Arctic Naval Convoys I


Destroyer HMS Fury.

The Germans wasted little time in moving to the offensive. It is difficult to understand why it took them so long, for even had the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe not been engaged in a life and death struggle with the Soviet armed forces, the importance of sinking so many Allied ships should have been obvious. After all, in two world wars, the Kriegsmarine had sought to destroy as many British convoys as possible with U-boats and surface raiders.

The position was summed up aptly by the commanding officer of the cruiser, HMS Trinidad, Captain L. S. Saunders, who told his crew after the morning service on Sunday, 22 March 1942, that the ship had been moved from patrolling to convoy escort, and that meant sailing between Bear Island and the North Cape, an area effectively controlled by the enemy. Worse, by March the hours of daylight were increasing.

‘We can almost certainly expect to meet their ships, U-boats and planes,’ Saunders continued. ‘And many of you will receive your baptism of fire.’

Despite this warning, Trinidad was accompanied by just two destroyers as the escort for the convoy. There were three of the sturdy Norwegian whalers, intended for the Soviet Navy in the hope that they would boost the number of escorts operating out of Kola. The destroyer Lamerton, which had accompanied the convoy out of Reykjavik, was to remain as an escort to the fleet oiler Oligarch, but these two ships comprised Force Q, not formally part of the convoy as they were heading to refuel the destroyers accompanying the distant escort.

PQ13 was another international convoy with British, Swedish, American, Panamanian, Honduran and, surprisingly and even insensitively bearing in mind all too recent history, Polish ships. The commodore was a Royal Naval Reservist, Captain D. A. Casey, flying his blue and white pennant in the merchantman River Afton.

The heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper left the River Elbe at around this time and made a safe passage to Norway to be close to the Tirpitz, which she reached on 21 March. This gave the Kriegsmarine a battle group close to the convoy routes. Nevertheless, a powerful distant escort was assembled by the Home Fleet under Vice Admiral Curteis, with the battleships King George V and Duke of York, and the battle-cruiser Renown, the aircraft carrier Victorious and the cruisers Edinburgh and Kent, as well as eleven escorting destroyers.

As PQ13 steamed north, the homeward convoy QP9 was scheduled to depart from northern Russia at the same time, but was delayed by a couple of days by reports of U-boats off Kola, and it was not until 21 March that nineteen ‘empties’ started back. QP9 was under the charge of PQ12’s commodore, Captain Hudson, but once again had a small escort composed of a destroyer and two minesweepers. The cruiser Kenya, intended to provide heavier support for the convoy, and which left Kola on 22 March, failed to find the convoy in worsening weather and radio silence. One cannot but wonder, however, whether Kenya’s failure to find the convoy was a tactical decision as her commanding officer had concerns of his own – she was carrying 10 tons of gold bullion from the Soviet Union to the UK; an important cargo given the immense support the bankrupt country was providing for its newfound Soviet ‘ally’. For the first two days, QP9 had the support of five British minesweepers, the damaged wartime emergency destroyer Oribi and two Russian destroyers, although one of these lost contact with the convoy within hours of leaving Kola and can be counted as having been of no value whatsoever.

On 23 March, QP9 steamed into a severe gale blowing from the south-west bringing heavy snow, but despite this the convoy kept together. The weather eased late the following day allowing the watch aboard the minesweeper Sharpshooter to spot a surfaced U-boat during a break between snow storms, and with quick thinking, Lieutenant Commander Lampen, her commanding officer, succeeded in turning towards her, increasing speed and ramming U-655, sinking her before she could dive. His prompt action may have saved many ships, but it also meant that Sharpshooter herself was badly damaged. He had to hand over his role as senior officer of the escort to Lieutenant Commander Ewing aboard the destroyer Offa, allowing his ship to make her way home independently. Despite this inauspicious beginning, all the ships of the convoy and of the escort continued unmolested.

PQ13 was to enjoy no such luck. At first, all went well, with a stiff south-westerly wind actually helping rather than hindering the convoy, but early in the afternoon on 23 March, the convoy was re-routed eastwards after Ultra intelligence alerted the Admiralty to a line of U-boats, taking the convoy closer to the Norwegian coast and German airfields. The north-easterly course was resumed twenty-four hours later, but despite the diversion, the convoy was still some 40 miles ahead of its planned schedule. During the night of 24/25 March, the convoy ran into a severe north-easterly storm, and despite the time of year, spray began to freeze on the decks, superstructure, rigging and guns aboard the ships. Speed was reduced, but in the poor visibility and extreme conditions, station keeping suffered. Such were the difficulties that late on 25 March, Captain Saunders decided to disobey his strict orders to maintain radio silence and contacted the Admiralty and Rear Admiral R. H. Bevan, who was Senior British Naval Officer, North Russia, to make them aware of the situation. He also radioed the convoy to organize a rendezvous south of Bear Island for 27 March, a necessary step in the circumstances as it would give the convoy an opportunity to regroup rather than leaving solitary merchantmen at the mercy of German forces. The severe gale lasted well into 26 March, so that too few ships were able to keep the Bear Island rendezvous, and the distant escort suffered damage not only to the destroyer Tartar, but also to the fast armoured aircraft carrier Victorious, forcing it to return to Scapa Flow. The threat from the Germans had already been brought home to those aboard the ships, as during the afternoon of 26 March a German aircraft found four merchantmen. Together they fought off the attacker, with DEMS gunners claiming a possible kill. During the storm, the cruiser Nigeria met Trinidad.

Worse was to follow. Shortly after midnight on 26/27 March, the Admiralty sent the first of three messages warning of German surface raiders. Lieutenant Commander C. H. Campbell, the escort’s senior officer commanding the destroyer HMS Fury, was still attempting to gather the merchantmen together, but almost twelve hours later he received a distress message from the whaler Sumba, which was desperately short of fuel. Fortunately, a radio operator aboard the destroyer obtained a radio bearing of Sumba’s signal, and Campbell turned his ship onto a course west of south-west, eventually finding Sumba at 16.00. It took almost five hours to refuel the former Norwegian vessel, during which both it and the destroyer were at risk from any U-boat or aircraft that happened to stumble across them.

Almost equally at risk was the River Afton, carrying the convoy commodore, which was unable to head into the wind and was being forced shorewards. It was not until noon that the ship was able to resume her course, but far from leading the convoy, she made a solitary voyage to the Kola Inlet.

Despite the odds being against them, the convoy escorts did manage to gather some of the merchantmen together, with Trinidad finding two ships by 22.00 on 27 March. The destroyer Eclipse found another ship, while five more were together but to the south of the convoy escort. Rather than hang around with the merchantmen, Trinidad hastened back to the rump of the convoy, anxious to rejoin the two destroyers. There was mutual defence in this, as the cruiser’s heavier armament would be needed if surface raiders appeared, although it would be hard put to cope with the heavy cruiser Hipper, let alone the battleship Tirpitz. On the other hand, the cruiser would be at the mercy of the U-boats, for which the destroyers with their asdic would be best suited. The cruiser also carried a substantial AA armament, but when, shortly after 10.00, her lookouts spotted a Blohm und Voss Bv138 reconnaissance flying boat, and her AA batteries opened up, the aircraft was too far away to be caught, and the confident German aircrew reputedly signalled that ‘your shots are falling short’. The remaining ships of the convoy had by this time formed up into isolated groups of as many as half a dozen vessels.

The Bv138 had a distinctive appearance and was easily recognized at a time when aircraft recognition, especially friend or foe, left much to be desired. The aircraft had three engines, and a twin-boom fuselage – the tailplane was supported by booms running from the wings rather than sitting on the end of the fuselage.

Unknown to the British, the Kriegsmarine was suffering a serious shortage of fuel, especially boiler oil, and the intervention of heavy units of the fleet was unlikely. In any case, the convoy was by this time too far north from their base near Trondheim, but the local commander, Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Hubert Schmundt, ‘Admiral Arctic’, had three large destroyers from the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, also known as the ‘Narvik Flotilla’, at his disposal in Kirkenes, and at 13.30, the Z26 led the Z24 and Z25 to sea. Despite their classification as destroyers, their guns equated to 5.9-in. and were a match for the 6-in of the Trinidad. In theory, the destroyers were faster than the cruiser, but in the open sea the cruiser’s greater length and tonnage would have given her an advantage.

Meanwhile, an anti-submarine trawler was attacked by aircraft from Banak at 11.27, while two ships were twice bombed by Junkers Ju88s of Luftflotte 5. Two more ships suffered near misses, which could often be as devastating as a direct hit, and indeed one merchantman, Ballot suffered burst pipes and lost way, the master deciding to allow a partial abandoning of his ship and sending sixteen men to the whaler Silja by lifeboat. Emergency repairs were put in hand, and the crippled ship eventually reached her destination safely.

With their location known to the Germans, there were frequent but brief radio transmissions from Trinidad as her commanding officer desperately sought the other ships of the convoy. At 13.15 her radar found a solitary aircraft that dropped three bombs, all of which were near misses. These were followed by a more sustained attack by Junkers Ju88 bombers, again near misses, but this time so close that the radio transmitters were damaged. Fog banks provided welcome relief as the cruiser raced and twisted and turned to avoid her attackers, while her crew, by now thoroughly blooded, put up heavy AA fire. Meanwhile two merchantmen were bombed, although both survived. Less fortunate was the Empire Ranger, bombed as darkness fell at 19.30 and sunk. Her survivors were picked up at 22.45 by one of the German destroyers before the trawler Blackfly, alerted by her distress signal, could reach the area. The three German destroyers spent the night steaming west in line abreast, three miles apart, steaming at a comfortable 15 knots. The destroyer leader, Z26, commanded by Kapitän Ponitz, found the merchantman Bateau, ordered her crew to abandon ship and then sank her by gunfire and torpedo. The crew from this ship were also rescued and interrogated, while the Germans loitered before Ponitz decided that he was too far north and turned his small force south-eastwards, increasing his speed to 25 knots, before turning north again at 05.30.

Meanwhile, at 04.00 on 29 March, Trinidad and Fury were heading east by north-east to rendezvous with a group of convoy stragglers. In the early morning haze another vessel was spotted on the starboard side at a distance of some 4 miles. Believing this to be a surfaced U-boat, Trinidad’s 6-in armament opened fire, but firing ceased after three salvoes as the possibility that the target could be a lifeboat under sail occurred to those on the bridge, but the ‘lifeboat’ dived. At about this time the two ships were joined by the destroyer Oribi and two Soviet destroyers.

This time, two days later than planned, the rendezvous finally happened. Saunders immediately attached the two Soviet destroyers to the escort and sent Oribi on a sweep to find any other stragglers, after which she was to rejoin the Russians. Oribi headed off with Fury to search for a group of stragglers who had strayed some way to the east.

The eastern group had been led by a whaler, Silja, and consisted of five merchantmen having already lost one that had fallen behind with bomb damage. During the hours of darkness, these ships ran into heavy ice. The whaler, a class of ship notoriously short on range, was by this time short of fuel and was taken in tow by one of the merchantmen, Induna. The men ordered off the Ballot crossed an ice floe on foot to join the Induna, adding another sixteen men to her ship’s company of fifty. Shortly afterwards, the two ships were stuck firm in the ice, but eventually managed to move astern. Still with the whaler in tow, they followed a course through the ice that the Empire Starlight was managing to force through heavy blizzards that contributed to the poor visibility. Shortly after daybreak, this force was joined by the armed trawler Blackfly.

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