Angus Konstam is a consumate naval historian, and in the past I have made much use of his work on pirates and motor torpedo boats. Here, he turns his attention to one of the least-known naval battles of the Second World War, that of the North Cape, which resulted in the sinking of the German Battlecruiser Scharnhorst.
In 1943 the Western Allies were reinforcing the Soviet Union via the treacherous Arctic Convoys, in the main from Scotland to the ports of Archangel and Murmansk. By supplying large amounts of lend-lease material, the Western Allies were helping the Soviets to fight the Germans on the Eastern Front. Hence the Arctic Convoy route became a vital point for the allies to defend, and the Germans to attack.
Although the German Navy was nowhere near the size of the Royal Navy, it was still feared that surface raiders such as the Scharnhorst might slip out of their Fjords in Norway and wreak havoc on the convoys. That is to say nothing either of the threat of U-Boats. As a result of these threats of the importance of their cargoes, convoys were shephered by naval escorts, and significant convoys were shadowed by larger units of the Home Fleet.
Convoy JW55B had sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland, and the Scharnhorst, along with her escorting destroyers, sailed out of Altenfjord in Norway to intercept. Thanks to Ultra intelligence decrypts the Royal Navy knew that she had sailed. The convoy was escorted by a powerful force of Cruisers, and the commander of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, sailed from Scapa Flow in his Flagship HMS Duke of York. Bruce Fraser is possibly one of the least well-known fighting Admirals of the Second World War.
The Scharnhorst was eventually detected by the shadowing force of Cruisers, which after engaging her briefly, reported her presence to Fraser in Duke of York. Eventually the Royal Navy’s ships circled in on the Battlecruiser as she steamed back to Norway. Superior gunnery skills from the British ships pounded the Scharnhorst into scrap metal, and a torpedo attack from British destroyers finally sent her below the waves.
What Konstam does really well here, is to demonstrate the fighting qualities of both navies. The Royal Navy was adept at sailing snd fighting anywhere – be it freezing cold seas, with mountainous waves. In fact, in Nelsonian tradition, it was expected of Captains to lay their ships alongside enemy and pound them into razorblades. The Kriegsmarine, for the most part, hid its major ships away from danger, and did not wish to risk their loss. The Admiralty devolved much responsibility to its commanders, who could fight their ships as they though fit. In contrast, Hitler, Donitz and the Fleet Command in Kiel interfered constantly with Konter Admiral Bey’s command. Konstam also emphasises the superiority of British technology, particularly the use or radars in gunnery direction.
This is a very gripping read, and one that I enjoyed immensely. The North Cape was a dramatic battle, and Angus Konstam tells its story engagingly.