& PQ 17
The photographs and article are courtesy of Chris Drage and are
from John Beardmore, former navigating officer of HMS Poppy.
The article itself is from the "Liverpool Echo", and
was originally published in 1993.
CONVOY PQI7 was an unmitigated disaster which cost hundreds of lives
and 23 of its 34 ships. And Its downfall centred not on the aggression
of the enemy, but on an Admiralty blunder. When Hitler invaded Russia
In June 1941 he presented the Allies an unlikely friend in Stalin, but
also a problem in how to help his beleaguered country. Supplies were In
desperate shortage and there was only one route the sea.
Convoys took between 10 and 15 days to reach the Soviet arctic ports,
the route being flanked by German-occupied Norway. Pack ice in the winter
forced convoys closer to this treacherous coastline, but with the sole
consolation of darkness for cover.
In summer months, the route was wider, but was exposed by permanent
daylight. On August 21, 1941, the first convoy sailed from Iceland to
Archangel and completed its 10-day journey without incident. This was
a political gesture as much as an experiment and the Allies soon pressed
on with the PQ series of convoys to Russia. By February 1942, 93 ships
had completed their mission with only one loss to a U-boat. But as daylight
drew on in spring, the Germans upped their work rate, greatly aided by
the arrival of their new battleship Tirpitz and accompanying destroyers.
It took three weeks for the enemy to make much of an impact, with PQ13
losing five ships. Mixed weather reduced any certainty of enemy contact,
but 16 of PQI4's 24 ships had to return to port because of pack ice and
the homeward bound QP1O lost two ships to the very effective Junkers JU
88 torpedo bomber. More than 30 U-boats and 250 Luftwaffe aircraft now
patrolled the area. The Tirpitz and all remaining destroyers were moved
north to await convoys. The Germans were preparing to score a coup. At
the end of June, PQ17 sailed. By early July, eight U-boats were tracking
the convoy, as was the Luftwaffe.
On July 4 the attack developed. The Admiralty blundered and ordered
the convoy to scatter. This was the beginning of the end for PQ17. In
his book, Convoy is to Scatter, the late Captain (then Commander) Jack
Broome - for a brief spell Captain (D) at Liverpool and the senior officer
of PQ17's close escort, declared that this was "the first convoy in
the whole of our naval history ever to have been scattered by anyone other
than the man on the spot." The signal was executed in the mistaken
belief that the Tirpitz, then the most powerful battleship, and other
German surface warships, were about to attack, the convoy. The feelings
of the convoy skippers and crews left to fend for themselves as they watched
their escort withdraw, can be imagined. Broom was naturally bitter. He
"The First Sea Lord, our supreme Admiral, with his own pick of
the whole Royal Navy as his staff never, ever, knew where, those Big
Boys were when he scattered PQ17 to the wolves. - To cap it all, pathetic
distress signals were already limping in from helpless merchant ships
being murdered by enemy planes and U-boats."
Within an hour from the time of the fateful signal, the convoy was
spread out on a 35-mile front, heading in all directions but West. The
small escort group comprised corvettes, trawlers and minesweepers, skippered
by RNR and RNVR officers and mainly crewed by HO (hostilities only) ratings.
Thanks to their initiative, and virtually ignoring the Admiralty's
directive to proceed independently to Archangel, they sought to round
up the remnants of the scattered merchant vessels, states Northern Light.
"The destroyers under Captain Broome, withdrew to place themselves
between the convoy and a much larger enemy who did not, as it turned out,
materialise. Of the smaller war vessels, the corvette, Lotus, and the
trawler, Ayreshlre, covered themselves with glory their CO's receiving
"The rest of the smaller escorts, the corvettes Poppy, La Malouine
and Dianella, the trawlers Lord Austin, Lord Middleton and Northern
Gem, and minesweepers Halcyon, Britomart and Salamander (by then very
low on fuel), and the 13.5 knot, cumbersome banana boats, converted
to ack-ack ships, Palomares and Pozarica, did the best they could for
the surviving ships under very difficult circumstances."
Beardmore, the British actor, at that time was the lieutenant navigating
officer on HM Corvette Poppy, one of the close escort under Commander
Broom. John says:
"Eleven surviving merchant ships were subsequently rescued by the
remaining smaller escorts and, with their cargoes intact and 1,200 survivors
from the ships that had been sunk, were shepherded into the White Sea
and thence to Archangel. There, many were hospitalised and lost their
frost-bitten limbs in elementary surgery. - all done without anaesthetic.
A fitting postscript to the PQ17 convoy, which, at the same time, could
equally sum up the tragedy of the whole war at sea, is given by Geoff
Shelton, of Shoeburyness, a member of the North Russia Club. He said:
"Never far from our thoughts were those who gave their lives in
a freezing, merciless sea. They suffered the bombs, the torpedoes the
mines; they suffered die straffing of machine-guns, the explosion of
boilers and sea ablaze with burning oil
Some died quickly, while others, trapped in battened down hatches,
held on for a few minutes, not knowing whether lack of oxygen or the
cold would be the executioner. We will never know their final thoughts;
we will never really know the pain of their loved ones. We, their shipmates,
will never forget them. By the same thinking, we must always believe
that they did not die in vain, for to believe otherwise is to nullify
their sacrifice and betray them. We pray to God that he, too, will always
keep them within his memory."
It was not until 12 years after the war had ended that Admiral Tovey
(C-in-C Home Fleet at the time of PQ17), was allowed to publish his own
dispatches in the London Gazette, telling the whole truth and apportioning
the blame where it was due "not on the RN afloat, but on the Admiralty
Marooned in Russia
Churchill suspended the North Russia convoys for some months after
the PQ17 disaster and some of the British escort vessels and surviving
merchantmen were marooned at Archangel. Crews later told of the terrible
hardships experienced by the Russian civilians there and, to a lesser
degree, that of the Allied crews.
Military guards were placed on all the ships’ gangways, strictly preventing
intercourse with the merchant ships.
Lieutenant John Beardmore, navigating officer with the corvette Poppy
"although the Russian military were a tiresome lot, the civilians
were most friendly towards our sailors."
In order to placate the Russians and to be in a better position
to obtain food from them, the corvettes Lotus, La Malouine (flying the
Free French flag) and Poppy were sent to search for a suspected Japanese
raider. They did not encounter this ship but, firing a depth charge,
were able to return with a supply of cod!
Our daily diet of rice and a little corned beef grew monotonous.
"There were no green vegetables, apart from the odd cabbage and
a few potatoes stolen at considerable risk.
The British and American survivors ashore fared even worse, continued
John Beardmore. "After hospitalisation, many had been herded into compounds,
and put on Russian rations." These were bare subsistence with one foodless
day a week to help the Red Army.
The story of PQ17 survivors did not end there.
"Our homeward-bound convoys consisted of 15 merchant ships in
ballast," adds John. "In appalling weather, six more ships including
the destroyer Somali and the minesweeper Leda, were torpedoed and many
of their crews drowned in the icy seas. "Of the 35 merchant ships which
set out that summer of 1942, only seven got back to the UK."
Follow the link below to John Beardmore's own account of PQ17