On the 27th of July 1942 convoy PQ-17 departed Iceland for the Soviet Union. Out of 34 merchant ships, only 11 would make it to port. At first, things seemed to be going well for the convoy as they beat off multiple German air attacks with relative ease. But on the 4th of July, everything went wrong. An order arrived from Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord himself reading 'Convoy is to scatter'. Fearing an imminent attack from German surface ships like Tirpitz the escort ships fled west while the merchant ships made for the Soviet Union.
But the Tirpitz was nowhere near the convoy, in fact, it was still at its moorings in northern Norway. Instead of saving the convoy from disaster, Admiral Pound's order had doomed PQ-17 to destruction. Over the following week, two thirds of the convoy were sunk by German aircraft and U-Boats. It was the biggest loss to a British convoy of the Second World War.
In this video, IWM's Rob Rumble joins us from HMS Belfast in an attempt to uncover what went wrong. Why did Admiral Pound give the order to scatter? What was it like for the sailors and U-Boat crews? And how did the disaster of convoy PQ-17 affect the outcome of the Second World War?
Why Admiral Pound gave his infamous order
On the 27th of July 1942 ships of convoy PQ-17 left Hvalfjord in Iceland and began their long journey towards the Soviet Union. In between them and their objective lay scores of German aircraft and U-boats as well as the deadly German battleship Tirpitz. By the 4th of July, things seemed to be going well as the convoy steamed past Bear Island having beaten off multiple German air attacks with relative ease. But suddenly everything changed. An urgent order came via the Admiralty from Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord himself. The message read 'convoy is to scatter'. Fearing an imminent attack from the Tirpitz the escort ships withdrew and the merchant ships split up to make their way alone. But Tirpitz was nowhere near the convoy, in fact, it was still at its moorings in Altenfjord. Instead of saving the convoy from disaster, Admiral Pound had doomed the merchant ships to destruction. Only 11 would make it safely to port, the rest sunk by German aircraft and u-boats. It was the biggest loss to a British convoy in the Second World War. So what happened? Why did Dudley Pound give the order? And how did the disaster of convoy PQ-17 change the course of the Second World War?
So in June 1942 the Allies were losing the war. Ships such as HMS Belfast and the vessels of the Royal Navy were stretched throughout the world. The Royal Navy was one of the biggest fleets in the world yet even still they didn't have enough ships to protect all of the supply and convoy routes around the world.
But despite their difficulties, things were starting to look up for the Royal Navy after heavy losses in the first few years of the war they were beginning to learn important lessons. New ships entered service fitted with new technologies like Radar and Asdic and resources were better distributed across the different theatres. That was until June of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Archive Clip: As dawn broke nearly 200 Axis divisions, more than 2 million men plunged into a front two thousand miles long reaching from the white sea to the black. Their aim, the annihilation of the Red Army.
Now the British and the Soviets were certainly not natural Allies. Churchill had always been vocally suspicious of Joseph Stalin and his regime. However, both powers knew that they had to combine their resources to combat the German threat.
For Britain, it became essential to keep the Soviets in the war as they were tying down millions of german soldiers and reducing the threat of invasion to Britain itself. Soviet Soldiers were fighting tooth and nail across vast waves of territory and all of them needed to be supplied. With the American Lend-Lease program now in effect, the British had the materials. But the question was how to get them to the Soviets. Rather than the longer overland route through Persia and the Middle East, the British decided to send a series of convoys through the Arctic Circle to Murmansk and Archangel. The first of which arrived in September of 1941. Thanks to this new front the Royal Navy once again found itself stretched, but they had little choice in the matter.
There was a political element to this as well the western Allies were only fighting on land against the Germans and the Italians in North Africa which was a relatively small campaign and this was a bit of a sore point with Joseph Stalin the leader of the Soviet Union. The western Allies wanted to show their Soviet Allies that they were pulling their weight in the global conflict against Nazi Germany.
The convoys were codenamed PQ for outbound and QP for homebound running twice monthly. PQs one to ten ran smoothly, with only one ship lost to enemy activity. The tanks and aircraft they supplied helped the Soviets to stop the Germans at the gates of Moscow but in response, the Germans began to focus their efforts on disrupting the convoys. From January 1942 extra aircraft were sent to the Luftwaffe bases in northern Norway bringing their total strength up to over 250 aircraft extra U-boat patrols were created across the area more than doubling their numbers. But most terrifying of all German warships were transferred up to the Norwegian fjords. The battleship Tirpitz arrived in January followed by the cruisers Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer Prince Eugen and Lutzow in the following months. By May the Germans had managed to concentrate their ships where the Royal Navy was stretched at its thinnest.
Other than the threats from German aircraft, U-boats, and surface ships the biggest threat to the crews on the Arctic Convoys was just the weather and the climate. The Arctic is one of the most inhospitable oceans to sail in the world. Nigh on 24-hour daylight in summer which meant you were constantly exposed to enemy air attack. If you fell in the water you had two minutes before you died from hypothermia it was it was that deadly.
The weather, combined with those new German efforts began to show. By convoy PQ-16 the allies were losing multiple ships from each convoy to German U-boats, aircraft, and surface ships. Royal Navy officers in the Admiralty began to question whether the Arctic Convoys were worth the risk. But Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord and Chief of Staff of the Royal Navy knew they had to continue. Aside from the political imperatives, the British had the largest merchant fleet in the world. Not using that strength would effectively hand the Germans a victory without firing a shot.
His background had been as a battleship captain during the First World War. In fact, he'd commanded a dreadnaught at the Battle of Jutland. So he was very much used to the handling of battle groups and fleets in order to defeat the enemy. However, his new role was very much a political and administrative role as well as the commander of the fleet. He was based in Whitehall in the Admiralty and his responsibility was for the entire naval strategic situation around the world.
But Admiral Pound still had a few cards up his sleeve. By the time of convoy PQ-17, American vessels like the USS Washington had reinforced British escort units and modern ships equipped with Asdic also known as Sonar had joined the fleet as well. On the 27th of July 1942 convoy PQ-17 departed from Hvalfjord in Iceland. It was routed north of Bear Island to take advantage of the now receding summer ice. The convoy consisted of 34 mostly American merchant ships and 6 naval auxiliaries in 5 rows. Surrounding them on all sides were 20 or so destroyers, frigates, and corvettes armed with AA guns and depth charges ready to take on enemy aircraft and U-boats. To deal with any surface threats, 20 miles ahead was a cruiser squadron clearing the path ahead of the convoy and to the southwest, the powerful British Home Fleet shadowed the convoy from a distance.
It's worth remembering that the Allies had a secret weapon in the form of the Ultra traffic, the Enigma codes that were being read by Bletchley Park. Which meant that the Royal Navy had up-to-date information on where enemy ships and submarines were in order to route the convoys safely out of harm's way. These messages, and this intelligence, played an absolutely fundamental role in what happened in the events of convoy PQ-17.
On the first of July, the convoy was spotted by a German U-boat and then by reconnaissance aircraft. It would be shadowed for the remainder of the operation. On July 2nd convoy PQ-17 passed the returning convoy QP-13 before coming under the first of many German air attacks. Torpedo bombers charged the convoy, but were beaten off by sustained anti-aircraft fire.
That same day German surface units made their move. Operation Rösselsprung or Knight's Move saw the two German battle groups at Trondheim and Narvik link up at Altenfjord from which they could launch their attack. But news of this move was intercepted by Bletchley Park and quickly reached Admiral Pound.
Admiral Pound wasn't in a space such as this on the bridge of a ship he was working in the Admiralty thousands of miles away from the action. Although he had all of the intelligence reports coming in from Bletchley Park, he didn't have the minute-to-minute intelligence from reconnaissance aircraft, radar that his Fleet Admirals in the Arctic were receiving. This meant that there was a bit of an intelligence gap. The information he was receiving didn't paint the entire picture of what the German fleet was doing.
On July 3rd, things went wrong for the Germans as the cruiser Lutzow and three escorting destroyers ran aground in the Norwegian fjords putting them out of action. On the 4th of July more German air attacks fell upon the convoy from bombers and torpedo bombers resulting in the loss of two merchant ships. But on the whole, as they steamed past Bear Island the convoys leaders felt confident they could reach the Soviet Union in relatively good order.
But Admiral Pound was still nervous. He knew that the German ships had moved to Altenfjord. But he had no idea if they were still there or if they had now been put to sea. The convoy escorts and cruiser squadron would be no match for the combined German battle group and the loss of vital British and American ships would be a political disaster. To have any chance against Tirpitz the convoy would have to separate.
From 9 pm on the 4th of July pound gave a series of increasingly alarmed instructions to his forces. First, he ordered the cruiser squadron to withdraw to the west, before 10 minutes later ordering the convoy to disperse. 10 minutes after that he gave his final order 'convoy is to scatter'. The convoy commanders took those orders to mean that an attack from the Tirpitz was imminent. The merchant ships quickly dispersed, while most of the escort ships joined the cruiser squadron withdrawing to the West. But Pound's decision would have disastrous consequences.
This would seem an utterly insane thing to do, a monumental mistake and even his colleagues in the Royal Navy thought so. He was trying to put himself into the shoes of his German counterparts. Major German battleships and cruisers had been deployed to Norway and Pound was convinced that these were going to be used. That's what he would have done. And he chose to discount other intelligence that contradicted this. He was also seriously ill during this period. Unknown to even him at that time he had a terminal illness, a fatal brain tumour which caused him huge amounts of fatigue and exhaustion. In fact, his colleagues used to mock him for falling asleep during meetings and it's possible that the exhaustion and fatigue caused by his illness may have impaired his judgment at this time.
The next day on the afternoon of July 5th the German battle group finally left Altenfjord to attack the convoy, but six hours later they returned home. The Allied merchant ships were now on their own. Some stayed together in small groups evading the enemy amongst the ice. But for most of the merchant vessels all they could do was wait for German U-boats and aircraft to attack.
The merchant seamen were terrified being left out on their own. As well as the threat of enemy attack the second enemy was hypothermia. Even if you were plucked out onto a life raft or a lifeboat you were still in mortal danger. It was almost impossible to get dry and this is exactly what happens to many of those in the life rafts as they drifted awaiting rescue.
Despite the conditions that the Allied merchant seamen endured in many ways the conditions for the U-boat crews were even worse. Imagine being cramped in a tiny submarine, 70 of you, living on top of each other. The a
Allies were well placed to detect and sink you boats by this point so your chances of survival were unlikely. However, during the attack on PQ-17 the U-boats had a field day. The Allied merchant ships when they were sailing alone were like sitting ducks. The U-boat crews could take their time in the almost 24-hour daylight to line up their torpedoes and sink the merchant ships one by one.
Over the following week, two-thirds of the convoy was destroyed, with only 11 of the original 34 merchant ships making it to port. 153 merchant seamen lost their lives in the largest loss to a British convoy in the Second World War. In response, PQ-18 and all subsequent convoys to the Soviet Union were postponed.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was apoplectic. He'd always thought that the western Allies were fair-weather allies and this only fed his suspicions. Lobbying from the Soviets meant that convoys were actually reintroduced a little bit earlier in September 1942. However, there was long-term damage to relations between the western Allies and the Soviet Union. These grievances, exacerbated by the disaster of convoy PQ-17, never healed and these suspicions would carry over into the next war, the Cold War, which would last for another 40 years.