On 4th July 1942 the Admiralty had made the exceptional decision to disperse Convoy PQ17. The order 'Convoy to Scatter' had left the merchant ships in the convoy isolated and without the protection of their Royal Navy and USS Navy escorts. Late on 6th July 1942 the Wehrmacht High Command had issued a crowing announcement:
The High Command of the Armed Forces announces: since 2nd July 1942 a large-scale operation has been carried out against enemy convoy traffic bound for the Soviet Union, by air and naval units in the waters between North Cape and Spitzbergen, 300 miles off the northern Norwegian coast. Bomber formations and German submarines attacked a large Anglo- American convoy in the Arctic Ocean and destroyed the major part of it.
The convoy consisted of 38 merchant vessels and was carrying a cargo of aeroplanes, tanks, ammunition and foodstuffs. It was bound for Archangel and was very strongly protected by heavy enemy naval units, destroyers and corvettes. In close collaboration between the Navy and the German Air Force, one heavy American cruiser and 19 merchant-men totalling 122,000 BRT were sunk by bombers, nine ships totalling 70,400 BRT by U-boats, making a total of 28 ships of 192,400 BRT. The remainder of the completely dispersed convoy continues to be attacked. A large number of American sailors was rescued by rescue planes and taken prisoner.
It was an exaggeration – but only just. No American cruiser had been sunk. The number of merchantmen sunk was around 13 at this time. It had been a disaster none the less – and the ordeal was to continue for several days more. By the end of the attacks Convoy PQ 17 had lost 24 of its 35 merchant ships.
On the merchant ship Hartlebury the Third Officer was keeping a diary:
7th July. 7.40 p.m.
Torpedoed. Had just relieved second mate for tea, and walked out on bridge, and literally walked into torpedo which ex- ploded immediately below: terrific crash, everything went black, and was drenched by solid wall of water coming from ‘monkey island’ bringing with it all kinds of debris.
Struck heavily on head by something and stunned, my one thought being to get to other side of ship before the second torpedo struck her — great presence of mind, this. Crawled through wheelhouse which was deserted and washing with water, and got on other side just as second torpedo exploded. This time my feet left the deck clear and I landed flat on my back.
A third torpedo was to hit the Hartlebury. There was great difficulty getting into the lifeboats and rafts that survived the explosions before the ship sank. Twenty men found themselves in one flooded lifeboat, some of them sitting up to their waists in icy cold water. The men who had been serving below decks were only lightly dressed – some only in vest and trousers:
The crew began to die one by one now: first, fireman Hutchinson; then mess boy; AB Clark; poor old Sibbit—‘Sparks’ and a fine fellow; then 16-year-old cabin boy; then AB Dixon and Hansen. These were all dead inside two hours, and had to be unceremoniously pushed overboard to lighten the boat.
A little later, chief engineer; galley boy, another fireman died; and by midnight chief and second stewards, cook, a gunner and OS Jessen had also gone. What a tragedy, and only three miles from land. All went the same way, became sleepy and mind wandering slightly and then eyes glazing over and finish — and apparently not a bad death.
Very bad shape myself, had stayed up to waist in water trying to handle oar for an hour and I was slowly aware of the fact that I was going the same way as the others — the water having a stupefying effect on me.
So I struggled out and scrambled up among the gang in the bows, where we huddled together, with boat rolling and severe waves washing along her whole length. Everyone cramped together, frozen, feet absolutely stiff and white.
Weather calmed down at midnight, but not before I had been badly sea-sick on top of other discomforts. There were now only five of us left: Captain Stephenson, myself, AB May, fireman Storey, assistant steward Spuhler.
Later a raft was spotted floating by, which appeared to be more seaworthy – so the steward Spuhler attempted to swim out to it. He only just survived the swim without reaching the raft. He was hauled back, suffering even more from the cold. When they were rescued a few days later his feet had to be amputated.
The whole story of the tragedy of the Hartlebury was reconstructed by David Irving in The Destruction of Convoy PQ17, which might also be found online at FPP. It is a thorough analysis of the events affecting the convoy and the surrounding controversy.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the fate of Convoy PQ17, “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.”