June 27, 1942. A convoy of 35 merchant ships sets out from Hvalfjord, Iceland, to bring desperately needed supplies to the besieged Soviet Union. Its course will take it to Arkhangelsk on Russia’s Arctic coast – but it will have to run the gauntlet of German planes, ships and submarines striking from Norway. Convoy PQ-17 heads to its doom.
Even before the United States entered World War II, there had been high-level meetings between the Americans and British to discuss the necessity of keeping the Soviet Union in the war. Of all the Allied powers, Russia was under the most immediate threat from German forces, and the Western Allies recognized that if the Soviets dropped out of the war it would make their eventual victory ten times harder. It became a priority, especially in 1942, to send as many supplies and munitions to Russia as possible until the Allies could be sure their frenemy could survive the conflict.
The trouble was not in providing the equipment or supplies but in getting them to Russia. This had been a problem in World War I as well, but modern technology made it easier and harder – easier, because of increased motorization and airlift capability, but harder, because submarine technology and air power benefited the German forces trying to stop Allied shipments to the Soviet Union.
There were only three routes to get material to Russia:
1. Overland through the Middle East. In 1941, the British and Soviets jointly occupied Persia with little fighting to open up this route. It was a long way from either side’s main industrial centers, though, and difficult to transit large numbers of supplies over the feeble railroads through Central Asia and the Caucasus.
2. Through the Soviets’ far eastern port of Vladivostok. This route was almost completely closed off due to Japanese naval power in the area, and even if supplies did get there, they would have to be shipped across the whole of Asian Russia to make it to the battlefront.
3. The Arctic Route via the North Sea, from Britain and Iceland through the gap between Greenland and Norway and into Russia’s far northern ports. This route could only be used when the ice was thawed, and was open to air and sea attack from German-occupied Norway. This was the most direct route.
The first convoy sailed the Arctic Route in August 1941, two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and throughout the next few months twelve more convoys made it across and only lost one ship. The United States and Britain both provided covering forces of capital and small ships for the convoys, until the United States had to divert most of its capital ships to the Pacific to fight Japan. For this window of time – August 1941 to spring 1942 – the Arctic Route proved a relatively safe way of transporting much-needed trucks, tanks, weapons and raw materials to the Soviets. “PQ” was the Allied designation for outbound convoys, which would assume the designation “QP” on their way back.
The Germans wanted to cut this flow of supplies off, and began to step up their efforts to stop or destroy the convoys. In winter 1941, the Kriegsmarine – with precious little to do since the sinking of Bismarck had ended their raids into the Atlantic – began to concentrate their heavy ship strength along the cost of Norway. By January 1942, Bismarck’s twin battleship Tirpitz was based in Norway, along with a bevy of heavy cruisers and a large number of long-range aircraft. This force, combined with the ever-present German U-Boats, would make further passages through the Arctic Route perilous. Tirpitz nearly intercepted PQ-12 in March 1942, and PQ-16 suffered heavy attacks in May 1942, losing 8 out of 35 ships. The Nazis were stepping up their game.
Convoy PQ-17 was slated to leave on June 27, 1942. The British were well aware of Tirpitz’s presence in Norway, along with the other Nazi ships. They prepared a large covering force and escort for the convoy. The escort was made up of six destroyers and numerous smaller ships that were supposed to protect the convoy from submarines. The main purpose of keeping convoys close together was to allow the escorts to work together and protect the ships from U-Boat attack; convoys were much safer than ships travelling alone in the U-Boat-infested waters of the Atlantic.
The “covering forces” would shadow the convoy by a large distance, meant to intercept any German surface ships that pushed out from Norway. This covering force consisted of Rear Admiral Hamilton’s squadron of British and American cruisers, and Admiral John Tovey’s larger force of battleships and an aircraft carrier would follow much farther back. These covering forces would be exposed to air and submarine attack, just like the convoy, so they had to keep well away from the Norwegian coast, and were absolutely forbidden from passing east of 25 degrees longitude. If the covering forces were unable to drive off attacks by surface ships, the convoy would be forced to scatter, making them easy prey for German submarines.
The convoy gathered at Hvalfjord, Iceland, before setting sail on June 27. 34 merchant ships carried over 100,000 tons of cargo including nearly 500 tanks and 300 planes. They entered the world of ice and fog that was the North Sea; the weather alternated between heavy swells, bitter cold, cloudy skies and sudden sunshine. Clear weather was the worst, as the convoy would be open to German air attack, but bad weather made it harder to spot submarine periscopes. The crosscurrents of the North Sea, alternating warm and cool waters, made sonar less effective. Convoy PQ-17 was on a perilous journey, and it’s a wonder any of the seamen or merchant mariners slept a wink.
Three ships had to turn back early on from ice damage, even before they entered the dangerous part of their voyage. As PQ-17 left the Denmark Strait and crept into the open sea, they were immediately sighted by the German submarine U-456, which shadowed them from them on. On July 1, the convoy’s watchmen spotted German planes in the distance. Each crewman felt the mortifying fear: they had been spotted. The Germans knew they were coming. The merchant ships with their little fleet of escorts pushed out into the swelling sea, and every man on board felt very alone.
The next day, July 2, the convoy suffered its first air attack. Nine German torpedo planes assaulted but failed to score a hit. PQ-17 passed one of the returning Arctic Convoys, QP-13, as they continued to steam east, watching the skies and hoping that the destroyers could find the lurking U-Boats that undoubtedly surrounded them. July 3 was quiet, but tense, as the convoy passed between Spitsbergen and Bear Island. Very soon, their covering force would have to turn back, and then it would be a mad dash to get into Russian waters before the Germans could unleash their ships on them.
Convoy PQ-17 lost its first ship on July 4. A German bomber struck the SS Christopher Newport 35 miles northeast of Bear Island; the ship remained disabled, but afloat, until the U-Boat U-457 sank it. Luckily the crew managed to escape. As the German air attacks grew stronger, the escorts did their duty, laying down antiair fire and doing their best to keep the bombers at bay. Later that day, another flight of German bombers managed to sink the SS William Hooper, but so far the bulk of the convoy was safe, and they were halfway there. The escorts had kept them afloat.
July 4, though, was the beginning of the disaster. Two days earlier on July 2, the German battleship Tirpitz had left its ports in Norway and joined up with other ships in a task force. When this was discovered on July 4, the British Admiralty went into a frenzy. They believed that a large German surface force had left the Norwegian ports and was about to intercept the convoy. The heavy covering force was out of range, and only Rear Admiral Hamilton’s four cruisers would be able to respond to a sudden attack. Hamilton was following PQ-17 closely, and on 12:30, July 4, received orders that altered the original plan. He was to follow the convoy past 25 degrees east should the situation demand.
The nerves of everyone afloat were strained – Tirpitz and her heavy cruisers were out there, no one knew where, and they could descend on the convoy at any minute. First Sea Lord Dudley Pound was especially concerned since this was the first joint Anglo-American convoy, and disaster would be a major problem for Allied relations. If Tirpitz got a hold of that convoy, she would blow every escort vessel out of the water and wreck all the merchant ships.
The next orders that went out set Convoy PQ-17 on its final course with destiny. The Admiralty sent the following orders to the convoy:
9:11 pm – “Cruiser Force withdraw to the westward at high speed.”
9:23 pm – “Owing to threat from surface ships, convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports.”
9:36 pm – “Convoy is to scatter.”
This was a fatal mistake brought on by a loss of nerve at Pound’s Admiralty. Stressed and terrified of Tirpitz and her big ships catching the convoy, Pound’s staff ordered Convoy PQ-17 to scatter to the winds. It was every ship for themselves – and the results were catastrophic.
The slaughter began on July 5 at 8:30 in the morning. The ships were immediately spread over a wide area, and away from the bubble-like protection of their trained escort vessels. Frantic distress calls filled the wavelengths across the Arctic as the destroyer captains tried in despair to come to their rescue, like shepherds trying to round up their flock in a forest full of wolves. The German planes, no longer concerned about antiaircraft fire, swooped in from everywhere, and the stalking U-Boats that had been kept at bay by sonar pings lunged in for the kill. Every ship in PQ-17 had its own story of woe.
The freighter SS Washington, carrying 600 tons of high explosives, was set ablaze by dive-bombers. Those who could escape managed to paddle away from the wreck in only two lifeboats before the Washington erupted. They waved off the rescue ship that arrived, reasoning that they would just be trading one target for another, and were proven right when they saw their would-be rescuers sunk by three torpedoes. It took ten days in the freezing waters of the Arctic before these men made it to Russia.
Many did not. The Merchant Navy’s cries for help – “Bombed by large number of planes,” “On fire in the ice”, “Six U-Boats approaching on the surface,” “Abandoning ship,” slashed through the airwaves as PQ-17 died. The commander of the destroyer escort, Commodore Dowding, disobeyed orders to turn back and rescued as many men as he could, but he could not save them all.
Only 11 of the 34 ships that had left Iceland made it to Arkhangelsk in Russia. 23 were lost in the bitter and desolate seas of the Arctic, and at least 153 merchant mariners died. Many of the survivors were picked up thanks to Dowding’s tireless efforts, but their valuable cargo went to the ocean floor.
The irony is that Tirpitz never did attack the convoy. It had never left port. It did sail on July 5, after the orders to scatter had already been given and the damage was done, but turned back after the mission was cancelled. The British Admiralty’s fear of Tirpitz had done far more damage than Tirpitz herself could ever hope to do.
The ordeal of Convoy PQ-17 became a bitter issue between the Allies. Winston Churchill called it “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.” The American Chief of Staff of the Navy, Ernest J. King, was disgusted with the whole episode and withdrew many of the U.S. Navy’s supporting forces for use in his favorite theater: the Pacific. The British Admiralty decided to suspend the convoys until the ice receded and opened safer routes, farther from the Norwegian coast. Not until September would another convoy leave for Russia, with its escort doubled and the first of the brand-new escort aircraft carriers alongside.
The sinking of PQ-17 also led to recriminations between the British and Soviets, the British accusing the Soviets of failing to provide air and naval cover for the convoy’s eastern leg, and the Soviets accusing the British of lying to cover up their reluctance to supply the Communists. The Soviets never acknowledged the sacrifices and effort that Allied seamen made to bring the material to their shores.
It was this event – and others – that made “merchant mariner” the single most dangerous job description for the Western Allies during the war, rivaled only by the ball turret gunner on an Allied bomber. The destruction of Convoy PQ-17 was only one of the most famous incidents in the long and terrible Battle of the Atlantic.