Friday, July 29, 2022

Fullbore Friday


Warfare History Network has a great article outlining allied merchant marine sacrifice in WWII to support the Soviet Red Army. The whole thing is worth a read, but let me just pull the story of convoy PQ-17;

In late June 1942, the 37-ship convoy PQ-17, the largest and most valuable convoy to date, formed at Hvalfjord, Iceland, and began to make its run to Murmansk and Archangel. Crammed into the holds of the cargomen were tanks, trucks, aircraft, boxes of ammunition, and other vital supplies destined for the hard-pressed Red Army. The Germans were determined that PQ-17 would not pass and instituted Operation R√∂sselsprung that would add surface ships—the Tirpitz, Scheer, and Hipper—to the intercepting force.

On July 1, two U-boats attempted to attack the convoy but were chased off by British and American escorts; eight more U-boats began stalking PQ-17, waiting for the right moment to strike. That evening, Norway-based German aircraft swooped down on the ships but were driven away by a fierce storm of antiaircraft fire.

On July 4, with PQ-17 over 400 miles from the nearest Soviet landfall, the battle was again joined. The Luftwaffe pounced on the convoy, which somehow managed to maintain formation and discipline. Then submarines struck, and the brand new Liberty Ship USS Christopher Newport, crippled by aerial torpedoes, was sunk by the U-457.

Focke-Wulf 200 Condor long-range bombers torpedoed four more ships, sinking two. Next, 25 He-111 torpedo bombers pounded the Liberty ship William Hooper, which was abandoned by her crew without orders. In London, fearful that the three German battleships might arrive and sink the entire convoy, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound ordered his armed escorts to withdraw. At 9:23 pm, he also ordered PQ-17 to disperse, without escort. A few minutes later, Pound told the convoy “to scatter” and to proceed to their destinations individually. This order would doom PQ-17.

The naval escort of four cruisers and six destroyers did as ordered, left the freighters, and headed south. The merchant ship captains watched in horrified astonishment as their escorts departed—the military equivalent of a man walking his date home through a dangerous neighborhood, only to abandon her when approached by muggers and rapists. The force was now on its own.

“We hate leaving PQ-17 behind,” wrote the film star Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was aboard the cruiser USS Wichita. “It looks so helpless now since the order to disperse has been circulated. The ships are now going around in circles, turning this way and that, like so many frightened chicks. Some can hardly go at all.”

A Soviet tanker sailing with the convoy, the Azerbaijan, was hit and set on fire but managed to maintain power and continue on. At 10:15 pm on the 4th, the convoy was hit again. But PQ-17 could not slip away into the darkness, because there was none at this time of year, and at this latitude, daylight lasts 24 hours day.

With no protection, Convoy PQ-17 was a sitting duck. The Luftwaffe caused the most damage, with the U-boats assisting. Tirpitz and the other German dreadnaughts left their Norwegian anchorage to join in the action, but it was determined they were not needed and they reversed course.

The German victory was nearly complete. Of the 37 PQ-17 ships that had sailed from Iceland, two had turned back earlier, eight were sunk by aerial bombs and torpedoes, nine were sunk by U-boats, and a further seven were sunk by U-boats after having been left dead in the water by air attack—a total of 24 ships lost. Going down with the dying freighters was a large portion of the $700 million worth of equipment—430 tanks, 210 crated aircraft, 3,350 vehicles, and 99,316 tons of general stores—along with 153 merchant seamen. Of the debacle, Churchill said, “PQ-17 was one of the most melancholy episodes of the war.”

Two weeks later, the German Army in Russia launched a successful summer offensive; could the Soviets have held out had those supplies, now lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea, reached them? One will never know. The abandonment of Convoy PQ-17 by its escorts was a disgrace that haunts the Royal Navy to this day.

In September, the Germans set their sights on the next convoy, PQ-18. Thirty-nine merchantmen, three minesweepers, one oiler, and one rescue ship sailed from Loch Ewe on September 2, 1942, under the protection of a huge escort fleet that numbered 57 warships and nine submarines. During a week-long battle, the Germans lost six U-boats and 41 aircraft. All but 13 of the escorted vessels got through to Kola Inlet.

Accurate figures are hard to come by but, by any analysis, 1942 was the U-boats’ most successful year. One source says that 1,664 Allied ships were sunk, 1,097 of them in the North Atlantic. Losses to German assets were minimal. Although Liberty ships were sliding down the ways in shipyards around the country at a rate of three per day, it still was not enough. In 1942, the Allies launched 11 million tons of new ships, eight million built in the United States, but had lost 12 million tons to the enemy. In November alone, the Allies lost more than 800,000 tons of shipping, more than half of which was in the North Atlantic.

It was not a short war.

A quick reminder, today our Navy has no plans to escort the ships we will rely on to resupply our forces to the east or west. John Konrad of gCaptain outlined this well on Midrats a few years ago.

Nothing has changed of substance.

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