This was a German naval attempt to escort the 2,729-ton blockade runner Alsterufer, inward bound from Japan, into the Gironde estuary on the west coast of German-occupied France (26/28 December 1943).
This undertaking took place during the closing stages of the British ‘Stonewall’, which had also just seen the semi-saving of the 6,951-ton blockade runner Osorno in ‘Bernau’.
The 11 German warships involved in this undertaking were the destroyers Z 23, Z 24, Z 27, Z 32 and Z 37 of Kapitän Hans Erdmenger’s 8th Zerstörer-Flottille and the torpedo boats T 22, T 23, T 24, T 25, T 26 and T 27 of Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf’s 4th Torpedoboots-Flottille.
Early on 27 December a Short Sunderland flying boat of Air Marshal Sir John Slessor’s RAF Coastal Command sighted Alsterufer some 575 miles (925 km) to the north-west of Cape Finisterre, proceeding on a south-easterly course. The light cruisers involved in ‘Stonewall’ were then deployed with Enterprise in the east and Glasgow 345 miles (555 km) to the north-west of Cape Finisterre. Gambia, under Captain William Powlett in overall command of the undertaking, steamed out of Fayal in the Azores islands group, and the light anti-aircraft cruiser Penelope and cruiser minelayer Ariadne departed Gibraltar. The large Free French destroyers Fantasque and Malin were also sent to the north from the Azores islands group.
At 16.15 Alsterufer was hit by rockets from a Consolidated Liberator patrol bomber of No. 311 (Czech) Squadron and set on fire. The Handley Page Halifax bomber force which arrived at 18.00 sighted the burning ship and saw that her crew was abandoning her as she sank: four lifeboats with 74 men were picked up two days later by a group of four Canadian corvettes.
Admiral Theodor Krancke’s Marinegruppenkommando ‘West’ learned of the loss of Alsterufer only during the morning of 28 December and ordered the destroyers and torpedo boats to return, but before they could do so they were spotted by a PB4Y Liberator of the US Navy’s VB-105 squadron and then attacked by 15 Liberator patrol bombers of the VB-105 and VB-103 squadrons, with the result that Glasgow and Enterprise were able to find the German ships at about 12.00.
The British and German ships then began an exchange of fire. Despite the accuracy of the German ships' gunfire and torpedoes, effective German evasive manoeuvring, and an air attack on the British ships by a German warplane using guided bombs, the British ships maintained contact. The German ships then divided into two groups, and the cruisers pursued one of these. Despite the firepower superiority of the 11 destroyers and torpedo boats (24 150-mm [5.91-in] and 24 105-mm [4.13-in] guns to 19 6-in [152.4-mm] and 13 4-in [101.6-mm] guns), a pincer attack failed in the heavy seas, which prevented the German ships from using their full speed. In the gun engagement, Z 27, T 25 and T 26 had been sunk by effective long-range British fire before 16.00. Of the rest of the German force, Z 24, T 23, T 24 and T 27 reached Brest, Z 32 and Z 37 entered the Gironde estuary, and Z 23 and T 22 retired to the south-east in the direction of St Jean de Luz.
Some 64 German survivors were rescued by British ships, 168 by an Irish steamship, six by Spanish destroyers and 55 by U 505 and U 618.
After the engagement, Glasgow, Enterprise and Ariadne steamed to Plymouth which, in spite of several German air attacks with guided weapons, they reached on 29 December. Penelope, Fantasque and Malin returned to Gibraltar. Gambia and the newly arrived light cruiser Mauritius continue the search until 1 January.