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The Attack on the Northern Patrol

On 21. November at 1400 the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sortied from the Jade estuary, initially with a destroyer escort, and headed for the North Atlantic. The purpose was to sink British patrolling vessels in the strait between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. It was then planned to go further west to observe and search the area and if possible to support the German pocket battleship Deutschland to return home for repairs. Deutschland was on a mission in the North Atlantic when it developed engine problems. Also German merchant vessels on their way home would be supported and protected if possible.

Photo: The Scharnhorst as seen from the Gneisenau heading for the North Atlantic in November 1939.

A heavy storm on 22 November caused a reduction of the speed to 20 knots. The day after the weather was much better and it was now possible to use all weapons without problems because of heavy wind.

Around noon on 23. November a ship was sighted but it turned out to be an Icelandic fishing vessel. At 15:30 smoke was seen in the horizon. It was the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.

Photo: The passenger liner S.S. Rawalpindi before she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and fitted with eight 6-inch guns and became the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi.

HMS Rawalpindi, had been requisitioned by the Admiralty on 24. August 1939 and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy in October of that year. Rawalpindi had been built by Harland & Wolff for the Peninsular & Orient Line. Launched in 1925, she was one of four R-class ships built for P&O. (the others being Rajputana, Ranchi and Ranpura) Displacing just over 16.000 tons, Rawalpindi was in service on the Britain to India route until the outbreak of the war. On 23. November 1939 Rawalpindi, under the command of Edward Coverley Kennedy, was patrolling the waters off Iceland, north of the Faeroe Islands with her crew totalling 276. Kennedy, the father of famed British broadcaster/journalist Ludovic Kennedy, had earlier in the day stopped a Swedish freighter. A boarding party was left in charge of the Swedish craft and Rawalpindi returned to her patrol duties. At about 15:30 Captain Kennedy had been alerted by men in the crow's nest that a ship had been sighted on the horizon to starboard. Traveling in an easterly direction midway between Iceland and the Faeroes, Rawalpindi had few places to hide.

Kennedy looking through his binoculars thought the ship in the distance was the German pocket battleship  Deutschland, which had been reported to be in the area. Kennedy had been ordered not to engage the Deutschland if he located her, but to radio her position in to Home Fleet HQ. Kennedy ordered the ship to "Action stations" and also ordered a course change to port. As the Rawalpindi steamed at full speed for a fog bank for cover, her alarm bells sounding, a radio message was sent to Home Fleet HQ. Smoke floats were deployed in the water to help hide the ship, but they failed to ignite. Captain Kennedy ordered another course change, this time to starboard where an iceberg about four miles away offered better protection.

The German ship was now closing fast and cutting off the escape route of the Rawalpindi. The German ship flashed a signal to the Rawalpindi to "Heave to!" followed up with a warning shot across her bows. Captain Kennedy did not respond to the order from the German raider. As the German ship closed on the Rawalpindi, Captain Kennedy took a second look at his opponent. This time he was convinced that it was indeed the Deutschland. Kennedy ordered a second message be sent to HQ confirming the sighting of the Deutschland. The German raider now flashed a second signal from her bridge to "Heave to!" This message was also ignored by the Rawalpindi's captain. Perhaps this was because a second ship had now been spotted to starboard. Captain Kennedy first believed this to be another British ship of the Northern Patrol.

The signal officer of the Rawalpindi by now had identified the second ship as the German battlecruiser Gneisenau. (The British considered both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau battlecruisers) Sixty year old Captain Kennedy, now trapped between the two most powerful German ships on the high seas was not about to surrender. He was heard to say "We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us and that will be that. Good-bye" With that statement the fate of the Rawalpindi was sealed.

On the foretop of the Scharnhorst Captain Kurt Cäsar Hoffmann ordered a third signal to be flashed to the Rawalpindi. This time Scharnhorst flashed the signal to "Abandon your ship". Hoffmann was stunned when this signal was also ignored. He thought the Captain of the Rawalpindi to be mad. Surely he (Kennedy) could not believe that Rawalpindi's eight World War 1 era six inch guns were in any way a match for the eighteen modern eleven inch guns of the two German ships. Hoffmann would get his answer after the signal to abandon your ship was sent twice more. With no response from the Rawalpindi, Hoffmann had no alternative but to order the sinking of the ship. As Hoffmann prepared to give the order to open fire, Captain Kennedy's answer to Hoffmann's earlier signals came in the form of a salvo of six inch shells that rained down on the Gneisenau. A second salvo was directed at Scharnhorst. At 15:45 the Scharnhorst opened fire on the Rawalpindi. The first salvo hit the Rawalpindi on the boat deck, just under the bridge, killing almost everyone on the bridge and destroying the radio room. However Kennedy miraculously survived. The second salvo from Scharnhorst destroyed the main gun control station and knocked out one of her starboard guns.  The third salvo found the engine room, this knocked out the dynamos that provided the electric power to the ship’s systems. With the shell hoists unable to operate Kennedy ordered Chief Petty Officer Humphries to alert the seven remaining gun commanders to continue to fire independently because the main fire control system was out of action. Humphries was to also enlist all available hands to carry the six inch shells from the magazine to the turrets.

The shells from the German's kept coming. One by one the guns on the Rawalpindi were knocked out of action.  Below deck's the power was out and on deck things were dreadful. Rawalpindi was burning from stem to stern, live shells and cordite sticks rolled freely on deck next to burning debris. Captain Kennedy and two men now went to the after part of the ship to lay a smoke-screen. Soon after this one of the men reported to Chief Petty Officer Humphries that the Captain was dead. The Rawalpindi was also dead in the water. Fire everywhere, fire suppression systems had failed and the ships steering gear was jammed, it was now time to abandon ship. One lifeboat with forty wounded men was lowered, but it overturned pouring the men into the freezing water. At about 16:00, while other boats were being lowered, Scharnhorst's guns found the forward magazine. The Rawalpindi exploded, broke in two and went down. Those in the lifeboats were swamped when Scharnhorst swung hard about to avoid the sinking ship. However, the Scharnhorst returned rapidly to rescue survivors. The crew of the Scharnhorst recovered 38 survivors from the Rawalpindi, but sadly 238 were killed in the action. This whole battle took place in fifteen minuets. Just after 16:00 the first of the British ships sent to aid the Rawalpindi arrived, but stayed a respectful distance from the guns of the German ships. HMS Delhi and HMS Newcastle shadowed the two German battleships while HMS Warspite, HMS Hood and HMS Repulse were racing to the forward track of the Germans. The sea now took control, a squall erupted, and since the British ships were not equipped with radar, the Germans managed to escape. 

Photo: After returnung from the Northern Patrol attack the Scharnhorst moves slowly through the opened Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge in Wilhelmshaven with a tug alongside.

On 27. November Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returned to Wilhelmshaven. Shortly afterwards Gneisenau went trough the Kaiser-Wilhelm Kanal (channel) to Kiel. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had suffered from sea damages, especially there was problems with the A turrets on both ships. Repairs on both ships was necessary. While being repaired in Wilhelmshaven the Scharnhorst also had her boilers overhauled.

Photo: With the help from tugs the Scharnhorst is about to make fast at the Fliegerdeich (Seydlitz Bridge) in the main harbour of Wilhelmshaven.

© John Asmussen, 2001 - 2010. All rights reserved.