Sea Battle at Cape North

    THE HEROIC END OF THE GERMAN BATTLESHIP SCHARNHORST  

 

article written by ANGELOS THALASSINOS , translated by Ioannis Mansolas

 

 

In January 1943 the German battleships were approaching their stalemate . A Hitler in frenzy was threatening to render them into waste iron if they could not offer him a victory soon . The chance appeared after 11 months of boredom and waiting . The British have started again the convoys to Russia via the arctic zone 

Trapped between the bitter reality of a shaken army in the Russian front and the despair for a victory so deeply needed for their moral , Admiral Demits ordered an operation full of the signs that indicate a suicide mission . 

 

At the end of December the battleship  SCHARNHORST, with superior guns and speed than any other British left its Norwegian hideout escorted by 5 destroyers to attack convoy JW-55B the day after Christmas in 1943 about 150 Km north from the northest European cape 

In the dusk of foggy and frozen Arctic Ocean without the sun appearing above the horizon the last sea battle of the Western front took place . A battle that took the lives of 2000 German sailors and the pride of their navy .....

 

 

SCHARNHORST

The arctic convoys was from the very beginning a big mistake for the Allies . There , north of Norway where each convoy had to pass on course to the Russian harbours the German were the masters of all advantages facing no disadvantage at all . They ruled the air while their submarines had the complete control  . The Allied had only nightmares for these suicidal situation . No British admiral wanted to think of sending 20 cargo ships loaded with some 60000 tons , exposed as an easy pray to any German plane or submarine 3500 miles from the closest British airfield . Under all circumstances the Germans could never lose such a battle  ....and yet they did ! 

 

 

"Despite the existing orders it is considered 

that any unnecessary risks should be avoided against heavy enemy ships"

 

These were the orders that Rear-Admiral Oscar Kummetz received on the 31st of December 1942 while he was about to attack the convoy JW-51B in the darkness of the Barends Sea  . These were the words destined to seal the fate of the German navy declared by Hitler himself 

The German group is composed by the heavy cruiser Hipper , the battleship Lutzow and 6 destroyers . The attack plan worked by Kummetz himself was a splendid one : a surrounding pincer movement Hipper attacking form the North and Lutzow from the South all properly escorted by destroyers . But whenever the battleships were fighting it was the moment Hitler was drowned in anxiety . He had once said : ".. while on the land I feel like a hero , in the sea as a coward .." . For the rest of the time he remains without any news from Kummetz , he only had repeated once more to him that  "...any unnecessary risks should be avoided..." . The only news came from a U-boat in the area . It reported : " I just saw a red flash on the horizon  " . This could only mean the convoy was destroyed under the fire of Kummetz . Eager to have a victory on the year's eve Hitler announced : " The German navy has just scored a victory " . He would know the humiliating truth only next morning

At the moment when Hipper and Lutzow were deploying their pincer on course to the defenseless convoy Kummetz was thinking over and over these 'unnecessary risks " ...Fearing an attack by British destroyers whose torpedo trail can not be detected in the rough dark sea , Kummetz did not dare to attack the very last moment . This turned the advantage over to his enemy and 2 British destroyers did approach and dared some hits which damaged Hipper lightly . But Kummetz had already lost the initiative together with the advantage . He retreated in shame obeying the orders that would never allow him to attack even against a weaker enemy being thus unable to offer any kind of victory to his country . This event was to be never erased from the mind of the German naval commanders 

The wrath of Hitler was to fall immediately upon Admiral Erich Roeder to whom he announced his decision to destroy all battleships and convert them to metallic raw material ! Roeder did protest strongly . How is it possible to get victories without taking risks ? These 'unnecessary risks' deprived all his commanders from taking any initiative ! Roeder , before submitting his resignation sent a letter saying that in case the fleet was destroyed then this would have been a day of joy to the British  who would have carried their greatest victory without even a fight ! Hitler chuckled when reading the letter but he was actually in deep thoughts  

Photograph of Hitler visiting SCHARNHORST in 1939 . Next to him Admiral Erich Roeder

 

On the 30th of January 1943 the fanatic U-Boat fan , Admiral Karl Demits , who despised the surface fleet , upon taking over the post of the Navy Chief , did not hesitate to support the above letter and tried to persuade Hitler to revise his decision . He accepted with much difficulty but put a restriction to Demits : " I want results in six months ! " 

Poor Kummetz was seeking a chance to restore his badly damaged reputation but the British would not allow so . The entire spring period of 1943 no convoy was sent to Russia . This was no surprise to Demits or to Kummetz : the British have learned their lesson , no doubt . They would probably restart under the cover of the darkness in the winter . The British did remain quiet , until in September , there was a surprise for the Germans : The Tirpitz , harboured safely and surrounded by antisubmarine nets was badly shaken by explosions . Three mini-submarines were the actors of this daring mission . Although they did not escape from capture they did not either escape the admiration of their enemies . With their worst threat out of action and most of the other battleships under repair the British were ready to reopen the way to Russia . The only serious units left were the Scharnhorst and some 5 destroyers of the 4th flotilla in Norway . Demits did realise the seriousness of the situation : the u-boat loses were increasing rapidly these months and his battleships were slowly wearing out in this style of warfare . Despite Hitler's expectations , Demits had done no better than his predecessor . Additionally there were some important changes at the higher command . In November 1943 , Kummetz was send away on a 'permanent leave' , a term used to indicate the disagreement with the Admiralty . The command of the North Fleet has passed to the destroyer commander admiral Erich Bey

 

Adm. Erich Bey

Bey , a man with an athletic body and impressive expression was an experienced commander and has taken part to all destroyer conflicts since the war began , was decorated with the Knights Cross and was respected and loved by his crews , a relation not often possible in the large battleships . Been aware of the seriousness of the task he delivered a long full report to Demits for the needs of the fleet of Norway in case there was a sortie for Scharnhorst demanding the following :

The Z German Destroyer class

Bey was to receive no answer to all these problems . Ignoring his suggestions and some of the obvious weak points of the fleet , Demits had decided to 'save face' - his own face . The British were already delivering war material to Russia and the german soldiers had a very bad time there . Any damage of this material would be a relief to them so badly needed at this moment to them and to the navy as well , to avoid its destruction as a weapon for the Fatherland !

 

December 19-21 , 1943

                 Wind at strength 5 : Intense breeze

                    The foliage is  rumbling

 

On December the 19th Demits had his proposal to Hitler ready in a HQ meeting :

"Under the present circumstances it is advisable to use Scharnhorst and the 4th destroyer flotilla against the British convoys despite the failure of last December provided the co-operation of Luftwaffe is guaranteed as well as the rest of conditions for a victory " . The rest of the officers in the meeting remained speechless as all conditions were favouring the enemy . The distinguished admiral  Schniewind the most pessimistic of all reacted by saying that it was by far not the right moment for such an attack . The fleet in Norway is already in a weak position and the weather conditions totally unfavourable . But ...to no avail . In the darkness Scharnhorst was the perfect target for the radar while the enemy destroyers could approach and launch their torpedoes before they could be detected . Contradictions  however were ignored by Demits as he was determined to convince that the odds were in favour . Besides , 2 convoys have crossed unopposed until then and the british would not expect an attempt on the 3rd . The long range guns of Scharnhorst together with its speed would enable an easy escape . Some reports indicating  that the convoy would be possibly escorted by heavy cruisers was dismissed as unjustified 

The U-47 saluting Scharnhorst

At the very moment when those decisions were made Bey was meeting his old colleague in arms the commander of the 4th flotilla Rolf Johannesson who also had his own worries : the destroyers had better chances at night but five alone were not sufficient at all to protect Scharnhorst . Next morning on the 20th many events took place simultaneously : while Hitler was giving his approval for the operation , convoy JW-55B was leaving the Scottish coast with destination Murmansk and Bey was writing to Demits : " I am afraid that any chance for success should be based merely on luck or an unexpected enemy error " 

But all these had no meaning to Demits ....Hitler was anxious to get a victory !   

 

 

  DECEMBER 22-24 , 1943 : OPERATION "OSTFRONT"

                                Wind at strength 6: Strong Breeze

                                       Tree branches are moving

                                        Telegraph pole cables are whistling

                                        You can hardly use your umbrella 

 

British did know that the German fleet in Norway was limited to Scharnhorst and few destroyers and were feeling ready to take their chances . This task was to be undertaken by the Metropolitan Fleet Commander himself : Sir Bruce Fraser . For him sinking Scharnhorst was a personal affair . In winter 1943 , the 55 year old Commander was at the pick of his carrier . From May onwards the Metropolitan Fleet has adopted a clearly offensive policy seeking to engage the German fleet in the open sea . Churchill had offered him the post of the first Lord of the Sea in October but Fraser was to decline it : " I know I have the confidence of my fleet but it remains for me to sink Scharnhorst to prove my combat valor " . He has always been a character of integrity : he would not accept any office if he would not first prove he deserved it . In this particular moment there was really something to accomplish before accepting the post offered by the prime minister , something he had to prove in the battlefield . Now he had the chance to achieve a personal victory 

Ironically , the element considered as 'surprise' to Demits , the long idle period of the German battleships in the arctic , this is exactly what triggered a feeling to Fraser that the Germans were up to something and this 'something' could have been only  Scharnhorst . This is why he had studied in detail all the advantages and disadvantages of  Scharnhorst attacking a convoy 

The battleships for the Germans were considered as battle cruisers for the allies and Scharnhorst was a good combination of both : the guns and the protection of a battleship and the speed of the cruiser  . Scharnhorst was faster than any other British ship and could start its fire from 45 Km away . She could approach quickly , fire and disengage and reengage at will . This advantage Fraser reckoned to  balance with fast destroyer torpedo attacks and then engage Scharnhorst  with his flagship Duke of York and her 14 in. guns . Additionally Fraser has build up a nice trap : The convoy JW-55B was supported by 17 antisubmarine ships while the metropolitan fleet was divided in two forces , the second one waiting to get into battle if Scharnhorst was to appear 

Force 1 included Belfast, Sheffield and Norfolk under Rear-Admiral R. Burnett that was to follow a parallel course covering the southern flank of the convoy the side most probable Scharnhorst would come from . Force 2 was covering the north with Duke of York , the cruiser Jamaica and the destroyer Saumarez , Savage , Scorpion and Stord who were keeping some 250 Km away and was charged with the task to face Scharnhorst . The two forces would converge in the area of Barends Sea east of the Island of the Bears , the highest risk area for the convoy .  If Scharnhorst appeared King George V was to throw flares from 12 Km away to help the destroyer deploy and attack with torpedoes . In case the enemy was hit then the battleship would approach to finish her off 

On the 23rd the two forces were ready to meet the convoy . Fraser was only waiting for Scharnhorst 

   

DECEMBER 25 , 1943

  Wind at strength 7: Moderate Tempest

                                       Trees are shaking                                             

 

The sailing of convoy JW-55B was known to the German North Group Force after a report of a reconnaissance plane on the 22nd but it was mentioning the escort of normal small corvettes which convinced Demits that the British were not expecting a german attack  . But this was the last information to come form Luftwaffe for the next 3 days as it was restricted by the very bad weather conditions - as every body else has predicted , apart from Demits himself 

Admiral Schniewind watching the clouds of a disaster gathering upon this operation did a last effort to change the mind of his superior and cancel the operation . Demits was not shaken a bit and on Christmas Day 1943 send a message to Bey to indicate that Operation Ostfront was starting and Schniewind Scharnhorst was to sail under the escort of destroyers Ζ29, Ζ30, Ζ33, Ζ34, Ζ38 . Just before midnight the commander of Scharnhorst Fritz Julius Hintze was announcing to his men the message of his chief :

  "The enemy is endangering the heroic fight of our troops on the eastern front by sending food and ammunition supplies on an important convoy . Use with intelligence the advantages of skill and daring . The battle should only cease only after its full success is completed . You may stop engagement only upon your own judgment without any further warning in front of  heavy units . I do trust your aggressive spirit "

Long live Victory

Demits , Chief-Admiral 

Despite however the brave words it was the old tactic again of avoiding the unnecessary risks suggested by Hitler which was adopted in turn , albeit diplomatically , by Demits who had prepared his own cover against any odds : If Scharnhorst was to return without a clear victory he would blame Bey for luck of 'aggressive spirit" . If Scharnhorst was to retreat then it would have been a prudent act . If it was to be sunk then again Bey was to be accused that he did not make use of his advantages . As many colleagues of Bey in the past he too was sailing with one hand tied at the back while he was leaving the calm waters of  Altenfiord to the rough sea of cape North 

*   *   *

The man standing on the edge of the snow covered hill in the polar night dressed in his white woolen suit was invisible and still since his life depended mostly on this camouflage . Scanning the fiord with his binoculars , ignoring the cold of the night , was watching carefully the silhouette of a ship moving to its exit . This is what he was waiting for . He stood up , searched for his skis and checking with a cautious last glance the place around left downhill to arrive in few moments to a small hut . Even before had the time to remove his skis said to his colleague waiting there : 

"Tell them.....Scharnhorst has left ! "

   

  DECEMBER 26  01.00-09.30                        

                              Wind at strength 8: Severe Tempest

                                    Tree branches are braking . Traffic is hindered.  

 

The weather would continue a strange dangerous degrading as if to add to this epic scenery for the drama to come .  Tempest was at strength 8 , visibility was at 1600 m. while rushes of  sea waves and the snow falls were succeeding each other regularly  . The second Christmas day brought some rather good news for Fraser . Good ? That is according to a message he had received at 03:30  Scharnhorst was on the sail . He was still however far away from the predicted point with Burnett . Some convoy ships had problems , there was a bad co-ordination with the convoy and the rough sea was only to slow down their advance . If Scharnhorst would attack earlier than predicted he would have been far at a distance to approach and attack unless the 3 cruisers of Burnett could keep Scharnhorst until the moment he could arrive with Duke of York 

*   *   *

For the Scharnhorst crew this was one of their worst nights . From the 2000 on board only 600 would sing the 'Holy Night' at the mess . The rest were keeping their battle posts . The most unlucky ones those who were manning the flak batteries , were tied with leather cords to avoid getting thrown away by the furious 10 meter high sea waves covering the deck . The polar night chilly breath was penetrating the heavy clothes like a cutter knife . The tempest was striking the ship from the same northeast direction who was transferring the moisture of the Golf Stream into a polar snow fall reducing the visibility to 3-4 Km 

It was the very same arctic sea that Bey knew from the last time : darkness , waves and millions of fish you never see . All this in abundance and therefore of no value like the human lives wasted over there . The God of the Arctic was a generous one , donating everything in big quantities ...even death ...

Standing on the bridge with his collar raised , gloves on the hands and wearing his Zeiss goggles the German admiral had some reasons to be optimistic . The weather conditions were rather impeding his enemy providing an advantage for his ship that could easily run on this type of sea pushed by the northeast current direction were he expected next morning to see the convoy around 10:00-13:00 . The dim light of the dawn would be useful for his aiming ...

The moral of the crew was good and everyone was willing to fight . The ship was rather a lucky one for the german navy . The continuous attempts of the British have succeeded for other units but have always failed for  Scharnhorst . This created the fame of the 'Lucky Ship' . Besides the so many months of idle in the Altenfiord had started to influence on a negative way their mood until the order was given to sail . " Scharnhorst always first !  " they cried as they moved on to the battle the British were fearing . At 07:30 the moment they so wished for , came : 

"Battle stations ! To Z29 commander Johanneson , 4th destroyer flotilla to get deployed over a reconnaissance front towards the expected approach course of the convoy , speed 12 knots "

The 5 destroyers turned immediately northwest stretching their lines one a wide front ahead of the cruiser watching the horizon , almost submerged on the high waves receiving the strength of the tempest on their left  looked almost ready to capsize . The watch on the bridge was receiving the polar frozen wind on the face while trying to scan the horizon but there was nothing to detect even by using the good german Zeiss glasses . The radar of Scharnhorst was searching at about 20 Km expecting some blip in the darkness . Although Bey was not aware of it just by instinct he had well placed his ships to the convoy when all of a sudden everything went wrong ! Bey turned north , as a weak blip was received on the radar , but Johanesson was never informed due to a temporary communications cut-off nobody has noticed . Scharnhorst thus went out of the destroyer's formation . The two units were split without a possibility of any visual contact between them

The alarm sounded at 08:15 on the speakers of Belfast and all men jumped out of their beds  dashing to their posts . In the strength 8 tempest hard on their faces they could not sleep even for few hours . Admiral Burnett and the commander of Belfast had their eyes nailed on a green blip on their radar .

- "Too early , this can not be Scharnhorst . But if it is so then we were all mistaken , including Fraser" 

- "Sir , it doesn't seem to be the right size of target for a ship like Scharnhorst . It is rather a snow deposit on the radar "

It was not the first time Burnett had a wrong indication and he was stressed when the operator shouted again in 20 minutes :

- " Radar contact at bearing 290 , distance 35 Km and looks like a big ship . That must be it , Sir , and it is alone "

*   *   *

The time was 09:15 . Johanesson on Z29 could not detect anything on this course ignoring the true position of Scharnhorst . At 73 degrees of latitude despite the daylight starting at 08:30 even at 09:00 there was nothing but a gloomy horizon ahead . But what was this abnormal flash on the northeast ? A flare from Scharnhorst maybe ? But this was not a white color flare like the german ones , that was different ? Could it have been the one of a british ship ? 

*   *   *

-"No other blip next to Scharnhorst ?" asked Burnett ? "

-"No , Sir !"

-"Hell , are the germans facilitating our task ? Ready for lighting flares "

*   *   *

Few seconds later the distance between Burnett and Scharnhorst decreased to 13 Km and 8 flare shells out of the cruiser guns illuminated the sky and then some square kilometers ahead of the darkness but the enemy was not yet in range . Speeding up the 3 cruisers having Norfolk on the left , Belfast in the middle and Sheffield on the right headed towards Scharnhorst , now on their left bow . The guns of the british were aiming at Scharnhorst but the approach was so quick that only Norfolk could fire as the view was screened to the two others . Norfolk the heaviest of them all between 09:30 and 09:40 could send 6 batteries of 8 shells on Scharnhorst , at a distance of 10 Km . Among these 48 shells , 2 found their target 

After the criminal tactic imposed by Demits and the unfortunate separation of Bey with his destroyers the second batteries from Norfolk would be the one to decide this sea battle of Cape North that has just started ! 

*   *   *

 "Water jets 500 meters left !. At least an 8 inch !" , shouted on the microphone Willi Goede the lookout on the left beam light of the bridge . The highly climbing water springs appeared like unexpected ghosts ! The  Scharnhorst radar have detected nothing ! The rest happened almost simultaneously  : the first radar at the front reported a blip , the alarm bell was screaming , the telemeters were selecting targets and measuring bearings . In few seconds the darkness was converted to daylight . Scharnhorst was totally surprised and was to face the consequences 

 

*   *   *

The first hit of Norfolk fell between the left gun-tower No 3 with the 5.9in and the torpedo tubes . It pierced the upper deck and ended up in the NCOs mess . It would have been a most serious blow if the shell was to explode ...but this did not happen 

-"Rudder 95 degrees left , full speed !" shouted Hintze , turning his ship behind the british cruisers escaping temporarily to the opposite direction the moment when the 3 guns of the rear tower 'Cesar' answered with their thundering wrath 

The next hit came at  12 times the speed of a train machine hissing into the frozen air , exploding above the heads of Bey and Hintze , shattering the front upper structure , filling the deck with metal debris . This shell was not as 'harmless' as the others : it killed many crews of the flak batteries but most of all it destroyed the front radar of Scharnhorst . It was the primary tool for aiming ! The rear one could cover only the aft 180 degrees arc . Scharnhorst was blind ahead

 

                                       DECEMBER 26 1943 ,  10.00-16.00

                                 Wind at strength 8: Very Severe Tempest

                           Light damage on buildings

Chimneys and bricks are detached from  the roof 

 

The attack had surprised Bey totally but yet ,  not his advantages . He knew the 3 enemy ships were an easy pray for Scharnhorst if it was to receive any of her gun batteries . But the orders were detailing him to avoid the confrontation . His main target was the convoy - and this is what he meant to do 

The british cruisers were positioned between him and the convoy , therefore , as easily guessed the convoy was supposedly at the north and not far away . Leaving behind a thick smoke barrage and making 30 Knots Scharnhorst pretended to flee away . When at a safety distance it would bypass her 'hunters' and by making 180 degrees turn to northeast would meet the convoy at a moment when the cruisers would have stayed far behind 

The problems were not minor ones for sure . The loss of its sight was a serious one . They all knew its importance . " It is as if you are a one eyed " said the firing officer when he reported the damage . The second was the unexplained loss of communications with the destroyers . It was the moment were their presence would have been proved very important to create a counter attack . There was some solution to the first problem - he had to relay on whatever he had . For the second ...there was still maybe some time left 

- "Scharnhorst to the 4th destroyer flotilla . Attack position 6365 , speed 27 knots " ...shouted Hintze . Then again : 

- "Cease combat . We'll try again to reach the convoy - destroyers from south and us from north "

Bey looked the watch . 10:00 . 20 minutes from the moment he escaped from the cruisers , the dawn light started at 11:00 and would stay for 2 and a half hours . He had some chance to turn over the situation to his advantage attempting the same manoeuver with Kummetz , a year ago 

*   *   *

Unfortunately for Burnett the idea to pursuit had to be abandoned . The position of the German ship was about to be lost from the radar . In such a sea although the cruisers were doing their best they would not exceed the 24 knots and that was not enough . Scharnhorst was ahead and had an advantage of 6 knots . At 10:35 when Scharnhorst was at 35 Km away , the voice of the Belfast radar operator crackled again : 

-"Enemy changing course ....to north , Sir !"

-" Ahh , Haa ...he is not returning to Altenfiord ! That was the game ! "

Having no doubt on his enemy's intentions Burnett reacted spontaneously . He turned again northeast to interpose himself between Scharnhorst and the convoy , barring the way 

*   *   *

The message of Burnett to Duke of York at 10:45 was to become the most frustrating in Fraser's career : "Lost contact with enemy on a northeast direction . I return to the covering of the convoy " . Fraser lost his temper . The victory studied for so long was slipping from his hands because Burnett decided to save the convoy instead of chasing Scharnhorst . He replied furiously to Burnett : 

- " I estimate Force 2 has no chance to locate again the enemy if contact is lost   "

These were his exact words  but the interpretation to Burnett's mind  was a different one : " If you can not follow Scharnhorst then how the hell do you think I can hit her ? " . In actual fact the admiral was disproving his decision and was asking him to expose himself into an abnormal danger chasing a superior enemy . Burnett however knew his primary aim and besides ...the second target for Fraser , Scharnhorst , was far away 

- " The weather gives an advantage of 6 knots to the enemy . I consider the pursuit meaningless . I do believe enemy will attack again on northeast "

Fraser gave no answer to avoid getting exposed if Burnett's prediction was proved correct but deep into his soul believed he had lost the big chance of his life  

 

The cruiser SHEFFIELD

At 11:00 the cold gray of the short lived dawn fell without shedding any light - it just created an illusion of a day on the immense desert of a sea that was coming and going and roaring as if ready to receive the souls of the sea men expecting to satisfy its wrath. The low clouds and the snowfall deteriorated visibility in a tempest of 9 beauforts. The deck of Scharnhorst was already covered with snow despite its half body been immersed into the water for most of the time. The men in the ship have been nailed on their positions for 4 hours forgetting what means to be hot and dry . Even the meals were distributed while on battle stations , hot to people in side and salty and wet on the outside. 

Bay was holding into his hand a report just received from Luftwaffe : 'Five units sighted at 270 Km Northwest of North Cape ' . No detail of speed or identity but the minds of all were devastated by a common thought : 

- '...the typical escort of a heavy enemy unit !' said Bay , and all eyes turned to him . He then studied further the situation and said :

-' we stay on the initial plan , keep heading and speed . Hope to reach the damned convoy . This enemy unit is rather far away to catch us up . The observers must do their best . Everything depends on them

*   *   *

-' The usual target , Sir . Bearing075 , distance 24 Km' 

The radar operators of all 3 cruisers had spotted at 12:05 the same target. It was approaching very fast from the right of Force 1 having the convoy on the left. Burnett had no  doubts Scharnhorst was back. The daring of the german commander to get the convoy even without escort was an admirable one but he had not realized that doing so was entering again the radar coverage of the english. At 12:20 the guard-observer of Sheffield shouted what Burnett was hoping terribly : 

- 'Enemy sighted !'

*   *   *

- 'Forth and left , 3 big shadows !', shouted Willy Gende. The fire aiming stations reported immediately range and bearing when the 2 aft turrets with the 11 in. guns opened fire. despite this second surprise Scharnhorst fired first. The skill of his gunners was inferior only to the rapidity of the fire. Within the very sort time of a left turn manoeuver 4 consequent salvos were sent against the enemy cruisers.

-' To all stations. Heavy explosions on the enemy ships !' shouted enthusiastically the fire director officer Brentenbruker while his voice was lost on the next  salvo of the 5.9 in. guns that joined the fire.

*   *   *  

The smaller Belfast and Sheffield were more difficult target at 11 Km. Additionally they were firing white-smoke powder. The secondary guns of Scharnhorst however were enough to face the 11 in. guns of Norfolk firing black-smoke powder shots providing a good target for Brentenbruker. The big water splashes were dangerously approaching when at 12:30 the super construction of Norfolk received two successful hits. The first amidships behind the 3 chimneys and the second on the radars. The deck opened like carton paper filling with debris, smoke and fire the area while all the lights were cut off. The second blew up turret X killing 12 men. The survivors had the time to flood the magazines and avoid the fire on the ammunition. Again a new salvo on Sheffield opened many holes on the sides , thick smoke coming out. The british ships were in a turmoil but the firing seized as Scharnhorst was passing by in speed. This time , though , no one knew if the german battle ship would escape for ever

*   *   *  

The next conflict would be critical for Bay's decision making. Despite having damaged the enemy without him receiving any hits he himself was rather surprised by the british who knew his position and were after him. He had lost any advantage of surprise and the ex-hunter became now the hunted. Without his primary radar and the destroyer escort he could not sustain a prolonged fight with the enemy while there was always the suspicion of this heavier battle ship in the area approaching from the west

-'Hell ! We can not approach this damned convoy ! The enemy is always there where we want to strike and probably they are after us. Under the present orders I can not attempt a third attack !' , he said.

 

The light of this peculiar dawn was also drifting away together with any chance of any success. Any other action would favour the enemy possibly with a torpedo attack. Bay examined again his map on the northern coast of Norway, checked his instrument indicators and said with a disheartened voice to Hintze : 

-' Back to Norway, Captain!'

At 13:30 this signal arrived to Johannesson while he was trying to approach his retreating commander :

'Scharnhorst to Z-29 : 4th destroyer flotilla to stop engagement and return to base'

The Scharnhorst and her 28 knots slipped again through the night but those cursed target would not disappear from the radar ! 

*   *   *  

Burnett had of course his own problems. His german opponent knew nothing about but at this very moment an audacious attack could annihilate his Force 1 for ever. On Norfolk people were simply fighting in the fire and the loss of 2 radars would not leave many hopes to him. The rather light apparently damage of Sheffield proved to be disastrous for the small cruiser : the axis of the left propeller was disabled beyond local repair. Sheffield could not follow this speed contest against the faster Scharnhorst. Both ships stayed behind unable to follow Belfast who would still report every 15 min his radar information to them. Maybe she could cut the way of Scharnhorst after all !Burnett knew he could not compare with the enemy but he could at least follow his trail at 23 knots about 14 Km left and behind the enemy . For the next 3 hours he would become his shadow 

*   *   *  

The NORFOLK

Weather and visibility were simply getting worse and Bay was left alone , blind without Luftwaffe or his destroyers. His speed was his only advantage but his 6th sense kept him in alert for the coming disaster

*   *   *  

 15:00: 'Force 1 to Duke of York : If enemy keeps present course he will fall upon you !' and Fraser sprang up. 

*   *   *

16:17 : 

- 'We got it ,Sir ! Range 4 Km, bearing 020' shouted the operator ! 

- 'Pass it to all other ships and call battle stations ! Expect engagement at 17:00' shouted Fraser

 

He did not have to wait that long as at 16:48 Scharnhorst was only 12 Km away and 2 flares illuminated the sky. Fraser was at last looking at this magnificent silhouette covered with ice like a white ghost passing. Then Fraser shouted again :

-'Jesus !. She has her guns turned on the rear. They can not imagine we are here !! 

 

 

The BELFAST

 

26 DECEMBER 17.00-20.00

            Wind at strength 10: A terrible thunderstorm

          Trees are uprooted and houses are destroyed

 

Despite what was lost , other things survived

Despite our strength which we no longer have

this strength that would move those days earth and sky

we still are , what we are

Some passionate heroic souls

weakened by time and fate

but decided to fight on

to search and find

and never to give in

 

Τέννυσον

   

   

Scharnhorst was to be surprised for the 3rd and last time. No one could blame its rear radar and its short detection angle searching the cruisers behind. As for as Bey could know, Kong George appeared from nowhere like a ghost created by the rough sea. Trapped between the 2 british units he had to deliver his last battle. The first sign came from the huge waves raised by the shells of 3.5 in. of steel at 150m to its left and the red flames of fire on his aft area. near turret 'Anton'. And then another one .... from the typical radar driven accurate british fire.  

The destroyer OPPORTUNE

" Turret A out of service ! " , " Fire on the aircraft hangar " , " Dead and wounded on the aircraft guns " ....

Scharnhorst  turned to the only possible exit while Belfast and Jamaica joined their fires. But its speed has not been reduced and Hintze knew how to make the most out of it. Commencing a series of fast maoeuvers either to the left or to the right using its six side long range guns , the wheel turning on a different direction while the guns were reloading. His movements reminded the evasiveness of a destroyer rather than the one of a heavy cruiser and Scharnhorst  was getting away with 30 knots ! The 'Caesar' turret would fire ceaselessly when the boat was exposing its rear to give time to 'Bruno' turret to reload and fire. Thus the distance from its enemies was raised to 20 Km rushing towards the safety of the Norwegian coast. This technique did reduce the rapidity of the british fire albeit not its accuracy. 

   

The Duke of York

The radar behind turret C had a range of 20 Km and low resolution. This is why Scharnhorst could aim efficiently only when it would turn east. But even so due to its resolution two ships would appear under one common 'blip' on the screen. Nothing to compare with the british radars. Duke of York could spot the enemy at a range of 45 Km, her gunners were having the best of clarity able even to indicate the water raised by their shelling which would correct their next firing.  

 

And then ...it was another one of those shells that blew up sky-high the No 1 turret of 5.9 in. at 18:00. , and another one that penetrated the engine room on the right side. A fatal blow ! Speed dropped down to 8 Knots only. The few survivors were struggling in a hell of fire , broken pipes and steam on the hope to recuperate power. They knew the enemy was approaching ! After 40 min of superhuman efforts Hintze's voice was heard on the speakers : " To the men of number one engine room , the crew is expressing its gratitude " . A miracle for the germans but for the british at the same time as this short loss of speed was exactly what Fraser would only dream of

*   *   *

The destroyers Savage and Saumarez  were approaching from behind and left while Scorpion and Stord from the right. The secondary guns of Scharnhorst were shooting all over their decks shells of any kind that penetrated their thin armour getting denser and denser while they were coming closer. The british did respond equally well. Traces of thousands of shells were crossed over the sea and its darkness. Saumarez lost 20 men. When the destroyers were just 7 Km their flares covered  Scharnhorst  and their torpedoes were launched. At 1850 5 underwater explosions have shaken the cruiser immobilising it for ever.

*   *   *  

Then Hintze looked at these two dark shades approaching from southwest. No doubt from their speed should have been a battleship  and another cruiser. Scharnhorst luck was over.       

*   *   *

The following messages were keeping coming in to the Kiel Admiralty base :

'Receiving enemy radar fire at 18 Km' , 'Engaging with heavy battleship' , 'Surrounded by many heavy units'

*   *   *

                   'Sir , no ammunition for turret C and B has only 3 shells left !' 

                'To Caesar turret : transfer ammunitions from A to C' 

There was nothing worse to ask from these exhausted men to do. But ...there was nothing else to do than shoot and keep shooting. This is exactly what they have done until the very end.

 

The Duke of York firing 

At 1910 the U-boats and the destroyers of Johanesson were all ordered to get to the place of the battle. To the first this came late , to Johanesson ...very late !

*   *   *

Scharnhorst was trapped in a circle of one battleship, three cruisers and eight destroyers. It was a matter of time. On the deck of Scharnhorst nothing could remind of her previous grandeur. Nothing remained as before. Everywhere there was smoke and fire while the british were searching for an any area not yet destroyed on her. At 1900 when only few ammunitions were left send his last message :

                                 'Fighting to the last shell.Scharnhorst ahead as ever. Heil Hitler !'

then to the men around him : 'I am shaking your hand for the last time' 

*   *   *

From the bridge a voice shouted : Abandon ship !!! . The leader of the aiming squad on turret No 4 of the 4.1 in guns , Bibelhof, said : 

- ' Get out boys , I'll stay here'

- 'I'll stay too' , the sergeant major  Moritz replied

Nothing else was said . The 'boys' turned for a last salute to their commarades. Bibelhof took out a cigarette and stood back calmly. Moritz did the same.

*   *   *

In Kiel they could also receive the radio messages from Fraser : 'Through flares. Evacuate target area. Finish her off with torpedoes'

*   *   *

All in all Scharnhorst received 2195 shells still refusing to sink !! The destroyers launched 55 torpedoes and 11 did find their target. The german cruiser went down at 1945 95 Km away from Cape Horn. It was the bow that went down first then she turned to the right and a huge explosion produced a torch that gave some splendid light  in this darkness. Bey and Hintze were wounded and never quit their ship. From her 1963 only 36 survived !    

 

      "There are never flowers on the sailor's grave'

 

Scharnhorst destruction would not have been possible without the 'contribution' of the german admiralty. Disregarding any fault on their side for the tragedy, Demits explained this failure due to the superiority of the british radar system. Hitler remained indifferent and maintained a 'philosophical' attitude. Both, however, did not forget to mention the errors committed by Bey for ... lack of aggressiveness !! The only recognition of valour was to come from the ...british ! Fraser when back at home has addressed the following words to his crew in the presence of the 36 Scharnhorst survivors

" I do hope that if anyone of you will be called to lead his ship in battle against a superior enemy, will fight as gallantly as Scharnhorst did today "


REFERENCE :

1.      Fritz-Otto Busch: ?Holocaust at Sea ?The Drama of the Scharnhorst?. Reinhart & Company 1956.

2.      John Winton: ?The Death of the Scharnhorst?. Antony Bird Publications 1983.

3.      Anthony J. Watts: ?The Loss of the Scharnhorst?. Ian Allan, London 1970

4.      Michael Ogden: ?The Battle of North Cape?. William Kimber, London 1962.

5.      Richard Humble: ?Fraser of North Cape?. Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983.

6.      Edwyn Gray: ?Hitler?s Battleships?. Leo Cooper, London 1992.

7.      David Irving: ?Hitler?s War?. Macmillan London 1977. 

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