Operation Battle of the Barents Sea

The 'Battle of the Barents Sea' was a naval engagement in the Barents Sea, to the north of the North Cape in German-occupied Norway, between German and British warships, the latter escorting the JW.51B convoy to the Kola Inlet in the northern USSR (31 December 1942).

The failure of the German raiders to inflict significant losses on the convoy infuriated Adolf Hitler, who ordered that German naval strategy would henceforth concentrate on the U-boat fleet rather than surface ships.

The JW.51B convoy comprised 14 merchant ships carrying war materials to the USSR: this material included some 202 tanks, 2,046 vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 10,268 tons of fuel, 11,296 tons of aviation fuel and slightly more than 48,214 tons of other supplies. The convoy was protected by the destroyers Achates, Orwell, Oribi, Onslow, Obedient and Obdurate, the 'Flower' class corvettes Rhododendron and Hyderabad, the minesweeper Bramble, and the trawlers Vizalma and Northern Gem. The escort commander was Captain R. St V. Sherbrooke in Onslow. The convoy sailed in the dead of winter to preclude German air attack such as that which had devastated the PQ.17 convoy. Force 'R', under the command of Rear-Admiral R. L. Burnett, with the light cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica and two destroyers, was independently stationed in the Barents Sea to provide distant cover.

On 31 December, a German force based at the Altafjord in northern Norway, under the command of Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz, in the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper departed in the 'Regenbogen' undertaking. After the PQ.18 convoy, the force had waited to attack the next Arctic convoy but the temporary suspension of such convoys by the British during the 'Torch' landings in French North-West Africa and 'FB' the routing of single ships to the northern USSR, had provided no opportunity to begin the operation. The German force comprised the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Lützow (the renamed 'pocket battleship' Deutschland), and the destroyers Friedrich Eckoldt, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Z-29, Z-30 and Z-31.

The JW.51B convoy departed Loch Ewe, on the north-west coast of Scotland, on 22 December and met its escort off Iceland on 25 December. From there the ships sailed to the north-east, meeting heavy gales on 28/29 December that caused the convoy’s ships to lose station. When the weather moderated, five merchantmen and the escorts Oribi and Vizalma were missing and Bramble was detached to search for them. Three of the straggling merchant vessels rejoined the convoy on the following day; the other ships proceeded independently toward the Kola Inlet. On 24 December the convoy was sighted by German reconnaissance aircraft and from 30 December was shadowed by U-354. When the boat’s report was received by the German naval staff, Kummetz was ordered to sail immediately to intercept the convoy. Kummetz split his force into two divisions led by Admiral Hipper and Lützow respectively.

At 08.00 on 31 December, the main body of the JW.51B conoy, comprising 12 merchant vessels and eight warships, were some 140 miles (220 km) to the north of the coast of Finnmark and heading to the east. Detached from the convoy were the destroyer Oribi and one ship, which took no part in the action. Some 17 miles (28 km) astern to the north-east of the convoy, Bramble was searching for them. To the north of the convoy, at a distance of 52 miles (83 km), was Vizalma and another ship, while Burnett’s cruisers were 17 miles (28 km) to the south-east of them and 35 miles (56 km) from the convoy. Some 170 miles (280 km) to the east, the RA.51 homebound was heading to the west. To the north of the convoy, Admiral Hipper and three destroyers were closing, while 58 miles (93 km) away Lützow and her three destroyers were closing from the south. At 08.00 the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt sighted the convoy and reported it to Admiral Hipper.

At 08.20, Obdurate, stationed to the south of the convoy, spotted three German destroyers to the west of the convoy. Then Onslow spotted Admiral Hipper, also to the rear of the convoy, and steered to intercept with Orwell, Obedient and Obdurate, while Achates was instructed to stay with the convoy and make smoke. After some firing, the British ships turned, as if to make a torpedo attack. As his destroyers were heavily outgunned, Sherbrooke knew that his ships' torpedoes were his most formidable weapons. The attack was a feint, for after the torpedoes had been launched their threat would be gone. The ruse worked: Admiral Hipper temporarily retired, since Kummetz had been ordered not to risk his ships. Admiral Hipper then returned to make a second attack, hitting Onslow and causing both heavy damage and many casualties including 17 men killed. Although Onslow ultimately survived the action, Sherbrooke had been badly injured by a large steel splinter and command passed to Obedient.

Admiral Hipper next pulled to the north of the convoy, stumbled across the minesweeper Bramble, and there was an exchange of fire. Admiral Hipper returned fire with her much heavier 8-in (203-mm) guns, causing a large explosion on Bramble. The destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt was ordered to finish Bramble, which sank with all hands, while Admiral Hipper shifted aim to Obedient and Achates to the south. Achates was badly damaged but continued to make smoke until eventually she sank; the trawler Northern Gem rescued many of the destroyer’s crew. The Germans reported sinking a destroyer but this resulted from the misidentification of the minesweeper Bramble. The Germans had not realised that Achates had been hit.

The firing attracted the attention of Force 'R', which was still farther to the north. Sheffield and Jamaica then approached unseen and opened fire on Admiral Hipper at 11.35, hitting her with sufficient 6-in (152-mm) shells to damage, and cause minor flooding to two of her boiler rooms, reducing her speed to 28 kt. Kummetz initially thought that the attack of the two cruisers was coming from another destroyer but upon realising his mistake, he ordered his ships to retreat to the west. In another case of mistaken identity, Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen mistook Sheffield for Admiral Hipper: after attempting to form up with the British ships, they were engaged by Sheffield, and Friedrich Eckholdt broke in two and sank with all hands.

Lützow approached from the east and fired ineffectively at the convoy, still hidden by smoke from the crippled Achates. Heading to the north-west to join Admiral Hipper, Lützow also encountered Sheffield and Jamaica, which opened fire. Coincidentally, both sides decided to break off the action at the same time, each side fearing imminent torpedo attacks upon their heavy ships from the other’s remaining destroyers. This was shortly after noon. Burnett with Force 'R' continued to shadow the German ships at a distance until it was evident that they were retiring to their base, while the ships of the convoy re-formed and continued toward the Kola Inlet.

The encounter took place in the middle of the months-long polar night and both the German and British forces were scattered and unsure of the positions of the rest of their own forces, much less those of their opponent. The battle became a rather confused affair and sometimes it was not clear who was firing on whom or how many ships were engaged. Despite the German efforts, all 14 of the merchant ships reached their destinations in the USSR without suffering any damage.

Hitler was infuriated at what he regarded as the uselessness of the surface raiders, seeing that the initial attack of the two heavy cruisers had been checked by destroyers before the arrival of the two light cruisers. There were serious consequences: Kummetz’s failure nearly made Hitler enforce his earlier decision to scrap the surface fleet and order the German navy to concentrate on U-boat warfare. Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine, offered his resignation and Hitler accepted it. Raeder was replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander of the U-boat service, who saved the German surface fleet from being scrapped, though Admiral Hipper and the light cruisers Emden and Leipzig were laid up until a time late in 1944, while repairs and rebuilding of the battle-cruiser Gneisenau were abandoned. Although S-boote continued to operate off the coast of France, only one more big surface operation was executed after the 'Battle of the Barents Sea'. This was the 'Ostfront' raid on the JW.55B convoy by the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst, which was sunk by an escorting British task force in the 'Battle of the North Cape'.