Operation Sportpalast (i)

sport palace

This was the German naval movement of the heavy cruiser (ex-pocket battleship) Admiral Scheer and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from Brunsbüttel in northern Germany to Trondheim on the west coast of German-occupied Norway (21/23 February 1942).

Under the command of Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax, the Befehlshaber der Schlachtschiffe, the two major warships were escorted by the destroyers Richard Beitzen, Paul Jacobi, Hermann Schoemann, Friedrich Ihn and Z 25, and the torpedo boats Iltis and Seeadler.

From 'Ultra' intelligence the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre was aware of the 'Sportpalast' (i) movement and requested RAF Coastal Command to undertake additional reconnaissance patrols. One of the reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by patrolling German fighters, but at 12.10 on 21 February a Lockheed Hudson GR.Mk V flying from North Coates sighted and reported the German formation of two large ships, five destroyers and two torpedo boats off Jutland heading to the north. The German force later came under British air attack, one of the bombers scoring a near-miss on Prinz Eugen before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The British assumed that the force was heading for Trondheim, and on receiving the information Admiral Sir John Tovey, who was at sea with a significant proportion of his Home Fleet, at 14.00 abandoned the planned 'EO' carrierborne air attack on Tromsø and altered course to the south in the hope of effecting an interception with the battleship King George V, fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruiser Berwick, and destroyers Ashanti, Bedouin, Eskimo, Icarus, Onslow, Punjabi and Tartar.

At 13.00 on the same day the detachment of the B-Dienst radio intercept and analysis service on board Prinz Eugen had decoded the Hudson’s sighting report. Ciliax immediately reversed course to return to Germany, but at 17.30 was ordered to reverse course to the north once again by Generaladmiral Rolf Carls’s Marrinegruppenkommando 'Nord'. Ciliax complied at 19.40 hours and at the same time detached the two torpedo boats. At 08.15 on 22 February the German force was off Karmsund, and at 12.00 hours the ships anchored in the Grimstadtfjord, to the south of Bergen. At 20.00 the ships departed the Grimstadtfjord for Trondheim, though Richard Beitzen, Friedrich Ihn and Paul Jacobi had soon to turn back to Bergen in the face of adverse weather conditions. At about 03.30 on 23 February the German ships were off Stadtlandet, and at 07.00 the British submarine Trident torpedoed Prinz Eugen, severely damaging the heavy cruiser’s stern.

At 01.00 on 23 February, Victorious, Berwick, Ashanti, Bedouin, Eskimo and Icarus had reached a position from which an air attack could be attempted, and 30 minutes later, despite very bad weather conditions, the carrier launched 10 Fairey Albacore attack aircraft, only one of which was equipped with surface-search radar, of No. 832 Squadron. At 02.00 a second attack force of seven Albacore warplanes, two of them fitted with radar, of No. 817 Squadron was launched.

Immediately after launching the last of these aircraft, Victorious and her escorting destroyers set course to rejoin the rest of the Home fleet force and then return to Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group. As a result of the weather conditions the air attack force achieved nothing, although at 03.00 one of the radar-equipped aircraft obtained a contact that was probably the German force. Three of the aircraft were lost, and the other Albacore aircraft return to RAF Sumburgh in the Shetland islands group after their mission.

At 19.00 on 22 February the escort destroyers Chiddingfold and Grove had departed Scapa Flow to patrol the area to the east of the Shetland islands group as rescue ships for the aircraft.

As a result of 'Sportpalast' (i), the German navy now had at Trondheim a warship, Admiral Scheer, whose preservation was not as important as that of Tirpitz, and which could therefore be employed more readily on offensive operations. The basing of German warships at this port was most disturbing for the British, for no disposition of the Home Fleet could adequately protect both the Russian convoys and the Northern Passages from this threat. In the course of a prolonged discussion with the Admiralty, Tovey forwarded his appreciation of the new situation, in the process detailing the many reasons for his opinion that, while it was possible that the Germans would attack the Russian convoys with Admiral Scheer, it was not likely that Tirpitz would be involved or, should she take part, that she would accept action with any capital ships covering the convoy. In a few months time, on the other hand, when the whole German fleet could again be assembled, Tovey believed that the Germans could seek to engage in their own waters with superior strength and with the co-operation of both shore-based aircraft and U-boats. Tovey indicated that it was essential that the Home Fleet should be prepared for this situation: the watertight sub­division of several of the Home Fleet’s capital ships was deficient, and refits, dockings, training and leave were widely necessary if the efficiency of the fleet was to be maintained.

Tovey stated that it was his intention to cover the next outbound and inbound convoys, which were both unusually large, with the battleship Duke of York and battle-cruiser Renown, keeping the battleship King George V and carrier Victorious in support for deployment only in the event that late intelligence indicated movement at Trondheim or in the event that photo-reconnaissance failed. Tovey was averse to the use of the Home Fleet in its entirety to cover these convoys, for this would steadily sap its efficiency, would leave the Atlantic wholly uncovered and, as soon as they became aware of the policy, the Germans would be presented with attractive opportunities for the use of U-boats against the British capital ships.

At the same time Tovey repeated the request he had made five weeks earlier for offensive action against the ships at Trondheim, and against their sea communications, in an endeavour to stop German use of this base. This was the crux of the whole problem, according to Tovey, but in replying the Admiralty pressed for an increase in the size of the convoy covering force, stating that the Admiralty accepted full responsibility for any break-out into the Atlantic which might occur while the Home Fleet was thus employed. The Admiralty was concerned at the danger to the covering force of air attack from northern Norway, though the German air strength in that region was small in number and without torpedo aircraft: Tovey had earlier instructed the covering force to approach no closer than 290 miles (465 km) of that coast except to sink or damage enemy warships. The Admiralty now ordered Tovey to provide fighter protection to the capital ships when they were operating within range of enemy aircraft. The Admiralty also hoped that the refits of the battleships Nelson and Rodney would have been completed by the time that the damage to two German battle-cruisers had been repaired. Finally, the Admiralty stated that the possibility of offensive action against the ships at Trondheim was still under consideration.

In order to comply with the Admiralty’s requirement that the Home Fleet was to cover the passage of the PQ.12 outbound and QP.8 inboard convoys, Tovey believed that the most dangerous area would be between the islands of Jan Mayen and Bjørnøya. On 26 February, therefore, Tovey asked that the next outward and homeward Arctic convoys be sailed simultaneously so that they pass through the area of maximum danger at the same time and could thus be covered by the same warship forces. For the first eight days of the operation the weather conditions were extreme with storms up to Force 10, snow showers, icing and poor visibility. The PQ.12 and QP.8 convoys sailed on 1 March from Reykjavik and Murmansk respectively.