Disaster: Convoy PQ 17 and Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound – Part 1

Part 1 – Part 2  Part 3

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Lookout on board HMS Sheffield in December 1941. He is dressing for the icy conditions, putting on a sheepskin great-coat, sheepskin gloves, two balaclavas, thick woollen underwear, two pairs of seaboot stockings, and several pullovers.

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.

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Sir Alfred Dudley Pickman Rogers Pound, British Admiral of the Fleet, First Sea Lord, head of the Royal Navy, June 1939–1943 Date: 29 December 1939. While Pound was no Lord Nelson, he did a relatively credible job but was a weak man who refused to delegate authority. Unfortunately, even though he did have other achievements, he is most remembered for the disaster of Convoy PQ17.

[Images courtesy of Imperial War Museum and UK National Portrait Gallery.]

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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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