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