is escorted by the battleship. Ramillies, which is however not very young. However, in March 1941, another corsair attack allowed them to sink twenty-two Allied merchant ships.

The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau are then sent to Brest to refit, ideal port for launching attacks on convoys entering the Channel, but also to be - theoretically - better protected against air attacks. Admiral Raeder then has an even more ambitious plan for them: he wants to associate them with the brand new heavy battleship Bismarck and his escort ship, the cruiser Prinz Eugen, for a major privateer raid in the North Atlantic; the operation is called "Rheinübung" and planned for April 1941. Unfortunately, fate seems to befall them: the Scharnhorst suffers from machinery problems that require more work than expected, and the Gneisenau was torpedoed in the harbor of Brest by a British aircraft, then hit again by four bombs a few days later; indeed, contrary to what was expected by the German General Staff, the relocation of the two ships to Brest only whetted the appetite of Bomber Command, which launched nearly a thousand raids specially designed for them!

Operation "Rheinübung" is postponed, but not the exit from Bismarck. This one, after a heroic raid which sees him sink the venerable Hood, was sent to the bottom a month later by the Home Fleet, on May 24, 1941. But the Bismarck had its heyday, which is not yet the case with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

The Mad Escape (February 1942)

The time may have come when the decision is made to repatriate the two battle cruisers to Germany. The raids they suffered began to severely handicap them, Scharnhorst having been hit in turn by British bombs. They were however joined in the harbor of Brest by the Prinz Eugen, orphan of Bismarck.

It was decided to attempt an exit through the Channel, to force the Pas-de-Calais. The risk can be taken because the British cannot leave their large ships too close to the French coast for long, and therefore within range of Luftwaffe aircraft. On the side of the Admiralty, they nevertheless decided to mount an operation, dubbed "Fuller", to prevent enemy ships from returning to Germany unscathed. It will be up to the RAF, in essence, to act. Indeed, the British fleet in the region at this time consisted of only a few torpedo boats ...

The daring German coup led by Vice-Admiral Ciliax unfolded in several phases: on the evening of February 11, Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Prinz Eugen and their escort meet in the harbor of Brest, and leave in the middle of the night, escaping the enemy patrols; the German ships were spotted the next day around noon when they had crossed 300 miles, and they passed a first barrage of mines, then they were engaged first by the batteries of Dover and then by torpedo boats: c ' is a failure. The British then attempted an air attack: Swordfish (those who had done so much harm to the Bismarck) rush to attack ... but they are all down! Indeed, they are escorted by less than Spitfire than expected, and fall under the blows of the DCA of the ships, and especially of the German fighter. Two hours later, it is believed that luck has turned in favor of the English when a mine hits the Scharnhorst : the battle cruiser is only slightly damaged, but Vice-Admiral Ciliax transfers his flag to a destroyer; this one is then targeted by the bombers Beaufort…in vain ! German ships, the Scharnhorst including, quickly left the strait and found themselves aided by stars, the E-Boot, who repel their rivals, the MTB. The latest British attacks, by sea or by air, continue to fail miserably. Only the mines manage to cause some damage while the squadron of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached German waters.

The Scharnhorst orphan

The incredible escape from Brest made a lot of noise, but with hindsight the results are mixed. True, the British failed in their attempt to destroy three of the most important buildings in what remains of the German navy; but these same buildings are now blocked in Germany, and no longer risk threatening Allied interests in the Atlantic. Above all, success ends up escaping the ships of Ciliax: ten days after the escape from Brest, the Prinz Eugen is torpedoed to death; then a few days later, the Gneisenau is bombed in the port of Kiel and definitely put out of action for the remainder of the war! His twin brother the Scharnhorst then finds himself an orphan ...

The lonely end of Scharnhorst (December 1943)

The interest that Hitler seems to have in the Nordic theater in this year 1942 seems to be able to benefit the Scharnhorst. Above all, the British decided to go through the Barents Sea to supply their Soviet ally. Unfortunately, once again the Scharnhorst, again damaged by mines, must give up participating in the attack launched on the Allied convoys (including the notorious PQ-17) alongside the Tirpitz, of Scheer and Hipper. It may not be bad after all, because the German navy suffered a bitter failure in the Barents Sea at the end of 1942, which infuriated Hitler, ready to send the whole fleet to scrapping! Admiral Raeder resigns, replaced by Doenitz who nevertheless persuades the führer to keep the Tirpitz, the Lützow and the Scharnhorst in Norway.

The latter left the Baltic in February 1943, she is now the second most powerful ship in the fleet, after the sistership of Bismarck. Finding the three German ships soon reunited at Narvik gave the Admiralty some concern, scalded by the losses of the convoys to Murmansk. Some even link the stopping of these convoys to the danger that the Tirpitz and his two acolytes then weigh.

Joint operations began in the fall of 1943: the Scharnhorst and the Tirpitz bomb Norwegian bases in Spitsbergen. Barely back in port, the Scharnhorst leaves for shooting exercises; well takes it, because it escapes the attack of X-crafts British pocket submarines that managed to damage the Tirpitz !

The decision to resume the convoys to Russia must finally give real targets to the Scharnhorst, but the latter is eagerly awaited by the new British admiral, Fraser, eager to face him. For his part, Doenitz knows he must finally let go of his ship's leash and get some results so that Hitler does not think again of sending everything to the landfill. The German admiral is prepared to take any risks.

December 25 is polar night and Scharnhorst, commanded by Rear Admiral Bey, set sail with an escort of five destroyers, with the goal of intercepting and destroying convoy JW-55B. On the German ship, Bey quickly runs into trouble, unable to know where the prey and the enemy are, and he makes mistakes. Early on the morning of the 27th, and without warning his destroyers, he headed north and quickly found himself spotted by the British fleet, in this case the cruiser’s radar. Belfast. A little later, it's the Sheffield who sees him then Norfolk, first to fire but in vain.

Rear Admiral Bey still does not know how many ships are engaged against him, which probably explains why he did not insist in the fight against the cruisers, when he had the means to resist or even to conquer. . He also awkwardly separated himself from the sizable support of his destroyers, sending them to retrieve the convoy.

A new engagement occurs around noon, and this time the Norfolk suffers from the shots of the Scharnhorst, who once again does not insist. Its luck has passed and, still deprived of its destroyers, the German ship rushes straight into the mouth of the Duke of York, Admiral Fraser's battleship. Shortly before 5 p.m., the English vessel and its cruiser escorting the Jamaica opened fire at a distance of 25 km. This time, Bey must accept the fight. The blows of the Duke of York rain for almost an hour, and the Scharnhorst is forced to slow down. It was then at the mercy of other British ships, especially destroyers attacking it with torpedoes. The Duke of York and the Jamaica approach within ten kilometers to complete the job. Like his big cousin the Bismarck, the Scharnhorst resists valiantly but in vain. At 7.45 p.m., on December 27, 1943, she sank with nearly 1,800 sailors.

Of the powerful German surface fleet, at the end of 1943 all that remained was the "lone king of the North", the battleship Tirpitz.

Non-exhaustive bibliography:

- The Second World War, Jules Tallandier editions, 7 volumes, 1966.

- The drama of Scharnhorst, by Fritzotto Busch published by Éditions "I read their adventure" n ° A90.

- C. Salmaggi, A. Pallavisini, Day to day WWII, France Loisirs, 1989.

For further

- German newsreel from 1940


Video: SMS GNEISENAU AND SMS SCHARNHORST BATTLE BRITISH FLEET 1941 OPERATION BERLIN NEWSREEL 32540f (July 2021).