In July 1942 German submarines and aircraft sank 23 of 35 Allied cargo ships bound for Murmansk, a success made possible when the British dispersed convoy P.Q.17 out of concern the German High Seas Fleet was about to attack—which it did not. Adolf Hitler was pleased with this triumph of a “threat in being,” but he still expected his surface warships to actually do something. On Dec. 30, 1942, a German force set out to engage Murmansk-bound convoy JW.51B.
Commanded by Vice Adm. Oscar Kummetz, Operation Rainbow was to be a two-pronged attack by the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Lützow, each accompanied by three destroyers. Kummetz, however, had to temper his aggressiveness against a standing order from Hitler, ever since the loss of the battleship Bismarck on May 27, 1941, to avoid unnecessary risks. Even as Kummetz set out, he received an order to “use caution even against enemy of equal strength, because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks.”
By 8:30 a.m. the Germans were approaching the convoy—whose escort light cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica, under Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, were 30 miles to the north. Hostilities began when the British destroyer Obdurate came under fire from the German destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt, Richard Beitzen and Z-29, soon joined by Hipper. The British escort commander, Captain Robert Sherbrooke, responded with his flagship Onslow and its sister destroyers Orwell and Obedient, and although wounded in the face, he kept Kummetz off-balance with the threat of torpedo attacks. Hipper and Eckholdt sank the minesweeper Bramble and destroyer Achates before another feigned torpedo run by Orwell and Obdurate drove them off. Lützow reached the convoy, only to turn away in a snow squall.
At that point Burnett’s light cruisers arrived and also promptly attacked, damaging Hipper and sinking Eckholdt with all hands. Lützow found the convoy again at 11:40 a.m. but scored only minor damage before Kummetz signaled a general retirement nine minutes later.
Sherbrooke recovered from his injuries and received the Victoria Cross. Hitler, on learning of Kummetz’s failure to destroy JW.51B, ordered the entire High Seas Fleet scrapped, prompting Grand Adm. Erich Raeder to resign. Hitler replaced him with submariner Admiral Karl Dönitz, who reserved the battleship Tirpitz and battlecruiser Scharnhorst for active Arctic duty but otherwise placed the Kriegsmarine’s war effort primarily on the U-boat service’s shoulders.
Success or failure often begins at the top. While admitting his ignorance in naval matters, Hitler micromanaged his Kriegsmarine by issuing a vague order to avoid risks, thus robbing his admirals of the initiative that had made them so effective. Afterward, though, he was quick to accuse them of cowardice.
A two-pronged attack requires both prongs to succeed. While Kummetz did his part by engaging British escorts and work-ing around the convoy’s left flank, Lützow Captain Rudolf Stänge undid the entire operation with two fainthearted, abortive attacks.
Beware the snow squall of war. Bad weather caused Kummetz’s two main warships to lose track of each other and with their destroyers. Eckholdt’s last signal, when it came under fire from Sheffield, was to accuse Hipper of firing on it.
Fortune favors the bold. Sherbrooke’s single-minded focus on his duty—to defend convoy JW.51B—led to audacious defiance of heavy odds, ultimately leading to a stunning victory.