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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : 'Scharnhorst' Sunk

26 December 1943

Location: Off North Cape
Players: Allies: Arctic convoy JW55B; the cruisers 'Belfast', 'Norfolk', 'Sheffield', 'Jamaica'; four destroyers including the Norwegian 'Stord' and the battleship 'Duke of York'. Axis: the German battle cruiser 'Scharnhorst'.
Outcome: Scharnhorst sunk with only 36 crew surviving.

The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, pictured in 1940
The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, pictured in 1940©
The Royal Navy plotted carefully to trap and destroy the Scharnhorst. It was the pride of Germany and along with the Tirpitz, it was intended for the Arctic, where it was to attack Allied convoys to Russia. It was these convoys that the British used to bait and trap the Scharnhorst.

The Scharnhorst was a 31,000-ton battle cruiser with a flared 'clipper' bow. It was capable of an extraordinary top speed of 33 knots and was armed with 28cm guns. Its track record was an impressive one. It sank the British merchant cruiser Rawalpindi (at the end of 1939) and the carrier Glorious and her escorting destroyers in 1940. In 1941, along with the Gneisenau, it attacked and sank 22 merchant ships before entering Brest.

After repairs it was sent to attack the arctic convoy JW55B on Christmas Day 1943. The Scharnhorst was unaware that Force One (the cruisers Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield) lay in wait with Force Two (the battleship Duke of York, the cruiser Jamaica, and four destroyers intended for the final attack) approaching from the west. One of those destroyers was the Royal Norwegian navy's destroyer Stord. Ultra intelligence passed information between the cruisers and battleships.

The Scharnhorst tried to attack the convoy twice but was driven off by the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which had been ordered to position itself between the battle-cruiser and the convoy. The Scharnhorst turned about but was cut off by Admiral Fraser in the Duke of York. It was surrounded, then shelled and torpedoed and sank. Only 36 of its 2,000-plus crew survived.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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