World War II: Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst before World War II
Scharnhorst, 1939. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Scharnhorst was a battleship/battlecruiser that served with Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine during World War II. Commissioned in 1939, the ship mounted a main armament of nine 11-inch guns and was capable of 31 knots. During the early years of the war, Scharnhorst supported operations against Norway as well as raided Allied convoys in the North Atlantic. In December 1943, Scharnhorst was lured into a trap by the British and destroyed at the Battle of the North Cape.


In the late 1920s, debate ensued within Germany regarding the size and place of the nation's navy. These concerns were heightened by new shipbuilding in France and the Soviet Union which led to the Reichsmarine planning for new warships. Though restricted by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I to building warships of 10,000 long tons or less, initial designs far exceeded this displacement. 

After ascending to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler authorized the building of two D-class cruisers to supplement the three Deutschland-class panzerschiffes (armored ships) then under construction. Originally intended to mount two turrets like the earlier ships, the D-class became a source of conflict between the navy, which wanted larger more powerful vessels, and Hitler who was concerned about overly flaunting the Treaty of Versailles. After concluding the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935 which eliminated the treaty restrictions, Hitler canceled the two D-class cruisers and moved ahead with a pair of larger vessels dubbed Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in recognition of the two armored cruisers lost at the 1914 Battle of the Falklands

Though Hitler desired the ships to mount 15" guns, the necessary turrets were not available and they were instead equipped with nine 11" guns. Provision was made in the design to up-gun the vessels to six 15" guns in the future. This main battery was supported by twelve 5.9" guns in four twin turrets and four single mounts. Power for the new ships came from three Brown, Boveri, and Cie geared steam turbines which could generate a top speed of 31.5 knots. 

Scharnhorst tied up at a pier.
Scharnhorst in port when first completed, circa early 1939. US Naval History and Heritage Command


The contract for Scharnhorst was given to Kriegsmarinewerft in Wilhelmshaven. Laid down on on June 15, 1935, the new warship slid down the ways the following year on October 3. Commissioned on January 9, 1939 with Captain Otto Ciliax in command, Scharnhorst performed poorly during its sea trials and showed a tendency to ship large amounts of water over the bow. 

This frequently led to electrical issues with the forward turrets. Returning to the yard, Scharnhorst underwent significant modifications which included the installation of a higher bow, a raked funnel cap, and an enlarged hangar. Also, the ship's mainmast was shifted further aft. By the time this work was completed in November, Germany had already started World War II.



  • Nation: Germany
  • Type: Battleship/Battlecruiser
  • Shipyard: Kriegsmarinewerft Wilhelmshaven
  • Laid Down: June 15, 1935
  • Launched: October 3, 1936
  • Commissioned: January 7, 1939
  • Fate: Sunk December 26, 1943, Battle of the North Cape


  • Displacement: 32,600 tons
  • Length: 771 ft.
  • Beam: 98 ft.
  • Draft: 32 ft.
  • Propulsion: 3 Brown, Boveri, & Cie geared steam turbines
  • Speed: 31 knots
  • Range: 7,100 miles at 19 knots
  • Complement: 1,669 men



  • 9 × 28 cm/54.5 (11 inch) SK C/34
  • 12 × 15 cm/55 (5.9") SK C/28
  • 14 × 10.5 cm/65 (4.1 inch) 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


  • 3 × Arado Ar 196A

Into Action 

Commencing active operations under the leadership of Captain Kurt-Caesar Hoffman, Scharnhorst joined Gneisenau, the light cruiser Köln, and nine destroyers for a patrol between the Faroes and Iceland in late November. Intended to draw the Royal Navy away from its pursuit of Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, the sortie saw Scharnhorst sink the auxiliary cruiser Rawalpindi on November 23. Pursued by a force that included the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the battleships HMS Rodney, HMS Nelson, and the French Dunkerque, the German squadron escaped back to Wilhelmshaven. Arriving in port, Scharnhorst underwent an overhaul and repaired damaged sustained by heavy seas.


Following training exercises in the Baltic during the winter, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed to take part in the invasion of Norway (Operation Weserübung). After evading British air attacks on April 7, the ships engaged the British battlecruiser HMS Renown off Lofoten. In a running fight, Scharnhorst's radar malfunctioned making it difficult to range the enemy vessel

After Gneisenau sustained several hits, the two ships used heavy weather to cover their withdrawal. Repaired in Germany, the two ships returned to Norwegian waters in early June and sank a British corvette on the 8th. As the day progressed, the Germans located the carrier HMS Glorious and the destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent. Closing with the three ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank all three but not before Acasta struck the former with a torpedo. 

View of Scharnhorts looking forward along the port side as waves crash over the bow.
Scharnhorst taking water over the bow while steaming in heavy seas, possibly during the Atlantic sortie of January-March 1941. A 150mm twin gun turret is in the foreground. US Naval History and Heritage Command

The hit killed 48 sailors, jammed the aft turret, as well as caused extensive flooding which disabled machinery and led to a 5-degree list. Forced to make temporary repairs at Trondheim, Scharnhorst endured multiple air attacks from land-based British aircraft and HMS Ark Royal. Departing for Germany on June 20, it sailed south with a heavy escort and extensive fighter cover. This proved necessary as successive British air attacks were turned back. Entering the yard at Kiel, repairs on Scharnhorst took around six months to complete.

Into the Atlantic

In January 1941, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau slipped into the Atlantic to commence Operation Berlin. Commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens, the operation called for the ships to attack Allied convoys. Though leading a powerful force, Lütjens was hampered by orders which prohibited him from engaging Allied capital ships. 

Encountering convoys on February 8 and March 8, he broke off both attacks when British battleships were sighted. Turning towards the mid-Atlantic, Scharnhorst sank a Greek cargo ship before finding a dispersed convoy on March 15. Over the next several days, it destroyed another nine ships before the arrival of the battleships HMS King George V and Rodney compelled Lütjens to retreat. 

Arriving at Brest, France on March 22, work soon commenced on Scharnhorst's machinery which had proved problematic during the operation. As a result, the vessel was not available to support Operation Rheinübung involving the new battleship Bismarck that May.

Channel Dash

Moving south to La Rochelle, Scharnhorst sustained five bomb hits during an air raid on July 24. Causing extensive damage and an 8-degree list, the ship returned to Brest for repairs. In January 1942, Hitler directed that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen return to Germany in preparation for operations against convoys to the Soviet Union. Under the overall command of Ciliax, the three ships put to sea on February 11 with the intention of running through the British defenses in the English Channel. 

Initially avoiding detection from British forces, the squadron later came under attack. While off the Scheldt, Scharnhorst struck an air-dropped mine at 3:31 PM which caused hull damage as well as jammed a turret and several other gun mounts and knocked out electrical power. Brought to a halt, emergency repairs were conducted which allowed the vessel to get underway at reduced speed eighteen minutes later. 

At 10:34 PM, Scharnhorst hit a second mine while near Terschelling. Again disabled, the crew were able to get one propeller turning and the ship limped into Wilhelmshaven the next morning. Moved to a floating dry dock, Scharnhorst remained out of action until June.

Back to Norway

In August 1942, Scharnhorst commenced training exercises with several U-boats. During these maneuvers it collided with U-523 which necessitated a return to dry dock. Emerging in September, Scharnhorst trained in the Baltic before steaming to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) to receive new rudders. 

After two aborted attempts during the winter of 1943, the ship moved north to Norway in March and rendezvoused with Lützow and the battleship Tirpitz near Narvik. Shifting to Altafjord, the ships conducted a training mission to Bear Island in early April. On April 8, Scharnhorst was rocked by an explosion in an aft auxiliary machinery space which killed and injured 34 sailors. Repaired, it and its consorts were largely inactive for the next six months due to fuel shortages. 

Side view of Scharnhorst anchored in a fjord.
Scharnhorst in the Alta Fjord, Norway, circa March-December 1943. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Battle of the North Cape

Sortieing on September 6 with Tirpitz, Scharnhorst steamed north and bombarded Allied facilities at Spitzbergen. Three months later, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz ordered German vessels in Norway to attack Allied convoys sailing to and from the Soviet Union. As Tirpitz was damaged, the German attack force consisted of Scharnhorst and five destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey.

Receiving aerial reconnaissance reports of convoy JW 55B, Bey departed Altafjord on December 25 with the intention of attacking the next day. Moving against his target, he was unaware that Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser had laid a trap with the goal of eliminating the German ship. Detecting Scharnhorst around 8:30 AM on December 26, Vice Admiral Robert Burnett's force, consisting of the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk and light cruisers HMS Belfast and HMS Sheffield, closed with the enemy in increasingly poor weather to open the Battle of the North Cape

Commencing fire, they succeeded in disabling Scharnhorst's radar. In a running battle, Bey sought to loop around the British cruisers before deciding to return to port at 12:50 PM. Pursuing the enemy, Burnett relayed the German ship's position to Fraser who was in the vicinity with the battleship HMS Duke of York, the light cruiser HMS Jamaica, and four destroyers. At 4:17 PM, Fraser located Scharnhorst on radar and ordered his destroyers forward to launch a torpedo attack. With its radar down, the German ship was taken by surprise as Duke of York's guns began scoring hits. 

Turning away, Scharnhorst narrowed the range with Burnett's cruisers which rejoined the battle. As the fight developed, Bey's vessel was badly battered by British guns and sustained four torpedo hits. With Scharnhorst critically damaged and the bow partially submerged, Bey ordered the ship abandoned at 7:30 PM. As these orders were issued, another torpedo attack scored several more hits on the stricken Scharnhorst. Around 7:45 PM a massive explosion tore through the ship and it slipped beneath the waves. Racing forward, British vessels were only able to rescue 36 of Scharnhorst's 1,968-man crew.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Scharnhorst." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Scharnhorst. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Scharnhorst." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).