Operation Sportpalast (ii)

sport palace

This was the German naval operation by the battleship Tirpitz and escorting destroyers against the QP.8 homebound and PQ.12 outbound Arctic convoys in the German navy’s first attempt to disrupt Arctic convoy passages (5/9 March 1942).

On 1 March the QP.8 convoy of 15 unladen ships departed the Kola inlet with the local escort of the Soviet destroyers Gremyashchiy and Gromkiy and the British minesweepers Harrier and Sharpshooter up to 3 March. The ocean escort comprised the corvettes Oxlip and Sweetbriar, and the minesweepers Hazard and Salamander, and between 2 and 7 March the light cruiser Nigeria and the destroyers Offa and Oribi provided distant cover.

On 3/4 March ice and a severe storm scattered the convoy, and Gromkiy was damaged on her way back to port.

The PQ.12 convoy of 16 laden ships also departed on 1 March, in this instance from the Hvalfjörður in south-western Iceland, with the local escort of three trawlers up to 4 March. The convoy was to have been joined by five ex-Norwegian whalers (Shera, Shusa, Stefa, Sulla and Svega) being transferred to the USSR, but of these only two joined, two others turning back and one sailing directly to the USSR.

The British covering force comprised the battleship Duke of York, battle-cruiser Renown, light cruiser Kenya and destroyers Echo, Eclipse, Eskimo, Faulknor, Fury and Punjabi under the command of Vice Admiral A. T. B. Curteis, and this covering force joined on 4 March to remain in touch up to 12 March, though Kenya was detached between 8 to 12 March. Oribi was damaged by icing on 6/7 March, and Shera capsized in a storm on 9 March.

On 5 March a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range maritime reconnaissance bomber located and reported the PQ.12 convoy in a position some 80 miles (130 km) to the south of Jan Mayen island, and in response the Germans established a U-boat patrol line with U-134, U-377, U-403 and U-584. On 5 March the battleship Tirpitz, with Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax, the Befehlshaber der Schlachtschiffe, on board, departed the Fættenfjord and was joined on the following day by the destroyers Paul Jacobi, Friedrich Ihn, Hermann Schoemann and Z 25, which had departed Trondheim in a foray to intercept and destroy the convoy.

The German intention to locate and destroy the convoy had been revealed by ‘Ultra’ decrypts, however, and this allowed the British to plan countermeasures: of the five Allied submarines in the area (Sealion, Seawolf, Trident, Free French Junon and Free Norwegian Uredd), Sealion sighted and reported the departure of the German force. In the meantime Curteis’s covering force and the main body of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet (battleship King George V, fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruiser Berwick, and destroyers Ashanti, Bedouin, Icarus, Intrepid, Lookout and Onslow) joined near Jan Mayen island after departing Scapa Flow on 6 March.

Kenya was at first detached as part of the PQ.12 convoy’s close escort, but the light cruiser Sheffield, despatched to relieve Berwick as the latter was suffering engine problems, was damaged by a mine and had to turn back. At the time the visibility was very poor, and this was one of the factors which meant that the Home Fleet failed to locate Tirpitz.

The German ships only just missed the QP.8 convoy and its very light escort force, and the German destroyers found only a straggler, the 2,815-ton Soviet Izhora, which was sunk by Friedrich Ihn. The German and British naval forces as well as the two convoys managed to move around each other in the vicinity of Bjørnøya without meeting each other or being seen by reconnaissance aircraft. Advice from the German high command and the British Admiralty added to the confusion of the commanders on the spot.

Eventually, on 9 March, aircraft from Illustrious spotted and shadowed the German force, despite being attacked by Tirpitz’s own floatplanes, and the German battleship was attacked off the Vestfjord, without success, by 12 Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers of the FAA’s Nos 817 and 832 Squadrons from Victorious, which was escorted by Bedouin, Eskimo, Faulknor and Tartar, and two of the British aircraft were shot down. An attempt by three Junkers Ju 88 medium-range bombers to attack the British carrier on 9 March was similarly unsuccessful.

The QP.8 convoy, additionally escorted for a brief period by the heavy cruisers Kent and London, divided into two parts on 9 March, and five and 10 of the ships had reached the Icelandic ports of Hvalfjördur and Akureyri respectively by 11 March.

The PQ.12 convoy reached Murmansk on the following day after being joined on 10 March by a local escort in the form of the Soviet destroyer Gremyashchiy and the British minesweepers Harrier, Hussar and Speedwell.

Tirpitz was meanwhile making her return to Norwegian waters with Narvik as her destination. On 11/12 March the destroyers Bedouin, Eskimo, Faulknor, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Punjabi and Tartar attempted to intercept the German battleship off Bodø, but the battleship was then transferred to Trondheim on 12/13 March.

The Soviet submarines D-3, K-21, K-23, S-102, Shch-403 and Shch-422, which had been stationed to provide flank cover for the convoys against attack from the south, headed to Norway’s Arctic coast on 13 March. On the following day D-3 missed the German minelayer Brummer, which was on passage to lay a flanking mine barrage, and M 1504, and was then depth-charged by UJ 1109. M-173 and M-171 made unsuccessful attacks in the Varangerfjord on 16 and 20/22 March respectively.

Despite the fact that the fact that the two convoys had reached port safely, the incident had demonstrated the threat that such convoys now faced. In March and April 1942, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command made three unsuccessful attempts to neutralise Tirpitz: on 31 March/1 April, 34 Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers failed to find the battleship in a fjord near Trondheim, three of the aircraft then attacking Flak positions and one being lost over the sea; on 27/28 April, 31 Halifax and 12 Avro Lancaster heavy bombers attempted to attack Tirpitz and other German warships in the Trondheimfjord, but scored no hits and lost four Halifax and one Lancaster aircraft; and on 28/29 April 23 Halifax and 11 Lancaster bombers attacked but failed to damage Tirpitz, and two Halifax aircraft were lost.