Alphen, Netherland. 26 December, 2013. Seventy years ago today one of the most important and least known naval battles in history took place. At the height of the Second World War the German battle-cruiser KM Scharnhorst ventured out of a Norwegian fjord to attack a British convoy en route to Murmansk, Russia. She was ambushed and sunk by the Royal Navy in what was the first ever use of synchronised computers, radar and heavy guns. In the perpetual dark of the December Arctic the Battle of North Cape was the last exclusively battleship-to-battleship gun duel in naval history and in effect the dawn of the guided missile age at sea.
On 25 December the Scharnhorst had set sail from Alta fjord under the command of Konteradmiral Erich Bey with five Narvik-class destroyers in escort to attack convoy JW55B. Little did Bey know he was sailing into a carefully laid British trap. Supporting the convoy over the horizon steamed Force 2 comprising the heavy battleship HMS Duke of York under the command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, together with the light cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers. Critically, HMS Duke of York was armed with ten fourteen inch guns and equipped with the latest radar technology. Directly supporting the convoy was Force 1 comprising a heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk armed with eight eight-inch guns, two two light cruisers HMS Belfast and HMS Sheffield, and four destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett.
At 0900 hours on 26 December the Scharnhorst, shorn of its destroyers unable to cope with the mountainous seas, engaged Force 1. Twice during the subsequent hours Burnett anticipated Bey’s moves and beat the Scharnhorst off even though the British cruisers' guns were no match for the eleven inch guns of the German battle-cruiser. Critically, during these early engagements Scharnhorst lost what limited radar capability she possessed.
All this time HMS Duke of York was closing the Scharnhorst. At 1648 hours HMS Belfast fired star shell illuminating Scharnhorst fore and aft and HMS Duke of York opened fire at the short-range of 11900 yards (10900 metres). Using her Type 284M radar gunnery control system she straddled and hit the German battle-cruiser with her first salvo. Thereafter, thirty-one of fifty-two radar-controlled salvoes straddled and hit Scharnhorst. The Scharnhorst was caught so completely unawares of the British battleship’s presence that her main armament was trained fore and aft. Petty Officer Godde, one of 36 survivors from a crew of 1968 (11 British sailors died on HMS Saumarez) said later that the first time the Scharnhorst realised she was under attack from a British heavy battleship was when enormous waterspouts erupted around her. These could only have come from the heaviest of guns.
Scharnhorst used her superior speed to escape the trap laid by an enemy that now numbered one battleship, four cruisers and some eight destroyers. However, as the range opened between HMS Duke of York and the Scharnhorst so did the plunging power of the British fourteen inch shells. At 1820 hours a shell plunged deep into Scharnhorst’s vitals and destroyed No. 1 boiler room drastically reducing her speed to ten knots. Scharnhorst’s fate was sealed.
Scharnhorst was steadily-overhauled and at 1825 hours Bey sent the forlorn signal “We shall fight on till the last shell is fired”. By 1850 hours Scharnhorst was surrounded by British ships which were pouring fire into her at close range. She was pummelled to destruction.
Admiral Fraser later said that Scharnhorst’s last hour was most distasteful. However, living up to the honour of the Germany Navy and her own motto “Scharnhorst immer Vorwaerts”, the beautiful German battle-cruiser refused to surrender. At 1945 hours she eventually sank given the coup de grace by torpedoes from the Norwegian destroyer Stord and HMS Scorpion. Fraser sent the succinct message to the Admiralty “Scharnhorst sunk”. “Grand well done”, came back the reply.
The destruction of the Scharnhorst marked the effective end of the challenge of Germany’s once powerful surface fleet. The German battleship KM Tirpitz lay broken in Tromso Fjord badly damaged by a British midget-submarine attack earlier in 1943. She would never fight again. On 12 November 1944 the RAF Lancaster’s of 617 Dambusters Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander J.B. Tait, sank her with twelve thousand pound Tallboy bombs. Scharnhorst’s sister-ships Admiral Scheer and Gneisenau were holed up in the Baltic and would never again pose a threat.
Relevance today? Any military worthy of its duty must have high-end military capability that properly combines eyes, ears, speed, firepower and protection. Scharnhorst sacrificed armour and firepower for speed. However, with her new radar HMS Duke of York negated the very concept of the battle-cruiser proving how quickly military systems can become obsolete as the electronic age of warfare dawned.
The KM Scharnhorst fought with the professionalism and honour one would expect from the German Navy and which one sees in today’s German Navy. On the evening of the battle Admiral Fraser said to his officers, “Gentlemen, the battle against 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 enemy many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”.
This note is in honour of the men of both sides who fought and died in the icy seas off Norway’s North Cape seventy years ago today and the men and women of the modern Royal Navy and German Navy…friends and allies.
The Battle of North Cape was a tragedy of war, but it was war and it had to be fought and won. The battle is still with us today. HMS Belfast is moored at peace opposite the Tower of London her guns pointing protectively northwards over the great city.