During the 1930s a new German navy began to emerge. In this period Germany constructed more modern battleships and battlecruisers, and among them was the Scharnhorst. As a battlecruiser it was a lightweight battleship that could eclipse 30 knots. This made it ideal for commerce raiding.

The German navy added the ship to their fleet in 1939, and it was soon sent on commerce raiding missions in the Iceland-Faroes passage. During these early missions the battlecruiser was effective, and took out the Royal Navy's Rawalpindi. The former ocean liner boldly ignored the Scharnhorst's signals for them to abandon their ship, and was duly wiped out by the battlecruiser's shells.

Gneisenau class battlecruiser

In 1940, the German navy dispatched the Scharnhorst to Norway to provide naval support for the German troops. Among the primary targets for German ships was that of Allied naval supply lines which could be cut off via the sea. By early June Britain was withdrawing their troops from Norway, and among the escort ships sent was that of the Glorious aircraft carrier. On 8 June the ship intercepted the Glorious, which was sailing back to home ports. Then the battlecruiser closed in and showered the aircraft carrier with shells that set the Glorious ablaze. Consequently, the carrier was lost at sea.

During 1941, the navy sent the Scharnhorst on Atlantic commerce raids. The ship intercepted British, Greek, Dutch and Norwegian shipping. It wiped out tankers, passenger-cargo ships, and freighters during the raid. The German fleet captured approximately 22 merchant ships, more than 100,000 gross tons.

Afterwards the German warships returned to ports in France, but there they remained open for Allied airstrikes. As such, to return to home ports in Germany the Scharnhorst passed through the Channel. During the 1942 Channel Dash, it evaded the Royal Navy and RAF aircraft to make it back to Germany firmly intact.

Another Allied supply route lied in the Arctic. Arctic convoys resumed in late 1943, transporting military supplies to northern Russian ports. They had previously been targeted by the German navy, and with further Allied convoys sailing Germany dispatched the Scharnhorst to pick off the convoy JW 55B.

The battlecruiser closed in on this convoy in December, but was also discovered by a fleet of British warships at the North Cape to the north of Norway. The Royal Navy had expected the Scharnhorst, and had sent out a good number of warships to intercept it. The battlecruiser began to withdraw after opening salvos, but with it boiler rooms penetrated the ship slowed down; and the Allied destroyers closed in to wipe out the battlecruiser. With the ship ablaze it listed to starboard under a cloud of smoke after further torpedo bombardments.

The Scharnhorst was lost at sea. This battlecruiser had certainly been one of the German navy's most effective in combat with Royal Navy ships. With the Scharnhorst defeated the Allies could increase their Arctic convoys.