Forces Engaged: United Kingdom (Royal Navy) - Escorts of Convoy JW51B, which consisted of:
HMS Achates (A-Class destroyer, 2 x 4.7" cannon, 4 x 21" torpedo tubes),
HMS Orwell (O-class destroyer, 4 x 4" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
HMS Oribi (O-class destroyer, 4 x 4" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
HMS Onslow (O-class destroyer, 4 x 4" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
HMS Obedient (O-class destroyer, 4 x 4" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes) and
HMS Obdurate (O-class destroyer, 4 x 4" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes)
2 Flower-class corvettes:
HMS Rhododendron (1 x 4" cannon) and
HMS Hyderabad (1 x 4" cannon)
1 minesweeper HMS Bramble (2 x 4" cannon)
2 armed trawlers Vizalma and Northern Gem (I have no details on the armament of these vessels but typically they were lightly armed, with a single 3" or 4" cannon, if that)
After three hours this force was reinforced by two light cruisers from the "Force R" squadron assigned to general convoy escort duty on the Barents passage: HMS Sheffield (Town Class, 12 x 6" cannon) and HMS Jamaica (Crown Colony-class light cruiser, 12 x 6" cannon)
The convoy itself consisted of 14 merchant vessels carrying 2046 vehicles, 202 tanks, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 tons fuel, 12,650 tons aviation fuel, and 54,321 tons general cargo to the Soviet Union.
The escort commander was CAPT R. St.V. Sherbrooke RN aboard HMS Onslow.
Germany (Deutsches Kriegsmarine) -
1 large protected cruiser ("pocket battleship"):
KM Lützow (Deutschland-class cruiser, 6 x 11" cannon)
1 heavy cruiser:
KM Admiral Hipper (Admiral Hipper-class cruiser, 8 x 8" cannon)
KM Frederich Echholdt (1934A-class destroyer, 5 x 5" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
KM Richard Beitzen (1934-class destroyer, 5 x 5" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
KM Theodor Riedel (1934-class destroyer, 5 x 5" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
KM Z 29 (1936A-class "Narvik" destroyer, 4 x 5.9" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
KM Z 30 (1936A-class "Narvik" destroyer, 4 x 5.9" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes),
KM Z 31 (1936A-class "Mob" destroyer, 5 x 5.9" cannon, 8 x 21" torpedo tubes)
1 (possibly 2) x submarines:
U-354 (Type VIIC submarine, 5 x 21-inch torpedo tubes)
(Note: There seems to be some question regarding how many and which U-boats were in the Barents Sea that day. I've read several sources that state that two submarines were on station shadowing the convoy. U-354 is mentioned by name in the Wiki entry but no mention of a second submarine occurs in that source. The History Learning Site page doesn't name any of the German subs, but states; "Sherbrooke had been kept well informed of German radio traffic and he knew that a U-boat was ahead of the convoy with another one stationed to the south of it."the surface force under the command of Vice-Admiral Oskar Kummetz with his flag in KM Admiral Hipper
The Naval Weapons site also specifies U-354, does not mention the position of a second U-boat, but then goes on to list the U-626 as part of the German order of battle. The problem with that, however, is that this U-boat is supposed to have been sunk fifteen days earlier by the USCGC Ingham.
So, I suspect that there WAS a second U-boat on the scene that day, but have no idea which vessel it was; any help with this issue would be greatly appreciated!)
The Sources: The usual well documented modern records from both sides, as well as numerous secondary sources.
Several good places for information in the internet include the History Learning Site entry for the engagement, a terrific entry on the "Naval Weapons" site covering the action and including the order of battle for both sides. The Wiki entry also does a good job summarizing the engagement and the larger context of the northern convoy battles in WW2.
Naval History has a terrific couple of pages on the action, including some great battle maps which I have freely looted for this post. The modern Kriegsmarine has a nice little web page covering the engagement, too.
The Campaign: Hopefully I don't have to explain the context of the northern convoy battles to you.
The bottom line is that the Soviet Union got valuable materials through the UK-to-Murmansk convoys but as much as the equipment was useful to the Soviets the very act of providing it was essential to binding Stalin to the Western Allies.
Short of a Second Front on the European mainland - which just wasn't going to happen in 1942, regardless of the political pressures - the Arctic convoys were a vital tangible commitment by Britain and, later, the U.S., to providing some degree of skin to the game in the East.
As for this particular engagement, the Kriegsmarine page does a good job of summing up the particulars at stake that New Year's Eve seventy years ago today:
"...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.The other major political factor in this engagement was the question for Germany of "What is this fucking Navy for, anyway?"
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."
Hitler had been a grunt in WW1, when the German Emperor had amassed a fleet with the explicit design of challenging the Royal Navy in the close waters of northern Europe.
It is unlikely that Hitler the grunt had any better understanding in 1917 of the military-political pressures that led to the stalemate in the North Sea than Hitler the supreme commander did in 1942.
But it didn't stop him from second-guessing his naval leadership.
Again, the Kriegsmarine site does a neat job of summing up the strategic situation of the German Navy at the end of 1942:
"Because of some British commando landings in Norway he (Hitler) 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. For years he had railed against his surface ship fleet...often referring to it as a useless liability, (however) he was placing an inordinate confidence in its ability to crush any Allied attempt to invade Norway or re-supply the Russians."Hitler was also fiercely (in a sort of carpet-chewing-nutzo Hitlerian way) freakish about losing capital ships.
He hated the notion that he would have to lose any of them to gain some military objective, and so his infatuation with what today in the U.S. military we'd call "force protection" permeated his naval staff.
He wanted the gains without the risk, and this thinking dominated his and his Navy's employment of their surface forces.
So on the morning of 31 DEC 1942 the target of the Kriegsmarine's sortie was the Arctic convoy JW-51B, just another of the conveyor belt of vessels sailing the fringe of the polar seas on the way to or from the Soviet port of Murmansk.
The convoy was in line-ahead because of the danger of drifting ice roughly 230 miles from the North Cape when U-354 made the day's sighting. It's indicative of Hitler's fixation about his surface Navy that the orders to sortie the Lützow-Hipper group had to come directly from the Navy CINC, Raeder, himself.
In particular it's worth noting that the sortie orders include the following phrase as a Fuhrer Directive: “Procedure on meeting the enemy is to avoid a superior force, otherwise destroy according to established protocol”
Now don't get me wrong; I get that it isn't smart for an armed force to deliberately engage a stronger force when there's no greater strategic gain in doing so. But the Kriegsmarine took this directive to extremes, refusing to engage even when on relatively even terms as we'll see in a bit.
Mind you, the Kriegsmarine operational plans for engaging convoys were simple and appear to be effective. The sortie group would separate prior to approaching the target convoy; the pocket battleship Lützow and her escorts to the south, the cruiser Admiral Hipper and escorts to the north.
The Hipper group would attack first to draw the escorts and force the convoy to turn away, into the guns of the Lützow. The Hipper would massacre the escorts, the Lützow would butcher the merchies, easy peasy lemon squeezy.
But as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so it shouldn't be a shock that starting at about 8:30am local time things began to go seriously wrong in the dark polar day.
The Engagement: The first intimation that the British convoy escorts had that they were going to have a busy day was when lookouts aboard HMS Hyderabad, leading the convoy to the southeast, reported two destroyer-type vessels on the western horizon.
The corvette's captain had been advised that Soviet destroyers were en route to link up with the convoy, so he took no action. HMS Obdurate's commander was more curious, however, and when he sighted the ships a bit later he turned towards them, signaled a challenge and received not a password, but gunfire.
The British escorts were well-drilled and took immediate action; four destroyers (HMS Onslow, Obdurate, Obedient and Orwell) turned towards the enemy ships while HMS Achates began to lay down a smokescreen, which included black smoke from her funnels and white smoke from "smoke floats", some sort of floating smudge pot.
For about thirty minutes the British escorts and the German northern force closed the range. At the same time the British were broadcasting a "surface action" alarm that detached the two cruisers from Force R towards their location.
At 9:00am the escort commander's lookouts identified a capital ship with the German forces as the Admiral Hipper, a vessel seven times the size of the O-class destroyers and whose 8-inch cannons both outranged their smaller guns as well as delivered projectiles capable of sinking the British destroyers with a single well-placed hit.
At about 9:30am Hipper opened fire, her target HMS Achates silhouetted against her own smokescreen. Within several minutes the cruiser's fire had crippled the British ship and the Hipper shifted fire to HMS Onslow and HMS Orwell.
Weather conditions that day helped the British defenders, with much low-lying haze and sea-smoke, and numerous snow squalls. The Kriegsmarine web page notes that "(t)he 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."
What didn't help the German attackers was their own dread of combat loss. VADM Kummetz kept turning the Hipper away from the British escorts in fear of torpedo attacks.
His combat log for this part of the action reads: “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.”
Had he closed on the British escorts he might have made short work of them...but he might also had suffered a lucky hit from a shell or torpedo that might have crippled his cruiser and left him helpless and swarmed over by the British light vessels. He chose caution and in so doing forfeited his chance for a decisive success.
As it was, however, the attack of the Hipper group was having the effect desired in the tactical plan - the convoy was turning away south.
By about 11am the situation on the north side of the convoy looked about like this:
HMS Achates was continuing to screen the retiring merchies but was in increasing distress. She would sink at 1315, with only 80 survivors taken off by one of the trawlers.
Hipper and the two destroyers, Orwell and Onslow, continued to trade fire, most of it ineffective due to a combination of weather, including savage icing that caused ammunition and propellant charges to freeze to their racks and cannon breeches to stick open or closed. Finally, however, the heavier weight of the cruiser's battery began to tell on HMS 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."Sherbrooke, by the way, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions that day.
Not sure whether that was worth an eye, but, there.
The Hipper was also trading ineffective fire with HMS Obedient when the two cruisers from Force R turned up some time about 11ish. Their fire, especially Sheffield's, was immediately effective, getting several "straddles" (rounds falling both over and short of the target) before scoring three hits in succession.
VADM Kummetz's force turned away, made smoke, and in a short time had ordered his entire squadron to withdraw at speed.
At this point - about 1130 - one of those bizarre incidents that happen fairly regularly in war took place. The officer commanding (and, one assumes, the lookouts and several other officers as well) two German destroyers, the Friedrich Eckholdt and the Richard Beitzen, somehow mistook HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica for his own capital ships.
(How the hell you mistake this:
For whatever reason the two destroyers steered toward the British cruisers who appear to have been well aware of the identity of the approaching vessels.
When the British opened up on the two the Eckholdt was hit directly amidships and sunk within less than two minutes with the loss of all 325 sailors aboard her.
The Beitzen escaped untouched.
While they were thus pounding the piss out of the hapless Eckholdt the British cruisers lost track of the Hipper, who was slipping away west to link up with the southern force.
That force, meanwhile, had sighted the convoy and opened fire at about 5,000 yards. Lützow - whose 11-inch main battery had a maximum range of over 26,000 yards - managed to shoot a total of 87 (eighty-seven!) 11" and 75 (seventy-five!) 6" rounds without scoring a single hit.
As an artilleryman even given the poor weather and unstable gun-platform conditions I'm impressed with that as a sort of pinnacle of indirect fire clusterfuckery. Serious; it takes a real gift to shoot that poorly. The result was that when the order to withdraw came the pocket battleship ended up with a massive bolo on her record sheet.
The German force withdrew to the west and then south. The British had lost a destroyer, HMS Achates, and the minesweeper HMS Bramble (which had been sunk by the Eckholdt as she returned to the convoy's position from sweeping up straggling merchies earlier that morning) and about 250 matelots; not a single merchant vessel was lost from this convoy either that day or before it docked in Murmansk other than one that ran around on the way into harbor.
The German force lost the destroyer Eckholdt and a handful of sailors aboard Hipper, perhaps 350 all tolled.
And that was that. Or, at least, that was all for the shooting war. What happened next, though, was rather more important.
The Outcome: Tactical British victory with strategic implications for German naval operations.
The Impact: Again, the Kriegsmarine site sums up the impact of this engagement nicely:
"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, KAPT Stänge (of Lützow) 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.”
A combination of technical fuckups then made matters worse.
U-354 had transmitted a message reporting success at about noon the day of the engagement, a not-surprising result of viewing the entire action from a tiny submarine periscope.
The German surface squadron maintained radio silence en route to Norway and then, after their arrival, several transmission glitches prevented the after-actions report from arriving at Hitler's operational HQ in East Prussia until the afternoon the following day.
By that time Hitler had heard a BBC broadcast that cheerfully reported the Kriegsmarine's latest balls-up.
Not only was he furious at the defeat, Adolf interpreted the delay in his own Navy's reporting the defeat as either cowardly fear of, or insubordinate unwillingness to, report bad news.
The engagement spelled the effective end of the German surface ship navy. Raeder was forced out and replaced by the U-boat man, Doenitz. While the German capital ships largely evaded the scrapping that Hitler's New Year's Day tirade recommended they were finished as anything other than a force in being, effectively no different than the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet after Jutland.
The Battle of North Cape in 1944 was the only remaining time that a German capital ship would sail into deep water.
I think there are several lessons to be learned from this engagement.
First, and most important, is that a nation needs a way to coldly and clearsightedly assess its national interests and how military force can best be used - if possible - to achieve them.
Germany in the middle of the 20th Century was, as it had been for half a century, a continental European power. Its forays off the land mass of Europe were typically brief and almost always unprofitable.
A German government with a dispassionate view of its needs - even assuming that aggressive war was part of those needs - would have recognized that a large conventional Navy or, indeed, much of any sort of investment in naval force at all, was at best an indulgence and a luxury and at worst an antagonizing factor.
As the Kaiser had found out in 1914; any German Navy genuinely capable of projecting German power would have to be capable of defeating the Royal Navy on equal terms.
And any German Navy capable of defeating the Royal Navy on equal terms would immediately and inescapably be a reason for Great Britain to become Germany's enemy. And that would be a problem that would prove insoluble, both in 1917 and in 1942.
Because the insurmountable problem was Germany's geographic position relative to Great Britain; her fleet was automatically trapped within the close confines of the North Sea. Much as Russia and the later Soviets discovered, the lack of a confined (and in Russia's case, ice-free) port meant that any naval force would have to fight its way out of its own harbors before any attempt at blue-water command was possible. This problem would and did prove insoluble in practice.
Second, assuming that Germany had decided that a Navy WAS a valuable use of resources that Navy should have spent time thinking of what its geopolitical objective was as a blueprint for its design and construction.
To my view the German Navy of 1942 had no real strategic objective and hadn't since it's inception and it showed in both its organization and its tactics.
I don't really blame the Kriegsmarine leadership for missing the carrier revolution; many other more experienced naval thinkers and leaders did, too. But short of a full-on carrier-based force (a USN-circa-1944-type navy, then) the German fleet only had two real options;
It could try and be a blue-water strategic-ocean-control type force, similar to what the Hochseeflotte had been designed for in 1914. This would have entailed giving some thought to the strategic disadvantage inherent in the North Sea bottleneck, ways to break through that, and a fleet organization and tactics designed around it. The Kriegsmarine leadership doesn't show me signs of having ever thought that through.
Or - it could have been designed as an ocean-denial type force based on a plan for isolating the British Isles and continental European enemies from overseas sources of war materials. This would have been very possible; the USN had accomplished it against Japan by 1944. The problems of access to the open seas would still have been there, but, again, the German Navy seems to have been very reactive rather than proactive on this subject. A sea-denial force consisting of U-boats, light units, and an integrated air arm might have managed the military tasks needed from it; holding the Channel long enough for an invasion force to cross, cutting British oceanic supply lines, and denying the Royal Navy free use of the Med.
The U-boats did phenomenally well, especially when you compare their work to the IJN's I-boats that were technically equivalent to the German submarines. But overall the Kriegsmarine lost the U-boat war, too, and one main reason was that they never had another plan other than "sail 'em out and hope for the best".
They never solved the lethal combination of sonar and the escort carrier.
So I think that the Battle of the Barents Sea was just an exclamation point on the reality that the Kriegsmarine as constructed by Nazi Germany was a resource-sucking luxury and a foolish diversion
Assuming for the moment that NOT launching an aggressive war - not at all a settled question in my opinion - was not on the table in 1933 then the question "What would we use these ships for?" becomes a critical one in allocating national resources. Even more important would be the question "What do we need from the seas and oceans around us?"
In Germany's case the problems came down to issues of projecting power across sea barriers - invading Britain and control of the Mediterranean littoral - and cutting off war materials their enemies needed to bring in by sea.
As it turned out the Kriegsmarine was not well organized, or well handled, to accomplish either task, and the overall operational disconnect between the often-at-each-other's-throats German service branches didn't help.
Whatever the reasons, the effect was to sink millions of marks into a force that was dramatically ineffective at advancing Hitler's Germany's geopolitical aims regardless of what you think of those aims. Taken purely as a guide to military strategy, the Kriegsmarine of WW2 is a cautionary tale.
So, in short, although the engagement of New Year's Eve 1942 meant the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning was written into the Kriegsmarine almost from its Nazi rebirth.
It only remained to sink the floating wreckage in the frozen waters of the Barents Sea.