The Destruction of PQ-17

For the first six months in 1942, German U boats savaged Allied merchantmen along the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea, in what was known to the German Navy as “Die Glueckliche Zeit” or “The Happy Time”. Generally, the exceptions were the Allied Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union. The dangerous American and British Arctic convoys that delivered much needed war material to the Soviet Union assembled and departed from Iceland (P) for the Soviet ports above the Arctic Circle at Murmansk and Archangelsk (Q). 16 previous convoys had reached the Soviets with varying degrees of success, but the largest and most successful by far was PQ-16 at the end of May, 1942. With Fall Blau (the German operation against the Caucuses’ oil fields) on the immediate horizon, Hitler decreed that the German military increase operations against the next such convoy. PQ-17 departed Hvalfjörður, Iceland on 23 June, 1942.

The British knew of the German intentions from Enigma decrypts and prepared well. The 34 merchantmen of the convoy would have close-in protection from six destroyers, and twelve other corvettes, support ships and anti-submarine and anti-aircraft trawlers. Furthermore, a close cruiser squadron shadowed the convoy to protect and against small surface raiders. To protect against the German battleship Tirpitz, which was in Norway to prevent an Allied invasion of Scandinavia, the British Home Fleet would sortie from Scapa Flow. Finally, after the successful joint operations with the US Navy to supply Malta with fighters in June, the British Admiralty asked for American assistance, and the reluctant Admiral King agreed to provide the battleship, USS Washington, and the carrier, USS Wasp, and their escorts. PQ-17 was the most heavily defended convoy in the North Atlantic so far in the war.

German signals intelligence picked up the departure of the convoy and PQ-17 was spotted by a U-Boat and tracked very quickly. For nearly a week, the convoy endured incessant Luftwaffe attacks from airfields in Norway, and was swarmed by an increasingly larger wolfpack as U boats closed on the area. Nonetheless, the convoy only suffered three ships lost, two of whom were to ice damage, and not from the Germans. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, PQ-17 looked to be another success.

Unfortunately, that “unforeseen circumstance” turned out to be the British First Sea Lord, the elderly Admiral Dudley Pound. Normally, as First Sea Lord, Pound would not concern himself with day to day operations of the Royal Navy, but because of the Americans’ involvement and his personal request to King, he tracked the progress of PQ-17 meticulously.

On the morning 4 July, 1942, an RAF reconnaissance plane failed to spot the Tirpitz in the Trondheim fjord in Norway, and this sent a panic in the Admiralty, mostly because of Pound’s involvement and his inevitable demands that the Tirpitz be found. The Tirpitz sortied regularly but Hitler or the head of the German Kriegsmarine Adm Raeder would lose their nerve, and order the valuable and irreplaceable ship back to port. This looked to be the same. (The Tirpitz hadn’t actually left port yet. It wouldn’t do so until the next day and almost immediately turn around for obvious reasons.) But Pound demanded, in conclusive terms, that the Tirpitz was not threatening PQ-17. British naval intelligence was sure this was the case, but had no definitive evidence. The British had come to rely on the Enigma intercepts but those for that morning would not be decrypted until that afternoon. Additionally the overly stressed Pound mistook the analysis of the U boat threat to the convoy as the analysis of the surface threat, which was dire if the convoy scattered as they would have to if the Tirpitz attacked. (Despite the extensive precautions, Pound had little confidence that the British and American battleships would intercept the Tirpitz before it reached the convoy.) When the Enigma decrypts did come in late that afternoon, they only provided circumstantial evidence that the Tirpitz was in port or heading back to port. The British Naval Intelligence couldn’t say with 100% certainty where the Tirpitz was, but also refused to say that the Tirpitz was not a threat to PQ-17, which was what they believed (at least according to the investigation afterwards). 

Pound assumed the worst case despite the evidence, and that night issued three orders directly to the convoy between 2111 and 2133 on the evening 4 July 1942. The first stripped the convoy of its cruisers and destroyers, who proceeded to rendezvous with the battleships for the expected fight with Tirpitz. The second ordered the convoy to disperse its formation, a precaution against surface attack. The third, and fatal, order was to actually scatter the convoy, and for the merchantmen make their way to Archangelsk independently. This order was almost always given by a convoy commander after the escorts were overwhelmed by continuous attack, and never by a commander not on the scene. On 4 July, the Luftwaffe and U boat contacts were numerous, but were handled well, and no enemy surface ships were sighted, much less the Tirpitz. The order to scatter made the individual merchant ships easy prey for bombers and U boats. The order to scatter issued by Pound was a death sentence for PQ-17.

In the perpetual sunlight of the Arctic summer, unbelieving U boat captains and bomber pilots watched with unimaginable glee as the convoy broke apart before their very eyes. There was no possible way for the escorts to protect the isolated and vulnerable merchantmen. Ten merchantmen were sunk the next day, five by torpedoes and five by bombs. Five more were sunk the day after. Destroyer captains shamefully listened to the death cries of their burning and sinking charges, as they uselessly prowled the seas looking for the Tirpitz. In defiance of Pound’s order, several junior captains of minesweepers and corvettes herded merchantmen together for protection, but it was not enough and the convoy still had 600 miles to sail to reach the Soviet port. Several ship crews got creative and painted themselves white with paint intended for Soviet tank camouflage and hid among the ice. One captain loaded the Sherman tanks on his deck with ammunition from another ship and turned his ship into a massive anti-aircraft platform.

For the next week, eleven U boats and three squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers savaged the isolated merchantmen in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean. It would be another week after that for the remainder to reach port, after notification from British intelligence that it was safe to leave hiding. Only eleven merchantmen of the original 34 made it to Archangelsk, at the cost of just five German planes. There was such confusion in the North Atlantic that it would take the Admiralty another week just to ascertain the final results.

In all, PQ-17 lost over 110,000 tons of shipping, more than the Admiralty expected to lose if the Tirpitz did attack. This loss included 210 aircraft, 430 tanks, and 3,325 jeeps and trucks; that’s the equivalent of an entire tank division and an entire Soviet air army. Stalin was furious and accused the Americans and British of lying about the number of merchantmen. Admiral King was equally furious and pulled the Washington and Wasp from the Atlantic. He sent them to the Pacific in support of the recently approved Operation Watchtower, the invasion of Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The inevitable British investigation found Pound’s orders to scatter the convoy solely responsible for its destruction. But he was not charged as he was the senior Royal Navy officer in the government. He quietly retired for health reasons the next year. 

The jubilant and victorious U boat crews returned to France to bands, parades, and awards ceremonies. The destruction of PQ-17 was the happiest moment of the Kriegsmarine’s Happy Time.

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