Operation FE (ii)

This was a British naval undertaking to ensure the passage of the JW.53 convoy via the Arctic route to ports in the northern part of the USSR (15/27 February 1943).

Some 26 laden ships departed Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland on 15 February, later being joined by another three designed as JW.53B. The local escort comprised the minesweeper Hazard, corvettes Bryony and Dianella, and anti-submarine trawler Lord Middleton until 17 February, together with the escort destroyers Meynell, Middleton and Pytchley until 21 February and the minesweeper Halcyon until 22 February.

The ‘through escort group’ comprised the minesweeper Jason, corvettes Bergamot and Poppy, anti-submarine trawler Lord Austin and, from 20 to 27 February, additionally the corvettes Bluebell and Camellia.

Off the Seyđisfjörđur in eastern Iceland, on 19 February, the convoy was joined by its fighting escort group, comprising the light anti-aircraft cruiser Scylla, escort carrier Dasher, and destroyers Boadicea, Eclipse, Faulknor, Fury, Impulsive, Inglefield, Intrepid, Obdurate, Obedient, Opportune, Orwell and Free Polish Orkan as it had by now become necessary to protect the convoy on the enlarged summer scale as, in the Barents Sea, the hours of daylight were now increasing rapidly and therefore providing German aircraft and U-boats with greater attack opportunities.

Rear Admiral R. L. Burnett’s covering force comprised the heavy Cumberland and Norfolk and light cruiser Belfast, and the distant covering from 24 to 26 February comprised elements of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet in the form of the battleships King George V and Howe, heavy cruiser Berwick, and destroyers Icarus, Meteor, Musketeer, Offa, Onslaught and free Polish Piorun. Boats of the British 9th Submarine Flotilla (Sea Nymph, Sportsman, Simoom and Truculent) and the Soviet submarines K-21, Shch-422, M-119, M-122, M-171, M-172 and M-174 patrolled off the coast of German-occupied Norway.

K-21 laid a minefield near Arnřy on 18 February, disembarked agents and on 20 February fired six torpedoes into Bogen Bay. Shch-422, M-119, M-122, M-171 and M-172 launched attacks off the Varangerfjord, and on 19 and 20 February the Soviet naval air arm attacked the German airfields at Petsamo and Kirkenes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy storm, six merchant ships (6,978-ton British Empire Baffin, 6,235-ton British Explorer, 7,176-ton US James Bowie, 7,176-ton US John Laurance, 7,196-ton US Joseph E. Johnston and 3,962-ton Soviet Komiles) had been compelled to turn back to to Iceland, and the carrier Dasher of the escort and cruiser Sheffield of the covering force also turned back after suffering considerable damage.

The main convoy was badly scattered and delayed, but by 20 February some 22 of the ships had been gathered by the escorts. German aerial reconnaissance spotted and reported the JW.53 convoy on 23 February but, in bad weather and with the aid of the escorts’ HF/DF, the convoy avoided the U-boat concentrations on 24 February. U-622 missed two destroyers. On 25 February 10 Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Major Freiherr von Blomberg’s I/Kampfgeschwader 30 attacked and damaged the 7,058-ton British Empire Portia; an attack by a group of Ju 88 bombers and U-255 on 26 February met with no success, the U-boats’ efforts frequently being frustrated by the Allied destroyers’ effective use of HF/DF to pinpoint their locations.

The convoy was met by the Soviet destroyers Gromkiy, Kuybyshev and Uritskiy together with the patrol vessels Groza and Uragan, and arrived with 18 ships off the Kola inlet on 26 February. Six merchantmen continued with the destroyer Uritskiy and other warships into the White Sea. On 27 and 28 February Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers of Major Horst Kaubisch’s I/Stukageschwader 5 attacked the ships, now at Murmansk, and badly damaged three ships totalling 11,341 tons. In further attacks on 6 and 13 March, together with the participation of the Ju 88 bombers of the I/KG 30, the 7,173-ton Ocean Freedom was destroyed and the 6,744-ton Dover Hill damaged.