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Battle of the North Cape
Part of World War II
HMS Duke of York gunners A 021168.jpg
Members of HMS Duke of York's gun crews at Scapa Flow after the Battle of North Cape
Date 26 December 1943
Location Off North Cape, Norway
Result Allied victory
Nazi Germany Kriegsmarine United Kingdom Royal Navy

United Kingdom Royal Canadian Navy
Norway Royal Norwegian Navy

Nazi Germany Erich Bey  United Kingdom Bruce Fraser
1 battlecruiser 1 battleship
1 heavy cruiser
3 light cruisers
9 destroyers
Casualties and losses
1 battlecruiser sunk
1,932 killed
11 killed
11 wounded

In the World War II naval Battle of the North Cape, ships of the Royal Navy sank the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst off Norway's North Cape on 26 December 1943.



Operation Ostfront was an attempt by the German Kriegsmarine to intercept the Russia-bound Arctic convoy JW 55B. The convoy, sighted three days before by a Luftwaffe aircraft, consisted of nineteen cargo vessels, escorted by the destroyers HMS Onslow, HMS Onslaught, HMS Orwell, HMS Scourge, HMS Impulsive, HMCS Haida, HMCS Huron, and HMCS Iroquois, and the minesweeper HMS Gleaner.

On 25 December 1943, Scharnhorst (Captain Fritz Hintze) with the Narvik class destroyers Z 29, Z 30, Z 33, Z 34, and Z 38 left Norway's Alta Fjord under the overall command of Konteradmiral Erich Bey.

Also in the area was convoy RA 55A, returning to the United Kingdom from Russia. RA 55A consisted of 22 cargo ships, escorted by the destroyers HMS Musketeer, Opportune, Virago, Matchless, Milne, Meteor and Ashanti, HMCS Athabascan, and the minesweeper HMS Seagull.

Unknown to the Germans was the presence in the area of major Royal Navy forces. Force 1, under Rear Admiral Robert Burnett, comprising the cruisers HMS Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield, was nearby. Force 2 commanded by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, consisting of the new battleship HMS Duke of York, the cruiser HMS Jamaica, and the S-class destroyers HMS Savage, Scorpion, Saumarez, and HNoMS Stord of the Royal Norwegian Navy, was trailing the convoy at a considerable distance.


The following day, in poor weather and heavy seas and with only minimal Luftwaffe reconnaissance to aid him, Rear Admiral Bey was unable to locate the convoy. Thinking he had overshot the enemy, he detached his destroyers and sent them southward in an attempt to increase the effective search area. Admiral Fraser, anticipating a German attack, had diverted the convoy northward, out of the area in which it was expected.

The now unescorted Scharnhorst encountered Burnett's cruisers shortly after 09:00 hours. At a distance of nearly 13,000 yards (12 km), the British cruisers opened fire and Scharnhorst responded with her own salvoes. While no hits were scored on the cruisers, the German battleship was struck twice, one shell destroying the radar controls, leaving Scharnhorst virtually blind in a mounting snowstorm. Without radar, gunners aboard the battlecruiser were forced to aim at the enemy's muzzle flashes. This was made more difficult because two of the British cruisers were using a new flashless propellant, leaving Norfolk the relatively easier target. Bey, now outgunned and believing he had engaged a battleship, turned south in an attempt to distance himself from the pursuers.

Once he believed he had shaken off his pursuers, Bey turned north-east in an attempt to circle round them. Shortly after noon, the cruisers were encountered once again. As the opposing forces exchanged fire, Scharnhorst scored hits on Norfolk, disabling a turret and her radar. Following this exchange, Bey decided to return to port in Scharnhorst, while he ordered the destroyers to attack the convoy at a position reported by a U-Boat. The reported position was out of date and the destroyers missed the convoy.

Scharnhorst ran south for several hours. Burnett pursued, but both Sheffield and Norfolk suffered engine problems and dropped back. The lack of working radar aboard Scharnhorst prevented the Germans from taking advantage of the situation, allowing the Belfast to reacquire the German ship on her Radar set.

Meanwhile, the Duke of York, with her four destroyers already pressing ahead to try to get into torpedo launching positions, had been informed of Belfast's having contact and soon they themselves picked up Scharnhorst on radar at 16:15 and was manoeuvring to bring her full broadside to bear.

At 16:48, Belfast fired starshell to illuminate Scharnhorst. The battlecruiser, with her turrets trained fore and aft, was clearly visible from Duke of York. Duke of York opened fire at a range of 11,920 yards (10.90 km) and scored a hit on the first salvo.[1] Scharnhorst's foremost turret ("Anton") was disabled after a while, and another salvo destroyed the ship's aeroplane hangar. Bey turned north, but was engaged by the cruisers Norfolk and Belfast, and turned east at a high speed of 31 knots.

Bey was able to put some more distance between Scharnhorst and the British ships to increase his prospects of success. He had also scored two hits on the Duke of York. However, his ship's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse at 18:20 hours when a shell fired by Duke of York, at extreme range, pierced her armour belt and destroyed the no. 1 boiler room. Scharnhorst's speed dropped to only 22 knots, though immediate repair work allowed it to regain to 26 knots. She was now vulnerable to the attacks of the destroyers. Five minutes later, Bey sent his final radio message to the German naval command: "We will fight on until the last shell is fired." [2]

At 18:50 hours, Scharnhorst turned to starboard to engage the destroyers Savage and Saumarez, but this allowed Scorpion and the Norwegian destroyer Stord to attack, scoring one hit on the starboard side. As Scharnhorst continued to turn to avoid the torpedoes, Savage and Saumarez scored three hits on her port side. Saumarez was hit several times by Scharnhorst's secondary armament and suffered eleven killed and eleven wounded.

Despite the torpedo hits, the battlecruiser still maintained a speed of 22 knots, but it was too slow. Now however, with Scharnhorst illuminated by starshells "hanging over her like a chandelier", Duke of York and Jamaica resumed fire, at a range of only 10,400 yards (9.5 km). At 19:15, Belfast joined in from the north. The British vessels subjected the German ship to a deluge of shells, and the cruisers Jamaica and Belfast fired their remaining torpedoes at the slowing target. Scharnhorst's end came when the British destroyers Opportune, Virago, Musketeer and Matchless fired a further nineteen torpedoes at her. Wracked with hits and unable to flee, Scharnhorst finally capsized and sank at 19:45 hours on 26 December, her propellers still turning, at an estimated position of 72°16′N 28°41′E / 72.267°N 28.683°E / 72.267; 28.683. She was later identified and filmed at 72°31′N 28°15′E / 72.517°N 28.25°E / 72.517; 28.25Coordinates: 72°31′N 28°15′E / 72.517°N 28.25°E / 72.517; 28.25. Of her total complement of 1,968, only 36 were pulled from the frigid waters (none of them was an officer), 30 by Scorpion and 6 by Matchless. Neither Rear Admiral Bey nor Captain Hintze were among those rescued, although they both were reported seen in the water after the ship sank.


Blindfolded Scharnhorst survivors come ashore at Scapa Flow on 2 January 1944

Later in the evening of 26 December Admiral Fraser briefed his officers on board Duke of York: "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today".

The loss of Scharnhorst demonstrated the vital importance of radar in modern naval warfare. While the battlecruiser should have been able to outgun all of her opponents (save the Duke of York), the early loss of radar-assisted fire control combined with the problem of inclement weather left her at a significant disadvantage. Scharnhorst was straddled by 31 of the 52 radar-fire-controlled salvos fired by Duke of York.[1] In the aftermath of the battle, the Kriegsmarine commander Großadmiral Dönitz remarked, "Surface ships are no longer able to fight without effective radar equipment." [3]

Stord and Scorpion fired their torpedoes from an easterly direction. Stord fired her eight torpedoes as she was about 1,500 yards from Scharnhorst, while also firing with her guns. After the battle Admiral Fraser sent the following message to the Admiralty: "... Please convey to the C-in-C Norwegian Navy. Stord played a very daring role in the fight and I am very proud of her...". In an interview in The Evening News on 5 February 1944 the commanding officer of HMS Duke of York (Captain Guy Russell) said: "... the Norwegian destroyer Stord carried out the most daring attack of the whole action...".


  1. ^ a b Macintyre, Donald, CAPT RN "Shipborne Radar" United States Naval Institute Proceedings September 1967 p.79
  2. ^ Claasen (2001) p. 232
  3. ^ Claasen (2001) p. 233


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