The Battle of North Cape began Christmas Day 1943 when the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and five escorting destroyers left their base in Altenfjord to intercept two Arctic Convoys rounding Norway’s North Cape. Convoy JW55B was transporting essential supplies to the Soviet Union, and RA 55A was returning to the U.K.
On Saturday 20th May 2017 at 3.30 in the afternoon 22 Cub Scouts from 1st St Margarets boarded the light cruiser “HMS Belfast” moored in the Pool of London to learn how this mighty ship managed to sink one of Hitler’s finest raiders. Unlike the original crew of nearly 1,000 men who manned the ‘Belfast’ back in 1943 and slung their hammocks in the packed, noisy and noisome ‘Arctic Messes’ our young crew kipped down in bunks in Mess Deck G installed during the Korean War.
Thanks to British Intelligence and their cracking of the German Naval codes the Royal Navy knew that the Scharnhorst was out and about - and up to no good. Within hours the Admiralty dispatched HMS Belfast and the cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield to protect the vulnerable convoys while Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser aboard the powerful battleship Duke of York, with the cruiser Jamaica and four escorting destroyers, steamed to cut off Scharnhorst from her base.
Although HMS Belfast is now a museum piece - albeit a very large one - the ship still feels alive and ready to go to war. The Union Jack and the Ensign still fly fore and aft and every essential item is still there - the guns and shell hoists that fed them and the radar and electronics that directed them onto their targets. There are galleys and workshops and bakeries and navigational shacks and post rooms and operating theatres and sick bays and dentists and radar rooms. All that is missing are the hundreds of men that were once the life blood of the ship, putting up with each other and the many hardships that they all faced on the long and gruelling Arctic convoys… and yet the surviving veterans still return to the ship today to remember the days long ago when they were all heroes in a world of ice and steel.
Admiral Burnett on Belfast, responsible for protecting the convoys, had to decide whether to follow Scharnhorst or stay where he was. Fortunately the Scharnhorst swung back looking for the convoys and Belfast and the cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield were waiting for her. All three cruisers opened fire, Scharnhorst was hit again and Norfolk was badly damaged. The German ship turned south for Norway pursued by the Belfast. At 4.45pm in the murk of the Arctic winter Belfast illuminated Scharnhorst with star shell (bright, burning flares), exposing the German ship to the deadly fire of Norfolk and Sheffield from one side and the Duke of York and Jamaica from the other.
Methodically the guns of the Royal Navy reduced the Scharnhorst to a limping, wounded wreck. Just before 9.00am on the 26th December 1943 HMS Belfast picked up the Scharnhorst on her radar, about 30 miles away. HMS Norfolk closed in and opened fire, disabling Scharnhorst’s main fire control radar and leaving the German battlecruiser virtually blind. As the German Rear Admiral Erich Bey sent his last signal, ‘We shall fight to the last shell’, Belfast was ordered in to finish the ship with torpedoes. At 7.45pm, before the Belfast could fire its torpedoes the Scharnhorst sank beneath the waves and exploded, killing 1927 German sailors including Rear Admiral Erich Bey. His last words were “If any of you get out of this alive, say hello to the folks back home, and tell them we did our duty to the last.” Only 36 of the Scharnhorst crew survived. British dead numbered 18.
The St Margaret Cubs learned all about the Battle of North Cape. Slammed up inside Gun Turret Y they experienced what it might have been like for the Belfast gun crews - 27 men crammed into each turret - a veritable hell hole of noise and smoke and intense vibration, the choking smell of red hot steel and cordite, huge 6 inch guns jumping back and forth on their mounts, breeches clanging open and slamming shut as shells and cordite propellant were rammed into them, not knowing what they were firing at, not knowing if their shells had found their target, not knowing if an enemy shell was heading their way.
Most of us, like the St Margarets Cubs, have no personal experience of war. For us war is something that happened far away and long ago. History. But for the 1st St Margarets Cubs their time aboard HMS Belfast did give them an inkling of what it might have been like to be young and frightened and far from home but determined - exactly as the Cubs promise today… to Do Their Best and to Do Their Duty.
> “Gentlemen, the battle against the Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that any of you who are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, will command your ship as gallantly as the Scharnhorst was commanded today.”
Admiral Bruce Fraser
– from Martyn Day