Saturday, December 31, 2016


'Scharnhorst immer voran' ('Ever onwards')

Under Adolf Hitler, Germany embarked on a program to rebuild its navy on a global scale. The German navy (Kriegsmarine) began this major effort after the signing of the Anglo- German Naval Treaty in June 1935. The goal was creation of a balanced fleet that would serve as the core of a future bluewater navy dominated by battleships. This Z Plan envisioned a powerful fleet that would one day challenge Britain and the United States for world naval mastery.

In 1938, Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy forced the navy to consider the possibility of a future naval war against Great Britain. The navy’s commander, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, designed a strategy to attack the British sea-lanes. His proposal to build ships more suited to a commerce war, including additional U-boats, was rejected by Hitler, who was intent on building a battleship-dominated navy that would serve as an instrument of political and military force commensurate with a world power. Shortages of resources contributed to delays in naval construction, and Raeder’s blind confidence in the Führer’s diplomatic successes and promises that war would not come before 1942 or 1943 found the navy unprepared for war in September 1939.

One indisputable advantage the Kriegsmarine enjoyed was a cadre of excellent commanders, from the top down, and the luxury of relative freedom from the meddling of Hitler, who saw himself as a land-based warrior and tended to leave naval matters to the experts. Naval high command was the Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) headquartered in Berlin. Reporting to the OKM were Naval Group Command East, Naval Group Command West, Naval Station North Sea, and Naval Station Baltic. Two additional naval stations controlled coastal defense and training. The fleet was distributed as required among these commands. It was divided into the High Seas Fleet, the Security Forces, and the U-boat Fleet. The High Seas Fleet encompassed all major surface ships. The Security Forces controlled coastal defense, convoy escorts, antisubmarine forces, and minesweeping forces. The U-boat Fleet experienced explosive growth during the war and became the dominant arm of the Kriegsmarine.

At the beginning of the war, the German navy consisted of 79,000 men, 2 battleships, 3 pocket battleships (small, fast, strongly constructed battleships), 1 heavy cruiser, 6 light cruisers, and 33 destroyers and torpedo boats. Fewer than half of the 57 U-boats available were suitable for Atlantic operations. In spite of Raeder’s initial pessimism that the navy could only “die gallantly,” thereby creating the foundations for a future fleet, he intended to carry out an aggressive naval strategy that would attack British sea communications on a global basis using his concept of diversion and concentration in operational areas of his own choosing and timing. Raeder persistently argued with Hitler that only total economic warfare against England could have a decisive impact.

Hitler’s restrictions on naval operations, particularly on the U-boats, frustrated Raeder’s attempts to seize the initiative and achieve early successes. In late 1939, concerned that the British were planning to invade Norway, Raeder instigated planning for the successful German occupation of Norway and Denmark (Operation WESERÜBUNG). This April 1940 operation was for the navy its “feat of arms”—justifying its contribution to the war effort and future existence. Although the navy did secure important port facilities for surface raiders and U-boats in Norway as well as the shipping route for iron ore from Sweden, it also suffered substantial losses in the operation in the form of 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers. In June, with the defeat of France, the navy acquired additional ports on the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay for surface ships and submarines. But the navy also now had to protect an extended coastline from occupied France to Scandinavia. From 1940 to 1943, Germany also sent to sea 9 armed auxiliary cruisers.

Raeder’s intent to prove the worth of the surface fleet, in particular the battleships, led him to demand of his commanders that they take risks yet avoid unnecessary combat that could lead to losses. Two fleet commanders lost their jobs when they failed to exhibit the necessary aggressiveness. The scuttling of the pocket battleship Graf Spee in December 1939 and Hitler’s displeasure over this loss further reinforced the inherent contradictions in Raeder’s orders to strike boldly but avoid damage to the navy’s own ships. With new battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz joining the fleet, Raeder envisioned a new phase of the Atlantic surface battle, with task forces that would engage Allied convoys protected by capital ships.

In an effort to prove the value of the battleships, Raeder pressed the Bismarck into service before the other battleships were available for action. Her loss in May 1941 represented the end of the surface war in the Atlantic and Hitler’s increasing interference in the use of Germany’s remaining capital ships. Unable to achieve the conditions for a cross-Channel invasion (Operation SEA LION) in September 1940, Raeder tried to divert Hitler from his plans to attack the Soviet Union. Raeder advocated an alternative strategy in the Mediterranean to defeat Britain first, especially given the growing cooperation between that nation and the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Raeder saw an opportunity to link up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and use the French African colonies and the Atlantic islands of Portugal and Spain to expand the bases for a long-term war against the Anglo-American naval forces in the Atlantic. These plans never materialized, as the war against the Soviet Union faltered and Germany was forced to come to the aid of Italy and secure its southern flank in the Balkans.

Nervous about British threats to Norway and Allied support to the Soviets in the north, Hitler ordered that the two battleships in Brest—the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst—and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen be either moved to Norway or scrapped. The “Channel dash” in February 1942 was a tactical success but a strategic defeat for the navy. With the fleet relegated to Norway as a “fleet-in-being,” the U-boat arm, under the command of Admiral Karl Dönitz, continued its role as the navy’s primary weapon. The lack of Luftwaffe support, though, continued to seriously hamper all operations. The navy never resolved the issue of whether the U-boat war was a “tonnage” war or a commerce war in which U-boats attacked targets that had the greatest potential for a decisive impact. Dönitz continued to argue that all resources should go to the U-boat war and disagreed with the diversion of U-boats to other theaters such as the Mediterranean or to the defense of Norway.

In late December 1942, the failure of the Hipper and Lützow to close with a weakly defended convoy in the Barents Sea (Operation RAINBOW) led an angry Hitler to attack Raeder and the surface fleet. Raeder resigned, and Dönitz succeeded him. Although Dönitz was determined to prosecute the submarine war ruthlessly, as with the surface fleet, the defeat of the U-boats in May 1943 resulted from Allied technology and successes in code-breaking that reflected the shortcomings in the naval leadership and military structure of the Third Reich. As the military situation of Germany deteriorated, the navy provided support to the army, particularly in the Baltic, where it conducted a massive and highly successful evacuation effort of troops and civilians.

In sharp contrast to the navy’s collapse after World War I, the German navy during World War II enforced strict discipline until the end. In April 1945, Hitler named a loyal Dönitz as his heir and successor.

Further reading: Jackson, Robert. Kriegsmarine: The Illustrated History of the German Navy in World War II. Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing, 2001; Showell, J. P. German Navy in World War Two: An Illustrated Guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1920–1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1979; Showell, J. P. The German Navy in World War Two: A reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1935–1945. London: Arms & Armour Press, 1979; Stern, Robert C. Kriegsmarine: A Pictorial History of the German Navy, 1935–1945. Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1979; Tarrant, V. E. The Last Year of the Kriegsmarine: May 1944–May 1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994. Bird, Keith W. German Naval History: A Guide to the Literature. New York: Garland, 1985. Blair, Clay. Hitler’s U-Boat War. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1996, 1998. Howarth, Stephen, and Derek Law, eds. The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945. London and Annapolis, MD: Greenhill Books and Naval Institute Press, 1994. Militärgeschtliches Forschungsamt. Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (Germany and the Second World War). Trans. Dean S. McMurrey, Edwald Osers, and Louise Wilmott. 7 vols. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1990–2001. Salewski, Michael. Die Deutsche Seekriegsleitung 1935–1945. 3 vols. Munich, West Germany: Bernard and Graefe, 1970–1975.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Kriegsmarine Cruiser Warfare



As Operation Sealion petered out during the autumn of 1940, Admiral Raeder and his colleagues in the Kriegsmarine began to focus on the kind of warfare they believed in. Following the damage sustained in the spring of 1940, a sense of optimism was renewed when many ships returned from the shipyards. Among the ships expected to be fully serviceable soon were the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. They had formed a task force during the attack on Norway in April 1940, when Admiral Marschall had been in command. If sent to the Atlantic together, they would form a powerful group, menacing British merchant shipping. The long winter nights would also improve chances of them being able to break out undetected into the Atlantic. Finally Raeder could embark on the large-scale warfare against merchant shipping that he had advocated for so long. His intention was not only to sink merchant ships; Raeder hoped that the countermeasures that the Royal Navy would be forced to take would also disrupt British trade.

The German Navy had deployed surface ships against British merchant shipping since spring 1940, but these were not regular warships. Instead, the Germans had employed Hilfkreuzer—armed merchant ships not unlike the British Rawalpindi. By fitting the weapons behind doors and other forms of cover, they could be effectively disguised, yet quickly made ready to fire on prey as it appeared. Mostly, the ships sailed under false colours, to avoid recognition.

Their combat capabilities were far too low to engage regular warships and the German Navy did not expect any grand achievements from them. However, by sailing outside normal convoy routes, the Hilfzkreuzer could search for merchant ships sailing alone, approach disguised and when they had approached close enough, sink or capture them. Usually the Germans preferred to employ their armed merchant ship in areas like the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic, where many ships sailed unescorted. Protected convoys were left to the regular German warships, which had not appeared in the Atlantic since the autumn of 1939.

The first German warship to reach the Atlantic Ocean in 1940 was the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. She had been at Wilhelmshaven when the war broke out, as she needed a major overhaul. Her antiaircraft artillery shot down a Wellington bomber while she was at the yard, but otherwise she took no part in combat during the first year of the war. When she was at last fully refitted, her crew needed training to attain combat readiness. She was sent to the Baltic for a month of intensive exercise, before finally being declared ready for operations. On 23 October, 1940 she weighed anchor at Gdynia and steered west on the Baltic. After passing Denmark, she sailed north. Undetected she continued towards the Atlantic and a week after departing from Gdynia, she passed through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. The first phase, regarded as the most difficult part of the operation by the Germans, had been successfully completed. The Admiral Scheer could begin searching for prey.

She did not have to wait long. Early on 5 November she discovered the lone Mopan and promptly sank her. A few hours later the lookouts on board the Admiral Scheer caught sight of an even more tempting quarry, the convoy HX84—a British convoy numbering no less than 37 merchant ships. The escort consisted of only a single ship, the armed merchant ship Jervis Bay. Since the sun was about to set, the commander on board Jervis Bay, Captain Edward Fegen, decided to accept battle with the Admiral Scheer, hoping that the convoy could scatter and as many merchant ships as possible disappear in darkness before the German ship got too close. Fegen’s decision doomed his ship. The battle was hopelessly uneven. A sailor in the convoy thought the action resembled a bulldog attacking a bear. The 40 year old, 152mm guns fitted to Jervis Bay did not even have the range needed to successfully engage the German warship.

Nevertheless, the British fired incessantly, while laying smoke to protect the ships of the convoy. The battle could only end in one way and after 24 minutes it was over. The Jervis Bay had become a burning wreck. Admiral Scheer sank five merchant ships and another three were damaged, but the rest of the convoy escaped. Later, 65 men from the gallant crew of the Jervis Bay were saved by the Swedish freighter Stureholm.

A few uneventful days followed, until on 12 November Admiral Scheer met with the tanker Eurofeld and the supply ship Nordmark. A few days were spent bunkering diesel oil and taking on supplies. Also, 68 prisoners from the Mopan were transferred to the supply ship, before the Admiral Scheer resumed her search for prey. The results were not impressive. After almost a month had passed, she had only been able to add another two ships to her tally. Again, the pocket battleship met with the supply ship to bunker. On this occasion, the opportunity was used to perform some maintenance on her diesel engines, before the Admiral Scheer set course for the southern Atlantic on 15 December.

While the Admiral Scheer operated in the Atlantic, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper was prepared for the same purpose. In fact, she had sailed already on 24 September, with the intention of reaching the Atlantic, but before passing the Skagerrak she had problems with her machines. She was forced to return to Germany and spent two months in the yard, until she was finally fit again. On 30 November she left harbour, commanded by Captain Wilhelm Meisel, to attack convoys in the Atlantic. The operation was called Nordseetour. At first she searched in vain for Allied shipping and had to survive extremely bad weather. Problems with her machinery ensued, but they could at least be temporarily repaired. The Admiral Hipper bunkered fuel oil from German supply ships, first on 12 December, then on 16 and 22 December, but after three weeks at sea not a single enemy ship had been seen. However, on the night before Christmas Eve, her radar finally picked up an echo. She had found the British troop convoy WS5A about 600 miles west of Cape Finistere. Unlike HX84, which had been attacked by Admiral Scheer seven weeks earlier, the WS5A was escorted by regular British warships: the heavy cruiser Berwick and a few smaller ships. Captain Meisel did not become aware of the British escort, and shadowed the convoy with the intention of attacking it after dawn. While it still was dark, Meisel closed the distance to the convoy and fired a number of torpedoes, but none hit. The German commander was not deterred and pursued his intention to attack at dawn, this time relying on his guns. Almost immediately the lookouts on the Admiral Hipper found the Berwick. Meisel decided to attack the British cruiser. In the ensuing battle, Berwick was damaged and forced to withdraw from the battle, but enough time had passed to allow the convoy to scatter and all merchant ships evaded the Admiral Hipper. The German cruiser had not been hit, but nevertheless Meisel decided to break off the operation and steer towards Brest. His decision was based mainly on the defects in the machinery, which he wanted to correct. On Christmas Day the lone freighter Dumma was found and sunk. It was the only success scored by the Admiral Hipper during Operation Nordseetour. She reached Brest on 27 December.

Operation Nordseetour and the battle between the Admiral Hipper and the Berwick exposed shortcomings in the German Navy’s concept of cruiser warfare. Although the German ship came out unscathed, the action had certainly put her at risk. When encountering an escort of equal strength, the German ship might at least suffer damage and impaired mobility. This was a serious risk, considering the kind of warfare Raeder intended to conduct.

On the very day the Admiral Hipper reached Brest, a meeting took place in Berlin, attended by Hitler, Raeder and a few other high ranking naval officers. The German Navy was already planning for the Admiral Hipper’s next voyage and Hitler wanted to know the purpose. Raeder explained that the Admiral Hipper was only to attack enemy supply lines, concentrating on the convoys as the main target but avoiding the escorts. She should only accept battle with the escort if it was clearly inferior in armament. Hitler concurred. It is possible that this discussion resulted from discontentment with Meisel’s decision to engage a British heavy cruiser.

The Admiral Scheer spent the last weeks of 1940 without much drama. The only exception was on 18 December, when her floatplane found the refrigerator ship Duquesa, which carried food, including about 15 million eggs and 3,000 tons of meat. She was captured and her cargo came in handy for the German ships operating in the Atlantic. In addition to the Admiral Scheer and the Admiral Hipper, the armed merchant ships Thor and Pinguin, several blockade runners and captured ships were also operating in the Atlantic. The Duquesa supplied several German ships with food, before she was finally sunk after two months.
While the Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper ravaged the Atlantic, the two battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst also prepared for an operation in the same waters. They sailed on 28 December, but very bad weather caused damage to the Gneisenau and both ships had to return at an early stage. The Gneisenau was quickly repaired, but the operation was postponed for a month.

Meanwhile the Admiral Scheer patrolled the South Atlantic. She did not score any notable successes. No convoy was found, but a Norwegian tanker was captured and sent to Bordeaux on 17 January. Three days later two freighters were sunk, but subsequently the Admiral Scheer ran out of luck. Late in January she set course for the Indian Ocean, hoping to find better opportunities for success there. On 3 February the Admiral Scheer passed south of the Cape of Good Hope.

Major accomplishments had thus far eluded the German naval ships in the Atlantic, but Raeder indulged in expectations of more success when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reached the transatlantic convoy routes. Due to the mishap with the Gneisenau, Admiral Lütjens, who commanded the squadron, was given more time to think about the best way to use his two battleships. As they were much more powerful than the Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer, Lütjens could attack escorted convoys without hesitating. When Meisel had attacked WSA5, despite the cruiser included in its escort, his action had bordered on the foolhardy. Considering the scarcity of German heavy vessels, it was imperative to keep them ready for action, or else it would be impossible for the German Navy to maintain the threat against the British convoy routes. With two battleships at his disposal, Lütjens would be in a very different position, as the British could hardly be expected to include stronger ships than cruisers in their escorts. However, damage to the German ships still had to be avoided. Prudence suggested that combat had to be conducted at long range, to avoid the menace from torpedoes.

Lutjens did not have to answer the question of how to attack convoys until his squadron reached the Atlantic, and he had a difficult journey ahead of him. The main problem was the ice in the Baltic, the Danish Belts and the Kattegat. The severe cold in January 1941 had resulted in ice with a thickness of about 30cm in the Danish Belts. Under normal conditions, Lütjens would have preferred to pass through the Belts in darkness, to avoid being seen from the coast, but in the present icy conditions it seemed impossible to sail through the narrow straits during night. The German squadron would have to make the passage in full daylight, when Allied agents as well as men and women from the Danish resistance could easily see the ships. When he had passed through the Great Belt, his two battleships would sail towards the Skagen, where escorts would join them, before continuing in the direction of Norway.

The forthcoming operation was given the name ‘Berlin’ and was a much more whole-hearted attempt to implement the cruiser warfare concept, compared to the small-scale operations conducted so far. Lütjens was a good choice to lead Operation Berlin, since he was the German naval officer with most experience at sea. In 1914 he commanded a torpedo boat unit and saw frequent action in World War I. When the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940, Lütjens commanded the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, which had been tasked with the mission to protect the landings at Narvik and Trondheim.

Lütjens was a purposeful and calculating commander who carefully considered his alternatives. He preferred to retain freedom of action for as long as possible and was not given to impulsive decisions. Rather, he carefully weighed risks and opportunities. Success in Operation Berlin would depend greatly on the squadron’s ability to remain unobserved on the high seas and to maintain the element of surprise. The commander would have to display good judgement in estimating when the British convoys left ports, what course they followed and how fast they sailed, so as best to assess the risks of attack. Errors of judgement would severely curtail prospects of sinking a significant amount of British shipping. Lütjens seemed to possess exactly the traits needed to plan and conduct the kind of operation envisaged.

Operation Berlin provides the best example of the realisation of the German concept of cruiser warfare. The first phase of the operation was the actual break out into the Atlantic.

The passage from Kiel and, further on, the Kattegat and Skagerrak were narrow, icy and partly mined, requiring coordination with icebreakers, minesweepers, antisubmarine units and other escorts to get the squadron through safely, without jeopardizing secrecy. Tankers and supply ships had to be stationed in the Atlantic, to enable the battleships to remain there for months. Rendezvous places and signals had to be established well in advance, in order to minimize radio communication that could be intercepted by the British.
Radio traffic was a major concern. To reduce the risks of British interception the Germans used a large number of code names for various coordinates. A number of locations at sea had been assigned brief codes, such as ‘black 3’ or ‘red 15’. Without the specific tables needed, it was impossible to interpret the content of the messages. Furthermore, the actual transmissions could be briefer with the aid of the codes, making it more difficult to obtain bearings and estimate the position of the sender.

Several frequencies and types of transmitters were used. The two battleships used ultra short wave for communication between them, as it was very difficult to intercept at longer distance. For reporting between the ships and the shore staffs, other frequencies were used. The weather forecasting used its own specific frequency band, as did communication between the ships and the Luftwaffe. Considering the geography, it was unlikely that the battleships would cooperate with the Luftwaffe far out on the Atlantic, but during the initial and the final phases of the operation, coordination with air power might be needed. Communication with the supply ships was governed by special regulations, as was the use of special crews that were to sail captured ships to German-controlled harbours in the Bay of Biscay. All of these details had to be specified and included in the orders issued before the operation began. However, once the battleships had reached the north Atlantic, Lütjens emphasized that he would make the decisions as the events unfolded.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Battle of Nauru – Nazi Germany’s Forgotten Foray into the Pacific

The Battle of Nauru - Nazi Germany's Forgotten Foray into the Pacific

In late 1940, the tiny tropical island of Nauru seemed about as far from the bloody battlefields of the Second World War as one could get. Also known as Pleasant Island, the 21 sq. km (8 sq.

The Gustloff Incident – History’s Deadliest (and Mostly Forgotten) Maritime Disaster

The Gustloff Incident - History's Deadliest (and Mostly Forgotten) Maritime Disaster

The RMS Titanic is by far the most famous ill-fated ship of all time. Yet the unlucky luxury liner, which went down with more than 1,600 on board, can't touch the doomed Nazi cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff when it comes to lives lost.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Raeder’s heavy ships –December 1942

Painting depicting the sinking of German destroyer Friedrich Eckoldt by HMS Sheffield at the Battle of Barents Sea.

JW.51B, left the Highland port of Loch Ewe on 22 December 1942 with fourteen freighters and the usual mixed escort screen and a range of warships offering both close and more distant cover. This was exactly the type of convoy that Raeder’s heavy ships were meant to savage. Lützow (the former pocket battleship – now designated a heavy cruiser) had joined the other heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper at Altenfjorden in the Finnmark region of northern Norway just prior to Christmas. Although Fall Regenbogen (Case Rainbow) was not originally designed with Lützow in mind, it made sense for her to join the operation in a bid to destroy all vestiges of convoy JW. 51B and reinforce the impression that the Germans wished to relay to London, namely, that the Arctic convoys were too costly for the Allies to run even in winter. As a result, the two heavy cruisers left port together at 1745 hours on 30 December accompanied by six destroyers. Under the operational command of Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz on board the Admiral Hipper, the plan was hardly the stuff of Yamamoto complexity and ought to have worked far better than it did. Simply put, the Hipper, accompanied by the three destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt, Richard Beitzen and Z29, was to plough on ahead of Kapitän zur See Rudolf Stange in command of the Lützow and his three destroyers Theodor Riedel, Z30 and Z31 during the night to open up a gap between the heavy cruisers of 75-85nm (139-57km) by first light on 31 December. In between the two heavy cruisers the destroyers were to be deployed some 15nm (28 km) apart from one another. This would widen the convoy search area and provide some opportunities for the destroyers to cause some confusion once the convoy had been sighted. In theory at least it was expected that Kummetz, working on information first supplied by German aerial reconnaissance and then subsequently derived from tracking reports from U354, would be the first to intercept the unsuspecting convoy. According to the plan, the Hipper and her destroyers were to engage the Allied destroyer escorts and lure them away from the convoy they were guarding. If this phase went according to plan, it was thought quite reasonably that the unprotected freighters would flee in the opposite direction – in other words to the south and straight into the arms of the Lützow and her destroyers. In this way the Hipper and the northern group of destroyers would eliminate the convoy escorts while the Lützow and her group would fall on the rest of the convoy and reap another PQ. 17 whirlwind. That at least was the theory. In practice the operation turned out to be something quite different. Far from being a belated, but glorious, opportunity to show Hitler that the surface fleet still possessed value and hitting power, Fall Regenbogen was to demonstrate to the Führer just what Raeder’s heavy ships had lost.

In far from ideal conditions with a heavy swell running and sea sickness rampant amongst all the crews of the German vessels, Hipper first glimpsed some elements of an already partly scattered convoy at 0718 hours on New Year’s Eve and sent the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt to confirm that these ghostly silhouettes were indeed from the convoy. Kummetz now waited for dawn to break but even when it did the visibility was poor and a grey murkiness disguised the ships of both sides. While Kummetz and Stange seemed to be neutralised to some extent by the inclement weather conditions and the latter especially behaved with excessive caution throughout, Captain Robert Sherbrooke in the destroyer Onslow showed tactical acumen and considerable bravery in combating the far superior enemy force pitted against him once he realised that they and not some Russian vessels were in the offing. Sherbrooke only received confirmation that he was about to confront a German force when the Friedrich Eckholdt opened fire on the British destroyer Obdurate from about 8,000 yards (7,315m) at 0929 hours. He wasted little time in signalling the destroyers Obdurate, Obedient and Orwell to join the Onslow and gave orders for the only other destroyer Achates and the remaining vessels of his convoy screen to close with the freighters and lay a smokescreen to try and hide their retreat to the southeast. As Achates began to make smoke so the Hipper hove into view and opened fire on her. Splintered by a near-miss and with her power lines ruptured, the ageing destroyer slowed to 15 knots. At precisely the same time that Kummetz had concentrated his guns upon Achates (0941 hours), Sherbrooke had opened fire on the Hipper from about 9,000 yards (8,229m). Sherbrooke realised he had no chance in an artillery duel with the far heavier weight of shot available to Kummetz’s flagship, but he hoped by steering directly at her and then hauling away he might give the impression that he was firing torpedoes at the heavy cruiser. If his ploy worked, of course, Kummetz would turn away to avoid being hit. Sherbrooke’s only realistic chance was to simulate this type of torpedo attack more than once in a bid to keep the enemy on edge and stall for time until Force R (the light cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield some 50nm [93km] distant) came to his and the other vessels’ rescue. Unfortunately, help was anything from one to four hours away. If the Allied force was to survive for that long and not be crippled in the meantime it would take much initiative, fine shiphandling and raw courage from Sherbrooke and the others captains of his destroyer flotilla. They were up to the task but they needed a slice of luck too and this arrived in the shape of a series of snowy squalls that would temporarily obscure the protagonists from one another. After at least thirty-five minutes of feinting and weaving to good effect and shortly after ordering two of his lightly-armed destroyers (Obdurate and Obedient) to rejoin the convoy to give it added protection, Onslow was finally hit with telling effect by Admiral Hipper at approximately 1016 hours. Holed, on fire, without the use of either her `A’ or `B’ guns and with forty of her crew either dead or wounded, Onslow was in no shape to continue the action. Sherbrooke who had continued to direct operations on the bridge didn’t escape punishment either. Badly injured by flying splinters and having lost the sight of one eye from the flying metal shards, he nonetheless remained at his post, issued orders to lay a smokescreen and only afterwards passed over command to Commander Kinloch on the Obedient before taking his burning vessel out of the line of fire. In putting paid to Onslow (but not sinking her), Kummetz’s gun crews had used 48 x 8-inch (203mm) and 72 x 4.1-inch (104mm) shells to strike her only three times.

Orwell now stood in her path but before Kummetz could do anything on this score, the weather intervened once more blanketing the British destroyer from the sight of the German heavy cruiser. Instead of waiting for the snowstorm to lift, Kummetz decided on a turn to the northeast. This route took him away from the Orwell and the convoy itself now lying some 12nm (22km) distant, but put him on track to meet the minesweeper Bramble. She was quickly rendered into a smoking hulk by a total of 51 x 8-inch (203mm) and 38 x 4.1-inch (104mm) shells that began to rain down on her from shortly after 1036 hours onward. It was no contest, but why Kummetz devoted so much time and attention to destroying Bramble is not clear. She would be finally put out of her misery by the two German destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen, but precious time had been lost in destroying a vessel that posed no real threat to the operation as a whole or to the heavy cruisers in particular. If Kummetz can be faulted for this error, Stange’s entire performance in the Lützow was unsatisfactory. Coming up from the south he and his three destroyers had not sought any action whatsoever. They had crossed the path of the convoy and had reached a point by 1050 hours only 2-3nm (3.7-5.5km) ahead of the freighters. There was nothing in their way and mass slaughter appeared on the cards. Amazingly, Stange failed to respond to this enviable situation. Citing poor visibility, he decided to wait for the weather system to blow itself out and for better conditions to present themselves before taking decisive action. It was an extraordinary blunder. Grossadmiral Raeder would long have cause to regret Stange’s aversion to risk-taking and his appointment to the Lützow.

Even if Stange didn’t recognise the Allied vessels, they had little trouble in determining the Lützow’s identity. Gathering all the British destroyers around the Obedient and displaying none of the restraint of his far more powerful adversary, Kinloch decided that action was called for. Before he could launch any attack, however, the picture became more complicated as Kummetz brought the Hipper back into contention. At 1115 hours she announced her return by opening up once more on the Achates with deadly effect. After pulverising the small destroyer, the German heavy cruiser next turned her attention to the Obedient and quickly straddled her knocking out Kinloch’s wireless as she did so. Command shifted for the second time in a little more than an hour and was passed on this occasion to Lieutenant-Commander Sclater on board the Obdurate. Once again the tactics would be the same – a torpedo feint to force the Admiral Hipper to turn away. It succeeded as before and at 1130 hours the heavy cruiser did just that to comb the tracks of any torpedoes sent her way. Within a minute Force R finally made an appearance and began to make its presence felt as the first shells from the light cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield began to fall around Kummetz’s flagship. Despite frantic manoeuvring, the Hipper was hit by one of Sheffield’s 6-inch (152mm) shells that penetrated her starboard hull beneath her armoured belt some 11 feet (3.35m) below the waterline, causing extensive flooding and knocking out two of her boiler rooms and reducing her power temporarily to 15 knots. Two more shells struck home within the next six minutes: one passing through her hull on the starboard side without exploding and the other detonating inside the aircraft hangar and starting a blazing fire. These were unwelcome and surprising developments, but none were critical and need not have caused the abandonment of the entire operation. After all, neither Jamaica nor Sheffield was actually a match for the two heavy cruisers if they had coordinated their activities better. What Kummetz didn’t know, of course, was whether there were any other Allied ships that would enter the fray and tip the balance of advantage to the other side. He remained very mindful of the advice which Admiral Klüber (Flag Officer, Northern Waters) had given him shortly after he had sailed on the previous evening. `Contrary to operational order regarding contact with the enemy… use caution against enemy of equal strength because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks.’

Klüber’s original message, coincidentally repeated in condensed form just at this crucial juncture in the battle, would weigh on Kummetz’s mind and dictate his actions subsequently. At 1137 hours he signalled his other ships to break off their action with the Allied vessels and to turn away to the west. As they did so, both the Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen unsuspectingly found themselves on a collision course with the two British light cruisers a mere 2nm away (3.7km). Sheffield sank the former in a blaze of gunfire but Jamaica somehow managed to miss the latter. A minute before Sheffield opened up on the German destroyer (1143 hours), Stange at last got Lützow into the act by opening fire on one of the freighters (Calobre) in the convoy. As the British destroyers congregated to meet this latest threat, they laid a dense smokescreen to obscure the emergency turn to the southwest that the convoy made in an effort to put some distance between the freighters and the German surface vessels. It worked. Kummetz reinforced the order to withdraw back towards Altenfjorden at 1149 hours before darkness fell and Stange complied in a rather languid and desultory way that had marked his entire approach to the naval action throughout. As a result, he failed to make further inroads into the convoy and though the Lützow would inflict some splinter damage on Obdurate at midday, the Battle of the Barents Sea was largely over. There might yet have been a successful resolution of the affair for the Germans after midday as Rear-Admiral Burnett in the Sheffield in grey, misty conditions suddenly stumbled upon the two heavy cruisers and Lützow’s destroyers once more at 1223 hours. A lucky man at the best of times, Burnett was once more fortunate as Stange couldn’t recognise Sheffield’s shape or identity in the prevailing gloom. An awkward interlude of six minutes followed in which both ships challenged one another by flashlight, but Burnett brought that episode to an end by firing upon the Lützow and straddling her at 1229 hours from a distance of about 8nm (15km). Stange replied a minute later but the Lützow’s first shells fell short. Shortly afterwards, Kummetz reappeared once more to join in the shelling at 1234 hours. Her gunners were more accurate and Burnett found his ship being straddled almost immediately. It didn’t take him long to decide that this was an unenviable position to be in and at 1236 hours he retired swiftly to the northwest and out of range. Neither Stange nor Kummetz followed and Sheffield and Jamaica were spared destruction as was convoy JW. 51B which had been the objective of Fall Regenbogen in the first place. In this unsatisfactory way, the Battle of the Barents Sea ended for the Germans. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of what the surface fleet could do for their war effort at sea and would scarcely impress the Führer whose patience with Raeder’s heavy ships was wearing intolerably thin by the end of 1942. Once again the line between success and failure was very thin. Fall Regenbogen could have been a classic triumph for the beleaguered surface fleet, but it ended up in exposing it to ridicule and incurring the Führer’s undying contempt.