Convoy PQ16 comes under air attack

HMS EMPIRE LAWRENCE, circa 1941, at anchor, with aircraft on catapult.

The pilot and flight mechanic of the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit, practice a 'scramble' to Hawker Sea Hurricane Mark I, V6733, on the steam-catapult of Catapult Armed Merchantman (CAM ship) SS EMPIRE DARWIN in the Mediterranean, while heading for North Africa in a convoy.

On the 21th May 1942 Convoy PQ16 left Iceland for Archangel, on the final leg of the journey to take munitions to Russia. Alexander Werth, a war correspondent recorded on 25th May that they were joined by a ‘little bastard’ – a Fokke-Wulf FW 200 Condor reconnaissance plane that stayed at a distance, circling the convoy out of range of the guns. It was considered too difficult a target to be worth risking the catapult launched Hurricane that was the convoys only aerial protection. In any event the convoys position would have already been reported. It was just a question of time before the German bombers based in northern Norway would arrive:

They appeared in the distance, on the starboard side, low above the water: three – four – five, then three more, then four or five after that, further to the right. We were all on deck – the R.A.F. boys, with their tin hats, and the deck-hands, the cabin boys – and we counted and watched. Eleven, twelve, thirteen ….

Something was already happening ahead of us. The gunners had rushed up to the gun-turrets. The two cruisers which had suddenly joined us earlier in the day and the destroyers on the edge of the convoy were firing like mad. It was a beautiful bright day the sea calm and blue like the Mediterranean, and the sky was now dotted with specks of smoke from the flak shells.

They went in a half- circle round the front of the convoy then, after a few seconds of suspense, they came right out of the sun. They swooped over us, two or three in succession, and from their yellow bellies the yellow eggs dropped, slowly obscenely. They were after the cruisers, in the middle of the convoy.

The tracer-bullets from our Oerlikons were rushing at the yellow belly of the Junker 88 as he swooped over us. A loud squeal, growing louder and louder, and then the explosion, as a stick of bombs landed between us and the destroyer, on the port side. Three pillars of water went high up in the air, and the ship shook. As he dived, almost to the water level, our tracer-bullets followed him, but he got out of their way and on the bridge Captain Dykes, wearing a wide navy-blue beret, was waving and shouting frantically: ’Don’t fire so low! You’re hitting the next ship’. …

Meantime the catapult Hurricane on the Empire Lawrence had leaped swiftly into the air, in pursuit of the dive-bombers. Swiftly it went in a wide circle round the convoy ready to pounce on one of them; but here something unfortunate happened; one of the American cargoes, no doubt mistaking the Hurricane for a German plane, fired what gun or machine-gun it had at him, and the next thing we saw was the pilot baling out by parachute, with nothing to show for his exploit, and with the Hurricane nothing to show for its £5,000.

Again the destroyer, which had just picked up the Huns, came to the rescue, and picked him up wet, swearing, but uninjured – so we were later told. After about three-quarters of an hour the attack ceased, and in groups of twos or threes, the Germans gradually disappeared. They had lost one plane for certain, and another was said to have been seen staggering away its engine on fire.

Bombs had burst and pillars of water had gone up all over the place, but after their first dead set at the cruisers, they seemed to have been unnerved by the terrific barrage the convoy put up, the two cruisers and the destroyers and the corvettes and most of the convoy ships firing like mad, with everything they had, and they did not come near the cruisers – and, therefore, near us – again.

This was just the beginning of a week of in which nearly 250 attacks were made by bombers and torpedo planes, eventually sinking five ships. For Werth, this was the beginning of a dramatic year of war reporting, see Alexander Werth: The Year of Stalingrad

The Hawker Sea Hurricane being catapulted from the catapult armed merchant (CAM) ship at Greenock. Note the long flame from the rocket assistors.

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