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.]

The Battle of the North Atlantic: Allied Convoys

There are many battles in World War Two which historians claim to be the “most important battle of the war.” But the Battle of the North Atlantic really was the most important battle of the war. Had we lost, then Great Britain would have been forced to surrender.

U-Boats, Allied escorts ships, and aircraft from both sides played the major role in this battle and beginning with this post I am going to post once or twice a week on the Battle of the North Atlantic. I can do this for years probably because the Battle lasted all of World War Two. While the German U-Boats were decisively beaten by May of 1943, they continued to launch attacks from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean to the Irish Sea to the Southern Atlantic to the North Atlantic to the Bering Sea and all along Norway and the route to Murmansk. They even had a U-Boat base close to Singapore.

All Allied merchant shipping worldwide moved in specific convoys, on specific dates, all welded together in something known as the Allied Interlocking Convoy System. After 1942, the first year the US was in the war, the system was largely in place. Absolutely nothing about Allied convoys was random. Ships were scheduled months in advance to bring specific cargo to a specific port at a specific time.

An Allied Convoy

When you look at a picture of an Allied convoy in the North Atlantic in World War Two, you can be sure that very little has been left to chance. Each ship has been allotted a specific place in the convoy depending on type of ship, cargo, final destination, etc. It wasn’t haphazard. Unlike the German merchant marine in World War Two, which maintained its independence from the Kriegsmarine to the detriment of the German war effort, all Allied merchant shipping was subordinated to the US Navy or Royal Navy or some combination.

Each convoy in the North Atlantic had a commodore who was in charge of all merchant ships and was located with a staff of signalmen in the center front of the convoy. All of these men were retired British admirals who had been recalled to the colors and given the temporary rank of commodore. But the man in charge of the entire operation was the SOE, Senior Officer Escort, the commander of the escort ships. He had the final word although he might be a very young man.

An Allied Convoy is gathering together in Nova Scotia’s Bedford Basin

In the first months of the war it was catch as catch can when assembling escorts for a convoy. When a U-Boat attacked, there wasn’t even a standard response. Different escort commanders ordered different things. There had to be standard methods. The British and the Americans excelled at something the Germans paid very little attention to and given the German interest in detail, it is a surprising oversight. And what the Americans and the British did far better than the Germans was operational research.

It will sound strange, I know, but outside consultants, yes, consultants, would analyze the records from every single Allied convoy. They would study these with great intensity and would run various scenarios using mathematical models. Based on this on-going research, standards were developed for every aspect of a convoy to maximize their chances of success.

Convoy WS-12: A Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over the convoy, while it was en route to Capetown, South Africa, 27 November 1941. The convoy appears to be making a formation turn from column to line abreast. Two-stack transports in the first row are USS West Point (AP-23) – left – ; USS Mount Vernon (AP-22) and USS Wakefield (AP-21). Heavy cruisers, on the right side of the first row and middle of the second, are USS Vincennes (CA-44) and USS Quincy (CA-39). Single-stack transports in the second row are USS Leonard Wood (AP-25) and USS Joseph T. Dickman (AP-26).