The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst were sister ships. Both were battle cruisers and both had done a great deal to turn the Battle of the Atlantic towards a potential German victory. Their dash up the English Channel in February 1942, Operation Cerberus, along with the Prinz Eugen, was a major embarrassment for the Royal Navy.
Both ships were launched in 1936 with a new design. Both ships combined heavy armour with speed with the size of the shells they fired being sacrificed. Many British naval vessels had been built in earlier times and did not benefit from new ideas with regards to naval shipbuilding. The new German battle cruisers were designed to still pack a heavy punch but to have the ability to get themselves out of trouble if they were required to do so. British battleships such as the Hood were built with much armour as well, but they also carried guns that required much larger shells. When these shells hit home they did considerable damage. The Kriegsmarine’s (German Navy) philosophy was that smaller shells could still do the necessary damage to disable or sink a ship but that the smaller weight carried could be made up with better armour.
The Gneisenau displaced 32,000 tons and had a maximum speed of 31.5 knots. She was armed with nine-11 inch guns, twelve 5.9-inch guns, fourteen 4.1-inch AA guns, sixteen 37-mm AA guns ten and later thirty eight 20-mm AA guns, six 21 inch torpedo tubes and four aircraft. Her crew numbered 1,800. The Scharnhorst had similar statistics.
The third ship in Operation Cerberus was the Prinz Eugen. She was a heavy cruiser and, along with the Hipper and the Blucher, was built in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. The Prinz Eugen displaced 13,900 tons and had a maximum speed of 32 knots. She was armed with eight 8-inch guns, twelve 4.1-inch AA guns, twelve 37-mm AA guns, eight (later 28) 20-mm AA guns, twelve 21-inch torpedo tubes and three aircraft. She also carried three aircraft. Her crew numbered 1,600.