Battle of the North Cape
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseOn 20 Dec 1943, Allied convoy JW 55B, consisted of 19 freighters escorted by 2 destroyers and 3 smaller warships, departed Loch Ewe, Scotland, United Kingdom for Murmansk, Russia. Two days later, the convoy was spotted by German aircraft, which proceeded to shadow the convoy for the remainder of the day. This was reported by British Home Fleet chief Admiral Bruce Fraser, who was in charge of convoy escorts to the Arctic Sea. Suspecting that the Germans might react against this convoy with surface ships, and if so possibly with the battleship Scharnhorst, he dispatched battleship HMS Duke of York, cruiser HMS Jamaica, destroyer HMS Savage, destroyer HMS Scorpion, destroyer HMS Saumarez, and Norwegian destroyer Stord to engage the German surface fleet that might arrive at the scene; meanwhile, Rear Admiral Robert Burnett, who was escorting the convoy at a distance with cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, was notified of Fraser's intent to seek out and destroy Scharnhorst if the German battleship presented herself.
ww2dbaseFraser's suspicion would turn out to be correct, as on 25 Dec, Scharnhorst, escorted by 5 destroyers, indeed sortied from Altenfjord in Norway. Early in the morning on 26 Dec, in poor weather, the German fleet searched out for the convoy in poor weather. Unable to spot the Allied ships, Konteradmiral Erich Bey decided to send the destroyers southward to widen the search perimeter at the risk of leaving Scharnhorst unescorted. Shortly after 0900 hours, British cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield detected Scharnhorst off Nordkapp (North Cape) on the island of MagerÝya in northern Norway; they opened fire at the distance of 12,000 meters, hitting Scharnhorst twice, one of which took Scharnhorst's radars out of commission. Bey ordered Scharnhorst to turn south, successfully moving away from the British ships; once the British cruisers were out of sight, Scharnhorst turned northeast to approach the cruisers at a more favorable angle. Just after 1200 hours, Scharnhorst opened fire on the British cruisers, hitting Norfolk, damaging one turret and destroying her radar. Scharnhorst then once again turned south, and this time Burnett's cruisers pursued, providing battleship HMS Duke of York's group updated positions regularly. At 1615 hours, Duke of York's group located Scharnhorst on radar, but Scharnhorst was unaware of these new arrivals. At 1648 hours, HMS Belfast fired star shells, illuminating Scharnhorst for Duke of York. The British battleship fired at the range of 10,900 meters, scoring a hit with the first salvo, disabling Scharnhorst's forward-most turret. Another hit some time later destroyed the aircraft hangar. As Scharnhorst attempted to escape to the south, guns firing at Duke of York, Norfolk and Belfast continued to give chase; one of Scharnhorst's salvos hit Duke of York, hitting her twice and severing an important cable in the mast for the radar system. At 1820 hours, Duke of York scored another hit on Scharnhorst, with the shell detonating in the No. 1 boiler room, causing Scharnhorst's speed to decrease to 10 knots temporarily. At 1825 hours, Bey radioed the message "We will fight on until the last shell is fired." At 1850, British and Norwegian destroyers caught up with Scharnhorst, scoring gun shell and torpedo hits; HMS Saumarez was hit by several times by Scharnhorst's return fire, causing 11 killed and 11 wounded. HMS Duke of York and HMS Jamaica attacked at about 1900 hours at the range of 9,500 meters, an at 1915 hours HMS Belfast joined in as well. Already heavily damaged, Scharnhorst suffered another round of multiple torpedo hits and finally sank at 1945 hours. Of the nearly 2,000 aboard, only 36 were rescued; Admiral Bey was not among them.
ww2dbaseDuring the battle, the German destroyers were ordered to hunt down the convoy; they would fail to locate it.
Last Major Update: Jun 2011
Battle of the North Cape Interactive Map
Battle of the North Cape Timeline
|20 Dec 1943||Allied convoy JW-55B departed Loch Ewe, Scotland, United Kingdom for Murmansk, Russia. It was consisted of 19 freighters escorted by 2 destroyers and 3 smaller warships. Further away, eight British destroyers provided distant support.|
|22 Dec 1943||A German aircraft sighted Allied convoy JW-55B sailing north from Britain toward Murmansk, Russia.|
|23 Dec 1943||British Home Fleet Admiral Bruce Fraser dispatched battleship HMS Duke of York, cruiser HMS Jamaica, and 4 destroyers (3 British and 1 Norwegian) north in anticipation of German interception of Allied convoy JW-55B, which was sailing toward Murmansk, Russia.|
|25 Dec 1943||Responding to the 22 Dec sighting of an Allied convoy, Scharnhorst and destroyers Z29, Z30, Z33, Z34, and Z38 departed from Altafjord in northern Norway to intercept it. The force was under the command of Konteradmiral Erich Bey.|
|26 Dec 1943||British cruiser HMS Belfast detected German battlecruiser Scharnhorst by radar 30 miles east of Allied convoy JW-55B at 0900 hours. Three British cruiser attacked, disabling Scharnhorst's fire control radar. Scharnhorst turned north to escape, and British Vice Admiral Robert Burnett chose not to give pursuit until 1200 hours, this time damaging Scharnhorst and receiving damage on HMS Norfolk. As Scharnhorst fled southward, she was intercepted by HMS Duke of York and other British warships at 1650 hours. Scharnhorst was surrounded by 1725 hours, overwhelmed and hit repeatedly. She was subsequently abandoned and sank at 1948 hours; 1,927 were killed during the combat and her sinking in what was later named Battle of North Cape. The British picked up only 36 survivors before fleeing the scene due to submarine threat.|
|26 Dec 1943||Norwegian destroyer Stord closed to within 400 yards of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst to fire a spread of torpedoes at Scharnhorst's starboard side.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945