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While serving as commerce raiders, the Scharnhorst-class Battleships (or battlecruisers), Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were responsible for sinking over 105,000 tons of allied shipping in a single cruise.
The two ships operated together for much of the early portion of the war, including sorties into the Atlantic, the sinking of British cruiser HMS Rawalpindi and Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Norway. In these operations off Norway, Gneisenau along with Sharnhorst, engaged and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, but in turn Gneisenau was damaged in action against HMS Renown and was subsequently struck by torpedoes.
After further actions in the Atlantic in 1941, the two ships put in at Brest, and were subject to repeated Allied bombing raids. Despite suffering damage, Gneisenau was repaired in good time and in early 1942, the two battle cruisers participated in a daylight dash up the English Channel, sailing for Germany. Gneisenau reached Kiel in early February and went into drydock. On the night of 26 February, the British launched an air attack on the ship, with an explosion in the forward ammunition section causing such heavy damage that it was deemed that the ship's weapons would be refit (as had been originally planned), necessitating a rebuild for her to accommodate larger 38cm guns (her original 28 cm became shore batteries). These plans were abandoned on Hitler's order in 1943. On 27 March 1945, Gneisenau was sunk as a blockship in German occupied Poland. Eventually, she was broken up for scrap in 1951.