Battle of the Barents Sea
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|Battle of the Barents Sea|
|Part of World War II|
Painting depicting the sinking of German destroyer Friedrich Eckoldt by HMS Sheffield at the Battle of Barents Sea.
|Commanders and leaders|
| Robert Burnett
Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke
|2 cruisers (after 3 hours)
|2 heavy cruisers
|Casualties and losses|
1 destroyer damaged
|1 cruiser damaged
The Battle of the Barents Sea was a naval engagement on 31 December 1942 between warships of Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine and British ships escorting convoy JW 51B to Kola Inlet in the USSR. The action took place in the Barents Sea north of North Cape, Norway. The German raiders' failure to inflict any losses on the convoy infuriated Hitler, who ordered that German naval strategy would focus on the U-boat fleet rather than surface ships.
Convoy JW 51B comprised fourteen merchant ships carrying war materials to the USSR — some 202 tanks, 2,046 other vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 short tons (10,400 t) of fuel, 12,650 short tons (11,480 t) of aviation fuel and just over 54,000 short tons (49,000 t) of other supplies. They were protected by the destroyers HMS Achates, Orwell, Oribi, Onslow, Obedient and Obdurate; Flower-class corvettes HMS Rhododendron and Hyderabad; the minesweeper HMS Bramble; and trawlers Vizalma and Northern Gem. The escort commander was Captain R. St.V. Sherbrooke RN (flag in Onslow). The convoy sailed in the dead of winter to preclude attacks by German aircraft like those that devastated an earlier Arctic convoy, PQ-17.
In addition to the convoy escort, cruisers HMS Sheffield and Jamaica and two destroyers were independently stationed in the Barents Sea to provide distant cover. These four ships, known as "Force R", were under the command of Rear-Admiral Robert L. Burnett, in Sheffield.
The German forces included the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper; heavy cruiser (often termed a pocket battleship) Lützow; and destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Z 29, Z 30 and Z 31. These ships were based at Altafjord in northern Norway, and were under the overall command of Vice-Admiral Oskar Kummetz, in Hipper.
Convoy JW 51B sailed from Loch Ewe on 22 December 1942 and met its escort off Iceland on 25 December. From there the ships sailed northeast, meeting heavy gales on 28–29 December that caused the ships of the convoy to lose station. When the weather moderated, five merchantmen and the escorts Oribi and Vizalma were missing. Bramble was detached to search for them. Three of the straggling merchantmen rejoined the following day; the other ships proceeded independently towards Kola Inlet.
Meanwhile, on 30 December, the convoy was sighted by U-354 (Kptlt. Karl-Heinz Herbschleb). When the report was received by the German Naval Staff, Kummetz was ordered to sail immediately to intercept the convoy. Kummetz split his force into two divisions, led by Hipper and Lützow, respectively.
The encounter took place in the middle of the months-long polar night and both the German and British forces were scattered and unsure of the positions of the rest of their own forces, much less the enemy's. Thus the entire battle became a rather confused affair. During the battle it was not clear who was firing on whom or even how many ships were engaged.
At 08:00 on 31 December, the main body of JW 51B, twelve ships and eight warships, were some 120 miles north of the coast of Finnmark heading east. Detached from the convoy were the destroyer Oribi and one ship, which took no part in the action; 15 miles astern (north-east) of the convoy Bramble was searching for them. North of the convoy, at 45 miles distance, was Vizalma and another ship, while Burnett's cruisers were 15 miles southeast of them, and 30 miles from the convoy. To the east, 150 miles away, the home-bound convoy RA 51 was heading west. To the north of the convoy, Hipper and three destroyers were closing, while 50 miles away Lützow and her three destroyers were closing from the south. At 08:00 the destroyer Eckholdt sighted the convoy and reported it to Hipper.
At 08:20 on 31 December, Obdurate, stationed south of the convoy, spotted three German destroyers to the rear (west) of the convoy. Then, Onslow spotted Admiral Hipper, also to the rear of the convoy, and steered to intercept with Orwell, Obedient and Obdurate, while Achates was ordered to stay with the convoy and make smoke. After some firing, the British ships turned, apparently to make a torpedo attack. Heavily outgunned, Sherbrooke knew that his torpedoes were his most formidable weapons; the attack was feigned as once the torpedoes had been launched their threat would be gone. The ruse worked: Hipper temporarily retired, since Kummetz had been ordered not to risk his ships. Admiral Hipper returned to make a second attack, hitting Onslow causing heavy damage and many casualties including 17 killed. Although Onslow ultimately survived the action, Sherbrooke had been badly injured by a large steel splinter and command passed to Obedient.
Hipper then pulled north of the convoy, stumbled across Bramble, a Halcyon-class minesweeper, which opened fire; Hipper returned fire with her much heavier guns. The destroyer Eckholdt was ordered to finish Bramble off, (she sank with all hands) while the Admiral Hipper shifted target to Obedient and Achates to the south. Achates was badly damaged, but she continued to lay down smoke until she eventually sank. (The trawler Northern Gem rescued many of the crew of Achates.) The Germans reported sinking a destroyer, but this was on the basis of the misidentifying the minesweeper Bramble; they never realised Achates had been hit.
The shellfire attracted the attention of Force R, which was still further north. Sheffield and Jamaica approached unseen, and opened fire on Admiral Hipper at 11:35, hitting her with enough six-inch shells to damage (and cause minor flooding) to two of her boiler rooms, and reducing her speed to 28 knots. Kummetz initially thought that the attack of the two cruisers was coming from another destroyer, but upon realising his mistake, he ordered his ships to retreat to the west. In another case of mistaken identity, Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen mistook Sheffield for Admiral Hipper; after attempting to form up with the British ships, they were engaged by Sheffield with Eckholdt breaking in two and sinking with all hands.
Meanwhile, Lützow approached from the east and fired ineffectively at the convoy (which was still hidden by smoke from the crippled Achates). Heading northwest to join Admiral Hipper, Lützow also encountered Sheffield and Jamaica, which opened fire. Coincidentally, both sides decided to break off the action at the same time, each side fearing imminent torpedo attacks upon their heavy ships from the other's remaining destroyers. This was shortly after noon. Burnett with Force R continued to shadow the German ships at a distance until it was evident that they were retiring to their base, while the ships of the convoy re-formed and continued towards Kola Inlet.
Despite this German attack on convoy JW 51B, all 14 of its merchant ships reached their destinations in the USSR undamaged.
Even more critically for the outcome of the war, Adolf Hitler was infuriated at what he perceived as the uselessness of the surface raiders, seeing that two heavy cruisers were driven off by mere destroyers. There were serious implications: this failure nearly made Hitler enforce a decision to scrap the surface fleet, and for the German Navy to concentrate on U-boat warfare. Admiral Erich Raeder, supreme commander of the Kriegsmarine, offered his resignation—which Hitler accepted, apparently reluctantly. Raeder was replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander of the U-boat fleet, who saved the German surface fleet from scrapping (though Hipper and several light cruisers were laid up).
E-boats continued to operate off the coast of France, but the only major surface operation completed following the battle was the attempted raid on Convoy JW 55B by the battleship Scharnhorst, sunk by an escorting British task force in what later became known as the Battle of the North Cape.
On the British side, Captain Robert Sherbrooke was awarded the Victoria Cross. He acknowledged that it had truthfully been awarded in honour of the whole crew of Onslow. In the action he had been badly wounded, and had lost the sight in one eye. However, he returned to active duty, and retired from the navy in the 1950s with the rank of rear-admiral.
At the memorial for Bramble, Captain Harvey Crombie stated of the crew: "They had braved difficulties and perils probably unparalleled in the annals of the British Navy, and calls upon their courage and endurance were constant, but they never failed. They would not have us think sadly at this time, but rather that we should praise God that they had remained steadfast to duty to the end."
The battle was the subject of the book 73 North by Dudley Pope.
- U-354 at U-boat.net
- Kemp p. 118.
- Griffiths, David (27 August 2005). "Russian Convoy JW51B, Official Report, HMS Achates, HMS Bramble". WW2 People's War. BBC.
- Kappes, Irwin J. (23 February 2010). "Battle of the Barents Sea". German-Navy.De. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
- "HMS Bramble 1942". halcyon-class.co.uk. 7 November 2010. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
- Battle of the Barents Sea — comprehensive article by Irwin J. Kappes
- Coxswain Sid Kerslake of armed trawler "Northern Gem" during Convoy JW.51B and the Battle of the Barents Sea