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History and Heritage

Remembering the Arctic Convoys:

Sailors, Merchant Marines Undertake Perilous Journeys During World War II

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Great Britain acquired an unusual and precarious ally.

The Soviet alliance was unusual because Britain wasn't in favor of communism, but British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill didn't want the growing Nazi offensive to extend its reach farther than it already had.

"The story begins in June 1941, when over 3 million German troops stormed into the USSR," said Jeremy Clarkson, who hosted the BBC documentary "PQ-17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster." "It was the largest invasion in the history of warfare."

The Soviet alliance was also precarious because of the almost 2,500 nautical miles between Britain and the Soviet Union, whose industry had been disrupted by the Nazi invasion. The distance proved problematic in sending aid to help the beleaguered Soviets, yet Churchill believed both Britain and the United States should supply them because they shared a common enemy, and because not doing so could have meant fighting a war on British or U.S. soil.

Though the U.S. hadn't yet formally joined the Allied war effort, it pledged support, and the countries came to an informal aid agreement known in the U.S. as the Lend-Lease program. But with a shortage of Soviet ships to provide transportation, the task of getting much-needed supplies to the front lines fell largely on British and American naval assets. This proved to be no easy feat.

Axis powers controlled the Mediterranean Sea, and attempting to sail through to the Black Sea was not an option. To make matters worse, the less treacherous of the two remaining routes went through Iran and measured approximately 13,000 miles.

"The only realistic solution was to go around the top of German-occupied Norway, through the freezing, dreadful, violent Arctic Ocean into Murmansk or Archangel," Clarkson said. "This would only take about 10 days, but, as Churchill conceded, it would be the worst journey in the world."

An experimental convoy of seven ships first made the "Murmansk Run" in late August 1941. Although the convoy was hurriedly assembled, all seven made it without incident. British and American representatives eventually agreed to furnish all the aircraft, tanks and other supplies the Soviets deemed necessary for war.

Following several successful convoys, all subsequent northbound groups were designated "PQ," while southbound returning groups were designated "QP."

By February 1942, only one ship out of 12 PQ and QP convoys had been lost to a U-boat attack. More than 2,300 vehicles, 800 aircraft, 750 tanks, and 100,000 tons of ammunition and raw materials made their way safely to the Soviet Union. Morale was high for Allied naval assets, but that changed when later convoys began to encounter more Nazi opposition.

After several successful British commando raids along the Norwegian coast, Adolf Hitler had become convinced an eventual Allied invasion would come from Norway.

"He believed that if the Western Allies were successful in capturing Norway, they would be able to supply the Soviet Union regularly, thereby posing a serious threat to the German northern front," Dr. Milan Vego, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote in "The Destruction of Convoy PQ17." "At a meeting with [Adm. Erich] Rader on 22 January, Hitler stated that, from the latest information, Britain and the United States were planning to attack northern Norway. If successful, this would decisively influence the war. In Hitler's view, every German heavy surface ship that was not in Norway was in the wrong place."

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In January 1942, the battleship Tirpitz became the first German ship to arrive in the Norwegian fjords, followed by the cruiser Admiral Hipper, the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Ltzow, and several destroyers.

Hitler later realized the importance of the supply flow to the Soviets, and made it his mission to make the convoy trips as costly as possible. He had a surface force ready to counteract any invasion attempt, and more than 260 Luftwaffe aircraft and 30 U-boats.

Nevertheless, Allied forces formed their largest convoy yet to sail for Murmansk and Archangel toward the end of June 1942.

"Code-named PQ-17, it was the largest that had ever sailed. It was also the first significant Anglo-American operation of the war," said Clarkson.

With more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, and 150,000 tons of ammunition and raw materials, PQ-17 was poised to outfit a force in excess of 50,000. Thirty-five cargo ships, mostly American, but also British, Russian, Panamanian and Dutch, left Reykjavik, Iceland, June 27.

Six destroyers and 15 other armed vessels escorted them, along with a cruiser force consisting of two British and five American ships that sailed 40 miles to the north of the convoy. For an added element of security, an even more formidable group of surface combatants trailed 200 miles behind PQ-17. It consisted of 17 British and two American ships, and included the battleships USS Washington and HMS Duke of York and the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious.

Once underway, one ship ran aground and one turned back due to engine trouble. Still, the others maintained their northerly journey at a blistering seven to eight knots.

Unaware it was being shadowed closely by U-boats, PQ-17 seemed to have luck on its side when a dense fog rolled in behind an icy polar wind, July 2. Though visibility was restricted, the ships' crews felt more comfortable knowing the enemy couldn't see them. Unfortunately, they couldn't see the enemy either. When the fog lifted that afternoon, a German reconnaissance plane appeared in the skies above. Seven Heinkel He-115 torpedo bombers followed, but accurate anti-aircraft fire destroyed two planes, and remaining bombers retreated.

During subsequent Luftwaffe attacks over the next 24 hours, the American merchantman Christopher Newport was crippled and had to be abandoned. Merchant vessels Navarino and William Hooper also sustained irreparable damage and sank, while the crew of the Soviet tanker Azerbaijan was able to control torpedo damage and eventually make port.

Despite the losses of three ships, the crews remained confident in their ability to complete the run to Murmansk and Archangel.

British Adm. Sir Dudley Pound was the Allied commander overseeing PQ-17's progress from London. According to Clarkson, Pound was suffering from a brain tumor that had been diagnosed three years earlier, one that likely clouded his judgment and affected his ability to lead, which became evident July 3. He later suffered two strokes and died, Oct. 21, 1943.

From British intelligence, codenamed "Ultra," Pound received reports that indicated Tirpitz was underway and moving in the direction of PQ-17. He determined the Nazi warship and its battle group were assuming a strike position while closing in at high speed, which prompted an emergency meeting with his operational staff. Pound asked each of his officers what action they recommended the convoy take: maintain course or disperse.

Every officer advised against dispersal but one. And the vice chief of the naval staff, Vice Adm. Sir Henry Moore, didn't actually recommend dispersal, only suggested that if it was agreed upon, the decision should be made quickly because the ships would need to avoid the nearby sea ice.

"But Pound still wasn't sure," said Clarkson. "Apparently, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for such a long time [that] everyone at the table assumed he'd fallen asleep. Eventually, he opened his eyes and said he'd made up his mind. Because neither the American nor the British cruisers were powerful enough to take on the Tirpitz, they should turn around and come home as quickly as possible."

After a series of three rapid messages, escort commanders learned they were to withdraw their warships westward at high speed and the convoy was to scatter, leaving PQ-17 without protection.

"The captain called all of the officers who were off watch into the mess room and said, 'We have an order to disperse the convoy,'" Alan Harvie, an engineer aboard SS Honomu, said in an oral history. "Well, immediate disbelief, because here we had the strongest assortment of protective ships up to that time."

About 12 hours later, in the early hours of July 5, Honomu was torpedoed and went down in six minutes.

"I was sitting on the work bench," recalled Harvie, "and this horrible noise - Actually, I don't remember a noise. I just remembered this huge shock. Your ears sort of came in and came out, and I thought, 'Oh, my, we've been hit!' And then a feeling of great relief, 'I'm not dead!'

"We were all in a state of shock. I mean, all this racket, and getting in the boat, and the whole thing - seeing the ship go down. All you could see were these huge piles of powered eggs and dehydrated potatoes floating around, and all the sea birds sitting on top of them, pecking away. It was a real feast for them. So we were just looking around to see what was going on, and all of a sudden we were aware there were three submarines coming at us."

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Some 12 other American ships and a British freighter also sank, and over the three days that followed, another five ships shared the same fate. Winston Salem was intentionally beached, and on July 10, German planes eliminated Hoosier and El Capitan just southeast of Murmansk, a mere 100 miles from safety.

Meanwhile, Harvie and other Honomu survivors spent 13 days in life boats in the freezing ocean until they were rescued, sleeping and rowing in four-hour shifts, drinking just half a pint of fresh water a day. At one point, they were almost capsized by a pod of killer whales.
"It was cold," he remembered. "It's a mental adjustment. You know that you don't have much of a chance. You drift into a melancholy attitude. There's no humor involved. Stark reality."

"You don't even drift to the dimension of death. You accept it. There's not much you can do about it. There was no drama here. This was stark, staring despair. And you accepted it," said Harvie.

In total, 11 of 35 merchant ships made the trip to Murmansk or Archangel safely, the last of which arrived July 28. Fourteen American ships were among those lost, taking with them about 3,350 vehicles, 430 tanks, 210 planes, and an estimated 100,000 tons of ammunition and raw materials. More than 120 merchantmen perished, and financial losses were estimated above $500 million.

Churchill said it was "one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war."

According to an article written by Raymond A. Denkhaus for World War II magazine, the Allies learned their lesson after PQ-17. They developed new and improved convoy defensive tactics that helped ensure the Nazi offensive never achieved complete success. Allied forces assigned greater numbers of escort ships following the tremendous losses of PQ-17, and used radar, sonar and improved weaponry to ensure merchantmen were better protected.

When PQ-18 sailed in the fall of 1942, for example, the convoy was protected by a total of 53 warships, including the aircraft carrier HMS Avenger, which provided air support. More than 40 merchant ships and naval auxiliaries continued the effort to aid the Soviet Union, and although 13 ships were sunk by Nazi sea and air attacks, Allied forces considered that convoy successful, and continued to provide support.

Soviet convoys continued until the end of World War II. In total, almost 4 million tons of supplies helped them fend off the Nazis at a cost of 105 Allied ships and approximately 3,000 lives.