By the Spring of 1942, Hitler had convinced himself that the Allies were planning an attack on Nazi-occupied Europe and that this attack would come through Norway. The increasing number of commando raids on Norway helped to persuade Hitler that he was correct. He therefore needed a plan to counter this attack. He had no intention of moving any troops from Russia, so he ordered the German Navy to send a powerful fleet of warships to Norway which would then be used to attack any planned amphibious raid by the Allies via the North Sea to Norway. As a result, the 'Prinz Eugen', 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau' were ordered to move from Brest in France to Norway. They joined the 'Hipper', 'Admiral Scheer' and 'Köln' that were already based in Altenfjord, Norway. Therefore, there was a formidable presence of large German warships based in Norway. There was also one problem regarding their use. Hitler had specifically ordered that the ships could not be used for any other purpose than to attack any invading force and that he would not accept any "undue risk" to the ships there. Therefore, the use of these powerful ships against convoys was forbidden by Hitler as clearly the convoys were not an invading force.
Between September and November 1942, there were no Artic convoys as the Allies were concentrating their resources on Operation Torch. The convoys to Russia started again in December 1942. It had been decided that two convoys would sail to Russia in December - one on the 18th and another on the 22nd. Both convoys were scheduled to consist of 15 ships. The first of the return journeys was scheduled to start on December 31st.
The first of the convoys - JW-51A - sailed on time on the 18th and arrived safely as it was protected by destroyers and two cruisers - 'Sheffield' and 'Jamaica'. The cruisers were there to scare off U-boats and on this occasion, they did a perfect job. They were also a major threat to any surface warship that might want to attack the merchant ships of JW-51A as both the 'Jamaica' and 'Sheffield' were armed with 6-inch guns.
Convoy JW-51B sailed, as planned, on the 22nd. This convoy carried 202 tanks, 2,046 vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 tons of fuel, 12,650 of aviation fuel and just over 54,000 tons of other supplies. The convoy was protected by three destroyers, a minesweeper, two corvettes and a trawler as it left Scotland. To the east of Iceland, six large fleet destroyers took over from the three smaller destroyers. these six destroyers were the 'Onslow', 'Oribi', 'Obedient', 'Obdurate', 'Orwell' and 'Achates'. The destroyer force was commanded by Captain R Sherbrooke.
On December 28th, the convoy was hit by a storm which split it up. When the ships had reformed, they had been pushed much further south than planned and by the 30th, they were only 200 miles from Altenfjord - the base for many large German warships. Sherbrooke was warned by the Admiralty that they had picked up much more German radio activity along the Norwegian coast than was normal. Did this indicate that they were about to attack the convoy? In fact, the Germans were preparing a major attack against a convoy that had been tailed by U-354 which had reported back its speed and direction.
On the same day, Hitler had launched into a tirade against the German Navy which was precipitated by his belief that the British Navy had the free use of the Mediterranean Sea and that the German Navy was doing nothing about it. With reference to the Navy in Norway, Hitler is quoted as saying:
Our own navy is but a copy of the British - and a poor copy at that. The warships are not in operational readiness; they are lying idle in the fjords, utterly useless like so much old iron.
However, when it was reported to Hitler that Convoy JW-51B was just off the coast of Altenfjord, he became excited. First, a successful attack on an Allied convoy would show the Allies the strength of the German Navy in the region and second, a successful attack would prevent valuable equipment from reaching the Russians. An attack also had the support of the German Navy's hierarchy, if only to prove to Hitler that the navy had some value.
Late on December 30th, the Hipper and Lützow sailed from Altenfjord with six destroyers. Their plan was simple. They would split into two groups (Hipper and three destroyers and Lützow with three destroyers) with the group led by Hipper attacking the convoy from the north, which would force the convoy to turn south, into the path of the Lützow and her three destroyers. Basically, the convoy would be trapped between them.
However, the plan was fatally weakened when Admiral Kummetz, flag officer on the Hipper, received an order reminding him of Hitler's demand that the large ships of the German Navy in Norway should not be put at risk in any conflict with the enemy. This meant that he had to put out of commission for the attack both the Hipper and the Lützow. Hitler clearly was keen to know about the attack as he ordered that he should be kept informed immediately of any developments.
Sherbrooke had been kept well informed of German radio traffic and he knew that a U-boat was ahead of the convoy with another one stationed to the south of it. He also knew that a German destroyer was in the vicinity.
The battle began almost by accident. The British had assumed that they would be met by Russian destroyers during the voyage - in fact, this was due to a misunderstanding. At 09.15, 'Obdurate' sighted three destroyers and signaled to them to confirm their identity as Russian. The response was for a German destroyer to fire at the 'Obdurate'. Sherbrooke's force went into immediate battle stations.
Kummetz did use the 'Hipper' in the attack but his movements were restrained by Hitler's order not to take risks with the cruisers. The log from the 'Hipper' shows that Kummetz was extremely concerned about torpedoes being fired from the British destroyers as well as the weather in the region.
Visibility very poor. Everything seems hazy. cannot make out whether I am dealing with friend or foe. A total of ten ships now in sight, some of which look like destroyers. It cannot be said for certain whether our shadowing destroyers are not among them
09.44. A destroyer approached from the south-east and then put her helm hard over. She had fired her torpedoes."
From the log of the 'Hipper'
In fact, the ship referred to was the 'Onslow' but she had not fired any torpedoes. The Hipper reacted by turning her stern to the Onslow to make as small as target as was possible - but she also sailed away from the convoy. At 09.57, the Hipper headed back to the convoy and used her eight 8 inch guns to fire on the Onslow and Orwell. The British destroyers could only reply with either 4 inch guns (on the Orwell) or 4.7 inch guns on the Onslow. Kummetz knew that these size shells could do little damage to the Hipper. But despite this, the Hipper turned away from the destroyers - Hitler's order about risk was clearly a major factor in formulating the tactics of Kummetz.
At 10.13, the Hipper made another attack on the Orwell and Onslow. At 10.19, a shell from the Hipper hit the Onslow and seriously damaged her both in the bridge and in the engine room. Sherbrooke himself was badly injured but continued to issue commands to his crew. Two more shells from the Hipper did considerable damage to the Onslow and the Orwell was faced with the choice of making a solo attack on the Hipper to draw it away from the Onslow, but such an attack would have been extremely dangerous, or to somehow give cover to the Onslow to give the destroyer some chance of making an escape. The Orwell was spared a decision as the Hipper once more turned away again and vanished into a snow storm. Sherbrooke, awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership, handed over the command of the destroyer force to Obedient and steered the Onslow into the convoy. Forty of Sherbrooke's crew had been killed or wounded in two minutes and the ship had suffered major damage.
Kummetz on the Hipper never knew that the only serviceable ship between him and the convoy was the Orwell once the Onslow had been hit.
The Lützow continued her move from the south. Her captain, Stange, was also seriously hampered by Hitler's order to avoid risks. The Lützow spotted ships between three and seven miles away; her formidable 11 inch guns had a range of 15 miles. Yet her log states that "no identification (was) possible" of the targets that were seen and she did not attack. One log entry is very telling:
(At 10.50) Impossible at first to ascertain whether dealing with friend or foe because of the poor light and the smoke and mist on the horizon. To avoid observation from the Lützow being obscured by the snow squalls and smoke drifting south, I (Stange) decided to proceed at slow speed in the vicinity of the convoy, clear of the snow squalls, in order to take advantage of opportunities for attack as visibility improved.
In fact, the Lützow could have attacked the convoy at will as there were no British naval ships in the area as they were concentrating on the Hipper. The huge fire power that the Lützow carried was never used in the battle. Stange eventually abandoned any engagement with Convoy JW-51B due to poor visibility and poor light.
The Hipper continued attacking and in one sense Kummetz ignored Hitler's order. Having seriously damaged the Onslow, he sank the Achates but once again turned away from the other destroyers attacking the Hipper out of fear of their torpedoes. The involvement of the Hipper was sealed when the cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield appeared on the scene and 24 6-inch shells were fired at the Hipper. One from the Sheffield and two from the Jamaica hit the Hipper. An accompanying German destroyer laid down a smoke screen to assist the Hipper's withdrawal. One German destroyer, the 'Friedrich Eckholdt', was sunk by the Sheffield.
The Hipper and the Lützow sailed back to Altenfjord with her five remaining destroyer escorts. The Jamaica and Sheffield stayed with the convoy long enough to ensure that the Germans did not return and all the merchant ships reached their destination. When told of the news, Hitler flew into a rage. He referred to his ships as useless and decided on the spot that the High Seas Fleet should be scrapped. Admiral Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, tended his resignation and was replaced by Admiral Dönitz.