On 20 December, convoy JW 55B of 19 merchant ships sailed eastbound, and two days later the corresponding homebound convoy of 22 merchant ships departed Kola Inlet. Each convoy had a close escort of about a dozen destroyers. Long-range protection of both convoys fell to Vice Admiral Robert Burnett with the cruisers Norfolk, Belfast, and Sheffield.
On 22 December, Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft spotted the eastbound convoy JW 55B. The British deciphered this sighting report and the order to all U-boats in the area to close with the convoy. Fraser guessed that German surface units in Norway, led by the battleship Scharnhorst, would join the hunt, and he departed Iceland on 23 December with the battleship Duke of York (flag), light cruiser Jamaica, and four destroyers. Fraser's intention was to position his own surface forces between the Germans and their base at Altenfjord.
On 25 December, the homeward convoy had cleared the danger point, and four of its destroyers were therefore shifted over to the outward convoy. Meanwhile, Burnett's cruisers were closing from the southeast. German Rear Admiral Erich Bey led the Scharnhorst and five large fleet destroyers to sea on 25 December from Altenford. His orders were contradictory; he was to attack the convoy but not to engage heavy enemy units encountered. Early the next morning, the Admiralty signaled to Fraser that the Scharnhorst was most probably at sea.
Bey then ordered his destroyers to fan out ahead and sweep for the British convoy. The weather was appalling, marked by darkness and snow squalls. At 7:30 a.m. on 26 December, Bey detached his destroyers to look for the convoy to the southwest. They must have come very close to it, but they did not sight it, and in the process, they lost touch with the Scharnhorst.
At 9:00 a.m., the Belfast secured a radar contact on what proved to be the Scharnhorst about 30 miles from the convoy. The range then rapidly closed. At 9:30 a.m., the Norfolk opened fire and probably hit the Scharnhorst with her second or third 8-inch salvo, which may have knocked out the battle cruiser's radar and convinced Bey to break off the action without replying. The four British destroyers detached from the westbound convoy now reached Burnett. Rather than pursue the Scharnhorst—the traditional job for cruisers in a covering role—Burnett turned northwest to protect the convoy. He gave as his reasons the poor visibility, the Scharnhorst's superior speed in heavy seas, and his conviction that the Germans would renew the attack.
Bey did indeed return. Shortly after noon, the Belfast reported a radar contact. A second action ensued that involved all three British cruisers and lasted about 20 minutes. Again, the British observed hits on the German ship. The four destroyers were unable to carry out a torpedo attack because they were on Burnett's port bow, and the Scharnhorst turned away in the opposite direction.
Bey now headed south. This time Burnett pursued, continuously supplying position, course, and speed information that allowed Fraser to intercept. Fraser's ships were closing from one side and Burnett's from the other. The Duke of York picked up Scharnhorst on radar at 45,500 yards and locked in her gunnery radar at 25,800 yards. The Scharnhorst was hit with the first salvo; however, she was a fast and well-armored ship, and Bey responded with a burst of speed. Returning fire, he tried to open the range. He was almost successful, but a British salvo disabled one of the Scharnhorst's boiler rooms at a critical juncture, and Fraser's cruisers and destroyers fired from both flanks a total of 55 torpedoes, of which probably 11 hit. The Scharnhorst went down at 7:45 p.m. The British ships searched for survivors, but only 36 of the Scharnhorst's 3,000-man crew were recovered. The last capital-ship duel in European waters ended in a British victory.
Barnett, Correlli. Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.; Humble, Richard. Fraser of North Cape: The Life of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser, 1888–1981. Boston: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1983.; Roskill, S. W. White Ensign: The British Navy at War, 1939–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1960.; Van der Vat, Dan. The Atlantic Campaign. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001.