The Battle of the North Cape — a naval battle of critical importance in the Second World War, took place on December 26, 1943 as part of the Arctic Campaign.
Allied forces sent Arctic convoys to offer supplies to a beleaguered Russia. Arctic convoys which, in response to Stalin’s appeals to Churchill and Roosevelt, were ferrying substantial war supplies round the North Cape—Norway’s most northern point—to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. The first had sailed from Iceland on August 21, 1941, six more followed by the end of the year, and many more were expected in 1942.
The primary belligerents of the Battle of the North Cape were the German battleship Scharnhorst, which was sunk by Royal Navy forces, primarily the Battleship HMS Duke of York, along with several cruisers and destroyers. British cargo ships were returning from Russia and were escorted by a convoy of destroyers and other vessels. Home Fleet commander-in-chief Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser wanted to neutralize the Scharnhorst, which had attacked British convoys on numerous occassions.
At 8:45 a.m. on December 26, a blip on a cathode screen aboard Vice Admiral Robert Burnett’s flagship Belfast revealed a single ship steaming slightly north of west. The vessel was only fourteen miles away. At 9:21 a.m., lookouts on Sheffield glimpsed the outlines of a large ship, ghostly in the murk, on the port beam, about seven miles away. There was no doubt what it was. The signal lamps flashed the message to Burnett: “Enemy in sight.”
Beginning of the Battle of the North Cape
At this point in the Battle of the North Cape, Scharnhorst was outnumbered but she was not outgunned. She mounted nine 11-inch and twelve 5.9-inch guns. The heaviest guns the cruisers could muster were the eight 8-inchers on Norfolk. Belfast and Sheffield each had twelve 6-inch guns. The superior reach and power of Scharnhorst’s main armament should have been enough for her to do serious damage to one or more of the cruisers without getting within range of their weapons. Her slight edge in speed gave her the advantage in a chase. But Rear Admiral Bey and Captain Fritz Hintze were hindered by a serious handicap. The limited range of their radar compared with the British equipment meant they were unlikely to sight the enemy before the enemy sighted them. At 9:24 a.m. the gloom was pierced by the first star shell, fired from Belfast to light up the target. A few minutes later, real shells were plunging into the surrounding waters.
Scharnhorst was just turning south when she was spotted, and the shells from Belfast and Sheffield all missed. Norfolk was luckier. Her radar-controlled 8-inch guns fired six broadsides and scored three hits. One smashed Scharnhorst’s main radar aerial, and another wrecked the port high-angle gunnery director. In a few minutes her armament advantage had been severely reduced, and she was now operating in semi-blindness.
Bey ran for it. He turned Scharnhorst southeast, and hurried off at thirty knots, making smoke as he went. Despite the encounter, he was still determined to attack the convoy. He ordered his destroyers to steer northeast on a heading which he believed would take them onto the southern flank of the convoy. He, meanwhile, would race round to the far side, to attack it from the north.
Burnett decided not to give chase. His ships were too slow to overhaul their quarry. He guessed, correctly, that Scharnhorst was still full of fight and would make another attempt on the convoy. His place was therefore alongside the merchantmen, and he ordered his squadron north and west, from where JW.55B was approaching.
Fraser, aboard the Duke of York, received with dismay the news that Force One had lost touch with the enemy and was returning to the convoy. It seemed to him that Scharnhorst was more likely to return to Norway rather than continue the operation. A German flying boat had spotted Fraser’s flagship. News of the presence of a battleship in the area would surely cause Bey to beat a rapid retreat. If so, Fraser was still too far away to cut her off. The prospect of glory was fading. Fraser could not hide his chagrin. At 10:57 a.m., nearly an hour after the engagement had ended, he signaled to Burnett: “Unless touch can be regained by some unit, there is no chance of my finding enemy.”
Bey had indeed received a report of the flying boat sighting but it was shorn of a crucial detail that, had it been included, Dönitz was later to claim could have altered the whole course of the drama. At 11:00 a.m. he had been told that five warships had been seen far to the northwest of the North Cape. The original report had included the information that one of the vessels was “apparently a big ship.” The senior air officer removed this detail before relaying it to naval headquarters on the grounds that he did not wish to pass on what he regarded as conjecture.
The result was confusion in the Battle of the North Cape. Admiral Schniewind at Naval Group North in Kiel made the incorrect guess that the ships were probably the destroyers Bey had sent off when they could not keep up with him, and therefore no threat. Dönitz maintained that, had he been given the full message, he would “probably have immediately ordered the operation to be abandoned.” What Bey made of the information is unknown. Whatever his appreciation of the situation, he decided to carry on. By noon Scharnhorst was to the north and east of the convoy. So, too, were Burnett’s cruisers. Once again it was the Belfast radar operators who picked up a lone ship on their screens, and the Sheffield’s lookouts who first laid eyes on the target. At 12:21 p.m. the signal lamp once more flashed the message: “Enemy in sight.”
Burnett gave the order to engage. At the same time, he sent his destroyers darting forward, seeking a line on which they could fire their torpedoes. The sight of the advancing destroyers resulted in Scharnhorst making several violent course changes, before heading away on an east-southeast heading. As the first shells crashed around her, she returned fire, concentrating on Norfolk whose shells were not propelled with flash-suppressing charges. The great tongues of flame leaping from her guns lit her up and gave the German gunners, working without radar, a point for their optics to range on. Their aim was good enough to land one 11-inch shell, which struck a gun turret and knocked out the cruiser’s main radar sets, killing seven and seriously wounding five more.
Scharnhorst did not linger. She broke away, heading southeast, piling on as many knots as her turbines could muster. Once again her superior speed told and she was soon lost in the gloom and smoke. Although being slowly outdistanced, the cruisers were still able to shadow her for the next few hours by radar, and even as Scharnhorst was escaping from one set of pursuers she was running straight into the path of another.
By now Fraser was in a position to cut off her escape. His frustration had given way to cautiously rising hopes as he traced Burnett’s reports onto the chart before him. Then, at 4:17 p.m., a bright point of light glowed on the Duke of York’s long-distance radar screen. Scharnhorst was just over twenty-five miles away. When the distance had closed to eleven miles, he ordered his destroyers to prepare their torpedoes but to await his signal to attack.
It was only when the two ships were seven miles apart that he swung Duke of York onto a starboard course to give all his guns and those of Jamaica behind him their chance—a critical moment in the Battle of the North Cape. The bombardment opened with a salvo of star shells that hung in the dark sky, bathing the sea in a flat, harsh light. There, outlined like a great silver ghost, was the Scharnhorst. She had been taken by surprise. Her guns were still pointing forward and aft, away from her nemesis. At 4:51 p.m., Duke of York shook with the recoil of a full broadside. Shells flew from her ten 14-inch guns on an almost flat trajectory toward their target. One struck Scharnhorst’s forward turret, wrecking it. The ship swung away from its attackers, heading northward—back toward the guns of the shadowing cruisers of Force One. Soon she was under fire from Belfast and Norfolk and turned to the east, still firing at her pursuers from her rear turret as she fled. Scharnhorst still retained one advantage: she was a full four knots faster than Duke of York. As she pulled away, Duke of York fired broadside after broadside. The shocks swept through the ship, smashing the valves in the gunnery radar system, temporarily disabling it.
One of the 14-inch shells struck Scharnhorst’s starboard boiler room, slowing her down to ten knots until the steam pipes were jury-rigged to bring her back up to twenty-two knots. It was enough to draw her out of range. At 6:20 p.m., after firing fifty-two broadsides, the Duke of York’s guns ceased firing and her exhausted crews slumped back in a despondent daze. It seemed to be all over. Fraser signaled Burnett that he “saw little hope of catching Scharnhorst and am proceeding to support convoy.” His destroyers, though, had not given up hope. Despite the heavy seas they had managed to gain on the battle cruiser. Just as Fraser had decided pursuit was hopeless they arrived astern of Scharnhorst and began maneuvering to launch attacks on either beam, with Savage and Saumarez on the port side and Scorpion and Stord to starboard.
The Scharnhorst’s gunners soon picked up the portside attackers but, blinded by star shell, failed to notice the ones approaching from starboard until the destroyers were only two miles away. Hintze swung his ship toward them in an effort to comb the tracks of the torpedoes that would soon be racing her way. He almost succeeded. Sixteen torpedoes leaped from the tubes of Scorpion and Stord, and only one struck.
The change of course, though, brought him into the arcs of the torpedo tubes of Savage and Saumarez. At almost point-blank range they loosed off twelve torpedoes. Two exploded, knocking out another boiler room and bending a propeller shaft. Scharnhorst shuddered and slowed. Soon she was rolling and pitching, barely able to scrape ten knots. Duke of York and Jamaica swept toward her, opening fire again at six miles. Burnett’s cruisers, moving to join up with the Commander in Chief’s squadron, joined in. Under the pounding she staggered and slowed. The cruisers moved forward and lanced her burning sides with torpedoes. Then it was the turn of the Force One destroyers. The Allies were securing victory in the Battle of the North Cape.
The decks of Scharnhorst were strewn with the dead and dying. Among them, the survivors, smoke-blackened and deafened, mustered to abandon ship. She was wallowing, almost on her beam-ends. Hintze, who had led them with perhaps more kindness than skill, was fatherly to the end. “Don’t go overboard to starboard,” he told them through a megaphone. “Go over from the port side and slide from the rail into the water. Don’t forget to inflate your life-jackets and now one after the other, over the rail.”
Aftermath of the Battle of the North Cape
The loss of the Battle of the North Cape shook the German fleet. Dönitz struggled to understand why Bey broke off the first fight of the day when, in his judgment, he had it in his power to overwhelm Burnett and his cruisers. “The correct thing to have done . . . would have been to continue the fight and finish off the weaker British forces, particularly as it was plain that they had already been hard hit,” he wrote. “Had this been done an excellent opportunity would . . . have been created for a successful attack on the convoy.” Why, when he fled after the second clash, did he not use his advantage of speed and weight to steer a westerly course into the wind and heavy sea that would have made it very difficult for the lightly built British cruisers and destroyers to keep in contact? The answer would never be known. Bey and Hintze had been swallowed by the Barents Sea.
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