Britain and Iceland Fight Cod War

Many years back the British and the Icelanders had a bun fight over international fishing rights and how much cod the British could catch and where they could fish. Each side had its own interpretations. Icelandic Coast Guard vessels would close British trawlers and try and cut their trawl nets.  British frigates would interpose themselves in a game of cat and mouse.

 

THE COD WAR: THE ROYAL NAVY ON FISHERY PROTECTION DUTIES OFF THE COAST OF ICELAND 1975 – 1976 (CT 227) In a near miss, the Icelandic gunboat ODINN passes withing feet of the Royal Navy frigate HMS SCYLLA off Iceland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191178
THE COD WAR: THE ROYAL NAVY ON FISHERY PROTECTION DUTIES OFF THE COAST OF ICELAND 1972 – 1976 (CT 226) The Icelandic gunboat TYR ploughs past the Royal Navy frigate HMS SCYLLA off Iceland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191177
THE COD WAR: THE ROYAL NAVY ON FISHERY PROTECTION DUTIES OFF THE COAST OF ICELAND 1972 – 1976 (CT 236) The Icelandic gunboat ODINN passes within feet of the Roy al Navy frigate HMS SCYLLA. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191185
THE COD WAR: THE ROYAL NAVY ON FISHERY PROTECTION DUTIES OFF THE COAST OF ICELAND 1972 – 1976 (CT 234) The Icelandic gunboat ODINN ploughs through the seas off Iceland alongside the Royal Navy frigate HMS SCYLLA. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191183
THE COD WAR: THE ROYAL NAVY ON FISHERY PROTECTION DUTIES OFF THE COAST OF ICELAND 1972 – 1976 (CT 232) The Icelandic gunboat TYR comes dangerously close to the Royal Navy frigate HMS SCYLLA off Iceland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191182

The Magnificent Northern Lights Above Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull Volcano

 

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in the evening

 

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 23rd, 2013. Photograph credit to REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson courtesy of the London Daily Telegraph.

This would have been a familiar sight to Allied sailors. During World War Two, Iceland served as a key staging point for Allied convoys to and from the United Kingdom and other destinations including the Soviet Union. In the seas off Iceland was the CHOP line or Change of Operational Control when the British convoy escorts under the control of Western Approaches Command, handed off convoy protection duty to the US Navy.

Both the Brits and the Americans used Iceland as a base for repairing, refueling and resupplying of warships and merchant ships. To keep the Germans from occupying Iceland and choking off the sea lanes to America, British Royal Marines occupied the Iceland in May of 1940 and were later replaced by US Marines.

We did not consult the Icelanders who behaved rather badly. One wonders what they would have thought if their German cousins had beat the Allies to the punch. Throughout the war Nazi pamphlets and propaganda were sold in Iceland legally and openly by Icelandic sympathizers of the Nazis.

Many of the locals went out of their way to be rude to the British and later American Marines. I wonder how the Waffen SS would have reacted.

The body of water known as the Hvalfjörður was used as the main anchorage by Allied ships. Often the weather was so rough and the wind so strong in the anchorage no matter what the season that ships had to keep steam on to maintain their positions and not drag their anchors. Sometimes stationary ships were making revolutions for three to four knots to simply stay in place.

757px-Arctic_Convoy,_May_1942_A_009172

A photograph taken in May 1942 from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious of ships in the anchorage Hvalfjord, Iceland.

Original caption from the era reads: The convoy will sail at dusk. A striking silhouette of the convoy at it’s rendezvous, waiting for the order to sail. All these ships are loaded with vital war supplies for Russia. (Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Convoys to the Soviet Union either went to Murmansk or Archangel, the first being the only port in the Soviet Union ice-free year round. This was the most dangerous of Allied convoy routings. Ships sailed from Iceland through the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic Sea to the White Sea. For most of the voyage, these convoys would be under constant air attack by the Luftwaffe. U-Boats stalked every convoy and had great success.

85 merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy warships were sunk during the 78 supply convoys sent to the Soviet Union. Dozens and dozens more ships were severely damaged. Was it worth it? Yes. Over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two were killed by the Red Army and over 80% of the land engagements in the European theater were fought in the Soviet Union. Over 30 million Soviet citizens-half military and half civilian-lost their lives in World War Two.

Both the Allies and the Soviets were well aware of these figures which Stalin mentioned all the time in his dealings with the Allies. The number one strategic goal of the Anglo-Americans in World War Two in Europe was to keep the Soviet Union in the war. Strategy flowed from that reality.

The convoys to Russia were designated PQ (changed after the PQ 17 disaster) with the return convoys being designated QP. Of the several hundred convoy designations used by the Allies, this is the only one I am aware of which uses the initials of someone’s name that person being Peter Quellyn Roberts. This is a famous story in World War Two and some doubt its authenticity. Below is an excerpt from an email I received 18 months ago from the son of Captain PQ Roberts, RN.

“While he was at the Admiralty, father 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 !”

So, there you have it from the horse’s mouth. The son is named, Paul Quellyn Roberts.

 

 

 

German Battleship Scharnhorst

I have written in greater depth about the German battleship Scharnhorst.

The streak of bad omens for the Scharnhorst continued when her first commander went on prolonged sick leave after only a short tenure on the ship. Finally, in November 1939, Scharnhorst began her first operation along with her sister ship Gneisenau, with whom she operated throughout the majority of her career.

Scharnhorst‘s first operation was a sortie into the North Atlantic between Iceland and the Faroe Islands where she sank the British axillary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi. (You can read my account of this battle here.) This mission was intended to take British pressure off of the Admiral Graf Spee operating in the South Atlantic and was conducted prior to major training.

After her return to Wilhelmshaven for minor repairs from splinter damage resulting from her first mission, Scharnhorst spent the winter of 1939-40 in the Baltic Sea for gunnery training. This proved to be a longer training session than normal since heavy ice kept Scharnhorst trapped in the Baltic until February 1940. Collected below are photographs of the Scharnhorst from her winter gunnery practice.

Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View looking aft on the foredeck, with anchor handling gear in the foreground and two triple 283mm gun turrets beyond. Taken during the winter of 1939-40, at Kiel. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 9.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View of the after 283mm (11″) triple gun turret and its aircraft catapult, circa winter 1939-40. View looks forward, with the tripod mainmast and naval ensign in the background. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 14.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Detail view of the rangefinder hood on the right side of the after 283mm (11″) gun turret, during the winter 1939-40. View looks forward, with the ship’s mainmast and flag visible in the background. Note light coating of snow or ice on the turret. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) View from the forward superstructure, looking toward the bow, as the ship throws spray while underway during the winter of 1939-40. Note ice accumulated on her triple 283mm (11″) gun turrets. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.
Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Firing her forward 283mm (11″) guns, during exercises in the winter of 1939-40. Copied from the contemporary German photo album Meine Kriegserinnerungen auf Schlachtschiff Scharnhorst, page 16.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]

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.]

Christmas in Iceland

Iceland occupied an interesting position during World War II due to its geography. Its location along the North Atlantic sealanes was much prized by both the Allies and the Axis and led eventually to the British invasion on 10 May 1940. The British, and subsequently from 7 July 1941 onward, the Americans, quickly set-up naval and air bases to help protect the beleaguered convoys during the height of the Battle of the North Atlantic. The 25,000 British and 40,000 American troops stationed there outnumbered all adult men in Iceland at the time. Obviously, the forces stationed there celebrated the holidays in the same fashion as those elsewhere. Gathered below are a few pictures of this.

US Soldiers Sing Carols. The Christmas spirit is universal, the traditions unchanging even in the midst of war. Where ever our American troops are to be found throughout the world Christmas Carols will be heard in joyful hymns on the eve of the Nativity of Christ. In Iceland – “O, Come Ye, O Come Ye, To Bethlehem”. 1942.
One of the most successful Christmas decorations set up was this ward of the hospital. Together with the help of nurses, patients not tied down to bed designed and put up the trimmings. Note the home made Christmas tree. Iceland, Dec. 25, 1942.
Christmas Eve these soldiers perched atop their hut embankment and serenaded all passers by with Christmas Carols. Iceland, Dec. 24, 1942. Camp Hickham, Iceland.

[Images courtesy of the US Army Center of Military History.]