Hitler had become disillusioned by his navy. Before the war the Kriegsmarine had had ambitious plans for a surface fleet with impressive capital ships. The building programme had produced the Bismarck, the Tirpitz and a number of smaller ‘pocket’ battleships. The Germans had a powerful ships – yet not so overwhelming a force that they could not be contained by the Royal Navy.
And the only real use Hitler had for his warships was as surface raiders that could sink merchant shipping. The demise of the Bismarck had demonstrated how hopeless they were in this role – the German ships were so big and such a threat that they were closely monitored by the Royal Navy, who would put to sea in force to sink them whenever they ventured out.
And so it happened again. Goaded by Hitlers latest rage about the uselessness of his navy the ‘pocket’ battleship the Scharnhorst had been sent out to do her worst. On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst and several destroyers sailed out from Norway to attack Russia bound Arctic convoys.
By this time the British were easily reading German radio traffic so no such attack could be a surprise. In fact the Royal Navy were actively awaiting it and had two strong forces ready to attack, one sailing from Murmansk and the other from Scapa Flow in Scotland, including the battleship HMS Duke of York – ‘the Duke’. Ever since the sinking of HMS Glorious in 1940 they had a score to settle. There had also been the embarrassing debacle of the ‘Channel Dash’ in 1942.
It was going to need the combined firepower of several ships to sink the Scharnhorst, a battle that was fought amidst snow storms in the freezing seas north of Norway, played out in the twilight world of a Boxing Day afternoon.
Ernest Reeds was on board the heavy cruiser HMS Belfast:
14:00 a message was received from the Duke which read “We are closing in on the Scharnhorst and our combined speed is 53 knots and are expecting to open fire in an hours time”.
14:27 We sighted “Scharnhorst” on the horizon and opened up with Starshell followed by 6” tracer. We fired 203 rounds of 6” and salvos from Scharnhorst fell just astern. Again she altered course and this time she almost got away. She would have done had not the Destroyers gone in and attacked with torpedo’s – 3 of which scored direct hits. In the attack the Destroyers were travelling at 38 knots. That slowed the Scharnhorst down to 24 knots and gave the “Duke” and “Jamaica” a chance to close in on her.
18:15 “Scharnhorst” is now 15 miles ahead and the “Duke” and “Jamaica” are to our Starboard.
18:50 We opened fire again with Starshell and 6” firing to the port side. Our speed is over 32 knots and waves are breaking over continuous still making it hell but no-one takes much notice of it.
19:00 “Scharnhorst” is in sight and the Duke and her have started firing main armament.
19:05 “Scharnhorst” on our starboard beam and we fire again at a very long range.
19:10 Speed is now 34 knots.
19:14 “Scharnhorst” fires at us and her shells fall just ahead. We cant fire back as the range is too great for us.
19:16 “Duke of York” and “Scharnhorst” start firing at each other and Starshell lights them both up in the distance.
19:35 We are steering S.E. with the “Scharnhorst” on our Port bow and the “Duke” 10 miles ahead. The three cruisers are in line ahead astern of the battleships.
19:50 Course 140°. The “Duke” is between the “Scharnhorst” and her base and we are covering her from the North. She hasn’t much hopes. Our speed has been reduced to 31 knots and the “Sheffield” has dropped back owing to trouble with her propeller shaft.
20:00 “Scharnhorst” has decreased speed to 21 knots.
20:05 “Scharnhorst” is going ahead of the “Duke” at a distance of 13 miles and they are still exchanging salvos with occasional Starshell for illumination.
20:25 We have gained the speed of 34 knots on a course 060°.
20:45 Position still the same and the 2 battleships are still firing but it is probably blind as it is now total darkness. “Scharnhorst” has altered course to the East.
20:50 “Scharnhorst” is firing close range as the Destroyers have gone in again to attack. One of the destroyers got hit and received damage and 20 men killed.
20:59 “Duke of York” ceases fire because the Destroyers are in – “Scharnhorst” is on our Starboard beam.
21:05 Our speed has dropped to 31 knots.
21:06 “Duke of York” firing again and gives orders to “Jamaica” to go in and attack with torpedoes
21:10 Duke of York ceases fire.
21:15 “Scharnhorst” is on fire and is almost at a standstill. “Jamaica” fired 3 torpedo’s at her but were all misses.
21:20 The Admiral has volunteered to go in and torpedo the Scharnhorst and the C in C says alright. She is well on fire but still firing hard. Our own speed is 28.5.
21:30 Fired 3 torpedo’s out of Starboard tubes and scored hits with two of them. They are still fighting but they have dropped back to her 6” and 4”.
21:40 Scharnhorst ceases firing and is going down by the stern.
21:43 Scharnhorst at a standstill.
21:48 The C in C signals to say that it was the “Belfast” that fired the fatal torpedo that sent her to the bottom. On the news they said it was the “Norfolk” that did.
21:50 “Scharnhorst” has just gone down. Strong smell of burning oil and a great cloud of smoke.
21:52 We fire Starshell to see if there is any wreckage that wants sinking. We turn our searchlights on so the Destroyers can pick up survivors. There are only 50 survivors out of 1600 crew. The Captain was climbing up a scrambling net and fell back into the sea and drowned. He was injured in the face. The “Scharnhorst” put up a wonderful fight.
For the whole of Ernest Reeds account see BBC People’s War.
Lieutenant A.G.F. Ditcham was on one the destroyers, HMS Scorpion, that disabled Scharnhorst. His memoir reconstructs the whole battle and describes how the Scharnhorst was caught between two intersecting sets of torpedoes fired by the Destroyers. They were then able to watch the end of the battle:
We described a circle and followed Scharnhorst at about 3 miles, going much slower now. We were thus able to watch as Duke of York came up, reducing speed and at 1901 fired a broadside at an easy target. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At five miles, the trajectory was comparatively flat and the 14 inch ‘tracer’ shells leaped across the sea and all of them appeared to smash into her in a colossal explosion. Some of them may have gone over and hit the sea some miles further on, but they were not visible.
She continued to dish out this punishment in a series of broadsides and Scharnhorst became a burning shambles.
One of the 36 survivors (out of 1980) was the messenger to the Gunnery Officer at the top of the superstructure. He told me that when the shells hit, the order was broadcast:
‘Damage control parties to such & such position’.
The men would dutifully appear, more shells would arrive and ‘bits of them’ would go up past him in the gunnery tower.
Also an interesting account of deciphering the Scharnhorst’s last message at Cryptocellar.