The battle of the North Cape was the last major surface battle fought by the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and effectively eliminated the threat to the Arctic convoys posed by the German surface fleet. It saw the last active German battleship sunk, in what turned into a very one sided battle after the British successfully ambushed the Scharnhorst.
The book begins with a useful introduction to the naval campaign in northern waters, looking at the reason for the Arctic convoys, the various German attacks on them, the movement of their surviving capital ships to the north of Norway, and the battle of the Barents Sea, the previous German attempt to use their larger ships to attack a convoy. A look at the campaign map makes you realise just how vulnerable the Russia convoys were, with the German occupied Norwegian coast to their east for almost the entire voyage.
The standard ‘Opposing’ chapters come next, but here they feel like they produce a coherent narrative of the build-up to the battle, looking at the advantages the British had in each field – officers, ships and plans. We then move on to an excellent account of the battle itself, with each twist and turn seen from both sides, so we get to feel the uncertainty on the German side, the nervousness on the British side (especially when it looked as if the Scharnhorst might escape), and the eventual destruction of the Scharnhorst.
I would quibble slightly with the suggestion that this battle was entirely the last of its kind. It was certainly the last battle in which a British battleship fought an enemy battleship, and the last clash between battleships that only involved surface ships, but the last clash between battleships actually came almost a year later, during the battle of the Surigao Strait on 25 October 1944, part of the battle of Leyte Gulf (although that battle was influenced by air power).
The build up to the battle demonstrates just how big an advantage the British had at sea by 1943. First was the cracking of the German codes, which meant that the British commander, Admiral Fraser, had a pretty good idea what the Germans were doing. Second was superior radar, which would prove to be especially valuable in a battle fought in the dark of an Arctic winter (the Germans also had naval radar, but used it so badly that the Scharnhorst was caught by surprise on three separate occasions during the battle!). Third was much superior experience of active naval operations, which meant that the Admiralty was able to coordinate two naval forces and two convoys, and provide Fraser with an experienced staff. In contrast the German commander, Admiral Bey, was left with a small, inexperienced staff (partly because his predecessor had taken most of his staff with him when he left, but mainly because the German battleships spent most of their time in port, so their staff simply didn’t have the chance to gain experience). Fourth was that the Germans would be badly outnumbered in the fight – Scharnhorst would only be supported by five destroyers, and then only for part of the battle, while the British were able to commit the battleship Duke of York (with more powerful guns than her opponent), four cruisers and eight destroyers to the two covering forces.
The account of the battle itself makes it clear that despite all of their advantages, the British victory owned a remarkable amount to luck! Even the British radar was comparatively short range, so there was a great deal of chance involved in when and if the two forces actually found each other. At the start of the clash the Scharnhorst actually got into a good position to attack one of the convoys involved, but didn’t realise this and missed the chance. Twice she was able to use her superior speed to escape from the British cruisers, and the Scharnhorst was almost out of range when a lucky hit from the Duke of York, fired under radar guidance with their opponent out of sight, hit in just the right place to cut the Scharnhorst’s speed.
Origins of the Campaign
The wreck of the Scharnhorst
Author: Angus Konstam