Military history

THE ARCTIC: CONVOY PQ 17

Throughout the spring and summer of 1942, Hitler remained convinced that the Allies intended to invade Norway. In compliance with his specific orders, big ships of the Kriegsmarine were kept on alert in that region to repel invaders: Tirpitz, the heavy cruiser Hipper, and the “pocket” battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow (ex-Deutschland), the latter back in action after a year of repairs and workup. None was to sail until Hitler gave a direct order.

Also in compliance with Hitler’s specific orders, a force of twenty to twenty-five U-boats were based in Norway. The primary task of this force was to help repel Allied invaders. Secondarily they patrolled Arctic waters to attack PQ and QP convoys en route to and from Murmansk, respectively. On any given day about half the force was at sea hunting convoys, the other half in ports undergoing voyage or battle-damage repairs or on anti-invasion alert.

The U-boats operated under numerous handicaps. In contrast to the Atlantic and Mediterranean areas, there was no single U-boat commander or headquarters in Norway at this time. Command of and responsibility for the Norway U-boat forces shifted between the admiral commanding Group North (in Kiel), the admiral commanding Norway, and the admiral commanding Arctic waters, A. D. Hubert Schmundt, in Narvik. The newly assigned U-boat specialists and Ritterkreuz holders Jürgen Oesten and Herbert Schultze could advise the admirals on U-boat operations, but they were not empowered to issue direct orders. There were as yet no U-boat flotillas or staffs to provide shore-based backup.* Since base facilities were primitive, U-boats requiring extensive battle-damage repairs or overhauls had to return to Germany. Coordination and communications between the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe in Norway left much to be desired.

Inasmuch as British codebreakers were reading Luftwaffe Red Enigma as well as the three-rotor naval Enigma employed by the admiral commanding Norway, the Admiralty was the beneficiary of superb intelligence on German plans and operations in Norway and the Arctic. The British closely watched the movements of the big ships, the dispositions of the U-boats, and the Luftwaffe buildup in northern Norway. The Enigma intelligence enabled the British to anticipate attacks on PQ and the opposite-sailing QP sister convoys, but owing to the lack of maneuvering room in the Barents Sea and saturation Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance, they were rarely able to escape detection or to divert convoys around known U-boat patrol lines.

In the midst of the battle with PQ 16, Hitler suddenly became convinced that an Allied invasion of Norway might come at any hour. Accordingly he flashed alerts to his military commanders in Norway and on May 27, for the second time in 1942, directed that all Type VII U-boats outbound from Germany to the Atlantic be diverted to the defense of Norway. The OKM calculated that if this order stood, eight new Type VIIs could reach Norway by June 10. Further diversions of new Type VIIs to Norway in June and July, the OKM diarist noted, could raise the total number of U-boats diverted to that area to “forty or fifty,” a terrible blow to the Atlantic U-boat force.

Hitler’s order provoked another heated debate over deployment of U-boats to Arctic waters. Dönitz again forcefully stated his view that no boats whatever should be deployed there. The U-boat force had not been able to prevent the British invasion of Norway in April 1940; the returns from U-boat operations against PQ and QP convoys did not come close to justifying the effort expended. To then, all the Norway-based U-boats had sunk only eight confirmed merchant ships plus the destroyer Matabele from the several hundred that had sailed in sixteen PQ convoys to Murmansk, and only one merchant ship from the twelve home-bound QP convoys. Three U-boats had been lost with all hands (U-655, U-585, and U-702), a high price to pay for nine merchant ships and a destroyer. Several other U-boats had incurred heavy battle damage.

Admiral Raeder and the OKM again calmed Hitler’s fear of an invasion and persuaded him to rescind the order diverting all new Type VIIs to Norway. But Raeder did not agree with Dönitz that all U-boats should be withdrawn from the Arctic. Notwithstanding the disappointing level of sinkings and the increased risk posed by the absence of darkness in the summer months, Raeder believed the Kriegsmarine should be in position to deploy “about eight” U-boats against each and every PQ convoy. These were to find and shadow the convoys for the benefit of the Luftwaffe, lie in wait on patrol lines to intercept the ships, polish off cripples left behind by the airmen, and rescue Germans who had to ditch in damaged aircraft.

Raeder and the OKM calculated that to send “about eight” U-boats against every PQ convoy, a total force of twenty-three boats would be required. Inasmuch as three boats had been lost and by prior agreement three Norway-based boats had been transferred to the Atlantic force in May (U-134, U-454, and U-584), it was necessary to divert six more Type VIIs to Norway* in order to maintain the force at twenty-three boats. Dönitz again protested the diversions, but to no avail. Admiral Raeder replied that in view of the importance of stopping the flow of war matériel to the Soviet Union, a force level of twenty-three boats in Norway was not unreasonable.

There was another factor of importance. To stress the Allied military assistance to the Soviet Union and uphold morale in Moscow and in the ranks of the besieged Red armies, President Roosevelt directed that Murmansk convoys receive maximum publicity. Thus these convoys for a time became much more prominent than others. To have permitted these high-profile convoys to pass to Murmansk unchallenged would have been a setback, psychological and otherwise, for the Germans.

Encouraged by the wild Luftwaffe overclaims of damage to PQ 16, Admiral Raeder and the OKM conceived an elaborate plan, Rosselsprung (Knight’s Move), to utterly destroy PQ 17 and thereby force the Allies to close down the Murmansk run. A pack of U-boats, Eisteufel (Ice Devil), was to form a patrol line across the path of the oncoming convoy northeast of Jan Mayen Island. The four big surface ships, Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lützow, and Hipper, with destroyer screens, were to stage northward through Narvik and Altenfiord. If the circumstances proved to be favorable for the big surface ships—and if Hitler authorized their sailing—they were to converge on the convoy at about the same time the U-boat pack and the Luftwaffe got there.

The Germans did not know when PQ 17 was to leave Iceland. To detect the departure as early as possible, Hubert Schmundt in Narvik, temporarily commanding the U-boat force, sent three boats to patrol the north end of the Denmark Strait in early June. These were Heinrich Timm in U-251, Friedrich-Karl Marks in U-376, and Reinhard von Hymmen in the newly arrived U-408. Marks in U-376 spotted a “cruiser,” but by the time he got permission to attack it, the warship was gone. On Schmundt’s order, Marks reconnoitered the boundary of the ice pack to make certain PQ 17 had not found an open passage to the north of Jan Mayen Island. It had not.

The British reluctantly sailed PQ 17 to Murmansk and its reverse, QP 13, from Murmansk, on June 27. The largest convoy to Murmansk yet, PQ 17, numbered forty ships: thirty-five big, heavily laden freighters (one of them, Empire Tide, with a catapult), three rescue vessels, and two tankers for refueling escorts. The convoy was guarded by sixty-two Allied warships: twenty-one British close escorts;* seven Allied warships in a cruiser covering force; nineteen Allied warships in a distant covering force; and fifteen Allied submarines placed ahead.§

None of the three U-boats on lookout in the Denmark Strait detected the sailing of PQ 17 or any of its massive escort. Almost immediately after sailing, the convoy “lost” three of its forty ships. The American freighter Richard Bland grounded on rocks and was forced to abort. The American freighter Exford and the 3,300-ton British tanker Grey Ranger ran into floating ice and incurred damage. Exford aborted to Iceland. Owing to her damage, Grey Ranger, which was to refuel escorts, would go only part way, then rendezvous with and refuel the escorts of QP 13. The 8,400-ton tanker Aldersdale would go all the way to Murmansk, refueling PQ 17 escorts.

Schmundt established the U-boat patrol line Eisteufel (Ice Devils) across the expected path of PQ 17 near Jan Mayen Island. As U-boats arrived, Schmundt added to the line until it consisted of six boats. On July 1, one of these skippers, Max-Martin Teichert in U-456, found PQ 17 and flashed the alarm, but the fourstack destroyer Leamington drove him off. Two other boats, von Hymmen in U-408 of the Denmark Strait patrol, low on fuel, and a new boat from Germany, U-255, commanded by Reinhardt Reche, age twenty-seven, came up in the fog patches to confirm Teichert’s sighting. From Narvik, Schmundt directed these three boats, plus Heinz Bielfeld in U-703, to shadow and to make beacons for the benefit of all German forces.

On the following day, July 2, the U-boat shadowers and the Ice Devils merged at about the same time that PQ 17 and QP 13 passed, sailing in opposite directions. One of the Ice Devils, Heino Bohmann in U-88, spotted and reported QP 13. It consisted of thirty-five ships and fifteen escorts, but the German aim was to sink ships laden with armaments for the Soviet Union, not the returning empty ships. Schmundt therefore specifically ordered Bohmann—and all other U-boat skippers—to ignore the Iceland-bound QP 13 and concentrate on the Murmansk-bound PQ 17.*

Although Hitler had yet to authorize attacks by the big surface ships, upon discovery of the convoys, the German admirals deployed them northward to the most favorable jumping-off position in Altenfiord near the North Cape of Norway. During these movements, the newly-arrived “pocket” battleship Lützow and three destroyers ran onto rocks in the fog and incurred such heavy damage that they had to be withdrawn from the operation. That humiliating accident left only the super-battleship Tirpitz, the “pocket” battleship Admiral Scheer, the heavy cruiser Hipper, and their screens (seven destroyers, two torpedo boats) to mount the surface-ship attack on PQ 17. Hitler finally authorized them to sail, but only if there was no risk of a loss to Allied carrier-based aircraft or submarines, which would embarrass Germany and jeopardize the defense of Norway. These restrictions led the German admirals in charge of surface-ship operations to proceed with utmost caution.

During that day and the next, July 3, all eleven U-boats in the area closed on convoy PQ 17 or took up positions along its track. As Schmundt wrote later, “conditions for U-boat warfare were the most unfavorable imaginable.” Dense fog patches lay over a sea of mushy, crushed ice. The fog hid the U-boats, but from time to time the convoy ran out of it without warning, leaving the U-boats naked in bright sunlight and in full view of the ships and escorts. In the open areas, the seas were flat, glassy calm, making it dangerous to use periscopes for submerged attacks. Reinhardt Reche in the new U-255 got close enough submerged to shoot a two-torpedo fan at a “destroyer,” but both torpedoes missed. Escorts counterattacked and dropped forty depth charges near U-255 but none was close enough to do real harm. At least six other boats attempted attacks, but the veteran escorts beat them off, and one by one the U-boats fell behind and lost contact. German aircraft, homing on U-boat beacons, assumed the shadower role. Contemptuous of the difficulties the U-boats faced or the inexperience of the crews, German admirals conducting the action were furious at the failure of the U-boats to get close and attack.

Luftwaffe dive bombers and torpedo planes attacked PQ 17 and elements of the cruiser support force that had closed up to protect it on July 4. The escorts threw up dense walls of ack-ack but the aircraft, staging from bases in northern Norway, had sufficient fuel to mount several attacks. Even so, they achieved little. In the early morning, a torpedo bomber hit and savaged the 7,200-ton American freighter Christopher Newport. After her crew abandoned ship, two British escorts tried to put the hulk under, but both attempts failed. Later in the day, Karl Brandenburg in the new U-457 found the ravaged, abandoned hulk and sank it with a torpedo.

During this action, Brandenburg got a periscope glimpse of some elements of the cruiser force. In his report, he stated that he had seen heavy units with the convoy, including a “battleship.” On the basis of this incorrect report, Admiral Raeder, assuming these heavy units to be the distant covering force, which included an aircraft carrier, and mindful of Hitler’s restriction, refused to authorize the sailing of Tirpitz until the supposed carrier had been sunk. Since the U-boats had the best chance of sinking the carrier, Schmundt directed Brandenburg in U-457 to ignore PQ 17 and to shadow the “battleship” (and presumably the carrier) and to bring up other boats. Inasmuch as three of the eleven boats that had sailed in early June to serve as lookouts in the Denmark Strait had to refuel in Narvik or Kirkenes, and two boats had to shadow the convoy in behalf of the Luftwaffe, only five other boats were available to join Brandenburg in U-457 to hunt down the “battleship.” So that there could be no mistake or confusion, Schmundt advised all U-boats that their “main targets” were the Allied heavy units.

Later on July 4, large flights of Luftwaffe aircraft attacked PQ 17 twice. A group of dive bombers and torpedo planes in the second attack hit three ships: the 4,800-ton British freighter Navarino, the 7,200-ton American freighter William Hooper, and the Soviet tanker Azerbaijan. After taking off the crew, British escorts sank Navarino. Hilmar Siemon in U-334 happened upon the abandoned hulk of William Hooper and put her under with torpedoes. Azerbaijan made temporary repairs and sailed on.

In London, First Sea Lord Dudley Pound fretted. He knew from various intelligence sources, including Enigma, that Tirpitz and the other big German ships had staged to northern Norway, doubtless to attack PQ 17. However, he was unaware of the restriction Hitler had placed on the sailing of the German surface forces or of the accident to Lützow. Contrary to all advice, he wrongly assumed that Tirpitz and the other big ships had sailed late on July 4 to attack the Allied forces. Pound calculated that the Germans could reach PQ 17 and the covering cruiser force by the afternoon of July 5. Combined with the power of the U-boats and Luftwaffe, the German surface ships might sink the whole of PQ 17 and the cruiser force as well. To avoid this possible catastrophe, Pound issued fateful—and controversial—orders for the convoy to “scatter” and for the cruiser force to reverse course and withdraw to the southwest. Although no orders had been issued to them, the six destroyers in the close escort joined the withdrawing cruiser force. Like the merchant ships, the remaining fifteen close escorts scattered in all directions.

The U-boats were first to report and benefit from the scatter. Teichert in U-456 and Brandenburg in U-457 signaled that the cruiser force (wrongly believed to be the battleship-carrier covering force) had reversed course at very high speed. Unable to pursue at that speed, they and other skippers requested permission to attack the many unescorted merchant ships all around them. Schmundt authorized this shift in targets and amid the repeated Luftwaffe attacks, the U-boats had a field day.

• Heinz Bielfeld in U-703 sank the 6,600-ton British freighter Empire Byron, which had been damaged by the Luftwaffe, and the 5,500-ton British freighter River Afton. Bielfeld captured a British Army officer from Empire Byron and the captain of River Afton, and gave the survivors in lifeboats food and water.

• Heino Bohmann in U-88 sank the 5,100-ton American freighter Carlton and the 7,200-ton American freighter Daniel Morgan, which had been damaged by the Luftwaffe.

• Hilmar Siemon in U-334 sank the 7,200-ton British freighter Earlston, which had been damaged by German aircraft, and captured her captain.

• Max-Martin Teichert in U-456 sank the 7,000-ton American freighter Honomu and captured her captain.

Also enjoying a field day, the German airmen had difficulty distinguishing friend from foe. One dive bomber hit Siemon in U-334. Another hit Brandenburg in U-457. The two bombs that fell near U-334 caused such heavy damage that Siemon was forced to abort. At Siemon’s request, Schmundt directed Teichert in U-456 to escort U-334 into Kirkenes. At about the same time, Heinrich Gollnitz in U-657, who had sunk no ships, aborted owing to a leak in an external fuel-oil tank that was leaving an oil trace. These three withdrawals reduced the U-boat force to five, but the three boats that refueled in Narvik and Kirkenes (U-251, U-376, U-408) resailed immediately, again raising the Arctic force to eight U-boats.

Upon learning that the Allied covering force, the cruiser force, and the destroyers of the close escort had fled and that the convoy had scattered, Admiral Raeder persuaded Hitler that Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, and Hipper could sail without undue risk. Thereupon the Führer approved Rosselsprung (Knight’s Move). Raeder relayed the approval to the forces at sea, stressing that every precaution must be taken to prevent the loss or severe damage to any of the three big ships, especially Tirpitz.

Escorted by seven destroyers and two motor torpedo boats, the three big German ships sailed from Altenfiord at 3:00 P.M., July 5. As the force emerged from protected waters to open sea, the Soviet submarine K-21 saw it and attacked Tirpitz, claiming two hits, which were, however, not confirmed. An hour later, a Coastal Command Catalina also saw and reported the force. Two hours after that the British submarine Unshaken, commanded by H. P. Westmacott, saw and radioed an exact description of the force.

Hearing of these Allied sightings from B-dienst, Admiral Raeder deemed the sortie to be too risky and on his own authority he canceled Rosselsprung, merely six and a half hours after it commenced. For the second- time, Tirpitz returned to port without having achieved anything with her massive armament. However, her mere presence in the area had persuaded Admiral Pound to scatter PQ 17, leaving all its surviving ships and close escorts vulnerable to aircraft and U-boat attack.

Over the next ten days, German aircraft and U-boats scoured the Barents Sea in search of ships from the scattered convoy. One German aircraft sank one more freighter, the 5,400-ton American Pan Atlantic; other aircraft damaged a half dozen other ships. Reinhardt Reche in U-255 was the most successful of the U-boat skippers. He sank three American freighters for about 18,400 tons, plus the 7,200-ton Dutchman Paulus Potter, which had been hit by the Luftwaffe and abandoned in such haste that “secret papers” had been left behind.* Günter La Baume in U-355 sank one British freighter for 5,100 tons. Three other boats sank one ship each that had been damaged by the Luftwaffe: Heinrich Timm in U-251, Friedrich-Karl Marks in U-376, and Karl Brandenburg in U-457, who barely avoided an attack by a Soviet submarine.

When the final sinking reports reached Berlin, the German high command was exultant. It believed that for the first time in the war an entire Allied convoy had been wiped out. The Luftwaffe claimed sinking twenty ships for 131,000 tons. The U-boats claimed sinking sixteen ships for 113,963 tons, a combined total of thirty-six ships for 245,000 tons. In reality, fourteen of the thirty-eight merchant and rescue ships that confronted the German air and U-boat attacks survived to reach Soviet ports and none of the warships was lost. In part the huge overclaims resulted from aircraft and submarines “sinking” the same ships. The results, as calculated by Jürgen Rohwer and other students of the battle:

Ships sunk by aircraft alone:

8 for 40,425 tons

Ships sunk by U-boats alone:

7 for 41,041 tons

Ships sunk by aircraft and U-boats:

9 for 61,255 tons

Totals:

24 for 142,721 tons§

Until the battle of PQ 17 there was a possibility that Dönitz might persuade Berlin to release some or all of the twenty-three Type VII boats in Norway and the Arctic for duty in the Atlantic. In view of the inflated—and credited—U-boat sinking claims and the convoy detection and shadow service U-boats provided for the Luftwaffe, any prospect of transfers evaporated.

The destruction of PQ 17 led the British to suspend the Murmansk run until the Arctic days had some hours of darkness and steps could be taken to greatly improve the defense of the merchant ships. These steps included the establishment of RAF Hampden and Catalina squadrons on airfields near Murmansk and an Allied refueling facility for escorts and warships on the island of Spitzbergen, the adaptation of the Royal Navy’s American-built “jeep” carrier Avenger for temporary Arctic service,* the fitting of merchant ships with more flak guns and tethered blimps, and the return of numerous Home Fleet warships temporarily assigned to the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Notwithstanding the intense political pressures from Washington and Moscow, London held firm and no PQ or QP convoys set sail in July or August.

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