Fighting the Weather and the Enemy in the Arctic II

A Handley Page Hampden TB Mark I sweeps over an armed German supply ship off Egero, Norway (29 January 1943).

PQ18 – The First Air Support for the Convoys

PQ17’s fate could not be ignored. It was necessary to maintain the link between the Western Allies and the beleaguered Soviet Union. Four British destroyers were despatched to Archangel loaded with ammunition and replacement anti-aircraft gun barrels, as well as interpreters in an attempt to improve liaison with the Russians. The ships arrived on 24 July 1942. On 13 August the American cruiser USS Tuscaloosa sailed for Russia, escorted by a British destroyer and two American destroyers, carrying RAF ground crew and equipment as well as aircraft spares for two squadrons of Handley Page Hampden bombers destined to be based in northern Russia, as would be photo-reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfires and a squadron of RAF Coastal Command Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Also included in the cargo carried by these warships was a demountable medical centre with medical supplies, but while the Soviets took the medical supplies, they rejected the hospital that would have done so much to improve the lot of Allied seamen in need of medical attention on reaching a Russian port.

Survivors from PQ17 were brought home to the UK aboard the three American ships plus three British destroyers. Ultra intelligence led the three British destroyers to Bear Island where they discovered the German minelayer Ulm, and while two of the destroyers shelled the ship, the third, Onslaught, fired three torpedoes with the third penetrating the magazine, which exploded. Despite the massive explosion, the commanding officer and fifty-nine of the ship’s company survived to be taken prisoner.

Less successful were the Hampden bombers. Already obsolescent, several were shot down on their way to Russia by the Germans and, perhaps due to mistaken identity, by the Russians, who may have confused the aircraft with the Dornier Do 17. Unfortunately, one of those shot down by the Germans crashed in Norway and contained details of the defence of the next pair of convoys, PQ18 and the returning QP14. QP14 was to be the target for the Admiral Scheer, together with the cruisers Admiral Hipper and Köln and a supporting screen of destroyers. This surface force moved to the Altenfjord on 1 September.

PQ18 was the first Arctic convoy to have an escort carrier, the American-built Avenger. The ship had three radar-equipped Swordfish from No. 825 NAS for anti-submarine duties, as well as six Hawker Sea Hurricanes, with another six dismantled and stowed beneath the hangar deck in a hold, for fighter defence. These aircraft were drawn from 802 and 883 Squadrons. Another Sea Hurricane was aboard the CAM ship Empire Morn. Other ships in the convoy escort included the cruiser Scylla, 2 destroyers, 2 anti-aircraft ships converted from merchant vessels, 4 corvettes, 4 anti-submarine trawlers, 3 minesweepers and 2 submarines. There was a rescue ship so that the warships did not have to risk stopping to pick up survivors, and three minesweepers being delivered to the Soviet Union also took on this role.

The convoy had gained an escort carrier but the Home Fleet, which usually provided the distant escort – a much heavier force than that providing the close escort – had lost its fast armoured fleet carrier, Victorious , damaged while escorting the convoy Operation PEDESTAL to Malta and being refitted as a result. Also missing were the American ships, transferred to the Pacific. The C-in-C, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, also made other changes. This time he would remain aboard his flagship, the battleship King George V , at Scapa Flow where he would have constant telephone communication with the Admiralty, while his deputy, Vice Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, went to sea in the battleship Anson . Both PQ18 and QP14 had a strong destroyer escort with the freedom of action to leave the close escort to the corvettes, armed trawlers, AA ships and minesweepers if the situation warranted it. To save fuel, the officer in command of the destroyers, Rear Admiral Robert Burnett aboard the light cruiser Scylla, ordered that no U-boat hunt was to exceed ninety minutes.

In addition, the convoy would have the support of Force Q and Force P, both comprising two fleet oilers, or tankers, and escorting destroyers, which were deployed ahead of the convoy to Spitzbergen, Norwegian territory not taken by the Germans but that had Russians ashore working on a mining concession dating from Tsarist times. A re-supply operation for the garrison in Spitzbergen was linked with Force P and Force Q.

Iceland was the main rendezvous, but getting there was difficult despite it being summer. Seas were so rough that a Sea Hurricane was swept off Avenger ’s deck, and the steel ropes securing aircraft in the hangars failed to stop them breaking loose and crashing into one another or the sides of the hangar. Fused 500lb bombs stored in the hangar lift-well broke loose and had to be captured by laying down duffel coats with rope ties, which were secured as soon as a bomb rolled onto one of the coats. Fuel contamination with sea water meant that the carrier suffered engine problems. It also seems that remote Iceland was not remote enough, or safe enough, for the carrier was discovered and bombed by a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range maritime-reconnaissance aircraft that dropped a stick of bombs close to Avenger but without causing any damage.

The engine problems meant that the convoy, already spotted by a U-boat while en passage to Iceland from Scotland, had to sail without the carrier and, on 8 September, the convoy was discovered by another Condor. Low cloud then protected the convoy from German aircraft until 12 September when a Blohm und Voss BV 138 flying boat dropped through the clouds. By this time, Avenger had caught up with the convoy and was able to launch a flight of four Sea Hurricanes, but not in time to catch the German aircraft before it disappeared.

Swordfish were extremely vulnerable on the Arctic convoys which, unlike those across the Atlantic, also had to face German fighters. As a result, the fighters from Avenger not only had to protect the ships in the convoy from aerial attack, they had to protect the Swordfish as well. At 0400 on 9 September, the Sea Hurricanes were scrambled after Swordfish on anti-submarine patrols were discovered by a BV 138 flying boat and a Junkers Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft, but both disappeared into the clouds before the Hurricanes could catch them. Another Swordfish patrol discovered that the BV 138s were laying mines ahead of the convoy.

PQ18 was repeatedly attacked from the air, which meant that the ships had to make mass turns and put up heavy anti-aircraft fire, all of which made life for the returning Swordfish crews very interesting as aircraft recognition was not as good as it could be and the single-engined biplane Swordfish were often mistaken for twin-engined monoplane Ju 88s. Ditching in the sea was never something to be considered lightly but in Arctic waters, even in summer, survival time could be very short indeed.

The Sea Hurricanes attempted to keep a constant air patrol over the convoy with each aircraft spending twenty-five minutes in the air before landing to refuel, but with just six operational aircraft, keeping a constant watch over the Swordfish as well as the convoy was impossible.

On 14 September, the first Swordfish of the day found U-589 on the surface, but she dived leaving the Swordfish to mark the spot with a smoke flare. Once the aircraft had gone, the submarine surfaced and continued charging her batteries, but alerted by the Swordfish the destroyer Onslow raced to the scene. Once again U-589 dived, but the destroyer attacked with depth-charges and destroyed her. As a result the Germans, so far not accustomed to a convoy having its own air cover and aerial reconnaissance, were forced to change their tactics. Reconnaissance BV 138s and Ju 88s were sent to intimidate the Swordfish, forcing them back over the convoy until the Germans were so close to the ships that they were driven off by AA fire. The Swordfish would then venture out, only to be driven back again.

Later that day, another attack by Ju 88s was detected by the duty Swordfish. This time, Avenger herself was the target. Her maximum speed was just 17 knots, much slower than an ordinary aircraft carrier, but fortunately the Sea Hurricanes broke up the attack and no ships from the convoy were lost, while most of the eleven Ju 88s shot down had succumbed to anti-aircraft fire. Further attacks followed that day, again without any losses to the convoy, although another German aircraft was shot down. In a final attack, three of the four patrolling Hurricanes were shot down by friendly fire from the convoy’s ships but all three pilots were saved. In this last attack of the day, Avenger ’s commanding officer Commander Colthurst successfully combed torpedoes dropped by the Germans. A bomb dropped by a Ju 88 pilot, who flew exceptionally low to make sure he did not miss the target, hit the ammunition ship Mary Luckenbach, which blew up, taking her attacker with her. The sole survivor from the ship was a steward who had been taking the master a cup of coffee, was blown off the upper deck by the explosion and found himself in the sea half a mile down the convoy.

Not all rescues were left to the rescue ships. At the height of the battle for PQ18, the destroyer Offa saw a cargo ship, the Macbeth, hit by two torpedoes and beginning to sink with her cargo of tanks and other war matériel. Offa ’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Alastair Ewing, took his ship alongside Macbeth and, at the cost of some guard rails and stanchions, took off all her ship’s company before she sank. One Sea Hurricane pilot had been very lucky to be snatched out of the sea within minutes of baling out by the destroyer Wheatland which was acting as close escort for Avenger , her role also being what became known as a ‘plane guard’, fishing unfortunate naval aviators out of the sea.

The next day, the remaining Sea Hurricanes and the Swordfish were again in the air, with the former breaking up further attacks. It was not until 16 September that the Swordfish were relieved of their patrolling by shore-based RAF Consolidated Catalina flying boats of No. 210 Squadron operating from Russia. However, the break was short-lived. Later that day the convoy passed the homeward convoy QP14 with the survivors of the ill-fated PQ17 and Avenger, with her aircraft and some of the other escorts transferred to this convoy. The interval had been used by the ship’s air engineering team to assemble five Sea Hurricanes, more than replacing the four lost on the outward voyage. In all, the Sea Hurricanes had accounted for a total of 5 enemy aircraft and damaged 17 others out of a total of 44 shot down. It was fortunate that the three Fairey Swordfish remained serviceable as no replacement aircraft were carried.

During the convoy, Avenger ’s commanding officer had changed the operational pattern for the Sea Hurricanes in order to get the maximum benefit from his small force, having a single aircraft in the air most of the time rather than having all of his aircraft, or none of them, airborne at once.

Once the Sea Hurricane flight had been so depleted, it fell to the CAM ship Empire Morn to launch her Hurricane, flown by Flying Officer Burr of the RAF. The launch was accompanied by friendly fire from other ships in the convoy until he was finally out of range. Despite problems with the barrage balloons flown by some of the merchantmen, he managed to break up a German attack, setting one aircraft on fire. Once out of ammunition, he saved his precious aircraft by flying it to Keg Ostrov airfield near Archangel. As previously mentioned, this ‘one-off’ use of aircraft from the CAM ships was a major drawback as convoy commanders were reluctant to use them in case a more desperate situation emerged later in the convoy’s passage. Cases of CAM ship fighters being saved were very rare.

Clearly, even an escort carrier with a mix of fighters and anti-submarine aircraft was hard-pressed to provide adequate air cover. It is hard to escape the conclusion that two escort carriers would have been needed, or a larger ship such as Nairana or Vindex with up to fourteen Swordfish and six Wildcat fighters, a much better aircraft than the Sea Hurricane. Again, even with these two ships one might suggest that the balance between fighters and anti-submarine aircraft was wrong for an Arctic convoy.

Inevitably, as the convoy approached its destination there was no sign of the promised Red Air Force air cover. This was typical of the experiences of those on the convoys to Russia, with neither Russia’s air forces nor her navy providing any support. Indeed, apart from some coastal bombardment as the Red armies swept westwards, the main achievement of the Russian navy was for its submarines to sink the merchantmen carrying German refugees away from the Russians and one of these attacks resulted in the greatest recorded loss of life at sea as the Germans struggled to evacuate more than 1.5 million civilians.

Unternehmen Wunderland 24 June 1942

Homeward Bound – QP14

With convoys, it was always important to ‘bring home the empties’: those ships that had delivered their cargoes safely and were needed for the next consignment of supplies. Little came out of the Soviet Union at this time but on some routes, such as that across the North Atlantic, there was some export traffic from the UK as goods that were not available on the home market were still produced to send abroad to earn some foreign currency and, above all, retain a traditional export market. Although it was available on the home market, Scotch whisky and similar products continued to be exported.

The main point was, of course, that ships and their crews were valuable and difficult to replace. For this reason, even ships sailing in ballast (important to ensure that an ‘empty’ ship retained her stability) were important targets for the enemy.

On 17 September 1942 the homeward convoy QP14 took over the destroyer escort and several other ships from PQ18, including Avenger. The convoy had left Archangel on 13 September escorted by 6 British minesweepers, 4 of which then detached leaving the convoy with the remaining minesweepers, 2 destroyers, 2 AA ships, 4 corvettes and 4 anti-submarine trawlers, as well as Avenger , the cruiser Scylla, AA ship Alynbank, 2 submarines and 17 destroyers from PQ18 under Burnett’s command.

Initially there was little trouble from the Germans as the Luftwaffe was concentrating on PQ18, but the convoy was shadowed by reconnaissance aircraft that edged to within AA range before moving away again. A number of destroyers were detached to lay a false trail, while the convoy was joined by Force Q. Despite U-boat sightings, the first sign of trouble came at 0520 on 20 September when U-435 put two torpedoes into the ocean minesweeper Leda, a veteran of the convoys. Commander A.H. Wynn-Edwards and eighty-six of his crew were rescued, along with two Merchant Navy officers who were survivors of PQ17. Those rescued from Leda were spread over three of the rescue ships, but six died from wounds or hypothermia afterwards. That same day a Swordfish depth-charged a U-boat, and the destroyer Ashanti went in pursuit of another U-boat which it also depth-charged, at the time believing it had destroyed it. An attempt by the submarine P614 to torpedo U-408, caught on the surface, failed when one of the torpedoes blew up prematurely, setting off the other one and allowing the U-boat to dive and escape.

At 1745 U-255 torpedoed a PQ17 survivor, Silver Sword, and the ship burst into flames, with her ship’s company only managing to escape with difficulty. She was later sunk by gunfire from the destroyer Worcester.

As the U-boat threat intensified, Colthurst aboard Avenger had to signal Burnett, warning him that his Swordfish crews were at the limit of their physical endurance. Realizing the problem, and that both Avenger and the cruiser Scylla were fast becoming liabilities rather than assets, Burnett transferred his flag to the destroyer Milne. Three destroyers were detailed to provide an anti-submarine screen for the two ships, which were then sent home. Burnett’s decision was logical as the German aerial threat had diminished, leaving little for the Sea Hurricanes to do. In addition, if the Swordfish crews were beyond the limits of their physical and mental endurance, they were more likely to be a danger to themselves and the convoy than provide additional protection. A Swordfish crash-landing could have resulted in considerable damage to the carrier as at this time unused depth-charges were not dropped before landing.

Somali, one of the Tribal-class destroyers, was torpedoed by U-703 later that day. Her commanding officer had attempted to comb the torpedo, without success. While two destroyers attempted to hunt down the culprit, another destroyer and a trawler came alongside to take off survivors. Five men were killed and four wounded in the engine room. The stricken destroyer’s commanding officer signalled that he thought his ship could be towed with just a skeleton crew aboard, and her sister ship, Ashanti, was ordered to her assistance.

The following morning, 21 September, saw a Catalina flying boat from the RAF’s No. 330 Squadron, based in Shetland, over the convoy. The aircraft was just in time to spot U-378 on the surface, but was spotted and came under accurate anti-aircraft fire from the submarine that ripped into the fuel tanks. As it crash-dived, it dropped four depth-charges before making a forced landing. The crew were picked up by the destroyer Marne, which then destroyed the aircraft as it was still afloat.

Dropping depth-charges before an aircraft crashed was essential for the survival of the crew. The charges were pre-set to explode at a certain depth, and once the aircraft sank were almost certain to explode and anyone on the surface nearby would be killed.

Despite renewed air cover at 0630 on the morning of 22 September, U-435 managed to get within the screen. In one of the most successful actions by a U-boat during the Second World War, within minutes three ships were sunk, two merchantmen and the fleet oiler Grey Ranger, although without loss of life. One of the ships sunk was the Bellingham carrying the convoy commodore, Captain J.C.K. Dowding, RNR, who joined the other survivors aboard the minesweeper Seagull and handed over command to his vice commodore Captain Walker aboard Ocean Freedom, another survivor from PQ17.

On 23 September the rescue ships and some of the destroyers headed for Seidisfjord to refuel, while the rest of the convoy continued towards Cape Wrath on the north-western tip of Scotland as the weather deteriorated and a gale approached.

The remaining ships of the convoy were to make a safe landfall, but on 24 September the gales that had been a nuisance for the surviving ships were dashing all hopes of salvaging Somali. The destroyer had already slipped her tow once, and her condition was perilous. Most of her port side was holed, although most of the compartments apart from the boiler room and engine room were dry. As the rising sea tortured and stressed the stricken ship further, the inevitable happened and her back was broken, splitting the ship in two. Almost immediately the bow and stern sections went vertical and sank beneath the feet of her skeleton crew as they scrambled into life-rafts and Carley floats. Out of eighty-two men aboard, just thirty-five survived, with many of those lost being swept under the bows of Ashanti as she returned to their rescue with the trawler Lord Middleton. Some of those picked up from the water died from hypothermia.

The U-boat menace had not completely gone away, however, and a Catalina from No. 210 Squadron spotted U-253 less than a mile from the rear of the convoy. The U-boat crash-dived but the Catalina dropped six depth-charges as the submarine went down. As the depth-charges exploded, the U-boat was blasted back to the surface before submerging for a second time and then suddenly reappearing on her beam ends before her bows dived and her stern lifted to the vertical, hanging there for a moment and then disappearing for good.

The efforts of the destroyer escort seemed to be disappointing at the time, but unknown to their crews, they did inflict damage on five U-boats. The escort carrier had proved itself beyond doubt, but these did not become more widely available until 1943 so there were to be many more convoys without any air cover at all once beyond the range of shore-based aircraft.

There were many more convoys to Russia still to come at this stage, but PQ17 and PQ18 were two of the most famous. The convoys were a demanding operation for both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, one that Stalin never recognized and there was no Soviet contribution to the escorts. The convoys continued, despite German attacks and the weather, until the war’s end, with the exception of the period immediately before, during and after the Normandy landings when a massive effort was required that demanded the escorts and especially the larger ships. That finally gave Stalin the only battlefront that he would recognize as being a ‘second front’.