Operation Eispalast

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'Eispalast' was a German U-boat and air operation against the PQ.18 convoy through the Arctic to ports in the northern USSR (8/19 September 1942).

PQ.18 was the last of the initial PQ series of outbound convoys, before the introduction of the 'JW' series, making the passage of the Arctic route from the UK to aid the USSR in the war against Germany. The convoy departed Loch Ewe in Scotland and Reykjavik in Iceland on 2 September 1942 and its survivors reached Arkhangyel’sk on 21 September.

The convoy’s main body, making the passage from Loch Ewe to Arkhangyel’sk, comprised the 5,441-ton Panamanian Africander, 8,992-ton British Atheltemplar, 5,976-ton US Beauregard, the 3,417-ton British fleet oiler Black Ranger, 5,671-ton US Campfire, 6,027-ton US Charles R. McCormick, 1,526-ton British rescue ship Copeland, 5,117-ton British Dan-y-Bryn, 6,978-ton British Empire Baffin, 7,044-ton British Empire Beaumont, 7,092-ton British catapult-armed merchantman Empire Morn, 6,327-ton British Empire Snow, 6,209-ton British Empire Stevenson, 7,167-ton British Empire Tristram, 7,191-ton US Esek Hopkins, 5,851-ton British Goolistan, 3,313-ton British replenishment oiler Grey Ranger, 5,498-ton US Hollywood, 7,177-ton US John Penn, 5,446-ton US Kentucky, 5,887-ton US Lafayette, 4,941-ton Panamanian Macbeth, 5,049-ton US Mary Luckenbach, 6,061-ton US Meanticut, 7,177-ton US Nathanael Greene, 7,174-ton British Ocean Faith, 6,894-ton replenishment oiler Oligarch which joined from the Spitsbergen islands group, 7,191-ton US Oliver Ellsworth, 4,862-ton US Oregonian, 7,191-ton US Patrick Henry, 5,028-ton US Sahale, 4,971-ton US Schoharie, 7,191-ton US St Olaf, 5,138-ton British Temple Arch, 7,177-ton US Virginia Dare, 5,432-ton US Wacosta, 5,462-ton Panamanian White Clover and 7,177-ton US William Moultrie.

Ships which sailed with the Loch Ewe group for Reykjavik were the 5,432-ton US Gateway City, 6,854-ton US Oremar and 5,582-ton British San Zotico, and ships which joined PQ.18 at Reykjavik were the 2,352-ton Soviet Andrei Marti, 4,969-ton US Exford, 3,966-ton Soviet Komiles, 3,771-ton Soviet Petrovsky, 7,191-ton US Richard Bassett which later returned to Reykjavik with engine trouble, 3,559-ton Soviet Stalingrad, 3,124-ton Soviet Sukhona and 7,169-ton Soviet Tbilisi.

To cover these ships against all manner of German threats, a major escort, cover and support operation was created. The first-stage local escort group from 2 to 8 September comprised 12 British warships in the form of the destroyers Campbell, Echo, Eskdale, Farndale, Mackay, Montrose and Walpole, and the armed trawlers Arab, Duncton, Hugh Walpole, King Sol and Paynter. Of these, Campbell, Mackay and Montrose joined the heavy cover force.

The second-stage close escort group from 7 to 21 September comprised 16 British ships in the form of the destroyers Achates, Amazon and Malcolm, the auxiliary anti-aircraft ships Alynbank and Ulster Queen, the corvettes Bergamot, Bryony, Bluebell and Camellia, the anti-submarine trawlers Cape Argona, Cape Mariato, Daneman and St Kenan, and the minesweepers Gleaner, Harrier and Sharpshooter.

Air cover for the second stage was provided between 9 and 17 September by aircraft of the British escort carrier Avenger, which was covered by the escort destroyers Wheatland and Wilton.

Between 9 and 17 September, the second-stage fighting destroyer escort group, under the command of Rear Admiral R. L. Burnett, comprised 17 British warships in the form of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Scylla and the destroyers Ashanti, Eskimo, Faulknor, Fury, Impulsive, Intrepid, Marne, Martin, Meteor, Milne, Offa, Onslaught, Onslow, Opportune, Somali and Tartar.

The second-stage eastern local escort group between 17 and 22 September took the form of the Soviet destroyers Gremyashchy, Kuybyshev, Sokrushitelny and Uritsky, and the British minesweepers Britomart, Halcyon, Hazard and Salamander.

The second-stage cruiser cover force of five British warships between 14 and 22 September, under the command of Vice Admiral S. S. Bonham-Carter, comprised the heavy cruisers London, Norfolk and Suffolk, and the destroyers Bulldog and Venomous.

The second-stage heavy cover force between 11 and 14 September was another nine British warships, under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, and comprising the battleships Anson and Duke of York, the light cruiser Jamaica, and the destroyers Bramham, Broke, Campbell, Keppel, Mackay and Montrose, of which the last three had joined from the local escort group.

Also in the general area and available as support forces were a pair of British warship groupings whose primary task was the reinforcement and refuelling of the British forces on Spitsbergen island. The second-stage refuelling group, available on 10 September, was the oilers Blue Ranger and Oligarch escorted by the destroyers Windsor and Worcester and the escort destroyers Cowdray and Oakley; and the second-stage reinforcement group, available on 14 September, was the heavy cruiser Cumberland, light cruiser Sheffield and destroyer Eclipse.

Finally there was a submarine patrol group comprising, from 2 September, the British Sturgeon, Tigris, Tribune and Unshaken, Free French Rubis and Free Norwegian Uredd, and from 7 September the British Shakespeare, Unique and Unrivalled.

Ranged against these Allied merchant vessels and warships was a smaller array of German naval vessels. Its submarine component took the form of a wolfpack comprising U-88, U-255, U-377, U-378, U-403, U-405, U-408, U-435, U-457, U-589, U-592 and U-703. Under the command of Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz, the surface warship element from 9 September comprised the heavy cruiser (ex-'pocket battleship') Admiral Scheer, heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, light cruiser Köln and destroyers Z-4 (Richard Beitzen), Z-23, Z-27, Z-29 and Z-30.

As a result of the catastrophic losses suffered by the preceding PQ.17 convoy, the British were determined to provide the convoy with air cover. The new escort carrier Avenger had arrived after being completed in the USA and formed the core of the escorting force. The convoy was postponed from its original start date as a major part of the British naval strength was engaged in 'Pedestal', protecting a vital convoy to Malta during August.

In overall terms, therefore, the PQ.18 convoy comprised 40 merchant ships (11 British, 20 US, six Soviet and three Panamanian) and four Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, two oilers, one rescue ship and one CAM ship.

Close escort was provided by a force led by Commander A. B. Russell in the destroyer Malcolm with two other destroyers, two auxiliary anti-aircraft ships, four corvettes, four anti-submarine trawlers and three minesweepers. The escort was supported by the carrier group (Avenger and her two escort destroyers), and a 'fighting destroyer escort' of 16 fleet destroyers commanded by Burnett in the light anti-aircraft cruiser Scylla. The escort was augmented by local escort forces from the UK to Iceland (seven destroyers and five trawlers) and from Murmansk (four Soviet destroyers and three British minesweepers).

Distant cover was provided by Fraser’s 'heavy cover force' (two battleships, one light cruiser and six destroyers, and Bonham-Carter’s 'cruiser cover force' of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers.

The British also used the opportunity to despatch two forces to Spitsbergen, in the form of a cruiser force with reinforcements for the garrison and a replenishment group to support the convoy: both of these would also be available to support PQ.18. Moreover, to guard against a sortie by German surface forces from occupied Norway, a submarine patrol grouping of nine boats was sent to keep watch on the main Norwegian ports.

In opposition, the Germans had established a patrol group of 12 U-boats in the Norwegian Sea and a surface force comprising the cruisers Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper and Köln and four destroyers. Other surface elements were not available as, since 'Rosselsprung' in the summer of 1942, the battleship Tirpitz and heavy cruiser (ex-pocket battleship) Lützow had been docked for repairs, as too were three destroyers, leaving the surface force significantly depleted in strength.

The PQ.18 convoy was notable for being the first of the Allied Arctic convoys to incorporate an escort carrier: Avenger carried 10 Hawker Sea Hurricane single-engined fighters (although only of the older Mk I type with machine gun rather than cannon armament) and three Fairey Swordfish single-engined torpedo bombers.

A combined Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force detachment, made up of 32 Handley Page Hampden twin-engined torpedo bombers of Nos 144 and 455 Squadrons, nine Consolidated Catalina twin-engined maritime patrol flying boats of No. 210 Squadron and three Supermarine Spitfire single-engined photo-reconnaissance aircraft had been deployed to the USSR to fend an attack by the battleship Tirpitz should any such sortie eventuate. Nine of the Hampden torpedo bombers were lost en route, including one which crash-landed in German-occupied Norway and resulted in the Germans gaining the plans for the operation. The British and Australian group was established at Vaenga air base, some 25 miles (40 km) to the north of Murmansk.

In addition to reconnaissance aircraft of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V, the German air force could field an attack force of 35 Junkers Ju 88A-4 twin-engined dive-bombers of Oberstleutnant Erich Bloedorn’s Kampfgeschwader 30 and 42 torpedo bombers of Oberst Martin Harlinghausen’s KG 26 (the I/KG 26 with 28 Heinkel He 111H-6 twin-engined aircraft and the III/KG 26 with 14 Ju 88A-4 aircraft.)

The Germans tactics were base on the concept of simultaneous attacks by torpedo bombers and dive-bombers to swamp the defence, while the III/KG 26 had been trained in an anti-convoy measure involving a massed torpedo attack known as the goldenen Kamm (golden comb).

The PQ.18 convoy departed Loch Ewe on 2 September in the hands of the local escort force, and five days later was joined by the close escort, together with eight merchant vessels from Reykjavik, while the local escort, with three merchant ships and the local escort force to that Icelandic destination. On 9 September the convoy was joined by Burnett in Scylla with the fighting destroyer escort force, accompanied by the carrier Avenger and her escort destroyers. This was the armada group which was to pass through to Arkhangyel’sk at the mouth of the Dvina river in the White Sea. The distant cover force and cruiser cover force had departed independently, as had the two groups bound for Spitsbergen.

On 8 September the convoy was sighted and reported by a Blohm & Voss Bv 138 three-engined flying boat, but Avenger's fighters then kept German reconnaissance aircraft out of visual range of the convoy. Contact was also made by U-boats of the 'Eispalast' wolfpack, which then started to shadow the convoy and transmit a stream of sighting reports. These boats were chased by the destroyers, in order to shake off pursuit, and on 12 September Kapitänleutnant Heino Bohmann’s U-88 was detected, attacked and destroyed by the destroyer Faulknor. By 13 September there were eight U-boats in contact, and that morning Stalingrad and Oliver Ellsworth were torpedoed and sunk. PQ.18 was currently some 150 miles (240 km) to the north-west of Bjørnøya, and about to turn into the Barents Sea. On this day the escort force was rejoined by Scylla and a number of destroyers, which had detached to refuel at Lowe Sound in Spitsbergen. This brought the escort up to full strength for the next leg of the convoy’s passage.

On 13 September the convoy was again sighted by a Bv 138 operating from Banak, and air attack from this base began with unsuccessful dive-bombing by Ju 88 warplanes of the KG 30. While the fighters from Avenger were chasing off the Ju 88 aircraft, 24 He 111 warplanes of the I/KG 26 and about 14 Ju 88 warplanes of the III/KG 26 delivered a massed torpedo attack on the starboard side of the convoy using the new 'golden comb' anti-convoy tactic. The torpedo bombers sank eight ships, essentially destroying the convoy’s two starboard columns. Every bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire: four of the I/KG 26's aircraft made emergency water landings while returning to base, only one of the crews being rescued, and two of the aircraft which did regain their base were found to be too severely damaged for further operations. The III/KG 26's bombers forming the second wave now encountered fully prepared gunners and lost several aircraft. The Royal Navy claimed to have shot down five torpedo bombers, of which four have been confirmed via incomplete Luftwaffe loss records. Late in the evening, Heinkel He 115 twin-engined torpedo bomber floatplanes attacked, and lost several of their number to ships' anti-aircraft fire.

Just after 12.00 on 14 September, the I/KG 26 delivered an attack on Avenger using 22 He 111 warplanes. The escort carrier launched some 10 Sea Hurricane fighters as the aircraft of the I/KG 26 divided to attack their target from opposite directions in two groups of 11 aircraft each. The He 111 warplanes attempted to regain their defensive formation before the fighters could reach them, and then discovered the ship they had initially targeted was not Avenger. The compact He 111 formation striving to reach Avenger then overflew the convoy at torpedo-release altitude under simultaneous attack by three fighters and the massed anti-aircraft fire from every ship in the convoy. Only two of the He 111 warplanes dropped torpedoes, and these both missed Avenger. Five He 111 warplanes fell near the convoy, four more fell before reaching land, and only eight of the 13 which made it back to base could be repaired for further operations. The Royal Navy claimed to have shot down 13 torpedo bombers, but three Sea Hurricane fighters were also shot down in error by the gunners of the warships and merchant vessels.

Ju 88 torpedo bombers of the III/KG 26 and Ju 88 dive-bombers of the III/KG 30 renewed the air assault during the later part of the afternoon, but their attack was poorly co-ordinated and sank only Mary Luckenbach, which was carrying ammunition. The Royal Navy claimed another nine aircraft destroyed. The Luftwaffe recorded the loss of 23 aircraft or more by the I/KG 26, III/KG 26, III/KG 30, 1/Küstenfliegergruppe 406 and 1/Küstenfliegergruppe 906 in the course of the day’s attacks. By the end of 14 September, the I/KG 26 had only eight aircraft in serviceable condition.

On 14 September there were also renewed U-boat attacks. The tanker Atheltemplar was torpedoed by Korvettenkapitän Karl Brandenburg’s U-457, and was then abandoned and sank later. In counterattacks Korvettenkapitän Hans-Joachim Horrer’s U-589 was destroyed by Onslow.

On 15 September there were further air attacks but these were again beaten off, without loss. After this there was a pause in the air offensive.

However, three U-boats were still still in contact on 15 September, and another 12 U-boats were in the area. These made several attempts to attack but had no success.

On 16 September Brandenburg’s U-457 was destroyed by Impulsive, and during the afternoon of that day all further U-boat attacks were called off. Later in the same day Burnett with Scylla and the destroyer escort, together with Avenger's group, detached to meet and escort the QP.14 homebound convoy, leaving PQ.18 to continue to the east with its close escort. On the next day the convoy met the western local escort, a group of Soviet destroyers from Murmansk.

During this period the German surface forces had made no impact on the convoy operation. The surface force had been alerted when the convoy was first sighted, and on 10 September had deployed farther to the north, to the Altafjord, in preparation for a sortie. This move had been sighted by the British submarine patrol, and the submarine Tigris made a torpedo attack on Admiral Scheer, though without success. The force concentrated at Altafjord, but Adolf Hitler, as ever reluctant to risk the loss of any of his major warships, refused to authorise the sortie, which was cancelled on 13 September.

PQ.18 was not yet clear of danger, however, and on 18 September once more came under air attack: one ship, the US merchant freighter Kentucky was sunk, and three aircraft were shot down. Another air attack on the next day achieved no success, and later on 19 September the PQ.18 convoy entered the White Sea after losing 13 of its merchant vessels.

Tirpitz did not attack the convoy, and the combined British and Australian Hampden force undertook only one patrol, on 14 September, and was then brought back from the USSR, leaving its 23 aircraft for the Soviets.

The PQ.18 convoy operation was seen as a success by the Allies, for while 13 of its ships had been lost, 28 had arrived safely, and the Arctic convoy route, which had been suspended since the PQ.17 disaster, had been re-established. Furthermore, three U-boats had been destroyed, and 40 German aircraft had been shot down.

Whilst the Germans could be pleased with the losses inflicted, they had failed to stop the convoy reaching its destination, and their own losses, particularly in trained pilots, had been severe and this had a consequent effect in degrading the Luftwaffe’s ability to hinder future convoys. The German surface force had also been powerless to interfere, and its next venture, against the JW.51B convoy, would be disastrous.