The Russian Convoys - July 1942

History: Key Aspects
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Map: Greenland Sea - Barents Sea
'Geordie and Tibs' with Bill Smith on HMS Magpie
'Geordie and Tibs' with Bill Smith on HMS Magpie

Those who took part in the convoys delivering supplies to Russia have vivid memories of mountainous seas, the biting cold and the continual fear of attack by air or sea. The supplies were vital to keep Russia in the war following her invasion by German forces in 1941. The PQ17 convoy, which left Iceland at the end of June 1942, is known particularly for the tremendous losses among the merchant ships. It was thought by the Admiralty that the convoy faced imminent attack from the Tirpitz, Hipper, Scheer and Lützow and a series of signals were issued, culminating in the order to 'Scatter'. Believing that they were steaming to intercept a bigger force, in order to protect the convoy, the destroyers and cruisers headed west. However the supposed threat failed to materialise and the merchant ships, now scattered, came under U boat and air attack resulting in the sinking of 23 ships. As well as the loss of precious lives and supplies there was widespread bitterness and the recriminations reverberated for many months.

The weather caused tremendous problems, for many of the convoys, with frequent storms. Life on board during bad weather is vividly described in the memoir of William Smith DSM:

"The sea was violent with waves of 30 ft plus. When we met a gale in the Atlantic we went into it bow on and ploughed through, but in the Arctic, east of Bear Island, the sea was very narrow and we had to go east with no deviation. This meant we were rolling as much as 30 degrees to port and starboard. With the deck covered in ice and snow we had to use lifelines when going aft to the guns and depth charges. These lifelines were fitted very firmly and anyone going aft on deck had to fix a rope round the body with a hook on to the lifeline and gradually move aft when the ship was steady. But when she rolled your feet left the deck and at 30 degrees you were hanging over the sea. At maximum roll the ship shuddered for a few seconds and then decided to come back or turn over - some did. The temperature in these seas got as low as 60 degrees below freezing. Your eyebrows and eyelashes froze and your eyes were very sore with the winds blowing into them. When you got down to the mess deck there was about 3" of water from condensation. The older men, who had hair in their noses, found that these froze solid and were like needles. Many men came off watch with faces covered in blood as they had rubbed their noses without thinking. The main thing at this time was to keep the upper deck clear of ice and snow by means of axes, steam hoses etc or the ship could become top heavy".

See also Able Seaman W Smith DSM

Alan Smith was on board a ship acting as distant cover for the PQ17 convoy. During a tape-recorded interview with the Centre's Director, Dr Peter Liddle, Mr Smith recalled collecting Norwegian commandos from Greenock and landing them at Spitzbergen Island in order to attempt its occupation. He also described the clothing he wore to keep warm:

"When I say it was cold, we had steam heat on all the guns. . . otherwise the guns would have frozen up. This was their summer and we had every bit of clothing on that we could muster. I mean, I had apart from extra thick Arctic long johns over pairs of long johns, I had a thick naval jersey, I had woollen vests underneath, pure wool. I had a naval blue greatcoat, over that I had a duffel coat. I had a balaclava and then I had a hood attached to the duffel coat and two or three pairs of gloves because if you had put your hand on the metal, you would have pulled the skin away. I couldn't believe that this was July".

One of HMS Magpie's depth-charge crews
One of HMS Magpie's depth-charge crews

In an interview with Richard Campbell-Begg, tape-recorded in 1996, Roger Hill DSO, DSC, RN in command of HMS Ledbury admitted that he had never come to terms with leaving the convoy without protection, echoed in his excellent book Destroyer Captain:

"There were 23 ships sunk in that PQ17, 190 seamen killed, 400-500 aircraft were lost, about 300 tanks and 100,000 tons of war material. That's what resulted from that Admiralty signal. It was really terrible, even now I have never got over it, because for the Navy to leave the Merchant Navy like that was simply terrible. The American cruiser people ashore, of course they just said 'The Limeys are yellow' and they all had fights and had to have leave on different nights and so on, and the Tirpitz was not within three or four hundred miles of the convoy. She came out eventually, but not that day, the next day I think, or the following day. She was sighted by a submarine which made a signal, the Germans intercepted that signal and called her straight back to harbour. There was no threat to the convoy at all except from the air and all these poor merchant ships, one merchant ship signalled 'I can see 7 submarines approaching me on the surface' and there was continual air attack. It was simply awful".

Among the surviving escorts was HMS Pozarica, commanded by Capt E D W Lawford RN. Capt Lawford's daughter Joyce Openshaw, at the time a WRNS Cypher Officer working at Derby House in Liverpool, wrote proudly of her father's achievements during the PQ17 convoy, which resulted in his being awarded the DSO:

"I knew what was happening throughout, but was unable to tell my mother any details, other than, from time to time, saying that my father was alright. The escorts were not able to return until October, when the days were shorter. They had a miserable time in Archangel, with very little food and a good deal of hostility from the Russians. . . We all went to Buckingham Palace for the Investiture by King George VI shortly after his return. The citation read: 'For bravery and resolution in H.M. ships, while taking a convoy to North Russia in the face of relentless attacks by enemy aircraft and submarines' "To be Companion of the Distinguished Service Order".

Lt Henry P Doran RNVR
Lt Henry P Doran RNVR

Despite the constant dangers, memoirs held at the Centre usually contain details of some of the more humorous incidents, such as one example from Lt Henry Doran RNVR:

"As it was August it was daylight all round the clock. Early on there was an alarm and someone shouted "Look" and there was what appeared to be a U-boat on the surface. An aircraft took off and went into attack, strangely the U-boat did not dive. The pilot of the aircraft went in for the kill delighted at the thought of a DSC - which was the usual reward when an aircraft sank a U-boat. He dropped a depth-charge but it was badly aimed and missed - so he fired six rockets in his next run. Then there was a great water-spout and the object turned on its back floating - it was a whale!"

On one aircraft-carrier, Lt Doran served under Capt Jack Broome:

". . . who was later the central figure in the famous PQ17 Russian convoy. He was unconventional enough to wander around the ship in dungarees at times and once after being told off in no uncertain language for standing around watching some work being done, he ordered his steward to get some paint and paint on his shoulder straps the four rings necessary to give him some immunity from the wrath of the petty officers".

Partial Transcript of pages (right) Aircraft carrier in heavy seas

Notes and Recollections of "Cruise in Northern Waters July 31 to Sept 27 1942" Lt Henry P Doran RNVR
Notes and Recollections of "Cruise in Northern Waters July 31 to Sept 27 1942" Lt Henry P Doran RNVR

Monday Sep 7 Proceeded to sea at 01.30 after emergency call to meet Russian convoy 300 miles S.W. of Iceland. Contacted convoy at 13.00. Quite large. 45 ships - but rather weak escort. 4 destroyers and 3 armed trawlers. Ships very heavily laden with tanks and aircraft.
Tuesday Sep 8 With convoy. Spent night with lame duck - a Russian ship. She rectified trouble at dawn and rejoined convoy. No attack. Left convoy at 1600 and saw eight destroyers sailing in line ahead from Hjalfjord to join up. We came near to Reykjavik and signalled our troubles. Anchored off R. all night.
Tuesday Sep 8 (cont) It was a very peaceful evening and very enjoyable anchored so close in - one could see most of the life of the harbour and town. Several big ships in docks - 3 or 4 passenger liners - possibly Danes interned.
Thursday Sep 10 Proceeded to sea bound for Scapa at 0615. Very heavy weather all day.
Friday Sep 11 At sea. Filthy storm. Waves breaking over ship all day. Mess awash. Man overboard at noon. (Jones) rescued 13 minutes later by skilful seamanship.
Saturday Sep 12 Entered Scapa Flow at 0800. Much to everyone's relief.