Gold Ribbon Banner
Sunday, May 26, 2019

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.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!

Island Princess

Most Popular

  • Port of London Trade at 10-Year High +

  • Ruminations on Rum +

  • Northlink Celebrates Apprentices +

  • Special Place for Tanker in Port History +

  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

  • 1
  • 2

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • South Atlantic Repair Yard Plans +

    BBDC Ship Repair Yard What will be the largest purpose-built shiprepair yard in the South Atlantic Basin is being developed in the state of Read More
  • Move to Enlarge River Terminal +

    Grimsby River Terminal Associated British Ports (ABP) plans to expand its Grimsby River Terminal to enable it to handle the world’s largest car Read More
  • At the Helm of the RNLI +

    Mark Dowie A new Chief Executive has been appointed by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to succeed Paul Boissier, who has held Read More
  • Keeping the Tyne Clean +

    Clearwater Each year, the Clean Tyne project removes around 400 tonnes of debris from the River Tyne between Blaydon and the Read More
  • First Part of Huge Port Investment Completed +

    Sheerness Port The 20-year Master Plan for boosting trade through the Kent port of Sheerness has reached a significant milestone with the Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Houston Ship Canal Closed After Major Fire +

    Houston Fire The Houston Ship Canal reopened to daylight traffic after being closed for nearly a week due to a serious fire Read More
  • Back Home After Eventful Antarctic Season +

    Polar Star The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star arrived back at her homeport of Seattle, Washington on Mar 11 after an Read More
  • Four More Giant Cranes Arrive from China +

    Zhen Hua 31 Four new Super-Post-Panamax container cranes arrived at Tacoma, Washington, from China in early March, just over a year after the Read More
  • Two Hurt as Lifeboat Falls Overboard +

    USCG Reliance Two crew members of the tanker Chemtrans Nova, 73,870dwt, had to be flown ashore for treatment after the lifeboat they Read More
  • Cutters Seize $466mn of Drugs on Patrols +

    USCG Forward At Port Everglades, Florida, on Feb 5, some 34,780lbs of cocaine with a street value of $466mn was unloaded from Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • Three Main Courses Being Plotted for MOL +

    MOL Triumph The major Japanese shipping line Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) has unveiled a number of new objectives aimed at improving its Read More
  • Cargo Ships for Bass Strait Service +

    Tasmanian Achiever II The first of two 700 teu cargo ship for the Bass Strait route between the Tasmanian port of Burnie and Read More
  • Race to Save Coral Reef After Grounding +

    Solomon Trader A major anti-pollution operation was launched in the Solomon Islands after the bulk carrier Solomon Trader, 73,592dwt, with a cargo Read More
  • Special Place for Tanker in Port History +

    Pro Alliance The largest fuel tanker in the 220 year history of the Australian port of Newcastle, NSW, arrived on Mar 18 Read More
  • Data Recorder Recovered From Ore Carrier Wreck +

    Seabed Constructor The Stellar Daisy, owned by Polaris Shipping, of South Korea, was carrying a cargo of iron ore from Brazil to Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • US Navy Orders Flight II Landing Platform Dock +

    LDP30 American News The contract for the construction of LPD30, the first Flight II Landing Platform Dock of the San Antonio Read More
  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

    FFGX Rendering American News The future frigate program for the US Navy is getting fully underway and some idea of the urgency Read More
  • HMS “Dragon” in £75 Million Narcotics Seizure +

    HMS Dragon British News Whilst on patrol in the Gulf, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon seized and destroyed ten tonnes of Read More
  • New Generation of Enterprise Confirmed +

    USS Enterprise American News On 31 January, the US Department of Defense announced the awarding of a block buy contract with Huntington Read More
  • Brazil to Take Over HMS Clyde +

    HMS Clyde British News It has been announced by the Brazilian Government in early December that the Falklands Patrol ship HMS Clyde Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Further Delay for LNG Powered Glen Sannox +

    Glen Sannox The drama surrounding the much delayed new ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne continues to rumble on with the latest, not unsurprising, Read More
  • Favourite Claymore +

    Claymore A poster of Llandudno pier prompted a memory from ex Calmac chief engineer Charlie McCurdy as he took another trip Read More
  • Baltic Battery Power +

    Aurora Scandinavian and Baltic operators seem to be leading the way in reducing ferry reliance on fossil fuels. Read More
  • Electric Solutions +

    Polarkunsult Ferry A new ferry will replace the 1992-built MF Herjólfur to the Westmann Islands and will be in line with Iceland’s Read More
  • Variety of New Builds +

    Red Kestrel I am gratified to hear at Cammell Lairds and Red Funnel have a particularly good record in ordering from UK Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • Thames Tributary Barges +

    Lady of the Lea Most of the rivers flowing into the Thames had their own barge type. Read More
  • Dry Rot and Dry Dock +

    HMS Victory For some time Victory, the 110gun ship of the line, has had trouble with dry rot and is in danger Read More
  • Everards Eulogy +

    Greenhithe Scottish maritime interests particularly may mourn the loss of Geo Gibson. Read More
  • Welsh Port Gentrification +

    Penarth In the Victorian era, there were many coastal places where craft worked off open beaches. Read More
  • Sussex Sterns +

    Edward and Mary and Valiant In the Victorian era, there were many coastal places where craft worked off open beaches. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • Red Funnel’s New Ferry Arrives +

    Red Kestrel Red Kestrel, the newest addition to Red Funnel’s fleet, arrived at her new home in Southampton on 18 April. Read More
  • Keeping an Eye on the Weather +

    Royal Charter storm I was intrigued to read recently about the career of Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1805-65). Read More
  • Port of London Trade at 10-Year High +

    DP World London Gateway Trade through the Port of London reached 53.2 million tonnes last year, a level last seen over a decade ago. Read More
  • Northlink Celebrates Apprentices +

    Paul Wheelhouse NorthLink Serco Northlink Ferries has been commended by the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, for developing young Read More
  • An Auction with no Buyer +

    Falls of Clyde I was reading recently about the unsuccessful auction to find a buyer for the Falls of Clyde, the last remaining Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Two Distinctive Ships Headed for Chinese Market +

    Spectrum of the Seas and Costa Venezia The Spectrum of the Seas (169,379 GT), Royal Caribbean International’s first ship in the Quantum Ultra Class, embarked on the Read More
  • Seadream Yacht Club to Build New Ship +

    SeaDream Innovation For over fifteen years, the SeaDream Yacht Club has operated two yachtlike ships, on 7 to 15-day voyages. Read More
  • Tradition Plays Its Part +

    Prana by Atzaro If ever proof was needed that traditionally built craft can still play a part in the luxury charter market in Read More
  • MV "Magellan Explorer" +

    MV Yet another new and modern expedition vessel custom built for Antarctic air-cruises will make her debut in 2019. Read More
  • The Saga Continues +

    Saga Discovery Saga Adventure SAGA Cruises has announced it is taking up an option for it’s second new ship to be built at the Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places

San Juan

A Truly Different Shipyard

The entrance to the port of Pasaia on the Spanish coast of Biscay is one of Europe’s most picturesque. At Read More

Victoria High and Dry

Five-hundred years ago, Ferdinand Magellan sailed out of Seville, Spain, on one of the most memorable discovery voyages ever made, Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features

SS Eastern (2)

MT Arthur Foss

“The last vessel to escape Wake Island before Japanese forces captured the island” Read More
SS Eastern (2)

Rescue of Crew Member From Tanker Avanti

Captain A J Murdoch served with Eastern & Australian Steamship Company until he retired in 1982. Hailing from Melbourne, during Read More
  • 1
  • 2