Disaster: Convoy PQ 17 and How the “PQ” Convoys Received Their Designation

A British wartime poster about the Arctic convoys. It reads: “Arms for Russia – a great convoy of British ships escorted by Soviet fighters sails into Murmansk harbour with vital supplies for the Red Army.”

Every convoy in World War Two had a designation code of two, three, or sometimes four letters which specified where the convoy was going and how. ONS 5, for example, the greatest convoy battle of the war in the North Atlantic, meant “Outward bound (from Great Britain) on the Northern route.” The convoy did not travel faster than five knots so that old ships out of mothballs could keep up. Therefore it was designated a Slow convoy. The number 5 means it was the 5th convoy in the ONS series to use this routing.

The PQ convoys, however, had a nonsensical designation. A Royal Navy staff officer at the Admiralty named Philip Quellyn Roberts gave his first two initials to the Russian convoys. While I knew the story, I will let an excerpt from the following email I received from his son, Paul Quellyn Roberts, explain in more detail how the PQ convoys to Russia and the QP convoys returning from Russia received their designations.

While he (father) was at the Admiralty, he was involved in the organizing of the war relief convoys to Russia. My understanding was that they had run out of current numbers so he designated the next run PQ1 and then this would be reversed on the return to QP1. The question arose why these particular letters. Fathers name was PHILIP QUELLYN ROBERTS……..PQR!

He left the admiralty, I believe about PQ8 or 9, so did not see the PQ17 disaster. For a time he commanded HMS Sirius, a Dido class light cruiser based in the Mediterranean…He retired in 1947 as Captain…DSO (Distinguished Service Order). I thought this might be of interest.

Best Wishes
Paul Quellyn Roberts

Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Renown in heavy weather. The barrels of the main turrets are pointed in different directions to keep water from getting in.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and World War Two Today.]

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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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