ROYAL NAVY ENDS THREAT TO ARCTIC CONVOYS

London, England · December 26, 1943

The Scharnhorst was a German capital ship, variously described as a battle­ship and battle­cruiser of the Ger­man Kriegs­marine. Launched in 1936 and com­pleted in 1939—her nine-gun, triple turrets the pride of the Kriegs­marine—the 31,500‑ton ship was sister ship to the Gneise­nau. During much of the early part of the war, the Scharn­horst and the Gneise­nau operated in tan­dem, often making sorties into the Atlan­tic to raid British mer­chant shipping in a manner remi­nis­cent of the Ger­man “pocket battle­ship” Admiral Graf Spee, which had been scuttled by her cap­tain off the South Ameri­can port of Monte­video on Decem­ber 17, 1939 (Battle of the Atlan­tic). Both Scharn­horst and Gneise­nau were called upon to assist in the Ger­man inva­sion of Nor­way in April 1940, and both war­ships were involved in the action that sank the Brit­ish air­craft carrier HMS Glo­rious and its two escorting de­stroyers later that year, on June 8, 1940, off the Nor­wegian port of Nar­vik. In an air raid on the Ger­man Baltic port of Kiel on Febru­ary 26–27, 1942, the RAF heavily damaged the Gneise­nau, and the ship was decom­mis­sioned in July 1942. On this date in 1943, in the Euro­pean theater’s last clas­sic naval duel between capi­tal ships, the Scharn­horst was sunk in severe weather off Nor­way’s North Cape while attempting to inter­cept a con­voy of 19 cargo vessels bound for Mur­mansk, one of two ports in the Soviet Union’s extreme north­west to which the Allies dis­patched war mate­riel, heavy equip­ment, and food used to fight Axis armies on what was called the East­ern Front. (The other Soviet port was Arch­angel.) The unes­corted Scharn­horst was first hit by four tor­pedoes launched by British and Royal Nor­wegian de­stroyers. Battered and crippled, un­able to flee, the Scharn­horst was then sub­jected to a deluge of radar-assisted fire control shells and more tor­pedoes (in all 55 tor­pe­does, 11 of which hit their mark, and 2,195 shells) by the British battle­ship Duke of York, three crui­sers, and six de­stroyers. With­in minutes, the ship cap­sized and sank stern first, her pro­pel­lers still spin­ning, leaving only 36 sur­vi­vors of the 1,900‑man crew to be plucked from the fri­gid waters. The Scharn­horst’s destruc­tion in the Battle of North Cape (Decem­ber 26, 1943) effectively ended German efforts to interdict Russia-bound Arctic convoys.





Arctic Convoys, 1941–1945, and Sinking the Scharnhorst

German battleship "Scharnhorst" at sea, 1939 "Duke of York" gunners, January 1, 1944

Left: The loss of the German battleship Scharn­horst demon­strated the vital impor­tance of radar in modern naval war­fare for locating and de­stroying enemy war­ships. While the Scharn­horst should have been able to out­gun all of her oppo­nents except the Royal Navy’s battle­ship Duke of York, the early loss of the Scharn­horst’s radar-assisted fire con­trol, com­bined with the problem of incle­ment weather, left her at a dis­tinct dis­ad­van­tage. In the after­math of the Battle of North Cape, as the sea encounter was called, Admiral Karl Doenitz of the Kriegs­marine remarked, “Surface ships are no longer able to fight with­out effec­tive radar equip­ment.” This led Doenitz to a shift in empha­sis from sur­face raiders to U‑boats. Some heavy Ger­man ships were physi­cally dismantled and their weapons used in coastal fortifications.

Right: Gun crews of HMS Duke of York under the ship’s 14‑in guns at Scapa Flow, Scot­land, January 1, 1944, after sinking the Scharn­horst on Decem­ber 26, 1943. Crew mem­bers are wearing anti-flash gear, a per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment con­sisting of a fire-resistant hood and fire-resistant gloves. In October 2000 the heavily damaged wreck of the Scharn­horst was found 66 miles north-northeast of North Cape, some 950 ft deep and upside down.

Arctic convoy duty, December 1941 Artic convoy monument, Murmansk

Left: Twilight view from the cruiser HMS Shef­field sailing on con­voy duty through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, Decem­ber 1941. In the back­ground are mer­chant ships of the con­voy. Between August 1941 and May 1945, 78 ocean-going con­voys, consisting of roughly 1,400 mer­chant ships, delivered essen­tial sup­plies to the Soviet Union under the U.S. Lend-Lease program, escorted by British, Canadian, and U.S. Navy warships.

Right: Monument to the participants of the Arctic con­voys to Mur­mansk. Eighty-five mer­chant vessels and 16 Royal Navy war­ships were lost to the Krieg­marine’s sur­face ships and sub­ma­rines, as well as to a large num­ber of Ger­man air­craft. The con­voys demon­strated the Allies’ com­mit­ment to helping the Soviet Union during the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Soviets called their war against the Axis. Com­bating the Arctic con­voys tied up a sub­stan­tial part of Ger­many’s Kriegs­marine and Luft­waffe, not to men­tion tying up British resources that could have been used to deter the Japa­nese Navy in the Indian Ocean and the waters off South­east Asia. Toward the end of the war the mili­tary impor­tance of sup­plies delivered by Arctic con­voys was likely sym­bolic, as fighting on the East­ern Front had reached a turning point in favor of the Soviet Union.

End of the Scharnhorst, December 26, 1943