This Day In History: The German Cruiser The Scharnhorst Is Sunk in the Arctic (1943)

On this day in 1943, there was a naval battle in the icy waters of the Arctic. On this date some, British Royal Navy warships tracked down and attacked the German battle cruiser the Scharnhorst. The German cruiser had been on the lookout for British or American ships in the Arctic sea. The Arctic was a key supply route for the Soviet Union at the time. Anglo-American convoys supplied the Soviets with essential war supplies and materials. The German cruiser was in the Arctic sea in order to attack one of these convoys. These convoys were usually made up of merchantmen escorted by destroyers.

The German navy had posed serious threats to the Arctic convoys since the fall of 1941.  It had sunk many ships carrying badly needed supplies to the hard-pressed Soviet people. German U-boats and battleships had been able to sink many allied ships.

The German cruiser was one of the most feared ships in Hitler’s navy. It had sunk the British ship the HMS Rawalpindi in 1939 and later took part in the operation that sank a British aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy was very eager to sink or immobilize this formidable battleship.

The Scharnhorst had been stationed in Norway and was on stand-by to attack an Arctic convoy. It and five destroyers were ordered to leave port and attack a large convoy that had been detected by a German U-boat. The Scharnhorst set out to destroy the convoy. However, the British had broken the German code and knew the plans of the Scharnhorst. The Royal Navy sent three cruisers and a number of destroyers to intercept it. As the Scharnhorst and its escort of destroyers were about to attack the convoy they were surprised by the Royal Navy, of North Cape at the extreme north of Norway.  The encounter between the German cruiser and the Royal Navy is often referred to as the Battle of the North Cape.  The British bombarded the Scharnhorst, but the German cruiser returned fire and damaged the HMS Norfolk. The Duke of York hit the German cruiser and damaged it badly. The German cruiser tried to flee and make it back to its home port but the British ordered some destroyers to follow it. The destroyers fired almost a dozen torpedoes and two hit the Scharnhorst. The German cruiser, suddenly listed and then sank into the icy waters.

HMS_Duke_of_York_gunners_A_021168
HMS Duke of York gunners after sinking the Scharnhorst

Almost all of the  2,000 German sailors and crew were drowned and only 36 survived, after being picked up by the British ships. The Scharnhorst wreckage was investigated in 2000.

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  • Brent Richards

    I don’t even know where to begin. First, the photo here is of the SMS Scharnhorst which was sunk off the Falkland Islands in 1914, the British had Duke of York, a battleship, not a cruiser, along with the heavy cruisers Sheffield and Norfolk, the german destroyers had detached form the Scharnhorst to look for the convoy, the HMS Rawalpindi was a British armed merchant cruiser that was sunk
    in a surface action against the German battleships Scharnhorst and
    Gneisenau