Operation Greif (i)

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This was a U-boat wolfpack operation off the north coast of German-occupied Norway against the QP.12 inward-bound and PQ.16 outward-bound Allied convoys (14/29 May 1942).

The wolfpack comprised U-209, U-436, U-586, U-589, U-591 and U-703, and for the loss of none of its own number sank one 6,191-ton ship of the PQ.16 convoy.

Though the Western Allies appreciated that their PQ outward convoys from Iceland to the ports in the northern part of the USSR had materially aided the USSR in defeating the German ‘Taifun’ (i) offensive in the winter of 1941 and launching its own offensives in the late winter and the spring of 1942, they were also aware that their naval forces, and especially those of the UK, were stretched to the limit in providing escorts. But in the face of continued Soviet pressure for further deliveries, the PQ.16 convoy was arranged in the late spring of 1942. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that it would be worthwhile if even only half of the ships got through. In the event the convoy was so great a success that the Germans made greater efforts to disrupt the following convoys.

The QP.12 convoy of 15 unladen ships departed the Kola inlet on 21 May, and was soon reduced to 14 ships as one of the ships had to turn back. From 23 May the QP.12 convoy had as its local escort the Soviet destroyers Groznyi and Sokrushitelnyi and the British minesweepers Bramble, Gossamer, Leda and Seagull. The ocean escort until 27 May comprised the destroyers Badsworth and Venomous and the auxiliary anti-aircraft ship Ulster Queen, and until 29 May the destroyers Boadicea, Escapade, Inglefield and Free Norwegian St Albans, minesweeper Harrier, and trawlers Cape Palliser, Northern Pride, Northern Wave and Vizalma.

The convoy was not attacked despite the fact that it was spotted and located by a German reconnaissance aeroplane, which was shot down on 25 May by the Hawker Hurricane fighter of the CAM-ship Empire Morn sailing in the convoy. Thus 14 ships reached the Hvalfjördur in south-west Iceland on 29 May.

The PQ.16 convoy of 35 laden ships and the anti-aircraft ship Alynbank departed the Hvalfjörður on 21 May with local escort provided by the minesweeper Hazard and anti-submarine trawlers St Elstan, Lady Madeleine, Northern Spray and, up to 23 May, Free French Retriever. Early on 24 May the convoy was met by its escort which, under the command of Commander R. G. Onslow, comprised the destroyers Ashanti, Achates, Martin, Volunteer and Free Polish Garland, and on 23 May by the corvettes Honeysuckle, Starwort, Free French Roselys and Indian Hyderabad.

Two days later Rear Admiral H. M. Burrough’s close escort force, comprising the heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk, light cruisers Nigeria and Liverpool, and destroyers Marne, Onslow and Oribi, reached its position.

Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s Home Fleet, with the battleships Duke of York and US Washington, fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruisers London and US Wichita, and destroyers Blankney, Eclipse, Faulknor, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Lamerton, Middleton, Wheatland and US Mayrant, Rhind, Rowan and Wainwright, patrolled within intervention distance between Iceland and Norway.

The British submarines Seawolf and Trident also sailed with PQ.16 against the possibility of German surface ship attack, and the Allied submarines Unbending, Unruffled, P-614, Free Dutch O-10, Free French Minerve and Soviet S-102, Shch-422 and K-1 constituted a flanking screen.

On 25 May German air reconnaissance spotted and reported the PQ.16 convoy, which had already avoided a U-boat wolfpack. In two attacks by Hauptmann Ernst Thomsen’s III/Kampfgeschwader 26 with torpedoes and Hauptmann Hajo Hermann’s III/KG 30 with bombs (19 Heinkel He 111 and six Junkers Ju 88 aircraft in total), two bombers were lost to anti-aircraft fire and one torpedo bomber to the Hurricane fighter of the CAM-ship Empire Lawrence, which was part of the convoy. The 5,127-ton freighter Carlton was damaged by near-misses and taken in tow back to Iceland by Northern Spray.

During the night of 25/26 May, Kapitänleutnant Heinz Bielfeld’s U-703 sank the 6,191-ton US Syros. On 26 May the close escort left the convoy, but even so U-436 missed a ship and a corvette, and U-591 missed Ashanti. Continued German air attacks were weak and gained no success. To the south-east of Bjørnøya on 27 May, seven He 111 bombers of Hauptmann Bert Eicke’s I/KG 26 and 11 Ju 88 bombers of Oberstleutnant Erich Bloedorn’s KG 30 attacked in several waves and, though losing three of their number, sank the 5,481-ton US Mormacsul, 7,457-ton British Empire Lawrence and 7,049-ton British Empire Purcell with bombs, sank the 5,171-ton British Lowther Castle with a torpedo, and also damaged the 5,689-ton US Alamar, which had to be sunk by the submarine Trident. The 3,974-ton Soviet Stary Bolshevik, 7,174-ton British Ocean Voice, 6,978-ton British Empire Baffin, 6,167-ton US City of Joliet and the destroyer Garland were damaged, and on 28 May City of Joliet had to be abandoned.

At this time the Soviet destroyers Groznyi, Kuybyshev and Sokrushitelnyi reinforced the escort. As a result of the increasingly poor visibility, there were now only a few individual attacks by German bombers, and all failed. During the night of 28/29 May U-586 attacked the convoy without success, and by day the attacks by the bombers of the KG 30 achieved nothing. On 30 May the minesweepers Bramble, Gossamer, Harrier, Hussar, Niger and Seagull sortied from the Kola inlet towards the convoy, from which six ships were detached for Arkhangyel’sk with Alynbank, Martin, Bramble, Gossamer, Leda and Seagull. Bombers of the KG 30 made raids on both parts of the convoy, but were driven off by anti-aircraft fire and Soviet fighters. On 31 May the Murmansk part of the convoy reached port, and on 1 June the Arkhangyel’sk part also reached its destination. The PQ.16 convoy’s losses were eight ships totalling 43,205 tons (one of the ships to a mine), together with 32,400 tons of cargo including 77 aircraft, 147 tanks and 770 vehicles.