This was a British naval undertaking associated with the passage of the JW.61, JW.61A, JW.62 and RA.62 convoys to and from ports in the northern USSR (20 October/19 December 1944).
After 15 September 1944, when the ‘Paravane’ operation by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command had damaged but not sunk the German battleship Tirpitz, U-boats were the principal threat to the Allies’ Arctic endeavours, and for JW.61, the next eastbound convoy, very strong air and surface ship escorts were provided in the hope that the strength of the Allied offensive operations would sweep the German naval and air forces out of their preferred hunting grounds in the Bjørnøya Passage and the Barents Sea.
The JW.61 convoy, which departed Loch Ewe on 20 October with 30 laden ships (including one rescue ship and two escorts) and six submarine chasers being transferred to the Soviet navy, therefore had its normal escort supplemented by two support groups and a third escort carrier. Thus Vice Admiral F. H. G. Dalrymple-Hamilton’s escort forces comprised the escort carriers Nairana, Tracker and Vindex, light anti-aircraft cruiser Dido, destroyers Obedient, Offa, Onslow, Opportune, Oribi and Orwell (17th Destroyer Flotilla), frigates Byron, Conn, Deane, Fitzroy, Redmill and Rupert (21st Escort Group), and frigates Inglis, Lawson, Loring, Louis, Mounsey and Narborough (24th Escort Group).
Close escort was the task of the destroyer Walker, sloops Lapwing and Lark, and corvettes Camellia, Oxlip and Rhododendron of the 8th and 20th Escort Groups.
The escort groups and carrier aircraft successfully cleared the U-boats out of the path, and all ships reach the Kola inlet safely on 28 October.
Similar tactics were adopted when the two sections of the corresponding RA.61 homebound convoy of 33 unladen ships (including the same two escorts) sailed from the White Sea and Kola Inlet on 30 October and 2 November respectively. The support groups, which were the same ships which had brought in the JW.61 convoy, went to sea ahead of the convoy, and dispersed the 18 U-boats waiting in the approaches to Kola inlet. Not one of the merchant ships was lost during the journey, but the frigate Mounsey was torpedoed by Kapitänleutnant Günter Wiebold’s U-295 and had to return to the Kola inlet for repairs. The escort forces did not destroy any of the U-boats, but this was attributable to the very bas sonar conditions prevailing throughout the outbound and homebound parts of this double undertaking.
The next outbound convoy was JW.61A, consisted of only two large liners carrying 11,000 Soviet prisoners of war who had been released during the Allied advance across western Europe. Escorted by the heavy cruiser Berwick, escort carrier Campania and six destroyers, the convoy sailed from Liverpool on 31 October and reached Murmansk on 6 November.
At this time one of the high points in the conduct of operations in northern waters was reached on 12 November, when Tirpitz was finally sunk at its moorings by RAF bombers in ‘Catechism’, so removing the last major threat to the Arctic convoys from a German surface warship.
Under these circumstances, therefore, it was somewhat paradoxical that JW.62 and RA.62, which were the first two Arctic convoys to be despatched after the destruction of Tirpitz, met stronger opposition than their immediate predecessors. The JW.52 convoy of 30 laden ships (including two escorts) departed Loch Ewe on 29 November with the 8th and 20th Escort Groups including include the destroyers Keppel, Beagle, Bulldog and Westcott, sloops Cygnet, Lapwing and Lark, and corvettes Allington Castle, Bamborough Castle and the Free Norwegian Tunsberg Castle and Eglantine which were being transferred to Murmansk. The RA.62 convoy comprised 28 unladen ships and departed the Kola inlet on 10 December with the same escort forces.
The strength of the opposition was a result of the fact that the Germans had managed, after an interval of two years, to send two Gruppen, each comprising some 35 Junkers Ju 88 torpedo bombers, back to northern Norway, and had also stationed nearly 20 U-boats in the Barents Sea. As additional support groups and carrier air escorts had again been provided, however, the German reinforcements made little difference to the outcome of this double operation.
The covering force comprised the light anti-aircraft cruiser Bellona, destroyers Caesar, Cassandra, Caprice and Cambrian (1st Division of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla) and Onslow, Orwell, Obedient, Offa, Onslaught and Oribi (17th Destroyer Flotilla), and the support groups comprised the escort carriers Campania and Nairana with the frigates Tavy, Tortola, Bahamas and Somaliland, and the Canadian 9th Escort Group with the frigates St John, Stormont, Monnow, Loch Alvie, Nene and Port Colborne.
The JW.62 convoy was located by German air reconnaissance, but one of Nairana’s fighters shot down the contact-keeper. The ‘Stock’ 1 and ‘Grube’ 2 wolfpacks were deployed to the west of Bjørnøya and off the Kola coast respectively. On 1 December the ‘Stock’ pack was moved to the Kola coast as the Germans assumed that the convoy has passed through the Bjørnøya Passage.
The convoy made a diversion as the support groups moved against the suspected U-boat concentration, although without success. The JW.62 outbound convoy suffered no losses and reached the Kola Inlet safely on 7 December, and before the RA.62 homebound convoy (28 unladen ships and one rescue vessel, together with the same escorts as had shepherded the JW. 62 convoy) departed on 9 December, the Allied support groups and Rear Admiral Fokin’s Soviet destroyer force, comprising Baku, Gremyashchiy, Razumnyi, Derzky, Doblestnyi and Zhivuchiy, drove the U-boats from the entrance to the Kola inlet. In the process, U-997 missed Zhivuchiy and Razumnyi on 9 December. Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Büchler’s U-387 was depth-charged and sunk by the corvette Bamborough Castle or, according to the Soviets, sunk in a ramming attack by Zhivuchiy, and only Oberleutnant Diether Todenhagen’s U-365 was able to establish contact, torpedoing the destroyer Cassandra on 11 December after an unsuccessful attack on a tanker the day before.
On 13 December this U-boat was sunk by by a pair of Fairey Swordfish aircraft of No. 813 Squadron from Campania. An attempt by nine torpedo bombers of Major Willi Sölter’s I/Kampfgeschwader 26 to attack the convoy to the south-west of Bjørnøya failed with the loss of two Ju 88 aircraft.