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Doomed Convoy

Discussion in 'Merchant Navy During WWII' started by Jim, Aug 22, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Convoy PQ17 had become the bait in a trial of strength between the Allied and German Navies. A serious error of judgement resulted in a huge success for one side and a terrible disaster for the other.

    The doomed convoy of 35 merchantmen, three rescue ships and two fleet oilers code named PQI7 came together in Hval Fjord, Iceland, in late June 1942. More than half of the merchant ships were American, from brand new masss produced 'Liberty' ships such as the William Hooper to old third-hand flag-of-convenience tramps such as the Troubadour, both loaded down with American tanks for the Red Army and sailing side by side.

    British built Matilda tanks being prepared for loading on to a merchant ship bound for Russia, 1942. Each tank had to be carefully winched aboard which was a tedious process.

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    Convoy Sets Sail...

    The convoy sailed on 27 June and was dogged by bad luck right from the start. One ship immediately ran aground and two more were damaged by ice and had to return, The close escort, commanded by Captain Jack Broome in the destroyer HMS Keppel, was a strong force: six destroyers, four corvettes, three minesweepers, four armed trawlers and two AA ships supported by two submarines. Rear Admiral Louis Hamilton's Anglo-American covering force, consisting of the heavy cruisers HMS London, HMS Norfolk, USS Tuscaloosa and USS Wichita and three destroyers, was to stay in the vicinity of the convoy as far as the latitude of North Cape. In support, and hoping for a major fleet action, was the main body of Admiral Sir John Tovey's Home Fleet, the battleships HMS Duke of York and USS Washington, the carrier HMS Victorious, two more cruisers and eight destroyers. Two British submarines gave close support to the convoy and two patrol lines of British, French and Soviet submarines lay in wait off the Norwegian coast.

    The Luftwaffe mounted the first attacks. On 2 July seven Heinkel He-115 seaplanes dropped torpedoes but scored no hits; one was brought down and one of its daring companions braved British gunfire to pick up the crew. Two days later another He-115 carried out a surprise attack out of the fog that hit the American Liberty ship Christopher Newport, all except three of whose crew were picked up by one of the rescue vessels. The Luftwaffe still had its main card up its sleeve: 23 Heinkel He-111 torpedo planes. They attacked From two directions in a well planned manoeuvre while Junkers Ju-88 bombers tried to divert the attention of the escort. The attack was pressed home with great bravery and skill and three ships were torpedoed for the loss of four bombers. Two ships, the American William Hooper and British Navarino, were sunk, the former being finished off by one of the U-boats that were sniffing around the convoy. The third damaged ship, the tough Soviet tanker Azerbaijan, carrying linseed oil for paint making, rather than fuel, survived. Captain Broome was satisfied with the performance of his escorts. As long as the convoy kept together it would be safe from the air and submarine threats. But where were the big German warships!

    British factory workers seen adopting a suitable “revolutionary” pose as two recently built Valentine Mark II tanks are readied for shipment to Russia. It was to deliver weapons such as these that the Arctic convoys were run.

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    That question was uppermost in the minds of the Naval Staff in London. Not till 3 July did the OIC (Operational Intelligence Centre) at the Admiralty in London obtain indications from Bletchley Park's code breakers of major fleet movements. It seemed that the 'Pocket Battleship' Admiral Scheer, the cruiser Admiral Hipper, and the battleship Tirpitz were moving north. There was then a 25 hour gap in decrypts until the next routine setting of the Enigma keys was broken. When the next set of decrypts came through to the OIC at 7pm on 4 July, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, was there in person. The interpreted signals confirmed that the three heavy ships were at Alten fjord in northern Norway that morning and that their escorts were refuelling. This information was duly signalled to Tovey.

    Commander Overruled...

    Commander Norman Denning, responsible for the German surface fleet intelligence, was also present at the OIC and wanted to add to the signal to Tovey that from all the evidence at his disposal the ships were still in Allen Fjord. But he was overruled. Pound then asked him why, he assessed the information as he did. After Denning presented all the evidence, notably the lack of the wireless traffic normally associated with such movements and the lack of submarine sighting reports, Pound asked him a final question: “Can you assure me that the Tirpitz is still in Alten Fjord?” Denning replied that he could not be absolutely sure but he was confident that she was still there and he expected confirmation from the next batch of decrypts due at, noon the following day. However, although the decrypts carne through much sooner, they were inconclusive. At 8.30 pm Pound convened a meeting of senior members of the Naval Staff concerned with PQI7 with Captain Jock Clayton, head of the OCI, representing the intelligence side. Most present felt any decision on scattering the convoy should be delayed but Pound listened to the advice of Vice-Admiral Henry Moore, the vice-Chief of the Naval Staff. If the convoy was to be scattered, he argued it ought to be scattered that evening while there was still sufficient open sea for the ships to separate.

    Fatal Decision...

    Pound leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Then he picked up a signal pad and said “The convoy is to be dispersed”. He personally drafted a signal in these words but moments after it had been sent for transmission Moore obtained Pound's permission to clarify the situation. “Disperse” was not what was meant, Pound confirmed. Dispersal meant that the ships would break formation but still remain bunched and thus still be a prime enemy target. To escape the German heavy units they had to scatter. So Moore drafted a new, more dramatic message, which went out at 9.36 pm: “MOST IMMEDIATE ... Convoy is to scatter.”

    Broome had no alternative but to obey. After ordering the convoy to scatter he joined his destroyers to Hamilton's force, which had stayed with the convoy for as long as it could but which now had been ordered to withdraw to the southwest. Hamilton, Broome and their ships' companies were expecting imminent action but they were not to know that at that moment the German battle group was still at Alten Fjord.

    The opposing forces in PQ17. The loss of 24 merchant ships in appalling conditions was a sobering lesson in the cost of war at sea.

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    Tirpitz Stays Put...

    ‘Knight's Move’ had got off to a bad start when the ‘pocket battleship’ Lützow and three destroyers had run aground on 3 July. Tirpitz and Hipper, the remaining two big warships, seven destroyers and two torpedo boats concentrated at Alten Fjord on the 4th and waited in accordance with Hitler's reiterated order that the Tirpitz; should not venture from the safety of the fjord if an Allied carrier was in the vicinity. This allowed the Germans to avoid Admiral Tovey's baited trap and it was on the following morning the 5th that it became clear that not only was the Allied Fleet and its vital carrier Victorious withdrawing but the main escort of the convoy was doing the same. The German battle group sailed with high hopes but was soon spotted, first by a Soviet submarine and then by a British aircraft, which gave the Germans cold feet once more. They reckoned that the threat of the Allied Fleet and its carrier could not be ruled out completely, so Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the German naval chief, himself called off his ships almost exactly 24 hours after his British counterpart's fatal blunder. However, he need not have worried, for Tovey had already decided to make no move against a German foray so far to the east.

    The Killing Starts...

    U-703 began the slaughter of the scattered convoy at 8.27 am on 5 July, hitting the 6,645 ton freighter Empire Byron. As would often occur in torpedo attacks, the crew of the merchantman were unaware of the danger they were in-until the final explosion. Four torpedoes passed by the Empire Byron unnoticed. The fifth ruptured the afterhold. The explosion failed to wake Captain John Wharton, the ship's master and Rear-Commodore of PQ17, asleep after 36 hours at action stations. When he had been roused, he saw panic on deck as the crew abandoned ship. Above the roar of inrushing water, he could hear the screams of 12 gunners who had been trapped below. There was nothing anyone could do to help. Another massive explosion rocked the ship and she went down to the bottom like a stone.

    A Heinkel He-115 torpedo-bomber floatplane in flight, 1942. It was aircraft such as this, stationed in Norway, that carried out the first attack on Convoy PQI7 in July 1942.

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    Carlton Struck...

    Elsewhere in the Arctic on that same morning, the American merchantman Carlton was heading for a fog bank to gain cover from any patrolling enemy aircraft. Little did her crew know that the real threat to her lay beneath the waves: for hours she had been tracked by U-88. At 10.15 am, the hull of the Carlton juddered: U-88's second torpedo had struck home. Carlton’s crew abandoned ship at once. A third torpedo to finish her off, missed and, deprived of its target, circled crazily around the life-rafts. One seaman ill advisedly tried to bat it on the head with an oar! Eventually, the torpedo sank, as did, at 10.50, the Carlton. In similar ways, the destruction continued for another five days. Between 5 and 10 July, the 22 merchant ships sunk in PQ17 took to the bottom 430 tanks, 210 bomber aircraft, 3,350 motor vehicles mostly lorries and almost 100,000 tons of steel, ammunition and food-stuffs. A fleet oiler and a rescue ship were also sunk, bringing the total ship tonnage lost to almost 144,000 tons. Between the 11th and 28th July, the remnants of the shattered convoy 11 merchantmen and two rescue ships arrived in Russian ports. Not one warship was damaged. Loss of life was, in the circumstances, relatively light. A total of 153 were killed and no less than 1,300 survivors were rescued.

    Admiral Pound, already a sick man from over work and terminal brain cancer, had committed one of the worst errors of the war. Even if the convoy had been caught by the German battle group, ship losses could hardly have been much worse; and Commander Broome's escorts would have sold their lives dearly. Given their obsessive caution it is quite possible that the Germans would have not risked attacking. After this naval disaster, the Admiralty insisted that the Arctic convoys should stop but both Churchill and Stalin were adamant they should continue. There was a brief delay while Home Fleet units were diverted to relieve the siege of Malta. Then, on 2 September, PQI8 set out from Loch Ewe in Scotland. It was strongly escorted with a ‘fighting destroyer escort’ of a light cruiser and 15 of the Royal Navy's most powerful destroyers, complete with their own replenishment group of two Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and four escorting destroyers. This would cope with any surface or air threats, both to PQI8 and the homeward bound QPI4. The Germans also had to face 12 Sea Hurricanes and three Swordfish anti-submarine aircraft of the escort carrier HMS Avenger.

    In cramped conditions the captain of a U-boat, eyes glued to his periscope, searches for a likely target.

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    Allied Victory...

    Between 12 and 18 September the Germans mounted a series of heavy air and U-boat attacks on PQ18 and, although they sank 13 of its 40 ships, they lost three U-boats and 22 aircraft in the process. It was a victory ‘on points’ to the Allies. Only the needs of the North African landings (Operation Torch, 8 November 1942) caused a cessation of the Arctic convoys until December 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic started to move towards its climax. Towards the end of 1942, over 200 U-boats were operational, more than twice the figure of a year earlier. Only the strongest of escorts, like that which protected PQI8, would be able to cope with this scale of threat, and so in September the British formed their first ‘support group’ of escorts to help defend Atlantic convoys in the greatest danger. Allied code-breaking expertise meant that such escort groups could be sent to exactly where they were required. Also, by that time their warships were better equipped with new higher frequency ‘centimetric’ radar that could spot U-boats at over 2 miles (3km) and periscopes at half a mile (800m), as well as high frequency direction finders that could zero in on the radio transmissions upon which German tactics depended. But Allied escort carriers and land based anti-submarine aircraft of sufficient range were still in very short supply. The Battle of the Atlantic was far from over.
     

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