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.]

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.]

Disaster: Convoy PQ 17 and the Order to Scatter

Escorts and merchant ships at Hvalfjord before the sailing of Convoy PQ-17. Behind the destroyer HMS Icarus is the Russian tanker Azerbaijan, whose mainly female crew saved their ship after she was bombed and set on fire. The sea voyage to the north Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel was the shortest route for sending Allied supplies to Russia. But it was also the most dangerous owing to the large concentration of German forces in northern Norway. The convoy PQ-17 was decimated by U-boats and the Luftwaffe after a communication from the Admiralty on 4 July 1942 ordered the escort to ‘scatter’ fearing an attack by the German battleship Tirpitz. Only 11 out of the 34 ships reached Russia and in all, 153 merchant seamen died. Date: May 1942

Havalfjord in Iceland was rarely as placid as it appears in the above photo. Vicious wind storms would come howling over the mountains in the background with little or no warning. Ships typically kept steam up in one boiler in the event they started to drag their anchors because of the winds. On certain occasions, RN destroyers and corvettes had to make revolutions for three knots to simply stay in place. And being Iceland, it was cold almost all the time.

A storm brewing in Hvalfjordur – Iceland.

HMS Renown was one of the faulty battlecruisers built by the RN for speed which they sacrificed armor to achieve. HMS Hood paid the price for this design flaw as did HMS Repulse when she was sunk by Japanese dive-bombers in the Sundra Strait off Malaya with the HMS Prince of Wales. HMS Renown survived the war.

HMS Renown at anchor in Hvalfjord, Iceland (Photograph taken from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious) during the search for the Tirpitz. The battleship aft of Renown is possibly USS Texas, which arrived in Iceland in late January to escort a convoy back to British waters.

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