The Gneisenau-class of ships were lightweight German battleships, otherwise battlecruisers, constructed during the 1930s. However, with a standard displacement of 32,100 tons they were still sizeable warships that possessed 11-inch guns for their primary armament. The German navy built only two warships of that class which were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
Both the battleships' keels were laid down in 1935. As they modified original plans for the ships, fresh keels for the battleships were laid down. Construction continued up to 1936 when the German navy floated the battleships for the first time.
Thereafter, they fitted both of the ships out up until 1938. Their armaments, which consisted of 11.1, 5.9 and 4.1-inch guns, were added to the decks. They also included light flak machine guns and torpedo batteries with two triple sets of 21-inch torpedo tubes. The ships had an additional three Arado Ar196A-3 aircraft.
The first of the Gneisenau-class ships to join the German navy was the Gneisenau. It was soon followed by the Scharnhorst in 1939. After the outbreak of war, the German navy sent them on a variety of naval missions.
Among the first operations the Germans deployed the ships on was that of Operation Nordmark. They included both the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in a German fleet sent to intercept Allied convoys between Norway and Britain. However, no convoys were found by the fleet.
Another operation the Germans sent both ships on was Operation Weserübung in 1940. The navy sent them to Norway as part of the main covering force for the German invasion. During the mission, they intercepted the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. As the Scharnhorst was closer it fired a salvo of shells at the Glorious that set the carrier ablaze. The aircraft carrier did not remain afloat, but the Scharnhorst still made it back to port despite some flooding aboard the ship.
After repairs, the Germans sent the battlecruisers on further commerce raids. As commerce raider warships, they were more effective than larger German surface fleet vessels. In various convoy raids, they sank a number of merchant ships. Among the more effective raid was Operation Berlin in which their battle group wiped out 22 merchant ships.
The speed of the battleships gave them an advantage at sea. That much became all the clearer during the Channel Dash in 1942. Then both the ships made a daring dash through the Channel back to home ports. Even though the Scharnhorst struck two mines during the operation, both battleships still made it back to Wilhelmshaven.
In late 1943, an Allied convoy sailed through frozen Arctic waters towards northern Russian ports. As it was a convoy loaded with armaments and munitions, the German navy sent the Scharnhorst to wipe out its ships. However, when the battlecruiser sailed the Royal Navy had already dispatched a battleship, cruisers and destroyers to intercept any German warships that might target the convoy.
When their radar detected the Scharnhorst, the Royal Navy warships closed in. Their shells wiped out the battlecruiser's radar, and as it retreated some of the ship's boiler rooms were also decimated. The Royal Navy fleet surrounded and bombarded the battlecruiser with shells. Further rounds of torpedoes strikes sank the German warship.
Before the loss of the Scharnhorst, Allied aircraft had bombarded the Gneisenau. As it still remained afloat, it returned to port for repairs. However, with the loss of the Scharnhorst the battleship remained in port up until 1945. As the Red army closed in on its port in Gotenhafen, its crew scuttled the Gneisenau as a blockship.
The Gneisenau-class ships had been among the more effective German surface fleet ships. Unlike the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, they did wipe out a number of Allied merchant ships during convoy raids. They also took out a larger number of Allied warships such as the HMS Glorious during their missions.