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Battle of the North Cape The Sinking of the Scharnhorst
Written By: Sam Ghaleb Ridgecrest, Calif.
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Battle of the North Cape The Sinking of the Scharnhorst
October 3, 1936 - Adolf Hitler at the Kriegsmarine Werft, Wilhelmshaven, Germany to attend the launch of Scharnhorst.
Battle of the North Cape The Sinking of the Scharnhorst
Scharnhorst
Battle of the North Cape The Sinking of the Scharnhorst
HMS Duke of York's gun crews at Scapa Flow after the Battle of North Cape. The personnel are wearing anti-flash gear.
Battle of the North Cape The Sinking of the Scharnhorst
Admiral Erich Bey wearing Knight's Cross.
 
    Seventy years ago, on Boxing Day, December 26, 1943, a Royal Navy task force intercepted the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst as she attempted to attack the Murmansk-bound convoy JW-55B in the Barents Sea. In a running fight with the British task force composed of the battleship HMS Duke of York, a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers, and nine destroyers, the Scharnhorst was sunk with the loss of more than 1,900 crewmen. The Battle of the North Cape was fought in limited visibility, with the Scharnhorst firing blindly for much of the action. Early in the fight, during an exchange of fire with British cruisers the Scharnhorst’s radar mast was hit and destroyed.
    The Battle of the North Cape was the last surface action between capital ships of the Royal Navy and the Kreigsmarine in World War II. There were a relatively small number of surface actions between capital ships of the two navies. During the Invasion of Norway by German Forces, on April 9, 1940, a naval action took place between the British battlecruiser HMS Renown and the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The fight was inconclusive, with the German capital ships breaking the action and retreating at high speed, because the Gneisenau was hit by three 15-inch shells from the British battlecruiser, with one of them causing damage to the front turret.
    The most well known action between capital ships of the two navies took place in the North Atlantic on 24 May, 1941. During this engagement the battleship Bismarck hit, and sank, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy. There were only three survivors out of a crew of 1403. The recently commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales was also heavily damaged during this engagement. On 27 May, the Royal Navy took revenge. The battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V went into a gun duel with the Bismarck and wrecked it. Only 115 men from a complement of more than 2200 survived the Bismarck‘s sinking.
    By December 1943, the Scharnhorst was the only remaining capital ship in the Kreigsmarine fit for action. Her sister ship, the Gneisenau, laid immobilized by Hitler’s decision to dismantle all capital ships of the Kreigsmarine after the abortive raid by the pocket battleship Lutzow and the heavy cruiser Hipper on New Year’s Eve 1942 against a Murmansk-bound convoy. In late September 1943, a British midget submarine raid planted explosives near Tirpitz – the sister ship of the Bismarck, causing serious shock damage to her hull when they exploded. The other pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer, was laid up in Germany with the Fleet Training Group acting as a cadet training ship.
    On 19 December 1943, Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Kreigsmarine, reported to Hitler that the next convoy sailing from Britain to Murmansk through the Barents Sea was going to be attacked by the Scharnhorst, escorted by the 4th Destroyer Flotilla. For this important mission, Admiral Dönitz assigned Rear Admiral Erich Bey to take command of the German battle group. Operation Ostfront, the code name for the sortie by the Scharnhorst and its accompanying destroyers, would be the last surface action by a German capital ship in World War II.
    Meanwhile, based on information sent by a Norwegian agent, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, decided to increase the escort to convoy JW-55B, which was going to sail from Loch Ewe in Scotland to Murmansk. This would allow Admiral Fraser to spring a trap for the Scharnhorst once she left the safety of her mooring in Altafjord in northern Norway. This force, designated Force 2, included the battleship HMS Duke of York, light cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers, which included the Norwegian destroyer KNM Stord. At the same time, the homecoming convoy, RA-55A from Murmansk, was escorted by Force 1, composed of the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk, light cruisers HMS Belfast and HMS Sheffield. Both convoys were also escorted by several destroyers and escort ships.
    The Battle of the North Cape opened up in the early hours on 26 December under gale weather conditions, and twilight visibility of the Arctic Circle. The British cruisers HMS Norfolk, HMS Belfast, and HMS Sheffield of Force 1, using star shells, found the Scharnhorst and opened fire. During this engagement Norfolk’s shells hit the radar of the German battlecruiser, leaving it blind. Coming from the south west, Admiral Fraser, in the Duke of York, commenced firing at the Scharnhorst.  The Duke of York with its ten 14-inch guns and radar fire control, had a great advantage over the nine 11-inch guns of the Scharnhorst without her radar directing them. The Scharnhorst was hit repeatedly by 14-inch shells, which did major damage to her. The gunnery of the German ship was rather good under the conditions. She did manage to score several hits on the Norfolk and the Duke of York, but her 11-inch shells did not penetrate the armor of the Duke of York.
    During the entire action the British ships fired 2000 shells at the Scharnhorst, of which 446 were 14-inch shells from the Duke of York. Several hundred shells of 8 inch, 6 inch, and 5.25 inch were also fired at the German ship. In the final phase of the battle, British destroyers and cruisers managed to let loose 55 torpedoes, 11 of them found their mark. At 19:48 on the 26th, the Scharnhorst exploded and sank. Out of a crew of more than 1900, only 36 survived and were picked up by British warships.
    Later that evening Admiral Fraser briefed his officers on board the Duke of York: "Gentlemen, the battle against the Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as the Scharnhorst was commanded today".
    The decision to send the Scharnhorst and her destroyers on this mission will always be wrapped in mystery. No German staff officers of the Kreigsmarine believed that the Scharnhorst had any chance of success. Admiral Dönitz, however, was the only one who was optimistic about it. In the end, the “lucky” Scharnhorst, as she was known to her sailors, went down with great loss of life, without achieving anything at all.
 
NEXT: THE MARSHALL ISLANDS’ CAMPAIGN
 
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