After the launching and promotion, the refit of the Scharnhorst began in August 1939. An aircraft hangar was added and the stern was modified as a result of the trials. On September 2nd, 1939 the Scharnhorst was sent back to sea to check her refit. The super-heated boiler tubes were found wanting still and engineers from Wilhelmshaven were onboard to supervise modifications and repairs. Once the work was completed, the KMS Scharnhorst was ready for sea.
On November 21st the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau journeyed with a destroyer escort into the North Atlantic to locate and engage any British shipping in the strait between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Additionally, the fleet was called to support the German pocket battleship KMS Deutschland in her return trip to Germany (due to engine problems) and aid any German merchant vessels on their way home if possible.
On November 23rd, the 16,000-ton British freighter HMS Rawalpindi was patrolling the waters off Iceland north of the Faeroe Islands. The Rawalpindi had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser (8 x 6" guns taken from a World War 1 vessel) and crewed by 276 officers and men. At about 1:30pm the vessel was that a ship had been sighted along the horizon to starboard. The warship was steaming in an easterly direction midway between Iceland and the Faeroes. The British ship targeted the unknown vessel as the German pocket battleship KMS Deutschland that had been previously reported in the same waters. "Action Stations" was ordered and the captain (Captain Kennedy) ordered a course change to port at full speed for a fog bank. Observing that the warship in question was attempting to cut the escape, Kennedy ordered another course change to starboard towards an iceberg with the idea to use it as a shield. The Scharnhorst was closing fast, flashing a signal to the Rawalpindi to stop. A warning shot was fired across the bow of the British vessel. Captain Kennedy did not stop or respond to the order from the Scharnhorst who flashed a second signal. This message was also ignored by the Rawalpindi.
The Rawalpindi identified a second ship spotted to starboard as the German battlecruiser KMS Gneisenau. Captain Kennedy, now trapped between the two powerful German warships, decided not to surrender saying "We'll fight them both". A third signal was flashed to the Rawalpindi to "Abandon your ship" - this signal also ignored. All on the bridge of the Scharnhorst felt the Captain of the Rawalpindi to be insane to fight the two battlecruisers their combined eighteen modern eleven inch guns. After sending the signal to abandon ship two more times, an answer was received through a salvo of six inch shells raining down on the Gneisenau. A second salvo was then fired at Scharnhorst.
The Scharnhorst responded and hit the Rawalpindi on the boat deck destroying the radio room and killing most everyone on the bridge but Captain Kennedy. The second and third salvo from Scharnhorst destroyed the main gun control station, one of her starboard guns and the electric power to the ship's systems. Without power, the gun stations were told to fire independently and all available hands had to carry the six inch shells from the magazine to the turrets. One-by-one the guns on the Rawalpindi were hit by the 11 inch shells and knocked out of action. Rawalpindi was burning from stem-to-stern and Captain Kennedy ordered the ship to lay a smoke-screen. Soon the Captain was dead and the Rawalpindi was itself dead in the water. The order was given by word-of-mouth (power had been lost) to abandon ship. While boats were being lowered, Scharnhorst's guns found the forward magazine resulting in the Rawalpindi exploding in two and sinking. The Scharnhorst gave the order to rescue survivors and recovered just 38 - 238 men were killed in the action.
British ships were sent to aid the Rawalpindi had arrived but were unable to look for survivors until the German ships withdrew from the area. Two destroyers, HMS Delhi and HMS Newcastle, shadowed the two German battleships while three British warships - the HMS Warspite, HMS Hood and HMS Repulse - were steaming to the area. The British ships were not equipped with radar so the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped in a squall
Scharnhorst returned to Germany and was kept close in home waters for security purposes while "Operation Weserubung" was being planned. On April 7th, 1940 almost the entire German surface fleet assembled in the southeastern bight of the North Sea for the operation to take Denmark and Norway. The German naval invasion force consisted of Battleships to E-boats needed to transport 120,000 German troops and their weapons and supplies. The mission of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was the main covering force for the invasion of the port cities of Narvik and Trondheim.
A strong gale damaged Scharnhorst during the operation as her starboard bulkhead was warped. Cracks and metal fatigue were soon discovered in the bows of both ships plus structural damage at the masts and the superstructure. Before dawn both ships went to battle stations on April 9th when Gneisenau contacted a ship on radar. The enemy opened fire and the main guns on the Scharnhorst returned fire as the enemy was identified as the HMS Renown and her flotilla of nine "H" class destroyers. Scharnhorst's radar malfunctioned and she could not track the targets forcing a retreat. The German cruisers escaped but Scharnhorst's turret "Anton" was put out of action by heavy seas over the bow. The starboard turbine on Scharnhorst also failed forcing the two accompanying ships to slow to 25 knots. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau headed back for Wilhelmshaven, Germany and reached port on April 2th. Scharnhorst, upon her return, underwent an extensive overhaul of her guns and propulsion system.
Operation Juno was a continuing naval action late in the Norwegian Campaign. The British were evacuating Norway unknown to the Germans when the ships sailed. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and a screen of 4 destroyer were given the mission to attack the British strong point on Harstad and aid the 6,000-strong German garrison at the port city of Narvik in Norway. The carrier HMS Glorious was part of the escort for a troop convoy headed for Scapa Flow from Norway. Her captain requested to be relieved from escort convoy duty and returned to Scapa Flow independently with his two destroyers. The troop convoy would continue with the carrier HMS Ark Royal as escort.
HMS Glorious Captain D'Oyly-Hughes was new to carrier service and had more experience in submarines. Glorious was on her way back to England with the destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent in the Norwegian Sea. She was not operating at peak efficiency for 6 of her 18 boilers were out of service which slowed her ability to make flank speed. Captain D'Oyly-Hughes felt the small flotilla was not at risk and did not man the high crow's nest lookout position. D'Oyly-Hughes also decided to rest his pilots and did not launch a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the carrier for protection and over-the-horizon reconnaissance. Onboard were 10 Hurricane mono-plane fighters, 19 Gladiator bi-plane fighters and five Swordfish torpedo bombers held below deck in the hangar. None were left on the flight deck for emergency launch in case of attack.
At 6:23pm the destroyer HMS Ardent sighted two approaching German capital ships which became the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Captain D'Oyly-Hughes on Glorious received the warning and ordered aircraft brought on deck to launch a strike against the oncoming threat. At 6:32pm, Scharnhorst fired her first salvo of 11" guns and hit the flight deck on Glorious before any aircraft could be launched. Her second salvo hit the carrier at the longest range hits ever recorded (26,300 yds). Both ships were firing at the carrier and the two destroyers while the destroyer's attempted to lay smoke for cover. Ardent and Acasta made torpedo attacks against both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and Scharnhorst was hit aft by one torpedo launched by Acasta killing fifty sailors and allowing tons of water to flood into her aft turret (putting Caesar out of action). During the action the Glorious and both destroyers were sunk with the loss of 1,519 men - only 45 survived the fighting. Scharnhorst spent the next five months in dry dock repair due to the torpedo hit and subsequent water damage.
On December 7, 1940 the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst went to Kiel to take on stores and munitions and assigned new crew while preparing for a sortie into the North Atlantic to raid British commerce shipping. Under the cover of darkness, the force broke out on December 28th. However, a severe storm damaged the ships and forced "Operation Berlin" to be postponed. The Gneisenau returned to Kiel and Scharnhorst was ordered to the port of Gotenhafen for additional repairs. Due to weather in the Atlantic, Scharnhorst remained in port until January 19th, 1941 and then returned to Kiel.
Again Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sailed from Kiel to breakout into the Atlantic on January 22nd, 1941 targeting Allied convoys under Operation Berlin. German Admiral Gunther Lutjens, the commander of the operation, chose Gneisenau as his flagship. The German task force sighted two British cruisers and Admiral Lutjens changed course, heading for the Denmark Strait. The German tanker Adria found the ships and, on February 2nd, successfully performed an underway replenishment of fuel of about 3,500 tons to each ship. Admiral Lutjens had chosen to hunt convoys crossing between Canada and Britain. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau received intelligence reports that a convoy - HX-106 - had left Halifax on January 31st on an easterly course. Finding the convoy, the Germans identified the battleship HMS Ramilies as escort so the attack was called off.
On February 22nd, a returning convoy of empty ships was sighted by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Within twelve hours Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sunk 5 ships totaling 25,431 tons. The firing was at long distances requiring a lot of ammunition for fine tuning each shot. Admiral Lutjens ordered the tankers Schlettstadt and Esso Hamburg to meet his ship at a pre-arraigned location near the Azores.
By March 1941, the two ships had steamed 11,000 nautical miles on this one mission alone, essentially covering the distance of halfway around the world. Scharnhorst's propulsion system had trouble with the advanced design of her steel tubes and the superheated boilers were not able to withstand the high temperatures generated when the ship was at flank speed. However Gneisenau's boilers held up without major breakdowns. In mid-March the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau refueled from the supply ships Uckermark and Ermland and 200 prisoners of the hundreds safely taken from the destroyed ships was transferred to the supply ships. Scharnhorst sank nine merchant vessels totaling 50,588 tons and Gneisenau sank or captured thirteen merchant vessels totaling 62,865 tons. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sunk and captured a total twenty-two merchant vessels totaling 113,690 tons. The successful operation was called over on March 22nd and Scharnhorst was now berthed at the French port of Brest and Gneisenau, needing repairs, was moved into dry dock # 8.
Scharnhorst would require ten weeks or more to repair the steel in her superheaters before she was ready for sea. In April, the German battleship KMS Bismarck was due to break out into the Atlantic and Scharnhorst's repairs would not be completed before the start of the operation. Gneisenau had been scheduled to join the Bismarck in "Operation Rheinubung" with Scharnhorst but now would proceed alone. A negative for the two battlecruisers docked at the French port were that the vessels were now within fighter and bomber aircraft range of Allied positions. Being located by reconnaissance, the two ships were inevitably attacked as a British bombing mission took place during the night of March 30th with 100 bombers participating. However both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were not hit in the attack.
On the night of April 3rd, a number of the ships' officers were killed when bombs hit the hotel they were staying in during a bombing raid against the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The British continued trying to put the ships out of commission with a 100 sorties-a-month. To help conceal the ships, camouflage netting was used and changes to the profile were enacted to confuse British bombardiers and pilots. A captured French ship, the cruiser Jeanne d'Arc, was crudely altered using wood to appear as though the Scharnhorst fro above. Early in June the German heavy cruiser KMS Prinz Eugen arrived in Brest with engine trouble and was docked away from Scharnhorst. While being repaired, one of the bombing raids hit her, keeping the cruiser out of service for six months. The repairs to the Scharnhorst's machinery was completed in July with continuing air raids against her the concern. She was eventually hit and damaged enough to require a longer stay in Brest.
"Operation Cerberus" was the dash out of Brest and up the English Channel by three German warships - the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax had decided the breakout from Brest would be on February 11th at 10:30pm. The 6 ships of the destroyer screen were in position while mines had been swept away by torpedo boats and German aircraft were ready to supply air-cover at dawn. By 11:45pm, all three major ships were underway. By 1:30am all ships were in the channel making 30 knots and no evidence of enemy shipping appeared on radar. The destroyer Z -29 was in the lead with the Scharnhorst next in line along with Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. Two destroyers were deployed along both flanks with Z-25 covering the rear.
Luck was with the Germans on this day for the breakout was proceeding as planned. Bad weather and faulty British radar equipment gave the German ships a 13 hour, 300 mile head start up the English Channel undetected. The luck continued when Bomber Command's aircraft found the weather conditions to hinder Bristol Beaufort squadron airfields based along the northern coast.
As the German ships passed Dover the gun batteries that were not radar-controlled fired but were ineffective because of the poor weather conditions. Torpedo bombers from Dover attacked but due to the destroyer screen and intense AA fire their ordnance was launched from a distance of 2 miles with no direct hits. Six Swordfish torpedo planes were lost in the attack due to German land-based fighter support. The British used 242 bombers to attack the Scharnhorst and the other ships and, of these, at least 39 were able to drop their bombs while none found their target. A friendly-fire incident involved RAF aircraft attacking British destroyers launched from Harwich, the Royal Navy neglecting to notify the RAF of their intent in the area.
At dawn on February 13th, the German convoy sailed into port almost intact. The Scharnhorst hit mines on the journey and one of their E-boat escorts was lost along with seventeen covering fighter planes. The Germans had completed a risky action in moving a powerful fleet from Brest, France to the German port of Brunsbuttel. The British were, in effect, humiliated by the effort though now the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen were all bottled up northeast of Britain, limiting their role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Scharnhorst had been hit by two mines on her way to Brunsbuttel and was once again laid up for repairs. Due to weather and severe damage to Gneisenau and loss of Prinz Eugen, Hitler held Scharnhorst back while the submarine force took the frontal role in the Atlantic war against Allied shipping. In March of 1943, Scharnhorst set out for Altenfourd (Altafjord) in Norway to join the battleship Tirpitz and Lutzow. Once there, the vessels participated in training before heading to Spitzbergen for "Operation Sicily". After a daring British X-craft midget submarine attack on Tirpitz, the Scharnhorst stood alone with five destroyers as part of the German Arctic Task Force.
Convoy JW55B, comprising 19 merchant ships screened by 10 destroyers, was bound for Russia sailing on December 20th to resupply the Eastern Front. The convoy was to serve as bait to bring the Scharnhorst out to play and the Germans appropriately responded. Unknown to the Germans was the presence of a British hunter force off to the southwest consisting of the battleship HMS Duke of York, the cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers. Also inbound from the east were the British Cruisers HMS Norfolk, HMS Belfast, and HMS Sheffield. The German battle group set sail on Christmas day, coming from the South was KMS Scharnhorst and her screen of destroyers looking for the convoy.
Scharnhorst and its escort were steaming through a snow storm when, at 7:30am, the destroyers were detached to the southwest to look for the convoy. Scharnhorst was now on her own and sailed north until, at 9:00am, she came under fire from three enemy cruisers. During the running battle, the forward radar on Scharnhorst was hit by a British shell which essentially blinded the vessel. Scharnhorst then turned south at 30 knots outrunning the cruisers in heavy seas. Scharnhorst then ran south, turning east to attack the convoy from another angle. As she turned north again, around noon, Scharnhorst came upon the cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield. At ranges between 4 and 8 miles, all ships received damage. At 12:41pm, Scharnhorst turned south at 22 knots, unknowingly, towards the British battleship Duke of York.
At 4:20pm, the major British force lead by Duke of York made radar contact with Scharnhorst at 20 miles while the three cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield were in hot pursuit. Scharnhorst was hit and turned southwest and then turned to hit back with broadsides while zig-zagging. As Duke of York closed in, the order was given for four destroyers to make a torpedo attack on Scharnhorst and five torpedoes eventually found their mark. By 7:00pm, the range between Scharnhorst and Duke of York closed to approximately 8,000 yards with Duke of York hitting Scharnhorst with broadside-after-broadside. One of Scharnhorst engines failed yet she was still able to make 22 knots.
Duke of York was too close now to use "plunging fire" to destroy Scharnhorst so she stopped firing and sent the cruisers Jamaica and Belfast and her destroyers to finish her off with torpedoes. By this time, the Scharnhorst was only able to manage 12 knots. Taking her punishment, the great German ship went down by the bow and rolled over to starboard. A large explosion was heard by British observers and then the Scharnhorst disappeared beneath the waves. Thirty six survivors were rescued from her crew of 1,960 - such was the fate of the KMS Scharnhorst.