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The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17
Written By: Sam Ghaleb, Ridgecrest
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The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17
PQ-17 leaving Iceland 1942 June 27
The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17
The Tirpitz
The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17
Sir Dudley Pound
    Seventy years ago, an Allied Arctic convoy carrying supplies heading to the port of Murmansk in the Soviet Union was attacked by German U-boats and torpedo carrying aircraft of the Luftwaffe. The result was catastrophic - 24 out of 35 vessels were lost to enemy action. "PQ-17," as this convoy was called, was to become the worst convoy disaster of World War II. The Axis invasion of the U.S.S.R., in June of 1941, led to the introduction of these Arctic convoys which carried war materiel from the Allies to aid the Soviet Union in its struggle for survival. The convoys were much smaller in size than the ones that sailed across the Atlantic to Great Britain, but were much more heavily escorted by destroyers, cruisers. In many cases they were accompanied by capital ships, such as battleships and aircraft carriers. The convoys not only had to contend with the German U-boats and aircraft, but also with the most severe weather conditions on earth. Icing conditions, fog, and twilight haze coupled with waves sometimes higher than 60 feet hitting the ships of a convoy with such force, that it put the ships in danger of sinking. No wonder that P.M. Churchill of Great Britain once said, "The Arctic route for the convoys heading to Russia was the most treacherous trip in the world."
    PQ-17 was one of those convoys which carried war materiel from Great Britain, Canada and the USA to the Soviet Union. PQ-17 sailed in June-July 1942, containing 35 merchant ships (22 American, eight British, 2 Soviet, 2 Panamanian and one Dutch) and was heavily escorted. The convoy assembled at Hvalfjordur, Iceland and was to sail for Murmansk, under the command of Commodore John Dowding. The convoy's cargo included nearly 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, and a general cargo that exceeded 150,000 tons. It was more than enough to completely equip an army of 50,000 men. The value of these goods was a staggering $700 million, in 1942 value.
    To interdict Allied convoys to the Soviet Union, the Kriegsmarine stationed the mighty battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the battleship Bismarck that was sunk by the Royal Navy on her maiden voyage on 27 May 1941. The Tirpitz arrived in the northern waters of Norway on January 16, 1942. She was later joined by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow, and several destroyers and torpedo boats. This powerful group of warships acted as a "fleet in being." Their mere existence would intimidate the Royal Navy by forcing it to keep a large portion of its modern warships on hand in the North Sea in case the German ships attempted a breakout. In early March, convoys QP-8 and PQ-12 narrowly missed being intercepted by the newly formed battle squadron.
    Leaving Reykjavik, Iceland, on June 27, 1942, PQ-17 was an impressive sight. The thirty-five cargo ships were escorted by six destroyers and 15 other corvettes and armed trawlers. One ship, S.S. Empire Tide, was a catapult-armed merchantman that carried a Hawker Hurricane fighter which could be launched to intercept enemy aircraft and perform reconnaissance. A cruiser force, consisting of HMS London and Norfolk, USS Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and three U.S. destroyers, steamed 40 miles north of the convoy to provide close cover. Serving on the heavy cruiser USS Wichita was the American actor Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
    For additional protection, the British Home Fleet set sail, from its base at Scapa Flow, on the following day. It trailed PQ-17 at a distance of 200 miles and provided distant cover. The fleet, under the command of Admiral John Tovey, included the battleship HMS Duke of York, two cruisers and 14 destroyers, reinforced by the battleship USS Washington and the carrier HMS Victorious.
    Early on July 1, 1942, a German reconnaissance plane arrived just as PQ-17 was passing a returning convoy, QP-13. Because of the intermingling of ships and escorts as the two convoys passed each other, the German pilot incorrectly reported the convoy's size. In an effort to clarify the situation, the Germans dispatched U-255 and U-408 from their "Ice Devil Wolf Pack." After sorting things out, the Germans decided to ignore the returning convoy and to concentrate on the heavily laden PQ-17. Spared by the Germans, QP-13 unfortunately sailed into a friendly minefield in the Denmark Strait and lost four ships.
    Back in London, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, nervously monitored developments. His sporadic intelligence reports, supplied by Ultra intelligence intercepts, confirmed that Tirpitz had slipped her moorings at Trondheim on July 3 and appeared to be moving out to sea. Due to the delays in decoding all incoming transmissions, it was impossible for the Admiralty to know exactly where Tirpitz was, only where she had been.
    Tirpitz was only shifting berths, but the move was enough to move the Admiralty to action. It was obvious to Admiral Pound that Tirpitz and her battle group were undertaking a strike position. Without knowledge of Tirpitz’ whereabouts, Admiral Pound was gripped by an overwhelming fear. Even with just a look at his charts, he easily calculated that Tirpitz, steaming at 30 knots, could successfully evade the Home Fleet, overpower the cruiser force and slaughter the merchant ships.
    The Admiral called an emergency meeting of his naval operations staff, but he had already made his decision. Surrounded by about a dozen officers, Pound asked each one in turn which action they would pursue in light of the latest intelligence. Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Moore, vice-chief of the naval staff, recommended that if, and only if, the convoy was to be dispersed, there was no time to waste. The longer the delay in giving the order, the less sea room was available for dispersal, because the ships had to avoid the ice. Every other officer was against dispersal at that time. Pound politely thanked the men for their opinions, turned to an aide and ordered the convoy to disperse.
    Many of the escort commanders felt that the Admiralty must have hard proof that Tirpitz and her battle group were out to get the convoy and could be expected at any moment. They erroneously believed that the escorts had been ordered to move away in a maneuver to draw out Tirpitz for a showdown. One final message read: "Escort to merchant ships…sorry to leave you like this…good luck…looks like a bloody business…." While every man aboard the merchant ships was a volunteer and had expected a hazardous run, none had bargained for a journey such as this!
    Before the last of the escorts had disappeared over the horizon, the ships of the convoy began to disperse. Some fanned out to the north toward the ice edge, some due east toward Novaya Zemlya, and some southeast, directly toward the Russian ports. The American ships were seen lowering their colors as if in surrender. But they were only defiantly replacing their faded and tattered flags with bright, new oversized ones. For the Americans in the convoy it was Independence Day - July 4, 1942.
    PQ-17 was stripped of all protection and abandoned. Admiral Pound had decided to save the warships and let the merchantmen fend for themselves. Individual ships stood a better chance of survival against superior surface forces than vessels that were crowded together in the restrictions of a convoy. But scattering in the narrow confines north of the Arctic Circle would prove fatal. After confirmation of the orders was received, the men of the convoy could only stare in disbelief as their protection turned at high speed to join the cruiser force some 40 miles away.
    When news of the dispersal was reported to German naval headquarters, Großadmiral Erich Raeder ordered  to make ready to sail. At noon on July 5, 1942, Tirpitz – along with Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper and six destroyers – set sail to intercept PQ-17. Still uncertain of the location of the Allied covering force, and with reports of successful attacks on the Allied merchantmen beginning to come in from U-boats and aircraft, Raeder then reconsidered. Apparently there was no need to risk the pride of the German navy. Tirpitz was ordered back to port. The destruction of PQ-17 was to be left to the forces already engaged.
    At the Admiralty, 2,000 miles away, the decoders suddenly fell silent. Tirpitz, re-anchored, was now receiving all her messages overland. Only one wireless intercept from the German naval command came in, informing the U-boats near the convoy that no German surface ships would be operating in their area and they were free to continue their attacks. That information was hurriedly forwarded to Admiral Pound in hopes that he would recall the escorts and regroup the convoy. But it made no difference. The Admiral knew that his orders had been sent and were probably already being acted upon. By now the ships were well within the range of German aircraft, and they could no longer be protected by the Home Fleet. As far as Admiral Pound was concerned, the matter was closed. The order to scatter would not be reversed.
    It was not until the third day that the Germans scored a hit. The first victim was the American Liberty ship Christopher Newport. Severely damaged, she began taking on water and was finally given up. Despite the loss, the men of the convoy felt that they had resisted brilliantly. They were confident that together with their escort they could complete the rest of the journey in good order.
    All went well until the following afternoon, when elements of the Luftwaffe tried to press home another attack. Luftwaffe torpedo bombers launched at least 20 torpedoes, but only three found their mark. The Soviet tanker Azerbaijan was hit, but her crew managed to control the damage, and she eventually made it to port. Not so lucky were the merchantmen Navarino and William Hooper. Damaged beyond repair, they both went down.
    The slaughter had begun about 8:30 a.m. on July 5. Soon the Arctic airwaves were filled with frantic distress signals from stricken ships. A British freighter, Empire Byron, was among the first victims, going down after being torpedoed by a U-boat. Next to go was an American ship, Carlton. Then a flight of nine dive bombers concentrated on Daniel Morgan and the freighter Washington, while U-boats accounted for another American vessel, Honomu. Before semidarkness mercifully put an end to the massacre, PQ-17 had lost nine merchant ships.
    The attacks continued for three more days without respite. Roving aircraft caught up with, and sank, Pan Atlantic, while prowling U-boats, working alone or in small "Wolf-Packs," dealt death blows to John Witherspoon, Alcoa Ranger, Olopana and Hartlebury. One ship, Winston Salem, miraculously evaded numerous attacks only to be intentionally beached on the island of Novaya Zemyla, where she floundered until some of her cargo was salvaged. July 9 passed without incident. However, on the 10th, enemy planes caught Hoosier and El Capitan while they were making a desperate run for landfall southeast of Murmansk. They, too, were pounded to pieces and sent to the bottom within 100 miles of safety.
    Air attacks by the Luftwaffe had temporarily closed the port of Murmansk, further disrupting deliveries of supplies, and the remaining ships of PQ-17 were rerouted. Only two ships made it across the White Sea to be unloaded at Archangel on July 9. Over the next few days, more stragglers came limping in, but it would take until July 28 for the last of the survivors of PQ-17 to arrive.
    The toll taken on the abandoned convoy was horrific. Only 11 of the 35 merchantmen that left Iceland finally made it to the Soviet Union. Fourteen of the sunken ships were American. More than two-thirds of the convoy had gone to the bottom, along with 210 combat planes, 430 Sherman tanks, 3,350 vehicles and nearly 100,000 tons of other cargo. More than 120 seamen were killed and countless others were crippled and maimed. The financial loss exceeded half a billion dollars.
    For the Royal Navy, the massacre of PQ-17 and the abandonment of the convoy was one of the most shameful episodes of the war at sea. Details of the losses were kept from the public until after the war. The British decision to withdraw its protection from the convoy strained Anglo-American relations. Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, was so enraged that he was very reluctant to have American and British ships continue operating together. Churchill wrote in his memoirs, years later, "All risks should have been taken in the defense of the merchant ships."
    To make matters worse, the always-suspicious Soviets refused to believe that 24 ships from one convoy had been sunk. They openly accused their Western Allies of lying about the disaster, and remained oblivious to the dangers and hardships endured by the merchantmen and escorts alike.
    It’s interesting to note that the Soviet Union claimed that one of their Northern Fleet submarines, K-21, under the command of Cdr. Nikolai A. Lunin did attack the German battle group on July 5, 1942. Lunin claimed in, an after action report, that he did fire four torpedoes against the Tirpitz and heard two detonations after the estimated travel time. The Germans never confirmed such action. However, a British Catalina flying boat and the submarine HMS Unshaken, did report seeing the German Battle group retreating at slow speed.
    Shaken by the colossal losses taken by PQ-17, Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, over strong Soviet protest, postponed the sailing of PQ-18 until autumn. When the convoy did sail, it was protected by 53 warships, including two submarines and the aircraft carrier Avenger. Once again, the Germans mounted a major effort to prevent the delivery of supplies and weapons. They managed to sink 13 ships of PQ-18. Bowing to pleas from within the Admiralty and in the wake of such unacceptable losses, all further sailings were suspended until winter.
    It’s hard to believe that the two most senior admirals of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound and Admiral Sir John Tovey, the two who brought a glorious victory by sinking the German battleship Bismarck a year earlier, behaved in such a panicked and uncoordinated fashion. Their action caused the worst convoy disaster of World War II. The two admirals would never be in the spotlight again. Admiral Tovey would lose his command of the Home Fleet in 1943, and Admiral Pound eventually died of a brain tumor in the same year.

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