The Nazi battleship Scharnhorst lived a charmed life from the early days of World War II until Christmas 1943. The ship was among the most powerful of the Kriegsmarine’s most powerful surface units and, until the launch of the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, she and her sister ship Gneisenau were the pride of the Kriegsmarine. Often operating as a pair, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy. In the opening days of World War II, the ships sank the armed British merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi and later sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (see photo above) during the 1940 invasion of Norway.
The sister ships also broke out into the North Atlantic and sent several Allied merchantmen to the bottom of the sea. After the loss of the Bismarck, the decision was made to withdraw Nazi surface ships from the French coast. In early February 1942, the ships, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, made a daring dash up the length of the English Channel. The Scharnhorst was then re-deployed to the northern waters of Norway in order to threaten Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union.
On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst along with several destroyer escorts set sail from Norway to intercept an Allied convoy. Unbeknownst to the Kriegsmarine, the Royal Navy had intercepted and decoded the Scharnhorst’s orders and therefore laid a trap for the ship. Three Royal Navy cruisers screened the convoy from Scharnhorst while a squadron led by the battleship Duke of York raced to cut off the Nazi force from safety in Norwegian waters. After a fruitless pursuit of the convoy, the Scharnhorst cut off contact and began to return to base on December 26. In a three hour battle, the Scharnhorst was battered by the Royal Navy squadron and finally sank with only 36 survivors out of a crew of 1,968.
The wreck of the Scharnhorst was discovered in 2000 by the Norwegian Navy and further investigation revealed the extent of the damage inflicted by the Royal Navy. A total of 2,195 shells were fired at the ship along with 55 torpedoes. Eleven of the torpedoes found their mark and the torpedo and shell damage was extensive. The entire bow section of the ship was blown off the ship, most likely the result of an explosion in a forward magazine. Go here for a gallery of images from the Norwegian Navy’s investigation as well as period photos of the Scharnhorst.