The Arctic Convoys were the vital supply route to Soviet Russia mainly served by British and American merchant ships, escorted by the Royal Navy and USS Navy. Convoys generally formed up in Iceland and then risked U-boats and German bombers and torpedo planes on the route through the Barents Sea to northern Russia, with the greatest threat coming as that passed north of Norway. An additional threat came from the Germans surface ships based in Norway.
It was in the belief that these German ships were about to attack Convoy PQ17 that the Admiralty ordered PQ 17 to “scatter”. The convoy system was the best defence against U boats and planes but it was thought that there was a greater risk if the heavy cruisers and pocket battleships of the German Navy crossed paths with such a concentration of shipping. In such circumstances the ships might run less risk by travelling alone. It was to be a controversial decision.
S A Kerslake was the Coxswain on the Anti Submarine Trawler HMS Northern Gem, part of the close escort for PQ17:
We were at this time nearing an old haunt of mine from pre-war fishing days, Bear Island. We had received a warning of a further air attack, and as I was standing on the after gun platform, waiting for the alarm that would send me rushing to the bridge, we gazed in awe at the sight astern of what looked like a flock of birds coming into sight over the horizon. I started to count the planes 1-2-5-10-15-25.
There I gave up and ran for the bridge. The alarm had not been sounded for everyone was on his way to action stations, or was there already, hearts beating sixty to the dozen, and the saliva was thick in our mouths; we were hoping that they would not come for a small ship like ours.
Once I got on the bridge, I saw very little of what was going on around us, except for the area immediately ahead of the Gem. I saw the leading plane go flashing past the port side of the bridge, and another along the starboard side and across our bows, very close and making for the convoy. All of our guns were having a go. It appeared to me that tracer shells were hitting this last one from all sides; then I heard one of the look-outs shout from the top bridge that he had crashed onto the tanker, a Russian ship named the Azerbijan, and that she was on fire. Taking a quick glance in that direction I could see the smoke and flames billowing out from her bows.
One or two merchant ships seemed to be slowing down, and the two small rescue ships, the Rathlin and the Zamelac were manoeuvering around. One merchant ship that I had in sight just vanished as I was looking at her; one second she was there and the next all there was left was a huge pall of smoke, reaching up towards the blue sky. I had not the time to see if she was a tanker or not. The crew would not have known what hit them. It was an unbelievable thing to see happen, and quite unforgettable.
Also in my memory of those few hectic minutes of the attack, is the sight of an American destroyer, steaming full out and being very, very aggressive towards these intruder German planes. She was turning in towards them and letting fly with all the guns she had, and I would not have been surprised to see her crew popping off with rifles and revolvers at anything that was airborne, I’ve found out since that she was the USS Wainwright [see note on original].
By this time we were somewhere to the north of Bear Island, and this put us well within range of the enemy airfields in Norway which was not so very far away as the seagull flies, and as the clouds and fog began to thin out, we began to think that we would be getting many more of these heavy attacks.
Here we were wrong, for suddenly we saw flag hoists going up on all the destroyers and the big ships, and Aldis lamps flashing in all directions. As the outer escort closed in towards us, we sensed that something out of the ordinary was going on. It was. A few minutes later the word was passed around that the convoy was to scatter; apparently the German Navy had dared to come out from their bases in Norway after all. Word had come from the Admiralty in London, and it was to be every ship for themselves as far as the small escorts and merchant ships were concerned.
To say that all of us on the Gem were stunned would be putting it mildly. I can remember the words that I said at the time, ‘What are we splitting up for, we’re better off as we are, on our own we have no chance at all’. The more we thought and talked about it, the more horrified we became. I was only twenty-two, and like many others of my age, was still young enough to want to live and come through this war, but now I felt that my time had come. It was probably only because I had a responsible position that I was able to keep my worst thoughts to myself.
The departure of the outer big escort vessels and their attendant destroyer force, who were joined by the close escort destroyers, hell bent on getting at the German ships for a right royal battle, meant the convoy now no longer existed.
The merchant ships, the rescue vessels, and the remaining small escort corvettes and trawlers, along with the two ack-ack ships, ‘scattered’ to all points of the compass. Ships were making off at their top speed in all directions, and many had already vanished from our sight over the horizon by the time we on the Gem realised how serious the situation was.
Read the whole of the account on Naval History.