invasion of Russia soon led to the
introduction of the Russian or Arctic convoys with their
dreadful conditions and after some months had elapsed,
high losses in men and ships. However, the Royal Navy's
presence in the Arctic was first made known in August
when submarines started operating, with some success
against German shipping supporting the Axis attack from
Norway towards Murmansk. The port was never captured.
Conditions with these convoys were at the very least
difficult. Both summer and winter routes were close to
good German bases in Norway from which U-boats, aircraft
and surface ships could operate. In the long winter
months there was terrible weather and intense cold, and
in summer, continual daylight. Many considered that no
ships would get through. The first convoy sailed in
August and, by the end of the year, over 100 merchantmen
had set out in both directions. Only one was lost to a
U-boat. In 1942 the picture changed considerably.
Russian convoy, 'Dervish', sailed from Iceland with seven
ships and arrived safely. Carrier "Argus"
accompanied them to fly off Hurricanes for Kola.
convoy PQ1 and the return QP1 both set out
in September. A total of 24 ships were passed through
without loss by early October
The six merchant ships of Russian convoy PQ2 got
through to Archangel without loss.
In November Russian convoys PQ3, 4 and 5
and return convoys QP2 and 3 with a total
of 45 ships set out. Three merchantmen turned back but
the rest got through without loss.
outward-bound convoys, PQ6, PQ7 and PQ7B
and one return, QP4 set out in December with a
total of 31 ships. All but PQ6 arrived at their
destinations in January, with two ships returning and one
lost to U-boats.
"MATABELE" escorting Iceland/Russia convoy PQ8
was sunk off Murmansk on the 17th by
"U-454". Only two men survived. None of the
eight merchantmen in the convoy were lost although one
was damaged by a U-boat torpedo. In two return convoys in
the month - QP5 and QP6 - 10 ships set out
and arrived safely.
In four convoys PQ9, PQ10, PQ11 and return QP7,
31 merchantmen arrived safely at their destinations
1st-12th - Convoy PQ12 and Return QP8 - By now German battleship
"Tirpitz", the ship that dictated Royal Navy
policies in northern waters for so long, had been joined
in Norway by pocket battleship "Admiral
Scheer". The next Russia-bound and return convoys
therefore set out on the same day, the 1st, so
they could be covered by the Home Fleet with battleships
"Duke of York", "Renown", "King
George V" and carrier "Victorious". On the
4th, cruiser "Sheffield"
was damaged on a mine off Iceland as
she sailed to join the cover force. Convoys PQ12 and QP8
passed to the southwest of Bear Island and with
"Tirpitz" reported at sea, the Home Fleet tried
to place itself between her and the convoys. There was no
contact between the surface ships, but on the 9th,
aircraft from "Victorious" attacked but failed
to hit "Tirpitz" off the Lofoten Islands. Of
the 31 merchantmen in two convoys, only one straggler
from QP8 was lost to the German force.
20th March-3rd April - Convoy PQ13 and
Return QP9 - These
next two convoys set out around the 20th, again
covered by the Home Fleet. Off North Cape on the 24th "U-655"
was rammed and sunk by minesweeper
"Sharpshooter" escorting QP9. Of the 19
merchantmen in this convoy all reached Iceland in safety.
PQ13 and its escort, including cruiser
"Trinidad" and destroyers "Eclipse"
and "Fury", were scattered by severe gales and
heavily attacked. On the 29th three German
destroyers encountered the escort north of Murmansk. "Z-26"
sunk, but in the action "Trinidad"
was hit and disabled by one of her own
torpedoes. As the cruiser limped towards Kola Inlet an
attack by "U-585" failed and she was sunk by
"Fury". Five of the 19 ships with PQ13 were
lost - two to submarines, two to aircraft, and one by the
destroyers. "Trinidad" reached Russia.
During the month, Russian convoy PQ14 set out from
Iceland with 24 ships. Only seven arrived. One was sunk
by a U-boat and another 16 had to turn back because of
the weather. Return convoy QP10 lost four of its
16 ships around the same time, two each to U-boats and
aircraft. Towards the end of the month convoys PQ15
and QP11 sailed. Both had cruisers in close
support and PQ15 was covered by units of the Home Fleet
including battleships "King George V" and the
American "Washington". On the 30th the
QP11 cruiser "Edinburgh"
was torpedoed twice by
"U-456" and had to turn back for Murmansk. The
story of the PQ15 and QP11 convoys is taken up in May
26th April-7th May - Convoy PQ15 and
Return QP11 - PQ15 sailing for Russia suffered
misfortune twice, On the 1st, battleship "King George
V" rammed "PUNJABI" one of her escorting destroyers
and was then damaged by the latter's depth charges as she
went down with heavy loss of life. On the 2nd,
minesweeper "Seagull" and Norwegian destroyer
"St Albans" sank Polish submarine "JASTRZAB" in error. Three of the convoy's merchant
ships were lost to torpedo aircraft but the remaining 22
reached Murmansk by the 5th. QP11
departed Russia on the 28th April and on the 30th cruiser
"Edinburgh" was torpedoed twice by U-boat. As
she limped back to Russia yet again, three German
destroyers attacked QP11, but only managed to sank a
straggler. They found the cruiser on the 2nd. In a series
of confused fights amidst snow showers and smokescreens,
"Edinburgh" disabled the "Hermann
gunfire, but was then torpedoed for a third time by
either "Z-24" or "Z-25". Escorting
destroyers "Forester" and "Foresight" were also damaged. Both "EDINBURGH" and "HERMANN SCHOEMANN"
were scuttled on the 2nd. The surviving
12 merchantmen of QP11 got through to Reykjavik, Iceland
on the 7th.
14th/15th - Cruiser
"Trinidad" (above - Navy Photos) was damaged escorting PQ13 in March,
and patched up at Murmansk ready for the homeward
journey. Escort was now provided by four destroyers and
cover by more cruisers, but on the 14th she was
heavily attacked from the air and hit by a Ju88 bomber.
Fires got out of control and "TRINIDAD"
was scuttled next day in the cold waters
north of Norway's North Cape.
German Surface Warships
- In addition to aircraft and U-boats, the Germans now
had "Tirpitz", "Admiral Scheer",
"Lutzow", "Hipper" and nearly a dozen
big destroyers at Narvik and Trondheim. With by now
continuous daylight throughout the journey, the Admiralty
pressed for the convoys to be discontinued until the days
shortened. For political reasons they went ahead.
Convoys PQ16 and QP12
passed through in May. PQ16 started out for Russian with
35 ships but one returned, six were lost to heavy
aircraft attack and one to U-boats. QP12 had one return
but the other 14 reach Iceland.
PQ17 and QP13 set sail towards the end of the
27th June-28th July - Destruction of
Convoy PQ17 - Convoys
PQ17 and return QP13 both set out on 27th
June. PQ17 left Reykjavik, Iceland with 36 ships,
of which two returned. The close escort under Cdr J. E.
Broome included six destroyers and four corvettes. Two
British and two US cruisers with destroyers were in
support (Rear-Adm L. H. K. Hamilton), and distant cover
was given by the Home Fleet (Adm Tovey) with battleships
"Duke of York" and the US
"Washington", carrier "Victorious",
cruisers and destroyers. The British Admiralty believed
the Germans were concentrating their heavy ships in
northern Norway. In fact pocket battleship
"Lutzow" had run aground off Narvik, but this
still left battleship "Tirpitz", pocket
battleship "Admiral Scheer" and heavy cruiser
"Admiral Hipper" - all formidable adversaries,
which reach Altenfiord on the 3rd. At this time PQ17 had
just passed to the north of Bear Island, after which
German aircraft sank three merchantmen. Fear of attack by
the German ships led the First Sea Lord, Adm Pound, far
away in London, to decide the fate of the convoy. In the
evening of the 4th the support cruisers were ordered to
withdraw and the convoy to scatter. Unfortunately Adm
Hamilton took the six escorting destroyers with him. The
merchantmen were now to the north of North Cape.
Thirty-one try to make for the isolated islands of Novaya
Zemlya before heading south for Russian ports. Between
the 5th and 10th July, 20 of them were lost, half each to
the aircraft and U-boats sent to hunt them down. Some
sheltered for days off the bleak shores of Novaya Zemlya.
Eventually 11 survivors and two rescue ships reached
Archangel and nearby ports between the 9th and 28th. In
fact "Tirpitz" and the other ships did not
leave Altenfiord until the morning of the 5th, after the
'convoy was to disperse' order. They abandoned the sortie
that same day. History suggests the vital decision on the
future of PQ17 should have been left to the commanders on
the spot. The US reacted strongly to the Royal Navy
apparently leaving its merchantmen to their fate.
Meanwhile all went well with QP13's 35 ships from
Murmansk, until the 5th. Approaching Iceland through the
Denmark Strait they ran into a British minefield.
Escorting minesweeper "NIGER" and five merchant ships were lost.
The rest got in. No more Russian convoys run until
2nd-26th - Convoy PQ18 and Return QP14 - PQ18
left Loch Ewe in
Scotland on the 2nd with over 40 merchantmen. The
hard learnt lessons of PQ17 and previous convoys were not
forgotten. Close escort was provided by 17 warships plus
escort carrier "Avenger" and two destroyers.
Two separate forces were in support - close cover by AA
cruiser "Scylla" and 16 fleet destroyers under
Rear-Adm R L Burnett, and further out three heavy
cruisers. More distant cover was by Vice-Adm Sir Bruce
Fraser with battleships "Anson" and "Duke
of York", a light cruiser and destroyers to the
northeast of Iceland. Submarines patrolled off the
Norwegian Lofoten Islands and northern Norway. Over 40
major warships were involved. German heavy ships moved to
Altenfiord but did not sortie. Instead the attacks were
mounted by bombers and torpedo aircraft as well as
U-boats. On the 13th, aircraft torpedoed nine
ships, but next day "Avenger's" Hurricanes
ensured only one more ship was lost to air attack. In
total over 40 German aircraft were shot down by the
convoy's defences. U-boats sank three merchantmen but
lost three of their number to Adm Burnett's forces.
Destroyers "Faulknor", "Onslow" and
"Impulsive" sank "U-88", "U-589" and "U-457" respectively between the
16th in the Greenland and Barents Seas. (Some
sources reverse the identity of "U-88" and
"U-589"). Escort carrier "Avenger's"
Swordfish from 825 Squadron helped with the destruction
of "Onslow's" U-boat on the 14th. Of the
original 40 ships, 27 reached Archangel on the 17th.
Meanwhile return convoy QP14 with 15 ships sailed
on the 13th to gain the protection of
"Avenger" and Adm Burnett's AA cruiser and
destroyer force. On the 20th, to the west of Bear
Island, minesweeper "LEDA" was sunk by "U-435" and support group
destroyer "SOMALI" torpedoed by "U-703". After
struggling for four days in tow towards Iceland a gale
blew up and she foundered to the north. Three merchant
ships were lost to U-boats and the survivors reached Loch
Ewe on the 26th. In late 1941, escort carrier
"Audacity" closed the Gibraltar air-gap for the
first time. "Avenger" had now done the same for
the Russian route. However, further convoys havdto be
postponed as ships were transferred in preparation for
the North African landings.
to Loch Ewe, Scotland convoy QP15 with 28 ships
lost two to U-boat attack.
31st - Battle of the Barents Sea &
Convoys JW51A and JW51B - After a three-month gap the first of the
JW convoys set out. JW51 sailed in two sections. Part
A left Loch Ewe, Scotland on the 15th with 16
ships bound for Kola Inlet. All arrived safely on
Christmas Day, the 25th accompanied by supporting
cruisers "Jamaica" and "Sheffield". JW51B
(14 ships) left on the 22nd escorted by six
destroyers, a minesweeper and four smaller vessels under
the command of Capt St. V. Sherbrooke in
"Onslow". Adm Burnett with "Jamaica"
and "Sheffield" joined the convoy south west of
Bear Island on the 29th to provide close cover
through the Barents Sea. By now "Tirpitz",
pocket battleship "Lutzow", heavy cruiser
"Admiral Hipper", light cruisers
"Koln" and "Nurnberg" and a number of
5in and 5.9in gun destroyers were in Norwegian waters.
The Admiralty assumed they were for attacks on Russian
convoys. In fact, they were in Norway because Hitler
feared invasion. Convoy JW51B was reported an the 30th
and 8in "Hipper" (Adm Kummetz), 11in
"Lutzow" and six destroyers put to sea from
Altenfiord to intercept north of North Cape. Early on the 31st, New Year's Eve, the British ships were in
four groups (1-4). The main convoy
(1) with five remaining 4in or 4.7in
destroyers "Achates", "Onslow",
"Obdurate", "Obedient" and
"Orwell" headed due east. (Some of the escort
and merchantmen had been scattered by gales and never
regained the convoy). Northeast of the convoy, detached
searching for missing ships. Adm
Burnett's two 6in cruisers (3) covered to the north. Further
north still a straggling merchant ship and escorting
trawler (4) tried to reach the convoy. Capt Sherbrooke
planned to use the same tactics as Adm Vian in the Second
Battle of Sirte and head for the enemy while the convoy
turned away under smoke. Unfortunately Adm Kummetz
divided his force in two [1-2] and planned to attack
from astern on both sides - "Hipper"  and three destroyers in the north and "Lutzow"
 with the other three in the south.
On the 31st around 09.30,
the action started with "Hipper's" three
destroyers  heading north across the rear of the convoy
(1), and opening fire on
"Obdurate". The convoy later turned as planned,
but south towards "Lutzow" . Then "Onslow",
Orwell" and Obedient" sighted Hipper"  and held her off until, at
hit and Capt Sherbrooke badly
wounded (Capt Rupert St. V. Sherbrooke RN was awarded the
Cross for gallantry).
Adm Burnett's cruisers (3) meanwhile, following a radar contact, had
diverted north towards the straggler and escort
(4). They only headed towards the
action at 10.00. Still to the north of the convoy,
"Hipper"  and her destroyers came across the
(2) and sent her to the bottom around
They headed south, and 40min later the 8in cruiser  approached JW51B
(1), opened fire and hit "ACHATES" which sank after the battle was
over. Lutzow 
had already come up on the convoy from the
south but did not join battle until 11.45.
She was driven off by the remaining destroyers. By now
"Jamaica" and "Sheffield"
(3) had arrived on the scene. They
quickly hit "Hipper"  and sank destroyer "FRIEDRICH
"Hipper" tried to get back to the convoy but
again the destroyers skillfully kept her at bay. By midday
the German ships were withdrawing with the two cruisers
in pursuit. Contact was shortly lost. None of the
merchantmen were more than lightly damaged and all 14
reached Kola on the 3rd January. Return convoy RA51
left Kola on the 30th December. After being
supported part of the way by "Jamaica" and
"Sheffield", the 14 merchant ships were safely
delivered to Loch Ewe on the 11th January. When
Hitler learnt the big ships had been driven off by light
cruisers and destroyers he flew into a rage and ordered
them all paid off. Grand-Adm Raeder resigned in protest
and was succeeded as C-in-C, German Navy, in January by
Adm Doenitz. The paying-off order was revoked.
HMS Britomart, Algerine
same class as the overwhelmed
convoy JW52 and return RA52 both set out in
January. Of the 25 ships in the two convoys, one left
JW52 to return to port, and one merchantmen with RA52 was
lost to U-boat attacks.
convoy JW53 sailed with 28 merchantmen. Six turned
back because of the weather, but the rest reach Kola
Inlet on the 27th. Return convoy RA53 with 30 ships lost
three to U-boats in March. These were the last convoys to
or from Russia until November 1943 - another nine months,
because of the pressure of events in the North Atlantic
MARCH - AUGUST 1943
No convoys ran.
Midget Submarine Attack on Tirpitz - Battleship "Tirpitz" posed
such a threat to Russian convoys and held down so much of
Home Fleet's strength that almost any measures to
immobilise her were justified. One gallant attempt was
made in October 1942 when a small Norwegian fishing
vessel "Arthur", penetrated to within a few
miles of the battleship in Trondheimfiord with Chariot human
underneath. Just short of the target they broke away and
all the efforts were in vain. Now it was the turn of
midget submarines - the X-craft each with two 2-ton saddle charges. Six
left for northern Norway towed by 'S' or 'T' class
submarines. Two were lost on passage, but on the 20th
off Altenfiord, "X-5", "X-6" and
"X-7" set out to attack "Tirpitz" and
"X-10" for the Scharnhorst. "X-5"
was lost and "X-10" was
unable to attack, but "X-6" (Lt Cameron) and "X-7" (Lt Place) penetrated the defences
to reach "Tirpitz" laying in Kaafiord at the
far end of Altenfiord. Both dropped their charges under
or near the battleship before they sank and some of their
crews escaped. "Tirpitz" managed to shift her position slightly, but
not enough to avoid damage when the charges went up. She
was out of action for six months. Lt Donald Cameron RNR
and Lt Basil Place RN were awarded the Victoria Cross.
For the first
time since March 1943, Russian convoys sailed - setting
out and arriving at the end of the month and in early
December. Convoys JW54A and JW54B to Kola
Inlet, and return RA54A and RA54B passed
through a total of 54 ships without loss.
26th - The Battle of North Cape and
Convoy JW55B - Russian convoys were still sailing in two
sections. JW55A left Loch Ewe, Scotland on the 12th
and arrived safely with all 19 merchant ships on the 20th.
Adm Fraser with "Duke of York" went right
through to Russia for the first time before returning to
also with 19 ships, sailed for Russia on the 20th.
Three days later return convoy RA55A (22
ships) sets out.
Cover for both convoys
through the Barents Sea was to be provided by Vice-Adm R.
L. Burnett with cruisers "Belfast",
"Norfolk" and "Sheffield" (1)
which left Kola Inlet on the same
day as RA55A - the 23rd. The Admiralty expected
the 11in-gunned battlecruiser "Scharnhorst" to
attack the convoys and Adm Fraser with "Duke of
York" and cruiser "Jamaica" (2)
Iceland and headed for the Bear
Island area. "Scharnhorst" (Rear-Adm Bey) and
five destroyers 
sailed from Altenfiord late on the 25th,
Christmas Day. Early next morning JW55B was 50
miles south of Bear Island, the weather stormy, as the
Germans headed north to intercept. Meanwhile Adm Fraser
(2) was 200 miles away to the southwest and
Adm Burnett's cruisers (1) were approaching the convoy from the
east. At 07.30 on the 26th the German
destroyers were detached to search for the convoy, failed
to make contact and were later ordered home. They played
no part in the battle.