Friday 28 December 2012

The Battle of the Barents Sea, a V.C. and the end of the Kriegsmarine

Capt R St V Sherbrooke VC (IWM)
The end of 1942 saw the British public enjoying a respite from the bombing that had scarred London and many other of their major towns and cities during the First Blitz of 1940/41 and the Baedecker Raids of 1942. The fourth Christmas of the war for the British was more austere even than the previous three, with rationing and shortages beginning to bite but most people stoically got on with their war work after an all too brief break, which in most cases lasted just for one day. The news from overseas, certainly in the European theatre, continued to be encouraging. In the east, the Germans were surrounded at Stalingrad and disaster was imminently looming for them. In North Africa, the victory won at El Alamein in November 1942 was being consolidated as the Eighth Army swept towards Tripoli and the Afrika Korps found itself being squeezed into an ever diminishing space as the American and British armies advanced from the west following the successful 'Torch' landings the previous November. The Battle of the Atlantic continued with convoy after convoy battling their way through the U-Boats bringing their much needed supplies through to Britain. The attrition rate on both sides was frightening; the phenomenal output of the American shipyards would ensure that the Allies would win the 'tonnage war' although no shipyard on Earth could ever replace the brave seaman who would perish, many of them lost forever in the Atlantic. The casualties amongst the U-Boats were horrendous, once depth charged or sunk on the surface, hopes of escaping from the steel coffins were slim and once in the sea, chances of rescue were even slimmer. Reviled at the time, there can be no doubt that the U-Boat men were brave indeed.

Onboard HMS Sheffield during an Arctic convoy (IWM)

Staying with the war at sea, Christmas 1942 saw the resumption of the supply convoys to Northern Russia, which had earlier been suspended following earlier heavy losses, most notably amongst Convoy PQ17, which as a result of faulty intelligence and Admiralty meddling from afar had been ordered to scatter, leaving the merchant ships easy prey for the waiting U-Boats and Luftwaffe. After one more convoy, the route was suspended pending the return of the almost perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter and Christmas Eve 1942, saw the fourteen merchant ships of Convoy JW51B sailing from Loch Ewe together with their close escort of destroyers, corvettes and one minesweeper commanded by Captain Robert St. V. Sherbrooke in the destroyer Onslow. There was also a more distant escort of two cruisers, HM Ships Sheffield and Jamaica commanded by Admiral Robert 'Bob' Burnett. More distant cover still was provided by the heavy units of the Home Fleet.

Convoy JW51B was being viewed by the Kriegsmarine as an opportunity to justify the existence of it's heavy ships. Earlier losses amongst these units, most notably the battleships Graf Spee and the Bismarck as well as heavy losses in the Norwegian campaign had left Hitler with a feeling of deep skepticism about the usefulness of these ships as well as underlining the inherent inferiority complex that the Kriegsmarine felt towards the Royal Navy. Led by Admiral Kummetz, the plan was for the Pocket Battleship Lutzow, suupported by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, supported by six destroyers to sail from the base at Altenfjord, Norway and to force their way through what the Germans saw as a puny escort and having disposed of these, to wreak havoc amongst the merchant ships. 

The convoy had successfully met up with Sherbrooke's destroyers off Iceland on Christmas Day but heavy weather on the 28th/29th December had caused many of the merchant ships to lose station and when the weather eventually moderated, five merchant ships and two escorts had become detached from the main body of the convoy. Three of these merchant vessels eventually rejoined the convoy, with the remaining vessels heading independently towards Kola Inlet, which they reached safely. 

HMS Sheffield early in the war (IWM)

The German forces made contact with the convoy on New Year's Eve but despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers, were driven off time after time by the escorting destroyers. Sherbrooke fought his ships magnificently and using the threat of torpedo attack and the skilled use of smoke, the German ships were unable to break through. The defence was not without cost; the minesweeper Bramble, which was to the north of the convoy searching for the merchant ships detached by the bad weather stumbled across the Admiral Hipper, and true to the spirit of the Royal Navy, opened fire on her vastly more powerful enemy, which together with her escorting destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt, made short work of the little minesweeper, which sank with all hands. The German vessels then shifted their attention back to the convoy, attacking the destroyers, severely damaging the Onslow and grievously wounding Sherbrooke, who was hit in the face by a shell splinter. Despite his wounds, which saw Sherbrooke's left cheekbone shattered and his left eye dangling down the wound, the Captain refused to leave his bridge and continued in command until this latest attack had been beaten off. Only then did he allow himself to be taken below and relinquished command to the next most senior officer, Lt Cdr David Kinloch, in the destroyer Obedient. During this clash, the destroyer Achates, which had been laying smoke across the stern of the convoy, was also seriously hit, and was also to sink with heavy loss of life, although the escort trawler Northern Gem, commanded by Lt Horace Aisthorpe managed to pick up eighty one survivors from the freezing seas.

It was during this German attempt to reach the convoy that the British cruisers arrived on the scene. The time was 11:30 and adhering to the old adage, "When in doubt, steer for the sound of the guns", Burnett's cruisers achieved complete surprise; Admiral Hipper's guns were trained in the opposite direction to the Sheffield and Jamaica and it was not until twenty four six inch shells burst around her, that those on Hipper were aware that British reinforcements had arrived. The British gunfire, aided by radar, was extremely accurate; Sheffield's fifth salvo struck the target, as did Jamaica's fourth, fifth and sixth. Both ships were firing at intervals of less than twenty seconds and the hits by the British ships achieved much psychological as well as material damage to the Hipper and those in command of the German force, which retired in some disarray but not before the destroyer Eckholdt, which had earlier finished off Achates, now fatally mistook Sheffield for the Admiral Hipper and was literally blown out of the water by the British cruiser, sinking with all hands. Her last plaintiff signal to her flagship had been "You are firing on me." It is doubtful if those on board ever actually knew what had hit them.

The second heavy German ship, the Lutzow made a belated appearance on the scene but was again unable to force the issue and after some desultory exchanges, both sides retired due to the threat of torpedo attacks in the darkness by the escorting destroyers. The convoy had been saved and all fourteen merchant ships were able to reach their Russian destinations to discharge their precious cargoes. Sherbrooke, though dangerously wounded was later repatriated where he would eventually recover and return to duty. Whilst he was in Russia awaiting his return home, Sherbrooke would learn of the award of the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry for his superb defence of the convoy, which brought valuable time for the British cruisers to appear on the scene. It was also awarded, as Sherbrooke was modestly to admit later, for the actions of the whole of his escorting force.

Grossadmiral Erich Raeder (Bundesarchiv)
For the Kriegsmarine however, the repercussions of this defeat were to be enormous. Hitler, when informed of the debacle, flew into a rage and decreed that the remaining surface ships were "so much old iron", were a waste of valuable resources and were therefore were to be paid off with immediate effect. The guns could be used for coastal defence, the scrap metal used for building tanks and other materials for the army and the manpower transferred to U-Boats or to the infantry. This decision Hitler said, was "irrevocable."

For the head of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Raeder, it was too much and he immediately announced his retirement. His replacement was to be Admiral Donitz, head of the U-Boat arm and who managed to get  the decision to scrap the surface ships to be later partially reversed. Almost exactly one year later, the battleship Scharnhorst made a final foray against the Russian convoys only to be sunk off North Cape on Boxing Day 1943 by the British battleship Duke of York and her escorting cruisers and destroyers, one of which was the cruiser Sheffield, grizzled veteran of the Barents Sea, the Bismarck action and many battles in the Mediterranean.

Apart from the ships sunk and damaged in this and the other victories achieved by the Royal Navy, the Battle of the Barents Sea represented a greater, bloodless victory which resulted in many of the German surface ships being laid up in port, never again to venture to sea, many of which were to fall victim to the Allied air attacks.

Published Sources:

73 North - Dudley Pope, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1958
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
Engage the Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
The Fighting Admirals - Martin Stephen, Leo Cooper 1991

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