Battleships or Battlecruisers?
The two Scharnhorst class somewhat escape classifications. They were in essence a German answer to the French since the 1935 naval agreement with the British, the latter being even more likely than before, enemies. Ordered in February 1934 to Kiel, and named after the famous generals of the Napoleonic armies, taken from the famous cruiser-battleships of Admiral Von Spee who defeated Admiral Cradock’s squadron at Coronel in 1914 Not far from the Malvinas Islands), these two “twins” who practiced practically all the time together, presented themselves as improved derivatives of the previous Deutschland. They also had to respond to the two French “Dunkerque” recently begun.
KMS Scharnhorst prewar – Bundesarchiv
Carrying a faster artillery, better garnished (especially the DCA) and especially carried now three turrets, they were equally destined to carry out a race war. This artillery of 280 mm was superior to that of the vast majority of heavy cruisers, but insufficient in front of the 380 mm and 406 mm guns deployed by modern battleships, not to mention their protection, totally ineffective against heavy projectiles. Like the old battle-cruisers, their speed remained an excellent protection, now imperiled by the release of the first “super-dreadnoughts” in 1939-1940.
They had planned a variant equipped with 380 mm pieces, but this caliber was still experimental and was reserved for the Bismarck class. This scan, though smaller than the original standard for battleships (406 mm or 16 inches), had a range significantly greater than the British Admiralty’s 406 mm. When the German 280 mm, they were fast and outclassed in range and velocity the 203 mm of the cruisers. Some countries like the USA with their “Alaska”, briefly renewed with this kind of building. But the loss of the Hood and the disaffection for the surface classic fights to the prefect of the aeronautical threat would condemn them.
Scharnhorst’s 280mm turrets
In 1938-39, their right prow was covered in Atlantic type clipper, better suited to the northern Atlantic, and their length increased to 235 meters overall. The catapult of the rear turret on the Scharnhorts was dismantled, and its mast moved and rebuilt in tripod. Both ships received 20 mm AA artillery, the Scharnhorst two triple benches of 533 mm torpedo tubes (coming from Nurnberg) to meet the threat of the destroyers. In October 1939, the twins (“zwillig”) attack convoys in the North Atlantic.
The British auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi, courageously defending the convoy, faces the two ships, and with its 150 mm artillery, tries to keep them at a distance as the convoy moves away, and it is sunk. In 1940, in Norway, the Gneisenau fought only the HMS Renown, another battle cruiser (1917) whose artillery was superior, undergoing severe damage. In 1940 he was forced to return to Kiel because of the severe damage suffered by touching a magnetic mine.
Scharnhorst in Port
On June 8, 1940, off the northern Atlantic, the “twins” surprised a squadron bringing in British troops, and managed to sink the Glorious aircraft carrier, two destroyers and two escorts and damage other buildings. The Gneisenau will be torpedoed at the end of the month and thus again immobilized. From January to March 1942, they set out against the convoys (Operation Berlin) and sank 22 ships. Based in Brest, they are repeatedly attacked by the RAF.
In Brest, the two buildings were under constant threat from the RAF, unlike submersibles, well protected under heavy concrete bunkers. The Führer, who no longer believed in their use in the fight against the Atlantic convoys, ordered them to be transferred to Norway to fight Russian sea supplies (convoys from the far north), anchored in Fjords well protected by their geographical configuration. This was Operation Cerberus. Rising in a short time, it was the bold attempt to cross the sleeve to return to the North Sea. This meant passing a few coastlines of the English coast, under a flawless radar cover, the RAF, the Coastal Command and of course the Royal Navy still on the alert.
In spite of all expectations, on February 12, 1942, the two twins escorted by a heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a squadron of a Me 109 fighter sail across the Calais, in broad daylight, to the nose and beard of the British. A series of misfortunes. Their only desperate attempt was the sending of swordfish torpedo biplanes, all of which were shot down. The success of the Kriegsmarine, however, was short-lived: destroyers attempted to torpedo the buildings, and heavy weather prevented them, the HMS Worcester being Even severely damaged by a fired shot of the two fleeing ships. The Gneisenau in view of the Strait of Skagerrak later leaped on a magnetic mine. He even had to stop completely for thirty minutes for repair, and went off to Heligoland for brief repairs before.
Finally at Kiel for further repairs, the RAF found the Gneisenau trace. A heavy bomber attack on the night of 26 February severely damaged it: A bomb penetrated the rear ammunition bunker, causing a huge explosion, missing to completely destroy the building and causing more than 112 victims. The repairs were postponed, and it was envisaged to replace the three triple turrets with 380 mm duplicates of the same model as the Bismarck, which would have greatly increased his chances of survival in a duel at sea (which was initially foreseen).
Gneisenau after her second bow refit in 1942
It was also planned to replace its prow, destroyed by the explosion, by a longer one, intended to compensate the weight of the new turret back. The original turrets were later transported to Norway, where they were used to defend the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst anchorage, which had returned to Norway in the meantime. In February 1943, after the latter’s loss at the Battle of the Barentz Sea, Hitler decided to stop work on his sister ship. The Gneisenau remained in Gotenhafen for the rest of the war, deprived of its artillery, and was scuttled in March 1945 in the entrance to the port.
In the North Sea, the Scharnhorst has a reclusive existence, made of too few exits against convoys, well protected by the Royal Navy, and sometimes even the US Navy. The hour of glory of the Scharnhorst will arrive with the battle of the North Cape (Sea of Barentz). On December 22, 1943, an important convoy (JW55) was reported with defenses plagued as weak by luftwaffe and submersibles. The Scharnhorst, without the Tirpitz under repair, was escorted by five destroyers and commanded by Rear Admiral Erich Bey. He was to face the three cruisers of Admiral Burnett’s 10th Squadron (Belfast, Sheffield, Norfolk).
Only the last one benefits from “heavy” pieces (203 mm), the other two have a reduced range with their 152 mm. Nevertheless, the Scharnhorst, counting on his speed, withdrew from the fight after a brief pass of arms. His first objective remaining the convoy, he resumed the road due north. The weather is big and visibility abysmal, and the building is wasting time trying to locate the convoy. Meanwhile, the 10th Squadron now joined by the destroyers of 36th Division, guided by the powerful Norfolk radar, finds the building and engages in combat. This time the pass of arms is more fierce, but Bey decides once again, without protection and fault to find the convoy, to withdraw further south, which sends him on the road of the HMS Duke of York, joined By the King Georges V.
This time it is 20 pieces of 356 mm opposed to the 6 of 280 mm of the Scharnhorst (the British “bar T”) classic tactical maneuver which gives them a whole flank to oppose to the front parts of the German ship. Even though this last maneuver to present its flank, the range and precision of the British firings partially blunder its direction of fire and destroy two front turrets. Thanks to his superior speed, Bey once again breaks the fight, but too late: One of the sides of the Duke of York enters the engine compartment, destroys the chimney and boilers. With his speed no longer allowing him to escape, Bey sends a last message announcing to Hitler his intention to “fight until the last shell”. The ensuing artillery duel is a real execution, the British pounding the building, which will receive nearly 2000 projectiles and will be completed by destroyers torpedoes, once silenced. 36 survivors will be recovered.
Scharnhorst firing against HMS Glorious
Conway’s all the world fighting ships 1921-1947.
KMS Deutschland specifications
|Dimensions||155.10 x14.30 x6.60 m|
|Propulsion||3 screws, 3 diesels 9-cyl MAN, 54 000 hp|
|Speed||28 knots (42 km/h; 20 mph)|
|Armament||6(2×3)x 280 mm, 8x 150 mm, 6(2×3)x 105 mm AA, 16(8×2)x 37mm AA, 6(2×3) TT 533 mm|
|Armor||Belt: 76 mm (), Deck: 38 mm (), Turrets 140mm, Conning tower: 152 mm ()|
KMS Gneisenau in november 1943, in the “Norway” pattern.
Profile of the Gneisenau in 1942