The PQ17 Story
The Worst Journey in the World
John Beardmore, Navigating Officer in H.M.S. Poppy recounts his
personal experiences of the worst Arctic convoy disaster of the
Second World War
In the summer of 1942 I was a 22 year old R.N.VR. Naval Sub-Lieutenant,
serving as Navigating Officer on board the newly built Flower Class Corvette,
H.M.S. Poppy, part of the close escort of the ill-fated convoy to Russia,
PQ17 was probably doomed from the start. A whole chain of events was
set off by a number of what are now clearly seen to have been mistaken
decisions, which once put into effect could not be reversed.
To begin with the convoy was sailed against the express advice of the
Admiralty, who had been obliged to withdraw aircraft carriers from the
Home Fleet to support the already hard pressed Malta convoys, leaving
no effective air cover at all for the Russian convoys once they had entered
the Barents Sea.
Stalin, supported by Roosevelt, had insisted to Churchill that the
northern convoys to Russia be continued during the summer months of 1942
a period of continuous daylight when air cover was important, if not imperative,
and reluctantly Churchill agreed, knowing the need of the Russians, for
one must remember at that time the Red Army were particularly hard pressed
fighting with their backs to the wall at Stalingrad.
The convoy, consisting of 36 heavily laden Merchant ships mostly American,
plus three British tescue ships, the Rathlin, Zamalek and Zafferan, who
were to cover themselves with glory later on, sailed from Hvalfjiord in
Iceland on the afternoon of 27th June, 1942, and proceeded under escort
through the treacherous Denmark Straits, round the north coast of Iceland
to be joined two days later by the rest of the escorts sailing from Seydisfjiord
on the east coast.
In all there were 21 British warships closely escorting the convoy:
H.M.S. Palomares and Pozarica, two 2000 ton, 15 knot converted peacetime
West Indies Banana Boats now each equipped with eight 4 inch anti-aircraft
guns and called Ack Ack ships; there were six experienced Western Approaches
destroyers, three Minesweepers, four Corvettes, three Anti-submarine trawlers
and two submarines taking passage to Russia. Distant cover at 10 to 20
miles was provided by two cruiser Squadrons, one British, one American,
while long range cover was provided by the Home Fleet Admiral Jack Tovey,
C. in C. in the battleship Duke of York. The fleet carrier Victorious
and the U.S. battleship Washington, plus two cruisers and 14 destroyers
who were hovering between Scapa Flow and Jan Mayern Island just in case!
A grand total of 61 warships defending a convoy of 35 M/S. In the middle
of the convoy steamed the two British Submarines on passage to Russia,
but significantly no aircraft carrier with the convoy.
The Senior Officer Escort was Commander Jack Broome, RN, an experienced
Western Approaches convoy leader in his First World War destroyer H.M.S.
Keppeil. He was to become even more famous 30 years later in the famous
Old Bailey libel case of 1971 that went to the House of Lords when he
sued Cassels, the publishers, and David Irving who wrote "The Destruction
of Convoy P.Q.17." He won his case but the £40,000 damages awarded were
never paid as Cassels conveniently went bankrupt.
We sailed upon a note of optimism in spite of a warning report through
ULTRA at Bletchley Park (the code breaking Centre) that there was a strong
chance of the German battleship The Admiral von Tirpitz being deployed
against the convoy from her base in northern Norway, A Decoy convoy, E.S.,
consisting of five Minelayers and four ancient colliers had been simultaneously
sailed from Scapa Flow and was boldly skirting the Norwegian coast in
an attempt to draw the German fleet into the arms of the Royal Navy's
Home fleet. Unfortunately convoy E.S. became completely enveloped in fog
and passed completely unnoticed and returned to Scapa Flow, mission unaccomplished.
In the meantime PQ17 had settled down to a steady 7 knots on a north
easterly course and with its escorts covered a sea area of 25 square miles,
which it must be admitted is an awful lot of sea if one hopes to pass
undetected. Needless to say the convoy was soon reported by shadowing
Blom and Voss reconnaissance aircraft, and patrolling U-Boats, as it proceeded
to the south of Jan Mayen Island upon its fateful voyage.
"This is Jarminy calling! Jarminy calling!" (Now you know who that
was.) Within a few hours Lord Haw Flaw's nasal tones could be heard on
the ships' radios in the convoy, giving the names of most of the ships
in the convoy and the dire fate that awaited them at the hands of the
German fleet and Luftwaffe. So much we thought for "Mum's the word, the
enemy is listening" but I seem to recall that we merely blamed those unfriendly
Icelanders, for after all Iceland was known to be full of German agents!
The Bloom and Voss German reconnaissance planes continued to circle
the convoy out of firing range until one exasperated destroyer Captain
called to his yeoman, "Tell that bugger to go round the other way." So
the yeoman of the exasperated destroyer flashed, "Please go round the
other way." The Bloom & Voss flashed back in English, "Anything to oblige
an Englishman," and did so! You could be forgiven for thinking it was
"all a game!"
During the next three days several U-Boat attacks were driven off by
our own destroyers, as was a rather half-hearted attack by seven Heinkel
115 torpedo carrying aircraft, who dropped their torpedoes and scurried
off when they met the intensive barrage put up by the convoy and its escorts.
During this action an enemy plane, shot down by the destroyer H.M.S.
Fury landed on the sea a mile or more ahead of the convoy. Out of firing
range, we watched as a German float plane swooped down and landed like
a gnat alongside the sinking aircraft, picked up its crew and flew off
again. We watched in wonderment. Our CO. muttered in admiration, "Bloody
So P.Q.17, its hopes rising, to the sound of its depth charges exploding
and the thud-thud of the pom pom guns continued on its way. The convoy
had now left behind the treacherous drift ice and dangerous seas of the
Denmark Straits and was entering the strange, becalmed Summer world of
the Arctic Ocean with its mirages, its refractory images of upside down
ships upon a calm iridescent sea, in a rarefied almost intoxicating atmosphere
in which the sun at midnight burned our faces, in spite of an air temperature
well below zero. We began to pass majestic icebergs and saw polar bears
basking themselves upon ice flows which sailed silently by like giant
We even passed the partly iced over remains of a German aircraft which
had been shot down on a previous convoy and which had crash landed upon
an ice flow, and was silently drifting about the Arctic wastes like sbme
ghostly Marie Celeste. The convoy had now assumed an easterly course and
was skirting the Great Ice Barrier in order to distance itself from the
enemy. We suddenly realised that we were less than 800 miles across the
ice from the North Pole!
At midnight between the 3rd and 4th of July the convoy passed to the
nor'ward of Bear Island and at about 5 a.m. suffered its first casualty
directly attributable to the enemy. A U.S. Liberty ship, the Christopher
Newport was torpedoed by a single enemy aircraft which appeared suddenly
out of a cloud bank.
The top masts of the covering British and U.S. cruiser squadrons could
be seen far away to the northward, hull down on the horizon. We felt secure
to know that they were there!
Shortly after breakfast the Admirals of the U.S. and Royal Naval cruiser
Squadrons exchanged somewhat platitudinous but friendly greetings on the
T.B.S. (ships to ship short range telephone), forerunner of that modern
convenient menace, the mobile phone.
"Glad to have you with us - old boy."
"Glad to be here - Buddy."
It was Independence Day - July 4th The American Merchant ships in the
convoy having hoisted brand new large "Stars and Stripes" were singing
songs and waving to us - it was to be a day many would remember with sadness
but just at that moment, "A National day of pride and defiance".
The convoy was now entering the zone of the Barents Sea where enemy
surface attack was most likely to happen. Lt. Beckley (P614), the senior
Officer of one of the two British Submarines taking passage in the middle
of the convoy, flashed to Senior Officer Escorts, "In the event of attack
by enemy forces propose to remain on the surface." Commander Jack Broome
in H.M.S. Keppel (ever the humourist) promptly flashed back, "So do I!"
Throughout the day there were sporadic attacks by groups of torpedo
carrying Heinkel 115s and Junkers 88 and there was a splendid teatime
display of pyrotechnics and rapid anti-aircraft fire by the U.S. destroyer
Wainwright when she came over from the U.S. squadron to fuel from our
fleet oil tanker, the Aldersdale. She did however shoot down one enemy
Later on that evening PQ17 received attention from two low level bombing
attacks by 30 Heinkel 115s, each carrying two torpedoes Which were driven
off with the loss of only two Merchant ships, The Navorino and the Liberty
Ship William Hooper. Still outstanding in one's memory of that dramatic
half hour (even after 60 years) was the inspiring display of suicidal
courage shown by the leader of the enemy squadron, who deliberately diverted
the convoy's fire to himself by flying straight up between the columns
of ships at bridge level. Of course he and his aircraft were totally blasted
to smithereens by the intensive barrage of fire at close range and crashed
into the sea in flames just ahead of the convoy, but instead of inspiring
his squadron to press home their attack many of them dropped their torpedoes
and turned away.
We in Poppy counted our blessings as we watched two torpedoes approaching
our ship in the clear water on either bow. Our engine room in jittery
language reported hearing their motors as they passed under us with about
a foot to spare, and sped on toward the convoy.
In the meantime the Russian Tanker Azerbjaijan, carrying a cargo of
crude oil, had been torpedoed forward and set on fire. As some of her
crew abandoned ship the women gunners left on board turned a machine gun
onto the departing lifeboat, fired a couple of bursts and forced the panicking
crew back oh board where they set to, fought and extinguished the fire
and being capable of 15 knots caught up again with the convoy. How we
cheered them! Then just as the convoy was settling down again feeling
rather pleased with itself, having accounted for a couple more aircraft,
the survivors picked up, and the two stricken U.S. Merchantmen astern
sunk by our escorts own gunfire, the following significant and baffling
signal was received at 9. 11 p.m. from the Admiralty, addressed to the
cruiser Squadron still 10 miles to the northward:
"Most immediate. cruiser force withdraw to the Westward at high speed".
A few minutes later came a further signal:
"Immediate. Due to threat from surface ships convoy is to disperse
and proceed to Russian Ports."
Exactly thirteen minutes later the Admiralty sent what was to become
the most lethal and ominous signal of the entire war at sea.
"CONVOY IS TO SCATTER."
Arriving in quick succession these three signals which in the end proved
to be misconceived and inaccurate created an atmosphere of considerable
alarm, to all present. The enemy fleet was clearly near at hand. What
the Admiralty did not appreciate was that the Tirpitz and the German fleet
were 300 miles away still at anchor in Altenfjiord, having arrived from
Trondheim and Narvik.
Intercepting and breaking the German ENIGMA signals at the secret code-breaking
centre at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, whose brilliant wartime work
shortened the War by at least a year and saved thousands of lives, had
reported no flurry of wireless signals associated with the departure of
the German fleet. There were no sightings by our own submarines patrolling
the Norwegian coast and the entrance to Altenfjiord, all of which indicated
that the German ships had not sailed.
To this negative evidence Naval Intelligence agreed. However the First
Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (a dedicated and conscientious officer
slowly dying of cancer) was utterly convinced otherwise and chose to ignore
Bletchley Park's assurance. There had also been a complete breakdown in
our own aerial reconnaissance for several vital hours over Altenfjiord
due to adverse weather conditions. The Tirpitz pilz did not in fact sail
until fifteen hours after the convoy had been scattered. By which time
14 merchant ships had already been sunk by U-Boats and aircraft, more
than the total numbers of ships sunk on all the previous convoys to Russia.
The German Admiral Raedar immediately cancelled KNIGHTSMOVE (the codeword
for the German operation) and Tirpilz soon returned to harbour after a
brief coastal sortie. The scatter signal was naturally interpreted by
us on the spot to mean that the Tirpitz and a strong enemy force was fast
approaching us from the South West and just over the horizon.
The only other case of a convoy being scattered was that in October
1940, when the German Battle cruiser Admiral Scheer was actually shelling
the convoy of 37 ships in the North Atlantic when the decision to scatter
was taken by the only Naval ship present, the armed Merchant cruiser The
Jervis Bay, who immediately engaged the enemy and sacrificed herself heroically.
The decision to scatter the convoy successfully was taken on the spot
by the Captain of The Jervis Bay and the convoy had a chance to disperse
So it was not difficult to imagine the feelings of Commander Jack Broome
(Senior Officer), on the bridge of his ancient destroyer H.M.S. Keppel
for those indeed were the feelings of all the Escort Commanders and the
Commodore of the convoy (Commodore John Dowding, D.S.O., R.N.R.) who so
completely disbelieved his eyes that he demanded that the signal should
be twice repeated before he would pass the order on to the convoy to scatter.
And all this was in spite of the fact that there were the two powerful
allied cruiser Squadrons within 10 miles and the capital ships of the
Home Fleet were 150 miles off Jan Mayern Island. All this happened when
a wave of great confidence had passed through the convoy following the
two abortive attacks an hour or so earlier.
The convoy and its escorts were in fine fettle, in close formation,
making good speed and ready for anything. I well remember on my own ship
the Poppy, the First Lieutenant saying to the captain, "My God - we can't
just leave these poor devils to their fate and shove off," but this was
exactly what we were being ordered to do. To an escort vessel on convoy
duty the very thought of abandoning its charges is utterly unthinkable.
It was now nearly 10 p.m. when Commander Broome signalled his flotilla
of destroyers "Join me" and sped off to the westward in the hope of joining
the cruisers and hopefully intercepting the enemy in a "death or glory"
As he sailed away he signalled to Commodore Dowding in the River Aft
on, "Sorry to leave you like this. Looks like a bloody business." Commodore
Dowding signalled back, "Goodbye and good luck." Within one hour the scattered
convoy was spread out on a 25 mile front heading in all directions from
north to south east, and it would have been virtually impossible to re-form
it. The remaining escorts were ordered to proceed independently to Archangel.
We in Poppy joined up with the Corvettes Lotus and La Malouine when
we were ordered to screen the anti-aircraft ship Pozarica (carrying the
late Godfrey Winn as War Correspondent) and together we retired (if that
is the correct word) to the eastward at our maximum speed of 15 knots.
The brave little corvette Lotus (Lt. H. J. Hall, R.N.R.) however, in spite
of the Admiralty's directive, decided to turn back into the presumed path
of the enemy and rescued some 85 survivors (including Commodore Dowding)
as soon as the harrowing S.O.S. messages started coming in from the Merchant
ships under attack. Retiring eastward we overtook M.V. Bellinghani also
heading east, who when invited to join up with our group replied "Go to
Hell." Our CO. remarked "I don't blame him."
Two days later a mixed bag consisting of all but two of the remaining
escorts, plus six Merchant ships, plus the rescue ships Zamelek and Raihlin
already loaded down with survivors, crept into Matochkin Straits, a narrow
channel in the peninsular of Novaya Zambia, that straight finger of land
that sticks up into the Arctic wastes where the main continent of Siberia
begins. This bleak area was to become within the next decade the locale
of the first Russian nuclear tests.
We found however only a small rather startled settlement of fishermen
and meteorologists, who first thought that they were being invaded by
the Germans. A Russian naval officer came out in an old fishing boat with
an ancient machine gun in its bows. We quickly took stock of the situation
(the Corvettes, now very low in fuel, fuelling from one of the Merchant
ships) and decided to slip away before we were spotted and mined by the
enemy. So we continued southwards in a reformed convoy through fog banks
which were to our advantage and throUgh pack ice, which was not.
We were soon spotted by a German "reccy" plane as we cleared the fog.
The Fuhrer had already ordered his crack air squadrons from Sicily to
Finland in order to destroy PQ17and every available U-Boat was out on
patrol in the Barents Sea. We subsequently learned that the German Command
had deployed some 240 air sorties against PQ17and that there had been
over a dozen U-Boats out looking for us. It was probably just as well
that we did not know this at the time.
As we proceeded on our southerly course we were attacked and bombed
for nearly seven hours by wave after wave of Junkers 88s, who fortunately
failed with their poor aim and we lost only two more Merchant ships which
were abandoned after near misses (Hoosier and El Capitain) and after two
more days we reached the small port of Lokanka at the entrance to the
White Sea, our decks bulging with survivors like a Bateman drawing. But
here to our astonishment we were tartly ordered away by a Russian pilot
boat as this was a "Secret port" and no foreigners were allowed in. This
was the first indication of the Soviet's true attitude to its Allies -
total suspicion and total insularity.
So we limped round into the almost enclosed White Sea, where we were
once more attacked by a couple of Junkers 88s, and not a Russian fighter
in sight, and so on until we reached Archangel. And all this time we had
been asking ourselves, "What happened to the Tirpilz?" Why no news of
a great naval battle between the capital ships. Had something gone wrong?
As we approached the delta of the Dvina River our exhausted Yeoman
of Signals turned to our Commanding Officer, who had never left the bridge
for days on end, and said, "If you'll pardon me for saying so, Sir, I
think there's been a balls up!" The Captain (Lt. N. K. Boyd, D.S.C, R.N.R.)
breathed heavily and replied, "Yeoman, I think you're right."
After landing our survivors, refuelling and taking breath, the Corvettes
within a couple of days had proceeded to sea again to continue the search
for other survivors and any ships that had not fallen into the hands of
the enemy or been sunk. We in Poppy carried on board the convoy's Commodore,
iohn Dowding, a man well past middle age who had already become a survivor
himself when his Commodore Ship River Aflon had been torpedoed under him.
He was determined to search for and bring in the remnants of his convoy.
He was subsequently torpedoed again on the homebound convoy later in the
year and became a survivor once more.
The Corvettes reached and re-entered our former "funk hole", the Matochkin
Straits and 20 miles up this uncharted inlet found five more Merchant
ships, Silver Sword, Trouhador and Ironclad, Benjamin Harrison and the
Russian Azerbyjam, being guarded by the 500 ton Anti-submarine Trawler
Ayrshire commanded by a brave and eccentric barrister yachtsman Lt. "Leo"
Gradwell, R.N.V.R. They were tucked up against the ice wall, having earlier
in the northern ice fields painted themselves "white" to avoid detection
by German reconnaissance planes. This they succeeded in doing before breaking
out of the ice field and heading eastward, arriving at Matochkin a few
days after we had left. Gtad Well's bravery and Initiative was highly
praised by the Commander in Chief (Tovey) and he was awarded with others
the D.S.C. Years later Leo Gradwell also achieved fame of a different
sort as the presiding London magistrate in the famous Ward - Profumo affair.
In the meantime we formed yet another small convoy of remnants and
proceeded south again, Commodore Dowding having transferred to the Russian
ice breaker Murnian. We were sooti joined by the British CAM ship Empire
Tide which had refloated herself after running ashore in the fog in Moller
Bay on our previous flight southward.
Earlier on we had found a U.S. Merchantman Winston Salem stranded in
a little bay further down the coast. Her terrified Captain and crew had
spiked her guns, thrown overboard the breeches and were camping out ashore
under tarpaulins, having washed their hands of the whole affair and declared
themselves neutral. They declined our offer to pull their ship off the
sandbar on which it had lodged and demanded rescue by air. We could not
persuade them to chance their luck with us so were obliged to leave them.
I am glad to say that they were later rescued by Catalina and a British
volunteer crew put on board who brought their ship in safely. The story
of the Winston Salem affair was of course a disgraceful incident, a sorry
affair. When the Russians learned what had happened, they demanded that
the Winston Salem's captain be shot for cowardice - he wasn't, of course.
Unfortunately, some of the American merchant ships had been on their
maiden voyages and were crewed by men who had never been to, or even seen
the sea before many of whom were ex-farm hands from the prairies who had
been tempted by the enormous bonuses offered.
In a few cases relations between the U.S. survivors and their British
rescuers became somewhat strained as the Americans expected a far higher
standard of treatment than we could offer. Some declined to help out in
the now cramped quarters of the small escorts and generally made themselves
unpopular. "We're survivors man - our Union says so -so we don't do nothingl"
The U.S. Merchant ships were Union ridden and there was a lack of discipline.
Others were both helpful and grateful for being rescued. However we noticed
that the white U.S. survivors all refused to sit down to eat at the same
mess tables as their black compatriots. This really astonished us as we
were simply trying to feed them with our own rations.
Finally some two weeks after the scatter signal the remnants of convoy
PQ17were eventually shepherded into Archangel, making a grand total of
11 Merchant ships and over 1,300 survivors some badly injured, others
frost bitten, who subsequently lost their limbs in Russian hospitals,
many without anaesthetics.
We had lost 24 Merchant ships, one Rescue ship, 450 tanks, 200 fighter
planes, 300 Army vehicles and one hundred thousand tons of war supplies,
over 450 million pounds worth (at present day values), all at the bottom
of the Barents Sea. Enough to equip a whole army, enough perhaps to have
saved Stalingrad which, of course, eventually the Russians did themselves.
Added to this there were 156 brave allied seamen killed or drowned, frozen
to death, and another 50 taken prisoner. It seemed a heavy toll indeed
to pay for a human error. The Russian Tanker Azerbyjarn, which had shown
such bravery and determination, berthed at nearby Molotosk. Those who
had prematurely left the ship in the lifeboat were marched off under guard
- their fate only to be guessed at.
(A RUSSIAN SUMMER)
The Allied Navies had lost neither ships nor men. A furious Marshal
Stalin wrote to Churchill, "Has the British Navy no shame?" Churchill
disdained to reply. Small wonder that the Russians were bitter - they
rightly reminded us that their glorious Red Army were holding the Eastern
Front, and were fighting a final battle at Stalingrad; that there was
still no sign of a promised Second Front; that they, the Russians, were
carrying the whole brunt of the war (they did not recognise or count the
war against Rommel in the Western Desert or Japan) and that we, the Allies,
should double the flow of supplies on the Arctic route. Instead the Admiralty
postponed all further sailings to Russia during the continuous daylight
of the summer months. Stalin was livid of course.
The British escort vessels now marooned at Afchangel were soon moved
down river to isolated wooden berths near the wooden village of Ekonomia.
As it turned out we were not entirely sorry about this as later that summer
there were several intensive fire blitzes on the largely wooden city of
Archangel, which blazed away like the 1812 Overture.
Somewhere in the wood piles of Ekonomia was a small NAAFI type shack,
misnamed in Russian 'the Welcom In'. Here our sailors could drink "gut
rotting raw Vodka" and smile at but not chat to the waitresses there.
Our lads rapidly tired of this and rarely went ashore except to play organised
games on the wooden jetties under the eyes of the unfriendly Russian sentries.
I am afraid that the soldiers of the Red Army were positively hostile
towards us. They were completely unaware that we were also fighting in
the Far East and in the Western Desert.
The military guards that had been placed upon all ships gangways were
a particularly tiresome lot. They prevented all intercourse with the Merchant
ships, and the female sentries were particularly zealous in their duties.
Our Gunnery Officer (a former music teacher at a public school) who had
been able to identify the Merchant ships of the convoy in the fog banks
by the notes of their sirens, ("F sharp Captain, that's Empire Tide,")
was sent ashore by the Commanding Officer one day to try to telephone
the British Naval Base in Archangel from a hut on the jetty and was confronted
by a large woman sentry who shouted to him in Russian. Lt. Freddy Waine,
R.N.V.R., just smiled, said, "Good afternoon," and walked on. The next
thing that he knew was he had a bayonet up his arse and came running back
on board covered in blood and a very surprised look on his face.
The civilian population, however, were most friendly towards our sailors,
less so towards the officers, who they identified with their own much
feared green capped commissars, who strutted about arrogantly and were
shown great deference. The workers on the Dvina River banks, however,
invariably waved to us as we passed and the Russian ships always dipped
their flags in salute.
One day in Archangel I saw a group of women queuing up, not for bread
but for the latest war poster to be issued of a Russian mother defending
her child from a Nazi bayonet. They were clearly taught to hate the Germans
much more than we were.
Although relations with civilians were not encouraged by the Soviets,
I did manage to meet a young, rather serious school teacher interpreter
named Katrin, who spoke some English and seemed anxious to learn more.
After a few meetings she brought along her text book of English literature
to show me. It was a potted version of 'Oliver Twist' (Dickens being Russia's
most popular English author), but written in the present tense. It was,
therefore, evident that the description of Fagin's kitchen, the slums,
the poverty and the crime were pictures of mid-twentieth century London.
I explained that this, of course, was not so and that anyway Dickens had
lived 100 years previously in Victorian London and was writing about an
even earlier period. She was incredulous but believed me. Unfortunately,
she went away and told her friends. Sadly! never saw her again but I learned
that for her folly in listening to and repeating "false Western propaganda"
she had been sent away - where to I did not discover.
In order to placate the Russian authorities and to be in a better position
to beg food from them, the Corvettes undertook certain sea duties: Reluctantly
Lotus, La Malouine and Poppy were sent out to search for a suspected Japanese
raider, which had allegedly shelled the lighthouse at Kanin Point in the
Kara Sea. Russia was not at war with Japan until just before V.J. Day.
Fortunately we did not encounter it but returned with a small supply of
cod, upon which we had wasted a depth charge when passing through their
So the summer wore on, and we were reduced to even shorter rations.
The crews of the Naval vessels grew despondent and lost interest in the
many sporting events arranged to occupy them during their spare time.
They had long since run out of Tombola tickets, the ward room's stock
of gin was perilously low and rationed. Our daily diet of rice and a little
corned beef grew monotonous and, of course, there were no green vegetables,
apart from the odd cabbage and a few potatoes stolen at considerable risk
from a guarded farm in the Dvina Delta.
Although some ships still had flour there was no yeast, so they could
not bake bread. We continued to scrounge from one another and finally
opened up the emergency tins of ships biscuits lashed in our lifeboats
we were on 'hard tack'. For the troops however the final blow came when
their 'rum' ran out.
The Admiralty eventually sailed two of its fastest destroyers to the
White Sea, the Maine and the Martin. They brought us much needed ammunition,
medical supplies, mail, and some stores which bolstered up our rations
ibr a while.
The British and American survivors ashore fared even worse than we
did. After hospitalisation many had been herded into compounds, issued
with shabby institutional clothing in lieu of their own clothes, which
were taken away from them, and put on Russian rations, Needless to say
they (especially the Americans) felt very bitter about their treatment,
particularly after all they had endured. We used to visit them and pass
on any cigarettes and chocolate that we could spare through the railings.
The Dieppe raid occurred in August and the Russian authorities, thinking
that this was the beginning of the long awaited Second Front, showed their
delight by delivering to the ships a few bags of cabbages and some scraggy,
evil smelling carcasses of yak. The cabbages were welcomed but the men
refused to touch the yak, as they were convinced that these were the corpses
of German soldiers. When a rumour actually went round the ships that an
Iron Cross had been found in one - that clinched it. They burnt the carcasses
in the ships' furnaces.
As soon as it was known that the Dieppe raid had been a failure ("Just
like P.Q. 17," said the Russians) they demanded their yak back. They said
it had all been a mistake!. Too late!
One must remember that this area of the Arctic continent was entirely
frozen over for much of the year and conditions of living were like something
out of a Mrs. Gaskell novel, or worse. Russian civilian rations were bare
subsistence with one foodless day a week to help the Red Army, though
I suspect the Commissars and officer classes probably fared much better.
When we first arrived earlier in the Summer we had noticed old women
with long fishing nets, who waited for the waste food to be tipped through
the chute over the ship's side nearest the jetty. Immediately they fished
out the soggy bread remains, dried it in the sun and ate it all up. We
were deeply shocked and afterwards saved our scraps for these wretched
people who were civilians who had no rations cards, because they were
too old or useless to work and contribute to the war effort and so lived
There were also dozens of young war orphans, who lived wild on the
wooden jetties, having lost their parents in the war or in air raids.
These children were as astute as adults and bartered pockets full of Red
Star badges for cigarettes and chocolate, until these too became in short
supply. Many of the ships adopted these 'water babies'. Our sister corvette
Dianella adopted a seven your old orphan called Woofga who they, of course,
quickly renamed 'Vodka'. The sailors made him a little Petty Officer's
uniform complete with badges, he had his own small hammock and Bosun's
pipe and ate with the crew. They grew very fond of him. When finally in
September we sailed away we had to leave behind our small adoptees who
watched us with tears running down their cheeks, their arms clutching
presents and woollies for the oncoming winter. I need hardly add that
there were quite a few tears on the weathered cheeks of the Petty Officers
who had cared for and loved these lost children, as they watched them
growing smaller on the wooden jetty, waving their woollen comforts.
Under pressure from Stalin, Churchill had agreed, entirely against
the advice of the Admiralty, to sail yet another large convoy to North
Russia, during the prolonged daylight of the late summer and before winter
darkness had set it. So on the 2nd September, P. Q.18, consisting of 40
Merchant ships (the largest convoy ever) sailed from Loch Ewe on the west
coast of Scotland in foul weather. in addition to a large escort was also
included an Escort Carrier, H.M.S. Avenger, carrying 12 operational Hurricanes.
Unfortunately the enemy had full details of the router timing and composition
of both P.Q. 18 and our home, bound convoy Q.P. 14, from captured documents
found in a shot down Hampden bomber (en route to Russia) in northern Norway.
13 Merchant ships were sunk in the convoy and a further five on arrival
in the Kola Inlet, nearly half the convoy. Even the enemy's losses were
high - four U-Boats sunk, a further five severely damaged, 45 enemy aircraft
shot down. A high cost on both sides. However the inclusion of an Escort
Carrier had proved its worth and this was to be the pattern of futun convoys
On September 7th we sailed with our homebound convoy from Archangel,
Q.P. 14, consisting of 15 Merchant ships in ballast. We met bad weather
and suffered further heavy losses. Six more ships were torpedoed including
Commodore Dowding's ship Ocean Voice; Silver Sword and Bellingham, both
survivors of P.Q. 17, plus the R.F.A. Tanker Grey Ranger, the destroyer
Somali and the Minesweeper Leda, all with heavy loss of life, and many
were drowned in the icy seas, including survivors from P.Q. 17. Of the
36 Merchant ships that had so gloriously set out for Russia in PQ17only
seven got back to the U.K.
Due to the self imposed silence on the subject of PQ17 by both the
Admiralty and the Ministry of Information, extravagant accounts had spread
like wild fire throughout the United States and in the Press in neutral
countries of how the British Navy (the Limeys) had yellowed and ratted
on the convoy and left it to its appalling fate. This of course was partly
Throughout the War nothing was done to explain these half truths, which
continued to spread, fermented by anti-British Americans and isolationists,
and later by some few returning embittered survivors who had been taken
prisoner by the Germans, who had indoctrinated them. The Admiralty put
out evasive statements without accepting any of the blame itself. P.Q.17
had become 'sub judice' and it was not until 12 years after the War had
ended (and long after the death of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley
Pound whose mistaken decision had scattered the convoy) when Admiral Tovey,
who had been C. in C. Home Fleet at the time of P.Q. 17, was allowed to
publish his own despatches in the London Gazette, that the whole truth
was finally told.
The Admiralty's admission of error came too late to repair the hurt
caused at the time, no was it made sufficiently widely known to absąlve
those who took part. The Merchant Navy never really forgave the R.N. for
P.Q. 17, which did more to harm Anglo-American relations than anything
before or since.
I have always regarded the past 60 years as a 'bonus to living'. The
tragedy of PQ17 will go down in history books as a second Balaclava. To
us who were there July 4th has become a kind of St. Crispin's Day when
"old men will remember the feats they did on that day" - for we took home
only our memories.
© 2002 John Beardmore