Operation Action of 28 January 1945

The 'Action of 28 January 1945' was an inconclusive naval engagement fought between two British light cruisers and three German destroyers near Bergen, Norway (28 January 1945).

The battle was the last of many actions between British and German warships off Norway during World War II, and was also the penultimate engagement fought by the Kriegsmarine. The action resulted in heavy damage to one of the German destroyers and light damage to another destroyer and both British cruisers.

Shortly after 00.00 on the night of 27/28 January, as the three destroyers of Kapitän Freiherr von Wangenheim’s 4th Zerstörerflottille were steaming from northern Norway to the Baltic Sea, they were intercepted by the British light cruisers Diadem and Mauritius. The destroyers Z-31 and Z-34 were damaged by gunfire, but the German flotilla outran the slower British ships and escaped. The German warships eventually reached the Baltic, though Z-31 was delayed until repairs had been completed in Norway.

The 4th Zerstörerflottille comprised the 'Typ 1936A' class destroyers Z-31, Z-34 and Z-38 which , by January 1945, had been based in northern Norwegian waters for three and a half years, but had only occasionally put to sea during 1944. As a result of Germany’s deteriorating position, the flotilla was directed in January to leave Norwegian waters and pass into the Baltic, and in accordance with these instructions the three destroyers departed Tromsø on 25 January.

Admiral Sir Henry Moore’s Home Fleet conducted a number of attacks on German shipping off the coast of Norway during January 1945. These undertakings included successful attacks by motor torpedo boats on three escorted ships between 6 and 8 January, and the interception of a convoy by the heavy cruiser Norfolk and light cruiser Bellona near Egersund on the night of 11/12 January. On 27 January, the escort carriers Campania, Nairana and Premier departed the Home Fleet’s main base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group to conduct the 'Winded' raid against shipping near Vaago: the carriers were escorted by the heavy cruiser Berwick and six destroyers.

The British were alerted to the 4th Zerstörerflottille's movement by 'Ultra' signals intelligence, and Moore was informed that the destroyers had sailed on 27 January, shortly after the three carriers and their escort had put to sea. He believed that the German ships were likely to use a route between the coastal islands and the shore, as was common for the Kriegsmarine. If this route was used, it would be preferable for attack aircraft of the RAF’s No. 18 Group to attack the destroyers as Norway’s inshore waters were protected by naval mines and coastal batteries. Alternatively, the German ships could make a high-speed night passage outside the coastal islands, and if this offshore route was used, Moore ordered Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton, second-in-command of the Home Fleet and commander of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, to depart with the cruisers Diadem and Mauritius for a patrol off Bergen. The Home Fleet did not have destroyers available to accompany Dalrymple-Hamilton’s force, though Moore considered but decided against cancelling the carrier operation in order to make some of these ships available.

Contrary to British expectations, the commander of the 4th Zerstörerflottille, von Wangenheim, opted to use the faster route outside the coastal islands. On the evening of 27 January, the destroyers were spotted and attacked by British aircraft in the area to the west of Sognefjord, but continued their voyage. Contact was made between the two naval forces at 00.48 on 28 January. At this time, the 4th Zerstörerflottille was heading to the south and was located about 15 miles (24 km) to the south-west of the Utvær lighthouse and 35 miles (56 km) to the north-west of Bergen. The sea was calm and visibility was excellent as there was a full moon. The British and German forces spotted each other simultaneously, and at this moment the cruisers were about 11 miles (18 km) to the west of the 4th Zerstörerflottille. On sighting the destroyers, the British ships fired star shells to illuminate the area and turned to the south on a course parallel to that of the German ships.

Z-31 suffered extensive damage at a time early in the engagement: the destroyer was struck by seven 6-in (152.4-mm) shells, which caused her to catch fire, damaged the hydrophone compartment and torpedo transmitting stations and destroyed her forward gun turret. Z-31's speed was not affected, but 55 sailors were killed and another 24 wounded. After Z-31 was damaged, Korvettenkapitän Karl Hetz on board Z-34 assumed command of the flotilla. Z-34 made two torpedo attacks on the British cruisers in an effort to force them to change course, but failed. Z-38 also tried to launch torpedoes but had to break off this attack when her funnel caught fire and a boiler tube burst. Z-34 suffered a hit on her waterline during this period.

After Z-34 had been damaged, Hetz decided to turn to the north to outrun the British cruisers. Z-34 fired a third salvo of torpedoes as the flotilla made this turn, again without result, and the three ships made smoke to conceal their position. The two cruisers also turned to he north to chase the German ships. Thee then began a running fight in which Mauritius sustained a hit on her mess deck that did not cause any casualties and six minutes later Diadem was struck on her boat deck by a shell that killed one man and wounded three more. The German destroyers were capable of 38 kt, while Diadem had a maximum speed of 32 kt and Mauritius 31 kt. Thus the German vessels gradually pulled ahead and came under the protection of shore batteries at about 02.00 am. The British ships broke off the pursuit and returned to Scapa Flow after these batteries fired on them.

Early in the morning of 28 January, the 4th Zerstörerflottille resumed its journey to the south and put into Bergen. Z-31 entered the docks to be repaired while Z-34 and Z-38 departed on the evening of 28 January. The two ships were attacked from the air the next day but suffered no damage before taking shelter in a fjord to the south of Stavanger until dark. They put to sea again on the evening of 29 January and reached Kiel in northern Germany on 1 February.

At Bergen, Z-31 received initial repairs, which included removing the wreckage of her forward turret. She departed the town on 8 February bound for Horten. After arriving she received further repairs and had her anti-aircraft armament upgraded. Her forward turret was not replaced but a 100-mm (4.13-in) gun was mounted in it place: this was intended as a temporary measure but remained in place for the remainder of her career. After these repairs had been completed, Z-31 eventually reached Gotenhafen on 15 March. The last German destroyer remaining in northern Norwegian waters, Z-33, sailed for Germany on 5 February 1945 but ran aground and suffered further damage in the Allied air attack of 9 February. Following repairs, she arrived at Swinemünde on 2 April.

The British and German navies were dissatisfied with the results of the 'Action of 28 January'. The British were disappointed with the inconclusive result and Moore regretted his decision to not cancel the escort carrier operation so that destroyers could be attached to the cruiser force. Historians have judged that the combination of excellent visibility on the night of 27/28 January and the superior speed of the German destroyers meant that the British had no ability to force a result. In a post-war assessment, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, endorsed the tactics Dalrymple-Hamilton used during the engagement but stated that the size of the British force was 'inadequate'. The Kriegsmarine was also unsatisfied with the conduct of the battle, with German naval authorities believing that the destroyers should have taken shelter in coastal waters after they had been sighted by Allied aircraft on the evening of 27 January.

The 'Action of 28 January' was the last engagement between British and German warships in Norwegian waters during World War II. It was also the penultimate surface action fought by the Kriegsmarine, whose final engagement occurred on 18 March when a force of two torpedo boats and one destroyer was defeated by two British destroyers in the 'Battle of the Ligurian Sea'. By this time, most of the Kriegsmarine’s remaining warships were stationed in the Baltic to support German military operations and the evacuation of civilians until the end of the war in May.