Scharnhorst was the first major capital ship to be built by Germany after World War 1. She was large, heavily armored, and very fast, but her 9 (3x3) main battery guns were only 11". In the first part of the war, she sortied with her sistership Gneisenau.
These two were the largest warships Germany had available when it invaded Norway on 9 April 1940. When they encountered the newly refitted British battle cruiser Renown, which had only 6 main battery guns (although they were the old but effective 15" guns of World War 1 vintage), 2 hits each were made on Gneisenau and Renown. The 15" shells were far more damaging, and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau fled the British ship.
On 8 June 1940, again off Norway, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered Royal Navy aircraft carrier Glorious escorted by only 2 A class destroyers, Acasta and Ardent. All 3 ships were sunk, although Acasta desperately scored a very damaging torpedo hit on Scharnhorst, before she went down. Over 1,500 men died. There were only 45 survivors.
In early 1941, these "terrible twins" would sortie into the Atlantic to attack merchant ships, and they sank a number of them. However, as Britain tightened its control over the Atlantic after the sinking of Bismarck, they stayed in their Occupied France port of Brest. Despite repeated RAF bombings, both ships broke out of Brest and made (along with heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen) their famous Channel Dash back to Germany February 1942, under the noses of the Royal Navy and RAF, despite some damage from mines.
An attempt was then made to re-arm Gneisenau with 6 (3x2) 15" guns, but it was damaged in harbor badly enough that it was knocked out of the war permanently. Scharnhorst was finally sent up to Norway to help Tirpitz attack the Anglo-American Arctic convoys to Murmansk and Arkangelsk, Russia.
Christmas 1943, Scharnhorst was at sea attempting to intercept an Allied convoy. Her escorting destroyers were sent off to broaden the search, and British and Norwegian ships stalked Scharnhorst relentlessly. On 26 December 1943, Allied cruisers and destroyers made first contact with it, with heavy cruiser Norfolk of Bismarck huntdown fame scoring an incredibly accurate, longrange hit on Scharnhorst's conning tower, knocking out its radar. Norfolk was hit back by dud 11" shells and slowed. Light cruisers Belfast were also in on the hunt.
Although the destroyers trying to overtake Scharnhorst were faster, the heavy seas slowed them down. Battleship Duke of York also got into 14" gun range, but it was significantly slower. Also, its 10 guns malfunctioned as badly as those of the other ships of its class, so at times only a few of them were firing.
It looked as though Scharnhorst might escape, when - at 1820 hours - Duke of York scored a very longrange hit knocking out Scharnhorst's No. 1 boiler room and slowing it enough that all Allied ships could get within gunfire and torpedo range. The Royal Norwegian Navy destroyer Stord scored one of the many torpedo hits that finally sent Scharnhorst to the bottom. Of its crew of 1,968, only 36 were rescued.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau differed noticeably in the placement of their mainmasts:
There is very good German newsreel footage of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at sea and sinking Glorious, Acasta, and Ardent on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61ALFBmkX9Y
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