The History

Main Page
General Information
German Shipyards
The Z-Plan
Ship Models
Bismarck Class
Admiral Hipper Class
Deutschland Class
Graf Zeppelin

The Attack on the Northern Patrol

On 21 November at 1400 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sortied from the Jade estuary, initially with a destroyer escort, and headed for the North Atlantic. The purpose was to sink British patrolling vessels in the strait between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. It was then planned to go further west to observe and search the area and if possible to support the German pocket battleship Deutschland to return home for repairs. Deutschland was on a mission in the North Atlantic when it developed engine problems. Also German merchant vessels on their way home would be supported and protected if possible.

Photo: The Scharnhorst as seen from the Gneisenau heading for the North Atlantic in November 1939.

A heavy storm on 22 November caused a reduction of the speed to 20 knots. The day after the weather was much better and it was now possible to use all weapons without problems because of heavy wind.

Around noon on 23 November a ship was sighted but it turned out to be an Icelandic fishing vessel. At 15:30 smoke was seen in the horizon. It was the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.

Photo: The passenger liner S.S. Rawalpindi before she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and fitted with eight 6-inch guns and became the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.

S.S. Rawalpindi, a 16.601 ton passenger ship, was launched in 1925 from the Harland & Wolf shipyard. Until august 1939 it sailed for the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company on their Britain to India route via the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. On 24 august 1939 the ship was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and Rawalpindi was fitted with eight 6-inch guns of World War 1 vintage.

HMS Rawalpindi was patrolling the area north of the Faroe Islands. Among her 276 crew where the ships captain Edward Coverley Kennedy. Edward Coverley Kennedy was the father of Ludovic Kennedy which later was participating in the sinking of the Bismarck. Ludovic Kennedy later made a famous book and documentary about the Bismarck and became member of the British parliament.

At 1530, on 23 November, Rawalpindi was steering an eastward course mid-way between Iceland and the Faeroes. It was a cold, calm afternoon. To port a fog bank was beginning to form; now and then the ship passed a solitary iceberg. On the bridge Rawalpindi's captain, Edward Coverley Kennedy, stood watching the world sail past. The captain received a message from the crow's nest that a ship had been sighted on the starboard horizon.

Peering through the gathering gloom, Captain Kennedy thought he recognised the silhouette of an enemy battle-cruiser in his binocular lenses. On the other hand, could it be the German pocket battleship Deutschland? The Captain ordered "Action Stations!" followed swiftly by a command to change course to port. The duty Radio Operator was told to send an enemy sighting report without delay. Next moment, her alarm bells sounded. Rawalpindi steered full speed towards the fog bank's enveloping shelter. Smoke floats were lit and flung into the water. They failed to ignite. In an instant, Captain Kennedy ordered a course change to starboard where a large iceberg about 4 miles away, held out a better promise of protection. But it was too late. The German warship was fast approaching, cutting off Rawalpindi's escape route. From her bridge the enemy flashed a signal "Heave to!" backed up with a warning shell that sent up a fountain of spray some 75 meters in front of Rawalpindi's bows.

As the German warship drew closer, Kennedy took another look at her. This time he felt certain she was indeed the Deutschland. Accordingly, he ordered an amended message be sent at once to the Home Fleet HQ. Again the German bridge flashed "Heave to!" and again the message was ignored, not least because at that very moment a second ship had been sighted to starboard. At first Captain Kennedy thought this must be a fellow member of the Northern Patrol, a British heavy cruiser, perhaps. But he was very much mistaken. The Rawalpindi, a hastily converted passenger liner with outdated guns and eggshell armour was about to take on the mightiest warships in the German navy.

Caught between two superior enemies Kennedy realised that his last hour was at hand. The Rawalpindi's signal officer identified the newcomer as a German battlecruiser. (the British considered the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as battlecruisers). The Chief Engineer appeared on the bridge to hear the Captain declare; "We'll fight them both, they'll sink us - and that will be that. Goodbye" He shook the Chief's hand, turned on his heel and cleared the decks for action.

From his vantage point on the Scharnhorst's foretop, Captain Hoffmann ordered the signal "Abandon your ship!" to be sent. To his astonishment, the Rawalpindi failed to respond to this message. Was the captain mad? Surely no sane person would pit eight obsolete 6-inch guns against the combined weight of eighteen modern 11 inch monsters, firing at a point-blank range of only 4 miles? Filled with a mixture of bewilderment and silent admiration, Hoffmann commanded the "Abandon ship!" signal be repeated. It was - twice, and twice it went unheeded. With a heavy heart, Hoffmann prepared to give the signal for the Scharnhorst to open fire. He was a moment too late: a salvo of 6-inch shells from Rawalpindi's four port guns burst harmlessly against the second German battle-cruiser, Gneisenau, commanded by Admiral Marshall and twin sister of the Scharnhorst. At the same moment a similar salvo was on its way to Hoffmann's ship. It was at 1545. Barely a quarter of an hour had gone by since Rawalpindi's first sight of the hostile vessels. Another 15 minutes and it would all be over.

The first salvo from Scharnhorst slammed into the boat deck, directly under the Rawalpindi's bridge, killing almost everyone on it and demolishing the radio room. From now on Rawalpindi was unable to transmit any further radio messages. She didn't have to. At his base on the Clyde, the Home Fleet's Commander-in-Chief was actioning Rawalpindi's first signal. A veritable armada of British warships had been ordered to intercept the German, among them HMS Newcastle, HMS Delhi; and the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, were hurrying full steam ahead to the scene of action. Would they arrive too late? It seemed so. A cluster of 11 inch shells from Gneisenau struck Rawalpindi's main gun control station, killing everyone there and immobilising one of her starboard guns. Caught in a murderous crossfire, Rawalpindi had no hope of survival.

By some miracle, Captain Kennedy had lived through the direct hit on Rawalpindi's bridge. Undaunted he sent for Chief Petty Officer Humphries. As he did so a shell burst in the ship's engine room, knocking out the dynamos that supplied vital electric power to the shell hoists in the magazines. Kennedy ordered Humphries to go round all seven surviving gun turrets and tell their commanders to continue firing independently now that the central control system was out of action. Chief Petty Officer Humphries was also to enlist all spare hands in the thankless task of manhandling 6-inch shells from magazine to gun turrets. And still the storm of German shells continued to burst against the gallant little ship.

It was hopeless. Ablaze from stem to stern, her guns being picked off one by one, Rawalpindi was doomed. Below decks, in the ship's magazine the lights had gone out. A sailor groped his way above to find the Rawalpindi on fire. At once he shouted to his companions to flood the magazine and join him immediately on the upper deck. Arriving there they found things were perilous indeed. Cordite sticks and live shells were rolling about, surrounded by flames. The newcomers lost no time in throwing these dangerous munitions overboard.

In desperation, Captain Kennedy went aft with two ratings to try and lay a covering smoke-screen, while up on deck Chief Petty Officer Humphries was struggling to get wounded men into lifeboats. Suddenly, out of the smoke and flames a rating appeared. "The Captain's been killed, Chief," the smoke-blackened rating announced. By now fires were blazing everywhere, the ship's water supply had failed and its steering gear was out of action. There was nothing for it but to abandon ship. A lifeboat filled with some forty wounded men was prepared for lowering into the sea, but it turned turtle and hit the water upside down, leaving the men to flounder helplessly in the freezing waves. Others were more successful, and for a moment it seemed as though a good number of the Rawalpindi's crew would escape their ship's doom. It was not to be. At 1600 a tremendous explosion broke the gallant merchant cruiser in two. A shell from one of Scharnhorst's 11 inch guns had found Rawalpindi's forward magazine. Her spine broken in half, the stricken vessel began to sink, one of its guns still firing crazily into the air. Tragically for those trying to get clear of the sinking ship, the Scharnhorst having closed in for the kill, swung hard about, swamping the Rawalpindi's lifeboats. Then, in keeping with naval chivalry, the German battle-cruiser reduced speed and returned to rescue the survivors struggling in the freezing sea.

Darkness was fast falling on this melancholy drama when the last survivors were plucked from a watery grave. They totalled 38. Their companions, all 238 of them had gone down with the Rawalpindi. The whole action was over and done in barely quarter of an hour.

By now the first of the British warships had arrived on the scene. HMS Newcastle and HMS Delhi, wary of drifting into range of the superior firepower of the German ships, began shadowing the battle-cruisers as they headed west, all the while sending back messages to the Home Fleet. Alerted by this intelligence a posse of cruisers and destroyers, soon to be joined by the battleship Warspite and the great battle-cruisers Hood and Repulse began converging on the forward track of the fugitive Germans. Making skillful use of bad weather the German ships escaped.

Photo: After returnung from the Northern Patrol attack the Scharnhorst moves slowly through the opened Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge in Wilhelmshaven with a tug alongside.

On 27 November Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returned to Wilhelmshaven. Shortly afterwards Gneisenau went trough the Kaiser-Wilhelm Kanal (channel) to Kiel. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had suffered from sea damages, especially there was problems with the A turrets on both ships. Repairs on both ships was necessary. While being repaired in Wilhelmshaven the Scharnhorst also had her boilers overhauled.

Photo: With the help from tugs the Scharnhorst is about to make fast at the Fliegerdeich (Seydlitz Bridge) in the main harbour of Wilhelmshaven.

© John Asmussen, 2001 - 2010. All rights reserved.