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Operation "Cerberus" (11 - 13 February 1942)

The story of a ship swings from the general to the particular; from the world of politics and conference chambers to the more confined atmosphere of wardrooms and messdecks. On the whole, the climate of the latter is healthier-though, on board Scharnhorst, Kurt Caesar Hoffmann was badly missed. The ratings did not take to his successor. Possibly, it was because he had once been employed in the U-boat section of the Seekriegsleitung, where, so far as the discrepancy in their ranks permitted, he had struck up a friendship with Donitz. At all events, the rumour circulated that he was an officer who owed his

influence rather than ability. His seamanship, certainly, was not of the Hoffmann calibre, though some of the criticisms levelled against him may have been unfair. For instance, he was thought to rely too much on tugs. As one rating observed: `When entering or leaving harbour, there were so many that there was often no room for all of them alongside.' And then there was the matter of the Iron Cross. The new captain did not possess this award, and it was widely known that he wanted one very badly. Helmuth Giessler found the situation particularly difficult. Now a Fregattenkapitan (commander) and second-in-command of the battlecruiser, he wore the same four gold stripes on his sleeves as his senior officer, who was a Kapitan zur See (captain). The only means of telling one from the other was by noting the stars on their shoulder straps, which were not easy to see. After the voyage from Brest, Giessler was presented with the German Cross in gold-an award instituted by Hitler to bridge the gap between the Knight's Cross and the common-or-garden Iron Cross. In both instances, the recipients had to be already in possession of the Iron Cross, first and second class.

There, then, was Giessler with this much-coveted decoration, and there was his new commanding officer with nothing. Visitors to the ship frequently made the understandable mistake of assuming that Giessler was in command-to his embarrassment and much to his captain's distress. After a while he developed a technique for fading into the background on these occasions. But it was an unpleasant situation; and when eventually he was posted to Berlin to work on the development of radar, it came as a relief. He was replaced by Commander Ernst Dominik, who had served in Scharnhorst from the time of her commissioning until her return from Brest when he had taken up a shore appointment.

Perhaps the new commanding officer was unfortunate. So far as disasters on the grand scale were concerned, Scharnhorst managed to escape the worst attentions of the Royal Air Force, but there were several smaller catastrophies. On one occasion, when exercising in the bay of Gdynia, she ran on to a sandbank. She was not travelling quickly, and she was refloated by simply moving fuel from one bunker into another. Shortly afterwards, however, she went into dry dock for inspection, and this produced rumours that she had been damaged. On another, a buoy fouled one of her screws. And then there was the morning after an air raid, when she put to sea preceded by a 6,000-ton dredger. Suddenly there was an explosion and a mighty column of water shot up into the air. Five minutes later, only the mastheads of the dredger could be seen. She had, an investigation revealed, struck a mine. Scharnhorst had been lucky to escape, but the incident added to the impression of an ill-starred year. The catapult which should have launched the Arado Ar-196 seaplane developed a defect: instead of hurling the aircraft into the sky, it lobbed it gently into the sea. Only one member of the two-man crew survived. During early August of 1942, Scharnhorst was in the Baltic carrying out exercises with a group of U-boats from Kiel. She collided with U-523. The submarine sustained minor damage-she was later sunk by the Royal Navy. Scharnhorst's keel was harmed, and this necessitated yet another visit to the dry dock. All told, this year in the Baltic was, to quote one rating, `a complete chapter of accidents'.

Whatever went wrong with the lives of Scharnhorst's crew was deemed to be the new captain's fault. When, early in the new year of 1943, the ship was ordered to Norway, the blame (if such is the right word) was attributed to this unfortunate individual. He was, or so the story went, so anxious to win an Iron Cross, that he had persuaded the Admiralty to send him on a mission where there was more opportunity for glory. This, of course, was rubbish. The only alternative was a one-way trip to the shipbreaker's yard. In any case, Hitler had given DSnitz six months to fulfil his side of the pact. Something had to be done about the convoys that were supplying Russia with arms from Britain and America.

A decision to sail for Norwegian waters was one thing; to get there was quite another. All told, Scharnhorst had to make three attempts. On the first occasion, she sailed on 10 January and got as far as the Skagerrak, where she was spotted by a force of RAF aircraft and had to turn back. Later in the month, she fared no better, and it was not until 3 March that she set off on what was to be a successful trip.

Late that day, she slipped away from Gdynia accompanied by four destroyers. The crew had been told that they were bound for a five-day training cruise in the Baltic; but the older hands, used to deceptions, had learned to discount such information. Their suspicions were confirmed during the night of the 11th, when the battlecruiser steamed through the Great Belt of Denmark and when, shortly after dawn, she was met by two more destroyers. Travelling at 25 knots, the small fleet set course for Kristiansand, at which point a Norwegian pilot was supposed to be coming on board.

It was snowing hard at the time of the appointed rendezvous, and there was no sign of the pilot boat. Rather than wait until the weather cleared, the battlecruiser and her escort steamed on northwards. The gales and the dark skies, which had been her allies so often in the past, protected her again. With visibility often reduced to nil by squalls of sleet, and with a force 8 north-north-westerly blowing, the chances of detection from the air or interception on the surface were negligible. Unfortunately, what was good for the big ship was less favourable for the destroyers. By the time Scharnhorst had reached the lee of the Lofoten Islands, the small ships had been compelled to run for shelter, and she was without any escort at all. However, as she approached Vestfjord, Z29, which had preceded her up the English Channel, came out to meet her. At 16.00 hours on the afternoon of 14 March, Scharnhorst anchored in a bay opposite Narvik. A week later, now in the company of Tirpitz and Lutzow, she steamed farther beyond the Arctic Circle and made her way carefully into Altenfjord.

In theory, the massing of three large warships on the north-western shoulder of Norway should have given the British Admiralty cause for concern. As Churchill had told the Commons, the removal of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from Brest had eliminated the threat of large surface raiders from the Atlantic. But had a new menace been created-something that might put ships on the convoy route to Russia in even greater jeopardy than the depredations of U-boats and aircraft ? The distances involved were much shorter; there was no need to hunt for prey, and any operation should be well within the limits imposed by the shortage of fuel oil.

DSnitz felt confident enough about honouring his part of the bargain. On the other hand, Hitler's estimate of six months was more realistic, for his new grandadmiral had overlooked an important point. During July of the previous year, the very threat of Tirpitz had caused convoy PQ-17 en route for Murmansk to scatter. The result was that fourteen merchantmen were sunk by aircraft and eight by U-boats. With this unfortunate experience still in the forefront of its mind, the British Admiralty dispatched no convoys to Russia during the summer of 1943. The time, it seemed, could be better spent hunting down the German capital ships. As things transpired, operations in the Mediterranean-notably off Sicily and Salerno-severely stretched the fleet's resources of battleships and carriers. The traffic in arms would have to wait until the return of the Arctic winter with its endless nights.

The British showed no awareness of the passing of the German armada until it was beyond Calais, when they launched attacks using destroyers, MTBs, bombers and torpedo aircraft. By then the German units had already reached the North Sea and had the benefit of an outstanding air defence.

Towards 1530hrs, off Flushing, Scharnhorst was mined in compartment XVI. Fires were extinguished in a number of boilers. The gunnery control instrumentation of the aft control centre was knocked out, as was the gunlaying equipment for all three main turrets, although all weapons were again operational within a few minutes. As a precaution Vizeadmiral Ciliax transferred to the destroyer Z 29, but Scharnhorst was soon under way and gradually built up speed sufficiently to enable her to re-join the squadron. At 2235hrs she was again mined and lay adrift for 45 minutes: she resumed on her two remaining serviceable shafts, the centre providing 16kt, the port shaft 14kt. The foretop rangefinder was also now unserviceable.

During the action the British carried out 110 attacks using 600 aircraft, of which 42 were shot down; 500 tonnes of bombs were aimed at the squadron. Scharnhorst expended 400 x 10.5cm, 900 x 3.7cm and 6,000 x 2cm shells.

At 1230hrs on 13 February Scharnhorst entered the Wilhelmshaven locks by way of No III entrance and made fast alongside the Fliegerdeich (Seydlitz Bridge), proceeding to the 40,000-tonne floating drydock the following day. A survey of the hull revealed that the damage inflicted by the two mines was more extensive than first thought. The outer and double bottom required re-plating over two areas 90m and 35m in length. A number of gun turrets had been dislodged

from their roller beds. The foundations of the main engines and some of the auxiliary plant was in a sufficiently serious condition to warrant unshipping for a complete overhaul, but most of these recommendations were brushed aside for future consideration.

For repairs and a restoration to battleworthiness Scharnhorst transferred to Kiel on 14 February after the C-in-C, Grossadmiral Raeder, and the Fleet Commander, Admiral Schniewind, had visited the ship at Wilhelmshaven.

She escaped damage during the air raid on Kiel on 26 February which put paid to Gneisenau drydocked nearby. Unsatisfactory steaming trials were run in July 1942 and Scharnhorst then moved eastwards to Gotenhafen for working up. In November she drydocked once more, this being followed by more trials combined with intensive crew training. At the same time an emergency rudder system was experimented with in light of the experience of Prinz Eugen, which had been torpedoed by HMS Trident on 23 February 1942 with the loss of her stern. She had managed to make Trondheim, unaided where the emergency rudder had been fitted for the return to Kiel.

On 22 December 1942 there occurred aboard Seharnhorst a breakdown in the machinery, which, it had been decided, should be left to run unrepaired. This had been long feared by the technical personnel, and thus the failure to comply with the recommendations of the engineering specialists bore bitter fruit. Meanwhile, together with other heavy units of the Fleet, Scharnhorst was ordered to Norway, and the crippled ship prepared for the voyage on her two serviceable shafts.


A squadron consisting of Scharnhorst, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the destroyers Friedrich Ihn, Paul Jacobi and Z 24 sailed for Norway on 10 January under the command of Admiral Schniewind but returned to Gotenhafen on the 11th following warnings of air attack.

On 23 January Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen and the destroyers Z 39 and Erich Steinbrinck attempted this voyage again under an operation code-named `Domino' but this was also abandoned, the group returning to Gotenhafen on the 27th. During a refuel-

ling of the destroyers by Scharnhorst at sea, the oil hose burst following an attempt to pump into a full bunker and the precious fuel oil poured out over Scharnhorst's upper deck.

As a result of the debacle in the Barents Sea on New Year's Eve 1942, when the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and `pocket battleship' Lutzow had been driven off from a convoy by the escorts, Hitler had ordered the decommissioning of all heavy ships. On 31 January Admiral D6nitz was promoted to Grossadmiral and C-in-C of the Kriegsmarine, and he was eventually successful in having the order partially rescinded so as to either cancel or delay the decommissioning. Scharnhorst was therefore spared this ignominious end to her career.

On 6 March Operation `Paderborn' bore fruit when Scharnhorst and the destroyers Z 28, Erich Steinbrinck and Friedrich Ihn set out for Norway and dropped anchor in Bogen Bay near Narvik on the 9th, being joined there two days later by Lutzow and the light cruiser Nurnberg. Once Tirpitz had also put into Bogen Bay from Trondheim, Nurnberg was released back to Germany.

In the days and weeks that followed the ships exercised jointly, fuel permitting. On 22 March they anchored in Altafjord and in an inlet, Kaafjord. Scharnhorst was directed to an anchorage in Langfjord, another inlet. The units lay protected within anti-torpedo nets.

On 8 April there was a serious internal explosion aboard Scharnhorst amongst a store of inflammable materials in compartment III above the armour deck on the starboard side. The accommodation deck where IX Division was quartered was situated immediately above it and seventeen crewmen were killed and 20 injured. The cause was never established, although sabotage during the dockyard lay-up at Gotenhafen was suspected.

Following repairs, further joint exercises were held with Tirpitz and Lutzow but these were sporadic affairs and fuel shortages limited the distances sailed. Meanwhile the floating flak battery Thetis had anchored in Kaafjord to provide additional anti-aircraft protection.

Between 6 and 9 September Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and the destroyers Z 27, Z 29, Z 30, Z 31, Z 33, Erich

Steinbrinck, Karl Galster, Hans Lody and Theodor Riedel mounted Operation `Eisberg' against Allied bases on the island of Spitzbergen. Installations were destroyed or set ablaze by the fire of the German weapons and storm troops disembarked from the destroyers blew up the remainder. The units then returned to Altafj ord.

After British midget submarines (`X-craft') had succeeded in virtually immobilising Tirpitz at the end of September, Scharnhorst was the only German capital ship remaining in northern waters. However her time was fast approaching.

A Murmansk-bound convoy of nineteen merchantmen reported by German air reconnaissance was confirmed on 22 December and the decision was made for a seaborne attack. On Christmas Eve notice was given for steam on Operation `Ostfront 1700'. The German battle group consisted of Scharnhorst as flagship and the destroyers Z 28, Z 29, Z 30, Z 33 and Z 34 of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla under the command of the C-in-C Destroyers, Konteradmiral Bey (representing the Battle Group Commander, Admiral Kummetz). Aboard Scharnhorst were 45 officers plus Tirpitz's No 2 gunnery officer (plus five battle group Staff officers), 379 NCOs (plus fourteen NCOs of Staff) being 73 warrant officers and 320 petty officers in all, 1,438 other rates (plus fourteen other rates from Staff), five senior midshipmen, 34 officers in training and 33 reserve officers in training-a total of 1,968 officers and men.

The German units put out at 1700hrs on Christmas Day 1943 and by midnight were well clear of the coast on a northerly bearing. The British wireless monitoring service had swiftly decrypted German `Enigma' signals from the outset, enabling the Royal Navy to prepare immediate countermeasures.

The British naval forces functioning as convoy escorts consisted of two battle groups, Force I and Force 11, made up of the battleship Duke of York, the heavy cruiser Norfolk, the light cruisers Jamaica, Belfast and Sheffield and eight destroyers.

Weather conditions were poor, with winds southerly gale force 8-9, sea state 6-7. The forecast for 26 December was for winds SW 6-8 with a heavy swell from the SW, overcast with rain, visibility 3-4 but occasionally 10nm. Blizzards were expected for the

Barents Sea. In view of the weather forecast, Admiral Bey decided to release his destroyers at the earliest opportunity.

The objective of the German force was convoy JW 55A,' but, unknown to the Germans, another convoy, RA 55A, was sailing an opposite course and this was the reason why the British naval force at sea was so strong.

At 0339hrs on 26 December, the British C-in-C was notified that Scharnhorst had sailed. At this time the German group was approximately 115nm south-east of Bear Island; Force I was 137nm east-south-east of Bear Island and Force 11 approximately 270nm west of North Cape.

Scharnhorst was sighted on two occasions by cruisers of Force I and engaged briefly. She was hit twice: an Bin shell penetrated the battery deck at compartment IX but failed to explode, the other destroyed the foretop radar equipment.

Towards 1300hrs Scharnhorst came round to the south and set course for the Norwegian coast. Force I remained in contact with Scharnhorst while Force II steered to intercept.

At 1617hrs Duke of York obtained a radar contact with her Type 284 gunnery control radar at 42km and again at 1632hrs when the range had shortened to 28 km. At 1640hrs the British battleship ordered the cruiser Belfast to fire starshell to illuminate the target and four minutes later turned to starboard to bring her broadside to bear. After firing her own starshell at 1648hrs, Duke of York opened fire with her main armament (10 x14in) at a range of I I km, straddling her opponent with the first salvo, a hit putting `A' turret out of action.

At 1652hrs the cruiser Jamaica opened fire at 12km, straddling Scharnhorst with her third salvo, one hit being observed. The German ship was taken completely by surprise, for without her radar she was blind. She turned away to the north, where at about 1657hrs she ran into Force I and the combined fire of Norfolk and Belfast, then altered course again at 1708hrs and headed east at her fastest speed. The British units now sought to cripple the enemy since on that bearing she could outrun them to safety. At 1713hrs the British destroyers were ordered to make a torpedo attack but found it difficult to manoeuvre in the heavy seas.

By 1742hrs Scharnhorst had increased the distance to her pursuers to 16.5km, at which range only the heavy guns of Duke of York could reach her. She was still being hit: `B' turret had to be evacuated permanently when a hit on the ventilation system meant that poisonous fumes could no longer be extracted, and a fatal hit which penetrated No 1 boiler room reduced her speed for a period to l Okt, although this was soon increased to 20kt. On account of the long ranges involved, Scharnhorst ceased fire at 1820hrs and Duke of York did likewise four minutes later.

The loss of speed caused by the hit in the boiler room enabled the destroyers to overtake the German ship and place themselves off her bow for the torpedo attack. Between 1840hrs and 1900hrs two attacks ensued and 28 torpedoes were fired, of which four hit, one on either bow, the others astern to port and amidships on the starboard side. The lion was cornered. The British units closed in and at 1905hrs Duke of York and Jamaica resumed fire at 9.5km.

Scharnhorst now had only `C' turret intact and could make at best l Okt. At 1916hrs `C' turret dropped out, leaving a few of the secondary guns to offer the final resistance.

Duke of York ceased fire at 1930hrs to allow the coup de grace to be administered by torpedo: Jamaica obtained two hits, the destroyers Musketeer and Virago three each. At 1945hrs the magazines exploded and, having fought to the last shell, Scharnhorst sank beneath the icy waters of the Polar Sea. Of the 1,968 officers and men aboard, only 36, all ratings, could be saved.

' JW was the designation for convoys running from Loch Ewe (Scotland) to Kola Bay (USSR) after December 1942. Previously they had been known as `PQ' convoys. Twenty JW convoys involving 505 ships made the run. Only five vessels were lost. `RA convoys made the return run; 22 such convoys were made, involving 492 ships of which 27 fell victim to enemy action.

Photo: The launch of the Scharnhorst on 3. October 1936.

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