When the battle cruiser’s crew of two-thousand men sat down to their traditional Christmas Day festivities no one imagined amid the celebrations that the following day all but 36 would be dead.
The Scharnhorst was Hitler’s lucky ship. She had survived longer than almost every other capital ship in the Kreigsmarine. During her career, she had been responsible for the destruction of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi and the destroyers HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta. In December 1943, her continuing existence remained a headache for the Russian convoys. Based at Altenfjord, in Norway, she was close enough to strike against these vital convoys that sustained the Russian war effort.
Onboard Scharnhorst the festive season brought with it merriment, gifts and cigars – all the better to fight off the whiteout freezing blizzards that blew across Norway. Onboard the battle cruiser was Rear Admiral Erich Bey alongside commanding officer Captain Fritz Hintze. These Germans understood the power at their control and knew exactly what Scharnhorst could achieve if she found her way into the middle of a convoy. It was a fear that kept the Royal Navy on high alert. Together with the presence of the battleship Tirpitz, Scharnhorst was an ever-present threat that needed to be neutralised. In December 1943, the battleship Tirpitz had been famously and heroically crippled by a British mini-submarines attack at Kaafjord some ten miles away from Scharnhorst. This left the battle cruiser as Admiral Bey’s principal weapon in the Arctic.
The morning of Christmas Day started with the singing of traditional weihnachtslieder carols. The mess decks resounded to the voices of a cheerful crew. However, in the early afternoon, Bey set sail after having received orders to take the Scharnhorst and her five escorting destroyers to hunt and destroy convoy JW55B that had left Scotland some days before. Bey viewed the convoy as an opportunity to display how effective the Kreigsmarine’s big-gunned ships were to the Fuhrer, who had vowed to scrap the entire fleet of large ships following the damage to Tirpitz, loss of Bismarck and the crippling of Scharnhorst’s sister ship Gneisenau.
At 1900, as she sailed from Altenfjord, Scharnhorst set out in the face of a fierce blizzard. It’s not recorded what crossed Bey’s mind as he left Norway, but he had expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of deploying Scharnhorst without the powerful battleship Tirpitz. Together the two ships would have had the advantage, but alone she was considerably weaker. He was overruled and the Tirpitz continued with her repairs. His orders from Admiral Doenitz could not have been any clearer: “Attack and destroy the convoy to alleviate the struggle of your comrades on the Eastern Front.”
The British had assembled a strong covering force for convoy JW55B comprising the cruisers Belfast, Sheffield and Norfolk in addition to destroyers and sloops. The convoy was sighted by U-601 at 0900 on 25 December. Whilst this was useful information, the Germans did not know that Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser ordered the convoy to reverse course for three hours before increasing speed to wrong foot the Germans as to where to intercept the convoy. The sea conditions into which Scharnhorst sailed were atrocious with force 7 winds, high seas and visibility of only two miles. Bey eventually tried to call off the operation because his destroyer escorts (Z-29, Z-30, Z-33, Z34 and Z-38) were being swamped by the conditions and had fallen seriously behind the battle cruiser. His request was refused by Doenitz who insisted it proceed.
Also unbeknown to the Germans was that all communication between Bey and Doenitz had been intercepted and decoded. The Royal Navy knew exactly where Scharnhorst would be and a trap had been set in motion. A miscommunication also sealed the fate of the battle cruiser. A Luftwaffe radio operator received a message from an aircraft telling of ‘five warships, one apparently a big ship, northwest of Norway’. The officer censored the message and omitted the crucial words ‘one apparently a big ship’. Admiral Bey thought the message referred to his own five destroyers.
The big ship the German aircraft had spotted was the British 44,500 ton battleship Duke of York, which was slower but, with ten 14 inch guns, was more heavily armed than Scharnhorst. With her were the cruiser Jamaica and destroyers Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion and Norwegian Stord.
On Boxing Day 1943, in the half-light of an Arctic winter morning, the Battle of North Cape began. The destroyer Z-29 signalled to Scharnhorst ‘silhouettes sighted distance four miles’. The sightings were Belfast, Sheffield and Norfolk under the command of Vice Admiral Burnett. Scharnhorst changed course and increased her speed to 32 knots, steering towards what was thought to be the position of JW55B.
The British ships also changed course to intercept the fast-approaching battle cruiser. Meanwhile Duke of York, some 150 miles south west of the convoy, changed course towards the north east to intercept Scharnhorst.
With her impressive speed, Scharnhorst could have evaded both groups of British ships in the poor light and it was at this point that the fortunes of the German navy’s lucky ship finally ran out.
At 0927, Belfast opened fire. Three minutes later Scharnhorst’s forward radar equipment was smashed by shells from the 8 inch guns of Norfolk. With her radar gone Scharnhorst was now effectively blind, while the British cruisers fired more accurate and deadly shells. Realising he was in the middle of a classic pincer manoeuvre, Admiral Bey decided to flee and ordered the ship be brought to her top speed. The battle cruiser manoeuvred furiously as she tried to find a course that would let her sail home to Altenfjord.