The Battle of North Cape: 1943

The Battle of North Cape and HMS Belfast

By Richard Johnstone-Bryden. Reprinted with permission of the editor, Broadsheet, 2003.

Since 1971 the heavy (sic) cruiser HMS Belfast has been preserved in the Pool of London as the last of the big gun armoured ships to have served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Sixty years ago she played an important role in the destruction of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst. When the Arctic convoys to Russia resumed in November 1943, Scharnhorst posed a major threat to the safe passage of these vital supplies.  

The winter ice forced the convoys to steam to the south of Bear Island, bringing them within easy striking range of the battlecruiser operating from her base in Altenfiord. To counter this threat the Home Fleet reinforced the convoys’ destroyer escort as it passed within the vicinity of Bear Island with close support from a force of cruisers and distant cover provided by a battleship.

Initially, the German Naval War Staff decided against using Scharnhorst to attack these convoys because they feared that the Royal Navy’s more effective radar could prove decisive in an engagement during the Arctic winter’s long hours of darkness. However, by late December, with the successful passage of three eastbound and two westbound convoys, political considerations became more pressing as the C-in-C of the German Navy, FADM Doenitz, needed to prove the continued importance of Scharnhorst to a sceptical Hitler.

Scharnhorst sorties

To do this Doenitz decided to deploy the battlecruiser against the next Arctic convoy. Wearing the flag of VADM Robert Burnett, HMS Belfast headed the cruisers of Force One, while Force Two was under the personal command of the C-in-C Home Fleet ADML Sir Bruce Fraser in Duke of York.

Duke of YorkBelfast

Duke of York (left) was C-in-C Home Fleet’s flagship, while Belfast wore the flag of VADM Robert Burnett. HMS Belfast is classified as a Town class light cruiser, first commissioned in August 1939. She displaced 11,553 tons from a 187 x 21 x 6 metres (613.5 x 69 x 19.75 feet) hull. Four boilers and four turbines delivered 80,000 SHP and permitted a maximum speed of 32 knots. A complement of 750 to 850 served the armament of 12 x 15.2 cm (6-inch), eight 101.6 mm (4-inch), four x 6- or 8-barrrell pom-pom mounts, eight 0.5 inch guns and two triple 533 mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes. The ship was fitted to carry two Supermarine Walrus aircraft. Twelve 40mm Bofors replaced the pom-poms in 1959.

Having covered the east and west bound convoys, in the first half of December 1943 Force One stopped at Kola Inlet to take on fuel while Force Two called in at Akureyri. Following their brief stopovers both forces sailed on 23 December to cover the next pair of convoys (OW55B and RA55A). JW55B left Loch Ewe on 20 December and was soon detected by the Germans who began to shadow it with aircraft and U-Boats. Believing that the convoy’s protection would not be reinforced by a British battleship the German Naval War Staff issued orders to RADM Erich Bey in Scharnhorst on 25 December.

North Cape

The battlecruiser was to leave her Norwegian base and intercept the convoy off North Cape at first light the following morning. In the event of an enemy capital ship appearing Scharnhorst was to withdraw immediately. Admiral Fraser received confirmation of Scharnhorst‘s departure from the Admiralty at 0339 on 26 December. The constant surveillance of JW55B by the Germans led ADML Fraser to believe that Scharnhorst would attack this convoy rather than the westbound convoy.

North Cape

Scharnhorst sorties 26 December 1943.

By 0400 JW55B was 50 miles south of Bear Island while Force One was 150 miles to the east of JW55B and Force 2 was 350 miles to the south west. To frustrate VADM Bey’s efforts in locating the convoy ADML Fraser diverted JW55B to the north and ordered VADM Burnett’s cruisers to close the convoy for mutual support. ADML Fraser hoped this would buy him valuable time to close in with Duke of York and bring Scharnhorst to action.

Scharnhorst

The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst commissioned 7 January 1939. Displacing 38,430 tonnes, her dimensions were 231 x 30 x 9.9 metres (758 x 98 x 32.5 feet). Armament included 9 x 29 cm (11 inch), 12 x 15 cm (6 inch), 14 x 10.5 cm (4 inch), 17 x 37 mm and 38 x 20 mm guns and 6 x 53.3 cm (21 inch) torpedo tubes.The ship was equipped to carry 1968 crew and three Arado ar 196 seaplanes. Propulsion from 12 boilers and three Brown-Boveri turbines  delivered 160,000 hp and drove the ship at up to 32 knots.


Duke of York

Duke of York

Duke of York commissioned 4 November 1941. Displacing 45,360 tons, the British battleship measured 227 x 31.4 x 10.5 metres (740 x 103 x 34.5 feet). She carried 10 x 35 cm (14 inch), 16 x 13 cm (6 inch),  32 x 2pdr AA, 10 x 40 mm Bofors and (later) 65 x 20 mm Oerlikon guns. The propulsion plant included eight Admiralty three-drum boilers and four Parsons geared turbines that drove the ship at 29.5 knots. Her crew is listed as 1422 and the ship could carry four Supermarine Walrus aircraft.

As the opposing forces steamed towards JW55B Belfast made first contact with Scharnhorst at 0840 when her radar placed the battlecruiser between the convoy and Force One.

(Ed.Note: some authorities claim Norfolk detected Scharnhorst at 0830.)

As the gap continued to close Sheffield caught sight of Scharnhorst at 0921 and three minutes later Belfast opened fire with starshell prior to Admiral Burnett ordering his cruisers to engage with their main armament.

Scharnhorst evades

In the ensuing brief engagement Norfolk scored one hit before the battlecruiser managed to use her greater speed to open up the range again and attempt to attack the convoy from the north. Realising RADM Bey’s intentions, VADM Burnett turned his cruisers to keep them between Scharnhorst and JW55B but lost radar contact with the enemy in the process.

VADM Burnett’s instincts were proved correct when Belfast regained radar contact at 1205. Sheffield once more established visual contact at 1221 and the cruisers immediately opened fire while the destroyers manoeuvred into position to launch a torpedo strike which was frustrated by the weather conditions and Scharnhorst‘s rapid retirement. Although the cruisers claimed several hits, Scharnhorst inflicted serious damage on Norfolk with two direct hits on X turret and the disabling of her radar. As RADM Bey withdrew from his encounter with VADM Burnett’s cruisers he decided to abort his plans and return to Norway. This placed her on a favourable intercept course with Force Two, enabling VADM Burnett to shadow the battlecruiser and report her movements to ADML Fraser.

During the battle, Scharnhorst was targeted by no fewer than 55 torpedoes, 11 of which probably found their mark. More than 2000 shells were fired at her: 446 x 356 mm (14-inch) from Duke of York, 161 x 203 mm (8-inch) from Norfolk, 874 x 152 mm (6-inch) from Jamaica, Sheffield and Belfast, 686 x 133 mm (5.2-inch) from Duke of York and 126 x 120 mm (4.7-inch) from the destroyers.

As the two groups continued to converge, Scharnhorst was detected by Duke of York‘s radar at 1617 at a range of 45,500 yards. Half an hour later Belfast opened the third engagement with starshell, which failed to illuminate the target because of the range. However, Duke of York‘s starshell proved more successful a minute later, enabling her to open fire with her main armament at 1650. The battleship’s presence came as a severe shock to those onboard Scharnhorst who had failed to detect Duke of York‘s approach by radar. Scharnhorst responded by heading north and then east, pursued by Force Two.

To prevent her escape to the north Belfast and Norfolk opened fire until Scharnhorst was out of range at 1712. Pursued by the British warships RADM Bey headed east in a final attempt to outrun his hunters. By 1742 he had opened up the gap to 18,000 yards, placing her beyond the range of the cruisers’ guns.

However, the two capital ships continued to exchange fire, with Duke of York scoring a direct hit at 1820, leading to a drop in the speed of her opponent. Seizing their opportunity, Force Two’s destroyers launched a torpedo attack resulting in three direct hits, including one that hit a boiler room and damaged a shaft to further reduce the battlecruiser’s speed to 22 knots.

These hits proved decisive because they enabled ADML Fraser to significantly reduce the gap and re-engage Scharnhorst with Duke of York and Jamaica at 1901. They immediately scored direct hits and the effects of their pounding were quickly evident as a series of fires and explosions took hold onboard the doomed battlecruiser, while her speed continued to drop from 20 to five knots.

Intermittent return of fire

Scharnhorst‘s main armament only provided an intermittent return of fire, with A turret out of action and U turret severely damaged. At 1915 Belfast rejoined the action to score a further two hits, before being ordered, along with Jamaica, to sink the almost stationary Scharnhorst with torpedoes.

After their first attack the two cruisers were joined by the four destroyers attached to Force One, which launched a further assault before Jamaica delivered her second strike at 1937. Seven of these torpedoes fatally wounded the battlecruiser and by the time Belfast approached to make her second attack at 1948 Scharnhorst had sunk. Despite an extensive search by Belfast, Norfolk and the destroyers only 36 sailors from her ship’s company of 1,970 men were rescued.

The last RN battleship surface action

Although the damaged Tirpitz remained as a potentially serious threat for the Royal Navy, the destruction of Scharnhorst removed the biggest immediate threat to the Arctic convoys. The event had added significance because it was the final occasion that a Royal Navy battleship engaged another capital ship.

Following Belfast‘s participation in the battle of North Cape she was used in support of the D- Day landings, the Korean War and the independence of Tanzania before finally paying off in August 1963. Plans to preserve Belfast were first mooted in 1967 and eventually came to fruition on 21 October 1971 when she was opened to the public in the Pool of London.