Operation Battle of the North Cape

The 'Battle of the North Cape' was a battle fought between British and German naval forces off the North Cape of Norway as part of the Arctic campaign (26 December 1943).

The German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst, supported by destroyers and involved in the 'Ostfront' operation to attack Arctic convoys delivering war matériel from the Western Allies to the USSR, was brought to battle and sunk by the Royal Navy’s battleship Duke of York, supported by cruisers and destroyers.

The battle was the last between big-gun capital ships in the war between the UK and Germany, and the British victory confirmed the massive strategic advantage held by the British, at least in surface units. It was also the penultimate engagement between battleships, the last being the 'Battle of the Surigao Strait' in October 1944.

Since August 1941, the western Allies had run convoys from the UK and Iceland to the USSR’s northern ports to provide essential supplies for Soviet war effort on the Eastern Front. These convoys endured much hardship, including extraordinarily harsh weather and sea conditions, and were frequently attacked by German naval and air forces based in German-occupied Norway. A key concern were German in Allied, and especially British, thinking was the availability to the Germans of battleships such as Tirpitz and battle-cruisers such as Scharnhorst. Even the threat of these ships' presence was enough to cause disastrous consequences for convoys such as PQ.17, which was scattered and mostly sunk by German forces after false reports that Tirpitz was steaming to intercept. To ward off the threat of Germany’s capital ships in the Arctic and to escort convoys with a high level of success, the Royal Navy had to commit substantial forces which could otherwise have been deployed elsewhere.

'Ostfront' was a German naval attempt to intercept anticipated Arctic convoys. Late in December 1943, there was the JW.55B bound for northern Russia and comprising 19 cargo vessels under the control of its commodore, the retired Rear Admiral M. W. S. Boucher, accompanied by a close escort of two Canadian destroyers, Huron and Haida, among others, and an ocean escort of eight Home Fleet destroyers led by the British destroyer Onslow. Also in the area was the RA.55A convoy, returning from Russia to the UK, comprising 22 cargo ships and accompanied by a close escort of two destroyers and four other vessels, and an ocean escort of six Home Fleet destroyers led by Milne. The convoy had arrived safely at Murmansk with its normal escorts and the additional protection provided by Force 1, commanded by Vice Admiral R. L. Burnett and comprising the light cruiser Belfast (flag), the heavy cruiser Norfolk and the light cruiser Sheffield.

Escorting the convoys to Russia was the responsibility of the Home Fleet and its commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Fraser wished to neutralise Scharnhorst, which represented a major threat to the convoys, and planned a confrontation over the period of Christmas 1943 in which the JW.55B convoy would be used to draw the German into battle. Fraser expected and hoped that Scharnhorst would attempt to attack the JW.55B convoy and, at a conference of the captains of the ships in his force, described his plan to intercept Scharnhorst in a position between the convoy and the German warship’s Norwegian base. He would then approach [e[Scharnhorst to within 12,000 yards (10975 m) in the Arctic night, illuminate the German ship with star shell, and open fire using fire-control radar.

The JW.55B convoy had departed Loch Ewe, on the north-western coast of Scotland, during 20 December and was sighted two days later by a Luftwaffe aeroplane which then shadowed it. By 23 December it was clear to the British from intelligence reports that the convoy had been sighted and was being shadowed by German aircraft. Fraser then put to sea with Force 2 comprising his flagship, the battleship Duke of York, the light cruiser Jamaica and the 'S' class destroyers Savage, Scorpion, Saumarez and Stord, the last a vessel of the exiled Royal Norwegian navy. Fraser was anxious not to discourage Scharnhorst from leaving her base, so he did not approach before it was necessary to do so. As the JW.55B convoy its escorts approached the area of greatest danger on the same day, 23 December, steaming slowly to the east some 250 miles (400 km) off the coast of northern Norway, Burnett and Force 1 set out to the west from Murmansk while Fraser with Force 2 approached at moderate speed from the west. On 25 December, Scharnhorst, under the command of Kapitän Fritz Hintze, with the 'Narvik' class destroyers Z-29, Z-30, Z-33, Z-34 and Z-38 departed the Altafjord in north-western Norway under the overall command of Konteradmiral Erich Bey. Scharnhorst set course for the convoy’s reported position as a south-westerly gale developed.

Fraser received confirmation from the Admiralty in the early hours of 26 December that Scharnhorst was at sea and searching for the JW.55B convoy. The stormy weather had resulted in the grounding of all Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, and in the absence of any capability of searching for the British ships from the air and heavy seas hampering the movement of his ships, Bey was unable to locate the convoy. Despite the fact that a U-boat had sighted the convoy and reported its position, Bey was still not able to make contact with the British ships. Thinking he had overshot the British ships, Bey detached his destroyers and sent them southward to increase the search area, and the destroyers subsequently lost contact with their flagship. Fraser, preparing for the German attack, had diverted the empty ships of the returning RA.55A convoy farther to the north, out of the area in which it was expected, and ordered the JW.55B convoy to reverse course to allow him to close. He later ordered four of the destroyers with the RA.55A convoy (Matchless, Musketeer, Opportune and Virago) to detach and join Force 2.

Now without escorts, Scharnhorst encountered Burnett’s Force 1 shortly after 09.00. Belfast was the first ship to obtain radar contact, and the British cruisers rapidly closed the range. At a distance of nearly 13,000 yards (11885 m), the British cruisers opened fire with their 6- and 8-in (152- and 203-mm) guns and Scharnhorst responded with salvoes of her own 11.02-in (280-mm) guns. While no hits were scored on the British ships, the German battleship was struck twice: one shell destroyed the forward Seetakt radar controls and thus left Scharnhorst virtually blind in a mounting snowstorm. Without radar, gunners aboard the German battle-cruiser were forced to aim at the British ships' muzzle flashes. This was made more difficult by the fact that the two British light cruisers were using a new flashless propellant, leaving Norfolk the least difficult target. Believing that he had engaged a battleship, Bey turned to the south in an attempt to distance himself from the pursuers and perhaps draw them away from the convoy.

Scharnhorst's superior speed allowed Bey to shake off his pursuers, after which he turned to the north-east in an attempt to circle round the British cruisers and attack the undefended convoy. Instead of giving chase in sea conditions that were limiting his cruisers' speed to 24 kt, Burnett correctly estimated Bey’s intentions and positioned Force 1 so as to protect the convoy. It was a decision that he had some personal doubts about as it would result in the cruisers losing contact with Scharnhorst, and the decision was criticised by some of the British force’s other officers but supported by Fraser. To Burnett’s relief, shortly after 12.00, Scharnhorst was once again detected by the cruisers' radars as she attempted to approach the convoy. As fire was again exchanged, Scharnhorst scored two hits on Norfolk with 280-mm (11.02-in) shells, disabling a turret and her radar. Burnett’s destroyers were also unable to work their way close enough to Scharnhorst to launch a torpedo attack on the German ship. Following this exchange, Bey decided to return to port, while he ordered his destroyers to attack the convoy at a position reported by the U-boat earlier in the morning. The reported position was out-of-date, and the destroyers did not locate the convoy.

Scharnhorst steamed to the south for several hours, once again taking advantage of her superior speed. Burnett pursued, but both Sheffield and Norfolk suffered engine problems and were forced to drop back, leaving the outgunned Belfast as the sole pursuer and thus dangerously exposed, at least for a time. Scharnhorst's lack of working radar prevented the Germans from taking advantage of the situation, however, allowing Belfast to reacquire the German ship on radar. Unknown to Bey, his ship was now sailing into a trap, with Fraser’s main force steaming toward Scharnhorst's position and perfectly placed to intercept the fleeing German ship. With Belfast sending a constant stream of signals on Scharnhorst's position, the battleship Duke of York battled through the rough seas to reach the German ship. Fraser sent his four escorting destroyers to press ahead and seek to get into torpedo-launching positions. The main British force detected Scharnhorst on radar at 16.15 and manoeuvred to bring a full broadside to bear. At 16.17 Scharnhorst was detected by Duke of York's Type 273 radar at a range of 45,500 yards (41605 m) and by 16:32 Duke of York's Type 284 radar indicated that the range had closed to 29,700 yards (27160 m).

At 16.48, Belfast fired star shells to illuminate Scharnhorst which, unprepared and with her turrets trained fore and aft, was clearly visible from Duke of York. The British battleship opened fire with her 14-in (355.6-mm) guns at a range of 11,920 yards (10900 m) and scored a hit with her first salvo, disabling Scharnhorst's foremost 'Anton' and 'Bruno' turrets, while another salvo destroyed the ship’s floatplane hangar. Bey turned to the north, but was engaged by the cruisers Norfolk and Belfast, and therefore turned to the east at 31 kt. Scharnhorst was now being engaged on one side by Duke of York and [e[Jamaica, and on the other by Burnett’s cruisers. The Germans took continuing heavy punishment from Duke of York, and at 17.24 a desperate Bey signalled to Germany 'am surrounded by heavy units'.

Bey was able to put some more distance between Scharnhorst and the British ships and thereby increase his prospects of success. Two 280-mm (11.02-in) shells from one of her salvoes passed through the masts of Duke of York, severing some of the ship’s radio antennae, and, more serious still, knocking over the antenna of the Type 284 gunnery-control radar. These hits could not have been known to Bey, and the ship’s electrical officer, despite the appalling conditions (a force 8 gale, darkness and substantial ice), climbed the mast and managed to return the antenna to the horizontal and restarted the gyro-stabiliser so that within a few minutes the radar was working once more. Scharnhorst's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse at 18.20 when a shell fired by Duke of York at extreme range pierced her belt armor and destroyed the No. 1 boiler room. Scharnhorst's speed dropped to a mere 10 kt, and although immediate repair work allowed he battle-cruiser to recover to 22 kt, Scharnhorst was now vulnerable to torpedo attacks by the destroyers. Five minutes later, Bey sent his final message to the German naval command: 'We will fight on until the last shell is fired.' At 18.50 Scharnhorst turned to starboard to engage the destroyers Savage and Saumarez, but this allowed Scorpion and the Free Norwegian Stord to attack with torpedoes, scoring two hits on the battle-cruiser’s starboard side. As Scharnhorst continued to turn to avoid the torpedoes, Savage and Saumarez scored three torpedo hits on her port side. Saumarez was hit several times by Scharnhorst's 150-mm (5.91-in) secondary armament and suffered the loss of 11 men killed and 11 wounded.

As a result of the torpedo hits, Scharnhorst's speed again fell to 10 kt, allowing Duke of York rapidly to close the range. With Scharnhorst illuminated by starshells 'hanging over her like a chandelier', Duke of York and Jamaica opened fore once again, at a range of only 10,400 yards (9510 m). At 19.15, Belfast joined in from the north. The British vessels subjected the German ship to a deluge of shells, and the cruisers Jamaica and Belfast fired their remaining torpedoes at the slowing target. Scharnhorst's end came when the British destroyers Opportune, Virago, Musketeer and Matchless fired a further 19 torpedoes at her. Riven by hits and unable to flee, Scharnhorst finally capsized and sank at 19.45 on 26 December, her propellers still turning. Of her total complement of 1,968 men, only 36 were pulled from the frigid waters, 30 by Scorpion and six by Matchless. Neither Bey nor Hintze were among those rescued, although both were reported seen in the water after the ship sank, nor were any other officers. Scorpion tried to rescue Bey but he foundered. The British casualties, by contrast, were relatively light with only 21 men killed and 11 wounded. The majority of British casualties occurred on Saumarez, with 11 of the destroyer’s sailors killed as the ship attempted to close with Scharnhorst. Norfolk suffered most of the remaining casualties with seven of her men killed, while the destroyer Scorpion also had one of her men missing in action.

Fraser ordered the force to proceed to Murmansk, making to the Admiralty the signal 'Scharnhorst sunk', which elicited the response 'Grand, well done'.

The loss of Scharnhorst demonstrated the vital importance of radar in modern naval warfare. While the German battle-cruiser should have been able to outgun all of her opponents but Duke of York, the early loss of radar-assisted fire control combined with the problem of inclement weather left her at a significant disadvantage. Scharnhorst had been straddled by 31 of the 52 radar fire-controlled salvoes fired by Duke of York. In the aftermath of the battle, the Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, remarked that 'Surface ships are no longer able to fight without effective radar equipment.'

The sinking of Scharnhorst was a major victory for the Allied effort in the Arctic theatre and further altered the strategic balance at sea in their favour. The 'Battle of the North Cape' took place only a few months after the success of 'Source', an operation which had severely damaged the German battleship Tirpitz as she lay at anchor in Norway. With Scharnhorst destroyed and Germany’s other capital ships out of service, the Allies were now for the first time in the war free from the threat of German heavy warships raiding their convoys in the Arctic and Atlantic. This made it possible for the Allies to reallocate their naval resources that previously been committed to the task of countering the threat of the German 'fleet in being'.