How Germany's feared Scharnhorst ship was sunk in WWII

Image caption During the battle the Scharnhorst's guns were gradually disabled, one by one

On 26 December 1943 one of the great sea battles of World War II took place.

Germany's most famous battleship - the Scharnhorst - was sunk by Allied forces during the Battle of the North Cape.

Norman Scarth was an 18-year-old on board the British naval destroyer HMS Matchless, which was protecting a convoy taking vital supplies to the Russian ports of the Arctic Circle.

In a BBC World Service interview he described how he witnessed the sinking of the Scharnhorst:

On Christmas Day we had been ordered to join another convoy because it was rumoured that the Scharnhorst was out.

The Scharnhorst was greatly feared. She was the most successful fighting ship of any navy during World War II and she was the bravest ship.

We were full speed at 36 knots and going through those mountainous seas.

Image caption Norman as a 17-year-old in the navy blue uniform of the Home Fleet

It was a full gale blowing. To go through that at full speed, the bow would rise in the air and come down, hover there and come down with a clatter as if on concrete; mountains of water coming all over the ship.

We were ordered to join the 10th Cruiser Squadron - HMS Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield. They had met up with the Scharnhorst and they had engaged her.

There was a brief skirmish, then the Scharnhorst broke off - she was a very fast ship - and with her superior speed she was able to get out of range.

But our vice-admiral guessed that she was heading north to attack this convoy that we had been escorting and the guess proved correct.

She had a reputation and she deserved it.

There was an awe of her reputation, the excitement that we may be able to end the career of this most dangerous threat to us, to Britain, to the Allies - and fear knowing what we were up against.

Hunted down

It was Boxing Day when we finally met up with 10th Cruiser Squadron and the Scharnhorst. She had abandoned her mission and set off for the Norwegian fjords, which was her base and safe haven.

It was pitch black and we shadowed with the use of radars.

We knew that she was heading straight towards HMS Duke of York, which was cutting off her escape. She was hit by the Duke of York and was damaged and her speed was slowed.

There was the Duke of York, the Scharnhorst, the 10th Cruiser Squadron with various destroyers and another cruiser, the Jamaica.

All of us met up and all hell broke loose. Although it was pitch black the sky was lit up, bright as day, by star shells - fired into the sky like fireworks - providing brilliant light illuminating the area as broad as day.

Towards the end we had been ordered to fire a torpedo. Because the weather had eased a little I had taken up my action station as lookout on the starboard wing of the bridge.

The Scharnhorst was close and she was lit up by the star shells and by the fires aboard her. As we steamed past to fire the torpedo I was the closest man - on the wing of the bridge - to the Scharnhorst.

She looked magnificent and beautiful. I would describe her as the most beautiful fighting ship of any navy.

Gesture of defiance

She was firing with all guns still available to her. Most of the big guns were put out. They were gradually disabled one by one. As we were steaming past at full speed a 20mm cannon was firing tracer bullets from the Scharnhorst.

A 20mm cannon was like a pea-shooter compared to the other guns and it could have no part in this battle, but it was just a gesture of defiance from the sloping deck of her.

And that's one of the things that remains in my memory - a futile gesture but it was a gesture of defiance right to the very end.

I can picture that man on the sloping deck of the Scharnhorst. I can picture that man to this day.

Eventually it took 14 ships of the Royal Navy to find her, trap her and sink her.

At that point it went pitch black.

The star shells had finished and I presumed the Scharnhorst had been sunk.

We set off to do another torpedo run to fire from the port side and the Scharnhorst was nowhere to be seen.

So we slowed and we soon saw many men floating in the water - most of them dead, face down in the water, but some were alive.

We switched our searchlight on and I remember our captain calling out to the men in the water "Scharnhorst gesunken?" and the reply came back "Ja, Scharnhorst gesunken", so we threw scrambling nets down and began to haul these men aboard.

Thirty-six were saved out of 2,000 men.

We then received an order from the commander-in-chief to join the Duke of York. So we switched off the searchlight, pulled up the scrambling nets and steamed away.

We could still hear voices calling from the black of that Arctic winter night, calling for help, and we were leaving those men to certain death within minutes.

It seemed a terrible thing to do and it was. But it was the right thing to do.

If we had stayed a moment too long we could have joined those unfortunate men.

I can hear those voices and I grieve for those men every day of my life.

I've even had someone accuse me of being a traitor because I praised the bravery of the German sailors.

I can imagine their feelings as that searchlight went out and they heard that ship steaming away.

I truly can imagine the feelings of those men.

Claire Bowes' interview with Norman Scarth was broadcast on the BBC World Service's Witness programme on 26 December. You can download a podcast of the programme or browse the archive.

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