Two Minutes To Live

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjörður in May 1942 before the sailing of Convoy PQ-17 (which was decimated by German forces after the Admiralty on 4 July 1942 ordered the escort to ‘scatter’). Behind the destroyer HMS Icarus (front left) is the Russian tanker SS Azerbaijan.
Aboard HMS Sheffield during an Arctic Convoy Escort Patrol in December 1941 during the short time each day that the sun is seen during winter. In the background are merchant ships of the convoy.
Ice forming on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield whilst she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia.

Convoys to the USSR formed up in Iceland and proceeded north in waters so cold you had only two minutes to live if your ship was torpedoed and you ended up in the water instead of a lifeboat. Two minutes. That’s why the letters “PQ” put the fear of God into mariners during the Second World War. Why? Because this two letter prefix was the code used to designate an outbound convoy to the Soviet Union.

Like many things in life, the two letters were chosen on the fly. Commander Russell of His Majesty’s Royal Navy was the Admiralty planner charged with organizing the first supply convoy to the Soviet Union. A convoy code prefix was needed and needed quickly. So the initials of Commander Russell’s first (Peter) and middle (Quellyn) names were used and these convoys were designated as “PQ.” When the ships came back from the Soviet Union the convoy prefix was changed to “QP.” (Source: Convoy: Merchant Sailors At War 1939-1945 by Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie.)

The PQ convoys steamed from Hvalfjörður, a fjord in northwest Iceland. The fjord is 30km in length and 5km in width. What is unusual about this anchorage is that the weather was so appalling that even in this protected fjord, anchored ships would keep steam up. The wind could blow so strongly that ships would often have to steam ahead at one or two knots. This action did not move forward, the wind was too strong, but it kept them from dragging their anchors. And this was just the beginning of the journey. It went downhill from there.

After leaving Hvalfjörður, convoys would steam northeast into the Norwegian Sea. Norway had been seized by Germany in April of 1940 so once the convoys had steamed for a day or two they were in range of German airfields in Norway. The Luftwaffe mounted sustained attacks against these Allied convoys and sank dozens of merchant ships over the course of the war. (A total of one hundred five Allied merchant ships were sent to the bottom by a combination of attacks by U-Boats and aircraft.)

Arctic convoys steamed all the war around Norway, gradually turning east into the Barents Sea and then steaming southeast to Murmansk, the only Russian port which remained ice free year round. The destination was no safer than the journey since Murmansk was less than twenty minutes flying time from German lines. The Luftwaffe pounded the anchorage in Murmansk constantly. Merchant crewmen and military armed guard detachments had to man their anti-aircraft guns twenty-four hours a day.

It was a brutal campaign and everyone who participated in the Arctic convoys has said either in writing or verbal interviews that the Germans were not the worst enemy – if that’s possible – the worst enemy was the cold.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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