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Battle of Atlantic Sections
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Books by John Barratt

Armada 1588

The Battle of Marston Moor

The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646

The First Battle of Newbury: 1643

Cavalier Generals

The Great Siege of Chester

The Battle for York: Marston Moor 1644

Cavalier Generals

The Arctic War - The Russian Convoys
The Arctic War - The Russian Convoys
by John Barratt

For those who took part in them, the Arctic convoys were probably among the most difficult of any missions mounted in World War II. The German invasion of Russia in June 1941 brought Great Britain a new ally, but also created new demands on her limited resources. As the Red Army reeled under the massive German onslaught, it became increasingly doubtful whether the Soviet Union would be able to hold out for long. The decision by the British Government in August 1941 to send military supplies to her new ally, via the North Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, was as much for reasons of politics and morale boosting as to provide any really significant military assistance. Indeed, especially after US entry into the war, something like three-quarters of Allied supplies sent to Russia went via the Pacific or through Iran.

The decision would involve mainly the British, but also at times the US and other allied navies, together with countless merchant seamen of many nationalities, in some of the most bitterly fought actions of the war.

Between August 1941 and the spring of 1945, some forty convoys, coded "PQ", made the long voyage from British ports to North Russia. They faced some of the harshest climatic conditions in the world, battling in the winter days of almost perpetual darkness against the natural hazards of ice, fog and ferocious storms. In these far Northern latitudes, summer brought less adverse weather conditions, but the almost perpetual daylight rendered the Allied convoys vulnerable to attack by their German opponents at almost anytime

During the long campaign, the German High Command used virtually every weapon in their arsenal in an attempt to sever the supply route. Aircraft from Norwegian bases were within range of the convoys for much of their voyage, and their bombing and torpedo attacks took a high toll of Allied vessels. They were joined for much of the time by U-boats, diverted from the Atlantic battleground, which added their own contribution to the perils facing the convoys.

Perhaps the greatest threat, and the one that caused most concern to the Allies, was presented by the German surface fleet. The loss of the Bismarck , and the increasing vulnerability of the French Atlantic ports to air attack, convinced Hitler that the days of effective commerce raiding by surface ships were at an end. This realisation coincided with the start of the Arctic convoys, and was fed by the Fuhrer's long standing conviction that the Allies were planning to invade Norway. An obvious solution to all of these problems was to transfer the bulk of the larger surface vessels of the "Kriegsmarine" to Norwegian bases. Here they would be both able to oppose any Allied landings and prey on the convoys to Russia. This, at least, was the theory, but it soon became apparent that there was a basic contradiction at work in the need to avoid unnecessary risks to Germany's small surface fleet in order to preserve them to oppose Allied landings, whilst at the same time acting boldly to disrupt the convoys. It was a dilemma which the Kriegsmarine would never be able to resolve, and which would cost it dearly.

The First Battles

From early 1942, the Germans began to build up their naval forces in the Norwegian ports. There was generally a flotilla or more of their large destroyers, notably the formidable Z-class vessels, based in Norway, which could provide a formidable opponent even for a British 6" cruiser, but of greatest concern to the British Admiralty were some half a dozen heavy ships. These included at various times the pocket battleship Lutzow, the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen, and those light cruisers that were still fit for service. But the most acute threat, which persisted for much of the war, was presented by the formidable battleships Scharnhorst, and, sister ship to the Bismarck, the 35,000 ton 16" gun armed Tirpitz

For as long as these vessels remained operational, they presented a continual menace which tied down both British, and sometimes US, heavy ships which were urgently required elsewhere, especially in the Far East. 

The first important German sortie was mounted in March 1942, when Tirpitz with three destroyers sailed to intercept Convoy PQ12. Once again, British knowledge of the Enigma codes gave warning of enemy intentions, and Admiral Sir John Tovey, with heavy units of the Home Fleet, including battleships King George V and Duke of York, together with the battlecruiser Renown and aircraft carrier Victorious sailed from Scapa Flow to intercept. But hopes of a repetition of the sinking of the Bismarck were thwarted when British torpedo planes failed to score a single hit, and the German squadron returned safely to port, resolved to take no further risks, especially if an enemy carrier was reported at sea.

The next skirmish took place at the end of march, when the Convoy PQ13, when three German destroyers were intercepted by the British covering force, the cruiser Trinidad, and two destroyers. In confused fighting in the midst of a heavy snowstorm, the German destroyer Z26 was sunk, but the Trinidad was hit by one of her own torpedoes which reversed course after being affected by the very low temperatures. Although temporarily repaired in Russia, she was sunk in May by air attack whilst attempting to return to Britain.

Another skirmish followed in May, when the British light cruiser Edinburgh was lost following damage from a U-boat and three German destroyers, although one of the German vessels was also sunk.

These skirmishes were plainly not enough to stop the convoys, so in June the German Naval Command resolved once more to commit its heavy ships against the next Russia-bound convoy, PQ17. The Allies were partially aware of enemy intentions, and committed a particularly strong force to protect the convoy. As well as a particularly large close escort, a powerful covering force, made up of both British and United States vessels was organised. It included four heavy cruisers, HMS London and Norfolk, and the USS Tuscaloosa and Wichita. In support was the entire Home Fleet, including the battleships HMS Duke of York and the USS Washington, the carrier Victorious , two cruisers and eight destroyers. 

The Allies were itching for action with the German Battle Group, believed to include Tirpitz and Lutzow . But then the British First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, made a fatal error. Believing surface action to be imminent, he ordered PQ 17 to scatter, whilst its escorts prepared for battle. In fact, the German squadron was still in Altenfjord. Pound's decision had left the merchant vessels of PQ17 at the mercy of enemy U-boats and aircraft. In the massacre that followed, 22 out of 35 vessels were sunk, carrying with them to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean 430 tanks, 210 aircraft, 3,350 lorries and jeeps, and 100,000 tons of other cargo. It was the greatest German victory against the Russian convoys of the entire war, and partly because of this, and the long summer days, but also because of the need of shipping for Mediterranean operations, the decision was made to suspend the Russian convoys until the autumn.

Hitler Throws a Tantrum

Convoys were resumed in September 1942, and, in a portent for the future, Admiral Covey now provided strong "fighting destroyer" escorts, designed to deter German surface attacks without risking the heavy ships of the Home Fleet. Also with PQ18 was the escort carrier HMS Avenger . Although the Germans took a high toll, sinking 13 merchant ships, they themselves suffered an unacceptable rate of exchange with the loss of three U-boats and 22 aircraft.

The demands of "Operation Torch" (the Allied landings in North Africa) caused a further suspension of the Russian convoys until December. By now the Russian offensive against Stalingrad was increasing pressure on the Axis forces in the East, so much so that the Battle Group in Norway was urged by Raeder to take more decisive action when the Russian convoys were resumed. The convoys now sailed under new code names; those to Russia had the prefix JW and those returning RA. Convoys would now often be run in two parts, and this was the case JW51 . JW51 A reached Murmansk without incident, but the second part-JW51B was forced south towards the Norwegian coast by bad weather. This seemed to the opportunity for which the German surface forces had been waiting. In the almost total Arctic darkness of 31st December 1942, the convoy was attacked by the pocket battleship Lutzow, and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, escorted by six destroyers. Facing them was the convoy close escort of six destroyers, under Captain Sherbrooke, supported by a covering force consisting of the cruisers HMS Sheffield and Jamaica , with two more destroyers under Rear-Admiral Burnett. 

There seemed every chance of a notable German success, but a combination of bold handling of Sherbrooke's escorts, and the timidity displayed in particular by the commander of the Hipper , resulted in the Germans being kept at bay until they eventually broke off the action. British losses were one destroyer and one minesweeper. The Germans suffered damage to Lutzow, and one destroyer, the Friedrich Eckholdt , sunk. Sherbrooke, who lost an eye in the action , was awarded the Victoria Cross. 

Reaction in Germany was much less favourable. A furious Hitler ranted at Grand Admiral Raeder, and demanded the decommissioning and scrapping of all the Kriegsmarine's major surface units. Raeder resigned in protest, and was replaced by the U-boat chief, Admiral Karl Donitz. But, though expected to support the eclipse of the surface fleet, Donitz proved to have other ideas. He persuaded the now calmer Hitler to rescind his order. Though some surface ships were relegated to training duties in the Baltic, a Battle Group, centred around the Tirpitz and Scharnhorst , was to be retained in Norwegian waters with the purpose of tying down Allied naval strength.

The End of the Scharnhorst

The continuing demands of the Mediterranean theatre, where the approaching end of thee Tunisian campaign opened the prospect of an invasion of Southern Europe, as well as the war against Japan, were placing urgent calls on British and American surface ships. So the continued threat either of attacks on the Russian convoys, or even a breakout into the Atlantic by the German Battle Group, gave the British Admiralty considerable concern. Tirpitz completed a refit in January 1943, and two months later was joined by Scharnhorst

The Royal Navy reacted on 22 September by mounting a daring operation against the German battleships using midget submarines known as "X-craft". Despite heavy loss, these vessels succeeded in planting charges under Tirpitz which caused severe damage, particularly to her machinery and steering gear. The battleship would be out of action until the following March, whilst the departure for Germany of Lutzow left Scharnhorst   as the only major operational surface ship in Norway.

By now the tide of the war on the Eastern Front had turned decisively against Germany, and Donitz decided to commit the Scharnhorst to action during the long winter nights whenever an opportunity presented itself. The chance seemed to have come on 20th December, when Convoy JW55B left Loch Ewe in Northern Scotland, bound for Murmansk. By 22nd December Scharnhorst, in her lair in Altenfjord , was ready for sea. There were however serious differences of opinion in German Naval Command on whether to commit Germany's largest remaining active capital ship to action. Flag Officer, Group North, Admiral Otto Schniewind was sceptical of the chances of success, and the man who would actually command the operation, Admiral Erich Bey, Flag Officer, Northern Task Force was also dubious. He was particularly concerned about a lack of air reconnaissance reports, leaving him with no idea of the whereabouts of the heavy ships of the British Home Fleet. Donitz overruled these objections, and at 1412 hours on Christmas Day, Scharnhorst , escorted by six destroyers, was ordered to sea.

Weather conditions were atrocious, the German flotilla sailing in the teeth of a howling southerly gale, with rain and snow showers reducing visibility. However, Scharnhorst's crew, elated by the prospect of action after long inactivity, were in high spirits.

If they had known the actual situation, the Germans would have been less confident. Acting as distant support to the convoy was a detachment of the Home Fleet under Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, consisting of the battleship "Duke of York", the cruiser Jamaica and four destroyers, whilst in a covering role Admiral Burnett had the 6" gun cruisers Belfast, Sheffield and the 8" Norfolk. Either force was capable of giving Scharnhorst serious problems, and united would be more than a match for her.

Whilst Bey received no accurate information from German intelligence, "Ultra" intercepts had confirmed "Scharnhorst's" sailing to the British by 0217 hours on 26 December. During the early hours of the morning both sides were steering converging courses on an area of the Arctic Ocean between Bear Island and the North Cape of Norway. Bey was coming up from the south, Burnett from the northeast, and Fraser from the west, although he was still some 200 miles away from the threatened convoy. JW55B was ordered to change course to a northerly direction, taking it further away from the German battle group. 

The weather continued to worsen, and at 0730 hours Bey ordered his destroyers, which were finding conditions difficult, to return to base. Scharnhorst would continue alone. At 0840 hours, the radar of Burnett's ships detected the German battleship, and at 0939 the British cruisers opened fire. Bey had been taken by surprise, and his uncertainty was heightened when two 8" shells from "Norfolk" struck home, putting Scharnhorst's   forward radar out of action. Partially blinded, the German ship turned south into the concealing darkness and outran the British cruisers. 

With contact lost, Burnett moved to protect the convoy, knowing that Fraser was heading north to support him at 24 knots. Bey, unwilling to be accused of lack of determination by his superiors, turned north again, hoping to gain touch with the convoy, but was once more intercepted by Burnett's force. At 1220 hours the British opened fire at a range of 11000 yards. An exchange of fire, in which "Norfolk" was damaged, followed before "Scharnhorst" turned away. This time, Bey had given up, and was set on returning to Altenfjord. He was not to know that it was too late.

Burnett, unwilling to become too closely engaged with the German ship, shadowed "Scharnhorst" by radar, homing in Fraser, who was approaching from the west. At 1617 hours, the "Duke of York's" radar picked up Scharnhorst, at a range of 20 miles, and, as the distance closed, at 1650 star shells from the British battleship and Belfast illuminated their quarry. Once again the Scharnhorst turned away, and for some time seemed likely to make good her escape thanks to her superior speed. Her gunnery remained accurate, but Duke of York , though straddled, was not hit, some German shells failing to explode. 

On board "Scharnhorst" damaged steadily mounted as shell after shell from Duke of York's 14" guns struck home. Then one shot penetrated Scharnhorst's engine room, causing damage that fatally slowed her. By 1830, pounded with 13 hits by 14" shells, the German battleship was plainly doomed. At 1850 she was hit three or four times by torpedoes fired by Fraser's destroyers. The blazing and listing Scharnhorst was sent to the bottom by concentrated shell and torpedo fire from the British force. Despite rescue attempts, only 36 of her crew were rescued from the icy sea. It was the last big-gun action in the history 

A postscript to the story of Scharnhorst's last battle came in October 2000, when it was announced that her wreck had been located and filmed by a team from the Norwegian Navy and TV. The battered hulk of the Scharnhorst , which capsized on sinking, lay upside down 300 metres below the surface of the Arctic Ocean.

Death of the "Tirpitz"

Of Germany's major capital ships, only the battleship Tirpitz now remained as a potential threat to the Russian convoys. Once more, "Ultra" kept the British fully informed of work to repair her after the damage inflicted in September 1943. By April 1944, knowing that "Tirpitz" was almost fit for sea, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser mounted "Operation Tungsten", a strike involving aircraft from the carriers Victorious and Furious. A force of 40 Barracuda bombers, escorted by 79 fighters caught the German battleship on 3 April just as she was sailing for sea trials in Altenfjord. Hit or near-missed by 16 bombs, Tirpitz was once more left heavily damaged, especially in her fire control system, losing 122 men killed and 316 wounded. 

It would take three months to repair the damage, and during the this time the Royal Navy launched further carrier strikes, all frustrated by smokescreens and heavy AA defences.

By the end of August, frustrated by their failure to finish off Tirpitz, which was still tying down resources needed in the Far East, the Allied Joint Planning Staff handed over to RAF Bomber Command the task of completing the job. An attack on Tirpitz's anchorage at Kaafjord on 15 September by Lancaster bombers armed with 12000 lb "Tallboy" bombs and "Johnnie Walker" 400lb mine-bombs obtained one Tallboy" hit on the battleship that inflicted devastating damage to her bow section.

German engineers estimated that it would be impossible to carry out permanent repairs unless Tirpitz could be got back to Germany, which was impractical in her present condition. So Tirpitz was towed to Tromso, to act as a floating battery in the event of invasion. Here on 12 November she was struck by a further attack by Bomber Command. Hit three times, Tirpitz capsized, with the loss of 1204 or 1900 officers and men.

It was the end of any serious threat to the Russian convoys. Though U-boat attacks continued, only a total of seven merchant ships and six escorts were sunk in the final nine months of the war at a cost of nine U-boats. Over a million tons of cargo had reached the northern Russian ports during the same period, a triumphant conclusion to the long saga of the Arctic convoys.
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D.Brown. Tirpitz, the Floating Fortress. London, 1977.

Busch, Franz Otto. The Drama of the Scharnhorst.

Vice Admiral Sir Ian Campbell and Donald Macintyre. The Kola Run . London, 1958.

Tarrant, V.E. The Last Year of the Kriegsmarine. London, 1994.

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Copyright © 2002 John Barratt.

Written by John Barratt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact John Barratt at:

About the author:
John Barratt has authored many books to include: Armada 1588,  The Battle of Marston Moor, The Civil War in South-West England 1642-1646, and Cavalier Generals.

Published online: 12/15/2002.
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