Salmon and Gluckstein Revisited
Part Five

By Kristin Ann High
September 2019

Click here for Part Four.

North Cape

Unternehmen Paderborn was the German operation which finally brought Scharnhorst from Germany to Northern Norway. From March 1943, then, Hitler at last had his powerful surface naval force in Norway, albeit a year late, and now constituted more to interdict the convoy routes between Great Britain and the Soviet Union than to protect Norway from invasion.

For the new ObdK, Großeradmiral Karl Dönitz [37], the situation in Norway was favourable, at least as far as interdicting the GB–USSR convoys was concerned. When Scharnhorst reached Bogenbucht, near Narvik, on 11th to 12th March 1943, the most powerful concentration of German surface naval strength of the Second World War was accomplished—at least to appearances. With Scharnhorst were the battleship Tirptiz, the armoured cruiser Lützow, the light cruiser Nürnberg, the destroyers Friedrich Ihn, Erich Steinbrinck, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Paul Jacobi, Karl Galster, and Z.28, and the torpedo boats Greif, Jaguar, T.16, T.20, and T.21. Between 22nd and 24th March, the heavy ships moved north to Altenfjord astride the most vulnerable portion of the Arctic convoys.

The Allies reacted quickly to this formidable force. The Admiralty re-established warship patrols in the Iceland–Faröes Gap and the Denmark Strait, despatched cruisers to Seidisfjordur and Anson to Hvalfjordur, put Furious and Indomitable on notice for operations from the Clyde, and cast about for more ships. Unfortunately, there simply were no more to be had. The Battle of the Atlantic was raging on both hands in the spring and summer of 1943, and one of the most important innovations, Support Groups which could move out to reinforce a convoy under attack, was draining destroyers even from the Home Fleet.

Unwilling to risk his capital ships in Arctic waters, and unable to sustain losses in merchant ships and escort craft without such cover, Tovey halted the GB–USSR convoys in the early summer of 1943. Even the arrival of the American Task Force 22 did not suffice to stiffen the British C-in-C.

By the time Scharnhorst finally sortied against Allied shipping again, in December of 1943, all that remained of the powerful force gathered in Norwegian waters was Scharnhorst herself and five destroyers: Nürnberg in May, and Lützow in September, had returned to Germany, while the perennially unlucky Tirpitz had been severely damaged by British midget submarines in September. The Luftwaffe had also reduced operations, and U-Boats continued to be employed sparingly in Arctic waters.

Still, Scharnhorst was certainly the most respected German surface warship, and despite much adversity, she remained in fighting condition, her crew in good spirits.

Reconnaisance photo of Kiel, Germany, with battleship Scharnhorst (highlighted) in for repairs.

The odds against Scharnhorst, however, were long. The zealously prudent Tovey had been replaced by Vice Admiral Sir Bruce Austin Fraser, KCB, KBE, RN, as C-in-C Home Fleet, flying his flag in Duke of York. Fraser benefitted not only from the new-construction warships swinging at anchor in Scapa Flow, and at Hvalfjordur, Akureyri, and Seidisfjord, in Iceland, but from a superb staff and harmonious relations with the Admiralty, which ensured not only access to “Ultra” but a willingness to trust the C-in-C with using it.

Another blow to Scharnhorst was timing. Admiral Oscar Kummetz, Befehlshaber der Kampfgruppe Norway, and arguably the only surface warfare flag officer left in the Kriegsmarine below the level of the ObdK himself with any offensive spirit worth noting, was away on leave. In his place was Konteradmiral Erich Bey, the Führer der Zerstörer, an officer with no experience of heavy ships.

Of course Bey had experience working with heavy ships as FdZ, and in that rôle he performed superbly. As several writers on North Cape have noted, many a successful admiral came from a background in destroyers to command battle fleets, including Cunningham and Burke. The difficulty lies not in Bey's background, but in his immediate experience; he had never commanded heavy ships before, and he had commanded nothing other than destroyers in flotilla or squadron operations. The reactions of a destroyer to helm and throttle are a world apart from those of a battlecruiser. Moreover, the rôle of the FdZ is far less complex than that of battle fleet—or battle group—commander.

Bey had no confidence in the operation, to the point that, had he been in a navy more inclined to offensive action, he might have been relieved, and Kummetz ordered North post haste. As it was, his superiors at Kiel and in Berlin were as unenthusiastic as he. Admiral Otto Schniewind, C-In-C, Naval Command North [37], tried to postpone the operation, then to delay the operation, then to recast it as a destroyer attack "supported" by Scharnhorst; this last was also Bey's preference, and one cannot help noting that Bey and his immediate command superior urged altering the operation to a destroyer action. Dönitz, however, was having none of it—the operation would go as planned, with Bey as commander of the Kampfgruppe.

Preparing the Sortie

Unternehmen Ostfront, as Scharnhorst's attack on a GB–USSR convoy was code named, was activated by Dönitz for convoy JW.55B, the order to execute setting 1700 hours, 25th December as the start time. By then, Fraser had already known that Scharnhorst was likely to sortie for two days, and had disposed his heavy ships accordingly.

Although the terrible weather prohibited air reconnaissance, Bey was well informed of the convoy's course, composition, and speed, by submarines stalking it. Like JW.51B a year earlier, JW.55B was proving a bear to handle, complicating the movement of escorts and covering forces. Fraser, however, employed wireless to overcome the unwieldiness of JW.55B, the difficulties of handling two separate covering forces, as well as ordering the fleet destroyer escort from RA.55A drawn off to reinforce JW.55B, and effecting their juncture.

The Scharnhorst Kampfgruppe [38] comprised the battlecruiser herself and five destroyers, although three minesweepers escorted her clear of the anchorage at Altenfjord. The destroyers were the 4th Flotilla, Z.29, Z.30, Z.33, Z.34, and Z.38, all Type 1936A ships designed to mount five 5.9"/55-calibre C.36 main battery rifles. At least the three Type 1936A Mob ships—Z.33, Z.34, and Z.38—had been so fitted by the time of North Cape, and the heavy twin-rifle mount forward made the ships top heavy, bow-heavy, and even wetter forward than other Type 1936A ships. Bey had not got far along before he was signaling that his destroyers were barely able to steer in the weather, but the ObdK rebuked him, and freed him to detach the destroyers and operate as a commerce raider against the convoy if he felt it necessary.

Against these six ships were arrayed seventeen warships destroyers besides the actual close escort of the convoy—two Great War-era escort destroyers, Wrestler and Whitehall, two “Flower”-class corvettes, Honeysuckle and Oxlip, and a “Halcyon”-class minesweeper, Gleaner. Eight fleet destroyers made up the reinforced fleet escort for JW.55B, Scourge, Onslow, Orwell, and Onslaught, from the original escort, with the 36th Division of Musketeer, Matchless, Opportune, and Virago, drawn from RA.55A as reinforcement.

Two covering forces were converging on Scharnhorst and her five destroyers. Force “1” comprised the “County”-class 8-inch cruiser NorfolkBismarck's bane—and two “Town”-class 6-inch cruisers, Belfast and Sheffield, the whole commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Robert Lindsay Burnett, CB, OBE, DSO, RN, flying his flag in Belfast.
Force “2” comprised the “KGV”-class battleship Duke of York, the “Colony”-class 6-inch cruiser Jamaica, and four “S”-class fleet destroyers, Scorpion, Savage, Saumarez, and the Norwegian Stord. Force "2" was commanded by Admiral Fraser in person, flying his flag from Duke of York.

Bey mismanaged his destroyers, sending them ahead to scout beyond visual signaling range, despite the difficulties the German ships were all having with wireless, but the officer who was acting in his stead as FdZ—the senior captain of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, Kapitän-zur-See Rolf Johannesson—did Bey no favours, failing to signal the position of his ships, failing to obey orders to close the convoy, and failing to race towards the sounds and flashes of battle when they were observed. As a result, the five destroyers played no part in the action.

On the other hand, Bey and Scharnhorst's OC, Kapitän-zur-See Fritz Hintze, managed the interception of JW.55B nicely, slicing between Burnett's Force “2” and the convoy before Burnett's cruisers could pick up the German battlecruiser on RDF. But at 0834 hours, Norfolk had a steady contact bearing 280° at 33,000 yards range. At 0840 hours Belfast made RDF contact bearing 295° at 35,000 yards, and at 0850 hours Sheffield picked up Scharnhorst on 278° at 30,500 yards. Burnett ordered Force “1” to close JW.55B, angling to put his cruisers between Scharnhorst and the convoy.

At 0921 hours 26th December 1943, Sheffield sighted Scharnhorst at 13,000 yards, and at 0924 Belfast opened fire with starshell. Scharnhorst was taken completely by surprise, despite knowing she was heading into a convoy which was bound to have escorts. Certainly Johannesson's destroyers would have been of help here, but Bey was a also a victim of the general German fear of employing RDF for surface and air warning [39]. In any event, attempts by Belfast and Norfolk to illuminate Scharnhorst failed, and at 0930 Burnett ordered Norfolk to open fire, with the range down to 9,800 yards.

Norfolk fired six salvos in the few minutes the initial skirmish lasted, and scored two hits with her 8"/50-calibre main battery rifles. One knocked out the foreward port FlaK director and also the foreward Surface Search RDF. The second hit struck between a portside 5.9-inch secondary turret and the torpedo tubes, penetrated the deck, but failed to explode, winding up in a petty officer's mess. Before either Sheffield or Belfast could get clear of Norfolk, Scharnhorst had turned away and increased speed to 30 knots. Scharnhorst's normal flank speed was roughly equal to Norfolk's, and slightly less than the 6-inch cruisers, but in the prevailing weather, Force “1's” cruisers could make no more than 24 knots at full power, while Scharnhorst could make nearly her full speed—and after nine months in Norway, it may well have been her best speed—thanks to her "Atlantic Bow".

Burnett brought Force “1” back around and moved up to cover the convoy, a controversial decision both then and later. For a Royal Navy OC in action against an enemy to break off that action was very nearly a mortal sin. For all that, it was clearly the correct decision in the circumstance, and one Fraser accepted without query or comment when Burnett signaled him that he had lost contact with Scharnhorst at 1035 hours.

For the space of a few hours, Scharnhorst's fate hung in the balance. Sometime around 1135 hours a German reconnaissance aircraft wirelessed a sighting report of Force “2,” including that the enemy surface force included a heavy ship, but as the sighting was made with airborne RDF, the already heavy bias against air reconnaissance was made worse; the reference to a “heavy ship” was deleted from the sighting report, which in any event took a rather long time to reach Bey. Bey was nevertheless warned of a heavy covering force 150 miles away. As the Germans were constantly fearful lest a heavy British force get between them and their base, it would seem typical German behaviour to up stakes and leg it for home.

But Bey had gotten himself into a tight corner by his opposition to the sortie, and especially by trying to abort the operation after it was under way—alleging that he had doubts about his destroyers' usefulness in the heavy seas. Dönitz's rebuke had explicitly mentioned the soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front and the Kriegsmarine's duty to aid them, and he had stated that the attack must not end in stalemate; Bey was to take Scharnhorst in alone, "like a commerce raider," if necessary. While the presence of a British or American battleship would have allowed Bey to break off, the vague threat of a "heavy covering force" was no longer sufficient to countermand the direct and specific orders of the ObdK. Hintze worked Scharnhorst around to the north to make another assault on the convoy, while Fraser in Force “2” reinforced Burnett with the 36th Destroyer Division (Musketeer, Matchless, Opportune, and Virago).

Fraser was also worried lest Scharnhorst break out to the west, into the Atlantic sea lanes. He had actually ordered Force “2” about to cover that possibility when Burnett's Force “1” regained contact at 1210 hours.

Refusing RDF

Burnett had stood north at best speed after breaking off the first skirmish, and after Franser ordered JW.55B to sail even further north, Force “1” was more or less where Bey expected the convoy to be. At 1210 hours, close on three hours after Bey broke away from the first skirmish, Sheffield picked up Scharnhorst by RDF at just over 24,000 yards range, bearing 240°. Once more Burnett altered course to keep his cruisers between Scharnhorst and the convoy. At 1221 hours, with the range at 11,000 yards, Burnett gave the order to fire, Belfast firing first with starshell and then her main battery. Sheffield and Norfolk followed quickly. Once again, Bey had been taken by surprise, and this time there can be little excuse made for his failure to employ Scharnhorst's RDF (the after set was undamaged and functional).

The second engagement lasted twenty-five minutes before Bey had had enough and legged it. As was so often the case with the Kriegsmarine, Bey faltered while the flagship's crew and captain did not. Scharnhorst was dealing rather handily with Force “1,” first concentrating on Sheffield before switching to the more dangerous Norfolk, which was also firing without flashless powder—her gunfire thus made as good a target for German rangefinding optics in 1943 as the Grand Fleet's had in 1914. Norfolk took an 11-inch APC shell in “X” turret that put it out of action and started a huge fire; “X” turret's main magazine was flooded "as a precaution" - quite probably against impending oblivion.

A second 11-inch APC shell struck amidships and penetrated the deck before exploding and starting another fire. The two hits put one main battery turret and all Norfolk's RDF out of action, but Norfolk's speed was unaffected—she maintained 24 knots.

Sheffield had been straddled early, and splinters had damaged her Type 284 Main Battery DCT RDF, but she too kept up her speed.

Bey ordered the turn away at 4,000 yards range. Most naval historians consider his decision as sensible, given the danger of closing on seven enemy ships equipped with torpedoes, but Dönitz certainly did not see it that way. Further, it seems unlikely that a Royal Navy or United States Navy rear admiral, given such imperatively offensive orders personally signaled by the C-in-C, would have turned his ship away when she was certainly capable of fighting clear of the cruisers.

The torpedo threat was certainly quite valid, but here was one area where Bey's light ship experience ought to have stood him in good stead; the seas were mountainous, with snow and sleet squalls making visibility difficult, and Bey's approach combined with Burnett's interception made any torpedo attack very difficult. What is perhaps most telling against Bey is that his own destroyers were wandering around the periphery of both battle and convoy, to no purpose.

When Bey ordered Scharnhorst about the second time, her fighting capacity was undiminished—although the British insisted they scored hits during the second engagement as well—and she was still making 28 to 30 knots. Force “1” ceased fire at 1241. Burnett shadowed Scharnhorst at just beyond visual range, but Bey was aware of the trailing British cruisers even without using his own RDF—still—as Scharnhorst had excellent detectors. Bey was content to make 28 knots on course 155°, which would bring him into Altenfjord, at that point 240 nm distant, by 0000 hours. All the while, Fraser in Force “2” was closing the range, cutting in between Scharnhorst and her anchorage.

What Bey thought of the fact that Force “1” had broken away from the convoy to shadow him, is nowhere recorded. He continued to receive reconnaissance reports on Force “1,” and he knew already that there was another "heavy covering force" nearby. The prudent action would be to alter course to the southwest and order up full power—Scharnhorst could make 30 knots against those seas, while Burnett's cruisers could make no better than 24 knots and his destroyers somewhat better, though nothing like 30 knots. Given his pessimism in general, and his deep aversion to the sortie in specific, it remains something of a signal question why he was content to steam along with three cruisers and four destroyers pacing him.

At 1603 hours fire flared up in Norfolk again, and she fell off. Seven minutes later Sheffield stripped a shaft bearing, dropping her speed to 8 knots; she too fell away. At this point, Bey was facing one 6-inch cruiser and four destroyers. He had better main battery armament, his armour protection was proof against 6-inch fire, and his speed in the seas running was superior to all the British ships. However mad he may have thought Burnett to be for following Scharnhorst towards Altenfjord, here was a chance to turn and pounce upon the British, as his orders clearly compelled him to do. Bey did nothing, and Burnett in Belfast continued to shadow just beyond visual range.

What seems most probable is that Bey refused to employ his aft RDF, and so did not know that his enemy was down to one cruiser and four destroyers, but why Bey refused to employ the aft set remains a mystery—certainly the British knew where he was, as they were shadowing Scharnhorst using their own RDF. The German FuMo.27 RDF could reliably detect ships at 24,000 yards (about 12 nm), and even with the weather, it would have been able to track the shadowing British cruisers.

Gnesenau and Scharnhorst in the English Channel, seen from Prinz Eugen.

The End

At 1647 hours, 26th December 1943, Bey's bill as Kampfgruppe commander came due, when Scharnhorst was suddenly flooded by star shells fired from Duke of York's 5.25" secondary battery. At that moment, Scharnhorst was making 28 knots, her turrets trained fore and aft—Bey had been surprised for the third time that day. At 1651 hours Duke of York had the range, and she fired her first full broadside. It was a rare moment for a “KGV,” as all ten rifles fired. Duke of York's broadside straddled Scharnhorst, with one 15-inch APC shell striking “Anton” turret and putting it out of action. At 1652 hours Jamaica opened fire, and at 1657 Belfast and Norfolk joined in.

Reduced to six rifles in two turrets—one foreward and one aft—Scharnhorst's initial replies went over, but British accounts make clear that she soon got the range on Duke of York. And despite the overwhelming odds, Scharnhorst looked to make good her escape, despite being caught unawares by a Royal Navy battleship. By 1700 hours Scharnhorst came around to course 111° and put on all the speed she had—it was enough, almost. At 1742 the range was 18,000 yards, far beyond visual targeting in the weather. Although Force “2's” destoyers were within 12,000 yards at 1800 hours, they were making little or no headway against Scharnhorst, and drawing away from Duke of York and the cruisers.

Duke of York had an excellent RDF gunnery fit, and she had been hitting Scharnhorst even at 14,000 yards, one of her shells knocking out “Bruno” turret. Scharnhorst ceased firing from “Caesar” turret, the only one still in action, at 1820 hours. Moments later, a 14-inch APC shell struck Scharnhorst on the starboard side, penetrated the main belt, and apparently wrecked No. 1 boiler room. Scharnhorst slowed to 8 knots, before picking up speed to 10 knots, and then climbing back to 22 knots, a remarkable testament to Scharnhorst's engine room crews.

But it was not enough. Savage, Saumarez, Stord, and Scorpion were now closing Scharnhorst, and with sufficient margin to make a torpedo attack, albeit a difficult one. The four destroyers attacked in divisions of two, Saumarez and Savage were clawing up astern, with Stord and Scorpion working up from port, the latter pair unseen until very late. Here, in all likelihood, Bey's inexperience with heavy ships told.

Facing destroyers in firing position, Bey ordered Scharnhorst helm over to starboard. Perhaps a destroyer could have come about, but a battlecruiser certainly could not, and Scharnhorst did not. Scharnhorst's turn transformed the astern attack by Saumarez and Savage from a difficult end-on solution, with Scharnhorst well placed to comb tracks, to a beam-on attack, almost ideal for the destroyers. Worse, the turn did the same for Stord and Scorpion, coming up on the port side. It was a blunder of the greatest magnitude, and it sealed Scharnhorst's doom.

Saumarez and Savage had been rather roughly handled, but Saumarez fired four torpedoes—only one quadruple tube mount had an intact crew—at 1,800 yards, while Savage fired a full salvo of eight from 3,500 yards. On the port side, Stord fired a full eight-tube salvo at 1,800 yards, and Scorpion a full salvo from 2,100 yards. At least three torpedoes hit to starboard, and at least one to port. The torpedo hits knocked out another boiler room and damaged Scharnhorst aft, her speed falling to 10 knots. Still she fought on, and again her speed came up to 22 knots, but by then she was in range of all the British cruisers and Duke of York. They pounded her from ever-closing range.

By 1912 hours Scharnhorst was making no more than 10 knots, listing heavily to starboard, and ablaze. “Caesar” turret was firing in local control, shells being manhandled aft from the foreward magazines. At 1920 hours the British checked their fire, and Fraser ordered Jamaica in to finish Scharnhorst off with torpedoes.

Scharnhorst, however, proved tough to sink. Jamaica misfired one of her port tubes, and the other two torpedoes missed. Jamaica fired her starboard tubes at 1937 hours and scored two hits. Despite the order to abandon ship, passed at 1930 hours, Scharnhorst was still firing with all of her serviceable secondary rifles. Belfast fired three torpedoes, and may have scored one hit.

By the time the 36th Destroyer Division arrived to make their torpedo attacks, Scharnhorst was making 3 knots, her bows submerged, and listing badly to starboard. British destroyers battered her with torpedoes, six more hits between 1931 hours and 1934 hours. Still Scharnhorst slewed through the sea.

At 1945 hours, ten minutes after the last of the destroyer torpedoes had hit, and just as Belfast was bringing her three remaining tubes to bear, Scharnhorst was engulfed in a huge explosion.

When it passed, Scharnhorst was gone. Of the 1,972 men believed to have been aboard her when she stood to sea on 25th December 1943, only 36 were saved from the freezing seas, none of them officers.

Salmon and Gluckstein were no more.

Could They Have Survived?

Once again, it is difficult to see where a heavier main battery rifle might have changed the outcome of the battle. Pitting 15-inch fire against Duke of York, rather than 11-inch, would have increased the likelihood of serious damage to Duke of York, and the hits on Norfolk might have been much more damaging, possibly even fatal; but in the end, Scharnhorst did not hit the British ships as hard as she was hit in return. Given that fact, the numerical superiority of the British, the handicap of Bey as Kampfgruppe OC, and the vulnerability of German signals to “Ultra,” heavier rifles would not have impacted Scharnhorst's fate.

On the other hand, had Scharnhorst landed more hits with a heavier main battery—and having two turrets foreward and two aft would have made hits more likely—then she might have kept Duke of York at longer range, and might have been able to put the needed distance between them sooner.

Still, the blunders made by Bey had little to do with employing his main battery; the failure to employ his RDF, his poor control of the battle—the FdZ actually lost his screen of destroyers—and his absolutely fatal turn into the attacking destroyers were all tactical blunders that better hitting power could not remediate.

End Notes

[37] As nearly as I can make out, Schniewind was both Flottenchef and Befehlshaber der Marineoberkommando Nord (I'm not positive about the German in the latter case).

[38] I cannot seem to find any notation or citation on the German in this case. I should think it likely that the Kampfgruppe would be named, as Kampfgruppe generally were. Whether it would have been Kampfgruppe Ostfront, or Kampfgruppe Scharnhorst, or even Kampfgruppe Norwegen, I don't know, so I have avoided the issue, which rankles.

[39] This German habit—it has been called a "phobia" by British historians—certainly owed something to the excellence of German RDF detectors, which far surpassed those of the Allied forces. The Germans seem to have assumed that, as the Allies had introduced superior RDF technologies—the Randall and Boot Cavity Magnetron that permitted centimetric RDF—they would have a means of detecting RDF emissions just as innovative, and therefore superior to the German equipment, which was certainly not the case.

Continued in Part Six.

Click here to order Arctic Convoy and see
Scharnhorst in action.

Click here to order Bismarck and see
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in action.

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.