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Battle of the Barents Sea

by Irwin J. Kappes

Battle of the Barents Sea

German destroyer Friedrich Eckoldt takes a fatal blow from the British cruiser Sheffield.
Copyright 2009, Irwin J. Kappes

Twilight of the German Surface Fleet in World War II

The Battle of  Barents Sea on the morning of 31 December 1942 was not operationally noteworthy. The Nazis lost one destroyer and the British lost one aging destroyer and a minesweeper. But the battle has continued to intrigue naval historians and tacticians even after nearly sixty years. It taught many lessons, the prime one being that one goes into a naval battle resolutely or not at all.
To understand how this battle--skirmish, really--could have had such far-reaching consequences we have to consider the dilemma confronting Hitler at a time when his Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army were surrounded at Stalingrad. The Soviets were counting heavily on materiel from the west which could be supplied only through a treacherous sea route through the Barents Sea into Murmansk. During the summer, the edge of the ice pack retreated to 300 miles from the North Cape of Norway, so convoys could pass well clear of a coastline dotted with German air bases. But the long summer days also made them vulnerable to u-boat attack. Conversely, in winter when ice-free waters narrowed to 150 miles and the days were short, the u-boat danger was lessened but air attacks became more frequent. The Luftwaffe had been successful in sinking large numbers of Allied merchantmen in the turbulent, icy waters of the Barents Sea. But now Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s dwindling number of fighters and bombers were urgently needed on the eastern front in support of the attempted Stalingrad breakout. Russian re-supply would have to be crushed by the Nazi surface and undersea fleet if it was going to be done at all. And winter was the time to do it.

Like Churchill, Hitler fancied himself a master strategist and often second-guessed his generals and admirals. Because of some British commando landings in Norway he became convinced that the British planned to invade Norway and that Sweden would then join forces with Russia and trap his land forces in a gigantic pincer move. His naval commander-in-chief, Großadmiral Erich Raeder dissented and correctly reasoned that the Allies’ next move would be an invasion of North Africa. Hitler disagreed and decided it was time for his surface fleet to prove its mettle. For years he had railed against his surface ship fleet, calling it a poor imitation of the British navy and a breeding ground for malcontents and revolutionaries. But he was deeply conflicted on the issue. While often referring to it as a useless liability, he was placing an inordinate confidence in its ability to crush any Allied attempt to invade Norway or re-supply the Russians . In truth, a megalomaniacal Hitler had little understanding of naval operations and strategy. And his long distrust of the Kriegsmarine would come to a head on the morning of 31 December 1942.

The Allied convoy designated JW51-B sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland on 22 December. It  consisted of 14 merchant ships and tankers carrying over 200 tanks, about 2,500 trucks, 125 aircraft, 18,000 tons of fuel oil, 13,000 tons of aviation fuel and 54,000 tons of miscellaneous products. It was escorted by six British destroyers under the command of Captain Robert St. V. Sherbrooke. (Sherbrooke was a direct descendant of Lord St. Vincent who had been knighted after his victory over the Spanish fleet in 1797). Hitler had issued strict orders to Admiral Kübler, who was the commander in charge of his northern sector that, since the navy now had the major responsibility for containing the ability of the Allies to re-supply the Russians it should pursue this cause vigorously, but great caution should be shown “even against enemies of equal strength” because it was “undesirable for the capital ships to take any great risks”. The Führer informed Kübler further that he wished to be kept up-to-date on the details of all naval operations because he could “not sleep a wink while the ships are operating”. Hitler’s concern was mystifying since he had regularly calumniated the German Navy as peopled by slackers and whiners. It was doubly puzzling because the encirclement of his 230,000 troops in the Stalingrad pocket did not seem to disturb his slumber in the slightest. Furthermore, the words of equal strength could be interpreted a multitude of ways. A destroyer with a skilled commander and a well-trained crew can be of equal strength to a cruiser commanded by a craven martinet with an undisciplined crew. So a confusing order requiring vigorous combat coupled with extraordinary caution was bound to have untoward consequences. As any junior naval officer might have told him, great naval battles are not won by extremely cautious men.

Admiral Hipper

Actually, the German Naval Staff devised an excellent tactical plan for dealing with the re-supply convoys. It was dubbed Operation Regenbogen  (Rainbow). It provided for the pocket-battleship Lützow and the heavy cruiser Hipper to sail from the base at Altenfjord along with an escort of six destroyers. They were to separate into two groups during the night. The Lützow would be 75 miles south of the Hipper early the next morning. The two ships would then turn eastward along the convoy’s course, each ship with her three destroyers spread 15 miles apart. When the convoy was sighted, the Hipper group would attack first from the north. This would draw the escorts to the north and force the convoy to turn south directly into the range of the pocket battleship Lützow . The Hipper would speedily dispatch the much more lightly-armed escorts, while the Lützow would enjoy a turkey shoot in sinking the merchantmen. The Lützow and its six destroyers were commanded by Admiral Oskar Kummetz. What Kummetz did not know was that the previous convoy, JW51-A , which had arrived safely in Murmansk,  had been protected by the Sheffield and the Jamaica , two cruisers under the command of Rear Admiral R. L. Burnett, who was a veteran of the Arctic convoys. And these cruisers were now patrolling the area between the Kola peninsula and the North Cape (the precise route that convoy JW51-B was to follow).  

Because of the ice floes, JW51-B was sailing single file on 30 December approximately 230 miles from the North Cape when it was spotted by Lieutenant Herschleb aboard the U-354. Because Hitler had so involved himself in the convoy operations, Admiral Raeder took a personal role and ordered his task force to get underway immediately. Under direct orders from Hitler, the message included the phrase “Procedure on meeting the enemy is to avoid a superior force, otherwise destroy according to established protocol”--it was still another message not calculated to inspire heroic action.

The drama began to unfold at 0830 on the morning of 31 December. The Flower -class corvette Hyderabad was on the starboard quarter of the convoy when her captain spotted two shapes on the horizon that could only be destroyers. He had been advised that two Russian destroyers were moving west  to assist in the escort, so he took no action. The same ships were sighted by the Obdurate ten minutes later, but this time her captain advised Sherbrooke “Two unidentified destroyers bearing west, course north”. Sherbrooke signaled “Investigate”, but lamp signaling takes time and Obdurate's captain had anticipated the order and was already swinging around. By 0915, Obdurate had sighted three destroyers and flashed a challenge. There was no reply, which might not have been suspicious if they had been Russian, but suddenly one of the German ships opened fire. The British ships immediately began to go into a formation previously ordered by Sherbrooke. Onslow , Obdurate , Obedient and Orwell steamed in the direction of the gun flashes, while Achates , which was between the convoy and the enemy began a smokescreen of black smoke from her funnels and white smoke from smoke floats.


A half hour later, Sherbrooke made out a large ominous-looking shape in the haze and it was heading straight for him. Finally, it made a turn to port which enabled him to identify it. There could be no doubt. It was the Hipper , a hulk about seven times the size of his flagship. Courageous as his four 1,540 ton destroyers might have been, they were no match for her eight 8-inch guns. 

At 0930, Admiral Burnett’s two cruisers began making flank speed to join the fray. Meanwhile, the Hipper brought all guns to bear on Achates , which made a perfect target because it stood out in contrast to its own black smokescreen. It took crippling damage with the loss of 40 men plus her captain, Lt. Commander A.H.T. Jones, but then Hipper shifted its guns to the Onslow and Orwell . Both ships were now darting in and out of the snow squalls and smoke. The dazzle camouflage patterns of British ships sometimes made them easier to spot but in this circumstance it worked to their distinct advantage. Gunners aboard the Hipper had difficulty in finding targets in the dappled gray haze and the superiority of British fire-control radar was now making a difference. Meanwhile, the plucky Achates continued to protect the convoy with her smokescreen.  Finally, at 1254, with a 60-degree list, a trawler came alongside to take off the surviving 80 crewmembers. At 1314 the brave little ship capsized and sank.

Click here to see an animated map of the first phase of the Battle of the Barents Sea

It was beginning to appear to Sherbrooke that the Germans had no great lust for battle. Instead of  steaming toward the targets, bringing all forward guns to bear and presenting a smaller silhouette,  Kummetz seemed to retreat and hide in the smoke and squalls while inching his way to the northeast.  His log entry on the occasion tells the story: “Only quick action can solve the problem of danger from torpedo attacks and this has to be considered in the light of my orders not to take any serious risks.” Nevertheless, his evasive actions had the effect of causing the British to react as the German Naval Staff had predicted.  The convoy was now turning away to the southeast behind a smokescreen right where Kummetz knew the Lützow would be waiting to spring the trap. Sherbrooke decided to shadow the Hipper with his own ship plus the Orwell , maintaining the threat of the torpedo fire that was Kummetz’s only fear from two British destroyers. The rest of his flotilla was dispatched to guard the convoy.  He knew that as long as he could keep the Hipper preoccupied, it would be unable to break through to endanger the convoy.  The Hipper and Sherbrooke’s destroyers exchanged inaccurate gunfire made difficult by the poor visibility, frozen ammunition racks and the constant icing-up of gun barrels. Finally, Hipper turned northward in an attempt to draw the British destroyers after him. When this failed, he turned back and with clearing weather conditions was able to score some solid hits on the Onslow . One hit shattered a surface radar antenna and caused thousands of splinters to pepper the bridge. One struck Sherbrooke in the head, smashing a cheekbone and causing his left eye to hang loose from its socket. For a few moments no one on the bridge knew of his injury because he kept giving orders in an even voice. Another officer nearby found himself covered in blood and thought he had been hit, but soon noticed that it was Sherbrooke who had been severely wounded. In the finest British “stiff upper lip” tradition, Sherbrooke refused medical attention until finally command of the flotilla was passed to Lt. Commander D. C. Kinloch on the Obedient . Forty-seven men had been killed or wounded on the Onslow and for his valor, Sherbrooke was later awarded the Victoria Cross. On the Hipper , Kummetz was unaware of having dealt the crippling blow as he turned his attention to the Obedient , which had impudently opened fire first. A short but inconclusive exchange ensued, during which Kummetz apparently recalled his orders to avoid unnecessary risks.

While this was a case of a heavy cruiser pitted against a destroyer, he had to be well aware that the destroyer had eight unexpended torpedoes, while his ship was inadequately armored. Also, British 8-inch shells consistently detonated while German shells were notoriously unreliable. 

To compound Kummetz’s dilemma, Admiral Burnett’s cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica appeared seemingly out of nowhere.  The Sheffield opened fire first, straddling Hipper with several salvos before getting her range and then scoring a damaging hit. Kummetz attempted to swing around and make smoke but before he could do so Hipper took two more hits. Again immobilized by Hitler’s restrictive orders, he decided he was already in deep trouble for taking what the Führer would consider an unacceptable risk, so he ordered a cease fire and a speedy withdrawal of all units. But Burnett suffered no such reluctance to engage.  At 1133, the German destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen mistook  the Sheffield and the Jamaica for the Hipper and Lützow and attempted to link up with them. Before the German commanders could realize their error, every gun on the two British cruisers opened up.

Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt   Z4 Richard Beitzen

Being closer in, the Friedrich Eckholdt was hit directly amidships and sunk within less than two minutes. The Richard Beitzen escaped unharmed. This distraction had taken the British cruisers to the north of the convoy and caused them to lose contact with the Hipper which was now hustling westward to join the Lützow . Meanwhile, Captain Stänge aboard the Lützow identified several possible targets in the convoy through the mist and smoke. The nearest was three miles away and the farthest seven. Though the range of his guns was 15 miles he fired 87 11-inch and 75 6-inch rounds without scoring a direct hit. Stänge had missed the sort of opportunity seldom presented to a naval commander. 

Click here to see an animated map of the second phase of the Battle of the Barents Sea

Ironically, Admiral Kummetz’s  Operation Rainbow tactic had worked. The Hipper had served as a decoy to attract the escorts and the convoy had then turned southward directly into the path of the pocket battleship Lützow , just as expected. But both German heavyweights were timidly fought, although it must be admitted that they had been hampered by periods of poor visibility. As he retreated toward the naval base at Altenfjord, Stänge noted sadly in his war diary, “As we withdrew from the battle scene, it was hard to escape the feeling that, even though the situation appeared to be in our favor, we were unable to get at the convoy and scored no successes whatsoever.”

At his Wolfsschanze headquarters, Hitler impatiently awaited news of Operation Rainbow. At 1147, the U-354 sent an ambiguous message reporting great success. Kummetz observed radio silence on his way back to Altenfjord, but after he anchored a series of operational mishaps prevented his report from being transmitted until late the following afternoon. By that time, Hitler had learned the news gleefully reported by the BBC. Ignoring the fact that his own contradictory orders were largely to blame for the timorous behavior of his commanders, he excoriated the blameless Admiral Krancke who had the misfortune to be the navy’s representative at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht Hauptquartier (the rough equivalent of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff). The failure of the operation was bad in itself, but Hitler interpreted the tardy report as an insubordinate unwillingness to report bad news.

Großadmiral Raeder, who by this time knew what awaited him, was summoned to OKW headquarters, and Hitler’s tirade began anew. With veins standing out on his neck he began a peroration which lasted nearly an hour and a half. This operation only confirmed what he had instinctively felt all along--that the surface fleet was completely useless and that it was poorly staffed and ineptly commanded. The three battleships Tirpitz , Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien , the two pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow , the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau , the heavy cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen , and the light cruisers Emden , Köln , Leipzig , and Nürnberg would all be decommissioned and summarily scrapped. To the extent possible their guns would be converted to land use. Henceforth, the largest navy ship would be a destroyer and all emphasis would be on the u-boat fleet. Raeder was ordered to come back with a plan of implementation.

Raeder couldn’t believe that Hitler was serious--that the fleet he had assembled through much hard work and sacrifice would simply be sent to the scrap heap. So the plan he came back with was one last hurrah for the German fleet. In it he pointed out that Hitler’s order would free up only about 300 officers and 8,500 rated sailors. The resulting scrap steel would meet only one-twentieth of Germany’s requirement for one month. It would also divert 7,000 workers urgently needed elsewhere. Furthermore, the effect of all this on the submarine fleet would be minimal. For example, even if all the steel were to be used in building u-boats, only seven new boats could be built per month. And if the guns were to be used as coastal batteries, the first would not be ready for at least a year. In addition, most of the men made available would be unsuited to u-boat service. Therefore, Raeder argued, “I am convinced that the smaller nucleus fleet of destroyers would be unable to accomplish the task assigned to it. The decommissioning of our major assets will hand the enemy a substantial victory at no cost and will be seen by them as a lack of resolve.”

Hitler would have none of it. At this point, Göring, who was always eager to protect the Luftwaffe’s interests at the expense of the other armed services pointed out that it required a large complement of fighters to shield the ships from enemy attack while they swung uselessly at their anchors in Norwegian fjords. And  these planes were urgently needed on the eastern front. Raeder soon recognized that Hitler was not amenable to reason and in private conference reluctantly submitted his resignation. On 30 January 1943 he gave up his command and was given an honorary job as inspector-general.

Although the ambitious Admiral Dönitz was among the most junior admirals in the navy, he was the commander of the u-boat force, so it was no surprise to anyone that he was named Raeder’s successor. Like some U.S. Air Force generals who have argued that wars can be won entirely by air warfare, Dönitz had argued that u-boats could win the war against the Allies. But it took no more than a few months before he was himself arguing that the Tirpitz and the Scharnhorst should be retained. Hitler had a great deal of confidence in Dönitz because his u-boats were producing results, and the two ships were reprieved. Later, the rest of the capital ships were spared as well, ignominiously declared “obsolete”.  Ironically,  the next time Scharnhorst sailed, it would be to attack a convoy escorted by the Onslow , the Orwell , the Sheffield , the Jamaica and the battleship Duke of York Admiral Burnett’s cruisers first sighted the Scharnhorst and in a completely one-sided battle she was sunk by the Duke of York .

Against his own ingrained convictions, Hitler had allowed himself twenty years before to become convinced that a German surface navy could checkmate the power of the British high seas fleet. But for his own lack of resolve, he might have succeeded.

The Battle Line

German Naval Forces

Admiral Kübler, Commander, Northern Sector
Vice Admiral Kummetz, Commander Task Force

“Lützow” - Pocket Battleship:     Deutschland Tab
“Hipper” - Heavy Cruiser (Damaged):     Admiral Hipper Thumb
“Friedrich Eckholdt” - Destroyer (Sunk):     Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt Thumb
“Richard Beitzen” - Destroyer:     Z4 Richard Beitzen Thumb
Z-29 - Destroyer:     Z29 Thumb
Z-30 - Destroyer:     Z30 Thumb
Z-31 - Destroyer:     Z31 Thumb

British Naval Forces

Admiral Tovey, C-in-C, Home Fleet
Rear Admiral R. L. Burnett, Cruiser Command
Capt. R. St.V. Sherbrooke, Destroyer Command

“Sheffield” - Light Cruiser:     
“Jamaica” - Light Cruiser:     
“Onslow” (flag) - Destroyer (Damaged):     
“Obedient” - Destroyer:     
“Obdurate” - Destroyer:    
“Orwell” - Destroyer:    
“Oribi” - Destroyer:  
“Achates” - Destroyer (Sunk)
“Northern Gem” - Armed Trawler
“Vizalma” - Armed Trawler
“Hyderabad” - Corvette
“Rhododendron” - Corvette
“Bramble” -  Minesweeper (Sunk)