It was wholly dark. In the sea north of Tromsø in Norway, the great German battleship Scharnhorst was on a mission to sink an Allied supply convoy bound for Russia.
Unknown to the German command, the convoy’s British escort, led by Admiral Sir Robert Burnett and Admiral Bruce Fraser, had successfully intercepted the Scharnhorst’s radio communications. They were fully aware of the Scharnhorst’s plan to sink the convoy.
It was the day after Christmas. On the north sea, December 26th, total darkness reigned for most of the day. The British Admiral Fraser commanded from the HMS Duke of York, a powerful and heavily armed battleship. Supporting the Duke of York were the Cruiser Jamaica and four destroyers.
Admiral Burnett had three cruisers under his command, HMS Sheffield, HMS Belfast, and HMS Norfolk.
In preparation for the attack, Scharnhorst had been placed in a position of readiness, on the path of the convoy. Admiral Burnett was aware of her position and put his three ships between the convoy and the expected direction of attack. Admiral Fraser, meanwhile, manoeuvred his command to the south-west of Scharnhorst’s position, to block her escape.
The Scharnhorst had was accompanied by five destroyers. Her commander, Konteradmiral Erich Bey, now arrayed these in a line in front of Scharnhorst, screening her as he prepared to engage the convoy. The order to go to battle stations barked out over the Scharnhorst’s loudspeakers, and her crew of almost two thousand men prepared for the assault.
The German command was completely unaware of the presence of the British fleet. In an attempt to avoid detection, the radar systems on the Scharnhorst had been turned off. When the thunder of the Belfast’s first salvo tore through the darkness, it was a complete surprise. Minutes later, the Norfolk engaged. In this initial engagement, the Scharnhorst suffered two direct hits.
She returns fire from Caesar, the hindmost of her three massive gun turrets, but with little effect. Her forward radar capability had been destroyed, and she immediately increased her speed and attempted to disengage from the British cruisers.
The manoeuvre failed. British radar capability was well advanced in comparison to Germany, and an hour after the first exchange of fire the Belfast had picked up Scharnhorst in a position to the north-west of the convoy. The three cruisers immediately closed with the Scharnhorst and began to fire.
Scharnhorst had been equipped with two radar systems, one fore, one aft. The forward radar was in pieces, but the aft radar picked up the British ships, and Scharnhorst returned fire at their position from all three of her gun batteries. In the darkness, the Cruiser Norfolk took two direct hits.
Another turn, another increase in speed. The Scharnhorst, still intent on her mission, attempted again to escape the destroyers and find the convoy. Admiral Burnett backed off with his damaged cruisers but kept the Scharnhorst in the sights of his radar. Admiral Fraser began to move toward the rest of the fleet with the HMS Duke of York.
After some time searching unsuccessfully for her target, the Scharnhorst gave up the chase. The screen of destroyers was dismissed, and the Scharnhorst set course for her base in occupied Norway. But the British were not so easily put off.
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