Supplying the Soviet Union

Black and white photograph of vessels of an Arctic Convoy
© IWM (A 15360)

HMS Belfast was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 5 August 1939 but its war service came to a premature end on 21 November, when it detonated a German magnetic mine. On Christmas Day 1942, repaired and modernised, it arrived under the command of Captain Frederick Parham to join the 10th Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. There followed a punishing 18 months operating in support of the Arctic Convoys, delivering essential supplies to the Soviet Union.

By 1942 the Arctic Convoy route to Russia via Iceland had become one of the great naval battlegrounds of the Second World War, and HMS Belfast's first year was a demanding one. Its role included convoy screening (defending the ships in convoy) and endless duty on the Northern Patrol off Iceland, watching for attempts by enemy warships to break out into the Atlantic. 

In the Arctic the weather was arguably a greater threat than the Germans, and the special Arctic clothing issued was barely adequate. Just moving around the icy decks in rough seas and darkness could be lethal for the unwary, despite the safety ropes which were provided. Veterans remember mess decks inches deep in dirty sea water and going months without mail or leave, other than brief runs ashore to the tiny island of Flotta, the site of Scapa Flow’s Fleet Cinema.


Posing for an icy picture

A group of Royal Marines and seamen on the quarterdeck of HMS Belfast in November 1943. 

While afloat, sailors made their own entertainment. Cards, and ‘uckers’, the Royal Navy’s version of Ludo, were popular, as were model-making, boxing competitions and, perhaps unexpectedly, embroidery. ‘Crown and Anchor’, the illegal gambling game in which vast sums were won and lost, was popular everywhere, despite the risk of severe punishment if the participants were caught. The men also read whatever they could get their hands on.

Convoying essential war supplies to the Soviet Union did not guarantee the sailors a warm welcome. Murmansk, the principle destination for HMS Belfast, was small, poor and close to the front line, with the local inhabitants living under the iron grip of Stalinism. 

Life with the convoys

HMS Belfast silhouetted against a large iceberg during her service with the Arctic Convoys
© IWM (A 15530)

Mostly, Arctic service consisted of endless time at sea in foul weather and constant daylight at the height of summer, or unbroken darkness in mid-winter, with little to break up the monotony. The grim highlight for many was the Battle of North Cape on 26 December 1943.

After North Cape, life was relatively quiet for Belfast and its crew. Apart from providing distant cover for Operation ‘Tungsten’, an aircraft carrier strike against the German battleship Tirpitz, the cruiser spent the winter at Scapa Flow or Rosyth. On 17 April 1944 it was sent to the Clyde for a refit before taking part in Operation ‘Overlord’, the D-Day landings.

Battle of North Cape

Scharnhorst was one of the most dangerous German warships of the Second World War, and the last of her kind. In late December 1943, she was sunk, after attempting to intercept two Arctic convoys. What happened at the Battle of North Cape?

In late December 1943, Vice Admiral Robert Burnett was at Murmansk in Soviet Russia on board HMS Belfast, having escorted the recently arrived Arctic Convoy, JW55A. Burnett’s warships were preparing to escort the next returning convoy back to Britain, when highly significant intelligence reached them from the Admiralty in London. Intercepted German naval signals revealed that the battleship Scharnhorst and five destroyers had left their Norwegian base at Altenfjord. They were planning to intercept the next Arctic Convoy heading out from Britain as it crossed the one returning from Russia. This was exactly the opportunity that the Admiralty had been waiting for. These convoys had baited out one of the most dangerous German warships of WW2. HMS Belfast and the rest of the convoy were no longer embarking on a return journey home, they were heading for battle.

Video footage reporter: “The whole story of the Scharnhorst battle hinges on the passage of a British convoy to Russia. One of the cruisers protecting the convoy keeping a sharp lookout for that very German battleship which fell right into the trap. The action took place off the North Cape way up in the Arctic Circle.”

Nigel Steel: “Admiral Robert Burnett found himself in Russia waiting to return to Britain when word came to him that the Scharnhorst was out and would be available to draw to battle. Now Burnett was very excited by this prospect. He was a true fighting admiral, and he relished the prospect of finally being able to bring the Scharnhorst to battle.”

The Scharnhorst was one of Nazi Germany's last great battleships and one of the best-known fighting ships of the Second World War. The Admiralty had been conscious for some time of the threat posed by the Scharnhorst to the Arctic Convoys and to other merchant and naval ships in northern waters. They had been watching carefully for an opportunity to engage the Scharnhorst, draw it into battle and sink it.

Nigel Steel: “Bismarck had been sunk in 1941. September 1943 the Tirpitz had been damaged and the Scharnhorst was the last one that was left and so they really wanted to take out the Scharnhorst and eliminate the threat, so that they could proceed safely without having to think about this massive ship coming out and threatening their convoys.”

The Arctic Convoys started in August 1941, within weeks of Germany invading the Soviet Union. Britain realised it needed to stand firm with its new soviet ally. The convoys quickly became a way for the British to show their solidarity with the soviet people and gained increasing importance in the way the allies fought the war in eastern Europe. But every convoy was a treacherous mission, overshadowed by bleak inhospitable conditions.

Video footage reporter: “Every hour of the day and night through icy gales and lashings spray, the ships of the allies plough steadily northward in the storm-tossed Atlantic in the Arctic Sea. They bring food and supplies to the theatres of war, supplies without which Britain could not possibly continue the fight.”

Nigel Steel: “Conditions within the Arctic Convoys were probably some of the most difficult and exacting experienced by any allied servicemen during the war. It was impossible to undertake these in the summer because it was almost constant daylight, and the ships could be threatened by aircraft and submarines and ships all the time, but during the winter it meant that it was mostly in perpetual darkness. It was freezing cold, the weather was bad, there was rain, there was snow. Living inside the mess decks of metal warships became extremely inhospitable.”

Interviewer: “What were the conditions like in the Arctic?”

Gordon Painter: “Oh it was terrible really, it was very, very rough. It was very, very cold of course. I believe I'm right in saying that if one went into the sea their lifespan or time is only a matter of seconds before you freeze to death.”

HMS Belfast joined the Arctic Convoys at the beginning of 1943. As well as the treacherous conditions, the convoys were also under perpetual threat of enemy attacks.

Nigel Steel: “The Arctic Convoys were very dangerous for all the shipping, both the merchant shipping and the Royal Navy shipping. This is shown most clearly by the fate of HMS Edinburgh, which is HMS Belfast's sister ship. Edinburgh was escorting a convoy back from Russia in May 1942 when it was attacked and eventually sunk, and the fact that it was almost a carbon copy of Belfast shows how vulnerable these ships were and the courage of the sailors who undertook these missions, taking these vital supplies to the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated.”

Frederick Parham had been Captain of HMS Belfast since 1942, and the ship’s company worked well under him. But Belfast was also a flagship, with Vice Admiral Robert Burnett on board. Burnett was the Flag Officer commanding the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which gave him command of Force 1, consisting of HMS Belfast, and the two cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Sheffield.

Video footage reporter: “Vice Admiral Burnett was the man responsible for this success”.

At the end of 1943, Admiral Burnett and HMS Belfast were in Murmansk preparing for the return convoy to Britain when word reached them about Scharnhorst's movements. Scharnhorst had been ordered out to engage these two allied convoys. The German high command wanted to attack the escorts and sink the merchant ships. Scharnhorst was to get amongst the convoy, disperse it and make the merchant ships vulnerable to individual attack. But the weather conditions were appalling and the German admiral on board Scharnhorst felt uneasy about the plan.

Nigel Steel: “The senior German officers in command of the ships off the Norwegian coast didn't really want to go out at the end of 1943 because the conditions were so bad, but direct orders were issued from Berlin and they went out to try and engage both the convoy leaving Russia and returning to the United Kingdom, and the one coming from the United Kingdom into Russia and the Soviet Union.”

First contact with Scharnhorst was made by Allied ships just before 9am, when HMS Belfast detected the German ship on its radar, just 30 miles away.

Nigel Steel: “By the early morning of the 26th of December, Boxing Day, HMS Belfast and the returning convoy from the Soviet Union were lodged somewhere between the North Cape right at the north of Norway and Bear Island, and Belfast itself is then set to hunt around to see if they can find any trace of the Scharnhorst, and it's about 8.40 in the morning that a blip appears on the radar of HMS Belfast and they work out that this must be the Scharnhorst and battle is on." 

The British cruisers of Force 1 closed on the Scharnhorst at around 9.40. Norfolk engaged and hit the battleship, disabling Scharnhorst's main fire control radar, and leaving it almost blind. Scharnhorst turned away to the north, hoping to circle round Burnett's force and re-approach the convoy from a new direction.

Burnett was left with a choice – to give chase or stay and protect the convoy. He decided to break contact and wait.

Frederick Parham: “And anyway, the Scharnhorst turned north and made away at high speed. And this is where my Admiral Burnett had to make his really big decision and I am absolutely convinced this is the right one.”

Nigel Steel: “The choice that Admiral Burnett made not to pursue directly the Scharnhorst but very cleverly to sit and wait for it to return to a predicted position where he believed it would return to them, this was a very, very bold decision but because he had to wait for some time and increasingly felt under pressure both from Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser and from the Admiralty in London, he began to lose confidence and he turned to Frederick Parham the Captain of Belfast and said “am I doing the right thing?”, and Parham said “I think you are, you must trust your judgement”, and this is exactly what Burnett did. And so, it's greatly to his credit that the battle unfolded as it did.”

The risk paid off. Shortly after noon Scharnhorst appeared again on the radar. All three British cruisers quickly returned to the attack and resumed fire. Scharnhorst was hit again but Norfolk too was badly damaged. The German ship turned south for Norway, this time Burnett stayed in contact, shadowing his prey using his superior radar.

Nigel Steel: “The Scharnhorst and the British cruisers are engaged in a running battle which gradually brings the Scharnhorst south, but as they proceed, Norfolk and Sheffield both drop out of the chase, and this means that by just after four o'clock HMS Belfast is effectively left alone. Now the Scharnhorst would outgun the Belfast and if Scharnhorst had turned to engage and tried to attack this one sole pursuer, it would have been disastrous for HMS Belfast. But fortunately, Belfast kept the Scharnhorst at sufficient distance that this didn't come about.”

Action stations within a warship were always extremely tense. The crew were closed down, everything was secure, and each member of the company focused on their job and performed it to the best of their ability. This was the case in any action, but particularly at the Battle of North Cape.

Nigel Steel: “The performance of the ship's company is perhaps best reflected in the story of Larry Fursland. Larry Fursland was a Leading Stoker and right at the beginning of the battle, as Belfast began to fire its first broadsides, it knocked out two of the cooling pumps on Larry Fursland's generator. And so, he realised that what he was going to have to do is find another way of cooling it down and he was able to connect the fire hose to his generator in order to put cooling sea water to stop it from seizing up as it overheated. And when the list of decorations was put forward Larry Fursland was at the top of the list."

Arthur (Larry) Fursland: “And the first broadside of the Belfast fired, the vibration of the ship and the guns, not the two circulating pumps out of action. I'd seen the temperatures rising up I thought ‘Oh Christ’, I hadn’t got a tool to do it, I had to do it with my hands. And I circulated water from the salt water pump, the mains, through that engine for eight, for 12 hours, like that. Twelve hours I was there. The formidable part about it was that you could hear all the repercussions of the shell fire and torpedoes and everything striking the cell of the ship and I was right down, down the bottom right you know.”

Just after 4 o’clock, everything changed. HMS Duke of York and other powerful elements of the Home Fleet arrived on the scene as planned. Duke of York’s massive fire power, under the direct command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser dramatically turned the fortunes of the battle in favour of the Royal Navy. British gunfire turned upon the Scharnhorst, and for the next two hours, although the Scharnhorst continued to move away as best it could, it was continually hit by the guns of the British fleet.

Video footage reporter: “This is the Duke of York, which slowed up the enemy enabling the destroyers to make their brilliant and daring torpedo attack at very close range, thus finishing off the Scharnhorst. No wonder the CNC looks pleased.”

Nigel Steel: “Towards the end of the British fleet action, the Scharnhorst is slowing because his has been hit and his engines are suffering and at this particular point torpedo attacks begin, and these come both from the large capital ships like HMS Belfast and the other cruisers. But also, principally from the British destroyers which are able to close upon the Scharnhorst and fire directly at it.”

As Fraser closed in, Belfast fired star shells. These bright flares illuminated the target as Duke of York's heavy guns opened fire. After a running battle under hammering gunfire and hit by torpedoes from British and Norwegian ships, Scharnhorst was sunk just after 7 30. From a crew of nearly 2 000 men only 36 survived.

Nigel Steel: “The loss of life is enormous and every sailor in a warship will retain a very strong degree of sympathy. Sailors are particularly aware of the peril of being thrown into the sea and the fact that if you fall into the freezing waters of the Arctic, in the dark, with the oil on the top of the surface, there is almost no chance of survival. And so there would have been no celebration really aboard HMS Belfast, simply a job well done and there but for the grace of God would have been myself.”

The sinking of the Scharnhorst was a significant victory for the Allies, taking out the last of Germany’s operational capital ships. It would also prove to be the last ship to ship gun battle of the old-fashioned kind fought in European waters.

Nigel Steel: “The era of the big battleship the capital ship engaging one another with gunfire was already passing over. Aircraft, submarines, torpedoes all had already threatened the supremacy of the battleship, and this was in many ways the end of an era, and it stands an interesting place within the history of the Royal Navy and the development of naval warfare in the 20th century.”

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