Thursday, March 10, 2016
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.