THE DESTRUCTION OF CONVOY PQ17: 27 June-10 July 1942

By Vego, Milan | Naval War College Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

THE DESTRUCTION OF CONVOY PQ17: 27 June-10 July 1942


Vego, Milan, Naval War College Review


The most critical problem for the Western Allies in the northern European theater in 1941-42 was the urgent need to secure the war matériel being sent to the Soviet Union. Initially, the Germans did not react strongly against the Allied convoys sailing to northern Russia. However, that began to change quickly after February 1942, when the Germans redeployed almost all their heavy surface forces and a large number of U-boats from home waters to northern Norway. Attacks by the German Luftwaffe and U-boats became not only more intensive but increasingly deadly. Correspondingly, the Allied convoys suffered ever-larger losses.

Because there were no prospects for opening a second front in 1942, it was vitally important for the Western Allies to keep the Soviet Union in the war; otherwise victory over Nazi Germany would be impossible. Hence, all efforts were made to supply Russia with increasing amounts of war matériel. However, the Western Allies faced serious difficulties in supplying Russia. The routes that offered the shortest transit times were also the most dangerous. The Western Allies had three main alternatives: (1) across the Pacific to Vladivostok; (2) across the southern Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope to the port of Basra in the Persian Gulf (called the "Persian Corridor"); and (3) across the northern Atlantic to Iceland and then to the north Russian ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk (the Arctic route). Each of these routes had advantages and disadvantages. (1) The Pacific route to Vladivostok passed near northern Hokkaido. Hence, after Japan opened hostilities with the United States and Britain in December 1941, it could be used only by Soviet-flag ships. Plus, adding the distance from Russia's Pacific coast to the front lines in the west, this route was the longest of the three. (2) Shipping from U.S. east coast ports had to go via the Cape of Good Hope until July 1943, when the Mediterranean route was opened. The Cape route was about 14,500 miles long and required some seventy-six days to transit.1 (3) The shortest but the most dangerous route was the Arctic option. The Germans proffered a serious threat to Allied ships by using the Luftwaffe, U-boats, and heavy surface ships based in northern Norway. The Allied problem was made worse by the very poor sailing conditions caused by extreme cold, bad weather, and ice. Despite all these difficulties, the Soviets adamantly insisted on use of the northern route because it could deliver badly needed war matériel more quickly and closer to their forces at the front. Another possible reason was Soviet fear of too strong an Anglo-American presence in Persia.2 The decision to establish the Arctic route was made by British prime minister Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965), with the full support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).3 Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (1877-1943), the British First Sea Lord (1939-43), and Admiral Sir John Tovey (1885-1971), commander in chief (CINC) of the Home Fleet, were opposed to that decision.4

The single most devastating action in the resupply effort was the German attack on Convoy PQ17 in July 1942. The Luftwaffe and U-boats sank twenty-two out of thirty-six merchant ships plus one out of three rescue ships during the weeklong attacks. The planned augmentation of this effort in the form of a foray (code-named Unternehmen [Operation] RÖSSELSPRUNG) by the battleship Tirpitz and other heavy surface ships was short-lived in execution because Allied forces detected the German ships prematurely. Nevertheless, the Germans achieved a significant victory against the Allies' efforts to supply their embattled Russian ally. In the aftermath, all convoys to Russia via the Arctic route were suspended for almost two months; the next convoy did not sail until 2 September 1942. During the next two years, convoys ran only during the long, dark months of winter. This resulted in much smaller losses than in 1942; subsequently, only four ships were lost, three in 1944 and one in March 1945. …

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