Note: This essay was first written in December 1998. I have rewritten parts of it to clarify a few points and add new information.
Which Battleship scored the longest-range hit on an enemy warship?
It is quite well known that HMS Warspite hit the Italian battleship Guilio Cesare in July 1940 at a range of about 26,000 yds. Up until now, I've always believed that this was the longest range hit ever scored on a moving target in a naval combat engagement. However, I recently reread an old book of mine that is an English translation of a German history of the Kriegsmarine in World War II, "Verdammte See" (Published in English as "Hitler's Naval War") by Cajus Bekkar. In this book, there is a summary of the sinking of HMS Glorious based upon the German after-action reports. In these reports, there is enough data to have made me think that the Scharnhorst hit the Glorious at a greater range than the Warspite hit the Guilio Cesare. I've been trying to confirm this ever since. I can now report success.
I have found an on-line website that has an article on the engagement:
"Loss of HMS Glorious" at the INRO website.
This is an on-line copy of an article published in Warship International in 1994, titled "Loss of the HMS Glorious," by Vernon W. Howland, Captain, RCN (Retd.). Some pertinent data points from the article (found in various places):
1) Scharnhorst was 28,600 yds. distant at 1632 when she opened fire
2) Her third salvo hit Glorious at 1638.
3) Scharnhorst was 26,465 yds. distant or slightly less from the Glorious between 1636 and 1638.
Notes on above data points:
a) 1 and 2 above agrees with the German after action report summary that I have a translation of, and what started this whole quest of mine.
b) The conversion from hectometers to yards appears to have been poorly
done in the table given in the article. It appears that the author converted
from hectometer (what the Germans used in their reports) to yards, and
then back to hectometers to create the table. I can rationalize the
table in no other way (these errors also appear in the print version, of
which I have a copy). This conversion and reconversion process appears
to have led to errors and typos. For instance, at 1641, the range
in the table is given as 26,137 yds. and 230 hectometers. Actually,
the correct conversion from yards would be 239 hectometers. For this
essay, I have made an assumption that the yard values in this table are
the correct values, as this is the unit of measurement that the author
should have been most familiar with - he is, after all, Canadian.
However, it is possible that, in this one instance, the hectometer distance
given in the table is correct. If so, then the distance at 1639 would
have been 240 hectometers, or about 26,260 yds. and not 26,465 yards.
I do not believe that this materially affects the end result, but I'll
accept that it may be a flaw in my reasoning.
Some analysis of the above data points:
In the three minute period between 1636 and 1639, the distance appears to have remained constant at 26,465 yds., or it may have decreased somewhat to 26,260 yds. For Scharnhorst to have hit Glorious at 1638, she must have fired no later than 1637 (allowing for a maximum flight/spot/reload time of 90 seconds and assuming that the times are rounded off to the nearest minute). At 1637, assuming a constant closing rate, Scharnhorst would have been at about 26,400 yds. So, I think that somewhere between 26,400 to 26,465 yds. is the correct distance, whatever the errors in the table may be.
Bottom line: It appears that the Scharnhorst hit the Glorious at about
26,465 yds. or slightly less. Given the level of uncertainty in the
accuracy of the rangefinders used in the early war period, this is essentially
the same distance reported for the Warspite striking the Guilio Cesare,
26,000 yds. So, as far as I am concerned, there is really a tie between
HMS Warspite and KM Scharnhorst as to who made the longest gunfire hit
on a moving target.