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World War II: Battle of the North Cape

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World War II: Battle of the North Cape

Scharnhorst in Norway, 1943

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy History & Heritage Command

Battle of the North Cape - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the North Cape was fought December 26, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

  • Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser
  • Vice Admiral Robert Burnett
  • 1 battleship, 1 heavy cruiser, 3 light cruisers, 8 destroyers

    Germany

  • Rear Admiral Erich Bey
  • 1 battlecruiser

  • Battle of the North Cape - Background:

    In the fall of 1943, with the Battle of the Atlantic going poorly, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz sought permission from Adolf Hitler to allow surface units of the Kriegsmarine to begin attacking Allied convoys in the Arctic. As the battleship Tirpitz had been badly damaged by British X-Craft midget submarines in September, Doenitz was left with the battlecruiser Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as his only large, operational surface units. Approved by Hitler, Doenitz ordered planning for Operation Ostfront to commence. This called for a sortie by Scharnhorst against Allied convoys moving between northern Scotland and Murmansk under the direction of Rear Admiral Erich Bey. On December 22, Luftwaffe patrols sited Murmansk-bound convoy JW 55B and began tracking its progress.

    Aware of Scharnhorst's presence in Norway, the commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, began making plans to eliminate the German warship. Seeking battle around Christmas 1943, he planned to lure Scharnhorst from its base at Altafjord using JW 55B and Britain-bound RA 55A as bait. Once at sea, Fraser hoped to attack Scharnhorst with Vice Admiral Robert Burnett's Force 1, which had aided in escorting the earlier JW 55A, and his own Force 2. Burnett's command consisted of his flagship, the light cruiser HMS Belfast, as well as the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk and light cruiser HMS Sheffield. Fraser's Force 2 was built around the battleship HMS Duke of York, the light cruiser HMS Jamaica, and the destroyers HMS Scorpion, HMS Savage, HMS Saumarez, and HNoMS Stord.

    Battle of the North Cape - Scharnhorst Sorties:

    Learning that JW 55B had been spotted by German aircraft, both British squadrons left their respective anchorages on December 23. Closing on the convoy, Fraser held his ships back as he did not wish to deter a German sortie. Utilizing the Luftwaffe reports, Bey departed Altafjord on December 25 with Scharnhorst and the destroyers Z-29, Z-30, Z-33, Z-34, and Z-38. That same day, Fraser directed RA 55A to turn north to avoid the coming battle and ordered the destroyers HMS Matchless, HMS Musketeer, HMS Opportune, and HMS Virago to detach and join his force. Battling poor weather which hampered Luftwaffe operations, Bey searched for the convoys early on December 26. Believing he missed them, he detached his destroyers at 7:55 AM and ordered them to probe south.

    Battle of the North Cape - Force 1 Finds Scharnhorst:

    Approaching from the northeast, Burnett's Force 1 picked up Scharnhorst on radar at 8:30 AM. Closing in the increasingly snowy weather, Belfast opened fire at a range of around 12,000 yards. Joining the fray, Norfolk and Sheffield also began targeting Scharnhorst. Returning fire, Bey's ship failed to score any hits on the British cruisers, but sustained two, one of which destroyed Scharnhorst's radar. Effectively blind, the German ship was forced to target the muzzle flashes of the British guns. Believing he was engaging a British battleship, Bey turned south in an effort to break off the action. Escaping Burnett's cruisers, the German ship turned northeast and attempted to loop around to strike at the convoy. Hampered by degrading sea conditions, Burnett shifted Force 1 to a position to screen JW 55B.

    Somewhat concerned that he had lost Scharnhorst, Burnett reacquired the battlecruiser on radar at 12:10 PM. Exchanging fire, Scharnhorst succeeded in hitting Norfolk, destroying its radar and putting a turret out of action. Around 12:50 PM, Bey turned south and decided to return to port. Pursuing Scharnhorst, Burnett's force was soon reduced to just Belfast as the other two cruisers began suffering mechanical issues. Relaying Scharnhorst's position to Fraser's Force 2, Burnett maintained contact with the enemy. At 4:17 PM, Duke of York picked up Scharnhorst on radar. Bearing down on the battlecruiser, Fraser pushed his destroyers forward for a torpedo attack. Maneuvering into position to deliver a full broadside, Fraser ordered Belfast to fire starshells over Scharnhorst at 4:47 PM.

    Battle of the North Cape - Death of Scharnhorst:

    With its radar out, Scharnhorst was caught by surprise as the British attack developed. Using radar-directed fire, Duke of York scored hits on the German ship with its first salvo. As the fighting continued, Scharnhorst's forward turret was put out of action and Bey turned north. This quickly brought him under fire from Belfast and Norfolk. Changing course to the east, Bey sought to escape the British trap. Hitting Duke of York twice, Scharnhorst was able to damage its radar. Despite this success, the British battleship struck the battlecruiser with a shell which destroyed one of its boiler rooms. Quickly slowing to ten knots, Scharnhorst's damage control parties worked to repair the damage. This was partially successful and soon the ship was moving at twenty-two knots.

    Though an improvement, this reduced speed allowed Fraser's destroyers to close. Maneuvering to attack, Savage and Saumarez approached Scharnhorst from port while Scorpion and Stord neared from starboard. Turning to starboard to engage Savage and Saumarez, Scharnhorst quickly took a torpedo hit from one of the other two destroyers. This was followed by three hits on its port side. Badly damaged, Scharnhorst slowed allowing Duke of York to close. Supported by Belfast and Jamaica, Duke of York began pummeling the German battlecruiser. With the battleship's shells striking, both light cruisers added torpedoes to the barrage.

    Listing severely and with the bow partially submerged, Scharnhorst continued to limp along at about three knots. With the ship critically damaged, the order was given to abandon ship around 7:30 PM. Charging forward, the destroyer detachment from RA 55A fired nineteen torpedoes at the stricken Scharnhorst. Several of these struck home and soon the battlecruiser was convulsed by a series of explosions. Following a massive explosion at 7:45 PM, Scharnhorst slipped beneath the waves. In the wake of the sinking, Matchless and Scorpion began picking up survivors before Fraser ordered his forces to proceed to Murmansk.

    Battle of the North Cape - Aftermath:

    In the fighting off the North Cape, the Kriegsmarine suffered the loss of Scharnhorst and 1,932 of its crew. Due to the threat of U-boats, British ships were only able to rescue 36 German sailors from the frigid water. British losses totaled 11 killed and 11 wounded. The Battle of the North Cape marked the last surface engagement between British and German capital ships during World War II. With Tirpitz damaged, the loss of Scharnhorst effectively eliminated surface threats to the Allies' Arctic convoys. The engagement also demonstrated the importance of radar-directed fire control in modern naval battles.

    Selected Sources

  • Operation Ostfront: Scharnhorst
  • Imperial War Museum: Battle of the North Cape
  • BBC: Battle of the North Cape

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