It was fun chasing the Scharnhorst.

StoryKettle » Notes » Scharnhorst

Copyright © 2015, Michael M Wayman

The Scharnhorst was the last of Hitler’s four battleships. The quote above is from my mother Peggy Wayman who worked at Bletchley Park. I think that she was moving markers (model ships) around on a large mapping table.

The Bismarck sank on 27th May 1941 after sinking HMS Hood. After being hit by a torpedo from an aircraft the Bismarck could move only in a circle and was a sitting target. The Gneisenau (the sister of the Scharnhorst) hit a mine in the English Channel on 12th Feb 1942 and was ruined in a bomber attack in dock on 27th Feb 1942. The Tirpitz (the sister of the Bismarck) was damaged by small submarines in September 1943. It was used as a floating gun station near Tromsø until 12th Nov 1944 when it was sunk by Tall-Boy bombs dropped by Lancasters.

The Scharnhorst has been found – 290 meters under water 66 see-miles north of the northern most point of Norway. On page 278 in the Spiegel article “Death in the Polar Night” from 9th Oct 2000 is a side-scan-sonar picture of the vessel on the sea bed.

At the beginning of the winter in 1943 Hitler’s forces were fighting for their existence. The Russians were gaining on the east front. The western Allies were sending supplies in convoys to Murmansk and Archangel. On 22nd Dec 1943 a German recon­naissance plane sighted the convoy JW.55B en route to Russia. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz gave the order for the Scharnhorst to intercept and destroy on Christmas Day 1943.

“The convoy must be stopped” – but the Germans did not know that the British had two secret weapons: radar and code-breaking. Hundreds of experts worked in Bletchley Park in England to decipher the coded German military radio messages. The British broke the code of the order before the Scharnhorst left harbour and sent two groups of ships: “Force 1” and “Force 2”. See the map on page 272.

Despite 23 hours of darkness in the polar night and a snow storm the ships in “Force 1” using radar were able to find the Scharnhorst and attacked twice on 26th Dec 1943 at 09:29 and 12:21, but without success. The German officers overestimated the fire power of the smaller British ships and the Scharnhorst fled in direction south-east into the path of HMS Duke of York. The British battleship (in “Force 2”) was a match for the Scharnhorst and opened fire from a great distance using radar-directed guns at 16:50. The Germans were totally unprepared. By 19:00 the last of the big guns on the Scharnhorst was silent.

The last message to Adolf Hitler appears on page 272, decoded and translated in Bletchley Park (one hour time difference). The Scharnhorst sank at 19:45. Only 36 men from the 1840 strong crew were saved. The survivor Helmut Feifer is shown on page 273 with a model of the Scharnhorst.

Links are Bletchley Park and the Scharnhorst was sunk and Tod in der Polarnacht  Deutch