• Simon Biggs

Sinking of the Scharnhorst boxing day 1943


On 20th December 1943 Convoy JW55B, comprising 19 merchant ships screened by 10 destroyers, was bound for Russia sailed on December 20th to resupply the Eastern Front.

The convoy served as bait to entice the Scharnhorst into action. Also in the vicinity was a British force consisting of the battleship HMS Duke of York, the cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers. Also inbound from the east were the British Cruisers HMS Norfolk, HMS Belfast, and HMS Sheffield.

Many Royal Marines were amongst their crews as Gunners, butchers and bandsman.

Scharnhorst in Port

The German battle group set sail on Christmas day, coming from the South was KMS Scharnhorst and her screen of destroyers looking for the convoy. Scharnhorst and its escort were steaming through a snow storm when, at 7:30am, the destroyers were detached to the southwest to look for the convoy.

Scharnhorst was now on her own and sailed north until, at 9:00am, she came under fire from three enemy cruisers. During the running battle, the forward radar on Scharnhorst was hit by a British shell which essentially blinded the vessel.

Scharnhorst then turned south at 30 knots outrunning the cruisers in heavy seas. Scharnhorst then ran south, turning east to attack the convoy from another angle. As she turned north again, around noon, Scharnhorst came upon the cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield. At ranges between 4 and 8 miles, all ships received damage.

At 12:41pm, Scharnhorst turned south at 22 knots, unknowingly, towards the British battleship Duke of York.

At 4:20pm on 26th December the major British force lead by Duke of York made radar contact with Scharnhorst at 20 miles while the three cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield were in hot pursuit.

Scharnhorst was hit and turned southwest and then turned to hit back with broadsides while zig-zagging. As Duke of York closed in, the order was given for four destroyers to make a torpedo attack on Scharnhorst and five torpedoes eventually found their mark.

Duke of York firing on Scharnhorst

By 7:00pm, the range between Scharnhorst and Duke of York closed to approximately 8,000 yards with Duke of York hitting Scharnhorst with broadsideafter-broadside. One of Scharnhorst engines failed yet she was still able to make 22 knots.

Duke of York was too close now to use "plunging fire" to destroy Scharnhorst so she stopped firing and sent the cruisers Jamaica and Belfast and her destroyers to finish her off with torpedoes. By this time, the Scharnhorst was only able to manage 12 knots. Taking her punishment, the great German ship went down by the bow and rolled over to starboard. A large explosion was heard by British observers and then the Scharnhorst disappeared beneath the waves.

Thirty six survivors were rescued from her crew of 1,960.


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