#G236* – The Demise of SCHARNHORST Boxing Day 1943 – 1,932 lives lost!
remembering that it was Boxing Day 1943 that saw the demise of one of the greatest Battle Cruisers of all time in the Northern North North Sea, the mighty Scharnhorst was out gunned, out maneuvered and out classed despite its escort, by the combined forces of the cruisers The Sheffield and The Norfolk with to the South the battleships The King George V & The Duke of York and the cruiser The Jamaica and four destroyers including The Matchless on a convoy to Murmansk.
It is honourable to remember our enemies and commemorate their dead as it was with the sacrifices of our own peoples – but let us remember today the 1,932 Germans who dies on Scharnhorst when she sank in those icy waters particularly.
Looking for details on the internet I came across this decription of the battle from the perspective of a Telegraphist on The Belfast:
The date was 26 December 1943 and I had just been drafted to HMS Belfast as a CW rating (CW= commission warrant) Telegraphist. I was 19 and had volunteered for the RN at 17.
That is enough about me.
I was but one tiny piece in this giant jigsaw.
News was received that the “Scharnhorst” had sailed out of Langfiord in Norway with 5 destroyers on Christmas day afternoon to attack convoy JW55B which had been detected SW of Bear Island. With us covering the convoy were the “Sheffield” and “Norfolk” (cruisers) while about 100 miles to the SW were “King George V”, battleship “Duke of York”, the cruiser “Jamaica” and four destroyers. It was known that the “Scharnhorst” could outgun the cruisers and outrun the “Duke of York”.
At about 9am on 26 Dec, “Belfast” got a contact on her radar which showed the German battleship as being South of the convoy “Belfast and “Norfolk closed and saw “Scharnhorst”. “Belfast” opened fire using star shell to illuminate the German. “Norfolk” then fired her 8inch guns but the German turned away but with her superior speed she tried to go round the cruisers to overtake the convoy. However “Scharnhorst had been hit and had lost her radar thus she was blind.
At about 11am dawn was near and at those latitudes daylight only lasted two hours or so and with a SW gale blowing with low cloud there was only twilight. About noon the cruisers made radar contact and turned again to meet the enemy and in the fire fight which followed the German was hit again. ” Norfolk” too was hit by two shells which put X turret and her radar out of action.
At this point the German Admiral headed for safety in the Norwegian fiord she’d come from but the cruisers followed shadowing at long range by radar. Meanwhile passing frequent reports by radio to the “Duke of York” which allowed the Admiral to decide that he could intercept the enemy before she could reach Norway and safety. Meanwhile the cruisers followed the enemy south.
“Sheffield” had to reduce speed through engine trouble.
” Norfolk” was delayed because of a fire leaving only “Belfast” still in touch with the German. This put her in grave danger as the German could turn on her and heavily outgun her but luckily “Scharnhorst” carried on toward Norway but “Duke of York” headed her off and at about 4pm she got radar contact.
At about half past four “Belfast” illuminated the enemy with star shell. But unfortunately “Scharnhorst” could not be seen from the “Duke” who then fired her own star shell. This salvo fell in just the correct spot and lit up the enemy ship silhouetting her against the pale light that showed she’d been taken completely by surprise with her guns trained fore-and-aft. The “Duke” opened fire at about 5pm firing with her 14″ and scored a direct hit on the enemy’s A turret. At the same time “Jamaica” opened fire.
“Scharnhorst” replied but had only B and C turrets and as her radar was out of action she could not find the target and could only fire at our gun flashes in the dark. The enemy knew that she was in danger and decided to use the only advantage she had over our ships. Speed.
So she ran, occasionally turning to fire a broadside. The Admiral i/c the British squadron could see that the range was opening and realised the enemy could give us the slip, and unless we could slow her down she’d escape.
“Norfolk” joined “Belfast” and engaged with 8″ guns and the destroyers crept ahead to get to an attacking position. “Belfast” and “Norfolk” stopped firing at 5.10pm and “Jamaica” at 5.40pm. The “Duke” too fell astern and stopped firing at 6.20pm but one of her last shot struck “Scharnhorst’s boiler room and her speed dropped to 20 knots. By 6.40pm the destroyers were within 5 miles of the enemy and began the use of torpedoes one of which scored a hit.
Thrice more she was hit and as her speed was reducing the damage from the hits left only one turret still firing. At 7pm the destroyers withdrew and the “Duke of York” and “Jamaica” opened fire. Hit after hit was seen and “Scharnhorst” was on fire. Finally, the destroyers, together with “Belfast” and “Jamaica”, closed and fired torpedoes at close range. The “Duke” withdrew when all that could be seen of the enemy was a dull glow through thick smoke. She was listing and stopped and, though burning, still tried to fire her after turret. “Jamaica” fired three more torpedoes and explosions were heard. “Scharnhorst” sank slowly by the bows and she rolled over and sank. Only 36 survivors were picked up out of a complement of 1,968!
All the ships in the convoy arrived safely.
Ordered: 25 January 1934
Laid down: 15 June 1935
Launched: 3 October 1936
Commissioned: 7 January 1939
Fate: Sunk at 72°16′N 28°41′E / 72.267°N 28.683°E / 72.267; 28.683 the Battle of North Cape on 26 December 1943
Class and type: Scharnhorst
Displacement: 31,552 tonnes (standard) 38,900 tonnes (full load)
Length: 235.4 metres (772 ft 4 in) overall
229.8 metres (753 ft 11 in) waterline
Beam: 30 metres (98 ft 5 in)
Draft: 9.93 metres (32 ft 7 in) at 37,500 long tons (38,100 tonnes)
Propulsion: 3 Brown-Boveri geared turbines;
3 three-bladed propellers, 4.8 metres (15 ft 9 in) diameter;
161,164 shp (120.18 MW)
Speed: 33 knots (61 km/h)
Range: 10,100 nmi (18,710 km) at 19 knots (18,700 km at 35 km/h)
Complement: 1,968 (60 officers, 1,909 enlisted)
processing systems: 80-cm wavelength RADAR from 1940
9 × 28 cm/54.5 (11″) SK C/34
12 × 15 cm/55 (5.9″) SK C/28
14 × 10.5 cm/65 (4.1″) SK C/33
16 × 3.7 cm/L83 (1.5″) SK C/30
10 (later 16) × 2 cm/65 (0.79″) C/30 or C/38
6 × 533 mm torpedo tubes
Armor: Main belt: 350 mm (13.78 inch)
Deck: 95 mm max.
Aircraft carried: 3 Arado Ar 196A-3, 1 catapult
It was then that I tripped over a description of the battle in my ‘e’Mails from Norman Scarth on the destroyer Matchless
DECEMBER 1943: I was the youngest seaman aboard the destroyer HMS Matchless. Still very much a lad, I had barely started to shave. We were escorting convoys carrying war supplies to Murmansk for our Russian allies. I still recall the howling gales, mountainous seas, biting cold, freezing spray, 23 hour dark, sea sickness & the ever present German U-boats. A ‘ping’ on the Asdic echo-sounder brought a sudden surge of power & a heel to port or starboard as we raced to drop a ‘pattern’ of depth charges where the U-boat was thought to be.
CHRISTMAS EVE 1943: Signal received, “Detach from returning ‘empty‘ convoy, & join Convoy JW55B (a Murmansk bound convoy, approaching Bear Island) at full speed”. There was a full gale blowing. Pitching & rolling along at about 10 knots with the empty convoy was one thing. ‘Full speed’ (36 knots) was another!
Throwing herself through the mountainous seas, Matchless’s bow would rise in the air, hover for a moment & come down with a crash as though on concrete. Violent seas crashing on to the upper deck had smashed to smithereens the whaler & motor boat (our lifeboats).
Christmas Day was spent thus, during which time the name ‘SCHARNHORST’ was passing round the ship. The name was spoken with a mixture of excitement, awe & fear. The Scharnhorst had a reputation – & had earned it!. She was a German battle-cruiser.
BOXING DAY: Signal “Leave convoy JW55B & join 10th Cruiser Squadron (HMS Belfast, Norfolk &Sheffield)”. They were in action a few miles away, & yes, it WAS the Scharnhorst!
She had broken off the engagement &, with her superior speed had got out of range & contact. Having joined the cruisers, our force headed North to protect the convoy, V/Admiral Burnett guessing this to be her intended target. His guess proved to be correct.
About noon we met up with her & a short gun battle took place, during which the Norfolk was hit.
Scharnhorst broke off again & headed South for the safety of her Norwegian Fjord base.
Our force was outgunned by her 11” guns &, as said, with her superior speed she had the initiative. However, she was heading straight for another British force, led by the battleship Duke of York, with her 14” guns.
We were aware of this, the Scharnhorst was not. So, we took up a shadowing role.
By then the weather had eased a little; the twilight around noon had given way to the black of a winter Arctic night. The shadowing was done by radar, ours being superior to the Germans. At 5pm the blackness of the night exploded into light, star shells from the Duke of York & our force lighting up the Scharnhorst as bright as day. For the next two & three quarter hours a running battle took place. Shells from the Duke of York, cruisers & destroyers, torpedoes from cruisers & destroyers all hit the Scharnhorst.
She fought back magnificently but, outnumbered, outgunned &, most importantly, her speed reduced by damage, there could only be one end. About 7pm Matchless came steaming in on a torpedo run, Scharnhorst to our starboard, we on her port quarter. From my position as starboard bridge wing lookout, I had a perfect view at close range.
The magnificent ship, the most successful, most feared, the bravest, & surely the most beautiful fighting ship of any navy, was listing to starboard, fires blazing aboard her, but still firing with such guns as were able to do so.
We did not in fact fire our torpedoes, as storm damage prevented the tubes being trained to starboard, so we hauled around & started a run to use them from port.
As we did so all star shells ceased, & we were in darkness for a few minutes, the Scharnhorst nowhere to be seen.
We slowed, hove to, & in fact found ourselves almost exactly over the spot she had gone down. We used our searchlight & soon saw many floating men, most of them dead, face down in the water, bodies supported by their life belts – but some were alive. “Scharnhorst Gerzunken?” called out our captain, anxious to know whether she was still a threat to us. “Ja, Scharnhorst Gerzunken” came the reply.
We threw scrambling nets & ropes to haul the survivors aboard. There were 36 all told, from a ship’s company of nearly 2000. We on Matchless picked up 6 of them.
My main recollections of those days are the ferocious storms, the biting cold, the freezing spray which formed solid ice on the upperworks, the seamen on the upper deck looking like gnomes in their ‘goon suits’ (duffel coats were not enough under those conditions).
My main recollections of that particular Christmas are the full speed chase, the sight of that marvellous, magnificent ship, fighting to the very last, one of her 20mm guns (a pea shooter in comparison, which could have no part in this battle), firing a stream of tracers from the listing deck in a futile gesture of defiance right to the end, & the sight of so many who succumbed, floating in their watery graves.
Having picked up those six survivors, a signal came from the CinC “Join Duke of York to escort her to Murmansk”. Voices were still calling for help from the black of the Arctic night as we switched off the searchlight, hauled up the scrambling nets & steamed away, leaving the owners of those voices to certain death. I’m sure Lt. Shaw, our skipper (the youngest of the flotilla), would have liked to disobey orders, as we all would.
It seemed wrong at the time but, harsh though they were, the orders were right. Hove to, searchlight on, we were a sitting target for the U-boats in the area. Staying a moment too long could have ensured that we joined those unfortunate men.
On New years Day 1944 we steamed into Scapa Flow to a Hero’s welcome from all the ships & shore bases there, & headlines in the newspapers.
I was proud to have ‘done my bit’ in the fight against the Nazis. It had been grim retribution for my own brave young shipmates who had died around me some months before.
The words above are from my first little book, ‘SEAHORSES’.
I am less proud now. Tragically, all those who died, British & German, gave their lives in vain. EVERYTHING we fought against then has come about under the Blair Regime & the ‘Heirs to Blair’, who now rule this ‘1984’ Police State, the poppies they wear being a nauseating sham.
Those voices calling for help haunt me yet, not only at Christmas. It is for them, as well as those of our own side who gave their lives, that I will fight to my last breath against these Nu-Nazis – who are less honest than the old ones. That of course is why I am now labelled ‘A very dangerous man’. Indeed I am, but a danger to whom, & in what way?
“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821),
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