Friday, August 9, 2019

The Death of Convoy PQ 17

Ice forms on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield while she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia.
My pop* was of the “greatest generation.” A merchant marine officer, he got paid to sail cargo to the Brits and Russians before the war and during it. Used to sail the Murmansk Run. A tough one, that. Bombers, U-boats. The very sea was an enemy – so cold that it wasn’t worth stopping to pick a man up, if he fell over the side. He’d be dead of the exposure before a boat could get to him, let alone the risk to the convoy.

His ship got hit by a dive bomber, just outside Murmansk – they ran it ashore before it could sink, and he spent six months there on repairs. Got her back to New York. She was sunk in the Indian Ocean on her next float, torpedoed by a sub. My dad had rotated off.

There were times when I was feeling low that I read a letter he wrote me while I was a plebe at the Naval Academy. He talked about being under fire, seeing ships alongside you blow up, or sail beneath the waves with their bows shot off, screws still turning. The screams of the men in the water. The fact that you couldn’t stop. - by Lex   (Yesterday, 08 Dec 03)

After December the 7th his studies were cut short – men were needed to sail ships, move equipment, food and people to the fight. So my father closed his textbooks and went to sea after Pearl Harbor – the Murmansk run from New York, carrying tanks and ammunition for the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. It wasn’t a milk run. He had classmates from that school that didn’t come back either. He saw some of them die in front of him. A country half our population, with 400,000 dead in three and one half years? Everyone knew someone who didn’t come back. Those were hard times. You had to pull together.

There was a time when I was at the Boat School, plebe year that I was feeling rather sorry for myself that I hadn’t gone to Virginia or Duke – I wasn’t a particularly good plebe, and the upperclassmen were especially fond of pointing that fact out to me. We spoke on the phone, my father and I, and troubled by my evident unhappiness he wrote a letter to me afterwards. Remember getting letters?

I remember this one: He told of a time in the North Sea, the convoy harassed by dive bombers in the daylight hours and threatened by U-Boats around the clock. He told me the story of an ammunition ship getting hit at night alongside him, the way she went up in a column of fire, the strange fact that years later, he couldn’t remember having heard a sound. He told me of another Liberty ship alongside of his, her bow blown off at 15 knots, the way she steamed right under the sea until at last her fantail lifted in the air, the propellor still thrashing. It was a really good letter. He’s been gone for 24 years, but sometimes when I’m feeling low, I pull it out and read it again. It puts things into perspective.

When I was a kid he told me about coming up on deck during the war, the General Quarters alarm sounding, to man his AA gun when his ship was under air attack and seeing a Stuka dive bomber framed in the hatchway at the top of the ladder, growing larger, screaming as it came, the bomb coming loose, falling towards the ship, towards my father.

“Were you scared, dad?” I asked, maybe 10 years old.

“Scared?” he said with a grunt. “I was terrified.” by Lex   (Pearl Harbor, 07 Dec 06)

There are three main types of water masses in the Barents Sea: Warm, salty Atlantic water (temperature >37 °F) from the North Atlantic drift, cold Arctic water (temperature <32 °F) from the north, and warm, but not very salty coastal water (temperature >32 °F).

According to the Minnesota Sea Grant, a person who's thrown into freezing water, at 32 degrees, would only have about 15 minutes before they became unconscious or too exhausted to move; they would only survive for about 45 minutes.

North of the Arctic Circle, in June, there are 24 hours of daylight, the sun never sets. Unless the weather is bad, which it can be, there is nowhere to hide when the Luftwaffe and the U-Boats come-a calling.

There were many who served in World War II who are often forgotten, the men of the Merchant Marine, like Lex's Dad, who manned the convoys moving men, equipment, and other wartime necessities from the factories in the United States to the United Kingdom. Supplies transferred to the Soviet Union from the Western Allies played a key role in the ability of the Russians to withstand the Nazi onslaught in 1941.
Much of the logistical assistance of the Soviet military was provided by hundreds of thousands of U.S.-made trucks and by 1945, nearly a third of the truck strength of the Red Army was U.S.-built. Trucks such as the Dodge 3/4-ton and Studebaker 2 1/2 ton were easily the best trucks available in their class on either side on the Eastern Front. American shipments of telephone cable, aluminum, canned rations and clothing were also critical. Lend-Lease also supplied significant amounts of weapons and ammunition. The Soviet air force received 18,200 aircraft, which amounted to about 30 percent of Soviet wartime fighter and bomber production (mid 1941–45). Most tank units were Soviet-built models but about 7,000 Lend-Lease tanks (plus more than 5,000 British tanks) were used by the Red Army, 8 percent of war-time production. (Source)
Many of us know about the Battle of the Atlantic and the long struggle to defeat the German U-Boat fleet. Can you imagine standing on a beach in Florida and watching a commercial vessel burning - towering columns of black smoke, men dying - after being torpedoed by a U-Boat, right off of the American coast?

Now picture the same thing, only in the dark waters of the Barents Sea, where there is little chance of being rescued, where the water temperature alone will kill you in short order.

That was the Murmansk Run.

PQ 17 was the code name for an Allied Arctic convoy during the Second World War. On 27 June 1942, the ships sailed from Hvalfjord**, Iceland for the port of Arkhangelsk in the Soviet Union. The convoy was located by German forces on 1 July, after which it was shadowed continuously and attacked. The First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound, acting on information that German surface units, including the German battleship Tirpitz, were moving to intercept, ordered the covering force built around the Allied battleships HMS King George V and the USS Washington away from the convoy and told the convoy to scatter. Due to vacillation by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German armed forces high command), the Tirpitz raid never materialised. The convoy was the first large joint Anglo-American naval operation under British command; in Churchill's view this encouraged a more careful approach to fleet movements.

As the close escort and the covering cruiser forces withdrew westwards to intercept the German raiders, the merchant ships were left without escorts. The merchant ships were attacked by Luftwaffe aeroplanes and U-boats and of the 35 ships, only eleven reached their destination, delivering 70,000 short tons (64,000 metric tons) of cargo. The convoy disaster demonstrated the difficulty of passing adequate supplies through the Arctic, especially during the summer midnight sun. Convoy PQ 17 lost 24 of its 35 merchant ships during a week of daylight attacks by U-boats and aircraft. (Source)

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before the sailing of Convoy PQ 17.
Map showing the path of convoy PQ-17 and the location of attacks and sinkings.
Area of Operations, The "Murmansk Run"
Google Maps
PQ 17 composition:
Merchant ships of convoy JW53 passing through pack ice during the voyage. An escort destroyer can be seen in the background. View from the Dido class cruiser HMS SCYLLA.
Cold is the sea...

Especially above 66°33' North Latitude!
The United States Merchant Mariner suffered more casualties than any other American service during World War II, 1 of every 26 mariners would not return home. Facing submarines, mines, armed raiders, destroyers, aircraft, “kamikaze,” and the elements. About 8,300 mariners were killed at sea, 12,000 wounded of whom at least 1,100 died from their wounds, and 663 men and women were taken prisoner.  Some were blown to death, some incinerated, some drowned, some froze, and some starved. Sixty-six died in prison camps or aboard Japanese ships while being transported to other camps. Thirty-one American merchant ships vanished without a trace to a watery grave. (Source)
Hidden away in the water off Battery Park is one of the most moving memorials you are ever likely to see. The American Merchant Mariner’s memorial, sculpted by Marisol Escobar in 1991, takes the form of three merchant seamen stranded on a sinking ship, terrified, calling for help and trying to reach the desperate hand of one of their shipmates floundering in the water below. (Source)
To the men of the Merchant Marine, may their memory be ever bright!

Navy-Merchant Marine Memorial, Washington DC
To the strong souls and ready valor of those men of the United States who in the Navy, the Merchant Marine and other paths of Activity upon the waters of the world have given life or still offer it in the performance of heroic deeds this monument is dedicated by a grateful people.

* Carroll F. LeFon, Sr.
**Anglicized spelling.


  1. Not very many people know about this aspect of WWII. I was one of those until you gave me a book when we were on
    The Rock called H.M.S. Ulysses. Even though it was fiction, it was a real eye opener.

    1. A tough business those convoys. (I need to reread that book, I haven't read any MacLean in a while and he's a great storyteller.)

    2. That's the same way I heard about the PQ 17 convoy.
      MacLean is indeed a great storyteller.

  2. It has always amused me that the Russians referred to the Studebaker trucks, as " Stooders ". BADGER PAW SALUTE to the Merchant Marine! Very brave men!
    The U.S. Navy was a big user of color film during the war, as ships had the ability to have darkrooms, albeit very small ones, where the film could be developed. I once saw a short film taken from the bridge wing of a ship in a convoy, presumably an escort, as it was in color. When a ship is torpedoes, you don't stop, as you would be next, if you did.

    The film showed the ship sailing through the wreckage of a sunken ship, with corpses floating, unmoving, in the water. But the film panned, because the re was an Oceanic Whitetip starting the cleanup of the bodies. It was a body floating limply, face down, but it was still disturbing.

    The Merchant Marine sailors knew that this could be their fate, unless the designated rescue ship found them. But they still sailed. They are almost all gone, now, but it was a travesty that there was no way to give them V A benefits, as they surely were combatants, fighting for our country.

    1. It is a shame, their casualty rate was horrific.

  3. Besides Hms Ulysses, the awesome Cruel Sea is great piece of literature on the escort duty there. Anyway, for what if scenario, try the alternate history Disaster at Stalingrad. There, Germans proceed with surface raid, it does cost them heavily in ships, including Tirpitz sunk by Uss Washington, but they manage to capture much of the convoy intact, which is one of factors leading to titular disaster.

    1. Great premise for an alternate history, quite plausible as well.

      (BTW, thanks for the idea of writing on PQ 17!)

  4. Great writing as always, Sarge. I like to think that I'm pretty knowledgeable about WWII history, but this was an aspect I wasn't particularly aware of either.

    1. Thanks Aaron, I learn new things everyday, sometimes a reader comment sends me off on a chase and I find things I never knew.

  5. The US Merchant Marine effectively died during WWII. That is how bad losses against shipping and men were. What remained after the war died from regulations and unionizations post war, until our merchant fleet is a mere shadow of its former self. (Sure, the MM was dying as during the Great Unpleasantness of 1861-1865 many US flagged ships re-flagged in foreign countries to avoid either blockades or merchant raiders, and WWI didn't do us so well, though the first few years the Kaiser was trying not to sink our ships.)(Oh, and FDR not ordering blackouts along port cities made our coasts shooting galleries for U-boats.)

    Which is a major danger. We rely on ships registered in foreign ports with crews from third world countries that are paid and treated almost as slaves (some are slaves for any real value of slavery.) Unless we, as a nation, stop relying on foreign trade, someone big and ugly and not caring about world opinion (like Red China) can hold us hostage. Especially since our naval forces are spread so thing.

    Merchant Marines. Even more unsung than the Coast Guard. But all served with great valor, in conditions that were horrible, with equipment sometimes not even second-rate.

    What's that line juvat says? Something about it was a combined victory or something? he says it better than I.

    1. Yes, very unsung.

      And yes, our Merchant Marine has dwindled to alarming proportions compared to the rest of the world. It's a travesty and a shame.

  6. Then-captain Daniel Gallery, stationed in Iceland at the time, wrote bitterly about watching developments around that convoy: "About noon we intercepted the unbelievable message from London: 'All warships retire to the west at high speed. Merchant vessels scatter and make best of way to Murmansk.' Too stunned and ashamed to say a word, we just drifted out of headquarters...When the Washington came into Reykjavik a few days later her people wouldn't come ashore. They didn't want to face their friends, although God knows all they did was to carry out orders which allowed them no discretion." War is Hell.

  7. I had an uncle by marriage who was a Naval Gunner assigned to an armed merchant ship. He made a Murmansk run. Talked about the cold. He credited surviving WWII by the fluke of his ship breaking down and spending nine months in a Peru harbor while repairs were made.

    1. That was some tough duty in a harsh climate!

  8. San Pedro has the American Merchant Marine Veteran's Memorial about a half-block from the Maritime Museum where I spent a lot of time. It has the MM's version of The Wall, and it's very sobering to see the names of all the civilians who gave their lives in service to our country.

    1. I had no idea...

      What a beautiful, poignant memorial.

  9. ...there was another WW2 British convoy, HX84 that was caught by the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer. The heavily outgunned armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay ordered her convoy to scatter and steamed straight for the Scheer to protect them - she was sunk in 22 minutes. Then as other merchant ships were being shelled, the merchant ship SS Beaverford (even more heavily outgunned) turned to protect the others and played cat and mouse with the Scheer for four hours before being sunk...Finally, the tanker MV San Demetrio had been set afire and abandoned. Two days later, she was still burning when part of her crew reboarded her...with aviation gasoline spouting from the shell holes in the deck at every roll and running down the scuppers and with smoldering debris everywhere ...they got the fires out and brought her safe to Ireland.

    1. HX 84 caused a couple of dormant memories to twitch, so I chased those links...

      Oh my God, such bravery...

      There are not enough monuments to the Merchant Marine.

  10. Well put Sarge! Also, there was the US Navy Armed Guard aboard merchant ships that served the weapons and were separate from the ship's crew - whatever the captain and crew did, they were to fight back until the ship sank under them.
    In another action, the Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins fought it out alone against two German raiders...and sunk one of them before being sunk herself...

    1. I didn't know about the Hopkins fight, named for a Rhode Islander she was.

      Such bravery.


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