Arctic Naval Convoys II


Deutsche Kriesgmarine Zerstörer Z30, 1942. Model by jorge andres rivas  On 28 March the ships were sighted by German aircraft, and attacked. Two ships were sunk, Raceland and Empire Ranger. Also on the 28th a German force of three Narvik class destroyers, Z24, Z25 and Z26, under the command of KzS G Ponitz, sortied from Kirkenes. They intercepted Bateau, which was sunk, in the evening of 28/29 March, before falling in with Trinidad and Fury in the early hours of 29 March. Z26 was badly damaged by HMS Trinidad, sinking later after a combined counter-attack of Oribi, Eclipse and the Soviet destroyer Sokrushitelny, but in the course of the action Trinidad was hit by her own torpedo (the torpedo’s gyroscope froze).


The remaining German ships broke off the action, and Trinidad, escorted by Fury and Eclipse, limped into Kola Inlet, arriving midday on 30 March.

The Ship that Torpedoed Herself

Having found nothing more during the night, Ponitz took his three destroyers back westwards at 17 knots, with Trinidad and Fury steaming at 20 knots on a reciprocal course towards them. As the morning passed, visibility deteriorated with a leaden sky and fog drifting off the ice floes. Fortunately, Saunders had already identified the three destroyers earlier, and when his radar operator picked up three ships at 6.5 miles, confirmed as probably hostile at 4.5 miles, the crews of the cruiser and destroyer closed up to action stations at 08.45. At 08.49 the three destroyers were seen, but before his duty signalman could complete the challenge, Saunders ordered fire to be opened at 08.51. The Germans must have done the same, for almost immediately two shells from Z26 struck Trinidad’s aft ‘Y’-turret while her own fire hit Z26 amidships. The cruiser redirected her fire to a second destroyer, but the destroyers then changed course and vanished into the fog. Expecting a torpedo attack, Saunders changed the cruiser’s course and was gratified to find shortly afterwards that he had successfully combed two torpedoes. The cruiser regained radar contact with Z26, as damage control parties struggled with a shell hole in her hull, and started to gain on the destroyer, while the other two German destroyers started evasive manoeuvres fearing a torpedo attack from Fury. At 1.5 miles, Saunders could see Z26, and altered course to starboard to bring all his guns to bear, while also preparing a torpedo attack. The German destroyer started to zigzag as 6-in shells fell around her, and as the cruiser prepared to launch her torpedoes. The first torpedo was launched from the port triple tube, but the torpedo officer then delayed firing the second and third as he adjusted the angle of attack, only to find that both had frozen in their tubes. Meanwhile, the first torpedo, either because of a gyro problem or because the gyro had been toppled by the British shells falling around it, promptly reversed course and headed back towards Trinidad. At 09.24, the cruiser was struck by her own torpedo on the port side, rupturing a fuel tank. The men from the gunnery direction transmitting station deep between the two main bunker tanks were left struggling to escape. Four managed it before an armoured hatch fell and broke the back of the fifth man, and at the same time the inner bulkhead of the port fuel tank gave way and the remaining seventeen men were drowned in heavy fuel oil. In the forward boiler room, other men were suffering the agony of being scalded by super-heated steam from fractured pipes as sea water poured in. The cruiser rapidly listed to port while steering and command were moved to the emergency position aft.

Seeing her opponent’s distress, Z26 attempted to escape, but found herself being chased by Fury and heading towards two British and two Soviet destroyers. Confusion reigned as Fury emerged from the fog. Those aboard the British destroyers were expecting Trinidad, having heard her gunfire earlier, while one of the Soviet destroyers opened fire before realizing her mistake. Fury herself fired a couple of salvoes before returning to stand by the crippled cruiser. One of the British destroyers, Eclipse, then raced after an unidentified vessel, anxious to take part in the destruction of a German destroyer. It was not until 09.50 that Eclipse was able to identify the fleeing Z26, but the Germans believed that her pursuer was one of her own group and flashed a challenge at her. A destroyer to destroyer engagement now commenced, with the British ship housing just 4.7-in guns, heavily outgunned. The Germans had lost their after armament in the earlier engagement with Trinidad, but the forward gun, ‘A’, on Eclipse was frozen and unusable. Despite blizzards and frozen spray and the zigzagging of the Germans that made accurate gun laying impossible, over a period of around thirty minutes, six shells from Eclipse struck Z26, one causing an explosion in an ammunition store and another hitting the boiler room. It was now the German’s turn to lose speed and list to port, her stern sinking fast. By 10.22 she was dead in the water. Eclipse had not come off lightly, having taken two hits and having several of her crew wounded when a ready use ammunition locker exploded. She had also lost most of her torpedoes when a torpedo man fired three by mistake.

As Eclipse prepared to use her remaining torpedo for the coup de grâce, Z24 and Z25 suddenly appeared on the scene, and opened fire on the British destroyer, which was caught in the open during a break in the weather. The commanding officer had no option but to turn and head at full speed for the cover offered by a blizzard, but although the Germans did not pursue, they continued to fire and Eclipse was hit at least four times, twice aft and twice forward as shells fell under her bow, while her aerials were swept away. By 10.35 she was safely hidden, and fifteen minutes later Z26 sank beneath the waves. Her survivors were picked up by the other two ships which then withdrew at speed to Kirkenes.

Eclipse emerged from the blizzard badly damaged, only to find a surfaced U-boat ahead, but the destroyer’s commanding officer managed to comb the track of the two torpedoes that were loosed in his direction before the German dived. The area was depth charged, but eventually the crippled destroyer was forced to give up the fruitless search for her opponent. Eclipse, short of fuel, nevertheless managed to reach the Kola Inlet the next day, 30 March, with her tanks almost empty.

Two days earlier, on 28 March, four British minesweepers from Kola had been sent to help bring the convoy to safety, with one ordered to look for survivors from the Empire Ranger, but they were unaware that the boats had been sighted, fully provisioned but empty. They also had to look out for the River Afton, but these orders were soon changed and the minesweepers were sent to help the crippled Trinidad. The cruiser was in a bad way, with no lighting other than a battery circuit for the crowded sick bay, and while hot drinks were served to her crew, only cold food could be provided. Two destroyers provided an anti-submarine screen as she limped south-east at just 6 knots. Efforts were made to correct her list by transferring fuel between tanks, and speed increased to 12 knots, until salt in the boiler water brought her to a halt. Now a sitting duck, her destroyer screen at least managed to drive off a U-boat after an earlier depth charge attack had failed, but the U-boat concerned was sunk by a minefield. While waiting for tugs from the Kola Inlet, just 70 miles away, to arrive, the engine room crew managed to rectify the problem and again the cruiser got under way at 7 knots. Badly crippled after being blown off course by the rising wind, the only way to correct her course was to go astern and bring the stern round, before resuming her laboured forward progress. Nevertheless, at 09.30 on 30 March, the cruiser entered the Kola Inlet under her own steam, and the tugs that eventually arrived were not needed as she managed to anchor off the dry dock at Rosta.

While the mainstay of the escort for PQ13 was by this time safe, most of the convoy was still at sea, and in danger. At 07.30 on 30 March, Induna was torpedoed and sunk by U-435. The torpedo ignited gasoline in No. 5 hold and the resulting explosion blew barbed wire rolls across the deck, preventing men from reaching the boats. Many of those aboard, including those from the Ballot, were horribly burnt while others dived overboard into the cold sea. There were difficulties in getting the ship’s boats away, but U-435 surfaced and fired another torpedo, which entered No. 4 hold, causing the ship to settle by the stern, raising her bows high into the air. Those who managed to get into the two boats were left at sea for four days. Many aboard were badly scalded and all had completely insufficient clothing. On one boat, seven men died during the first night. Frostbite and hypothermia set in, and there was nothing to drink as the water aboard froze solid. The survivors picked up late on 2 April had to be lifted out of their boat by slings as they were too weak to climb, but they were fortunate, as their rescuing Soviet minesweeper later ran down the other lifeboat with nine men left aboard, although some survived until picked up. Out of sixty-six men aboard the Induna, just twenty-four survived, and of these, eighteen lost limbs.

As the Trinidad entered the Kola Inlet, the destroyer Effingham was torpedoed and sunk, also by U-435.

PQ13 brought home the reality of the Arctic convoys and the cost of keeping the Soviet Union supplied. Some 30,000 tons of desperately needed merchant shipping was lost, along with more than a quarter of the ships. Despite Admiralty attempts to dismiss these losses as ‘stragglers’, the fact remains that at least two groups of ships had attempted to re-form themselves and one to the east of the convoy route had lost two ships steaming towards Russia without any escort at all. The distant escort was more of an escort on paper than in reality. It could have been used to support and replace the troubled Trinidad, it could have used its destroyers and aircraft to find, round up and protect the stragglers. As it was, it was little more than a waste of fuel and resources.

Meanwhile, the Silja, which had been so much trouble, was found later on 30 March by Oribi and taken in tow by the minesweeper Harrier so that she too eventually reached Kola safely.

Far less fortunate were the other two whalecatchers, Sulla and Sumba. It is generally believed that Sulla was sunk on 1 April by U-436. The fate of Sumba has been widely disputed, although many believe that she capsized after gathering too great a weight of ice on her superstructure.

On a brighter note, between them QP9 and PQ13 had shot down several German aircraft, sunk two U-boats and a German destroyer. These losses and those earlier during the two battles of Narvik, were gradually making the Germans more and more reluctant to use their surface fleet, and especially the heavy units, instead relying on air power and the U-boat. The importance of naval aviation, especially carrier-borne aviation, had occurred to them, but despite the order to convert two ships and resume work on the one carrier under construction, the will to pursue this to the end was clearly lacking – one just has to look at the efforts of the American shipbuilding industry in converting Cleveland-class cruisers to light aircraft carriers, and of building substantial numbers of auxiliary or escort carriers both for their own use and that of the Royal Navy, while at the same time building up a massive fleet of Essex-class fleet carriers to see just what could be done. Germany lacked America’s shipbuilding industry and manpower, but failed even to make a proportionate response.

Two of the merchant ships also carried a substantial number of naval personnel, taken off by warships before their ships reached Soviet territory, whose purpose has been something of a mystery. It does seem that an ever-increasing number of British personnel had to be based in the Soviet Union to speed the turn-round of both merchant ships and warships. Port facilities at Murmansk were poor, and were not the best at Archangel even when it was open, and despite the brutal and demanding nature of the Soviet regime, very little coordination existed to enhance the throughput of cargo and the refuelling of ships, the responsibility for which lay primarily in British hands. Ships needed to carry sufficient supplies for the return trip. In fact, the anchorage at Vaenga Bay was crowded with British ships while ashore a Russian airstrip was used by RAF personnel to prepare the Hawker Hurricane fighters being sent to the Soviet Union. This was an exposed position and anchors frequently lost their grip. Basically the Soviet attitude was one of suspicion and obstruction. The lack of suitable cranes in the Soviet ports meant that heavy lift ships were earmarked by the Ministry of War Transport in London to speed the discharge of cargoes. These were essential for the discharge of armoured vehicles, especially tanks, and their crews often spent as long in Russia as the Royal Navy personnel posted there in the naval shore parties.

Even when the Russians were prepared to help, they were hindered by their own country’s backwardness. Hospital facilities were primitive, a major concern when convoys arrived with men wounded and others, especially survivors plucked from the sea, suffering from exposure. The late arrival of the damaged Trinidad was not simply a setback for the convoy escort programme, it also meant that here was a ship whose sick bay could not be used.

One of the lessons that was becoming clear by this time, as German operations against the convoys intensified, was that warships needed to stay close to the convoys rather than being distracted from this duty by the temptation to chase and attack the enemy’s warships and U-boats. Once warships had dashed off for the greater glory and excitement of ‘beating up’ the enemy, the merchantmen were left exposed, and so too were those on the minor escort vessels, even if the escorts were successful and returned unscathed. There was also the problem of fuel and ammunition expended in chasing the enemy. Had they had more ships available, and more fuel, the Germans could have done much at first by tempting escorts away and then leaving the convoys defenceless against the U-boats.


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