Operation Orator

'Orator' was a British air operation to deploy an element of the RAF’s No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit and No. 18 Group to the northern USSR to keep watch on the German battleship Tirpitz anchored in the Altafjord of German-occupied northern Norway, and to protect the PQ.18 convoy (July/September 1942).

Undertaken in the aftermath of the catastrophic German savaging of the PQ.17 convoy, the support part of the undertaking was the responsibility of British and Australian air units based, on a temporary basis, in north-western Russia, against attack by the German battleship Tirpitz and other German surface warships. The wing, part of No. 18 Group of RAF Coastal Command and known as the Search & Strike Force, was commanded by Group Captain F. L. Hopps and its maritime attack element was the Leuchars Wing, comprising No. 144 Squadron of the RAF and No. 455 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force equipped with Handley-Page Hampden TB.Mk I twin-engined torpedo bombers.

The Hampden crews made a long and dangerous flight from bases in Scotland on 4/5 September to assemble at Vaenga-1 airfield near Vaenga (later Severomorsk) on the Kola inlet some 25 miles (40 km) to the north of Murmansk. The two squadrons lost nine aircraft shot down or crashed in transit but the rest joined a detachment of No. 210 Squadron, flying Consolidated Catalina patrol flying boat and a section of photographic reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit to constitute the Search & Strike Force.

At 07.30 on 14 September, 23 Hampden aircraft were scrambled after Tirpitz had been reported as absent from her moorings. The Hampden aircraft flew to the maximum distance that Tirpitz could have reached, then turned to follow the track back to Altafjord, as far as the Catalina cross-over patrols. After an uneventful flight, the Hampden aircraft returned at 15.00 after what had been a false alarm as Tirpitz had merely moved to a nearby fjord. The Hampden aircraft remained at readiness and the Spitfire photot-reconnaissance aircraft watched over Tirpitz until October. Thus 'Orator' had deterred the Germans from risking their capital ships against PQ.18 and after converting Soviet air crews to the Hampden and Spitfire aircraft, which were to be left behind, the British personnel returned to the UK.

In October 1941, some four months after the start of the German forces' 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, made a commitment to send a convoy laden with weapons and other military equipment, to the Arctic ports of the USSR every 10 days and to deliver 1,200 tanks per month from July 1942 to January 1943, followed by 2,000 tanks and another 3,600 aircraft. The first convoy was due at Murmansk around 12 October and the next convoy was to depart Iceland on 22 October. A mix of British, Allied and neutral shipping loaded with military stores and raw materials for the Soviet war effort would be assembled in the Hvalfjöršur of south-western Iceland, as this was an anchorage convenient for ships from both sides of the Atlantic.

By a time late in 1941, the convoy system used in the Atlantic had been established on the Arctic run: a convoy commodore ensured that the ships' masters and signals officers attended a briefing to make arrangements for the management of the convoy, which sailed in a formation of long rows of short columns. The commodore was usually a retired naval officer, and was embarked on a ship identified by a white pendant with a blue cross. The commodore was assisted by a four-man naval signals party, which used lamps, semaphore flags and telescopes to sent and receive signals coded from books carried in a weighted bag so that it could be dumped overboard in an emergency. In large convoys, the commodore was assisted by vice- and rear-commodores who directed the speed, course and zigzagging of the merchant ships in co-operation with the escort commander.

Following the PQ.16 convoy and the disastrous PQ.17 convoy in July 1942, the sailings of Arctic convoys were suspended for nine weeks and much of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet was detached to the Mediterranean. During this lull, Tovey came to the conclusion that the Home Fleet had been of no great protection to convoys once the latter had passed Bjųrnųya, he southernmost island of the Svalbard archipelago, mid-way between Svalbard and the North Cape of Norway. Tovey planned to oversee the operation from Scapa Flow, where the fleet was linked to the Admiralty by land line and immune to the vagaries of wireless reception. The next convoy was to be accompanied by the longer-range destroyers of the Home Fleet. Along with the close escort force of anti-submarine and anti-aircraft ships, the fleet destroyers could confront a sortie by German ships with the threat of a massed torpedo attack. Instead of meeting homebound QP convoys near Bjųrnųya, QP.14 was to remain in port until PQ.18 outbound convoy was near its destination, despite the fact that the longer journey would be more demanding of the crews, fuel and equipment of the escorting warships. The new escort carrier Avenger had arrived from the USA was added to the escort force.

The British Government Code and Cypher School based at Bletchley Park housed a hive of code-breakers and traffic analysts. By June 1941, the code-breakers were able to read, with little delay, German Enigma machine ciphers in the Heimgewässer (home waters) settings for surface ships and U-boats. On 1 February 1942, the Enigma machines used in U-boats in the Atlantic and Mediterranean were made more complex, and it was not until December 1942 that the British were able to read what they knew as the new Shark cypher. The older version remained in use by German ships the U-boats in Arctic waters. By the middle of 1941, British radio intercept stations were able to receive and read Luftwaffe wireless telegraphy transmissions and give advance warning of Luftwaffe operations. In 1941, 'Headache' radio interception parties were embarked on warships and from May 1942 computers were embarked with the cruiser admirals in command of convoy escorts in order to intercept Luftwaffe signals beyond the range of land stations in the UK. The Admiralty sent details of Luftwaffe wireless frequencies, call signs and the daily local codes to the computers. Combined with their knowledge of Luftwaffe procedures, the computers could give fairly accurate details of German reconnaissance sorties and on occasion predicted attacks 20 minutes before they appeared on radar.

From February 1942 until January 1943, the German Beobachtungsdienst (B-Dienst, or observation service) of the Marinenachrichtendienst (naval intelligence service) could read the British Naval Cypher No. 3.

As Arctic convoys passed by the North Cape of Norway into the Barents Sea, they were within easy range of German aircraft, U-boats and ships based in Norway and Finland. The ships were still vulnerable while unloading at Murmansk, Arkhangyel’sk and Polyarny, and the Hawker Hurricane fighters delivered by the first Arctic convoy were intended for air defence against German air attacks. In 'Dervish' of 21/31 August 1941, which was the first Arctic convoy, six elderly freighters sailed from Iceland for Arkhangyel’sk carrying wood, rubber, tin and 15 crated Hurricane fighters. In 'Strength' of 29 September/11 October 1941, the second Artic convoy, the aircraft carrier Argus carried 24 Hurricane fighters, in an undertaking parallel to the convoy, escorted by three cruisers with the RAF ground party. When Argus was in range of Vaenga, the Hurricane fighters were flown off the carrier and all reached their destination.

Wing Commander N. Ramsbottom-Isherwood’s No. 151 Wing flew in defence of Murmansk for five weeks and claimed 16 victories, four probables and seven aircraft damaged. The snow of the winter of 1941/42 began on 22 September, the conversion of Soviet pilots and ground crews to the Hurricane Mk IID began in mid-October, and late in November the RAF party returned to the UK less various signals staff. 'Gauntlet' of 25 August/3 September 1941 and 'Fritham' of 30 April 1942/2 July 1943 had taken place in the Svalbard archipelago on the main island of Spitsbergen, mid-way between northern Norway and the North Pole, in order to eliminate German weather stations and to stop its coal exports to German-held Norway. In 'Gearbox II' of 2/21 September 1942, two cruisers and one destroyer delivered 200 tons of supplies and equipment to Spitsbergen for the sustenance of the small occupation force. On 3 September, Force 'P' (the fleet auxiliary oilers Blue Ranger and Oligarch escorted by four destroyer) sailed for Van Mijenfjorden in Spitsbergen and from 9 to 13 September refuelled destroyers detached from the escort of PQ.18.

German navy authority was derived from the Seekriegsleitung (supreme naval command) in Berlin, and command of Arctic naval operations was vested in Generaladmiral Hermann Boehm, the Admiral 'Norwegen', from Generaladmiral Rolf Carls’s Marinegruppenkommando 'Nord' in Kiel. Three lower-ranking admirals were based in Oslo to command the minesweeping, coast defence, patrols and minelaying off the west, north and polar coasts. The large surface ships and U-boats were under the command of the Flag Officer Northern Waters at Narvik, who did not answer to Boehm but had authority over the Flag Officer Battlegroup, who commanded the ships when at sea. The Flag Officer Northern Waters also had tactical control of the aircraft of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V when operating in support of the Kriegsmarine. The Norwegian-based aircraft had tactical headquarters at Kirkenes, Trondheim and Bardufoss, but these Luftwaffe headquarters were separate from the naval commanders except at Kirkenes, where it was with those of the Admiral der norwegischen Polarküste command.

On 24 June, a British minesweeper based at Kola was sunk by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers and on 16 August the heavy cruiser (ex-pocket battleship) Admiral Scheer departed on 'Wunderland' as a sortie against Soviet ships thought to be sailing along the route off the north coast of Siberia. Admiral Scheer sailed to the north of Novaya Zemlya and then to the east, sank a Soviet icebreaker and by 30 August was was back in Narvik. B-Dienst signals interception and documents recovered from a crashed Hampden revealed the cross-over and escort change-over points of the PQ.18 and QP.14 convoys, together with other details including those of 'Orator'. As a result, U-boats, destroyers and the minelayer Ulm were deployed in 'Zar' (24/25 August 1942) to lay mines at the entrance of the White Sea and off Novaya Zemlya. On 25 August, 'Ultra' decrypts of German signals revealed the course of Ulm, and three of the destroyers with the US heavy cruiser Tulcaloosa to the south of Bjųrnųya were sent to intercept the ship: Ulm was sunk that night and 60 survivors were taken prisoner. The Germans then had to press the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper into service as a minelayer. Tirpitz, the heavy cruiser Lützow and three destroyers had been in dock for repairs since the 'Rösselsprung' operation (2/6 July) against the PQ.17 convoy and were therefore unavailable. Twelve U-boats formed a patrol group in the Norwegian Sea against the PQ.18 convoy and the German navy planned 'Doppelschlag' whereby the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper, light cruiser Köln and four destroyers would sail against the convoy.

The Luftwaffe had employed the lull after the battle for the PQ.17 convoy to assemble a force of 35 Junkers Ju 88A-4 dive-bombers of Kampfgeschwader 30 and 42 torpedo-bombers of KG 26 (I/KG 26 with 28 Heinkel He 111H-6 aircraft and III/KG 26 with 14 Ju 88A-4 aircraft) to join the reconnaissance aircraft of Luftflotte V. After analysing the results of their attack on the PQ.17 convoy, in which Luftflotte V crews made exaggerated claims of ships sunk, including a cruiser, the German anti-shipping units now devised the goldene Zange (golden comb) anti-ship tactic. Ju 88 bombers were to divert the defenders with level bombing and dive-bombing attacks as the torpedo-bombers approached out of the twilight. The torpedo bombers were to fly toward the convoy in line abreast, at wave-top height to evade radar, as the convoy was silhouetted against the lighter sky, then to drop their torpedoes in a line-abreast salvo. When the B-Dienst discovered that an aircraft carrier would accompany the next convoy, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring gave orders that this must be the air attacks' highest-priority target. German aircrew were told that the destruction of the convoy was the best way to help the German army forces trapped in Stalingrad and fighting in the Caucasus region of the southern USSR.

In 'Orator', a Search & Strike Force was to fly to the northern USSR and operate over the Barents Sea. The maritime strike element comprised 16 Hampden torpedo-bombers each from No. 144 Squadron of the RAF and No. 455 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. The search element comprised nine Catalina flying boats detached from No. 210 Squadron RAF from Sullom Voe in the Shetland islands group, to operate from Lake Lakhta near Arkhangyel’sk and keep watch on the waters of the Barents Sea to the north of Altafjord. The reconnaissance element comprised a section of three No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit RAF machines in the form of Spitfire PR.Mk IV(D) aircraft flown from Sumburgh in the Shetland islands group to operate from the Afrikanda airfield near Murmansk to keep watch over Tirpitz, The Spitfire and Catalina aircraft were to maintain reconnaissance over the larger German warships in Norwegian waters, including the battleship Tirpitz, and to attack them at the first opportunity.

On 13 August, Hopps, RAF and RAAF ground staff, and a medical unit sailed for the USSR on the cruiser Tuscaloosa, along with three destroyers (two US and one British). Hopps was to establish his force’s headquarters at Polyarny on the Kola inlet. The three PRU Spitfires for the Search & Strike Force departed from Sumburgh on 1 September on a flight of more than 1,210 miles (1950 km) over the North Sea, occupied Norway, Sweden (in breach of Swedish neutrality) the Gulf of Bothnia and Finland (at the time co-belligerent with Germany) to Afrikanda in northern Russia, and arrived safely after a flight of 4 hours 30 minutes. The Catalina flying boats of No. 210 Squadron had to remain on operations until the last minute and their equipment and ground crews also had to travel by air, but the distance was within easy Catalina range.

On 2 September, as the PQ.18 convoy departed Loch Ewe, the 32 Hampden machines of the Search & Strike Force flew from their base at Leuchars to Sumburgh. The safe range for a Hampden while carrying neither a torpedo nor overload tanks was thought to be a maximum of 1,200 miles (1930 km). There was no time to fit long-range tanks, and each Hampden was to carry a member of the ground crew, the rest travelling to Murmansk on Tuscaloosa together with the 18-in (457-mm) Mk XII torpedoes, other munitions and vital stores. If the Hampden aircraft flew at 145 mph (233 km/h) and did not need rich-mixture fuel for manoeuvring, the dry-tank range was estimated as 1,570 miles (2520 km), when the safe route from Sumburgh to Vaenga was 1,512 miles (2434 km). On 3 September an attempt to send the squadrons to northern Russia, despite an unfavourable weather report but in fear of even worse weather to come, was refused by the two squadron commanders, and the squadrons waited for better weather.

Late on 4 September, the Hampden aircraft of the Leuchars Wing took off for Russia. The initial plan for their route would keep the aircraft a minimum of 69 miles (110 km) from German-occupied territory but was clearly too risky. A flight along the Norwegian coast would cover 1,400 miles (2200 km), parts of it with easy range of the Luftwaffe. A direct route over the mountains of Norway would be only 1,300 miles (2000 km) long but the fuel consumed in climbing to an altitude to clear the mountains would leave little to overcome head winds, engine trouble, navigation errors or any landing delay. The Hampden crews were therefore to follow a route similar to that of the Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft: thus the Hampden aircraft flew to Burrafirth in the Shetland islands group, thence to Norway at 66° N, across the mountains in the dark, and finally to overfly northern Sweden and Finland before landing at Afrikanda in the southern part of the Murmansk region. The flight to Afrikanda was expected to take five to eight hours, depending on the weather and German opposition. After refuelling, the Hampden crews were to fly the remaining 120 miles (190 km) to Vaenga, following the rail line linking Kandalaksha and Murmansk northward.

Two of the Hampden aircraft crashed in northern Sweden, near Arjeplog: both crashes are believed to have resulted from atmospheric icing. Eight men (four Australian, three British and one Canadian) were killed. There were no survivors from Hampden P5304 of No. 455 Squadron when it crashed on 4/5 September by lake Arvestuottar, after passing over the larger lake Arvesjaure to the north-west. Hampden AE436 crashed in the Sarek National Park on Tsatsa, a massif located between the Njåtjosvagge and Tjuoltavagge valleys, about 17 miles (28 km) to the north of the intended route. There were two survivors, who made a three-day march to the nearest village: the two men were repatriated to the UK on 21 September.

Four Hampden aircraft were either shot down or forced to land in German-held territory. AT109 of No. 455 Squadron landed on a beach in northern Norway after being damaged by Flak from a German submarine chaser and the crew was taken prisoner. Hampden AT138 of No. 144 Squadron was attacked over Finland by a fighter of Jagdgeschwader 5: three men of the crew and one passenger were killed, while the pilot bailed out and was taken prisoner. AT138 crashed near Alakurtti. P1344 suffered from icing and was forced to take an alternate, lower altitude route which passed over the Luftwaffe base at Petsamo, where it was damaged by Flak before being attacked by two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters of JG 5. As the aeroplane crash-landed in an Axis-held part of the Kola peninsula, three members of the crew were killed and the pilot was seriously injured; he and his passenger were taken prisoner. P1273 was attacked by fighters of [e[JG 5 near Petsamo, its crew and passenger bailing out and being taken prisoner. Plans for the PQ.18 and QP.14 convoys were recovered by the Germans from
AT109 and provided the Germans with the routes of both convoys.

Poor visibility in the Afrikanda area made landings difficult and two of the Hampden aircraft landed on a mud airstrip at Monchegorsk, about 30 miles (48 km) to the north. Two other Hampden aircraft ran out of fuel over Russia and were damaged in forced landings at or near Afrikanda: one made a wheels-up landing in soft ground at Khibiny, several miles to the north of Afrikanda, and the other was written off after hitting tree stumps. A further Hampden was lost on the leg between Afrikanda and Murmansk. This aeroplane was caught in a German air raid over the Kola inlet and attacked in error by Soviet fighters and forced to ditch in a lake. The crew was strafed in the water and the ventral gunner died either from bullet wounds or drowning when the aeroplane sank. The survivors got ashore and received small-arms fire from Soviet troops until they were recognised as Allies. Thus only 23 of the Hampden aircraft reached Soviet airfields intact or with only minor damage.

The German surface forces at Narvik had been alerted when the PQ.18 convoy was first sighted, and on 10 September moved north to the Altafjord past the British submarines Tribune and Tigris. The latter made an abortive torpedo attack on Admiral Scheer and erroneously reported her as Tirpitz. Soon after 00.00 on 10/11 September, the Admiralty forwarded information from 'Enigma' decrypts to the British escort commander to the effect that Admiral Hipper was due in the Altafjord at 03.00 and in the afternoon reported that Tirpitz was still at Narvik. On 13 September, further 'Enigma' decrypts revealed that the ships at the Altafjord had come to one hour’s notice at 16.50, and this information was relayed to the convoy escort commander at 23.25. 'Enigma' decrypts revealed that Tirpitz was still in Narvik on 14 September, and on 16 September a Swedish source reported that only Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer and Köln would operate against the PQ.18 convoy. But this 'Doppelschlag' effort had already been cancelled on 13 September as Adolf Hitler, reluctant to risk the loss of any German major warship on an offensive operation, had refused to authorise a sortie.

Admiral Scheer and her escorts remained far to the north of PQ.18 as the convoy rounded the North Cape. 'EV', the escort operation for the convoy’s 40 Allied freighters, comprised an exceptionally large number of British warships, including Avenger, the first escort carrier to accompany an Arctic convoy. Detailed information on German intentions was provided by Allied codebreakers, through 'Ultra' decrypts of 'Enigma' signals, and eavesdropping on Luftwaffe radio communications. From 12 to 21 September, PQ.18 was attacked by bombers, torpedo-bombers, U-boats and mines, which sank 13 ships at a cost of 44 German aircraft and four U-boats. The escort ships and Avenger's aircraft were able to use signals intelligence from the Admiralty to provide early warning of some air attacks and to attempt evasive routeing of the convoy around U-boat concentrations. The convoy passed its distant escorts and Avenger to the QP.14 homebound convoy near Arkhangyel’sk on 16 September and continued with the close escort and local escorts, riding out a storm in the estuary of the Severnaya Dvina river and the Germans' last air attacks before reaching Arkhangyel’sk on 21 September.

The Catalina flying boats of No. 210 Squadron were to provide close escort for the PQ.18 convoy at the beginning and end of its passage. The aircraft based in Shetland and Iceland carried depth charges instead of overload tanks and on 23 September one of the machines from Shetland sank U-253 some 132 miles (213 km) off Cape Langanaes in Iceland. The Catalina detachment based in Russia carried overload tanks instead of depth charges and could only menace rather than attack the U-boats and report their positions to Allied warships. The main task of these Catalina flying boats was to maintain 10 cross-over patrols 120 miles (190 km) from the Norwegian coast, from an area to the west of Narvik to another to the east of the North Cape. It would be impossible for a sortie by the German ships in northern Norway to pass through without being detected by the flying boats' air-to-surface search radar. As the PQ.18 convoy passed round Norway, the patrol areas moved to the north-east: three of them were flown by the Catalina aircraft from and back to Shetland, and the two others from Shetland by aircraft which then continued to Russia. The second of this latter pair was the furthest from both bases, and five aircraft were needed to keep one aeroplane continuously in the patrol area. Another five of the patrols were flown by the detachment in Russia. The flights from Shetland could last as much as 16 hours, and low cloud often prevented celestial navigation, which required such crews to rely on dead reckoning.

The Catalina flying boats detached to Russia were based at Lake Lakhta near Arkhangyel’sk on the White Sea, with Grasnaya on the Kola inlet used as an advanced base. Communication between the two bases was impossible, and Hopps used Grasnaya as the main base as it was 460 miles (740 km) nearer to the patrol areas and equally closer to occupied Norway. Lake Lakhta became a rest area and the base for close escort of the PQ.18 convoy once this was on the final leg of its passage. The Catalina flying boats bound for Russia left Shetland in sequence, completed the circuits of their patrol area and then proceeded to Russia. The Soviet ground crews at Lake Lakhta were found to be very efficient, impressing the British with their ability to improvise. The damaged Hampden from Khibiny was put back into service and a Catalina damaged by a German aeroplane was hauled ashore within eight minutes of landing and swiftly repaired. The flight from Lake Lakhta to Grasnaya took about five hours and once over the PQ.18 convoy, the Catalina circled it, keeping a careful watch on nearby aircraft in case of mistaken identity.

By 5 September, the serviceable Hampden aircraft were at Vaenga, farther from the front line than Polyarny. The airfield was bombed by the Germans on several occasions, and a Spitfire had to be written off on 9 September, but there were no casualties. An Area Combined Headquarters was established at Polyarny, where Rear Admiral D. B. Fisher was already installed as the Senior British Naval Officer. At Vaenga, the Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft had their British roundels painted out and replaced by red stars, and used their F.24 oblique cameras on 12 sorties to Narvik and the Altafjord, flying through foul weather to keep watch over the German ships. To replace the Spitfire which had been written, No. 1 PRU despatched another Spitfire, which arrived on 16 September together with a single de Havilland Mosquito PR.Mk I.

On the night of 13/14 September, communications between the PQ.18 convoy and Lake Lakhta failed, and a Catalina at Grasnaya was unable to take off until dawn while the day’s photo-reconnaissance sortie found the Altafjord covered by cloud. If the Catalina sent a sighting report, it would come too late for the Hampden aircraft to attack, and as a precaution Hopps ordered the 23 operational Hampden machines into the air at 05.00 on 14 September for a reconnaissance in force. Each of the aircraft carried one Mk XII torpedo and the force flew to the maximum distance that Tirpitz could have reached and then turned to follow the track back to the Altafjord, as far as the Catalina patrol zone. After a flight of some 7 hours 30 minutes, the Hampden aircraft returned at 15.00, and it was later discovered that Tirpitz had merely moved to a nearby fiord. The other German ships were photographed at the Altafiord by the Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft on 14, 15 and 16 September.

By a time late in September, the Search & Strike Force was coming under increased attention from the Luftwaffe. The Hampden aircraft remained dispersed around Vaenga airfield, receiving some damage during air raids. During a sortie to the Altafjord, one of the Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft was shot down near Lakselv in northern Norway later in the morning of 27 September, its pilot being killed. Vaenga airfield was attacked on the same day by two Ju 88 bombers in a low-level raid, and the pilot of a Yakovlev fighter who had dived on the German aircraft, was forced to bail out when the tail of his aeroplane was shot off by Soviet anti-aircraft fire: the fighter crashed through the roof of a three-storey barracks assigned to the Search & Strike Force’s commissioned officers and the building caught fire, but there were no British casualties.

The surviving Hampden aircraft were to have been flown back to Scotland, but their crews had doubts about such a flight’s practicality in the face of the prevailing west/east winds, which could push the aircraft beyond their maximum range. On 1 October the Soviet authorities made a formal request for the Hampden aircraft, and the British agreed to donate both the Hampden and Spitfire aircraft to the Soviet air forces. The men of the Search & Strike Forces were to return to the UK by sea after helping to convert Soviet air and ground crews to both types. The British and Australian personnel returned to the UK on 28 October in the light cruiser Argonaut, and all but one of the Catalina flying boats were was flown back to the UK after the QP.14 convoy had passed through the danger area.