Battle of the Barents Sea
The Battle of the Barents Sea took place on 31 December 1942 between German
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 surface raiders and British ships escorting convoy
A convoy is a group of vehicles, typically motor vehicles or ships, traveling together for mutual support and protection. Often, a convoy is organized with armed defensive support, though it may also be used in a non-military sense, for example when driving through remote areas.-Age of Sail:Naval...

 JW 51B to Kola Inlet in the USSR. The action took place in the Barents Sea
Barents Sea
The Barents Sea is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, located north of Norway and Russia. Known in the Middle Ages as the Murman Sea, the sea takes its current name from the Dutch navigator Willem Barents...

 north of North Cape, Norway
North Cape, Norway
North Cape is a cape on the island of Magerøya in Northern Norway, in the municipality of Nordkapp. Its 307 m high, steep cliff is often referred to as the northernmost point of Europe, located at , 2102.3 km from the North Pole. However, the neighbouring point Knivskjellodden is actually...

. The German raiders failure to inflict heavy losses on the convoy infuriated Hitler who ordered that German naval strategy would focus on the U-boat fleet, shunting the surface ships aside.


Convoy JW 51B
Convoy JW 51B
Convoy JW 51B was an Arctic convoy sent from Great Britain by the Western Allies to aid the Soviet Union during World War II. It sailed in late December 1942, reaching the Soviet northern ports in early January 1943....

 comprised fourteen merchant ships carrying war materials to the USSR — some 202 tanks, 2,046 other vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11500 ST (10,432.6 t) of fuel, 12650 ST (11,475.9 t) of aviation fuel and just over 54000 ST (48,988 t) of other supplies. They were protected by the destroyer
In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller, powerful, short-range attackers. Destroyers, originally called torpedo-boat destroyers in 1892, evolved from...

s , , , , and ; Flower-class
Flower class corvette
The Flower-class corvette was a class of 267 corvettes used during World War II, specifically with the Allied navies as anti-submarine convoy escorts during the Battle of the Atlantic...

 corvettes and ; the minesweeper
Minesweeper (ship)
A minesweeper is a small naval warship designed to counter the threat posed by naval mines. Minesweepers generally detect then neutralize mines in advance of other naval operations.-History:...

 ; and trawler
Naval trawler
A naval trawler is a vessel built along the lines of a fishing trawler but fitted out for naval purposes. Naval trawlers were widely used during the First and Second world wars. Fishing trawlers were particularly suited for many naval requirements because they were robust boats designed to work...

s 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
Convoy PQ-17
PQ 17 was the code name for an Allied World War II convoy in the Arctic Ocean. In July 1942, the Arctic convoys suffered a significant defeat when Convoy PQ 17 lost 24 of its 35 merchant ships during a series of heavy enemy daylight attacks which lasted a week. On 27 June, the ships sailed...


In addition to the convoy escort, two cruisers — and — and two destroyers were independently stationed in the Barents Sea
Barents Sea
The Barents Sea is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean, located north of Norway and Russia. Known in the Middle Ages as the Murman Sea, the sea takes its current name from the Dutch navigator Willem Barents...

 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
Heavy cruiser
The heavy cruiser was a type of cruiser, a naval warship designed for long range, high speed and an armament of naval guns roughly 203mm calibre . The heavy cruiser can be seen as a lineage of ship design from 1915 until 1945, although the term 'heavy cruiser' only came into formal use in 1930...

 ; large cruiser
Deutschland class cruiser
The Deutschland class was a series of three panzerschiffe , a form of heavily armed cruiser, built by the Reichsmarine officially in accordance with restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles...

 Lützow; and destroyer
In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller, powerful, short-range attackers. Destroyers, originally called torpedo-boat destroyers in 1892, evolved from...

s Friedrich Eckholdt
German destroyer Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt
Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt was a built for the German Navy in the mid-1930s. At the beginning of World War II, the ship was initially deployed to blockade the Polish coast, but she was quickly transferred to the German Bight to lay minefields in German waters...

, Richard Beitzen
German destroyer Z4 Richard Beitzen
The German destroyer Z4 Richard Beitzen was a Type 1934 destroyer in the German Kriegsmarine, named after Richard Beitzen who commanded the 14th Torpedo boat flotilla in World War I and was killed in action in March 1918....

, Theodor Riedel, Z 29, Z 30 and Z 31. These ships were based at Altafjord
Alta, Norway
-Birdlife:For those interested in bird watching, the river outlet, known locally as Altaosen is well worth a visit. This tidal area is used as a stopover for many wetland species.-Transportation:...

 in northern Norway, and were under the overall command of Vice-Admiral Oskar Kummetz
Oskar Kummetz
Oskar Kummetz was a Generaladmiral with the Kriegsmarine during World War II. He also served in the Kaiserliche Marine during World War I. Kummetz was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his actions in the Battle of Drøbak Sound, during which his command, the was sunk by Norwegian...

, in Hipper.

Convoy JW 51B sailed from Loch Ewe on 22 December 1942 and met its escort off Iceland
Iceland , described as the Republic of Iceland, is a Nordic and European island country in the North Atlantic Ocean, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland also refers to the main island of the country, which contains almost all the population and almost all the land area. The country has a population...

 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 battle

The encounter took place in the middle of the polar night
Polar night
The polar night occurs when the night lasts for more than 24 hours. This occurs only inside the polar circles. The opposite phenomenon, the polar day, or midnight sun, occurs when the sun stays above the horizon for more than 24 hours.-Description:...

 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
or Finnmárku is a county in the extreme northeast of Norway. By land it borders Troms county to the west, Finland to the south and Russia to the east, and by water, the Norwegian Sea to the northwest, and the Barents Sea to the north and northeast.The county was formerly known as Finmarkens...

 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 to make a feigned torpedo
The modern torpedo is a self-propelled missile weapon with an explosive warhead, launched above or below the water surface, propelled underwater towards a target, and designed to detonate either on contact with it or in proximity to it.The term torpedo was originally employed for...

 attack. Heavily outgunned, Sherbrooke knew that his torpedoes were his most formidable weapons and once launched, that 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 and causing heavy damage, although Onslow ultimately survived the action. Sherbrooke was 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
Halcyon class minesweeper
The Halcyon class was a class of 21 oil-fired minesweepers built for the British Royal Navy between 1933 and 1939...

, which opened fire; Hipper returned fire with her much heavier guns. The destroyer Eckholdt was ordered to finish Bramble off, 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 sinking the minesweeper Bramble, which they mistook for a destroyer. They never realised Achates had been hit.

All this firing attracted the attention of Force R, which was still farther north. Sheffield and Jamaica approached unseen, and they 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 dropping 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, and Eckholdt broke into two and sank with all hands by Sheffield as Bramble had been.

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 found 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 fourteen of its merchant ships reached their destinations in the USSR.

Even more critically for the outcome of the war, Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 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
U-boat is the anglicized version of the German word U-Boot , itself an abbreviation of Unterseeboot , and refers to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in World War I and World War II...

 warfare. Admiral Erich Raeder
Erich Raeder
Erich Johann Albert Raeder was a naval leader in Germany before and during World War II. Raeder attained the highest possible naval rank—that of Großadmiral — in 1939, becoming the first person to hold that rank since Alfred von Tirpitz...

, supreme commander of the Kriegsmarine
The Kriegsmarine was the name of the German Navy during the Nazi regime . It superseded the Kaiserliche Marine of World War I and the post-war Reichsmarine. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany.The Kriegsmarine grew rapidly...

, offered his resignation—which Hitler accepted, apparently reluctantly. Raeder was replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz
Karl Dönitz
Karl Dönitz was a German naval commander during World War II. He started his career in the German Navy during World War I. In 1918, while he was in command of , the submarine was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner...

, the commander of the U-boat fleet, who saved the German surface fleet from scrapping (though Hipper, and several light cruisers, were laid up), but many of those same ships including Hipper and Lützow were bombed and sunk later during the British bombing campaign of the first 4 months of 1945, and only Prinz Eugen
German cruiser Prinz Eugen
Prinz Eugen was an Admiral Hipper-class heavy cruiser, the third member of the class of five vessels. She served with the German Kriegsmarine during World War II. The ship was laid down in April 1936 and launched August 1938; Prinz Eugen entered service after the outbreak of war, in August 1940...

, Nürnberg
German cruiser Nürnberg
The Nürnberg, was a German light cruiser of the Leipzig class named after the city of Nuremberg. Some sources consider the Leipzig and Nürnberg to be of separate, single ship, classes...

, with 20-odd destroyers survived the war afloat.

On the British side, Captain Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke was awarded the Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....

. He generously 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."

Also, the battle became the subject of the book 73 North by Dudley Pope
Dudley Pope
Dudley Bernard Egerton Pope was a British writer of both nautical fiction and history, most notable for his Lord Ramage series of historical novels. Greatly inspired by C.S. Forester, Pope was one of the most successful authors to explore the genre of nautical fiction, often compared to Patrick...


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