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Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part Three

By Kristin Ann High
April 2016

Click here for Part Two.

Commerce Raiding in the Atlantic

The next major sortie by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was one for which the big ships were ill-suited — commerce raiding in the Atlantic. Unternehmen Berlin was, as usual with German fleet movements, intended to accomplish several objective in concert. Admiral Hipper, experiencing more engineering woes, needed to return to Germany for dock work, while Admiral Scheer needed to return to Germany after a very successful cruise against British shipping. The breakout and raiding attempts were intended to sow confusion as well as sink ships, allowing Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer to run for Germany (see Bismarck, Operational Scenario Seven, "Berlin Exercise, First Phase").


The view from Scharnhorst.

 

Vizeadmiral Lütjens had become Admiral Lütjens, replacing Admiral Marschall as battle fleet commander after the latter took the two battlecruisers out to sea to attack and sink Glorious [25]. Lütjens sortied on 22nd January 1941, and by the 23rd the Admiralty had been alerted to the sailing. Admiral Sir John Cronyn Tovey, KCB, DSO, RN, had replaced Forbes as C-in-C Home Fleet, and he took the fleet to sea, patrolling a line south of Iceland that he hoped would permit him to intercept the German battlecruisers as they were breaking out.

Lütjens' first attempt was foiled by the Northern Patrol, though it would appear that the two German ships sighted the British cruisers first, and slipped away before the British could return the favour. The German ships retreated into the North Sea and refueled. Lütjens' second attempt was more successful. He went north about Iceland and passed through the Denmark Straight undetected. He then ran afoul of Tovey's dispositions, when the two German ships were sighted by Naiad on 28th January, scouting for the Home Fleet patrolling south of Iceland. The German ships retreated and refueled.

A request for aerial reconnaissance to assist the ships in breaking through the Home Fleet's net was smothered by the BdU [26], but Hoffmann and Fein [27] managed the breakout anyway, doubling back and slipping through the Home Fleet patrol between February 3rd and 5th.

With Admiral Hipper raiding into the Atlantic from Brest, Admiral Scheer raiding into the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic, and Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at large in the North and Central Atlantic, while the battles in the Mediterranean continued unabated, the Royal Navy was stretched exceedingly thin as from the first week of February 1941. The German battlecruisers therefore faced less concentrated opposition than they might have, and consequently, their unsuitability as surface raiders — like that of Admiral Hipper — was mitigated by their power as surface warships.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau struck first at the North Atlantic convoy lanes, hunting among the ships of dispersed outbound convoys between Iceland and Newfoundland, and sinking five ships, including one tanker in ballast, though the German battlecruisers were ordered away from HX.106 as it was covered by the 'R'-class battleship Ramillies.

The formation of the Support Force, Atlantic Fleet, by the United States Navy on 1st March brought the danger of American entanglements to the western North Atlantic — to add to the danger of Royal Navy battleship covering forces and the Home Fleet itself — so the German ships shifted south into the Central Atlantic, to the practicable limit of their operating radius, even with the excellent at-sea replenishment and repair capabilities of the German supply auxiliaries.

The German ships next operated against the vital sea lanes between Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Great Britain — the 'SL' series convoys. The 'Queen Elizabeth'-class battleship Malaya had been shifted from Gibraltar to Sierra Leone, to extend the cover provided between that concentration point and the rendezvous [28] for cover from Force 'H' at Gibraltar, mostly as a counter-measure against the second war cruise of Admiral Hipper out from Brest.

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sighted SL.67 (54 ships) on the morning of 7th March, when it was then some 300 nm Northeast of the Cape Verdes. Lütjens seems to have intended an attack, but when Malaya was sighted he ordered his ships to break off and retire at speed. Malaya, whose floatplane had made the initial sighting and shadowed the raiders for some time, sent a steady stream of contact reports to Gibraltar. Consequently, Force 'H', under the command of Vice Admiral Sir James Fownes Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN, sortied with Renown, Ark Royal, Arethusa, Velox, and Wrestler, to hunt the German battlecruisers. So thin had the Royal Navy's operating margins become that irreplaceable capital ships went to sea with two Great War-era destroyers as escort, in waters where German U-Boats were not only operating, but sinking ships (U.105 and U.124 sank three ships from SL.67 on the night of 7th–8th March, before being held down by the convoy escorts).

By way of contrast, had the ships of Force 'H' been operating towards the oft-maligned Regia Marina Italiana, as many as ten, and certainly not less than five, modern fleet destroyers would have screened the ships (for example, see Bomb Alley, Operational Scenario 15, "Potatoes For Malta") [29]. Malaya's floatplane was eventually forced to break off, and as the British battleship could probably make between 21 and 23 knots flank speed clean, as against the German ships 32 knots clean — and neither the British ships nor the German were clean in January 1941 — there was no hope of forcing an action. Force 'H' eventually rendezvoused with SL.67 on 10th March, covering the convoy until 18th March.


Scharnhorst's forward turrets.

 

On 11th–12th March Scharnhorst and Gneisenau refueled from the supply vessel Uckermark. On the 15th, the German ships were alerted by Uckermark to the presence of Allied ships. Gneisenau sank the British Simnia and took the Norwegian tanker Bianca and the British San Casimiro and Polycarp as prizes, though only Polycarp was to reach Bordeaux, on 24th March.

Between the 15th and 16th the German battlecruisers hunted merchant ships from dispersed convoys in the central North Atlantic, sinking several ships each. On the 16th, while the German ships were either sinking vessels, or rescuing survivors — again, British and German accounts disagree — the battleship Rodney, detached from HX.115 to close the raiders, surprised Lütjens' force. According to German sources, the German ships employed "clever deception" [30] to escape the slower, but more powerful Rodney. This "clever deception" may very well have included a manœuver the German ships had practiced against the similarly slower and more powerful Malaya, turning away and steaming at full speed out of the area.

Lütjens now turned his thoughts to returning to port. Both Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper had eluded the British patrol lines and reached Norway and thence Germany. The British, for their part, realized Lütjens' squadron must either make for Brest or follow the two cruisers into Germany. The Home Fleet therefore patrolled south of Iceland again, with battleship Nelson, the 'Colony'-class 6-inch cruiser Nigeria, and two destroyers, between 17th March and 20th March. Force 'H' was deployed to intercept the ships in the Bay of Biscay if they chose to make for Brest, with the battlecruiser Renown, aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and the 'Town'-class 6-inch cruiser Sheffield, and two destroyers [31] searching the Bay.

A reconnaissance Fulmar from Ark Royal sighted Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on the afternoon of 20th March, but its contact report appears to have gone amiss for some time. Nevertheless, Ark Royal launched a torpedo strike with Swordfish towards dark, but the planes failed to locate the enemy, although the German ships were not more than 110 nm distant when first spotted.

Despite desperate attempts to divert submarines and overtake the German ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau completed their last wartime cruise together on 22nd March 1941. German sources credit them with twenty-two ships totaling 115,622 GRT in two months of cruising, while Allied sources usually credit them with 21 ships for 105,784 GRT.

As commerce raiders, the German battlecruisers' main battery was eminently suitable for the destruction of merchant shipping, for fending off or eliminating light escorts, and for dealing with Allied cruiser squadrons like that which defeated Kpt. z. See Langsdorff off The Plate. Compared to the Panzerschiffe, the battlecruisers had more rifles, better main battery arrangement, and superior fire control equipment.

Operating together, the German battlecruisers would be formidable foes for an 8-inch cruiser and two 6-inch cruisers, the Royal Navy's most common form of trade protection squadron. Against Royal Navy battlecruisers like Renown, Repulse, or Hood, however, the 11-inch C.34 rifle lacked the power to inflict crippling damage early, when German gunnery was generally excellent and chances for a decisive impact were best. By contrast, the British 15-inch Mk.I, although a Great War-era design [32], had ample power for defeating the German battlecruisers' protection.

The effect on these raiding operations of the more powerful 15-inch C.34 rifles is problematic. Certainly the heavier main battery would make the ships a match for British battlecruisers. Against Royal Navy battleships, the situation is much less clear. The German and British main batteries were roughly similar, although the British battleships mounted more rifles, with eight for the 'Queen Elizabeth' and 'R' classes, nine for Nelson and Rodney [33], or ten for the 'King George V' class, as against six for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. But with the German ships operating together against single British ships disposed as cover for convoys, the German ships enjoyed the advantage of both more numerous rifles, and the ability to flank the British ship, forcing it to either divide its fire, or allow one of the German ships virtual practice conditions.

The tactics Hoffmann and Fein originally intended, with one ship drawing off the escort while the other moved in to attack the convoy, might have just been feasible against British battleships, had the German ships mounted the heavier main battery, especially as the German ships would still have retained a significant speed advantage over the slower British ships. The tactics were sound, as Admiral Hipper and Lützow proved at Barents Sea [34].

Admiral Lütjens seems to have squelched these tactics, or indeed any attempt to attack escorted convoys, and heavier main battery rifles would not likely have transformed the pensive Lütjens into a more combative battle fleet commander.

The risks to the German ships were not insignificant. Although Duke of York had a difficult time with Scharnhorst at North Cape, the older British battleships were fitted with much more reliable main battery turrets, and both the 16-inch and the 15-inch rifles could defeat the Germans' armour protection. With the heavier main battery, the battlecruisers would not have the same flank speed, and any loss of speed to battle damage materially increased the odds that Force 'H' might catch them up — or at least reach a flying-off position for Ark Royal, with all the possibilities that entailed.

On balance, it seems unlikely that the heavier main battery would have persuaded Lütjens to risk drawing off Malaya or Rodney, and it is hardly likely that he would have forced a surface gun action with a British battleship, regardless of the power of his main battery. Throughout his tenure as battle fleet commander, Lütjens seems to have interpreted his orders far more conservatively than even the cautious Marschall had, and more powerful ships would not have altered this zeal for obedience.

The two ships were poorly suited for commerce raiding in any event, and the fitting of a true battlecruiser main battery would have increased their problems rather than diminished them; they would give up 2 or 3 knots of speed, and burned even more fuel — thus further reducing their already limited radius of action — in return for a main battery far more powerful than that needed to sink merchant ships or deal with the usual convoy escorts.


Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Hipper at a Norwegian port, 1940.

Endnotes

[25] Raeder appears to have been unhappy with Marschall almost from the outset, and his removal was probably more about the ObdK's disfavour than merit.

[26] Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, or commander of submarines. This was the famous Vizeadmiral Karl Dönitz. Like all air forces, the Luftwaffe resented diversion of resources for naval missions. Hitler had ordered the creation of a long-range Kampfgruppe (level bomber wing), the famed KG.40, specifically to support naval operations, but there appears to have been an internal division within the Kriegsmarine over operational control. The ObdK and OKM seem to have felt the planes to be under their control, while the BdU was of a different opinion; the BdU won in this instance, and the matter had to be referred to Hitler for a more lasting settlement. Hitler ruled in favour of the BdU, a move which made surface ship operations extremely difficult in the face of increasing British RDF at sea and in the air.

[27] Kapitän-zur-See Kurt Caesar Hoffmann, Kommandant Scharnhorst, and Kapitän-zur-See Otto Fein, Kommandant Gneisenau. Kommandant was the OC (or CO) of a ship; station or troop OCs were called Kommandeur, or commander, while type, division, or flotilla SOCs were called Chef, or chief. A great deal of confusion surrounds the comparison of German and French naval ranks to those of the RN or USN, enough to form a Daily Content article of its own.

[28] These points are usually denoted as 'MOMPs', for "Mid-Ocean Meeting Point", though a MOMP actually described an area of sea in which a particular convoy would have its particular rendezvous.

[29] To be fair, two fleet destroyers were sailing with Malaya, Faulknor (H.62, SWWAS DD-53) and Forester (H.74, SWWAS DD-54). On the other hand, Malaya was hit by a torpedo fired from U.106 in roughly the same area — approximately 250 nm West-Northwest of the Cape Verde Islands — less than a fortnight later. Malaya took the hit in her anti-torpedo bulges aft, and was able to steam to Trinidad for temporary repairs. The hit caused no casualties, but Malaya was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York for permanent repairs — she also received updates to her Ack-Ack fit, and she was prepared for the fit of advanced surface and air search RDF, as well as fire-control RDF. She left New York in August of 1941, nearly four months later.

[30] Chronik des Seekrieges 1939-1945, by Jürgen Rohwer with Gerhard Hümmelchen, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, 2007. Apparently taken from Lütjens' report to Raeder.

[31] These were likely two 'F'-class ships of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, based on Gibraltar.

[32] The first shipboard firing of a 15"/42-Calibre Mk.I rifle took place in 1915, the last in 1954, a span of 39 years.

[33] The 'Admiral'-class battleships Nelson and Rodney mounted the 16"/45-calibre Mk.I rifle originally intended for the 'G3' battlecruisers (the G3s were cancelled by the Washington Naval Treaty). Complicated weapons with very fine tolerances, they were not considered reliable until 1939, on the eve of war. As guns were refitted with different barrels, the problem of dispersion increased, and the rifles were never really superior to the 15" Mk.I, and markedly inferior to the 14" Mk.VII rifles (the problems with the KGVs were in the Mk.III quadruple turrets and the associated rifle mounts, rather than in the rifles themselves).

[34] At Barents Sea, the German FOC, Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz, employed the same tactics for Unternehmen Regenborgen, an attack on a GB-USSR convoy by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and the armoured cruiser (Panzerschiff) Lützow. Convoy JW.51B was the chosen victim, and Kummetz could not have chosen a better victim. The convoy itself was scattered and storm battered, already down from seven to six fleet destroyers; the ship with best RDF fit had been sent to round up missing ships — the destroyer Oribi among them — and was never seen again. The battleship covering force from the Home Fleet — whose C-in-C was still the timid Admiral Tovey — had turned back long before contact with German ships was likely, according to plan. Because Tovey signaled the wrong position for JW.51B, the cruiser covering force, Force 'R', was in position, but as a consequence of the weather, the convoy was not. Kummetz's interception went perfectly, and Admiral Hipper lunged in and out of snow squalls to hit at the convoy and draw its escorts away, exactly as planned. Lützow's OC, Kpt. z. S. Rudolf Stange, mishandled his ship, making only half-hearted attempts to close the convoy, despite being repeatedly ordered to attack by Kummetz. In the end, the two heavy ships were driven off, sealing the fate of Raeder and his surface navy, as well as playing a part in the fateful decision that sent Scharnhorst to her death a year later at North Cape.

Continued in Part Four.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.