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Battle of the Barents Sea

31 Dec 1942


ww2dbaseOn the very last day of 1942, German heavy cruisers L├╝tzow and Admiral Hipper led nine destroyers against Allied convoy JW-51B in the Barents Sea; the raiding party was under the command of Admiral Oskar Kummetz. The convoy had originated from Loch Ewe in Scotland nine days earlier and was heading for Russia's Arctic port of Murmansk, carrying vital supplies that could not be delivered easier otherwise through the frozen northern terrain. The convoy included 14 merchant ships and tankers, carrying 2,500 trucks, 125 aircraft, 18,000 tons of fuel, 13,000 tons of aviation fuel, and 54,000 tons of various supplies; the supply ships were escorted by six destroyers commanded by Captain Robert Sherbrooke.

ww2dbaseThe German plan was to send in Admiral Hipper and her three destroyers from the north to engage the British destroyers while L├╝tzow and her six destroyers waited in the south for the merchant ships to escape right into her trap. Around 0830 that morning Admiral Hipper's destroyers were observed on the horizon by the convoy, but they were mistaken for Russian destroyers and no actions were taken until the German ships opened fire. Instead of charging up at the weaker British fleet, the German ships fired from a distance, clearly reflecting the lack of aggressiveness of the German plan for this engagement. Nevertheless, Admiral Hipper was able to score a few hits on the British destroyer, including a direct hit on the British flagship Onslow, severely wounding Sherbrooke by shrapnel. Unknown to the Germans, Rear Admiral R. L. Burnett's group of two cruisers of Sheffield and Jamaica was in the vicinity. Burnett received word of the attack at 0930, and reached the scene of the raid shortly after, surprising Admiral Hipper's group. At this time, the German surface fleet was restricted by a direct order by Adolf Hitler's meddling in naval affairs, disallowing ships to enter major engagements. Abiding by Hitler's orders, Kummetz ordered his task group to withdraw from battle after seeing the arrival of the two British cruisers. Burnett gave chase and hit Admiral Hipper three times. To make matters worse, German destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen mistook the British cruisers for Admiral Hipper and L├╝tzow (which was an odd mistake for L├╝tzow was nowhere near the battle at the moment) and actually tried to link up with them; they were promptly fired upon by the British cruisers. In a way, however, Admiral Hipper's group had accomplished their objective perfectly. They had drawn the attention of the British warships while the merchant ships and tankers sailed south into L├╝tzow's trap. Poor visibility and the same lack of aggressiveness haunted L├╝tzow's group, therefore unable to take advantage of the perfectly laid trap. At the end of the battle, the British lost two destroyers and a minesweeper, while the Germans lost a destroyer.

ww2dbaseThis battle, perhaps more fitting to be called a mere skirmish, was tactically insignificant. However, the engagement interested naval historians in the subsequent years. Though it was a tactical victory for the Germans when studying the score cards, it really reflected a major weakness at the top of the Kriegsmarine: Hitler. Meddling in naval matters which he had absolutely no experience in, his restrictive policy for the navy tied the hands of his admirals while delivered damaging consequences to the morale of the men. The direct result was the navy's inability to seal off the northern supply route to Murmansk. Unable to see his own mistakes, Hitler placed the blame on the naval leadership, replacing Erich Raeder with Karl D├Ânitz after Raeder received a scolding that lasted an hour and half. A bulk of the German surface fleet also received orders to be decommissioned; their guns were to be transferred ashore as coastal batteries. From this point on, the German surface fleet's influence was to be reduced to insignificance, while the focus of the Kriegsmarine shifted to submarine warfare almost entirely.

ww2dbaseSources: the Second World War, Twilight of the German Surface Fleet in World War II.

Last Major Update: Feb 2006

Battle of the Barents Sea Timeline

31 Dec 1942 Battle of the Barents Sea took place between the British Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine. The British lost destroyer HMS Achates and minesweeper HMS Bramble while the Germans lost destroyer Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt.

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