Unlike the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats, which he embraced, Adolf Hitler had a love-hate relationship with its surface fleet, one complicated by his own irresolution and ignorance regarding how to use it. The German navy’s relationship with the Führer was further muddied by a power struggle pitting surface ship proponents, led by the Kriegsmarine’s commander in chief Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, against U-boat advocates led by that branch’s commander, Vice Adm. Karl Dönitz. The Battle of the Barents Sea would decide that struggle in favor of the U-boat, and effectively finish the German surface navy in World War II.
An increase in British commando raids in Norway in 1942 convinced Hitler that the Allies planned to invade his Fortress Europe through that country. He ordered all the Kriegsmarine’s capital ships to take station in Norway’s fjords as a counter to that threat. When the Allies resumed Lend-Lease convoys to the Soviet Union in December following their suspension after the Convoy PQ-17 disaster, the stage was set for Operation Regenbogen (“Rainbow”), the Kriegsmarine’s interception of Allied convoys to Murmansk.
Regenbogen was more than a plan to sink Allied shipping. It was Raeder’s attempt to reverse the declining fortunes of the surface fleet, reduced to conducting a Fabian strategy of a fleet in being. With Regenbogen, when a convoy was located the pocket battleship Lützow and heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and six destroyers would depart from their northern Norway base at Altenfjord and separate into two equal-number groups. The Hipper group would attack the convoy from the north, drawing the convoy’s escorts to it and causing the merchant ships to head south where, instead of safety, they would encounter the Lützow group and be destroyed.
The tactical plan for Regenbogen was brilliant. All it needed was a bold and resolute commander to execute it. Unfortunately, Regenbogen’s commander Vice Adm. Oskar Kummetz was neither. Or, perhaps more correctly, his impediment to be such a commander was the order from Hitler that forbade him from taking risks with his ships.
“Contrary to the operational order . . . use caution even against enemy of equal strength, because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks.”
– Adolf Hitler to Vice Adm. Oskar Kummetz, Heavy Cruiser Force commander
On Dec. 30, 1942, U-354 sighted Allied convoy JW51-B and radioed a contact report. Kummetz was immediately ordered to intercept. On New Year’s Eve morning, at 8:30 a.m., the British corvette Hyderabad spotted two unidentified destroyers on the horizon. The destroyer Obdurate saw them ten minutes later and steamed forward to investigate. At 9:15 a third unidentified destroyer was seen and the Obdurate flashed a challenge with her signal lamp. Moments later the ships’ identities were revealed when one of them opened fire. Royal Navy escorts immediately began laying down a smoke screen. The battle was on.
The commander of the convoy’s six-ship destroyer screen was Capt. Richard Sherbrooke, aboard the Onslow. Steaming through haze caused by smoke and snow squalls, he suddenly found his ship on a collision course with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. After crippling one British destroyer, the Hipper opened fire on Sherbooke’s flagship and another destroyer.
Though outgunned, Sherbrooke got the impression that the Germans were unwilling to press their advantage and go in for the kill. For his part, Sherbrooke kept up a spirited defense, even after his ship was hit and he was badly wounded (Sherbrooke would later receive the Victoria Cross). Then the cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica appeared, part of Force R, a fleet positioned to reinforce any convoy in the region under attack. Shortly afterword the Lützow group arrived. The ensuing engagement, which historians regard as more of a skirmish, was marred by smoke, snowstorms, and confusion and excessive caution by the German captains. By early afternoon, Kummetz had ordered his ships to break off the action.
Meanwhile at his Wolfsschanze headquarters, Hitler was ecstatic over the initial contact report – thrilled over the idea of announcing to the world a New Year’s victory by the Kriegsmarine. But joy turned to frustration when there was no prompt follow up news. The explanation of Kummetz’s need to maintain radio silence until he returned to Altenfjord barely mollified him. Some time later Hitler was handed a message copied from a British news flash: “The Royal Navy had fought off an attack by a superior force of German ships on a convoy in the Barents Sea. A German destroyer had been sunk and a cruiser badly damaged. The British had lost a destroyer.” Actually, the British had lost a destroyer and a minesweeper. No merchantmen were damaged.
The news threw Hitler into an anti-surface fleet rage. Ignoring his own culpability, he angrily accused the surface navy of cowardice and incompetence and announced that it was his “irrevocable decision” to scrap the surface fleet and redistribute its men and materiel. Four days later Grand Adm. Raeder was relieved of command, “kicked upstairs” to the ceremonial position of inspector-general, and replaced by Dönitz. From that point on, the Kriegsmarine would wage war from under the sea with U-boats, which though still a danger, were beginning to decline in effectiveness.