This was the German air and sea undertaking against the PQ.17 convoy making for ports in the northern USSR (1/10 July 1942).
The operation fell in a period which was crucial for the USSR, which was in the throes of checking the German army’s various ‘Blau’ operations, and the Allies were thus making determined efforts to get through as many weapons and supplies as possible. The Germans were well placed to intercept these convoys with ships and warplanes based in northern Norway. In Narvik were the heavy cruisers (ex-pocket-battleships) Admiral Scheer and Lützow together with six destroyers, and at Trondheim the battleship Tirpitz, heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, destroyers Friedrich Ihn, Hans Lody, Karl Galster and Theodor Riedel, and torpedo boats T 7 and T 15 under the command of Admiral Otto Schniewind. And Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte V possessed highly capable anti-shipping air units on a number of Norwegian bases, seven of these being ideally located for air operations to intercept and attack convoys rounding the North Cape as far out as a point half way between Bjørnøya and the Spitsbergen islands group.
The British were not aware of the political and strategic restrictions which circumscribed the tactical and operational flexibility needed by Schniewind, in his capacity as the Flottenchef, before he could order his surface ships to sortie, and therefore decided that USSR-bound convoys would receive escort by substantial surface forces only as far to the east as Bjørnøya, convoys thereafter having to rely on submarine escort for protection against the German heavy surface units. Thus was set the scene for the most disastrous of the Arctic convoys, PQ.17, which assembled in the Hvalfjörður of south-western Iceland in preparation for the run to Murmansk.
The convoy comprised 35 merchantmen (22 US, eight British, two Soviet, two Panamanian and one Dutch), and its ocean escort between 27 June and 4 July comprised the escort destroyer Middleton, minesweepers Britomart, Halcyon and Salamander, and anti-submarine trawlers Ayrshire, Lord Austin, Lord Middleton and Northern Gem. The close escort was Commander J. E. Broome’s 1st Escort Group, which comprised the destroyers Keppel, Fury, Leamington and Offa, escort destroyers Ledbury and Wilton, corvettes Dianella, Potus, Poppy and Free French Malouine, submarines P614 and P615, and auxiliary anti-aircraft vessels Palomares and Pozarica. Also accompanying the convoy and its escort was the fleet oiler Grey Ranger, supported by the destroyer Douglas.
More distant cover was provided by Rear Admiral L. H. K. Hamilton’s 1st Cruiser Squadron (heavy cruisers London, Norfolk and US Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and destroyers Somali and US Rowan and Wainwright), and some 200 miles (320 km) distant as a reserve against major German reaction was Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet force (battleships Duke of York and US Washington, fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruiser Cumberland, light cruiser Nigeria, destroyers Ashanti, Escapade, Faulknor, Marne, Martin, Onslaught, Onslow and US Mayrant and Rhind later supplemented by two more destroyers, and escort destroyers Blankney and Wheatland).
The convoy was spotted by U-boats and aircraft on 1 July as it headed well to the north to pass between Svalbard (Spitsbergen island) and Bjørnøya to keep as far from the German bases as possible. The route took the convoy close to Svalbard, north of Bjørnøya, and skirted the edge of the ice pack before turning to the south and following the coast of Novaya Zemlya before turning to the south-west across the Barents Sea and entering the White Sea, turning almost due south.
One merchant vessel suffered mechanical failure just out of port and was forced to turn back, while another turned back after suffering ice damage. The convoy was sighted and tracked by U-456 shortly after it entered the open sea, and this tracking effort was augmented from the same day by Blohm und Voss Bv 138 flying boats.
During the evening of 1 July the PQ.17 convoy passed the homeward-bound QP.13 convoy, and shortly after this the Germans launched their first significant attack, but the Heinkel He 111 torpedo-bombers were beaten off without loss to the Allied convoy. Hamilton and his cruisers had now overtaken the convoy and were lurking to the north, and for the next two days no attacks materialised as the convoy was shielded by heavy fog.
During the afternoon of 2 July the Germans had started to concentrate their forces in the Altafjord in the extreme north of Norway. Schniewind departed Trondheim for the north with Gruppe I (battleship Tirpitz, heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, destroyers Karl Galster, Friedrich Ihn, Hans Lody and Theodor Riedel, and torpedo boats T 7 and T 15) in preparation for ‘Rösselsprung’. Vizeadmiral Oskar Kummetz led Gruppe II (heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Lützow, and destroyers Richard Beitzen, Z 24, Z 27, Z 28, Z 29 and Z 30) out of Narvik toward the Altafjord to join forces with the northward-bound Kampfgruppe I and destroyers Friedrich Eckoldt and Erich Steinbrinck. However, in the Grimsøya, Lützow, Karl Galster, Hans Lody and Theodor Riedel were all damaged after grounding.
British reconnaissance aircraft detected the departure of the German surface forces, and at much the same time British and Soviet submarines were ordered into two patrol lines south of Bjørnøya to cover the convoy. On 3 July, however, the British did not know the precise location of the Gruppe I warships, which passed the Lofoten islands group on 3 July, and were also unaware of the movement of the Gruppe II warships. By 4 July the German ships were gathered in the Altafjord.
The Luftwaffe began its attacks during the evening of the next day. The first losses had in fact happened on 4 July when two ships, the 7,191-ton US Christopher Newport and 7,177-ton US William Hooper, fell victim to He 111 torpedo-bomber attack. At 08.30 a single merchantman was torpedoed, and at 20.30 three more merchantmen became victims of a determined attack by about 24 He 111 warplanes: two of these ships were sunk by the British escort, but the third vessel, the 6,114-ton Soviet tanker Azerbaijan, managed to keep up with the convoy despite her damage.
The Germans had by now been caught in the mess of restrictions imposed by Adolf Hitler on the use of heavy surface forces in the Barents Sea, so Tirpitz, Admiral Hipper and Admiral Scheer remained at anchor in the Altafjord while reconnaissance of various types was used to establish the position of the Home Fleet, Hitler’s standing orders dictating that German major surface assets should not sail until the position of British aircraft carriers had been determined.
Late on 4 July Hitler gave his permission for the surface vessels to sortie, and this they did at 11.00 on 5 July. During the day the success of aircraft and U-boats became clear, and the ships were ordered back at 22.00, but by this time Admiralty uncertainty as to the German warships’ position was leading to disaster for PQ.17. There had been a gap in the British aerial reconnaissance pattern, and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, felt that while it was known at 20.30 on 4 July that Tirpitz and Admiral Scheer were in the Altafjord, it was likely that all four German heavy warships (the accident to Lützow and three destroyers was unknown) would put to sea in order to fall on the convoy at any time after 02.00 on 5 July. The Admiralty had to balance the threat offered by the surface forces against that of the air forces, and decided that the former was greater, especially as the cruiser escort had been ordered to stand on past its normal turn-back point after the Home Fleet units had retired as planned shortly after 12.00 on 4 July.
There followed a sequence of three understandable but nonetheless catastrophic signals. At 21.11 on 4 July the Admiralty signalled ‘Most Immediate. Cruiser force withdraw to westward at high speed’, followed at 21.23 by ‘Immediate. Owing to the threat of surface ships convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports’, and finally at 21.36 by ‘Most Immediate. My 9.23 of the 4th. Convoy is to scatter’. The convoy was thus left on its own against the efforts of the Luftwaffe and the U-boat arm in latitudes where the protection of the summer nights is notably short. Broome wished to stay with the convoy, but Hamilton was confident that the orders of 21.11 and 21.23 meant that the two escort forces were to fall back on the Home Fleet for a concentrated descent on the German forces emerging from the Altafjord.
The convoy scattered at 22.15 with naval support provided by only the anti-aircraft auxiliary vessels and a few armed trawlers, and the scattered merchant ships were easy prey for U-boats and aircraft.
On 5 July a total of 12 vessels was lost, six of them (including the 5,686-ton US Fairfield City and 7,177-ton US Daniel Morgan) to air attack, and the other six to four different U-boats: among the losses that day were five US merchant vessels in the form of the 5,644-ton Pan Kraft, 5,564-ton Washington, 5,127-ton Carlton, 6,977-ton Honomu and 6,476-ton Peter Kerr. On 6 July two more US ships were sunk, the 5,411-ton Pan Atlantic by air attack and the 7,191-ton John Witherspoon by Oberleutnant Wolfgang Leimkühler’s U-225. On 7/8 July five more ships, including 6,069-ton US Olopana and 5,116-ton US Alcoa Ranger, were sunk, two of them by U-225.
The remaining escort vessels withdrew into the Arctic Ocean on 9 July, but the merchant ships suffered no more losses during that day. The last sinking were those of the 5,060-ton US Hoosier and 5,255-ton Panamanian El Capitan on 10 July. By this time the Luftwaffe had flown 202 sorties against the PQ.17 convoy.
Two of the surviving ships made port at Arkhangyel’sk on 10 July, and another nine arrived there or at Murmansk over the following week. Of the 33-ship convoy, therefore, only 11 vessels reached port. Of the merchant ships lost, nine had succumbed to air attack and the others to 82 torpedoes fired by U-boats. The German losses were two bombers, three torpedo-bombers and two reconnaissance aircraft, and for this the Germans killed 153 merchant seamen and destroyed 99,316 of the 156,492 tons of cargo loaded, together with 430 of 594 tanks, 210 of 297 aircraft and 3,350 of 4,246 vehicles.
Two of the PQ.17 convoy’s surviving ships, the 4,937-ton US Silver Sword and 5,345-ton US Bellingham, were sunk on their return journeys, one of them as U-255’s fifth victim.
In the Allied camp there were great repercussions after the disaster, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was so shocked by the catastrophe that he refused permission for the sailing of the next 'PQ' convoy until September 1942. In this time the British had improved their methods and provided more than 50 escorts, so that while 13 of the PQ.18 convoy’s 40 merchant vessels were lost, the Germans also paid a heavy price in the form of four U-boats sunk and 41 aircraft shot down. Even so, all Arctic convoys were suspended until the darkness of winter offered a greater chance of success, and the PQ.19/JW.51 outbound/homebound convoys therefore sailed only in December 1942.