The North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Looking out from it’s lofty, slowly rolling plateau across the Barents Sea, it is difficult to imagine that the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away.
It is even more difficult to imagine that the waters to the north of this quiet, spectacular spot played host to the last major battle between British and German capital ships.
Just ninety miles north of the North Cape, a battleship lies entombed in around a thousand feet of freezing Arctic water.
Her name is Scharnhorst.
By December 1943, Germany’s war against Russia had turned irrevocably for the worst. As the Red Army’s advance assumed momentum, massive British and American convoys deposited thousands of tanks, guns, trucks and planes into the Russian war effort each month, unloading their cargoes at the year round ice free port of Murmansk.
By this stage, every single convoy was like a nail in the coffin of the Third Reich. And it led the Germans to try a desperate remedy to stop this torrent of supplies.
Sitting like a spider in her web at Alta Fjord, just two hundred miles from the route that any convoy would have to take, was the battleship Scharnhorst, the last serviceable capital ship that Germany had in Norwegian waters.
Scharnhorst had a long standing reputation as the ‘lucky ship’ of Hitler’s navy. In four years of combat she had been damaged by mines, bombs, and heavy shells, but she had always emerged to fight on. Her veteran crew believed in their ship absolutely.
If ‘lucky’ Scharnhorst could once get in among the slow moving ships of a heavily laden Arctic convoy, her heavy guns could do more damage in two hours than the entire U boat fleet had managed in the previous six months. The boost to the morale of the hard pressed German army would be incalculable.
But by now, any sortie was a massive gamble.
The Royal Navy had complete numerical superiority in these waters, and British radar was now way ahead in capability of anything the Germans had.
But the German situation was desperate and, besides, wasn’t Scharnhorst a ‘lucky’ ship?
Accordingly, on Christmas Day 1943, Scharnhorst came looming out of Alta, intent on savaging a recently reported supply convoy, JW 55B.
Warned of her sailing by intercepted German messages the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Bruce Fraser, was waiting for her. If Fraser could finally put an end to Scharnhorst, he would end the last real surface threat to the Arctic convoys.
To the south of the convoy, a squadron of three British cruisers-Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield-formed a shield to protect the merchant ships from the German battleship. Though far less powerful than the German ship, this squadron was robust enough to buy at least enough time for the convoy to escape the scene.
Out at sea, Fraser himself was in the powerful, modern battleship Duke Of York. With him was another cruiser- HMS Jamaica- and four destroyers, These ships were intended to form the other half of a giant pincer that would hopefully encircle Scharnhorst and then pound her into scrap.
It was a very astute plan. The Duke Of York was a more powerful beast than the Scharnhorst, and her guns could certainly do the job. But the Scharnhorst was faster, and would first need to be slowed down by smaller ships. The outcome was by no means certain.
What was certain on the morning of December 26th, 1943, was that both sides found a common enemy in the form of a full strength Arctic gale. Almost complete darkness shrouded a screaming howler of a storm, with huge, rolling waves that made even Duke Of York and Scharnhorst pitch and sway horribly. The weather that day favoured no man.
At around 0830 that morning, the radar plot on one of the three British cruisers shielding the convoy from the south picked up a very large warship, approaching rapidly from the direction of Norway.
It could only be the Scharnhorst. The three cruisers went immediately to action stations.
An hour later the German battleship was illuminated with star shell, fired from the cruisers. Taken completely by surprise, the Scharnhorst was lit up as starkly as a Christmas tree. On both sides, the guns barked and roared into life.
One of the first British shells smashed into the forward radar set of the Scharnhorst, rendering her completely blind forward. The damaged battleship broke off the action, using her superior speed to escape. Unable to keep up with her in the gale, the three cruisers closed back up to protect the convoy, in case the raider tried to come at the merchant ships again from another direction.
She did. And it was the ending of her.
If Scharnhorst had ran for home right then, Fraser could never have caught up with her in time. But aboard the German battleship, Rear Admiral Erich Bey decided to try and use his speed to outrun the cruisers and come in from another direction. His guns were all intact and, by the time he came back at the convoy, he could wreak havoc in the Arctic twilight that would break at around that time of day.
To Bey’s immense chagrin, the same three cruisers, forewarned by radar, were waiting for him. Again, the guns roared out on both sides.
This time, it was Scharnhorst that got the better result. One of her shells put one of the main turrets on Norfolk out of action, causing several casualties. At the same time, Sheffield was suffering some engine trouble. It could have been very bad.
But Bey had had enough by this stage. He realised that he was fighting blind, in a damaged ship, against opponents that could predict his every move. Soon after the guns ceased firing for the second time, he turned Scharnhorst on a course back for Norway. The three cruisers, joined by four destroyers from the convoy escort, shadowed him at a distance, all the while relaying the course and speed of Scharnhorst to Fraser in the approaching Duke Of York.
Not long after four in the afternoon, the Scharnhorst was once again caught by surprise, as star shells from Fraser’s ships illuminated her from bow to stern. The guns on the British battleship crashed out, hitting the German at once and knocking out one of her two forward main gun turrets. It was remarkable shooting by any standards. With the original shadowers now also entering the fray, some twelve British and one Norwegian warship were now converging on Bey’s flagship.
But Scharnhorst was not done yet.
Recovering quickly from her surprise, the German battleship began zig zagging frantically as she worked up to her top speed. Her guns shot through both of the masts on the Duke Of York –another first class gunnery display-and she gradually began to open the range. Incredibly, it began to look as if the Scharnhorst would escape once more.
Then, at the extreme limit of her firing range, a lucky hit from Duke Of York crashed right through into the stern of the fleeing Scharnhorst. It resulted in a catastrophic loss of speed in the German ship and, although incredible efforts by her engineers got her back up to 22 knots, it was not enough to outrun the four destroyers that were now overhauling her, two to either side.
In seas that made them heel, pitch and lurch almost unimaginably, the four destroyers, with their paper thin armour, swerved through a hail of desperate shell fire from the Scharnhorst. A string of torpedo strikes lanced her hull on both sides, and Scharnhorst staggered to a crawl like a slowly dying bull. Now, both Fraser and the cruisers overhauled the battleship, forming a cordon from which there was no escape this time.
Aboard Scharnhorst, Bey knew it, too. He signalled Berlin; ‘The Scharnhorst will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer’. There could be no doubt now about the outcome.
For the next hour, a hurricane of shell fire and another salvo of torpedoes from all the surrounding ships gradually demolished the proud Scharnhorst. The German battleship fought doggedly, but hopelessly; ‘like a wounded shark’, in the words of one Royal Navy observer.
No one saw her finally go under in the icy, storm tossed darkness, but it is generally agreed that she finally gave up the ghost at around 1945, after a heavy underwater explosion was heard and felt in all the British ships. Scharnhorst capsized and sank; the uncontrollable fires raging aboard her finally smothered by the freezing Arctic waters. Of her complement of just over 1900 officers and men, only thirty-six were able to be saved from the savage, wind swept seas.
When the wreck of Scharnhorst was eventually discovered in September, 2000 by a joint British and Norwegian team, subsequent survey footage confirmed that the bows had been blown off, suggesting that the remaining ammunition in her forward turrets did, indeed, explode as she sank. In all, the Scharnhorst absorbed something like fifty five heavy shell hits and some eleven torpedoes before she finally sank.
The Battle of North Cape marked the last occasion on which giant battleships would slug it out at sea, without airborne interference, in a real life fight to the death. As such, it has achieved a seminal place in the history of both the British and German navies to this day.