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.

Arrival of HMS Duke of York

Photograph from the deck of HMS Duke of York prior to the Battle of North Cape. Duke of York's guns are in silhouette against the water.
© IWM (A 21192) Aboard HMS Duke of York

Arrival of HMS Duke of York

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. 

Step Aboard HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast

Step Aboard HMS Belfast

Step aboard a London landmark. HMS Belfast offers an immersive experience across the ship’s nine decks. Duck through the same hatches and climb the same ladders as those who served on board to discover what life was like for the 950-strong crew.

Plan your visit

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. 

Photographs

SCHARNHORST SURVIVORS

Photographs

SCHARNHORST SURVIVORS

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.

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.

Related content

HMS Belfast arrives at the pool of London
© The rightsholder (IWM CT 381)
HMS Belfast
HMS Belfast at 80
Explore the history of this famous warship and discover new stories from some of her veterans as we mark 80 years of HMS Belfast.
HMS Belfast
IWM
HMS Belfast
HMS Belfast and the Arctic Convoys
For 18 months, HMS Belfast and her crew endured punishing conditions supporting the vital Arctic Convoys delivering supplies to the Soviet Union. 
HMS BELFAST takes up her moorings in the specially dredged berth in the Pool of London, 14 October 1971.
HMS Belfast
HMS Belfast's St Patrick's Day Launch
HMS Belfast was launched on St Patrick's Day, 17 March 1938 by Anne Chamberlain – the wife of then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – and spent 25 years in active service before she was brought to London by IWM and opened to the public on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1971.