Operation Fronttheater

front of house

This was the German unsuccessful first attempt by the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and a destroyer force to break out of the Baltic Sea and reach the northern part of German-occupied Norway (10/11 January 1943).

On two occasions during this month, the German squadron attempted the passage from the Baltic Sea via the Kattegat and Skagerrak to emerge into the North Sea, and then to make their way to northern Norway in order to join the battleship Tirpitz. In each case the German ships were spotted by British aircraft and the break-out effort was called off because of the likelihood that the Royal Navy would be able to effect an interception with the heavy warships of its Home Fleet from Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group.

At this time the Home Fleet was at a high level of capability except for its lack of an aircraft carrier, for the new battleships King George V, Anson and Howe were complemented by the older battleship Malaya, currently working up after a refit, and these were supplemented by four heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and about 20 destroyers.

On the other side of the North Sea, the Germans had the battleship Tirpitz, pocket battleship Lützow, heavy cruiser Hipper, light cruisers Nürnberg and Köln, about eight destroyers and some 20 U-boats based on Norway, the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst, heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, light cruisers Emden and Leipzig and 11 destroyers in the Baltic and, the British wrongly estimated, the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin nearing completion.

Although the German air attack capability in Norway had been much reduced in strength, the German air reconnaissance capability from that country was still very good, so any movement of major warships from the Baltic to northern Norway was a matter of great concern.

On 11 January Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were sighted off the Skaw steering to the north-west. Commanding the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey had for some time expected that these two ships would be sent to boost the German naval strength in northern Norway, or to break out into the Atlantic on a commerce-raiding cruise. Air Vice Marshal A. Durston’s No. 18 Group of Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté’s RAF Coastal Command flew a programme of comprehensive reconnaissance patrols, six submarines were sent to patrol off the Norwegian coast, and a destroyer flotilla, supported by two cruisers, was ordered to sweep the waters to the south of Stadlandet. The German ships had reversed course soon after being spotted, however, and the British reconnaissance aircraft lost touch.

Meanwhile the major warships of the Home Fleet in the Hvalfjörður of south-western Iceland had readied themselves to tackle any attempt by the German ships to break out into the North Atlantic, but like those of the Home Fleet, these precautions proved unnecessary.

Two weeks later the same German warships repeated their effort to enter the North Sea and steam to northern Norway in ‘Domino’, but were again sighted by British aircraft off the Skaw and turned back.