Of the twenty merchant ships that sailed from Hvalfjord with PQ 13 on 20 March, ten had been lost at sea or in the hell of Murmansk and with them had gone 180 men. PQ 13 was the first Russia-bound convoy to be put to the German sword and the mauling it received was only a curtain-raiser for things to come.
Those ships that survived returned to the west as and when the opportunity arose. Two of them, the River Afton and Mana, had made it through with QP 10. The Tobruk, Lars Kruse and Scottish American, were destined to lie in Murmansk until the autumn but the other five, the Dunboyne, Eldena, Mormacmar, Ballot, El Estero and Gallant Fox, all United States Maritime Commission ships, were assigned to sail with Convoy QP 11.
QP 11 left the Kola Inlet on 28 April and was made up of thirteen British and American ships, including the five PQ 13 survivors. This convoy was even more heavily escorted than its predecessor, having with it no fewer than six destroyers, HMS Amazon, Beagle, Beverley, Bulldog (SOE), Foresight and Forester, the corvettes Campanula, Oxlip, Saxifrage and Snowflake, and the armed trawler Lord Middleton.
The sailing of QP 11 did not go unobserved by the enemy. The convoy had been sighted by a patrolling U-boat of the Ulan Group late on the 29th. Nervous of the presence of so many destroyers and corvettes, the U-boat called for reinforcements and settled down to shadow the convoy. One of those alerted by the shadowing boat’s signals was Kapitänleutnant Max-Martin Teichert in U-456, then 250 miles north-north-west of the Kola Inlet and conveniently right in the path of QP 11. Teichert, who saw action against PQ 13, albeit without success, had been at sea since the beginning of the year and was running low on fuel and stores. When news of the convoy came in Teichert was at the stage of considering a return to base with nothing to show for the patrol. He was more than willing to wait for a chance to open his score.
Two days out of Murmansk, on the 30th, QP 11’s defensive screen was strengthened by the arrival of the 10,000-ton Edinburgh, one of the two new Town-class cruisers, formidable ships mounting twelve 6-inch and twelve 4-inch guns, with side armour designed to withstand 8-inch shells, and a top speed of thirty-two knots. The Edinburgh was playing a dual role, in that as well as acting as independent escort to QP 11, she was a bullion carrier for the Soviet Government, having on board $20 million in gold, a payment to America for arms received. In retrospect, it might be asked why, when carrying such a huge shipment of gold through enemy-dominated waters, the Edinburgh was not sailing alone and at full speed, instead of playing nursemaid to an eight-knot convoy. It can only be assumed that the Admiralty was confident that the extra destroyers would be sufficient to protect her. Subsequent events were to prove its confidence to be misplaced.
Edinburgh, commanded by Captain Faulkner and with Admiral Bonham Carter on board, took up station twenty miles ahead of the convoy, steering a zig-zag pattern and using her radar to search ahead and around. Two hours after joining the convoy, neither her radar scanner nor her lookouts saw U-456’s periscope break surface to starboard. Teichert’s two torpedoes both found their mark, one exploding in the cruiser’s forward boiler-room with devastating results, the other slamming into the cruiser’s stern, destroying her rudder and two of her four propellers. This was Trinidad and PQ 13 all over again, only this time the damage was not self-inflicted.
Although Edinburgh had suffered widespread damage above and below decks, she was still seaworthy and, when the furore had died down, she was taken under tow by the destroyer Forester. Escorted by Forester’s sister ship Foresight and two Russian destroyers now familiar to the Allied ships, Gremyaschi and Sokrushitelny, Edinburgh began a slow return to Murmansk.
Teichert had not gone away but was following in the wake of the sad procession, waiting for the opportunity to finish off the Edinburgh. The escorting destroyers were doubly vigilant and although Teichert made several attempts to get into position to deliver the coup de grâce, each time U-456 was detected and driven off, on one occasion narrowly escaping being sunk. It is probable that the damaged cruiser would not have reached the Kola Inlet, had it not been for the arrival on the scene of three German destroyers of Zestörergruppe ‘Arktis’, the Hermann Schoemann, Z-24 and Z-25. The ‘Z’ boats, still smarting from the drubbing they received in the attack on HMS Trinidad a month earlier, were anxious to redeem themselves. They first fell in with QP 11 and quickly learned that there were no easy targets for their guns here. After a fierce battle with the convoys escorting destroyers, the German ships were forced to retire, having sunk only the Tsiolkovsky, a small Russian merchantman.
Twenty-four hours later, the German destroyers found the crippled Edinburgh and with a depleted escort, for the Gremyaschi and Sokrushitelny were both running short of fuel and had gone on to Murmansk. The enemy made the mistake of thinking they had found a soft target but they were forced to think again. The Edinburgh may have been badly damaged and had lost many men, but she still had the ability to hit back. While Foresight and Forester tackled Z-24 and Z-25, Edinburgh took on the Hermann Schoemann and punished her so hard that she eventually sank. Most of her crew were taken off by Z-24 and Z-25, but fifty-six men were left on rafts, and were later picked up by U-88.
There was a price to pay for the victory. Forester had been severely damaged in the clash with the German destroyers and had sustained heavy casualties. She now lay stopped and helpless under the guns of Z-24 and Z-25. She was saved from complete destruction by the intervention of Foresight, who made smoke and placed herself between the enemy and her crippled sister. In doing so, Foresight received two direct hits which left her with only one gun in action and her decks littered with dead and wounded. Among the dead was Captain Sloan of the Lancaster Castle, who had lost his ship to the German bombers in Murmansk and was returning home as a passenger in the destroyer.
With Foresight also in trouble, Forester, still lying stopped and unable to manoeuvre, was an easy target for two torpedoes fired by one of the two German destroyers – which one was not clear – but luckily, for Forester at least, the torpedoes were set too deep and passed underneath her. Unfortunately, one man’s luck is often another’s misfortune, and so it was for HMS Edinburgh. She then happened to be passing on the other side of Forester and was directly in line of fire of the enemy’s torpedoes. The cruiser being of deeper draught, one of the torpedoes found a target in her hull. This was the death blow for Edinburgh. Already severely weakened by U-456’s torpedoes, she broke her back and looked to be in imminent danger of going down. At great risk to themselves, the minesweepers Harrier and Gossamer, who had been detached to help in the defence of QP 11, went alongside Edinburgh, one to port and the other to starboard, and took off the cruiser’s crew. While the rescue was going on, much to the relief of the British force, Z-24 and Z-25 decided that they had had enough and withdrew.
Edinburgh was a floating wreck, but she stubbornly refused to sink on her own, and two days later Foresight was forced to put an end to her with a torpedo to avoid her bullion falling into German hands. The cruiser went down, taking with her the bodies of fifty-six men and the five and a half tons of gold locked in her strongroom. Her survivors, many of them injured, were taken back to Murmansk in the minesweepers.
With the exception of the burnt-out wrecks of the merchantmen, all that now remained of PQ 13 in Murmansk was HMS Trinidad and she had, by this time, been patched up, ironically with steel plates brought out from Britain by Edinburgh a month earlier. It now fell to Trinidad to carry home as many of Edinburgh’s survivors as she could cram into her mess decks. She sailed from the Kola Inlet on 13 May, accompanied by Foresight and Forester, themselves hurriedly patched up, and the two bigger and more modern destroyers Matchless and Somali. In effect, Matchless and Somali were escorting three lame ducks on what they hoped would be a high-speed dash to the nearest British shipyard capable of carrying out more permanent repairs. However, the top speed of this all-naval convoy would be dictated by the damaged ships and was never likely to exceed twenty knots, but between them the ships mounted a very considerable array of guns and they had no slow-steaming merchantmen to look after. They also had the added reassurance that, should they get into trouble, the Home Fleet covering force, led by the battleship Duke of York was not too far over the horizon.
It seems certain that the Germans had advance notice of the sailing of the homeward bound British warships, for within a few hours of their sailing from the Kola Inlet two enemy aircraft were shadowing the convoy. As the days were now almost twenty-four hours long, there would be no darkness in which the ships could hide, only a brief period of twilight around midnight to mark the passing of the night. For Captain Saunders on the bridge of the Trinidad, the scenario was all too familiar. He was not surprised when an hour later two U-boats were sighted, lying off out of range like cruising sharks waiting for the opportunity to strike.
The first indication of a major attack in the offing came at 21.00. Trinidad’s radar began picking up echoes of aircraft approaching from the south-west, a few at first, then formations. The bombers were on their way and this time it was evident that they would not be attacking in ones and twos. Saunders hoisted the signal ‘Prepare to repel enemy aircraft’, and every gun capable of being elevated to the sky – and in the five ships that was a considerable number – was manned. In Trinidad, the Edinburgh survivors, having no action stations to go to, reluctantly sought cover below decks.
The weather could not have been more favourable for the attacking aircraft, patchy cloud and good visibility, and as the reports came through from the radar office of the increasing numbers of echoes showing up on the screen, Saunders began to have serious concern for the safety of his ship. The repairs carried out by the Russians in Murmansk were, at best, makeshift, and he had grave doubts about his ability to manoeuvre at speed to avoid the bombs about to fall from the sky. At the same time, he had no way of knowing how well his men would fight. They had been through the worst kind of ordeal in the two months past, and with seventeen of their shipmates killed in an accident that should not have happened, their morale might not be as high as it should have been.
Any doubts Saunders had about his men were swept away when the first wave of Stukas dropped out of the clouds, the roar of their engines rising to a frightening pitch as they pounced on the cruiser. Trinidad’s eight 4-inch guns and massed batteries of pom-poms opened up as one, throwing up a lethal curtain of steel through which the German pilots were forced to fly, but they still pressed home their attack. The Stukas were followed by the heavier, twin-engined Ju88s and Trinidad, twisting and turning, was bracketed by dozens of bomb bursts that filled the air with spray and flying shrapnel. Saunders, conscious all the time of the vulnerability of the welded patch on his hull, manoeuvred the 8000-ton cruiser with the light touch of an ocean yachtsman, always judging the fall of the bombs right, and always altering in time to turn a certain direct hit into a near-miss.
The destroyers with Trinidad also came in for their share of the bombs, for the sky over the five ships was full of diving and weaving planes. They were being kept at bay by the massed guns of the ships, upwards of fifty smoking barrels hurling shells skywards, backed by batteries of light and heavy machine guns. The sky was filled with bursts of black smoke and lines of flaming tracer. No one on either side had any illusions but that this was a fight to the death, with the advantage on the German side. There were now twenty-five Ju88s involved, each carrying up to twelve 500lb bombs, and to those on the receiving end in the ships there seemed to be an endless queue of aircraft lining up to blow them out of the water.
The attack went on for two hours without pause but, although the bombs fell from the sky like rain, the ship handling of the British captains and the thunder of their guns played havoc with the enemy’s aim. There were near-misses in plenty but no direct hits. Trinidad, the main target of the bombers, seemed to be continually hidden by the spray thrown up by bombs bursting all around her. Saunders, by this time acting more by instinct than judgement, continued to throw his ship around, but was worried that sooner or later, probably sooner, the patch on her hull would give way, for some bombs were landing within fifty feet of her. Then a new and far more dangerous threat appeared on the horizon.
The cry of ‘Torpedo bombers bearing Red 90!’ sent a chill down Saunders’ spine. He swung round to see a line of ten aircraft low on the water coming in from the south. He snatched up his binoculars and as the planes came nearer he identified them as Heinkel 111s, twin-engined bombers, a type widely used in the Battle of Britain, but now adapted to carry two 1600lb torpedoes. Once again, Trinidad was the primary target but now her guns were split, some depressing to meet the new threat, the others continuing to ward off the bombers, who now, perhaps sensing their victim was about to meet her end, intensified their attacks.
The destroyers came to Trinidad’s aid, using their 4-inch guns to put a wall of fire between the cruiser and the torpedo planes. The barrage was too much for the Heinkels, who swerved away, broke up into two formations and came in from two different directions, hoping to divide the fire of the ships. The guns beat them off again, only two Heinkels getting through to launch their torpedoes at Trinidad. Saunders was easily able to comb the tracks of the four missiles, which sped harmlessly past on either side of the cruiser.
Captain Saunders might now have been forgiven for thinking that things were unlikely to get much worse. Then one of the destroyers reported sighting four U-boats on the surface to the north and east – jackals waiting to pounce on a wounded prey. The situation was developing into a potential disaster for the British ships and some were beginning to wonder what the Germans would throw at them next. Capital ships, perhaps? Saunders was not given the luxury of speculation, for the Heinkels were coming in again, all ten of them in line abreast on Trinidad’s port beam.
Watching the Heinkels skimming over the wave-tops, untouched by the shells and bullets kicking up the water ahead of them, Saunders kept a cool head, waiting for the right moment to take evasive action. This came when he saw the enemy torpedoes hit the water and a line of feathered wakes came racing towards him. He brought the Trinidad round to port under full helm to comb the tracks as he had done before. In doing so, he ran straight into a stick of four bombs dropped by a Ju88.
The Ju88, in its turn, ran into the combined fire of Trinidad’s AA guns and turned into a ball of fire, but not before its bombs had found their mark. The effect of four 500lb bombs exploding in and around the cruiser was catastrophic. One bomb landed just forward of her bridge, smashing its way through the deck to explode with terrible effect in the petty officers’ mess deck. The area was completely wrecked and several fires were started. Two other 500-pounders narrowly missed the forecastle head but exploded close enough alongside to lay open the hull to the sea. The fourth bomb also landed outboard, sliding down the hull plates on the port side before exploding directly under the ill-used welded patch on Trinidad’s hull. The patch that had so far held firm, was torn off and the sea poured into the magazine and cordite compartments below ‘B’ turret.
The Trinidad was sorely hit, many of her complement lay dead or wounded and fires burned above and below decks, but her engines still turned, her steering still functioned, and some of her guns still fired. Damage and fire control parties were at work and Saunders decided it would be wiser to carry on at full speed, rather than slow down and become an easy target for the German planes. His ship was listing heavily, but she was brought upright again by filling ballast tanks and, although considerably lower in the water, she steamed on.
The Heinkels continued to concentrate their attacks on the Trinidad, intent on finishing her off, but Saunders was still weaving from side to side, frustrating their efforts. Meanwhile, the fires were out of control and water still poured into the shattered hull. Whether the sea or the fires would claim the ship first was anybody’s guess.
At around midnight, when it seemed to Saunders that he and his ship could take no more, he became aware that the German planes were going away, probably having run out of bombs and torpedoes. Now, at long last, he was able to draw breath, to reduce speed and take stock of the situation. Reports reaching him on the bridge, which itself was rapidly becoming untenable as the house below was ablaze, soon confirmed the hopelessness of his ship’s position. The Trinidad was slowly being consumed by the fires, and so many of her crew were dead, injured or trapped by the fires, that the fight to keep her afloat had been lost. Saunders decided to abandon ship before the U-boats moved in to finish the work begun by the planes.
The cruiser was stopped and all her surviving crew assembled on the quarterdeck – nothing could be done for those trapped below. Matchless came alongside first, taking off the wounded that could be reached, while the other destroyers circled to keep the U-boats at bay. Foresight and Forester then each took their turn, easing alongside the burning ship with hoses rigged to beat off any flames jumping across. Trinidad was now listing dangerously to starboard, adding to the difficulties of the evacuation. And as if things were not bad enough, a lone Heinkel had come back and seemed intent on sending the cruiser to the bottom while she lay helpless. Fortunately, in the finest tradition of the Royal Navy, two men, Commissioned Gunner Richard Bunt and Gunner Charles Norsworthy, were still manning one of Trinidad’s 4-inch turrets to give cover to the survivors. Training the turret manually – all the electrics were out – they waited until the Heinkel had settled on its torpedo run and fired both guns. The two shells skimmed over the water and exploded directly under the incoming aircraft. The Heinkel was lifted bodily and it banked away with smoke and flame pouring from its fuselage. Its torpedo hit the water but went off at an angle, passing astern of the cruiser.
Trinidad’s guns now fell silent and the last of her survivors scrambled aboard Somali, which had taken her turn to come alongside. Captain Saunders was the last man to leave the ship. The destroyers then withdrew and circled slowly, silent witnesses to the death throes of a very gallant ship. Trinidad, however, although burning furiously and lying low in the water, stubbornly refused to sink. Eventually, it was left to Matchless to put a torpedo in her. Only then did HMS Trinidad, her battle ensigns still flying, concede defeat and slip slowly below the waves, taking with her into the icy depths of the Barents Sea the bodies of eighty men, twenty of whom were the injured from the Edinburgh.
The four British destroyers, Foresight and Forester, Matchless and Somali, crammed with survivors, set course to the north-west at full speed, anxious to be clear of the scene of the sinking as quickly as possible. It was certain that the German planes would be back and all four ships were running low on ammunition. As they hurried away at twenty knots – this was all Foresight and Forester, both still suffering from damage received when defending Edinburgh could manage – a signal was sent requesting cover from ships of the Home Fleet.
The JU88s were back within an hour and the agony began all over again. The destroyers spread out and, twisting and turning, their guns hammering out defiance, they each fought their individual battle with the enemy. This time they were severely hampered, as their decks were full of Trinidad’s survivors and there were many injured below decks. But, yet again, the German bombers scored no hits and after a while they were driven off by the withering fire put up by the British ships.
There was a much appreciated lull, during which the destroyers pressed on to the west, but they were soon receiving somewhat vague signals reporting that unidentified German cruisers, accompanied by destroyers, had left a Norwegian fjord and were heading north towards them. It was well known that the Tirpitz, Scheer, Hipper and Prinz Eugen were holed up in the fjords and the conclusion drawn in the destroyers was that one or more of these ships, along with some big Narvik-class destroyers, was on the way to intercept them. Exhausted though they were, the men of the British ships stood to their guns. They were now dangerously short of ammunition, but the thought that the odds were stacked too heavily against them did not deter them. They would fight to the last.
A tense hour passed, then a number of unidentified ships were sighted on the horizon. It was assumed this must be the German force, and while the hampered Foresight and Forester, covered by Matchless, altered away to the north, Somali, the only one of the four with a full complement of torpedoes left, turned to engage the enemy. Somali, a 1870-ton Tribal-class destroyer, mounting six 4.7-inch, two 4-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes, had a top speed of thirty-six and a half knots, and might have held her own against the Narvik-class destroyers. If there was anything heavier in the German force she was likely to be blown to pieces before she was close enough to fire her torpedoes. It was only to be hoped that she would buy time for the others to escape.
As Somali steamed south at full speed, signal lamps winked out from the ‘enemy’, who identified themselves as ships of the British 10th Cruiser Squadron, much to the great relief of Somali and the other destroyers. They were the light cruiser Nigeria, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Burroughs, the heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk, and the light cruiser Liverpool. The newcomers closed around the destroyers and the whole, now very formidable force set course for Iceland. The reported German ships failed to make an appearance, probably warned off by the reconnaissance plane now shadowing the British ships. This aircraft was also most certainly responsible for the reappearance of the German bombers, this time in even greater numbers. Over the five hours that followed, the Stukas and Ju88s pressed home their attack with a determination bordering on desperation, but the combined firepower of the eight British warships was such that not one bomber succeeded in scoring a hit. Finally, at around noon on 15 May, with the distance to the German airfields becoming greater and greater, the Luftwaffe accepted defeat and the bombers flew away.
The loss of two first-class cruisers within two weeks of each other was a serious blow to the Royal Navy, already heavily committed elsewhere. With summer coming on, with its twenty-four hours of daylight and clear weather on the Arctic route, Churchill was reluctant to continue with this costly supply operation. He was urged to withdraw escorts from the North Atlantic, but out there the Navy was already stretched to breaking point attempting to stem a haemorrhage running at over 100 ships a month being sunk by the U-boats.
The clamour from the Russians for more tanks, more guns, more planes was loud and unrelenting, and with good reason. By the close of 1941, the German armies had made huge inroads into Russia, being halted only by the severity of the winter. Some ground had been regained by the Soviet forces, even so, by the spring of 1942, the front lay from Leningrad in the north, southeastwards to within 100 miles of Moscow, and then southwards to Rostov on the Don. As summer advanced, Hitler was determined to break through into the Caucasus, his goal the oilfields of Baku, and had already massed 100 divisions, eight of these armoured, supported by 1500 aircraft, all poised ready to strike when the time was right. In response, the Russians were planning a massive counter-attack, possibly before the German armies made their move, hence their demands for ever more supplies from the Allies. Stalin’s plea to Churchill, sent on 6 May, was unusually restrained: ‘I am fully aware of the difficulties involved and of the sacrifices made by Great Britain in this matter. I feel however incumbent upon me to approach you with the request to take all possible measures in order to ensure the arrival of all the above-mentioned materials in the U.S.S.R. in the course of May, as this is extremely important to our front.’
Stalin was referring to the ninety or more merchant ships lying in Iceland and north British ports loaded with supplies for Russia, most of which had crossed the Atlantic from America and was still awaiting delivery. The hold-up was highly embarrassing for Churchill, who replied: ‘I have received your telegram of May 6, and thank you for your message and greetings. We are resolved to fight our way through to you with the maximum amount of war materials. On account of the Tirpitz and other enemy surface ships at Trondheim the passage of every convoy has become a serious fleet operation. We shall continue to do our utmost.’
Obviously, it was the threat of the Tirpitz anchored in Trondheim fjord and within easy reach of the convoys that worried Churchill most. He was not alone in this, for the thought of this 42,000-ton battleship, the most powerful warship afloat, being allowed near the thinly defended merchant ships was frightening. And backing up the Tirpitz’s 15-inch guns were the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, not to mention, sheltering in fjords further north the Narvik-class destroyers, whose 5.9s had previously caused havoc amongst the convoys. British long-range bombers were flying frequent sorties against Trondheim, but these planes were operating at the extreme limit of their range and the defences of the fjord were so strong that little was being achieved. The Tirpitz and her consorts remained a major threat to the convoys to Russia.
The arrival in Scapa Flow of a United States task force made up of the brand new battleship Washington, the aircraft carrier Wasp, two heavy cruisers and six destroyers, helped to tip the balance. The American ships, impressive though they were, lacked experience of convoy work, but they were extra guns and the enthusiasm of their crews was unquestionable. Their availability persuaded Churchill to attempt to clear the backlog of ships for Russia, which by this time had reached 107 ships now loaded, or being loaded in ports in the US and Britain. Convoy PQ 16, the largest convoy to Russia yet to be attempted, sailed from Hvalfjord on 21 May.
PQ 16 comprised thirty-six merchant ships, twenty-one American, nine British, five Russian and one Dutch. Among the British ships was a new innovation, the CAM (Catapult Aircraft Merchant) ship Empire Lawrence. CAM ships were selected merchant ships which carried a specially adapted Hawker Hurricane fighter mounted on a catapult on the forecastle head. Once launched, the fighter could not be brought back on board, leaving the pilot with the only alternative of bailing out or ditching alongside the nearest ship and hoping to be picked up. It was an expensive idea, but was proving successful as an answer to the Focke-Wulfs that shadowed convoys in the Atlantic. How the CAM ship would fare in the Arctic was yet to be seen.
The strength of PQ 16’s escort indicated the importance attached to this convoy. As before, armed trawlers accompanied the ships until they were clear of Iceland, then the ocean escort joined from Seydisfjord. In PQ 16’s case, this was made up of the British destroyers Achates, Ashanti, Martin, Volunteer and Ledbury, the Polish destroyer Garland, the corvettes Honeysuckle, Hyderabad, Starwort and Roselys (Free French), the auxiliary anti-aircraft ship Alynbank and the submarines Seawolf and Trident. Cruiser cover was provided by the British heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk, the light cruisers Liverpool and Nigeria, accompanied by the destroyers Marne, Onslow and Oribi. The distant covering force was Anglo/American, comprising the battleships Duke of York and USS Washington, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the cruisers London and USS Wichita, and the destroyers Blankney, Eclipse, Faulknor, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Lamerton, Middleton, Wheatland and USS Mayrant, Rhind, Rowan and Wainright.
Against such a massive escort the German surface ships very wisely decided not to venture out of their fjords, but PQ 16 did not escape the U-boats and aircraft, some 260 of the latter mounting a series of attacks on the convoy. The U-boats claimed one merchantman, while the bombers sank six ships, including the CAM ship Empire Lawrence, whose Hurricane justified its existence by shooting down one attacker and damaging another before ditching. Four other merchantmen and the Polish destroyer Garland were damaged.
With twenty-nine out of thirty-six ships reaching their destination, PQ 16 was judged to be a success and it was the precursor of even greater efforts to clear the backlog of loaded ships for Russia. But the German capital ships hiding in Trondheim fjord would still prove a threat to be reckoned with.