SACLANT approved a request from Naval Forces North Norway (NAVNON) for it to assume temporary control of the HMS Illustrious and her escorts. NAVNON planned to use the Sea Harriers embarked on the British carrier against Soviet warships when the next round of naval skirmishes in North Cape waters started. They carried the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile, a powerful, effective weapon against the smaller types of warships that the Soviets were employing around the North Cape. With the tide having turned on the ground and air, NAVNON felt a move to secure control of North Cape waters was the logical next step. Unfortunately, the command’s naval forces had taken considerable losses and no longer packed the offensive punch needed to do the job by themselves. This was where Illustrious, or more accurately, the baby carrier’s Sea Harriers, came into play.
Strike Fleet Atlantic was quite reluctant to part with the British carrier and her escorts as they were providing valuable ASW screening for its three carrier groups maneuvering in the northern reaches of the Norwegian Sea. But SACLANT saw the value and logic in the Norwegian plan and chopped Illustrious to NAVNON early on D+17. The carrier also carried Sea King helicopters, giving NAVNON an added ASW punch. Norway’s P-3 fleet had been severely attrited by this point in the war and could not be relied on to provide ASW patrols in the north. The Sea Kings had an advantage over fixed-wing aircraft when working inshore too. NAVNON had strong reason to suspect a trio of Soviet submarines were operating in close proximity to the North Cape.
By mid-morning, pairs of Sea Harriers were patrolling the skies off the northern Norwegian coast and searching for signs of Soviet warships. As Illustrious drew closer, her Sea Kings started patrolling the coastal waters in search of enemy submarines. For over five hours the relays continued with no sign of the enemy. Then around 1400 an Osa class fast attack craft was detected making a run for the fjord waters between Honningsvag and Raekvik. Two Sea Eagle missiles sent the small warship to the bottom of the ocean. That was the extent of business for the Sea Harriers and Illustrious through the rest of the day. NAVNON was disappointed by the lack of action. It seemed the enemy was reluctant to expose the remainder of his warships and submarines to the North Cape waters unless a worthwhile target of opportunity presented itself. Such as a British aircraft carrier, perhaps.
Fortunately, NAVNON and AFNORTH were savvy enough not to undertake such a bold move without SACLANT’s blessing. They also possessed enough common sense to know what the US admiral’s answer would likely be. Especially as the afternoon became evening and there was a sudden spike in radio activity between Moscow and Severomorsk. Events which would dwarf the importance of controlling the North Cape waters were now taking shape.