Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part One

By Kristin Ann High
August 2019

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were arguably the most active capital ships of the Kriegsmarine, in which regard they were worthy successors of their namesakes, the armoured cruisers of Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee's East Asia Squadron (see Cruiser Warfare). The pair operated together through the first two years of the Second World War, and only became separated after the failure of the Channel Dash, in February 1942.

Although defined by most contemporary publications and intelligence reports as battlecruisers, the ships were classed upon completion as battleships [1] by the German Navy. While the French Dunkerque and Strasbourg [2] were certainly a modern take on the Croiseur de Combat, the German ships were an admixture of the Reichsmarine's Panzerschiffe and the Imperial Navy's Great War Schlachtkreuzern.

More heavily armoured than the Panzerschiffe, four to six knots faster to match the French ship, their main battery mounted an improved model of the 11-inch rifle. Although eminently suited to the Panzerschiffe rôle — it was far more powerful than any Treaty Cruiser's main battery rifle — the 11-inch rifle was simply inadequate for surface combat between capital ships. It was inferior in every respect to both the French 13-inch and British 15-inch, much less the more modern French 15-inch and British 14-inch rifles then being developed for those navies' new capital ships.

Therein lies one of the more useful "what if..." arguments of naval warfare. Both German battlecruisers were designed to carry the new-model German 15-inch naval rifle, the same rifle that eventually armed Bismarck and Tirpitz. The impact of a heavy rifle on the two ships has far-reaching effects on sea battles in every theatre of war.

The difference between the 11-inch rifle and the 15-inch rifle is stark [3]. The new-model 11-inch rifle fired an APC round weighing 728 pounds. (330 kg). The 15-inch rifle fired an APC shell weighing 1,764 pounds (800 kg). For shells having similar ballistic profiles, fired at contemporary pressures, the difference in shell weight — and therefore in kinetic energy — between the 11-inch shell and the 15-inch shell directly effects shell penetration. Moreover, the German 11-inch APC shell had a bursting charge of roughly 15 pounds, while the 15-inch APC shell had a bursting charge of roughly 41 pounds, almost three times the explosive capacity.


During the opening months of the war, the first of the Kriegsmarine's two operational Schlachtshiffe were employed for traditional surface action against the Royal Navy. Their first war operation was an attack on the ship's of the Royal Navy's Northern Patrol, constituting the Allied Blockade Line, intended to relieve pressure on Admiral Graf Spee.

They next sortied in an attempt to intercept British convoys between Great Britain and Norway. Their crowning moment as a battleline came while serving as covering forces for the German sea, air, and land assaults on Denmark and Norway.

Employed as commerce raiders, they made one raid into the Atlantic, achieving modest results. Their final operation together was the failed Channel Dash, which left both ships crippled and which doomed Gneisenau. Scharnhorst recovered, and went on to perish in a desperate action in the Arctic Ocean.

Diversionary Attack

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau saw their first action in November 1939, as part of a surface action force ordered to engage the Allied ships of the Northern Patrol (see Bismarck, Operational Scenario Four, "First Sortie"). The Battle Fleet Commander, Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, commanded the operation in person, flying his flag from Scharnhorst. The heavy ships were screened by the light cruisers Köln and Leipzig, and the destroyers Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese, and Karl Galster, under the command of the BdA [4] in person, Vizeadmiral Hermann Densch. Scharnhorst was commanded by Kapitän-zur-See (Kpt.z.S.) Kurt Hoffmann, Gneisenau by Kpt.z.S. Harald Netzbandt.

Scharnhorst in early 1939.

The OKM plan was to prosecute a vigorous attack against the Northern Patrol by fleet elements in strength, alarming the British Admiralty and forcing it to weaken the Allied hunting groups in the South and Central Atlantic, to guard against the possibility that the Battle Fleet operations were covering the break out of additional raiders, possibly even Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. This might be enough distraction to permit Admiral Graf Spee, raiding in the South Atlantic (see Cone of Fire), to break through to Germany.

Marschall appears to have interpreted his orders rather differently than Raeder and the OKM had hoped. Instead of striking with his whole squadron against the Northern Patrol at several points, he decided upon hit-and-run strikes against the weakest elements of the Northern Patrol, using only one of his heavy ships at a time. Marschall's post-action report to OKM stated that he hoped in this way to sow maximum confusion, while exposing his ships to minimal risk. In respect of confusion, at least, he succeeded, though more from the natural mistakes of the British than by his own stratagem. The Admiralty was still of the opinion that Deutschland was at large in the North Atlantic, and the ships of the Northern Patrol were watching for her.

Marschall detached the screening cruisers and destroyers on the 22nd, leaving Densch in command, and proceeded with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in search of the British blockade cruisers. The next day, 23rd November 1939, he found one in the Iceland-Faröes Gap — the auxiliary cruiser [5] Rawalpindi, under the command of a 60 year-old, retired Royal Navy captain, Edward Coverley "Bulldog" Kennedy. Marschall kept Gneisenau out of sight over the horizon, and went ahead with Scharnhorst to attack the British ship.

As his lookouts sighted Scharnhorst, closing in, Kennedy ordered Action Stations and signaled the Admiralty he was in action against a German raider — he believed it was Deutschland [6]. He turned Rawalpindi to meet the German ship, hoping to close the range and inflict what harm he could. It was not to be. Scharnhorst put several 11-inch salvos onto Rawalpindi, sending her down. As Rawalpindi was sending her last signals, the 'Town'-class 6-inch cruiser Newcastle appeared on the horizon, making flank speed in heavy seas. Marschall fled, taking the two battlecruisers north into a band of foul weather.

The foul weather further helped Marschall avoid the surface action he was ordered to force — Newcastle could not make out much more of Scharnhorst than had the doomed Rawalpindi, and nothing at all of Gneisenau. Having driven the raider off, she did not pursue, a single 6-inch cruiser unsupported being considered no match for a Panzerschiff. The Admiralty were now certain they had found Deutschland, and mobilized the Fleet to guard egress from the North Sea to the Atlantic, and to hunt the raider.

After sinking Rawalpindi, Marschall sailed further north. According to German sources [7], Marschall moved back above the Arctic Circle, into the Norwegian Sea [8], to take up a pre-arranged "waiting position" and observe the effects of his sortie; from there he could decide where to strike next. Given his own conduct of the engagement — Marschall fled from a single warship that could do his two ships little harm, and which was moreover properly a target of his orders — given Raeder's scathing commentary on Marschall's conduct and courage, and the weight of professional opinion, it may well be that Marschall was simply looking for a chance to bolt for Germany.

The Admiralty reacted swiftly to the report of Deutschland at the gates of the North Sea. The old 'D'-class 6-inch cruiser Delhi, already nearby, was first to reach Newcastle and join the hunt. The 'Town'-class 6-inch cruiser Sheffield sailed from Loch Ewe, picking up an escort of three destroyers from Scapa Flow en route. The old 'C'-class 6-inch cruisers Calypso and Ceres were ordered to take over the watch on the Iceland-Faröes Gap, with the 'County'-class 8-inch cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk detached from the Denmark Strait patrol to reinforce them. The 'Queen Elizabeth'-class battleship Warspite was detached from inbound convoy HX.9 to replace the 8-inch cruisers at the Denmark Strait.

To watch the Faröes-Shetlands passage, the 'C'-class 6-inch cruisers Caledon, Cardiff, and Colombo were despatched, to be reinforced by the old 'D'-class 6-inch cruisers Dunedin and Diomede coming up from Belfast.

The modern 6-inch cruiser Aurora, and the modern 'Town'-class 6-inch cruisers Edinburgh and Southampton, sailed with the 'Tribal'-class destroyers Afridi and Gurkha, and the 'K'-class destroyer Kingston, from the Firth of Forth, all headed for the Iceland-Faröes gap. The the 'Tribal'-class destroyer Bedouin was ordered to patrol the Pentland Firth [9]. Outbound convoy ON.3, having just departed, was recalled, and the three destroyers of its escort were ordered to join the 'Town'-class 6-inch cruiser Glasgow and, together with another two destroyers off Norway, intercept the German passenger liner Bremen.

Four submarines already on patrol were ordered to watch the Skagerrak, and all available submarines in the north were ordered out.

Finally, the C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Morton Forbes, KCB, DSO, RN [10], sortied from The Clyde to support these forces with his flagship Nelson, her sister Rodney, the 'County'-class 8-inch cruiser Devonshire, and seven destroyers, mostly the 'F'-class ships of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla. Devonshire was ordered ahead to scout towards Bergen [11].

To cover the possibility that Deutschland had broken out of the North Sea, the battlecruiser Repulse and the fleet carrier Furious were ordered out from Halifax, Nova Scotia. A French Force de Raide, commanded by Vice Amiral Marcel Gensoul, sortied from Brest on the 25th, rendezvousing with the British battlecruiser Hood, screened by the destroyers Exmouth, Echo and Eclipse, out from Plymouth.

Vice Amiral Marcel Gensoul's hunting hroup thus comprised two battlecruisers, two 6-inch cruisers, two large destroyers, and three modern fleet destroyers. All of Gensoul's ships were capable of making close to 30 knots — Hood was the slowest — which was sufficient to catch Deutschland. Gensoul's powerful hunting group patrolled south of Ireland.

Satisfied that he had executed his mission, Marschall used the end of a major North Sea storm to pass south through Norwegian territorial waters on the night of the 26th-27th, and returned to Germany.

Under the prevailing anxiety over Deutschland's whereabouts and the appalling weather a number of merchant ships succeeded in running the Allied blockade to Germany. A total of nine ships of 48,850 GRT were able to run the Allied blockade, thanks to the distraction afforded by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

No effect of any kind was had on the hunt for Admiral Graf Spee, as the Allies were reacting to what they believed was another pocket battleship, rather than a major sortie by the German Battle Fleet. One auxiliary cruiser was sunk by Scharnhorst, and the operation accomplished some disruption of North Atlantic convoy operations.

German sources which declare victory for Marschall's operation base much of their claim on the passage of those nine merchant vessels through the blockade lines — including one ship which actually passed an inspection by Sheffield — and the despatch of major Allied surface forces to hunt Deutschland. They point out that the Allies were fooled into hunting a ship already safe in German waters.

Merchant ships, however, are not pocket battleships. The Royal Navy's inattention to blockade duty was a consequence of its focus on guarding the passages from the North Sea into the North Atlantic, which are likewise the passages from the North Atlantic into the North Sea. Admiral Graf Spee was in the far South Atlantic, many days sailing from the North Sea. For Marschall to have accomplished his orders, he would have to have attracted a great deal more attention than he managed; in this regard, the misidentification of Scharnhorst for Deutschland worked against the OKM's intent. To attract the kind of focus Raeder intended, Marschall would have to strike hard at several points against ships of the Northern Patrol; not simply risking a single surface engagement, but forcing several.

A Serious Threat

Given the power of the German battlecruisers, it is quite possible that Scharnhorst could have dealt with Newcastle in short order as she came up in answer to Rawalpindi's signal. One or two more such attacks on the Northern Patrol, while Forbes chased after the faster German squadron with Nelson and Rodney, and Furious and Repulse hurried from Halifax, might have sown enough confusion to result in an Allied concentration in the wrong place for just enough time.

This is a slim reed to hang a passage from the South Atlantic on, however. The Allied superiority in surface warships was overwhelming. Despite believing they were hunting the elusive Deutschland, rather than a surface battle group led by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Allies still mustered ample forces to deal with both battlecruisers, while still reinforcing the Northern Patrol for any other German surface ships attempting to break out of the North Sea. Vice Admiral Gensoul's Hunting Group was just fast enough to catch Marschall up, and certainly powerful enough to hurt him, but it was not so overwhelmingly superior that the outcome was certain on either hand.

To achieve his full purpose, Admiral Marschall would have needed to hit the Allies hard enough for them to recognize, or at least suspect, that there was another German raider or raiding group at large. The danger of a breakout, or of a surface action squadron covering the return of Deutschland — or even of Admiral Graf Spee — would have stretched Allied naval forces in both the North and South Atlantic. With Newcastle and Rawalpindi believing they had fought Deutschland, an attack on Newcastle and Delhi by the two German battleships ships operating together might have sufficiently alarmed the Admiralty to accomplish the OKM's objectives.

As it was carried out, Marschall's sortie against the Northern Patrol reaped limited rewards for limited risk; Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returned unscathed — in fact, unnoticed — from their first sortie, but the Allies were hardly the worse for it, and Admiral Graf Spee was doomed, with or without her captain's foolhardy bravado in the estuary of The Plate.

The only aspect of this first operation where heavier armament would have been a factor lay in the potential for surface action with Vice Admiral Gensoul's hunting group — there was no real possibility of running afoul of Warspite in the Denmark Strait, as that passage lay too far to the west of the Kriegsmarine's operating bases, and no support vessels were at sea to allow the two heavy ships to operate as raiders.

In the case of the Anglo-French hunting group, the impact of heavier main battery rifles on the German ships is significant. Gensoul's ships could just stay with Marschall's squadron, provided they were willing to leave Hood astern, leaving Dunkerque, the cruisers, and the destroyers to try and overtake the German ships. Gensoul commanded more destroyers, and his modern light cruisers were superior to the older German ships. Dunkerque and Hood both possessed the range and rifle power to batter all of the German ships to pieces without undue expose to return fire, and neither ship was particularly vulnerable to the 11-inch rifles of the German battleships in any event. The powerful new German 15-inch rifles planned for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, however, were easily equal to the Allied main battery in every respect, and posed a serious threat to both Allied battlecruisers, as Bismarck would demonstrate to deadly effect in the Denmark Strait on 27th May 1941.

Scharnhorst firing on the British aircraft carrier Glorious, June 1940. The photo was taken from Gneisenau.


[1] The German is quite specific. Schlachtschiffe means literally "battle ships" (the singular is Schlachtschiff), while Schlachtkreuzer means literally "battle cruiser" (the plural is Schlachtkreuzern). Great War-era armoured cruisers, like Admiral Graf von Spee's Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were Großer Kreuzer, literally"great cruiser". Light cruisers like von Spee's Leipzig, Nürnberg, and Dresden, were Kleiner Kreuzer, literally "small cruiser". With the emergence of the 8-inch "treaty cruiser" after the Washington Naval Treaty, cruisers became generally divided into light and heavy types, principally based on their main battery. The German for "light cruiser" was Leichter Kreuzer, literally "light cruiser", and the "heavy cruiser" was Schwerer Kreuzer, literally "heavy cruiser" (the plurals are Leichter Kreuzeren, and Schwerer Kreuzeren, respectively).

[2] The two French ships provided the Reich government—now led by Adolph Hitler — with the political justification to build Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, necessary in the German Chancellor's view to keep relations with Great Britain friendly. Although the French protested violently over the two German "improved" Panzerschiffe, the British concluded a unilateral Naval Treaty with Germany.

[3] While the popular notion of summing up "weight of broadside" to calculate fleet power is fallacious—firing nine 2,000 lb. shells "sends a massive broadside of 18,000 lbs. of steel hurling towards the enemy", but unless a shell hits, this impressive feat amounts to 0 lbs. of steel on target — the weight of an individual shell is of the first order of importance in surface naval warfare, for it determines the armour penetration and bursting charge capacity of the shell.

[4] The Befehlshaber der Aufklärungsstreitkräfte (BdA), the Commander of Reconnaissance Ships or Forces; a commodore commanding light forces employed to scout or screen heavy ships.

[5] These ships are known by a great many names, but their general lines are the same — merchant hulls, commonly passenger ships or large freighters, armed with a miscellany of old naval rifles and perhaps some depth charges or torpedoes, commanded by retired or passed-over regular Navy officers, with the remaining crew usually reservists.

The German merchant raiders were called Handels-Stör-Kreuzer (HSK), "commerce disruption cruisers"; the Royal Navy employed the term auxiliary cruiser, although many later British histories use the term auxiliary merchant cruiser (the German histories use Hilfskreuzer, "auxiliary cruiser" for the Allied ships); the most widely used term is armed merchant cruisers, and is from that usage that the Second World War at Sea Ship Type derives — AMC.

Whatever they were called, they were no match for a warship — except perhaps one crewed by Australians — and certainly not for two battlecruisers.

[6] Two Panzerschiffe had sortied from Germany during the crisis of August 1939 to take up waiting positions in the Atlantic. These were Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee. As is so often the case in such situations, crews see what they are expecting to see; Rawalpindi had been told that the Admiralty believed — correctly as it turned out — that Deutschland was operating in the North Atlantic. Deutschland's first war cruise was desultory at best, at least in part because the North Atlantic was alive with Allied warships. Deutschland returned to Germany via the Färoes-Shetlands Gap, anchoring in Gotenhafen 17th November 1939.

[7] Chronik des Seekrieges 193–1945, by Jürgen Rohwer with Gerhard Hümmelchen, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, 2007. See also: "".

[8] Rohwer uses the German Nordpolarmeer, literally North Polar Sea; I believe this refers to the Norwegian Sea, but it may be that the German ships sailed into the extreme North of the North Sea, rather than the southern portions of the Arctic Ocean. Whatever the case, the German ships sailed above the Arctic Circle (Nordpolarkreis), a considerable distance for two such short-legged ships to sail just to "wait" — German sources are also silent as to what Marschall was waiting for.

[9] The heavy ships of the Home Fleet were at Greenock, in The Clyde, after U.47 sank Royal Oak in the Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow on 14th October 1939. There was thus a slim but extant chance that a German ship could slip through the Firth, though it would have taken a good deal of luck to manage.

[10] Forbes served as C-in-C Home Fleet until February of 1940, at which time he was relieved by Acting Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey; Forbes went to Plymouth as FOC Plymouth Command, a typical assignment for a former C-in-C Home Fleet before retirement. Forbes got his DSO for actions at Jutland.

[11] Norway was neutral at this stage of the war, just as she had been in the Great War. She was struggling to keep both the Allies and the Germans from disregarding her territorial waters, and she was largely unsuccessful in her attempts.

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Continued in Part Two.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.