Although PQ17 sailed in June and July of 1942, that was even more dangerous than sailing in the winter because in the high latitudes of the Arctic the sun never went down and the ships were exposed 24/7 with no darkness to protect them.
The order for Convoy PQ17 to scatter and for the Royal Navy escort ships to withdraw came directly from the First Sea Lord (C-in-C of the Royal Navy), Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound. It was an ordered unprecedented in British naval history and tradition since it meant abandoning the convoy they were supposed to be protecting. Subsequent to their order to scatter, Convoy PQ17 lost 24 of its 35 merchant ships from both attacks by U-Boats and attacks by German warplanes based in Norway.
When Pound ordered the escorts to leave the convoy and withdraw at high speed while leaving the convoy to scatter, the lower deck ratings aboard several British warships in the close escort “refused service” in polite RN terms. That is, they mutinied and refused to obey orders to leave the convoy.
The First Lieutenants of several ships were compelled to appear in each compartment and read the Act of War to the ratings which act stipulated that the punishment for mutiny was death. It was clear to the lower deck ratings that even the officers did not want to obey the order to leave the convoy and after being told they could be hanged the men obeyed orders and no charges were ever made against them.
The commander of the close escort even went so far as to ask the Admiralty twice to repeat their order to him to scatter the convoy. Based on the wording and the tone of the messages he received from the Admiralty he expected to see the Tirpitz on the horizon at any moment. But the Tirpitz hadn’t put to sea. Only the anti-submarine trawlers stayed with the merchant ships. To his dying day the commander of the close escort bitterly regretted that he had left the merchant ships to the mercy of the Germans.
Conditions in Arctic Sea were appallingly severe. One could not survive more than two to three minutes in the water. The rough weather pummeled the ships making it difficult to even move around. Men were thrown out of their bunks and hammocks, slammed against bulkheads, and lived in dank and dreary conditions. It was almost impossible to get one’s heavy woolen clothes to dry because the atmosphere in the ship was so damp.
[Images courtesy of Imperial War Museum and UK National Portrait Gallery.]