Operation Nordseetour

North Sea excursion

'Nordseetour' was the German first naval commerce-raiding foray into the Atlantic by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper (30 November/27 December 1940).

Undertaken within the context of the Battle of the Atlantic, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper departed Germany on 30 November 1940 and entered the Atlantic after evading British patrols. She had difficulty locating any convoys, and was bedevilled by engine problems and adverse weather. While returning to Brest in German-occupied north-western France, Admiral Hipper chanced on the WS.5A convoy during the night of 24 December. A torpedo attack that night did not inflict any damage, and Admiral Hipper was driven off by the convoy’s escorts when she attacked during the morning of the following day. Two British transports and a heavy cruiser were damaged. The German cruiser sank a merchant ship later on 25 December, and arrived in Brest on 27 December.

The German military was disappointed with the results of the raid. It indicated that as a result of it poor range and unreliable engines the 'Admiral Hipper' class of heavy cruisers was unsuited to attacking shipping in the Atlantic due to their short range and unreliable engines. The Royal Navy strengthened convoy escort forces in response to the attack on the WS.5A convoy, and this frustrated two attacks attempted by German battleships early in 1941.

Plans developed by the German navy before World War II specified that Germany’s surface warships would be used to attack Allied merchant shipping travelling on the oceans, while U-boats and warplanes were to be used against shipping near the coasts of Allied countries. Surface raiders were thus to range widely, make surprise attacks and then move to other areas. They were to be supported by supply ships pre-positioned before the start of operations. The Royal Navy anticipated Germany’s intentions, and adopted plans of its own to institute a convoy system to protect merchant shipping, and to deploy cruisers to monitor attempts by German surface ships to break out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Schemed as group of five ships of which only three were in fact completed, the 'Admiral Hipper' class of heavy cruisers was designed to operate in the North Atlantic. The main armament was eight 203-mm (8-in) guns, the secondary armament 12 105-mm (4.13-in) guns, and the tertiary armament 13 37-mm and eight 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon. The armament also included 12 533-mm (21-in) torpedo tubes and three scouting floatplanes. At 10500 km (6,525 miles), the range was short, and this meant that the ships would have to refuel frequently from supply ships during sorties into the Atlantic. Adding to the ships problems, their engines were also found to be lacking in reliability.

The class’s lead ship, Admiral Hipper entered service in April 1939. During the following February she made a sortie into the North Sea with the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. From April that year the ship was involved in the German 'Weserübung' invasion of Norway, and off the Norwegian coast on 8 April encountered and sank the British destroyer Glowworm, which rammed and damaged the German cruiser before sinking. After landing troops at Trondheim, the cruiser returned to Germany for repairs on 12 April. She re-entered service in May, and early in June accompanied the two 'Scharnhorst' class battle-cruisers and four destroyers for the 'Juno' attack on British shipping off northern Norway. On 8 June Admiral Hipper sank the British naval trawler Juniper and critically damaged the troop transport Orama. Admiral Hipper, Gneisenau and several destroyers took part in two abortive sorties from Trondheim on 10 and 20 June, and during the second of these Gneisenau was torpedoed and damaged by a British submarine. From 25 July Admiral Hipper searched for Allied ships in the Norwegian and Barents Seas, and captured a Finnish freighter. She was ordered to return to Germany on 5 August, and reached Wilhelmshaven on 9 August. Admiral Hipper then underwent maintenance until 9 September, and during this period Kapitän Wilhelm Meisel assumed command.

In August 1940 Adolf Hitler ordered an intensification of German attacks on Allied shipping in the Atlantic. At this time only Admiral Hipper and the 'pocket battleship' Admiral Scheer could be made ready for anti-shipping raids. Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser Lützow were still undergoing repairs, while the new battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were fitting out.

It was initially intended that Admiral Hipper would operate between Iceland and the Færoe islands group, and possibly also the North Atlantic from a time late in September, in an attempt to divert the Home Fleet’s ships during 'Seelöwe', the planned German invasion of southern England. This sortie was to constitute part of 'Herbstreise', which also included decoy troop convoys suggesting a landing in Scotland. After the cancellation of the invasion, Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, decided that Admiral Hipper's foray should proceed.

During September the British received 'Ultra' intelligence obtained by decrypting encoded Luftwaffe radio messages indicating that Admiral Hipper was to make a reconnaissance sortie into the Barents Sea. This was the only 'Ultra' intelligence the British received on Admiral Hipper's operations during this period, as the codes protecting the Kriegsmarine’s radio traffic had yet to be broken.

Admiral Hipper departed Kiel for the Atlantic on 24 September, diverted to Kristiansand in Norway for the repair of a broken cooling pump, and sailed again on 27 September. The ship suffered an engine room fire on the following day while steaming to the the west of Stavanger. Both of the affected steam turbines had to be shut down to allow the crew to fight the fire, leaving the ship adrift for four hours. The damage from the fire forced the abandonment of the sortie.

The cruiser arrived back at Kiel on 30 September, and proceeded to Hamburg on 2 October for repairs that were completed on 28 October. During this period Admiral Scheer departed Germany on 23 October for what proved to be a successful raid into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that lasted until 1 April 1941.

Once the necessary repairs had been completed, Admiral Hipper operated in the Baltic Sea for training between 29 October and 18 November. She then loaded ammunition and supplies for a long operation in the Atlantic. This 'Nordseetour' was more ambitious than that which had been planned for September, and it object was to attack British and allied convoys in the North Atlantic, but not ships sailing independently. In line with standard German practice, his orders for the operation required Meisel not to engage British and allied forces that were superior or indeed equal to his own ship.

At this time the B-Dienst signals intelligence service was providing German raiders with general information about the locations of Allied ships. The service was generally unable to pass on actionable intelligence, however, as it could not decrypt intercepted Royal Navy radio messages. In particular, the Germans lacked information on the dates Allied convoys sailed and the routes they had been instructed to take. Each raider embarked a B-Dienst detachment that was responsible for monitoring Allied radio signals and using direction-finding techniques to locate convoys and warships.

Admiral Hipper departed Brunsbüttel on 30 November. She had been spotted by a British reconnaissance aeroplane on the previous day, but the British did not realise that her presence at the port meant she was about to sail. Admiral Hipper was escorted by four torpedo boats for the first stage of the voyage. She refuelled from a tanker in a fjord near Bergen in Norway on 1 December before continuing to the north. Meisel hoped for a period of bad weather to help hide his ship from British patrols as she passed Allied-occupied Iceland, and operated to the south of Jan Mayan island for the next several days. During this period, the cruiser refuelled from the tanker Adria on 2, 3 and 5 December. After the weather had worsened, Admiral Hipper passed through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland during the night of 6/7 December, and was not detected by patrolling British warships.

After entering the Atlantic, Admiral Hipper headed toward the waters off southern Greenland to rendezvous with the tanker Friedrich Breme. It took several days to locate the tanker, a period in which Admiral Hipper's crew experienced extreme cold and a hurricane force storm.

With refuelling complete, Admiral Hipper began to search for convoys on the vital route between Halifax in Canada and the UK. She patrolled to the south of the routes taken by convoys, however, and encountered no possible prey. The crew endured another hurricane-force storm, the cruiser’s starboard engine failed and the ship ran dangerously short of fuel at one point. Admiral Hipper refuelled again from Friedrich Breme on 16 and 20 December, and on the latter date Meisel decided to conclude the operation, and set course for Brest in occupied France.

Admiral Hipper detected a number of ships on her radar at 20.45 on 24 December while sailing some 786 miles (1100 km) to the west of Cape Finisterre in Spain. What the Germans had spotted was the WS.5A convoy, which had sailed from the UK carrying 40,000 soldiers and large quantities of supplies on board 20 ships.As special convoys carrying troops and supplies from the UK to Egypt and Asia in fast vessels, the WS convoys were each allocated powerful escort forces. Five of the ships were steaming with the convoy in the North Atlantic before entering the Mediterranean Sea to form part of the 'Excess' convoy delivering supplies to Malta and Greece.

The WS.5A convoy’s escort comprised the heavy cruiser Berwick and the light cruisers Bonaventure and Dunedin. Of these, only the last was fitted with radar. The light cruiser Naiad had also formed part of the escort until 24 December, and the aircraft carriers Argus and Furious were sailing with the convoy to transport land-based aircraft to West Africa. As their flight decks were crowded with these aircraft, the two carriers could only fly off five of their own aircraft.

Meisel wrongly believed that he had found one of the weakly escorted OB convoys that sailed from the UK to Africa, and decided to attack it at dawn on the next day. His radar was unable to distinguish escorts from cargo vessels. Admiral Hipper fired three torpedoes at the convoy at 01.53 on 25 December, but none of these founds a target.

German look-outs spotted the convoy to the west at 06.03 on 25 December. The weather was poor, with a strong wind, heavy seas, limited visibility and rain squalls. Berwick was among the first ships to be sighted, and other escorts were soon spotted. Meisel turned his ship toward the British heavy cruiser, and opened fire with his main armament at a range of 6,015 yards (5500 m) at 06.39. While the British had not spotted Admiral Hipper, Berwick's crew was at dawn action stations when the engagement began. Berwick started to return fire at 06.41, and the light cruisers changed course to join the fight. During this period Admiral Hipper's secondary armament fired on the transport vessels, damaging Empire Trooper and Arabistan.

In accord with his orders to not engage equal or superior forces, Meisel now attempted to end the engagement. He believed that the British light cruisers were destroyers, and turned to port to evade a possible torpedo attack. Admiral Hipper's after turrets continued to fire at Berwick, and her secondary armament engaged the light cruisers.

Meisel was able to break contact at 06.43 but was sighted by Berwick once again at 06.47. At this time the British cruiser was on a parallel course approximately 8,000 yards (7315 m) to port of Admiral Hipper. Berwick opened fire, and Admiral Hipper responded. At 07.05 a 203-mm (8-in) shell disabled one of Berwick's gun turrets, and soon after this the British heavy cruiser sustained a hit below the waterline. The arrival of rain squalls then allowed to evade the British at 07.14 by steaming to the north-west, and the British cruisers rejoined the convoy, whose ships had been ordered to scatter at 06.50, and it proved difficult to reassemble them. Admiral Hipper suffered no damage in this engagement and Berwick required repairs that took six months to complete.

Following the engagement, Admiral Hipper returned to her course for Brest. The ship was continuing to experience engine problems and was running short of fuel. At 10.00 on 25 December, German look-outs sighted the cargo ship Jumma, which was proceeding independently and was now sunk by a single salvo from the cruiser’s main armament and two torpedoes. None of Jumma's crew of 111 survived.

Admiral Hipper docked at Brest on 27 December, a fact which made her the first major German warship to arrive at a port in German-occupied France. RAF Coastal Command aircraft had attempted to locate Admiral Hipper as she approached Brest, but had failed to do so.

The Germans were disappointed by the results of 'Nordseetour'. Admiral Hipper had not disrupted the patterns of Allied shipping, and the sortie had also demonstrated that the ship was not well suited to anti-shipping operations in the Atlantic as a result of her short range and unreliable engines. The engagement with the WS.5A convoy had also illustrated the problems with the deployment of single raiders into the Atlantic, as Admiral Hipper would have been at great risk had she been damaged. Raeder may also have been unhappy with Meisel’s decision to fight Berwick.

The attack on the WS.5A convoy demonstrated to the British, however, the fact that surface raiders could pose a major threat to all North Atlantic convoys. The Royal Navy therefore immediately started to assign major warships to escort convoys wherever and whenever this was possible. Naiad was ordered to rejoin the WS.5A convoy, and the light cruiser Kenya was dispatched to protect two SL convoys that were approaching the UK from Sierra Leone. The battle-cruiser Repulse and light cruiser Nigeria also sailed to guard convoys in the western Atlantic. Force 'H', the powerful British squadron based at Gibraltar, included an aircraft carrier and a battle-cruiser, and also entered the Atlantic on 25 December. During February and March 1941 escorting battleships forced the two 'Scharnhorst' class battle-cruisers to break off two attacks against convoys when they were operating in the Atlantic during 'Berlin'.

'Excess' was delayed by the disruption caused by the attack on the WS.5A convoy, and this period of delay allowed the Germans to deploy a powerful Luftwaffe anti-shipping force into the Mediterranean theatre.