Order of Battle
The Battle of the Barents Sea
The Attack on Convoy JW 51B
31 December 1942
Contributed by Richard Hawes and Richard Kenney

1. Chronology, orders and plans:

1.1 Background Chronology.

i. The next convoy after PQ 17, PQ 18 (39 merchantmen, 1 rescue ship, 3 minesweepers and 1 oiler), sailed from Loch Ewe on 2nd September and arrived in Archangel on 21st September.  It was intended to fight its way through in daylight.

ii. The escorts and screens for PQ 18 totaled HMS Anson, Duke of York, Avenger, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cumberland, London, Sheffield, Jamaica, Scylla, 2 AA ships, 25 destroyers, 5 short range destroyers, 9 submarines, 4 corvettes, 3 minesweepers, 4 trawlers and 4 fleet oilers.

iii. The convoy lost 13 ships; the Germans lost 6 U-boats and 41 aircraft in a week of fighting.

iv. The Russian Convoys then ceased during Operation Torch.

v. The first convoy in a new series, JW 51A, sailed from Loch Ewe on 15th December and arrived at Kola Inlet on 25th December.  The Germans identified this convoy as “PQ 19”.

1.2 Relevant British plans.

1.2.1 Admiral Tovey’s strategy:

i. After the passage of PQ 18 in September 1942, the operations of the Arctic convoys were reviewed.

ii. The Admiralty wished to sail one large convoy, with a large escort, as PQ 18 had been, but there were insufficient numbers of escorts.

iii. This insistence meant that the convoys that did eventually sail missed the protection of the first half of the long dark winter nights from about mid-November onwards

iv. Admiral Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, pressed for two smaller convoys.

v. He considered that the lack of daylight would put a stop to air reconnaissance, and that smaller, easier handled convoys might evade both air and submarine attack.  Small convoys were also easier to reform after bad weather.

vi. The First Sea Lord insisted on two cruisers sailing all the way into the Barents Sea with the convoys. C-in-C Home Fleet afterward admitted that the First Sea Lord was correct.

vii. As per PQ 18, C-in-C Home Fleet stayed at Scapa Flow in King George V to control the operations.

viii. Convoy JW 51A was the first eastbound convoy, and left Loch Ewe on 15th December, arriving un-attacked on 25th December.

1.2.2 Captain Sherbrooke (D.17)’s plans (convoy escort for JW 51B):

i. At this latitude and time of year, the sun does not rise more than 6o above the horizon, so that there is a period of twilight from about 0830 to 1630. This means that there would be about two and a half hours at midday when there will be sufficient light to find and attack the convoy, and to be able to distinguish ships at distances up to 10 miles. (The Battle of North Cape took place under similar visibility conditions).

ii. With almost continuous darkness, the Germans were most likely to attack with surface ships, rather than U-boats.

iii. Attacks by aircraft could be almost ruled out for the same reason.

iv. He assumed that a surface attack would come from only one sector at a time.

v. At the first sign of an attack,
a. the 5 destroyers of 17th Flotilla (Onslow, Obedient, Orbi, Obdurate, Orwell) would, without orders, leave their positions around the convoy and join on the threatened side in line ahead.
b. The convoy would turn away from that direction, the rear merchantmen dropping smoke floats.
c. The other 2 destroyers, Achates and Bulldog, would lay a smoke screen between the convoy and the enemy.
d. The remaining escorts (Bramble, Hyderabad, Rhododendron, Northern Gem, Vizalma) re-form the escort screen on the convoy.
e. The convoy to continue to alter course to keep the enemy astern.

1.2.3 Rear Admiral Burnett’s plans (Force R, convoy cruiser screen for JW 51B).

i. The convoy would be covered from about 40 miles astern, avoiding any U-boats in contact with it.

ii. The Germans would know the approximate course of JW 51B, but not how far along the course it was at any given time.

iii. In fact Rear Admiral Burnett was given a position at 1600 / 29th that was 150 miles in error to the E, so that he passed ahead and not astern of the convoy.

iv. Covering the convoy from the north gave his ships the advantage of what light there was.

v. The convoy may also have been scattered by the gale, and this had to be considered.

1.3 Relevant German Orders.

1.3.1 Vizeadmiral Kummetz’s orders:

i. Before sailing, Admiral Klüber gave orders to Vizeadmiral Kummetz, Captains Hartman and Strange regarding Operation Regenboden (or Rainbow) as follows:
“The task: to destroy “PQ20” (as OKM identified JW 51B).  According to the existing report of U-354 the convoy is not strongly escorted … it is suspected that the two British cruisers and escorts that left Kola Inlet on 27th December are with the convoy, and it is expected that there are three or four enemy submarines at sea.
Procedure on meeting the enemy: avoid a superior force, otherwise destroy according to the tactical situation”.
There was a separate plan for Lützow, Operation Aurora, an independent shakedown cruise after her recent refit, which she was to undertake after Regenboden. Roskill (1954) states that Lützow was under orders to break out into the Atlantic.

ii. At 1840 / 30th, after sailing, Vizeadmiral Kummetz received another order:
“Contrary to the operational order regarding contact against the enemy, (you are to) use caution even against enemy of equal strength because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks”.

1.3.2 Vizeadmiral Kummetz’s plans:

i. He decided to attack the convoy during the two and a half hours of near daylight.  He ruled out a night attack because of the risk from destroyers’ torpedoes.

ii. Both forces were to approach the convoy from astern, i.e. from the W.

iii. The attack was to be made from both flanks.

iv. The destroyers would be spread out in line abreast 15 miles apart in order to find the convoy, and Hipper and Lützow would attack from different directions to confuse the defences.

v. The destroyers were to spread out at 0800, but the convoy was identified at 0840, so the destroyers initially operated in 2 groups of three.

vi. The British escorts would be drawn off by the first attack, leaving the convoy at the mercy of the second attack.

vii. The German attack went according to plan.

1.4 Chronology for JW 51B.

i. Convoy JW 51B sailed from Loch Ewe on 22nd December 1942.

ii. HMS Bulldog was damaged in a gale and did not join the escort.

iii. HMS Anson, Cumberland and 3 destroyers reached their covering position S of the convoy on 27th, where they patrolled until the 29th to guard against an attack from the S.

iv. Force R, HMS Sheffield, Jamaica, Matchless and Musketeer, sailed from Murmansk on 27th.

v. The convoy ran into a gale on 28th – 29th December.

vi. HMS Oribi lost contact with the convoy after gyro-compass failure on 28th December.

vii. After the gale, 5 merchantmen were no longer with the convoy, and HMS Bramble was detailed to search for them to the N of the convoy at 1230 / 29th, because she had one of the 2 best search radars.

viii. Matchless and Musketeer were detached from Force R at 0800 / 29th to sail to Scapa.

ix. Four (or three) ships rejoined the convoy on 30th.

x. At this time, HMS trawler Vizalma was escorting SS Chester Valley to the N of the convoy and making better speed.

xi. U-354, Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb, sighted JW 51B at 1240 / 30th,, S of Bear Island. He reported a convoy of 6-10 steamers, with possibly one cruiser and several destroyers as escort.

xii. The signal was received at 1242 and Hipper, Lützow and six destroyers were immediately put under 3 hours notice to steam, for both Operations Regenboden and Aurora.

xiii. Hipper, Lützow and six destroyers sailed at 1745 / 30th from Altenfjord.

xiv. U-354 was spotted on the surface at 2015 / 30th, forced to dive, depth-charged and forced to break contact.

xv. At 0000 / 31st, U0354 was ordered to report RA 51B’s position every 2 hours and to transmit homing signals to Vizeadmiral Kummetz.

xvi. At 0830 / 31st the weather was clear, with visibility about 7 miles to the N and 10 miles to the S, except when snow squalls occurred and visibility shut down to about 1 or 2 miles, maximum.  Visibility would also be poor if a ship was sighted against a background of low cloud or snow squalls. It was difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the twilight before about 1100 and after 1330.

xvii. HMS Bramble and Northern Gem, SS Chester Valley and one straggler were still not with the convoy, but sailing to the north.

xviii. HMS Hyderabad sighted two unknowns, but took them to be expected Russian reinforcements, at 0820 / 31st. HMS Obdurate reported these two ships astern of the convoy at 0830 and was ordered to close them. The two unknown destroyers opened fire on Obdurate at a range of 4 miles at 0930.

2.        British Forces

2.1.1 Convoy JW 51B, sailed from Loch Ewe 22nd December 1942, arrived Kola Inlet 3rd January 1943

Commodore of Convoy: Captain R.A. Melhuish, RIN

14 merchantmen:
Empire Archer, (British), 141 vehicles, 18 tanks, 21 fighters, 4,376 tons general cargo; Commodore of Convoy Captain Melhuish
Daldorch (British), 264 vehicles, 1,744 tons general cargo
Empire Emerald (British), 2,580 tons oil fuel, 7,400 tons aviation fuel
Pontfield (British), 5,500 tons oil fuel, 5,280 tons aviation fuel
Chester Valley (US), 2 vehicles, 25 tanks, 10 fighters, 4 bombers, 250 tons fuel, 4,371 tons general cargo
Puerto Rican (US), 14 vehicles, 23 tanks, 15 fighters, 8 bombers, 100 tons fuel, 5,345 tons general cargo
Executive (US), 139 vehicles, 4 bombers, 450 tons fuel, 450 tons fuel, 4,210 tons general cargo
R.W. Emerson, (US), 160 vehicles, 45 tanks, 13 fighters, 5 bombers, 780 tons fuel, general cargo
Ballot (US), 115 vehicles, 25 tanks, 18 fighters, 0 tons fuel, 5,534 tons general cargo
Jefferson Meyers (US), 376 vehicles, 4 bombers, 500 tons fuel, 5,336 tons general cargo
Vermont (US), 299 vehicles, 4 bombers, 300 tons fuel, 4,048 tons general cargo
Yorkmar (US), 188 vehicles, 150 tons fuel, 5,326 tons general cargo
John H. LaTrobe (US), 191 vehicles, 58 tanks, 10 fighters, 4 bombers, 640 tons fuel, 4,397 tons general cargo
Calobre (Panamanian), 166 vehicles, 8 tanks, 250 tons fuel, 4,534 tons general cargo

Total cargo:
2046 vehicles, 202 tanks, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 tons fuel, 12,650 tons aviation fuel, 54,321 tons general cargo.

Note: no rescue ship was provided, probably because the convoy was small, and equally possibly because none were available.

2.1.2 Escort from Loch Ewe to Position “C”, approximately 10oW, 67oN, NE of Iceland

2 minsweepers:
HMS Bramble (Senior Officer, M/S Flotilla, and Senior Officer, Close Escort), Cmdr. Rust
HMS Circe (to return to Loch Ewe with the 3 Hunts)

3 Hunt class destroyers to remain with the convoy “to the prudent limits of their endurance” and then return to Loch Ewe, (HMS Blankney to Scapa for repairs to compass).
HMS Blankney
HMS Ledbury
HMS Chiddingford

2 corvettes
HMS Rhododendron
HMS Honeysuckle

2 trawlers
HMS Northern Gem
HMS Vizalma

2.2.2 Escorts from Seidisfjord, Iceland to Position “C”, thence to Murmansk:

7 minus 2 destroyers

HMS Onslow, Captain R.St.V. Sherbrooke, DSO, Captain D.17
HMS Oribi, Cmdr. J.E.H. McBeath, DSO, DSC, suffered gyrocompass failure and lost contact with the convoy during a storm on the night of 27th / 28th, and arrived independently at Murmansk on 31st December.
HMS Obedient, Lt. Cmdr. D.C. Kinloch, DSC (promoted Cmdr. Effective 1st January 1943)
HMS Orwell, Lt. Cmdr. N.H.G. Austen, DSO
HMS Obdurate, Lt. Cmdr. C.E.L. Sclater, DSO
HMS Achates*, Lt. Cmdr. A.H.T. Johns

HMS Bulldog; damaged in a Force 12 gale off SE Iceland on passage from Greenock, and did not join the convoy.

1 minesweeper
HMS Bramble*, Cmdr. H.T. Rust, DSO (Senior Officer, Close Escort); the fate of HMS Bramble was not known until after the end of the war.

2 corvettes
HMS Hyderabad, Lt. S.C. Hickman, DSC, RNR
HMS Rhododendron, Lt. J.R. Angleback, RNVR

2 trawlers
HMS Northern Gem, Skipper Lt. L.A. Sayers, RNR
HMS Vizalma, Lt. J.R. Angleback, RNVR, escorting SS Chester Valley, which had became separated from the convoy in a storm on 28th December, and was proceeding to Murmansk independently of the convoy.

2.2.3 Force R

Sailed from Murmansk 27th December
HMS Sheffield, Rear Admiral R. Burnett, Captain A.W. Clarke
HMS Jamaica, Captain J.L. Storey
2 destroyers detached to UK at 0800 / 29th December
HMS Musketeer
HMS Matchless

2.3. Convoy RA 51, sailed from Murmansk 30th December 1943, arrived Loch Ewe 11th January 1943
16 merchantmen,
6 destroyers:
HMS Faulknor
HMS Fury
HMS Echo
HMS Eclipse
HMS Inglefield
HMS Beagle

1 minesweeper:
HMS Gleaner

4 trawlers, names not known

2.4. Detached squadron of the Home Fleet, to cover against a potential sortie by any large German ship, including a break-out into the Atlantic.

Patrolling E of Bear Island on 28th and 29th December
HMS Anson
HMS Cumberland
3 destroyers

2.5. Submarine patrols off the North Cape

HMS Seadog (easterly, off North Cape)
HMS Trespasser
HMS Unruly
HMS Graph, ex U.570, (westerly, off Altenfjord); HMS Graph sighted Hipper as she approached Altenfkord on her return, but Hipper was travelling too fast to be attacked. Three hours later Graph sighted one German destroyer towing a second, attacked, but her torpedoes missed.
HNethMS O.14
O.R.P. (Polish) Sokol

3. German Forces for Operation Regenboden (Rainbow), the attack on PQ 20 (actually JW 51B) and Operation Aurora, the break-out of the Lützow

German Naval Staff (SKL)
Operations Division (I/SKL)
Group North, Admiral Carls
Flag Officer, Northern Waters, Admiral Klüber, flag in KM Köln at Altenfjord
Flag Officer, Cruisers, Vizeadmiral Kummetz

3.1. Operation Regenboden

KM Admiral Hipper, flag Vizeadmiral Kummetz, Captain Hans Hartmann
Escorting destroyers, part of 5th Destroyer Flotilla
KM Frederich Echholdt (F)     Capt Alfred Schemmel
KM Richard Beitzen                Lt-Cdr Hans von Davidson
KM Z-29                                    Lt-Cdr Curt Rechel

3.2 Operation Aurora

KM Lützow, Captain Stange; after the attack on the convoy, Lützow was to operate independently.
Escorting destroyers, part of 5th Destroyer Flotilla
KM Z-30*                        Lt-Cdr Heinrich Kaiser
KM Z-31                         Lt-Cdr Hermann Alberts
KM Theodor Riedel      Lt Cdr Walter Riede

3.3 U-boats patrolling in the Barents Sea

U-354   Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb, sighted JW 51B at 1240 / 29th.  At 1145 / 31st, Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb made his fateful signal: “The battle has reached its climax, I see nothing but red”.
U-626   Oberleutnant Hans-Helmuth Bugs

3.4    Other German ships in Norway and Germany:

KM Tirpitz was at Tronheim, badly in need of a refit with numerous defects. The ship was being repaired at Trondheim (under Hitler’s specific instructions), rather than being returned to Germany.

KM Köln was at Altenfjord

KM Scharnhorst, Prinz Eugen, and 5 destroyers were to transfer from the Baltic in January.

KM Lützow had arrived from the Baltic in Altenfjord on 18th December to relieve Scheer. This caused the Admiralty to send the Anson, with escorts, to Hvalfjord in Iceland, and to re-instate the Denmark Straits patrols.

KM Admiral Scheer had returned to Germany to refit in early November

KM Nuremburg had arrived at Narvik on 2nd December.  However Nuremburg was not considered sufficiently seaworthy for winter operations in the Barents Sea (Schofield), and so did not take part in the operation.

4. Sources:

"The Arctic Convoys" by Vice Admiral (ret) B.B. Schofield
"73 North" by D. Pope
"The War at Sea 1939-1945, Vol. 2" by W.W. Roskill
"Red Sky In The Morning" by Michael Pearson