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Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part Two

By Kristin Ann High
April 2016

Click here for Part One.

Admiral Marschall took the Battle Fleet to sea again for Unternehmen Normark, in February 1940. His orders were to attack Allied shipping in the waters between the Orkneys-Shetlands and Norway. This was a small-scale re-enactment of Franz Hipper's final Great War sortie with the High Seas Fleet. Marschall's attack was as fruitless as Hipper's had been, and for much the same reasons, as appalling weather and poor intelligence put the German ships in the wrong places at the wrong times.

Invading Norway

Unternehmen Weserübung, the German combined-arms assaults against Denmark and Norway, was the most ambitious operation ever undertaken by the German Navy. Brilliantly planned on the narrowest of operational margins, executed with extraordinary dash by the Kriegsmarine's captains, it succeeded in the very teeth of British sea and air power.

Many historians condemn the operation as prohibitively costly in ships and men, expended for an objective of marginal strategic importance. This analysis lacks a professional naval view of both the operation, and of Norway. The German occupation of Norway threatened the main wartime base of the Royal Navy at Scapa Flow, flanked the North Sea exists from Germany — making the passage of Danish waters comparatively free of danger for German sorties — and provided German surface action groups with ports well-positioned to attack the Northern Patrol and support operations by surface raiders and submarines.

Three months later, of course, when the whole of the French Atlantic coast passed into German hands, Norway's capture would prove nearly catastrophic to Great Britain, as it became the northern end of a naval bracket that hemmed the Royal Navy's operational scope in the Atlantic rather tightly, the moreso as Italy had by then joined the Axis Powers, just as the French were leaving the Allies, making the Mediterranean vulnerable.



Scharnhorst in the Baltic Sea, 1940.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were active at the beginning and end of the action in Norway. During Weserübung, the battlecruisers again operated as the Kriegsmarine's battleline. The two German heavy ships were still commanded by Hoffmann and Netzbandt, but for Weserübung they were under the overall command of Vizeadmiral Günther Lütjens [12], rather than the battle fleet commander, Admiral Marschall. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were acting as the covering force for Task Force One [13], supporting the landings at Narvik, and task forces two and three, and supporting the landings at Trondheim.

During the attack on Narvik, the British battlecruiser Renown engaged the two German heavy ships off Vestfjord — or was engaged by them, depending on whose account one gives preference. Semantics aside, for the first time since the Run to the South [14], German capital ahips did not refuse action upon the appearance of Royal Navy heavy ships. Renown, commanded by Captain Charles Edward Barrington Simeon, RN, having the heavier main battery and better protection, manœuvered to keep the range open, which seems to have suited the Germans, as they made no effort to close.

Renown took two, or possibly three, 11-inch hits, one of which failed to explode, neither of which inflicted any serious damage, while hitting the German ships at least three times. German sources admit to three hits against Gneisenau, one of which destroyed fire control equipment [15]. Some earlier German sources cite the damage to Gneisenau's DCT as the reason for Lütjens ordering his ships to retire.

A more likely reason for retirement would be wisdom on Lutjens' part. His ships had successfully executed their mission; while Renown was busy with the two German battlecruisers, Task Force 1, ten modern destroyers under the command of Kommodore Friedrich Bonte [16], had stood in to Vestfjord, parlayed unsuccessfully, and then sunk two old Norwegian armoured coast defence ships [17], Eidsvold and Norge, both by torpedoes. Norwegian naval resistance having been dealt with, Task Force 2 then covered the landing of General-Major Eduard Dietl's 2,000-man detachment of mountain troops, meeting no further resistance from the Norwegians.

As Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were decidedly inferior to Renown in both main battery and armour protection, and as his mission had been successfully carried out, there was no reason for Vizeadmiral Lütjens to continue the action unless Captain Simeon forced him to do so. Lütjens broke off, and Simeon ordered Renown out into the North Sea. The Naval Staff history cites the appalling weather as the reason for Renown breaking off, and that Renown returned to patrolling the entrance to Vestfjord, but failed to detect the German invasion forces.

Weather may have convinced Captain Simeon to break off — he may very well have lost the German heavy ships in the prevailing weather — and then made pursuit or interception of the invasion force a matter of chance. Without the intervention of Lütjens' heavy ships, it seems quite possible that Renown would have effected an interception of the invasion force. The results would likely have been fatal to the already overextended Narvik operation, though the risk to Renown from destroyer torpedoes and the poor weather were both factors favouring the Germans.

When the action was broken off, Renown's fighting capacity was undiminished, while Gneisenau had lost at least one DCT [18] to 15-inch fire, and may have had half of her foreward armament knocked out, reducing her offensive power by one-third. In addition to her superior main battery and armour protection, Renown had nearly-equal speed [19], and excellent fire distribution fore and aft, the latter fact acting to negate what little advantage Lütjen's had in having two ships to Simeon's one — moreso when added to Gneisenau's DCT damage, and rather a more serious problem if Gneisenau had lost “Anton” (though the Germans never claimed so).

Forcing the action with Renown, in the circumstances, would have been foolish on Lütjens' part. The presence of some of Bonte's destroyers, detached from the assault force, might well have tipped the balance in Lütjens' favour. With both heavy ships and destroyers arrayed against him, Captain Simeon would have faced a very different situation tactically. With two or three torpedo-armed destroyers steaming with each of the battlecruisers, Lütjens' could have divided his squadron into two divisions, each drawing and dividing Renown's fire while closing the range and dogging Simeon with torpedo runs by Bonte's destroyers — whether they fired torpedoes or not.

Managed properly, Lütjens might have been able to get his destroyers close enough to make a massed torpedo strike off either bow, giving him a few moments at effective range to try and get in some telling hits on Renown, and increasing the chances of scoring a torpedo hit. Had he managed that, he might have found himself Battle Fleet Commander two months sooner.

There were risks to the German ships too, of course. Captain Simeon, facing destroyers and battlecruisers operating together, would have employed his speed and heavy firepower to cripple the already injured Gneisenau while opening the range and drawing away to seaward. This would force an operational decision on Lütjens for which he lacked adequate intelligence on enemy fleet movements. The Royal Navy was in Norwegian waters in some strength, as the Germans had discovered after obliterating the destroyer Glowworm. Pursuit to sea risked Warspite or Valiant closing in behind him, sealing off the invasion forces in Narvik and cutting off Lütjens' line of withdraw. As the inferior force, Lütjens' proper concern was not elimination of enemy naval forces, but disrupting and diverting their actions in pursuit of the naval objectives—in this case, Narvik. Once again, the weather would have been the decisive factor, cloaking Renown in theory just as it cloaked Bonte's assault forces in fact.

At the far end of the campaign, Unternehmen Juno, begun on 4th June 1940, was an operation by the battle fleet — once again under the command of Admiral Marschall, the Flottennchef, in person — to sweep the area around Harstad of British evacuation convoys. This time, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were accompanied by the 8-inch cruiser Admiral Hipper, and the destroyers Karl Galster, Hans Lody, Erich Steinbrinck, and Hermann Schoemann. A tanker, Dithmarschen, arrived off Norway on the 6th to refuel Admiral Hipper and the destroyers, and a fleet train comprising four supply auxiliaries was convoyed from Wilhelmshaven to Trondheim.

Despite an escort of minesweepers from the 2nd Minesweeping Flotilla — or perhaps because of the minesweeper escort — a mine in a field laid by Narwhal nearly three months earlier detonated, and two ships, the minesweeper M.11 and the supply auxiliary Palime, were lost [20].


Scharnhorst sailors on the ice of Kiel harbor, Germany, 1940.

On the afternoon of 8th June 1940, the two German battlecruisers had detached Admiral Hipper and the destroyers and sailed on independently. This time they came across the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Glorious (OC Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes, DSO & Bar, DSC, RN), with two destroyers, Ardent (OC Lieutenant Commander John Frederick Barker, RN), and Acasta, (OC Commander Charles Glasfurd, RN). Marschall ordered full speed, and disposed his battlecruisers into two divisions, one to either beam of Glorious. Laden with land-based fighters — 20 RAF fighters flown out of Norway had been landed aboard Glorious — the carrier could not conduct routine flying operations, and thus had no aircraft aloft. As none of the ships were equipped with surface warning RDF, the first sign of danger was when a lookout sighted smoke on the horizon.

The details of the surface action initiated by Marschall are recounted in numerous references and books, but the events of the action remain rather controversial. The outcome was not truly in doubt once the two German heavy ships had sighted Glorious, both ships having sufficient speed advantage — about 2 knots flank speed, with the German ships able to make 32 knots almost from the outset, while Glorious, surprised and steaming at 17 knots, had to build up steam for flank speed during the action — and a main battery armament quite powerful enough to defeat the carrier's slender armour protection.

The German ships disposed formidable secondary and tertiary batteries, to deal with Ardent and Acasta, while the only effective British weapons for attacking the German battlecruisers were the torpedoes on the destroyers and sitting in Glorious' aviation ordnance magazine [21].

Acasta did manage to manœuver into a torpedo attack position on Scharnhorst, shortly before Glorious sank, and fired a full salvo of eight torpedoes. One of these hit Scharnhorst to starboard aft, causing major flooding and loss of speed, but Scharnhorst was soon working up to 20 knots again, and the two ships sailed for Trondheim. Here again, the failure to operate with screening destroyers left the heavy ships vulnerable to surface torpedo attack, and this time they paid for it.

The Home Fleet created an ad hoc carrier strike-surface action group from Rodney, Renown, and Ark Royal, with supporting light cruisers and destroyers [22], which struck at Trondheim. The raids were unsuccessful, and eight aircraft were lost [23]. En route from Trondheim to Kiel for repair of Scharnhorst's torpedo damage, the British submarine Clyde (OC, Lieutenant Commander David Caldicott Ingram, RN), hit Gneisenau with a torpedo [24].

Clearly, a heavier main battery in the two German battlecruisers would have had significant impact on operations in Norwegian waters. Particularly in the surface action with Renown, the two German ships would have disposed more rifles than their single British foe — twelve 15-inch rifles versus six — and would have had near-parity on either beam, had they attacked in divisions.

Against Glorious, Ardent, and Acasta, the impact of heavier main battery rifles is not as significant. Glorious was doomed from the moment the German ships found her. A heavier APC shell might have killed Glorious sooner, and this may have allowed the German ships to escape unscathed, had they made off at once, leaving the two destroyers to pick up survivors. No change to main battery rifles could have otherwise affected the possibilities of torpedo attack by the destroyers, nor the probability that Scharnhorst would be hit.

Endnotes

[12] According to German sources, Vizeadmiral Lütjens was Acting Flottenchef while Admiral Marschall was on leave — possibly sick leave — and Marshall resumed command when he returned, on 23rd April. Exactly what the nature of Lütjens' appointment as Flottenchef entailed is uncertain. Lütjens was certainly battle fleet commander between 11th March 1940, after the failure of Nordmark, and 23rd April 1940, by which time the initial naval operations in support of Weserübung had completed. On 18th June 1940, Lütjens again replaced Marschall, this time permanently.

[13] The German is Kriegsschiffsgruppe, "warship group."

[14] This is the popular name for the opening phase of the Battle of Jutland, 31st May 1916, in which Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty's Battle Cruiser Squadron engaged in a lengthy gunnery battle with Vizeadmiral Franz Hipper's Scouting Force. The Run to the South ended when Beatty found that Hipper had led him onto Admiral Reinhard Scheer's High Seas Fleet. Beatty then repaid Hipper in the same coin by starting the Run to the North.

[15] The Royal Navy's Naval Staff History claims that Renown struck Gneisenau on “A” turret — “Anton” in German parlance — and disabled the mount. German sources do not note this hit, nor acknowledge any damage to Gneisenau's main battery beyond that done to fire control equipment. It is not impossible to reconcile the two claims — Renown may have hit Gneisenau on “Anton” and knocked out its fire control equipment, or damaged the linkage between “Anton” and its DCT.

[16] The Führer der Zerstörer (FdZ), the leader of destroyers; a commodore commanding all destroyer forces in the battle fleet. Bonte, who was killed on 10th April 1940 during the Royal Navy's attack on German naval forces in Narvik, was also Führer der Gruppe Narvik, the operational commander of the naval forces assaulting Narvik.

[17] The German is Küstenpanzerschiff, “coastal armoured ship.”

[18] German sources do not make clear the actual damage inflicted, which may mean the damage was minimal, did not effect Gneisenau's main battery, or merely that the authors did not realize the vagueness of "...damage to fire control equipment..." in respect of a modern naval warship. The loss of one main battery DCT would have been a serious impediment to continuing the action, but not a prohibitive factor. The loss of all communications between the DCTs and the batteries, of course, would have been prohibitive (and rather a lucky hit).

[19] Renown could make 30 to 31 knots flank speed as against Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 32 knots flank speed. In heavy weather, the German ships had a definite advantage, which British intelligence assessments ascribed to their refitted "Atlantic bows" (though the two ships remained quite wet foreward). In the prevailing sea state, Renown could certainly have forced a longer action had she wished — whether or not she ought to have done is another matter — but she could not have prevented the German ships escaping if they were prepared to fly.

[20] Whether the mine was detonated by one of the minesweepers during sweeping operations — M.11 springs to mind — or was set off by one of the ships in some other way is not clear from German sources. Rohwer writes that a “device exploded a mine,” but this could be anything from a sweeping apparatus to a propeller or other mine countermeasure on the auxiliaries — the Germans were obviously aware that the waters had been mined by this time.

[21] Several sources state that Glorious was attempting to launch aircraft, at least until she was hit amidships by an APC shell early in the action. Even if true, it would have been a nearly impossible attempt. The flying deck was crowded with Hurricanes and Gladiators, while Glorious' own aircraft were struck below (though some sources claim, without attribution, that there were Swordfish on the flying deck). To get the aircraft onto the flying deck, armed, fueled, and spotted to fly off, while under shell fire from enemy battlecruisers flanking the carrier, would be extraordinary. Even the Americans, with better aircraft, better deck handling, and some warning of their enemy's approach, had difficulty getting aircraft armed for torpedo strikes and in the air during the action in Leyte Gulf.

[22] The strike force appears to have included at least Rodney, Ark Royal, Renown and Repulse, the “County”-class 8-inch cruiser Sussex, the modern “Town”-class 6-inch cruiser Newcastle, and the destroyers Forester, Foxhound, Kelvin, and Zulu, although it is likely there were additional 6-inch cruisers and destroyers.

[23] One of the attack aircraft lost was a Blackburn Skua, the Royal Navy's dive-bomber fighter of 1940, flown by Lieutenant Commander John Casson. The Skua ditched near Geitastand, and both Casson and his gunner survived. The wreck was found in 2007, at a depth of 800 feet, and was recovered. The wreck is said to be in excellent shape, with wings and cockpit intact (U.S. Naval Institute, “Naval History” magazine, August 2008 issue, p. 10).

[24] Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau required extensive repairs, and both were in dockyard hands for roughly six months. How much of this time was a result of the German run-down of war industries after the fall of France is uncertain, and difficult to estimate, as the Kriegsmarine never enjoyed priority of any kind for materiel, labour, or money.

Continued in Part Three.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.