Seldom has an enemy loss given greater satisfaction to the Royal Navy than the sinking of the Scharnhorst in a night action. It is not generally appreciated that she was the ship which, in company with the Gneisenau, destroyed the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi to the south-east of Iceland on November 23, 1939. At the time this was credited to the "pocket battleship" Deutschland (afterwards renamed Lützow) and another unidentified warship; but it has since been fairly well established that the ships actually concerned were the two 26,000-ton battleships of the Scharnhorst class. Thus the odds against Rawalpindi were even heavier than originally supposed.
On June 8, 1940, the same two enemy battleships surprised the aircraft carrier Glorious while she was evacuating British planes from Northern Norway. The destroyers Ardent and Acasta, which were in company, did their best to protect her, but the odds were too great, and all three ships were sunk. As Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser was captain of the Glorious from May 1936 to December 1937 he must have felt peculiar satisfaction in putting an end to the career of the Scharnhorst. On two previous occasions the latter vessel was chased by British capital ships which failed to overtake her, evidence that her actual speed was considerably greater than the 27 knots from which she was officially supposed to have been designed.
On April 9, 1940, the battle cruiser Renown, wearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Whitworth, was engaged for a short period with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off the Norwegian coast not far from Narvik, the former ship being hit at least once before she disappeared to the southward, a smoke screen laid by her consort covering the retreat. This brief action took place in a snowstorm, with a gale blowing, the opponents opening fire upon each other at a range of 18,000 yards.
Towards the end of 1940 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were sent out into the Atlantic to act as commerce destroyers. They seem to have confined their attentions to unescorted ships, but even so sank a good many. In March 1941 two which had been captured, the Bianca and San Casimiro, were intercepted with prize crews on board, who promptly scuttled both ships when H.M.S. Renown approached. On the afternoon of March 8, H.M.S. Malaya was escorting a north-bound convoy between the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands, with a Swordfish aircraft scouting ahead. This plane sighted the two German battleships, and reported to the Malaya, which did her utmost to make contact. Every preparation was made to open fire at long range, but it proved impossible to bring them to action before dark.
A little over a fortnight later the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau took refuge in Brest, in which port they were blockaded for nearly a year. Their sensational dash up Channel and through the Dover Straits on their way back to Germany in February 1942 was less successful than it seemed at the time, for the Gneisenau has never been to sea since. It is believed she received such structural damage from British torpedoes during the passage that she has had to be completely rebuilt.
It may be inferred that on December 26, 1943, the Scharnhorst fell into a skilfully baited trap. On how many previous occasions our convoys had passed round the north of Norway in tempting fashion without evoking interference from the German Navy is not known; but last month the hours of darkness were at their maximum, and the opportunity must have seemed to the enemy too good to be missed. When the Scharnhorst sailed from the Altenfjord (where her crippled consort, the Tirpitz, is still lying) she is reported to have been accompanied by a flotilla of destroyers; but these were not with her when she was sighted by the convoy escort. A westerly wind of almost gale force appears to have been blowing, and it may be presumed that the destroyers found the head sea that confronted them when they emerged from the shelter of the islands fringing the coast to be more than they could face. Thus the Scharnhorst had to proceed without her protecting screen of destroyers.
At 9.35 a.m. the cruisers Belfast (flagship of Vice-Admiral R. L. Burnett), Norfolk, and Sheffield, which were protecting the convoy on its starboard flank, sighted the Scharnhorst in what is well described as "the half-light of an Arctic dawn". Fire was at once opened on the intruder, which was hit by an 8-in. shell from the Norfolk, the guns of the other two cruisers being of 6-in. calibre. Though her main armament comprised of nine 11-inch guns, the Scharnhorst did not stay to fight it out, but disappeared to the north-eastward at high speed. No more was seen of her until 12.30 p.m., by which time it was getting dark. Another exchange of gunfire took place, H.M.S. Norfolk being hit aft, but again the Scharnhorst evaded closer contact, turning south towards the Norwegian coast.
In the meantime another British formation under the immediate command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, with his flag in the battleship Duke of York, had been moving up from the south-westward. At about 4.15 the Scharnhorst was sighted ahead of the Duke of York, which at once altered course to bring her broadside to bear, and obtained a hit almost at once. In view of the fact that the enemy can only have been seen by the light afforded by star shell, this must be reckoned extraordinarily good shooting by the Duke of York's 14-in. guns. The Scharnhorst turned first north and then east, hoping to get out of range before she could be hit again: but a shell from the Duke of York entered below the waterline, slowing her up.
This also have the opportunity for a torpedo attack by two divisions of destroyers, comprising the four new sister ships Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion, and Stord (the last-named belonging to the Royal Norwegian Navy); the Matchless and Musketeer, both of 1,920 tons, the Opportune and the Virago, of which no particulars have been published. All have been completed since war began. Three torpedoes are believed to have hit the Scharnhorst, whose plight thus became desperate. Closing the range, the Duke of York opened a destructive fire that within about 20 minutes had reduced the enemy ship to a blazing wreck. H.M.S. Jamaica, a cruiser which was in company with the Duke of York, was then ordered to sink her with torpedoes, and she disappeared at 7.45 p.m. There were only 36 survivors.
Apart from the hope of intercepting a convoy with valuable munitions for Russia, the Scharnhorst's sortie was probably undertaken with the object of strengthening the morale of the German Navy, which has suffered seriously from the effect of spending long months in harbour far from home. Its disastrous termination must have produced precisely the opposite effect, besides advertising to the world the ineffectiveness of German arms at sea. This bad impression was heightened two days later by the complete rout of German forces in the Bay of Biscay (see pp. 532, 540) by H.M.S. Glasgow and Enterprise, and aircraft of Coastal Command, three out of 11 enemy destroyers being sunk.