The Battle of the Barents Sea was a World War II naval engagement on 31 December 1942 between warships of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) and British ships escorting convoy JW 51B to Kola Inlet in the USSR. The action took place in the Barents Sea north of North Cape, Norway. The German raiders' failure to inflict significant losses on the convoy infuriated Hitler, who ordered that German naval strategy would concentrate on the U-boat fleet rather than surface ships.
Convoy JW 51B comprised fourteen merchant ships carrying war materials to the USSR -- some 202 tanks, 2,046 vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 short tons (10,433 t; 10,268 long tons) of fuel, 12,650 short tons (11,476 t; 11,295 long tons) of aviation fuel and just over 54,000 short tons (48,988 t; 48,214 long tons) of other supplies. They were protected by the destroyers HMS Achates, Orwell, Oribi, Onslow, Obedient and Obdurate; the Flower-class corvettes HMS Rhododendron and Hyderabad; the minesweeper HMS Bramble; and trawlers Vizalma and Northern Gem. The escort commander was Captain Robert Sherbrooke RN (flag in Onslow). The convoy sailed in the dead of winter to preclude attacks by German aircraft, like those that devastated Convoy PQ 17. Force R (Rear-Admiral Robert L. Burnett), with the cruisers HMS Sheffield and Jamaica and two destroyers, were independently stationed in the Barents Sea to provide distant cover.
On 31 December, a German force, based at Altafjord in northern Norway, under the command of Vice-Admiral Oskar Kummetz, on Admiral Hipper set sail in Unternehmen Regenbogen (Operation Rainbow). After Convoy PQ 18, the force had waited to attack the next Arctic convoy but their temporary suspension by the British during Operation Torch in the Mediterranean and Operation FB, the routing of single ships to Russia, had provided no opportunity to begin the operation. The force comprised the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper, Lützow (the renamed Deutschland), and destroyers Friedrich Eckoldt, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Z29, Z30 and Z31.
JW 51B sailed from Loch Ewe on 22 December 1942 and met its escort off Iceland on 25 December. From there the ships sailed north-east, 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 and Bramble was detached to search for them. Three of the straggling merchantmen rejoined the following day; the other ships proceeded independently towards Kola Inlet. On 24 December the convoy was sighted by German reconnaissance aircraft and from 30 December was shadowed 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 Admiral Hipper and Lützow, respectively.
At 08:00 on 31 December, the main body of JW 51B, twelve ships and eight warships, were some 120 nmi (140 mi; 220 km) north of the coast of Finnmark heading east. Detached from the convoy were the destroyer Oribi and one ship, which took no part in the action; 15 nmi (17 mi; 28 km) astern (north-east) of the convoy Bramble was searching for them. North of the convoy, at 45 nmi (52 mi; 83 km) distance, was Vizalma and another ship, while Burnett's cruisers were 15 nmi (17 mi; 28 km) southeast of them, and 30 nmi (35 mi; 56 km) from the convoy. To the east, 150 nmi (170 mi; 280 km) away, the home-bound convoy RA 51 was heading west. To the north of the convoy, Admiral Hipper and three destroyers were closing, while 50 nmi (58 mi; 93 km) away Lützow and her three destroyers were closing from the south. At 08:00 the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt sighted the convoy and reported it to Admiral 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, apparently to make a torpedo attack. Heavily outgunned, Sherbrooke knew that his torpedoes were his most formidable weapons; the attack was feigned as once the torpedoes had been launched their threat would be gone. The ruse worked: Admiral Hipper temporarily retired, since Kummetz had been ordered not to risk his ships. Admiral Hipper returned to make a second attack, hitting Onslow causing heavy damage and many casualties including 17 killed. Although Onslow ultimately survived the action, Sherbrooke had been badly injured by a large steel splinter and command passed to Obedient.
Admiral Hipper then pulled north of the convoy, stumbled across Bramble, a Halcyon-class minesweeper, which opened fire; Admiral Hipper returned fire with her much heavier guns. The destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt was ordered to finish off Bramble, which sank with all hands, while Admiral Hipper shifted aim to Obedient and Achates to the south. Achates was badly damaged but continued to make smoke until eventually she sank; the trawler Northern Gem rescued many of the crew. The Germans reported sinking a destroyer but this was owing to the misidentification of the minesweeper Bramble; they had not realised Achates had been hit.
The shellfire attracted the attention of Force R, which was still further north. Sheffield and Jamaica approached unseen and 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, reducing her speed to 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph). 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, Friedrich Eckholdt and Richard Beitzen mistook Sheffield for Admiral Hipper; after attempting to form up with the British ships, they were engaged by Sheffield with Friedrich Eckholdt breaking in two and sinking with all hands.
Lützow approached from the east and fired ineffectively at the convoy, still hidden by smoke from the crippled Achates. Heading north-west to join Admiral Hipper, Lützow also encountered 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.
The encounter took place in the middle of the months-long polar night and both the German and British forces were scattered and unsure of the positions of the rest of their own forces, much less their opponent. The battle became a rather confused affair and sometimes it was not clear who was firing on whom or how many ships were engaged. Despite this German attack on convoy JW 51B, all 14 of its merchant ships reached their destinations in the USSR undamaged.
Hitler was infuriated at what he regarded as the uselessness of the surface raiders, seeing that two heavy cruisers were driven off by mere destroyers. There were serious consequences: this failure nearly made Hitler enforce a decision to scrap the surface fleet and order the German Navy to concentrate on U-boat warfare. Admiral Erich Raeder, supreme commander of the Kriegsmarine, offered his resignation--which Hitler accepted. Raeder was replaced by Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander of the U-boat fleet.
Dönitz saved the German surface fleet from scrapping; though Admiral Hipper and two (Emden and Leipzig) of the light cruisers were laid up until late 1944, while repairs and rebuilding of the battleship Gneisenau were abandoned. Although German E-boats continued to operate off the coast of France, only one more big surface operation was executed after the battle. This was the attempted raid on Convoy JW 55B by the battleship Scharnhorst. The battleship was sunk by an escorting British task force in what later became known as the Battle of the North Cape.
Captain Robert Sherbrooke was awarded the Victoria Cross. He acknowledged that it had really been awarded in honour of the whole crew of Onslow. In the action he had been badly wounded and he lost the sight in his left eye. 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 said 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.