In mid-1942, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrestled with a stark – and embarrassing – fact. Of the three Allies, the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war in Europe and months would pass before the United States and Great Britain would be in a position to change that. In lieu of being able to open a Second Front in France (as the American military chiefs wanted) or elsewhere (as the British military chiefs advocated), Roosevelt and Churchill were committed to keeping the Soviet Union in the war by supplying it with as much military aid as possible. Of the three sea routes possible, the shortest and most dangerous one was the Arctic Ocean run from Iceland, where the convoys were assembled, to the Russian ports of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk.
The first Arctic run occurred in August 1941 with the “Dervish” convoy to Archangel. It was followed by the PQ series of Arctic convoys. The prefix “PQ” originated from the Royal Navy officer responsible for organizing the convoys, Cmdr. P.Q. Edwards. Eastbound convoys were known as “PQ’s convoys.” For returning westbound convoys, the code letters were reversed: “QP.”
“The convoy was to split up, every man for himself. We seemed to be in a very hopeless situation.”
— July 4, 1942, diary entry, Acting Petty Officer John “Jack” Bowman, RN, of the corvette HMS La Malouine
Organized in June 1942, Convoy PQ-17 was the 18th convoy to run the daunting gauntlet of Arctic ice and weather, and Luftwaffe, U-boat, and Kriegsmarine surface ship attacks, and the first convoy to have a combined Royal Navy and U.S. Navy escort. The 35 ships and six naval auxiliaries making up the convoy contained 297 aircraft, 594 tanks, 4,246 vehicles and gun carriers, and more than 156,000 tons of additional cargo, enough to equip five Soviet divisions. Protecting it would be 43 warships, including the carrier HMS Victorious escorted by battleships HMS Duke of York and USS Washington, acting as a far escort, and a close convoy escort headed by heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk, USS Tuscaloosa and USS Wichita. The reason for so much firepower was revealed in Rear Adm. Lewis Hamilton’s June 25 operational orders to his cruiser escort force: “The primary object is still to get PQ-17 to Russia, but an object only slightly subsidiary is to provide an opportunity for the enemy’s heavy ships to be brought to action by our battle fleet and cruiser covering force.”
So the convoy was to be lucrative bait designed to catch the German battleship Tirpitz and battle cruisers Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer, and Lützow and their escorts stationed in northern Norway. On June 27, the convoy headed out, less three damaged cargo ships.
On July 4, with the convoy well into the Barents Sea and out of range of the carrier Victorious, and because ULTRA intelligence intercepts caused him to believe an attack by the Tirpitz and the other capital ships was imminent, Adm. Sir Dudley Pound lost his nerve. At 9:11 p.m., the Admiralty issued the first of three messages to Hamilton. With the prefix most immediate, it read: “Cruiser Force withdraw to the westward at high speed.” Then at 9:23 p.m.: “Owing to threat from surface ships, convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports.” Finally, at 9:36 p.m.: “Convoy is to scatter.” With a heavy heart, Hamilton passed on the orders. Reaction was universally one of horror and fury.
An officer in the American Liberty ship John Witherspoon wrote in his diary, “It is unbelievable that we are being put on our own without protection – some ships with no guns at all.”
The actor Lt. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., USNR, serving as flag lieutenant on the Wichita, angrily wrote in his diary, “What kind of High Command have we that with such great force in operation we cannot fight it out?”
Only after Pound’s third message had been sent did the Admiralty receive an ULTRA intercept revealing that the Tirpitz and other German surface ships were not going to attack. But by then the damage had been done.
The bait was about to become a U-boat and Luftwaffe feast. Of the 38 ships in Convoy PQ-17, German aircraft and submarines sank 24. Only 10 ships and four auxiliaries reached their destination. Prime Minister Churchill later wrote it was “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.” For a furious U.S. Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Ernest J. King, it simply reaffirmed his belief that the Royal Navy couldn’t be trusted.