Nick Hewitt
Wednesday 10 January 2018

The Battle of North Cape began when the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and five destroyers left their base in Altenfjord, northern Norway on Christmas Day 1943, to intercept two Arctic Convoys, transporting essential supplies to the Soviet Union, as they rounded the North Cape of Norway.

The tempting target was actually the bait in a trap, as British Intelligence was intercepting German signals. Within hours the Admiralty had informed Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, that Scharnhorst was at sea. Admiral Sir Robert Burnett in HMS Belfast, with the cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield, was to protect the convoys, while Fraser, in the powerful battleship Duke of York, with the cruiser Jamaica and four destroyers, steamed to cut off Scharnhorst from her base. 

At 7.30am on 26 December, the German destroyers were ordered home. First contact with the Allied ships took place just before 9am, when HMS Belfast detected Scharnhorst by radar, just 30 miles away. HMS Norfolk engaged and hit the battlecruiser, disabling Scharnhorst's main fire control radar and leaving the German battlecruiser almost blind. It turned north and away, still trying to circle Burnett's force and reach the convoy.

Admiral Burnett had to decide whether to follow Scharnhorst or stay with the convoy. He chose to stay and when Scharnhorst returned, the 10th Cruiser Squadron was in its path again. All three cruisers opened fire, Scharnhorst was hit again and Norfolk was badly damaged. The German ship turned south for Norway, with Burnett shadowing by radar. With Norfolk disabled and Sheffield suffering from engine problems, at one point Belfast was pursuing Scharnhorst alone. Terrifying though this might have been, the battle was going in the Allies' favour. By now Admiral Fraser in Duke of York was ideally placed to cut off Scharnhorst’s retreat. Fraser made radar contact soon after 4pm at a range of 22 miles and closed in. At 4.50pm, Belfast illuminated Scharnhorst with starshell (bright, buring flares) and Burnett's cruisers engaged from one side, while Duke of York and Jamaica opened fire from the other. 

Duke of York hit Scharnhorst with its first salvo, and went on to methodically put each of the German ship’s guns out of action and set it on fire. Then, a shell from Duke of York penetrated a boiler room and severed a steam pipe, reducing Scharnhorst's speed to ten knots. As Rear Admiral Erich Bey sent his last signal, 'we shall fight to the last shell', Fraser ordered his destroyers to attack with torpedoes. Four of these found their targets, leaving Scharnhorst unable to move as Duke of York and the cruisers opened fire again.

At 7.45pm HMS Belfast was ordered in to finish Scharnhorst with torpedoes but before it could fire Scharnhorst’s radar blip vanished and there was a series of muffled underwater explosions. In total, 1,927 German sailors were killed, with only 36 survivors. British dead numbered 18.

IWM’s new book, Firing on Fortress Europe: HMS Belfast at D-Day by Nick Hewitt is available to buy from the IWM shop now.





Survivors from the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, wrapped in merchant navy survivor's clothing and blindfolded for security reasons, come ashore at Scapa Flow, 2 January 1944.

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