Torpedo bomber attack on Convoy PQ18

Convoy PQ 18 at sea. An underwater detonation erupts next to HMS ASHANTI. The destroyer HMS ESKIMO is seen in the foreground. Merchant ships are in the background.

After the disastrous [permalink id=20703 text=”Convoy PQ 17″] which was decimated by German bombers and U boats after the convoy was ordered to scatter, there had been a delay before the next Arctic convoy was organised. More consideration was given to the defence of Convoy PQ 18’s escort and it became the first Arctic convoy to be accompanied by an Escort carrier – HMS Avenger. Nevertheless the convoy still had to pass around the North Cape and pass within range of German bombers located in northern Norway. The Luftwaffe had also been developing its tactics.

John Manners was the First Lieutenant on HMS Eskimo:

On the 12th shadowing aircraft located the convoy. They mostly consisted of Blohm and Voss or Dornier flying boats which could be seen circling the convoy appearing between the clouds but out of gunfire range. The Avenger sent up her Hurricanes to attack them but their armament of machine guns was inadequate to shoot any of them down. The awful fact was that a number of more modern Hurricanes fitted with cannon were being carried in the merchant ships. The Hurricanes were in future not used for attacking these shadowing aircraft which became part of the daily scene. In any case they were not a danger as an attacking force.

By now there were a number of enemy submarines in contact with the convoy. Although Avenger had only three anti-submarine Swordfish planes, they were able to harass the enemy forcing them to dive and occasionally dropping depth charges on them. Various Asdic contacts were made and depth charges dropped which entailed the destroyers concerned leaving a gap in the protecting screen, which had to be closed.

However, they did claim two merchant ships for the loss of one submarine. Then came September 13 when the Luftwaffe really went into action. There were continuous alarms starting with what we now know as diversionary attack by a number of high-level bombers. With misty conditions and a large amount of low cloud they had no success. Later at a crucial moment there were no Hurricanes airborne. With so few planes it was impossible to give air cover all the time.

Suddenly there was one of the most horrifying sights of the war. Along the whole horizon were aircraft flying just above the waves wing tip to wing tip and below radar cover. This was the German ‘Golden Comb’ attack in which all the planes released two torpedoes each at the same time. Records show there were forty-two Heinkel torpedo bombers and a number of Junkers 88’s.

Everything was happening – as soon as they were seen the commodore of the convoy ordered an emergency turn away in order to comb the tracks of the torpedoes but unfortunately the two starboard columns did not comply. Like all the others Eskimo put the helm hard over and increased speed, which made the ship list and heel over. These frantic manoeuvres made it impossible for any accurate gunfire. However, every ship blasted off with everything and the air was thick with bullets.

The Eskimo was in the starboard column of the screen and this menacing swarm passed a few feet overhead and as the aircraft were travelling at about 250 miles an hour they were gone before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’. We were not their prime target and shortly after passing us they released no less than a 110 torpedoes.

In no time eight ships were hit, some sank at once and in one case, there was a gigantic explosion sending a column of black smoke vertically upwards and the ship vanished completely. The barrage that was fired at the attackers was terrific, but according to German records only five planes were shot down though many more must have been damaged.

The situation was depressing with a fifth of the convoy having been lost and nobody in Eskimo saw any enemy planes destroyed. Two further desultory bomber attacks took place and many bombs were dropped through the clouds and fell harmlessly. In addition to this there was always the threat of attack by the enemy surface ships stationed in Norway, in particular the Tirpitz. Air reconnaissance flights were organised flying from England. A small force of our cruisers was lurking just west of Iceland and two of our battleships and escorts were at sea near Jan Mayen Island.

The enemy pocket battleship Scheer and two cruisers were on the move and to add to our woes a Catalina of Coastal Command reported that the Tirpitz was not in her usual berth near Trondheim. It transpired that she was exercising in the fiord, but we were not to know this. Eight of our submarines had been stationed at strategic points along the Norwegian coast and one fired some torpedoes at the Scheer without scoring any hits. In the meantime Eskimo had picked up a large number of survivors from the sunken American Ship, John Penn.

Read the whole of his account on WW2 Cruisers

A look-out and machine gunner on board HMS ESKIMO in northern waters.
Sailors placing a depth charge into position in a deth charge rack for dropping from the stern of the destroyer HMS ESKIMO just out of harbour (possibly Hvalfjord) after a U-Boat hunt in the Atlantic.

4 thoughts on “Torpedo bomber attack on Convoy PQ18”

  1. Thing about the golden comb is that it really only worked the one time when part of PQ-18 actively (if inadvertently) cooperated in the attack by turning the wrong direction. The more effective tactic is to attack the same ship from both forward quarters, or the entire convoy with half the force on either forward quarter. That way, whichever dire tion they turn to present a minimal profile to the torpedoes is also turning a broad profile to the other set of torpedoes.

  2. It’s worth a visit to the Imperial War Museum to see the Charles Pears painting of this attack. The image is almost surreal, with the Golden Comb approaching in a menacing line abreast, looking like vultures.

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