This was a British naval operation by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s Home Fleet to secure the safe passage of the JW.56A and JW.56B convoys to ports in the northern USSR, and the RA.56 convoy to the UK (12 January/11 February 1944).
The delays occasioned by adverse weather and determined U-boat attacks, which fully occupied all escort vessels in northern Russian waters during the passage of the JW.56B convoy, made it impossible to run either of the homebound convoys from northern Russia before the end of the month.
On 12 January the JW.56A convoy departed Loch Ewe in western Scotland with 20 laden ships and a local escort comprising the destroyer Inconstant, sloop Cygnet, corvettes Borage, Dianella and Poppy, and minesweepers Orestes and Ready, and four days later encountered a severe storm that forced the convoy to take shelter at Akureyri in Iceland. Five ships had to remain here with storm damage when the rest of the convoy sailed on 21 January with 15 merchant vessels and Captain W. G. A. Robson’s close escort force, which comprised the destroyers Hardy, Inconstant, Obdurate, Offa, Savage, Venus, Vigilant, Virago and Free Norwegian Stord, corvettes Dianella and Poppy, and minesweepers Orestes and Ready.
Vice Admiral A. F. E. Palliser’s covering force comprised the heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk and the light cruiser Belfast.
On 22 January the JW.56B convoy of 17 laden ships, of which one turned back, also departed Loch Ewe with Captain I. M. R. Campbell’s escort force comprising the destroyers Milne, Mahratta, Musketeer, Opportune, Scourge and Canadian Huron, later supplemented by Meteor. The convoy’s close escort, under Lieutenant Commander H. Lambton, comprised the destroyers Westcott, Whitehall and Wrestler, sloop Cygnet, corvettes Honeysuckle, Oxlip and Rhododendron, and minesweepers Hydra, Onyx and Seagull.
Cruiser cover was provided by the heavy cruisers Berwick and Kent and the light cruiser Jamaica.
Learning of the convoys from agents in Iceland, Kapitän Hans Rudolf Peters, the Führer der Unterseeboote ‘Norwegen’, ordered the concentration of the ‘Isegrim’ wolfpack of 10 boats in the Bjørnøya Passage. Although aerial reconnaissance had not provided information about the JW.56A convoy’s location, the wolfpack (with the exception of U-739 at the northern end of the patrol line) came up from 12.00 on 25 January and attacked in the dark of the afternoon and night of 25/26 January. U-278, U-314, U-360 (four times), U-425 (two times), U-601, U-737 and U-965 all launched torpedoes against the escort vessels, but only Obdurate suffered damage, and then of a relatively minor nature, in an attack by Kapitänleutnant Klaus-Helmuth Becker’s U-360. U-278, U-360 and U-716 launched torpedo salvoes at the convoy. Kapitänleutnant Joachim Franze’s U-278 hit and sank the 7,177-ton US Penelope Barker, Becker’s U-360 hit and damaged the 7,153-ton British Fort Bellingham, and Oberleutnant Hans Dunkelberg’s U-716 hit and sank the 7,200-ton US Andrew G. Curtin; Fort Bellingham was later sunk by Oberleutnant Gerd Schaar’s U-957, which rescued survivors.
On 26 January the Soviet destroyers Gremyashchiy, Gromky and Razyaryonnyi, British minesweepers Gleaner and Speedwell, and Soviet minesweepers T-111, T-114 and T-117 met the convoy, which entered the Kola Inlet on 28 January. Seven transports and two tankers then proceeded with a Soviet escort to the White Sea and Arkhangyel’sk.
Robson then met the JW.56B convoy with six destroyers to strengthen its capability to fight the U-boats. After breaking off the ‘Isegrim’ wolfpack’s attacks on the JW.56A convoy, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, commander-in-chief of the German navy but still in day-to-day command of the U-boat arm via Konteradmiral Eberhard Godt, the U-boat arm’s chief of operations, ordered the creation of the ‘Werwolf’ (i) wolfpack, now reinforced by U-313, U-472, U-956, U-973 and U-990, in the Bjørnøya Passage to operate against the JW.56B convoy, which was spotted and reported at about 12.00 on 29 January by U-956 that, to 24.00, had launched torpedoes on three occasions to defend itself against destroyers, although without securing any hits.
By the morning of 30 January U-278, U-313, U-425 (two times), U-472, U-601 (two times), U-737 and U-957 had all launched torpedoes against the escort vessels, but only Oberleutnant Joachim Franze’s U-278 had achieved a hit, in this instance on Hardy, which was so severely damaged that she had to be sunk by Venus. U-737 and U-957 only narrowly missed Milne and Stord. Kapitänleutnant Georg-Wilhelm Basse’s U-314 was sunk by Whitehall and Meteor, and none of the U-boats was able to attain a firing position on the merchant vessels.
Up to a time early on 31 January, U-425 (two times), U-737, U-965, U-956 and U-990 launched torpedoes without success against the escort vessels. On 1 February a Soviet escort group (destroyers Gremyashchiy, Groznyi and Razyaryonnyi, British minesweeper Gleaner, two minesweepers and two submarine chasers) met the convoy and escort seven of their number to the White Sea. U-956 also launched torpedoes during the return passage on 1 February, the day on which 16 merchant ships reached the Kola inlet.
The RA.56 convoy, comprising 39 unladen ships that should have sailed in two homeward convoys during January, departed Murmansk on 3 February, and two were soon forced to turn back with problems. The convoy’s Soviet local escort comprised the destroyers Gremyashchiy, Gromkiy, Groznyi and Razyaryonnyi, minesweeper T-114 and four submarine chasers.
The combined escorts of the JW.56A and JW.56B convoys, totalling 23 destroyers and corvettes (all but Hardy, Obdurate and Virago) reinforced by three destroyers (Obedient, Swift and Verulam) from Scapa Flow, avoided the remaining boats of the ‘Werwolf’ (i) wolfpack (U-278, U-312, U-313, U-425, U-713, U-957, U-973 and U-990).
The convoy was located by German air reconnaissance on 6 February, however, but its course was reported incorrectly, with the result that the U-boats searched in the opposite direction. Once again, the cruiser cover was Berwick,Kent and Bermuda, while the escort off the coast of Scotland was provided by the destroyer Wrestler, corvettes Borage, Honeysuckle and Wallflower, and minesweepers Cockatrice, Loyalty, Rattlesnake and Ready.
The convoy reached Loch Ewe on 11 February without incurring any loss.