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Ariecho

December 31 - Focus: Battle of the Barents Sea - Happy New Year!

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FIND ALL OUR DAILY THREADS HERE

 

General:

 

This is our last"daily thread" of the year.  On behalf of the "daily crew", please allow me to wish you, your family and loved ones a Happy New Year.  See you in 2014!

 

Large ships and events of December 31:

1902 - SMS Habsburg - Habsburg-class - Commissioned

1914 - HMS Barham - Queen Elizabeth-class - Launched

1933 - FS Kersaint - Vauquelin-class - Commissioned

1935 - HNMS Macoma - Merchantile Conversion-class - Launched

1942 - HMS Empress - Ameer-class - Launched

1942 - USS Carnegie - Repeat Bogue-class - Launched

1942 - USS Essex - Essex-class - Commissioned

1942 - USSR Kalinin - Maxim Gorkiy-class - Commissioned

1942 - Battle of the Barents Sea

1943 - HMS Arbiter - Ameer-class - Commissioned

 

Statistics:

Allies: 41 surface ships laid down, 50 launched, 66 commissioned and 4 sunk

Austria-Hungary 1 commissioned (SMS Habsburg)

Germany: 1 sunk (KM Friedrich Eckholdt)

 

And now, to our featured presentation...

 

1942

 

On December 15, 1942, convoy JW-51A left Loch Ewe and made its way to the Soviet Union unattacked, arriving 10 days later, on Christmas day.  JW 51A was the first winter convoy of that year, and its uneventful journey prompted the Allies to send more.

 

Seven days later, another convoy, JW-51B also left Scotland.  Two days later, on December 24, the convoy was spotted by a German airplane who reported its position.  However, because of a heavy storm, it was lost again for a few days.  Eventually, on December 30, despite the lack of day light at this latitude (average 2 hours per day), the convoy was spotted by U-354, a German type-VIIC submarine.  The U-boat signaled the convoy's position to the Kriegsmarine, who was waiting for such an eventuality.

 

Back in time:

The last convoy to Russia (beside JW-51A) had been convoy PQ-18, itself following the disastrous PQ-17, which ended with the loss of 24 merchant ships sunk, at the cost of 5 German aircraft.  After that, the Royal Navy started to employ escort carriers, but even the presence of HMS Avenger and her 10 Sea Hurricanes didn't stop the Luftwaffe.   

 

771px-Convoy_PQ18_September_1942.jpg

Convoy PQ-18 under attack

 

The British Admiralty decided that, at least for the time being, it would rely on winter, and the lack of visibility, until more forces could be made available to defend the convoys during day light.  Stalin didn't react very well to the stop in convoy activities but Churchill stood his ground and sent the following message to the Soviet dictator: 

 

“My naval advisers tell me that if they had the handling of the German naval surface, submarine and air forces, in present circumstances, they would guarantee the complete destruction of any convoy to North Russia . . . it is therefore with the greatest regret that we have reached the conclusion that to attempt to run the next convoy PQ18 would bring no benefit to you and would involve only dead loss to the common cause.”

 

Convoy JW 51B:

Convoy JW 51B was composed of 15 merchant ships: Empire Archer (UK), Daldorch (UK), Empire Emerald (UK), Pontfield (UK), Dover Hill (UK), Chester Valley (US), Puerto Rican (US), Executive (US), R.W. Emerson (US), Ballot (US), Jefferson Myers (US), Vermont (US), Yorkmar (US), J.H. Latrobe (US), Calobre (Panama).  In their bellies were 2,046 vehicles, 202 tanks, 87 crated fighter planes, 33 crated bombers, 11,600 tons of fuel oil, 12,650 tons of aviation fuel, and 54,000 tons of other equipment and supplies. 

 

Escort:

The convoy had its own immediate escort, composed of the minesweeper HMS Bramble, the corvettes HMS Hyderabad and HMS Rhododendron, and the trawlers HMS Northern Gem and HMS Vizalma. From Scotland to Iceland, they were also reinforced by three Hunt-class destroyers: HMS Blankney, HMS Chiddingfold and HMS Ledbury as well as another minesweeper: HMS Circe.  From Iceland to Murmansk, the Hunt-class destroyers were replaced by the 17th Destroyer Flotilla, composed of 5 O-class destroyers (HMS Onslow, HMS Oribi, HMS Obedient, HMS Obdurate, HMS Orwell), 1 A-class destroyer (HMS Achates) and 1 B-class destroyer (HMS Bulldog).

 

There is no need to say that such a light escort would have been no match, should the Kriegsmarine decide to intervene, so the Royal Navy also had a distant escort, performed by "Force R", under command from Admiral Burnett.  Force R was composed of the light cruisers HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica.  These two ships were coming from Murmansk and would head west to meet the convoy.

 

Finally, the Admiralty also provided a remote escort in the form of the battleship HMS Anson, the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland, and 3 additional destroyers: HMS ForesterHMS Icarus and HMS Impulsive.

 

Operation Rainbow:

Meanwhile, in Norway, the Kriegsmarine's heavy assets were waiting for the next convoy to come, and had put together a plan named Operation Regenbogen (rainbow).  They had totally missed JW-51A, because of the short day time, but they were ready to intercept the next convoy, which they had dubbed PQ-20 (obviously not knowing that the Allies had changed their terminology).  

 

For that purpose, the Kriegsmarine had 2 heavy cruisers: KM Admiral Hipper and KM Lützow (ex-KM Deutschland).  To escort them, 6 destroyers were available: KM Richard Beitzen (Z4)KM Friedrich Eckholdt (Z16)KM Z29KM Theodor Riedel (Z6)KM Z30 and KM Z31.  Missing were the German battleship Tirpitz , still conducting some sea trials after a major overhaul, KM Scharnhorst still in Germany and KM Gneisenau, who was in no shape to fight.  As soon as U-354 spotted the convoy on December 30, the Germans set their forces in movement.

 

The battle:

 

657px-Barents_Sea_map.png

 

German rules of engagement and plan:

The Germans were operating under very strict orders coming from Hitler himself.  "Do not take any risk.  Do not attack at night.  Do not attack any equal or superior force".  This limited the options for Admiral Kummetz, considering that, as aforementioned, there was only 2 hours of daylight.  Intercept had to be precise and timely, and the Germans had to be prudent.  Furthermore, Lützow was only to be engaged briefly, as he was supposed to head for the Atlantic after the battle.

 

Admiral Kummetz had decided to split his forces to give the convoy no escape route.  Admiral Hipper would attack from the north, drawing the escort against him, while Lützow would attack from the south.

 

British rules of engagement and plan:

The British rules of engagement were simple.  Protect the convoy at all cost.  To do so, the O-class destroyers would leave the convoy and rush towards the enemy, faking a torpedo attack, while the other destroyers would develop a smokescreen to hide the merchant ships' change of direction.  

 

Timeline:

On December 22, as described above, the convoy left Scotland, while its destroyer escort left independently.  Three days later, both met and the convoy continued in a northeastern direction, at a speed of 8 knots.  The Hunt-class destroyers stayed with the convoy until it reached Iceland, then refueled and headed back to Scotland.

 

HMS_Blankney_1943_IWM_FL_2355.jpg

HMS Blankney, one of the escorting Hunt-destroyers, as seen in 1943

 

On December 26, HMS Anson, HMS Cumberland, and their 3-destroyer escort also left Iceland, shadowing the convoy, ready to engage any attack coming from the south.  A day later, HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica left Murmansk, and started their journey west to meet the convoy.

 

The convoy passed the Arctic circle on December 26 and the weather conditions were getting worse.  Visibility was dropping by the minute and ice started to accumulate on the ships' decks.  Rough seas started to take their toll, and some ships already started to struggle maintaining their position in the convoy.  High winds joined the rough sea, as if the elements were telling the convoy to head back.  Gusts were so strong that one of the merchants, SS Daldorch lost all of her cargo.  Other ships were struggling, and soon the convoy and its escort started to disintegrate as an organized formation, forcing some of the smaller warships to act as sheep shepherd dogs.  The big bad wolf was their last concern for the time being, with the weather a much more deadly force to reckon with.

 

Meanwhile, on December 27, the two Murmansk-based cruisers left and headed west to meet the convoy.  Because of very poor weather conditions, no contact was made and the cruisers could only rely on what they thought would be the merchants' position to decide when to head back to an eastern direction.  Again, because a combination of wind and bad seas had slowed down the convoy to a speed of 7 knots, the cruisers missed the ships they were supposed to protect by 60 nautical miles.

 

11_zps04a2e1b0.jpg

HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica (not during the battle of the Barents Sea)

 

On December 30, around noon, the Kriegsmarine, following U-354's report, ordered its ships to leave their Norwegian port.  The German fleet was tasked to perform under the rules of engagement listed before.  It would take another 6 hours before every ship was ready, and by 18:00 they were at sea, heading northeast, with an intent to perform the pincer move that was planned.  During the night, the heavy cruisers separated, each with their escorting destroyers.  The combat table was set; the opponents had yet to meet.

 

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101II-MN-1025-13%2C_Sc

Lützow in Norway (1940)

 

The initial contact was made on December 31, around 07:15, mere shadows on the horizon.  Admiral Hipper signaled one of his destroyers to leave formation and find out what the shadows were, and KM Friedrich Eckholdt was sent to find out.   As the German destroyer was approaching, more shadows were appearing.

 

By that time, the winds had diminished and the seas were not as rough as they had been during the days and nights before.  While the convoy was relieved about the weather amelioration, Captains secretly knew it meant that the Germans would now have an opportunity to strike, if they intended to.

 

map_zps00b94f33.gif

Convoy JW-51B progression

 

The first sight of the German ships happened around 08:20.  It was however dismissed because the Royal Navy was expecting to see some Russian ships in the area.  Therefore, the Captain of HMS Hyderabad, one of the two corvettes decided not to report the sightings.  Ten minutes later, HMS Obdurate, one of the O-class destroyers also saw the silhouettes on the horizon and identified them as destroyers, but again, he thought they might just be some of the convoy stragglers coming back (HMS Oribi and HMS Bramble were away, playing shepherd dogs).  When the two incoming ships didn't signal the convoy, as any friendly ship would have done, HMS Obdurate was tasked to investigate.  Twenty five minutes had passed, giving more time for the other German ships to close in and set themselves in attack position.

 

While closing in, HMS Obdurate saw another silhouette profiling, and sent a signal asking for the ships to identify themselves.  They didn't answer but HMS Obdurate's Captain thought that had to be Russians, so he continued to close in.  The answer to his question came a few minutes later when the incoming ships opened fire.

 

As described in their orders (see above), the O-class destroyers turned around and joined to meet HMS Obdurate, while the other destroyers started to lay down a smokescreen.  While pressing on, the lookouts spotted another grey form appearing, much larger than a destroyer.  The big bad wolf had arrived.

 

797px-HMS_Cumberland_escort.jpg

HMS Obdurate, here with convoy JW-53, in a Russian port.  HMS Cumberland is seen in the back (left)

 

Admiral Hipper picked HMS Achates, busy laying down smoke, as his first target seemingly only doing some small damage although slowing her down, then picked a target within the convoy.  Immediately, British destroyers opened fire back at him, but some of the turrets would not operate, because of the extreme cold conditions.  They still got Admiral Hipper's attention, who was now expecting a torpedo attack and turned away.

 

While the start of the battle was unfolding, Force R was still looking for the convoy it was supposed to protect.  By 09:00, radar finally picked two spots at an evaluated distance of 8 miles.  The spots didn't indicate who (and more importantly) what the ships were, so Admiral Burnett decided to close the distance between his force and them.  Soon, gun shots could be heard, and flashes from the outgoing shells could be seen.  Admiral Burnett ordered his ships to accelerate and close in, in the direction of the lights provided by the gun fire.

 

map2_zps367d52f0.jpg?t=1388427402

Force R moves

 

Admiral Hipper and the destroyers both kept to their original plans.  The German cruiser was trying to lure the British destroyers away, to give Lützow the opportunity to move in free of any opposition.  Meanwhile, the British destroyers tried to convince the German cruisers that they were going to start a torpedo attack on him, keeping him away.  The only alteration to the original plan, on the British side, was generated by the disappearance of the 3 German destroyers.  To react to that, 2 British destroyers were sent back towards the convoy, sensing a trap, only leaving HMS Onslow and HMS Orwell against the heavy cruiser.  The cat and mouse game continued for a while until Admiral Hipper flexed his muscles and closed in a little more than at the maximum firing distance of the British destroyers.  HMS Onslow became the German cruiser's target of choice, in what would have already been an uneven fight, even without the destroyer missing most of her guns because of the accumulation of ice.  Salvo after salvo, Admiral Hipper focused on HMS Onslow, finally doing enough damage to force the British destroyer to retreat, under cover of her own smokescreen.

 

By 10:30, after forcing the destroyers away, Admiral Hipper closed in again.  On the horizon emerged the shape of what was first thought to be a British corvette.  It was in fact HMS Bramble trying to get back with the convoy.  The one-sided fight between the heavy cruiser and the minesweeper only took 6 minutes.  It was so intense that nobody onboard the small British ship even stood a chance to escape.  Those who managed to avoid the German fire were almost instantly killed by the frigid water.

 

Admiral Hipper and his escort were so focused on the convoy and what laid in between that they never picked the approaching Force R, although the German cruiser was equipped with radar.  HMS Sheffield got his attention by opening fire, soon followed by HMS Jamaica.  The first salvos fell around the cruiser, but the 5th one found its mark, exploding in one of the boiler rooms.  Admiral Hipper returned fire inaccurately, but following Hitler's orders, started to head away from the action. 

 

Not aware of the presence of the British cruisers, one of the German destroyers, seeing a large shape in the horizon, headed towards it, thinking that it was Admiral Hipper.  It was in fact HMS Sheffield who thought that the German destroyer's moves was an intent to start a torpedo attack.  Consequently, she focused on the incoming threat, KM Friedrich Eckholdt, and rapidly sank him.  His brother-ship (by now, you probably have figured out that I use "he" for German ships and "she" for British ships to respect their traditions) was luckier and avoided HMS Jamaica's focused fire.

 

With the withdrawal of the German forces, the convoy continued its route towards its destination, splitting between ships headed for Murmansk and ships headed for Arkhangelsk.  The outcome was a brilliant victory for the British showing, if needed, the gallantry of the destroyers' crews.  Hitler, the same man who had tied his fleet own arms before the fight, was furious about the lack of aggressiveness shown by his surface ships.  Only 1 merchant ship was lost, but it had nothing to do with German fire.  More convoys would come, with better escorts every time.

 

Ships' fates and accomplishments:

KM Lützow:  Lützow only saw action when Admiral Hipper was already retreating.  While he would have been in perfect position to attack the convoy, he failed to find its position.  His only intervention during the action was to held the British cruisers at bay, alongside Admiral Hipper, when an order to retreat had already been given.  Because of the rules of engagement, he didn't pursue combat, a fact also accepted by the now outgunned British cruisers.

 

HMS Anton and HMS Cumberland:  Both ships never had a chance to join the fight.

 

HMS Achates: The British destroyer, who was the first target of Admiral Hipper, courageously continued her duty, but what had first seemed to be non-substantial damage turned out to be deadly.  Only 81 crew members survived.

 

HMS_Achates_%28H12%29.jpg

HMS Achates

 

 

Edited by Ariecho
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I thought that speaking of Arctic convoys deserved a little more than just words.  What follows is a selection of pictures to show you what the men and ships endured.

 

9_zpsc0f46fdb.jpg

It's not all about warships.  They fought too, without any weapons

 

7_zps7816ce86.jpg

 

8-sheffield_zps40dd5f6f.jpg

HMS Sheffield

 

3_zps93fb9673.jpg

 

1_zps2b1dc6fb.jpg

 

6_zpsf51c6620.jpg

 

4_zpse99b1fbf.jpg

 

2_zpsddf34f36.jpg

 

5_zpsc5ea9d02.jpg

 

10_zps693c1686.jpg

 

 

 

Edited by Ariecho
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Good stuff!

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Why where they on icebergs? :trollface:

Wow, for real though, that must of sucked being in that kind of weather.

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Why where they on icebergs? :trollface:

Wow, for real though, that must of sucked being in that kind of weather.

 

World War 2 is funny, because major campaigns took place in areas where ten years prior it would have been utterly impossible to maintain forces there, much less fight. For the navies, that meant the Aleutians and the Arctic Convoys. For the armies, that meant the South and Southwest Pacific.

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Ugh, I can't imagine all the work they have to do to shave off all those ice.

 

Great post!

Thanks!  As mentioned in my post, the greatest danger of ice is that it was capable of jamming turrets, preventing them from either turning or even firing.

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Not just that; ice is actually pretty heavy stuff. Significant topside freezing can alter a ship's balance and make it behave in odd ways when turning.

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Great post and pictures. Removing the ice was a constant job, as can be seen in those pictures.

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