Military history



At the beginning of the third year of war, on September 3, 1941, the British Admiralty was overburdened by urgent operational tasks. Among the most important:

• The management and defense of military and merchant-ship convoys in the North and South Atlantic.

• The inauguration and defense of a new convoy system from Iceland to northern Russia (“Murmansk Convoys”).

• Maintenance of an adequate force in the Home Fleet to cope with raids by big German surface ships and merchant-ship raiders.

• The continuing naval struggle for mastery of the Mediterranean Sea.

• The deployment of an Eastern Fleet to help deter Japanese aggression in the Indian Ocean and the Far East.

The most demanding and difficult of these tasks was the protection of Atlantic convoys, Britain’s lifeline. Amid great secrecy in September 1941, important modifications in that mission took place.

The most significant was the assumption by the Americans of responsibility for escort of convoys on the Canada-Iceland leg of the North Atlantic run. The entry of the “neutral” Americans into this “undeclared war” also greatly affected the deployment and operations of Canadian naval forces.

When Atlantic Fleet commander Ernest King took on responsibility for this escort service in early September, he committed most of his Atlantic Fleet to the job: all six battleships, five heavy cruisers, fifty destroyers (twenty-seven new; twenty-three old), and forty-eight Catalina and Mariner patrol planes. Two of the three newer battleships and two heavy cruisers were to maintain the Denmark Strait Patrol from Hvalfjord; two of the three older battleships and two heavy cruisers, basing at Argentia, were to provide backup. In addition, two of the three aircraft carrier task forces in the Atlantic were to be kept on standby in Bermuda or Argentia.

By terms of the Anglo-American agreement, ABC-1, King’s resources included the entire Atlantic-based Canadian Navy. The Canadians warmly welcomed the entry of the Americans into the war, but, as related, resented the fact that a nonbelligerent or neutral nation now commanded their Atlantic naval forces. Moreover, being offensive-minded, they were not overjoyed with the strictly defensive tasks King assigned to all Canadian warships.

At this time, moreover, the Canadian Navy was all but invalided with severe growing pains. It was swamped with commissioned warships to man: three 6,000-ton Prince-class ocean liners that had been converted to armed merchant cruisers, thirteen destroyers from various sources,* about fifty Canadian-built corvettes, and numerous other smaller Canadian-built vessels, such as minelayers and minesweepers. Excepting a handful of career sailors, almost all of its 19,000 men and women were just off the streets of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, or the farms in the “prairie provinces.” There had been no time to properly train these volunteers; many men reported for duty still wet behind the ears. Moreover, even before new ships completed workups, Ottawa siphoned away up to a third of their personnel to man other new ships, such as the corvettes, which Canada was turning out at the rate of about five to six a month.

In September 1941, the 10-knot Halifax convoys and the 7½-knot Sydney (or Slow) convoys departed Canada every six days. The fastest ships and those with the most valuable cargoes, such as oil or petroleum products, sailed in Halifax convoys. The slower, smaller ships were in Sydney (or Slow) convoys. Logically the Americans with their fifty fast destroyers took over escort of Halifax convoys and delegated escort of Slow convoys to the Canadian Navy.

Initially, the Canadians were able to provide only twenty thinly trained warships to ocean-convoy escort: five destroyers and fifteen corvettes. The British contributed five ex-American four-stack destroyers and some corvettes to the Canadian contingent, but this was not sufficient naval force for proper escort of the Slow convoys. The Canadians asked the Americans for additional help, but Admiral King said no. He did not have enough destroyers to carry out his own high-priority tasks. These included escort for the Halifax convoys, escort for the Denmark Strait Patrol and its big-ship back up in Argentia, escort of the three carrier task forces, in the Atlantic fleet, plus numerous special missions, such as a force of fifteen destroyers to escort Task Force 15 (taking U.S. Army troops to Iceland) and a force of eight destroyers to escort a special British troopship convoy to Cape Town, South Africa, and beyond.

Furthermore, King and other Americans did not believe in and refused to countenance “mixed” naval forces: ships of different nationalities operating in a single unit, such as an escort group. Although outwardly similar in many respects, American and British-Canadian warships operated by different tactical and communications doctrines and had different sonar, radar, weapons, and machinery, such as boilers. As a result, the “mixed” naval forces suggested a high probability of collisions and other disasters in the brutal North Atlantic, and a low probability of efficient combat operations against the enemy. They required a cumbersome double pipeline for spare parts, ammunition, and other items of supply, as well as double administrative staffs to oversee housekeeping matters, such as pay, leave, medical care, disciplinary measures, etc.

The Canadian warships were not on a par with the British and American warships in detection equipment. The British had let the Canadians in on the secrets of shipboard 1.5-meter-wavelength search radar (Type 286) and the Canadian electronic firms were turning out sets slowly. However, even by the end of 1941, only fifteen of the seventy Canadian corvettes had Type 286 radar. Canadian development of the more sophisticated centimetric-wavelength radar (Type 271) lagged badly. Canadian vessels were fitted with a prewar British sonar that had none of the advanced capabilities and refinements of the latest British wartime models.

Admiral King, in consultation with the Admiralty, made substantial changes in convoy procedures in the western North Atlantic. Chief among these was to move the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point (MOMP) eastward to an area between 26 degrees and 22 degrees west, and about 300 miles south of Iceland. This enabled the Allies to eliminate the cumbersome “middle leg” escort by the three Iceland-based British escort groups (3d, 7th, 12th), which, in any case, could not base in Iceland in winter months owing to the lack of supporting facilities and to the ghastly weather. This change eliminated one North Atlantic mid-ocean convoy-escort rendezvous, difficult in fair weather, almost impossible in foul winter weather, and it enabled the Admiralty to strengthen escort forces in the South Atlantic.

After these changes, the Atlantic convoy-escort system worked as follows:

• Sailing from Argentia, the American escort groups, composed of five destroyers, accompanied the fast (10-knot) Halifax convoys from Canadian waters to the MOMP at 26-22 degrees west. After handing over to a British escort group, the Americans put into Iceland, escorting ships bound only to Iceland (if any) and ships which were to join convoys sailing to northern Russia. Following brief voyage repairs, the American group sailed back to the MOMP at 26-22 degrees west to take over escort of even-numbered (fast) Outbound North convoys to Canadian waters. Upon dispersal of the convoy at about 55 degrees west, the Americans put into Boston or Portland for repairs and R&R. Thereafter the Americans sailed back to Canadian waters to repeat the cycle. American Catalinas and Mariners based at Argentia and Iceland provided air escort.

Three American destroyer tenders supported the American groups. These were the magnificent Prairie at Argentia, also serving as headquarters ship for Admiral Bristol’s Support Force, and two smaller tenders, the Melville at Argentia and the Vulcan at Iceland. The latter vessels also accommodated destroyer squadron headquarters.

• Sailing from St. John’s, the Canadian escort groups, composed of British and Canadian destroyers and corvettes, accompanied the 7½-knot Slow convoys from Canadian waters to the same MOMP at 26-22 degrees west. After handing over to a British escort group, the Canadians, like the Americans, put into Iceland for brief voyage repairs. Thereafter they returned to the MOMP to take over escort of slow (odd-numbered) Outbound North convoys and accompanied them to a dispersal point at about 55 degrees west. Then the Canadian and British escorts put into St. John’s, Newfoundland, for voyage repairs and R&R, after which they sailed to repeat the cycle. American and Canadian aircraft in Newfoundland and American and British aircraft in Iceland provided air escort.

• Sailing from the British Isles, the British escort groups accompanied the fast and slow Outbound North convoys westward to the MOMP at 26-22 degrees west. Without stopping in Iceland, after handing over to the appropriate American or Canadian escort groups, the British groups accompanied the eastbound fast Halifax and Slow convoys onward to the British Isles. Coastal Command aircraft (Catalinas, Sunderlands, Hudsons, Northrops, Whitleys, etc.) based in Iceland, North Ireland, and Scotland provided air support.

The British were equipping air and surface escorts with improved radar as fast as possible. By September 1941, about thirty escort ships of the Royal Navy had been fitted with Type 271M (fixed antenna) and/or Type 271P (rotating antenna) centimetric-wavelength sets. These vessels included twenty-four corvettes, two four-stack destroyers, and a sloop. If scheduling permitted, Western Approaches included at least one warship fitted with centimetric-wavelength radar with each convoy.

These new radar sets did not immediately provide the British with a war-decisive weapon as some writers have suggested. All radar of that era was notoriously temperamental and prone to breakdown. Most shipboard sets were out of commission half the time. In order to keep the sets running as much as possible and in proper calibration, the Admiralty had to provide the surface ships with trained radar technicians, and these were scarce. The Admiralty also had to train a corps of specialized sailors to operate radar at maximum efficiency.

On paper the new escort procedure in the North Atlantic appeared to be the most efficient use of the few available air and surface craft. In practice, it was a nightmare, especially for the Canadian escort groups. The new route required that all the convoys on the Canada-Iceland leg travel for about eleven days through notoriously frigid and dangerous winter seas, where gales and hurricanes endlessly spawned, ships iced up, and huge waves slammed them hither and yon in a reckless dance, smashing bridge windows and lifeboats, snapping off masts and other top-hamper. No man or ship could withstand this incessant pounding for long, especially the sailors manning the ex-American four-stacks and the little corvettes in British and Canadian service.

After only a few weeks of these operations, it became clear to Admiral Bristol in Argentia and to Admiral Noble in Liverpool that the surface escort forces for convoys in the North Atlantic were woefully inadequate. Bristol notified King that the American Support Force had unavoidably shrunk from fifty to forty-four de- stroyers and that to escort the fast convoys properly on the Canada-Iceland leg he needed at least fifty-six destroyers (for seven escort groups of six ships each, plus reserves) or, preferably, seventy-two (for nine escort groups plus reserves). Furthermore, for proper escort of the Slow convoys, the Canadians needed a minimum of sixty-three ships (for nine escort groups).

Another formidable problem lay just ahead. The forty-eight American Catalinas and Mariners at Argentia and Iceland, and the nine British Catalinas at Iceland, were nonwheeled flying boats. When the waters from which these planes operated iced up, they could no longer take off and land and had to be withdrawn to more hospitable climes. One possible solution was to replace these aircraft with an amphibious Catalina (PBY-5A), which had retractable wheels built in the hull, but there was an acute shortage of these planes.

It was important to keep aircraft patrols in Iceland. Apart from the useful escort services these aircraft provided the convoys, they served another role: “cover” for the priceless British break in naval Enigma. To preserve knowledge of that break from the Germans, the British had decreed that any “operational use” of Enigma information (Ultra), such as evasion of or an attack on a U-boat pack, had to be ostensibly the result of “discovery” of the pack by a routine air patrol.

The second most urgent and difficult responsibility of the Admiralty in the fall of 1941 was the inauguration and defense of convoys between Iceland and northern Russia.

By September 1, 1941, it appeared to Roosevelt and Churchill that the Germans were winning in the Soviet Union; indeed, that the Red Army was on the verge of collapse. Almost daily, Stalin demanded that the British open a “second front” in Occupied France to relieve German pressure on the Soviet forces. Fully committed in North Africa, the British were in no way able to open a “second front.” However, in keeping with his belief that the British must do everything they could to assist the Soviets, physically and spiritually, Churchill initiated what were to become famous as the “Murmansk Convoys.”

The first such convoy—a hastily assembled formation—sailed from Reykjavik on August 21. It consisted of six merchant ships and the old aircraft carrier, now an aircraft ferry, Argus, escorted by the fully operational fleet carrier Victorious, the heavy cruisers Devonshire and Norfolk, and six destroyers. The most notable military cargo was a batch of thirty-nine Hurricane fighters: twenty-four fully assembled on Argus and fifteen in crates on a merchant ship. Iceland-based Hudsons and Northrops, of Coastal Command Squadrons 269 and 330 provided additional air cover out to 150 miles.

The destination of this naval formation was the seaport Archangel, on the White Sea in north Russia, about 600 miles due north of Moscow. The ships went northward through the Denmark Strait, hugging the edge of the late summer ice boundary in the Greenland Sea, passing near Jan Mayen Island. From there they sailed northeastward past Bear Island (south of Spitzbergen Island; north of North Cape, Norway) into the Barents Sea, thence south into the White Sea via the Gourlo, a sort of natural channel connecting these two bodies of water. Argus flew off her fighters to Murmansk; the rest of the ships put into Archangel, where the crated fighters were quickly assembled and flown to Murmansk.

This first trickle of military supplies to the Soviets was largely a propaganda play to bolster the spirits of the Russians and their will to resist the Germans. It also provided Churchill a response, of sorts, to Stalin’s demands for a “second front.” To further these psychological and political aims, the British unstintingly publicized the “Murmansk convoys” in articles, books and films, stressing the ever-present danger of enemy aircraft and U-boat attack, the hideous weather and icebergs, the horrible consequences in store for those shipwrecked in these frigid waters. As a result, the Murmansk convoys were to become the most famous of the war, even more so than the much more important and no less perilous North Atlantic convoys.

Churchill directed that Murmansk convoys were to sail from Iceland at ten-day intervals. For Home Fleet commander John Tovey, this new task created a demand for escorts he was not able to fill. He decreed that as a bare minimum, each convoy bound for northern Russia was to be escorted by one heavy cruiser, two destroyers, a minesweeper, and two ASW trawlers, the empty return convoy by the same heavy cruiser, a destroyer, and two minesweepers. In addition to aircraft from Iceland, a second heavy cruiser, based near Bear Island, was to provide backup during the polar transit.

The Russia-bound convoys were designated PQ, the return convoys QP. It proved to be impossible to sail these convoys on a ten-day cycle; the British had to settle on a fortnightly cycle. PQ 1 (ten merchant ships, heavy cruiser Suffolk, and two destroyers, etc.) sailed from Iceland to Archangel on September 28 and arrived October 11. At the same time, QP 1 (those first ships which went over in late August) sailed homeward. Neither convoy incurred losses. PQ 2 sailed October 18, PQ 3 November 9, and so on. The sailings of return QP convoys 2, 3, etc., overlapped with the sailings of the PQs.

To the end of 1941, the British escorted fifty-three loaded ships in seven PQ convoys to northern Russia and thirty-four ships in returning QP convoys. These ships delivered 800 fighter aircraft, 750 tanks, 1,400 trucks and other military vehicles, and about 100,000 tons of ammunition and other supplies. Although many were damaged by weather, no ships were lost to German forces.

The Russians had promised to keep Archangel open year-round with icebreakers. However, they failed to keep this promise after December 12, so for the rest of the winter the convoys put into Murmansk (hence “Murmansk convoys”), an ice-free port at the head of the Kola Inlet on the Barents Sea. Less developed than Archangel, Murmansk proved to be an inhospitable place for the Allied sailors to lay over; nor did the Russians go out of their way to show their appreciation. As a consequence, in spite of the extra hazardous-duty pay, Allied merchant sailors came to detest as well as fear the Murmansk convoys, even though, in reality, ship losses were not great by comparison with other convoy routes.

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