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Operation "Ostfront" - The Battle off the North Cape (25-26. December 1943)

After Tirpitz got damaged (6 months of repairs needed) during Operation "Source" by the British X-Craft attack on 23. September 1943, Scharnhorst remained alone being the only German capital ship available to be utilized against the Arctic convoys from United Kingdom to Russia.

From 1. November 1943 the Arctic convoys restarted, until the middle of 5. December convoys (RA 54A, JW 54A, RA 54B, JW 54B and JW 55A) sailed through the Arctic Sea without any trouble.

On 19. December 1943 Admiral Dönitz reported to Hitler that the next convoy sailing through the Barents Sea was going to be attacked by Scharnhorst escorted by the 4th Destroyer Flotilla.

Convoy JW 55B left Loch Ewe on 20. December 1943.

Meanwhile Admiral Fraser (C-in-C Home Fleet) decided to increase the escort to the convoy and by using the Norwegian resident agent informations to prepare a trap for the German battleship in case the Scharnhorst was going to leave the safety of the Langfjord (Altafjord).

Convoy JW 55 B was going to be escorted by Force 2 (battleship H.M.S. Duke of York, light cruiser H.M.S. Jamaica and 4 destroyers, Norwegian KNM (Kongelige Norske Marinen) Stord, British H.M.S. Scorpion, H.M.S. Saumarez and H.M.S. Savage), the homecoming convoy RA 55A was escorted by Force 1 (heavy cruiser H.M.S. Norfolk, light cruisers H.M.S. Belfast and Sheffield), both convoys were also escorted by several other destroyers and armed ships.

Admiral Fraser briefed the Force 2 ships commander of the Scharnhorst attack strategy on 23. December on Iceland anchorage at Akureyri and sailed on 23. December, with Force 2 ships.

During the 24. December, the ships exercised the attack formation established using H.M.S. Jamaica as Scharnhorst/dummy target.

During 25. December 1943 Admiral Fraser decided to detach a group of 4 destroyers from RA 55A to support the convoy escort and the RA 55A convoy escort leader decided (because of the fuel situation) to detach the 36th Division (H.M.S. Musketeer, Matchless, Opportune and Virago ).

During same day the German reconnaissance (U-boat U-601 and a Dornier Do 18 aircraft) intercepted the convoy and issued a report to German Navy high command (SKL).

At 14:15, on Christmas day 1943 Admiral Dönitz issued the order to Rear-Admiral Erich Bey on board Tirpitz to execute operation "OSTFRONT-17.00/25/12", which meant the attack to the convoys using Scharnhorst and the 4th Destroyers Flotilla.

Photo: Captain Fritz Hintze.
Captain of the Scharnhorst.
Photo: Rear-Admiral Erich Bey.
In charge of the German operation.
Rear-Admiral Bey moved the sailing time from 17:00 to 19:00 due to the need to transfer his staff from Tirpitz to Scharnhorst (using R 121) and at 19:00 with Z 29, 34 and 38 escorted by minesweepers R 56, 58 and 121 sailed from Langfjord (Altafjord) through Stjernsundet moving to "Lucie point" were the German group met the destroyers Z 30 and Z 33, then the formation sailed north.

Norwegian agents (Torsten Raaby group) immediately informed via radio transmission UK Intelligence agency that Scharnhorst had left the fjord and was at sea.

At midnight on 25. December 1943 convoys were converging from east (RA 55A) escorted by Force 1 and 36th Div. and from west (JW 55B) escorted by Force 2 to the Bear Island area, while German group was approaching the same area from south.

At 07:55, on 26. December 1943 Rear-Admiral Bey ordered the 4th Destroyers Flotilla to search for the convoy placing each destroyer 5 miles from each other while Scharnhorst following went on course 230° on South West and later turned to west-north-west.

Partly as a consequence of this and bad transmitted/executed orders, the Scharnhorst and the German destroyers lost contact with each other.

At 08:30, Norfolk radar got the Scharnhorst on bearing 280° at 30.500 meters, immediately after at 08:40 Belfast got Scharnhorst on radar too on 295° at 32.500 meters.

Scharnhorst was unaware being already picked up by Royal Navy ships radar.

At 09:24, H.M.S. Belfast opened fire from 12.000 meters on Scharnhorst immediately followed by Norfolk and Sheffield, Scharnhorst responded fire, but disengaged speeding up to 30 knots.

Scharnhorst got hit several times, one very critical shot put her main radar out of action, now the German battleship was sailing almost blind on the rough and dark artic sea.

At 09:40, the firing action ceased and Force 1 started shadowing the Scharnhorst at a distance of 22.300 meters.

At 09:51, the 36th Destroyer Division left RA 55A and joined the Force 1 cruisers.

At 10:09, the German destroyers were sailing on course 230° at 12 knots looking for the convoy.

At 10:27, they received an order from Rear-Admiral Bey to change course to 070° and increase speed to 25 knots.

On same time at 10:12 a German B&V 138 reconnaissance aircraft spotted Force 2 and reported a presence of several ship, including a big one (this was H.M.S. Duke of York).

At 10:25, Force 1 lost radar contact with Scharnhorst while sailing on course 325°, the German battleship was sailing North-East when this occurred and consequently Admiral Burnett ( Force 1 commander ) placed Force 1 and the 36th Division between Scharnhorst and the Convoy JW 55B.

At 12:10, H.M.S. Sheffield's radar spotted Scharnhorst coming back toward the convoy on bearing 079° at 24.500 meters on course 240°.

At 12:24, the Force 1 cruisers Norfolk, Belfast and Sheffield opened fire from 10.000 meters on Scharnhorst.

The 36th Divison opened fire when Scharnhorst was at 6.400 meters, the German battleship responded fire to both the cruisers and the destroyers.

Several hits were observed on both sides, on Scharnhorst as well as on Norfolk and Sheffield.

Fired ceased by Force 1 at 12:41, and at 12:47 by the 36th Division.

At 12:50, Scharnhorst was sailing south on course 138°, apparently disengaging with the intention to sail back to Norway.

The Force 1 and the 36th Division were following shadowing the German battleship on course 110° from 12.300 meters at 28 knots.

At 13:00, the German destroyers passed 8 sea miles south of the convoy, without intercepting it.

At 14:18, Rear-Admiral Bey issued to Captain Johannesson (4th Destroyer Flotilla commander) the order to disengage and sail back to Altafjord.

At 15:25, Rear-Admiral Bey reported to Group North-SKL the planned arrival time on Langfjord of Scharnhorst sailing back to her Norway base.

The Force 1 followed shadowing Scharnhorst for more than 3 hours at a distance of 7,5 sea miles (13.800 meters) at average 30 knots.

Now Scharnhorst was sailing south to Norway unaware that between her and the safe place on Langfjord the Force 2 was rapidly approaching, the German airplane report at 10:12 was not properly evaluated by SKL and now was too late to avoid been intercepted on the way back.

The planned trap for the German battleship was closing and Scharnhorst commanders were not aware of the destiny they were soon going to face.

Admiral Fraser on board H.M.S. Duke of York was evaluating enemy contact between Force 2 and Scharnhorst around 17:15, given course and speed.

Scharnhorst changed course to south on course 160° closing distances with Force 2 and at 16:17 Duke of York radar spotted Scharnhorst at 41.500 meters on bearing 020°.

Scharnhorst aft position radar, the only one still working did not picked up Force 2 presence and this allowed the British battleship to come rapidly very close to the German battleship.

Distances now were rapidly decreasing between an unaware blind Scharnhorst and a powerful well radar equipped Duke of York that was fine tuning her main guns with the Type 284 artillery radar detection and pointing system.

The trap now was perfectly close, and Scharnhorst was in the middle of it.

Duke of York turned on course 080° to allow all of her main armament guns (10 by 356 mm) to be used against the enemy.

At 16:47, Admiral Fraser ordered Belfast to open fire with star shells from 17.500 meters, at 16:50 the starboard side 133 mm guns of Duke of York did the same from 11.000 meters, Scharnhorst got illuminated and was caught by surprise and unprepared especially by the presence of heavy ships between her track to south and Norway.

Duke of York thundered her 356 mm main guns broadside and Jamaica joined in, Scharnhorst got hit with first salvo and immediately reacted firing at Duke of York and Jamaica, turned to east and than to north increasing speed to the maximum.

Scharnhorst A turret was hit and put out of action permanently with her guns elevated against the enemy blocked on the starboard side unable to rotate, fire involved also turret B as well and the turret was flooded to avoid explosions, later restarted firing.

At 16:57, Force 1 joined in opening fire on Scharnhorst that was speeding up trying to increase distance with Force 2 ships sailing to north and than to east at 30 knots.

After having exchanged fire with Force 1 Scharnhorst turned back her guns on Force 2 again, Scharnhorst was sailing east, turning to starboard just to fire and than sailing east again.

At 17:08, another shot by Duke of York hit the Scharnhorst between the C turret and the airplane catapult damaging the aircraft hangar starting a fire due to aircraft fuel, fire was immediately extinguished.

At 17:20, Scharnhorst was sailing east at 26 knots followed close by Force 1 and the destroyers, both ready to attack the German battleship with the torpedoes, Duke of York and Jamaica on her wake were still firing at the Scharnhost from 13.000 meters.

At 17:25, Rear-Admiral Bey sent a message to SKL informing German high command that Scharnhorst was surrounded by heavy units and engaged by them.

At 17:30, Force 2 was still firing and following Scharnhorst from south west, Norfolk, Belfast and Sheffield were following close and the "S" group of destroyers (Stord, Scorpion, Savage and Saumarez) previously escorting Force 2 were getting closer and ready for a torpedo attack.

At 17:42, distance between Scharnhorst and Force 2 was 16.500 meters and Jamaica ceased fire, while Duke of York was still firing at the German battleship.

At 18:00, distance was 18.000 meters between Force 2 and Scharnhorst that was at least 3 knots faster than Duke of York and was hoping to be able to sail away and then head for a fiord in Norway.

Admiral Bey sent a message to SKL stating: "Scharnhorst ever onwards".

Now Scharnhorst's turret B went out of action at 18:15, when a hit from Duke of York broke the turret ventilation system making the turret unusable because of smoke from the guns when fired.

Consequently Scharnhorst could now only use her three guns in C turret, but the German battleship still had her possibility to escape because of the superior speed.

German sailors were ordered to manually bring 280 mm ammunitions from turret A and B aft to turret C that was the only one still in use.

At 18:19, a new message was sent from Rear-Admiral Bey to SKL: "The enemy is firing by radar at a range of more than 18.000 meters. Position AC4965, Course 110°, Speed 26 knots".

At 18:24, Duke of York was at 19.500 meters and ceased fire (after 52 broadsides), a shell from Scharnhorst passing through the mast had broken some wires of the Type 284 Artillery Radar consequently firing was going to be only a waste of ammunition.

Lieutenant Bates climbed to the mast and repaired the radar giving again Duke of York the vital advantage of firing using the radar.

Nobody yet knew that one of the last Duke of York shells at 18:24 had hit a vital spot on the German battleship, penetrating the Nr. 1 boiler room, severing a steam-pipe that fed the turbines.

The situation suddenly became desperate on board Scharnhorst as the speed rapidly felt down to 10 knots.

Rear-Admiral Bey realizing the situation communicated to SKL: "We shall fight to the last shell".

At 18:40, Admiral Fraser signalled to Admiral Burnett: "I see little hope to catch Scharnhorst and I am proceeding to support convoy" while ordering a turn to south.

But before the order was executed something happened, the plotting room realized Scharnhorst was loosing speed and Admiral Fraser called back the order: "I had already decided to turn towards to the Norwegian coast, hoping the enemy would also lead round and so give my destroyers a chance to attack. When, however, I saw the speed reduction, I turned in straight at the Scharnhorst" he wrote.

On board Scharnhorst on the engine room the Engineers were desperately repairing the damage to give back the steam to the turbines and the possibility to develop high speed and run away.

The British destroyers immediately closed in at 18:50 on Scharnhorst and while Savage and Saumarez were firing star shells Scorpion (8 from 2.000 meters) and Stord (8 from 1.800 meters) fired their 533 mm torpedoes to the German battleship.

At 18:55, was the turn of Savage (8 from 3.200 meters) and Saumarez (4 from 1.600 meters) to launch their torpedoes at Scharnhorst while Stord and Scorpion were firing star shells.

Scharnhorst responded fire to the destroyers and Saumarez got it by a 280 mm shell that killed 11 sailors and wounded other 11, the destroyers was able to sail away at 10 knots under smoke screen.

But the torpedoes launched by the 4 British destroyers were on the run and 4 out of the 28 so far launched found the target.

One from Scorpion and 3 from Savage hit the Scharnhorst on her starboard side and determined the end of her possibilities to escape.

One hit the stern area damaging a shaft, 2 hit the center ship causing flooding and one hit the bow area.

Scharnhorst was now unable to sail faster than Duke of York with her speed at 20 knots, but rapidly reducing again and with all British ships (13) converging on her.

At 19:01, on board Duke of York the Type 284 artillery radar was back working again and the British battleship followed by Jamaica re-opened fire with her main guns to Scharnhorst from 9500 meters.

Soon Duke of York started scoring again big hits on Schanhorst that was now on fire again on the hangar area, while turret C was the only one responding fire.

At 19:07, with distance around 7.000 meters and Scharnhorst only able to sail at 10 knots Force 1 was ordered to join in on course 180°.

At 19:11, Rear-Admiral Bey received last communication from SKL ensuring that all U-boats, destroyers and aircrafts were sent on the area to help Scharnhorst.

At 19:12, Belfast opened fire from 15.500 meters and appears to have scored twice with 3rd salvo.

At the same time turret C on Scharnhorst ceased fire and left only a couple of 150 mm still firing.

At 19:17, Belfast ceased fire after her 5. salvo with 12 guns.

At 19:19, Admiral Fraser ordered Belfast to attack the Scharnhorst with torpedoes, the light cruiser closed in and from 5.700 meters at 19:26 on course 075° delivered her first set of torpedoes from her starboard side on bearing 170°, than turned in circle to be ready to launch from port side.

British ships now were attacking in shifts, the area was very crowded and to avoid damages fire was ceased from long distance to allow the torpedoes to be launched from closed distance safely.

At 19:28, Duke of York ceased fire after having fired 80 broadsides on Scharnhorst (446 rounds).

Jamaica closed in as well after having fired 22 salvos to attack with torpedoes too, at 19:25 she launched 2 torpedoes from port side from 3.200 meters, then fired 36 rounds with her 152 mm guns.

At 19:30, Scharnhorst was only sailing at less than 5 knots, the ship was heavily listed to starboard side and slowly running in circle, Captain Hintze ordered the crew to abandon ship.

Meanwhile 36th Division destroyers were arriving to the area as well, and Belfast was delivering her last torpedo from port side.

At 19:33, Musketeer (4 torpedoes from 900 meters) and Matchless (no launch due to heavy sea) attacked with torpedo from port side while Opportune (8 torpedoes from 2.300 meters) and Virago (7 torpedoes from 2.600 meters) attacked from starboard side at 19:34.

Jamaica turned and launched at 19:37 other 3 torpedoes from starboard side scoring 2 hits.

Scharnhorst was only sailing at 3 knots with her bow underwater on the starboard side and the ship heavily listed, she got hit with 3 torpedoes from Musketeer, 2 from Virago and probably 2 from Opportune.

After those hits the Scharnhorst was on extensive fire, explosions all over and the ship heavily listed to starboard into a huge cloud of smoke that star shell and searchlight could not penetrate.

At 19:45, a tremendous explosion, probably caused by the forward turrets ammunition deposit caused the Scharnhorst to sink rapidly on her starboard side by the bow (looking at the recent analysis of the wreck it is possible that the forward section got separated by the explosion under forward section of main turrets from the rest of the ship and this was the cause of the fast sinking of Scharnhorst) on 72° 16' N and 28° 41' E.

At 19:48, Belfast and Matchless came in again for another torpedo attack, but Scharnhorst was no more.

After the order to abandon ship was given there were hundreds of German sailors swimming on the sea, it seems that Captain Hintze and Konteradmiral Bey gave their life-jackets to some cadets on board who had none before jumping into the sea.

British ships started rescuing the survivors, Matchless took on board 6 survivors and Scorpion rescued 30 more.

Admiral Fraser asked at 20:16 with a radio message: "Please confirm Scharnhorst is sunk".

Only after he got sure from Scharnhorst survivors witness on board Scorpion at 20:30 that the German ship was sunk he ordered all the British ships to abandon the area joining him on the way to Kola.

Officially due to risk of U-boat attack, several hundreds survivors were left at sea to die in the ice-cold water.

Later that evening Admiral Fraser briefed his officers on board Duke of York: "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 opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today".

Battle was over, 36 survivors out of 1.968 crew members from Scharnhorst.

Photos: The survivors from Scharnhorst when they arrived to United Kingdom as Prisoners of War. The survivors were led off blindfolded so they could not see their whereabouts.

The British lost 18 men in total on Norfolk and Saumarez.

During the Battle, Scharhorst was targeted by
55 torpedoes, of which probably 11 hit the ship
More than 2.000 shells, of which: - 446 was 356 mm (14 inch) shells from Duke of York

- 161 was 203 mm (8 inch) shells from Norfolk

- 874 was 152 mm (6 inch) shells from Jamaica, Sheffield and Belfast

- 686 was 133 mm (5,2 inch) shells from Duke of York

- 126 was 120 mm (4,7 inch) shells from the destroyers

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