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Under Water Warfare The Struggle Against the Submarine Menace 1939 -1945
Russian convoys

Russian Convoys
In the patchwork quilt of war, this Russian piece of the fabric is stitched alongside that patch which represents the Battle of the Atlantic, same Merchant Ships in convoy, carrying essential materials from the United States, same Escorts against the same U-Boats, and German aircraft, but the milieu is different.

During Summer, there was almost perpetual daylight, in Winter, the reverse obtained, as the conditions took on a different meaning. Biting cold and icy conditions, spray forced off the waves by gale force winds turned to ice, and settled on superstructures of both convoy and escorts. This ice, threatened to upset the righting moment built into ships, when they rolled, sometimes they would seemingly continue to roll until they might capsize, and disappear into the ocean's Arctic depths.

The numbing cold attacked both the Merchant Navy and Naval crews as they fought their way to Russian ports. If one talks to anyone who manned these convoys, and were a part of this icy saga, they always will remember the cold, always they talk to you about the cold.

In all, 40 outward bound convoys, with a total of 811 ships ran the gauntlet to Russia. They lost only 58 ships, thus 92.8% of ships sailed in convoy to Russia, actually reached their final destination

A ship from Coinvoy PQ 17

[ click for enlarged photograph ]

Crewmen are seen painting a merchantman white to help escape German patrol aircraft soon after having received the order to scatter. Hiding among the ice floes with three other ships, these ships managed to escape detection. They later proceeded to their port of destination: Archangel

Convoy P.Q.17
P Q 17, is the convoy that epitomises the impression that the U-Boats and German aircraft won the Arctic convoy battle This convoy comprising 36 ships, was scattered by the decision of Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. He believed that the battleship "Tirpitz was at sea about to pounce on this convoy, but as a result of his order to scatter, 24 ships were subsequently sunk by German aircraft and U-Boats, with but 10 ships surviving to deliver their precious cargoes to Russian ports.

At the time P Q 17 sailed, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, at the Admiralty, had probably been appointed above his level of competency to this exalted position. He also, was not a well man, and Churchill had elevated him to this position, some would suggest unkindly, that he made this appointment, because Pound would function as a pliant First Sea Lord allowing Churchill to retain control, and get his way more easily.

Admiral Sir Max Horton - Chief of Western Approaches

Admiral Sir Max Horton - Chief of Western Approaches after November 1942

As a prelude to the disaster of P.Q.17, in January 1942, Churchill had despatched the following letter to the Chiefs of Staff.

"The presence of "Tirpitz" at Trondheim has now been known for three days, the destruction, or even crippling of this ship is the greatest event at sea at this time. No other task is comparable to it ---- If she were only crippled, it would be difficult to get her back to Germany. The entire Naval situation throughout the world would be altered, and the Naval command in the Pacific would be regained----. "

The whole strategy of the war turns at this period on this ship, which is holding four times the number of British capital ships paralysed, to say nothing of the two new American battleships retained in the Atlantic. I regard the matter as of the highest urgency and importance."

Commodore J C K Dowding led convoy P.Q. 17, consisting of 36 heavily laden Merchant Ships out of Reykjavik, on the 27th June, 1942. Their cargo contained 297 aircraft, 594 tanks, 4246 military vehicles, both lorries and gun carriers, and 150,000 tons of military stores and general cargo; it was both a large and important load, designed to assist in rearming the Red Army.

As Murmansk had been virtually closed down after heavy bombing, all but 8 American ships were bound for Archangel, however, the "Richard Bland" ran aground before clearing the Islandic coast, and was left behind. This fateful convoy was now reduced to 35 ships, but in the Denmark Strait, the convoy ran into heavy loose ice, and the American "Exford," was too damaged to continue, and finally turned back.

She had broken radio silence seeking a request for orders, and to listening enemy radio potentially betrayed the convoy's departure.

Only 3 Mine Sweepers, and 4 Trawlers, had escorted the convoy from Iceland, but on the 30th June the Ocean Escort commanded by Commander J. E. Broome, in "Keppel" joined Rear Admiral Louis. Hamilton, commanding a Cruiser Squadron of "H.M.Ship's Norfolk and London." and the destroyer "Somali," with U.S.N. Cruisers "Tuscaloosa," and "Wichita," plus Destroyers, "Wainwright," and "Rowan," under Rear Admiral Giffen, intended to offer additional support to P.Q.17, their primary objective, to get this convoy to Russia.

By 1st. July, the first U-Boat sightings were made by the convoy, but they were driven off, radio silence was broken and the German intercepts learned of the convoy's progress.

U255, and U408 maintained contact with U334, and U456 directed to their support, further boats namely, U88, U251, U355, U376, U457, and U657 were ordered to group in an intersecting cordon further to the East; unbeknown to P.Q. 17, disaster was threatening.

As P.Q. 17 passed to the North of Bear Island, the Admiralty signalled that "Tirpitz," and "Hipper," plus '4 Destroyers and 2 Torpedo Boats had all left Trondheim, the two major German ships had actually arrived in Altenfjord.

The fog that had enveloped the convoy now began to lift in the early hours of the 4th of July, and the Admiralty indicated that the convoy would be attacked by warships between the 15th and the 30th. meridans of longitude.

A Torpedo dropped by a Heinkel aircraft, struck the Liberty ship "Christopher Newport," and she needed to be abandoned. Efforts to sink her by the accompanying British Submarine P614 failed; however, U457, alerted by the noise heard on her hydrophones, found and sank her, sending 10,000 tons of munitions to the ocean floor.

At noon, Hamilton was given discretion by the Admiralty to go beyond the limiting meridan of 25 degrees East, providing that he did not receive any contrary orders from Tovey. In turn, Tovey told Hamilton he was not to enter the Barent's Sea, unless he knew from the Admiralty that he would not meet the "Tirpitz." Hamilton now found himself with competing loyalties, on one hand he wished to remain in support of the convoy as long as possible, to do this could conflict with his orders from Tovey.

The Cruisers considered that the convoy was some 30 miles South of where they thought it should be, and that any danger from German surface ships would surely emanate from the South.

Brandenberg in U457, had observed anti-submarine patrols flown from "Wichita," but believed they flew from British Aircraft Carriers, and thus was deceived into thinking that the British Home Fleet was in close proximity. Hitler had ordered that unless the British Carriers had been neutralized, the German striking force would not be sailed

Other U-Boats were homing in on the convoy, having been alerted by U457's reports. At 1930 (7.30.P.M.) "Wainright," had dropped back into the convoy to refuel, when a stick of bombs exploded on her port bow. At 2020 (8.20.P M.) the convoy was attacked by a group of 25 Heinkel 111's, and Torpedo armed J.U. 88's. The accurate A.A. fire from "Wainright" despatched one Heinkel, and most Of the first wave released their Torpedoes early and then withdrew.

The second wave however, pressed home their attack, and the "William Hopper" was Torpedoed in her boiler room, and "Navarino" was also struck by a Torpedo. The attack was finally driven off, but many Torpedoes were loose in the surrrounding waters, one just passing astern of "Aldersdale," then hit the Russian tanker"Azerbaijan," who started to fall behind the convoy. She carried linseed oil, and not the more inflammable fuel oil, and was still able to make 9 knots.

Hamilton was again warned by the Admiralty of the proximity of enemy surface forces, he passed on this message by signal lamp to Broome.

Three Signals from the Admiralty
"London," now received a signal on her bridge, at the same time as Tovey also received it 350 miles away to the West It was prefixed with "Secret and Most Immediate" and was timed 2111 (9.21 P.M ) it read "Cruiser force withdraw to the West at high speed. This message could have but one interpretation, the "Tirpitz," was out and at sea.

Twelve minutes later, another signal arrived, timed, 2123 (9.23.P.M.) addressed to Broome, repeated to both Hamilton and Tovey, "Secret and Immediate" "Owing to threat from surface ships, convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports."



Finally a third signal arrived in a further thirteen minutes, at 2136 (9.36.P.M.) which seemed to upgrade the previous signal, "Secret and Most Immediate," "Admiralty to Escorts of P Q 17, C in C, CS One. Convoy is to scatter."

These messages had but one meaning, at any moment, "Tirpitz," and her consorts would appear on the scene, this was the only interpretation to be made by the men at the centre of operations with P.Q. 17, then or even now.

To quote "Woodman," in his "Arctic Convoys," "But this was not what happened at all." Hamilton stretched his orders to the absolute limit, holding his Easterly course for another 30 minutes, then he swung his force about, and retired to the West.

Broome was also "very angry," he ordered Leading Signalman Elliot, to hoist the signal to scatter. '"A white pendant with a red cross."

Commodore Dowding in "River Afton," repeated this signal at the dip, meaning he acknowledged this message, but did not understand it. Broome took "Keppel," alongside the Commodore's ship, and, using a megaphone, confirmed the order to an unbelieving Downing and his stunned Master, Captain Charlton. Broome hailed them, "Sorry to leave you like this-goodbye and good luck, it looks like a bloody business.

With a downward haul on the signal halyards, this order was executed, convoy P Q 17 ceased to exist, and Commodore Downing gave up his command.

Individual Merchant Ships were now on their own
An American, some years later commented thus :- "The Limey Navy, just turned and ran." That is how it must have looked to many who witnessed it, and how many who were not present at the time, or knew the exact circumstances believed it had been.

His ships now sped Westwards at 30 knots, expecting "Tirpitz," to appear at any moment. "Instead we wove our way amongst ice bergs, and some very suprised U-Boats who had been shadowing the convoy."

An unease now crept over all the British Naval Ships, something seemed totally wrong, but "what?"

The Admiralty 5 hours after their order to scatter, broke their radio silence to declare, "It is presumed enemy ships are North off Tromso, but it is Not repeat Not, sure they are at sea."

German air reconnaissance discovered the Home Fleet moving North East to cover the withdrawal of Hamilton's group.

If the German ships moved quickly against individual convoy vessels, there would be no threat from aircraft flown off British Carriers. By 1500 (3P.M.) on the 6th. of July, "Tirpitz," "Scheer," and "Hipper," together with 7 Destroyers and 2 Torpedo Boats were out, and in the open sea.

The Soviet Submarine, K21, sighted and attacked 'Tirpitz," they believed that this mighty German ship had been hit, in fact, the attack was abortive. A British Catalina and H.M.Submarine, "Unshaken," also sighted the German fleet, but all to no avail.

Whilst U-Boats and Aircraft were successfully sinking ships of convoy P.Q 17, it was not considered necessary to put their surface ships at risk, and the German Naval Command, ordered the fleet to turn back and go home.

Not withstanding protestations from the senior Naval staff on board the German ships, the Chief of Naval Operations, summed up the decision thus "Every operation by our heavy surface forces has been hampered by the Fuhrer's desire to avoid losses and reverses at all costs."

If this episode of scattering the convoy, P.Q 17, seemed bizarre, some of the events that took place, merely confirmed this fact, e g. Lieutenant. Leo. Gradwell, a New Zealander, by birth, commanding the Anti-Submarine Trawler "Ayrshire," gathered the Panamanian "Troubador," the "Ironclad," and an American ship, "Silver Sword," and led them into the ice pack. "Troubador," carried a cargo of bunkering coal, and drums of white paint. Locked in the embrace of the ice pack, these ships stopped engines, banked their fires, and then proceeded to slop white paint over themselves, to so effectively camouflage their upper deck works, that they fooled reconnoitring aircraft, who then reported that the pack ice was impenetrable.

On patrol....

On patrol....

An American ship, the "Samuel Chase," was being shadowed by a U-Boat, which then disappeared after a 3 hour chase. In panic, the ship was abandoned by her crew, all hands taking to the boats The attack did not eventuate, so, after 2 hours, the ship was reboarded, steam raised, and the voyage continued. Fact certainly appeared stranger than any possible fiction.

The "Pan Kraft" was abandoned after a bombing attack had ruptured steam pipes, and she stopped, a J U 88 straffed her, setting the ship on fire amidst the ice floes.

The "Empire Byron," was finally sunk by U703 after several attempts, then the "Carlton," was despatched by U88. most of her crew being picked up by a Dornier D024 rescue aircraft, they finished up in Stalig Marlag-Milag Nord near Bremen.

A near miss split open her hull, and Bohmann, in U88, finished her off with 2 Torpedoes, her American crew being rescued by the Russian tanker "Donbass."

Further to the West, "Honumu," carrying food, steel, munitions, and Tanks, became the target for 3 U-Boats, each attacking independently, U334, and U456, carried out their attacks, then the remaining 37 of her crew abandoned ship. These 2 U-Boats then surfaced, and were joined by U88. The "Honomu's" Master, Captain Frederick. Strand was taken onboard as a prisoner.

During the mid afternoon of the 5th of July, the British tramp steamer "Earlston," took on a stalking U-Boat with a white painted conning tower, trying to hide amidst the icy background, but the U-Boat was forced to dive. The ship was safe, if only for a short time - J U 88's and three U-Boats soon closed in for the kill. As a near miss exploded alongside the engine room, the crew were ordered to abandon ship. A torpedo then struck, breaking her in two.

The Captain of U33'1, then took the Norwegian Master onboard his U-Boat, and he was soon to join up with the "Carlton's" crew in prison camp.

At about 1500 (3 P.M. ) another American ship, the "Peter Kerr," dodged aerial Torpedoes for some 2 hours, until 4 Junker's 88's carried out a high level bombing run, the crew launched two life boats and abandoned ship just prior to her exploding.

Four ships, "Bolton Castle," "Olopana," "Washington," and "Paulus Potter," had maintained contact as they broke away to the North East, but "Olopana," a 'very old ship, could not keep up with her mates, and started to fall astern.

As the "Peter Kerr," was being attacked, a single J.U.88 dived on the "Washington," in a bombing run, her steering gear failed, and she too was abandoned before 350 tons of TNT. she carried, blew up. The same J.U 88 now turned its attention to both "Bolton Castle," and "Paulus Potter," the former sank and the latter succumbed to a U-Boat.

Now, also about 1700 (5P.M.) the Commodore's ship "River Afton," was torpedoed, then a second struck, and finally, a third fish from U703 finished her off.

Aboard the Fleet Oiler "Aldersdale," there was a feeling of utter fatalism and despair, they had been shadowed by U-Boats for hours, and the Captain's decision to make for Novaya Zemlya, brought them in contact with the rescue ship "Zaafaran," the "Ocean Freedom," the minesweeper "Salamander," and they all steamed Eastwards.

P.Q. 17, was the first Russian convoy to include Rescue Ships, although the order to scatter had reduced their potential usefulness. The 3 Rescue Ships attached to P Q 17, now had survivors on board from "Navarino," "William Hooper," and "Christopher Newton."

It is quite ironic that both Rescue Ships, the "Zamalek," and the "Zaafaran," had been built in Germany for Levant service.

An air attack on the 4 ships laid a stick of bombs across "Aldersdale's" stern, she started to ship water, and her engines stopped, part of her cargo was aviation spirit, and her Captain had little choice but to order "abandon ship."

"Salamander," tried to sink the tanker, shooting away her own guardrails at such close range, depth charges were dropped under her stern, but proved ineffective; finally she was left, still stubbornly afloat. "Ocean Freedom," escaped, but "Zaafaran" was bombed and then had to be abandoned.

By the 6th of July, Tovey and the Admiralty had decided that his squadron, now joined by Hamilton, should shape course for Scapa Flow.

The German fleet was back at its base, and having learned from interrogating "Carlton's" crew, that the convoy destination was Archangel, the German U-Boat and Airforce commands could plan to mop up the remnants of P.Q. 17.

Apart from Gradwell's group still sheltering in the ice, the "Alcoa Range," "John Witherspoon," the CAM ship "Empire Tide," "Winston Salem," "Bellingham," "Hartlebury," and "Olopana," were all strung along the ice edge, and heading to the East

An F.W.Kondor aircraft sighted the 7 ships, but did not attack. All the Northerly U-Boats were called in by their base, and U255 promptly sank the "John Witherspoon". The "Pan Atlantic" making for Cape Kanin had U88, and U703 close on its heels, as they attacked independently at 0600 (6A.M.) On the 6th of July a single J U 99 dived on the ship, a bomb exploding in a hold filled with cordite, immediately blowing off the ship's bows, in 3 minutes she was gone, taking 26 crew members with her.

On the afternoon of the 6th. of July, the Minesweeper H.M.S. "Britomart" rounded Cape Stobovoi, Novoya Zemlya, and anchored, to be joined by the Anti-Aircralt Cruiser "Palomaris," 3 Minesweepers, a crowded Rescue Ship "Zamalek," and one Merchant Ship, the "Ocean Freedom." Soon after the Corvettes "Poppy," and "La Malouine," and the second Anti-Aircraft Cruiser H.M.S. "Pozarica," arrived.

"La Malouine" was quickly sailed to assist any Merchant Ships that had survived and could be located, she contacted "Hoosier," "Benjamin Harrison," "El Capitan," and "Samuel Chase" all of whom struggled into the anchorage

Three coal burning Naval Trawlers, "Northern Gem," "Lord Middleton," and "Lord Austin," kept together after the convoy had scattered, crept along the ice edge, and these three little ships survived, to join the other anchored ships, just as dawn broke to start the 7th of July. The "Ocean Freedom," was able to refill their almost empty bunkers.

The still drifting "Aldersdale" was finally despatched by a Torpedo from U457 about 0700 (7 A.M ) on the 7th. U355 came across the 5000 ton British Tramp "Hartlebury" alone, and stilI steaming Eastwards, three Torpedoes were fired, and she was abandoned. Of the 20 or so men who left the ship in a swamped life boat, only 4 survived, of 14 on a life raft, 5 lived. Chief Officer Gordon's 9 men all survived, assisted by a can of whale oil they managed to massage into their freezing feet, helping to retard hypothermia.

U255 found the Rescue Ship "Rathlin," and the American "Billingham." Of two Torpedoes fired at the latter, one missed, and one hit, but failed to explode, and the two ships escaped. This U-Boat now sank "Alcoa Ranger," with a single Torpedo, and then attacked "Olopana," in the early hours of' the 8th. of July. She was then abandoned. "Bellingharii,"and "Rathlin," reached Archangel on the 9th. as did the Russian Tanker "Donbass." The Corvette H.M.S. "DianelIe," ensured her two Submarines P614, and P615, whom she had escorted, were placed on their assigned station. She then proceeded to Archangel to refuel and go back to the Barent's Sea to search for survivors.

Commodore Downing, having survived thus far, was now back in business in charge of P.Q 17, or what was left of it. Now aboard the Corvette H.M.S. "Lotus," with Corvette H. M.S. "La Malouine," he led out the ships from Matochkin Strait. They promptly ran into fog, and the "Benjamin Hlarrison," returned to the anchorage. The remnants of P Q 17, now ran straight into the new cordon of U-Boats, the old foes U255, U457, and U703, reinforced by U251, U376, and U408.

Merchant Ships in this group comprised, "Hoosia," "Samuel Chase," "Ocean Freedom," and "El Capitan"

At 1100 (11 AM) on the 9th. Brandenburg, in U457, reported a small convoy and homed in U703, U408, and U376, during that afternoon and early evening.

J.U~88's attacked "Hoosia" She had to be abandoned, and was later sunk by U376. The Rescue Ship "Zainalek," was near missed at 0200 (2A M.) on the 10th, but her company managed to keep her sailing at 10 knots. Now, "El Capitan," was disabled by bombing and had to be abandoned - the Trawler "Lord Austin," took off the crew including men from the sunken "John Witherspon." U251 now sent her to the bottom with 7000 tons of munitions, tanks, and 4 Boston bombers

At 1600 (4 PM ) on the 11th. of July, "Zamalek," made Archangel to join the Russian "Donbass," and the Rescue Ship "Rathlin."

The "Samuel Chase," and "Ocean Freedom," with the Minesweepers, and Trawlers, were attacked by 16 J.U.88's at 1100(11 A. M.) on the 11th. and the "Samuel Chase," was brought to a standstill. She was then taken under tow by the Minesweeper "Halycon." At long last, they made it to Archangel, finding but a brief period of welcoming darkness, in these high Northern latitudes.

The German propaganda machine had a field day, breaking the news of the convoy's massacre. Stalin neither felt nor showed any sensitivity about the decimation of P.Q. 17. On 16th of August, he bluntly said to Churchill, "Has the British Navy no sense of glory?"

If we return to Lieutenant Gradwell, far away to the North West, he broke out his ship from the ice at 2100 (9P.M.) on the 6th. of July, and in company with "Ironclad," "Troubador," and "Silver Sword," crept Eastwards. They then coasted South, and entered Matochkin Strait, at Lagerni, contact was made with the Russians- "Benjamin Harrison" was also at anchor, whilst the "Empire Tide," had taken refuge in Moller Bay.

Finally, on 24th. of July, "Azerbaijan," "Silver Sword," "Benjamin Harrison," "Ironclad," and "Troubadour," all arrived safely at Archangel. Then, the only outstanding ship, the beached "Winston Salem," after pumping fuel oil overboard, was freed, and crewed by survivors from other ships, she was sailed into Archangel on the 28th. of July.

To Sum Up
Allied losses were horrendous, two thirds of the convoy lost, 24 ships sunk, 8 by U-Boats, 8 by Aircraft, and 8 damaged by Aircraft, then finally sunk by the U-Boats.

Lost Equipment
210 Bombers, 430 Tanks, 3350 Vehicles, and approximately 100,000 tons of Munitions

The German Cost
Only 6 Aircraft.

Deaths of Allied Seamen
153 Allied Seamen died from P.Q.17, but not one Naval Officer or Rating were killed in their defence.

Sir Dudley Pound
The First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, had indeed made a wrong decision when he gave the order for the convoy "To Scatter," and the price paid was catastrophic!

I must acknowledge my debt to "Richard Woodman "and his definitive work "Artic Convoys 1941-1945" published in 1994. I have drawn heavily on this book, for this account of Convoy P.Q. 17, and its subsequent debacle.

Battleship Drawings courtesy of Michael Emmerich

Frederick (Fred) Brindley (90 yrs old on 7th June '08) was onboard The HMS Duke of York during the Russian (Arctic) Convoys:

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