Scharnhorst's Final Hours

General News

Scharn' Bright Like a Diamond!

A new Campaign based on the Battle of North Cape is coming soon! Here's a bit of history to tide you over until the Campaign's launch.

Germany sought to interrupt the Allied arctic supply line to the USSR with a demonstrative destruction of one of the convoys, in an operation known as Ostfront ("Eastern Front").

On December 22, 1943, Germans discovered a group of transports moving along the Norwegian coast. Despite gathering intelligence, the Kriegsmarine command didn’t discover the British force screening the convoy. On December 25, the battleship Scharnhorst, accompanied by the 4th destroyer flotilla (with Z-29 as its flagship) took to the sea.

On the morning of December 26, Scharnhorst was separated from her destroyer escort and encountered three British cruisers led by HMS Belfast. The initial British salvos took the Germans by complete surprise, and shells from HMS Norfolk knocked out the main radar of the battleship. Unwilling to engage the cruisers, Scharnhorst used her superior speed to lose her pursuers in the storm and continued her search for the convoy. 

Vice Admiral Burnett's cruiser squadron returned to protecting the transports. Meanwhile, Scharnhorst continued hunting the convoy without success. Burnett's force joined a destroyer flotilla (of HMS Musketeer, HMS Matchless, Opportune, and Virago), but British admirals worried the enemy might have escaped their trap. However, the polar nights left Scharnhorst blind, while the British maintained the upper hand with radar.

Around midnight on December 26, HMS Belfast detected Scharnhorst on her radar again. In the ensuing skirmish, the battleship put up an incredible fight. 283mm shells from the Germans disabled a primary armament turret on Norfolk, plus severe hull damage; Sheffield was riddled by heavy shrapnel; and destroyer Virago was nearly sunk by Scharnhorst’s main guns.

During the firefight, Scharnhorst was unknowingly within 12 to 15 miles of the convoy she sought. Commanding Rear Admiral Bey aborted the operation and ordered Scharnhorst and her destroyer escorts to turn towards Norway. Burnett's squadron, meanwhile, pursued the German battleship at maximum speed. They stayed out of sight while maintaining radar contact. The damaged British cruisers fell behind one after another, fighting against the raging storm. HMS Belfast continued the pursuit alone, constantly transmitting the Scharnhorst's location to Admiral Fraser. The other German destroyers were too far away to provide spotting and recon for their flagship.

Scharnhorst, radar disabled, headed straight into a trap. Battleship HMS Duke of York, cruiser HMS Jamaica, and four other destroyers quickly approached. Fraser gave the order to open fire only after getting as close as possible to the enemy. Finally, at 16:47, Scharnhorst was illuminated by star shells from Belfast and taken by surprise. Duke of York fired a full broadside with 10 356mm guns. One of the first hits took out Scharnhorst’s primary armament turret.

Scharnhorst changed course at full speed to shake off the pursuers while firing back with all guns available. HMS Belfast and HMS Norfolk joined from the north with HMS Jamaica from the south. Scharnhorst found herself between the hammer and the anvil.

Duke of York showered Scharnhorst with shells, disabling artillery and destroying the superstructure, her armor belt protected her from critical damage. Scharnhorst gained some distance at a speed of more than 30 knots and broke free of the cruisers' gun range. However, moments later, a 356mm shell from Duke of York penetrated the thin top armor belt, exploding in the engine room. Scharnhorst lost speed and that fatal hit sealed her fate.

The British ships approached the heavily damaged yet still threatening battleship. Fraser ordered a torpedo attack from his destroyers. Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion, and Stord came right up to the target and launched 28 torpedoes in total, though only four connected.

Scharnhorst held firm and continued to maneuver and fire her remaining guns. Duke of York fired at an extremely close range, and the German ship finally stopped. Belfast and Jamaica, along with the remaining destroyers, dealt more blows, and HMS Musketeer launched four torpedoes from several hundred meters. Scharnhorst was hit by at least 11 torpedoes, sinking  in a cloud of smoke and fire.

The British were astonished by the resilience of their adversary. Admiral Fraser told his officers, "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."