This was a British naval operation by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s Home Fleet to cover the RA.55A and JW.55B convoys plying from and to ports in the northern part of the USSR, and leading to the Battle of the North Cape after the Germans had launched ‘Ostfront’ to destroy these convoys (20/30 December 1943).
On 12 December the JW.55A convoy of 19 laden ships departed Liverpool and reached the Kola Inlet on 20 December and then the White Sea and the port of Arkhangyel’sk on 22 December.
The convoy’s local escort between 12 and 15 December comprised the minesweepers Cockatrice and Harrier. The ocean escort from 12 to 15 December comprised the escort destroyer Westcott, Free Norwegian corvette Acanthus, and minesweeper Speedwell, which were supplemented between 15 and 21 December by the destroyers Milne, Ashanti, Matchless, Meteor, Musketeer, Opportune, Virago and Canadian Athabaskan.
The eastern local escort between 20 and 22 December comprised the Soviet destroyers Gromkiy, Groznyi and Kuybyshev, three Soviet minesweepers and the British minesweepers Hussar and Halcyon. Cover was provided by the heavy cruiser Norfolk and light cruisers Belfast and Sheffield, and distant cover was the responsibility of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s detachment of his own Home Fleet with the battleship Duke of York, light cruiser Jamaica and destroyers Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion and Free Norwegian Stord; these latter ships, escorted by the Soviet destroyer Kuybyshev, reached the Kola inlet between 16 and 18 December but then departed for Akureyri, Iceland, to refuel.
Submarine cover off the North Cape was provided by Sirdar and then Syrtis.
In an effort to effect an interception, U-277, U-354, U-387 and U-636 had established a patrol line to the east of the Bjørnøya Passage: here U-636 located and for a short time managed to shadow some of the escort vessels during 18 December, but was unable to close on the convoy.
The JW.55B convoy of 19 laden ships departed Loch Ewe on 20 December, local escort being provided by the corvettes Borage and Wallflower, and the minesweepers Hound and Hydra. The convoy was supported by Captain J. A. McCoy’s 3rd Support Group (destroyers Onslow, Onslaught, Orwell, Scourge, Impulsive and Canadian Haida, Huron and Iroquois) bolstered by the destroyers Whitehall and Wrestler, corvettes Honeysuckle and Oxlip, and minesweeper Gleaner.
The convoy was spotted and reported by German air reconnaissance on 22 December, but an attack by Junkers Ju 88 medium-range bombers on the following day was unable to break through the convoy’s anti-aircraft defences. On 25 December the escort was strengthened with the arrival of the destroyers Matchless, Musketeer, Opportune and Virago from the RA.55A’s convoy’s support element.
The local escort from 28 December took the form of the Soviet destroyers Razyaryonnyi, Razumnyi and Kuybyshev, four Soviet minesweepers and the British minesweepers Halcyon, Hussar and Speedwell.
On 23 December the RA.55A convoy with 22 unladen ships (one had turned back) departed the Kola inlet with an escort group under Captain I. M. R. Campbell comprising the destroyers Milne, Ashanti, Beagle, Matchless, Meteor, Musketeer, Opportune, Virago, Westcott and Canadian Athabaskan, corvettes Dianella, Poppy and Free Norwegian Acanthus, and minesweeper Seagull. The eastern local escort between 22 and 24 December comprised the Soviet destroyers Razumnyi, Razyaryonnyi and Kuybyshev, and minesweepers T-113, T-114 and T-116.
Vice Admiral R. L. Burnett’s cruiser covering force, comprising the heavy cruiser Norfolk and light cruisers Belfast and Sheffield, operated in the Barents Sea, and additional cover was provided by the battleship Duke of York, light cruiser Jamaica, and destroyers Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion and Norwegian Stord.
On 24 December U-601 of the ‘Eisenbart’ wolfpack (U-277, U-314, U-354, U-387, U-601, U-716 and U-957) was directed to the convoy by air reconnaissance, and established contact with the JW.55B convoy. But U-601 and U-716, which fired one torpedo at a destroyer, were driven off by the escorts.
On 25 December Konteradmiral Erich Bey’s German task force (battle-cruiser Scharnhorst and Kapitän Rolf Johannesson’s 4th Zerstörer-Flottille with Z 29, Z 30, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38) was sent out against the JW.55B and RA.55A convoys in ‘Ostfront’, and this led directly to the Battle of the North Cape and the sinking of Scharnhorst.
The JW.55B convoy reached the Kola Inlet without loss on 29 December, and Soviet ships then escorted some of the merchant vessels into the White Sea. The RA.55A convoy reached the UK without loss on 1 January. On 31 December the following RA.55B convoy of eight unladen ships departed the Kola Inlet with local escort by the British minesweepers Halcyon, Hussar and Speedwell, ocean escort by Onslow, Impulsive, Onslaught, Orwell, Whitehall, Wrestler, and Canadian Haida, Huron and Iroquois, and finally the minesweepers Orestes and Ready as the local escort, and reached Loch Ewe on 8 January without loss.