Disaster: Convoy PQ 17 and Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound – Part 2

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The ammunition ship Mary Luckenbach explodes during PQ18, 19 October 1942. After PQ17 the convoys stopped for nine weeks, then PQ18 was fought through against strong opposition. In total, 16 ships were lost, along with 41 German aircraft and 4 U-boats.

The order for PQ17 to scatter was a disaster and many in the Admiralty knew it and even had very strong proof that the Tirpitz had not sortied from Norway. Nonetheless, even after being given that information Pound refused to retract his order. Unfortunately, Admiral Pound suffered from ill health, with both an undiagnosed brain tumor as well as a painful degenerative hip disease which kept him from sleeping. He often fell asleep in meetings leading younger officers to whisper, “father’s praying.”

Prime Minister Churchill wore several hats during the war and unknown to many in addition to the post of Prime Minister, he took the Cabinet Post of Minister of Defense, a position of great power. By doing so, he kept power over the military in his hands and denied it to others. Many felt Churchill put Pound in charge of the Admiralty so Churchill could effectively run the Royal Navy. I think there is truth to this yet Pound often deflected Churchill’s occasional harebrained schemes by plodding along pretending to work on them but never actually doing so.

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Seamen clearing ice from the forecastle of HMS Belfast in November 1943. Ice formed from frozen spray would build up on every exposed part of a ship. It had to be cleared regularly or the extra weight could make the ship capsize.

It is a curiosity of history that both Roosevelt and Churchill had held high civilian positions in their respective governments overseeing their navies. FDR took a great interest in the US Navy in WW Two although never interfered like Churchill often did. Nonetheless, FDR let General Marshal run the Army side of the war with little interference except for the major strategic questions, while keeping a much closer eye on the Navy.

FDR had a policy, at least it seems he had a policy, of only deciding what he alone as President could decide. There were several occasions when both General Marshal and Admiral King met with Roosevelt and came away with specific orders to carry out a mission — Operation Torch being an example. After the meeting at FDR’s Hyde Park estate during which Roosevelt overrode their opposition and told them to do it, the two men returned to Washington and wrote a memo once again urging FDR to cancel this undertaking. FDR sent the memo back and in no uncertain terms said “Not Approved” and just in case they didn’t get it, he signed the memo, “Roosevelt, C-in-C.”

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Atlantic Charter Conference, 10-12 August 1941 – Conference leaders during Church services on the after deck of HMS Prince of Wales, in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) and Prime Minister Winston Churchill are seated in the foreground. Standing directly behind them are Admiral Ernest J. King, USN; General George C. Marshall, US Army; General Sir John Dill, British Army; Admiral Harold R. Stark, USN; and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, RN. At far left is Harry Hopkins, talking with W. Averell Harriman. Donation of Vice Admiral Harry Sanders, USN(Retired), 1969. (US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.)

[Images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, the Imperial War Museum, and the US Naval History and Heritage Command.]

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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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