Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Battle of Convoy PQ 15

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PQ 15 was an Arctic convoy which sailed from Iceland in late April 1942, delivering supplies to the Soviet Union. 
After the invasion of the USSR in 1941, Winston Churchill decided to give the Russians all the help the British could guarantee, and therefore dedicated convoys were created to carry war material to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. The conditions under which the warships and the merchants were to operate were very hard:  summer and winter routes were dangerously close to enemy bases in occupied Norway, where U-boats, surface ships and aicraft were stationed and active. The winter months were characterized by appalling weather, extreme cold and low visibility. The summer months were instead charaterized by continual daylight of the Arctic summer, which made the ships extremely vulnerable to warships and bombers.
Winter and summer Arctic routes. Source: www.naval-history.net

PQ 15 consisted of 25 merchant vessels, escorted by the Close Escort group led by Captain Harvey Crombie aboard HMS Bramble, together with two other mineweepers, four trawlers, four destroyers and the anti-aircraft ship HMS Ulster Queen.
The convoy was supported by two other groups: the Cruiser Cover force of Rear Admiral Burrough, with the cruisers HMS London, HMS Nigeria and two destroyers, and the Distant Cover Force led by Admiral John Tovey, which comprised the battleships HMS King George V and USS Washington, the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, the heavy cruisers USS Tuscaloosa and Wichita, the light cruiser HMS Kenya and 10 destoyers.

The convoy sailed from Reykjavik, Iceland, on 26 April 1942. On 28 April, the Luftwaffe sighted the ships, approximately 250 nautical miles SW of Bear Island. Despite having being discovered, the convoy didn't meet any opposition for two days, as the attention of German air and sea forces was focused on the reciprocal convoy QP11, which was returning home from the Soviet Union. The inbound convoy was attacked by torpedo aircraft but none of the ships were hit.
In Commander Crombie's report, we come to know that, after crossing QP11, PQ 15 started being constantly shadowed, by BV 138 seaplanes and by the omnipresent Fw 200 Condors.

The bow of HMS King George V after colliding with HMS Punjabi
Nothing happened until 1 May, when the Distant Cover Force was steaming surrounded by thick fog: in low visibility, HMS King George V and the destroyer HMS Punjabi collided: the latter, which had manouvred to avoid mines,  was cut in two and sank with the loss of 49 seamen, while the battleships suffered heavy damage to her bow, being forced to return home.  

On 2 May, in position 073° 01' N 017°32' E, HMS Seagull and the Norwegian cruiser St Albans obtained an ASDIC contact and carried out an attack on an enemy submarine. When the vessel was force to surface and fired, it was discovered that she was the Polish submarine Jastrzab (also cited as P551). Five crewmen had been killed (including the British liason officer) and six injured. The causes of the incident are, still today, a matter of controversy.

On 2 May at 23:37, in the half light of the Arctic summer night, the convoy was attacked in position 073° N 019°40' E by enemy torpedo bombers. They were six Heinkel He 111 of I./KG 26, which came in low on the starboard bow of the convoy. One of the Heinkels was hit and crashed in flames just ahead of the ships. The others passed through the protective screen and launched their torpedoes, passing low over the vessels. While leaving the scene, another Heinkel was badly hit and considered destroyed, although it was not seen crashing.

Two views of SS Botavon
The attack was a success, as three ships were hit by torpedoes: SS Botavon, SS Jutland and SS Cape Corso: the latter blew up and rapidly sank, taking with her 50 of its 56 men (a partial casualty list is available here). Botavon settled down by her bows and was later sunk by gunfire from the escort ship HMS Badsworth. The escort vessel also picked up seamen from the Jutland, which was abandoned and then torpedoed and sank by U-251 at 00:14 hrs on 3 May.

The blow suffered by the convoy was heavy; three ships were lost with a considerable cost of lives and goods, and moreover the conditions of the Arctic summer night made the remaining merchant vessels exposed to more attacks. It was, in fact, difficult to see enemy aircraft, and the anti aircraft ship HMS Ulster Queen couldn't see the Heinkels as they had made their attack. This was highlighted in Captain Crombie's report:
The aircraft attacked in formation and it was disappointing that in spite of the fact that they came over and through the strongest part of the Screen of HM Ships Somali and Matchless it was not possible to break up the attack. [...]
The fact remains that HMS Bramble from the central position of the screen opened fire with her Oerlikon guns first, that if HM Ships Somali and Matchless had been a few seconds quicker on the trigger the attack might have been hampered a little and perhaps another aircraft brought down. But with the visibility prevailing, the lack of warning, the available gun power, and the resolution of the attack, I very much doubt whether loss of ships in the convoy could have been prevented. [Source: www.halcyon-class.co.uk]
Before and during the attack from the air, it is possible that a U-boat shadowed and attacked PQ 15: signals were infact detected from the starboard bow of the convoy, and lookouts aboard HMS Leda saw a black shape disappearing when the aircraft attacked. HMS Somali was forced to alter course to avoid torpedoes, probably fired by that very same submarine. HMS Leda headed toward the black shape and dropped depth charges before loosing contact.

PQ 15 continued its course unmolested until 20:30 of 3 May, when enemy bombers where spotted. This time they were Ju 88s from KG 30. Two aircraft were seen, but more were heard above the merchants in the clouds, for an estimated six. The only vessel hit was the trawler Cape Palliser, who suffered minor damage from near misses. One of the Ju 88s was shot down.

The weather deteriorated and prevented the Germans to mount further air raids. The submarine threat was however still present: HMS Badsworth obtained a contact and dropped depth charges, reporting of having heard the submarine's blowing tanks, but nothing appeared on the surface and she couldn't confirm his kill. Two Russian destroyers joined the convoy at 10:24, 4 May. The weather worsened even more and a south east gale developped, bringing heavy snow. The appalling conditions provided excellent cover for the remaning part of the journey, and PQ 15 reach the Kola inlet at 22:00 on 5 May, without further losses. Of the 25 merchant vessels composing the convoy, 22 had safely reached their destination.

The entire operation was considerd a success, despite the difficult operational conditions. The long hours of daylight had exposed the convoy to air attacks, and the bad weather came as a relief for the vulnerable merchant vessels. It is interesting to note the the CAM ships didn't launched their Hurricanes, as it was intended to keep them for the final attack before the Kola inlet, where they could have landed on Russian soil.
Capitan Crombie wrote in his report:
The very long hours of daylight make the task of the submarine difficult provided the screen is active and offensive and a successful attack should only be possible by an experienced and resolute submarine. [. . .]
Both bombing aircraft and submarine attacks will have their successes but it should be possible to keep them low. The defence of a large convoy against torpedo attack is, however, a different problem and constitutes a serious menace.
Crombie finally gave credit to the excellent conduct of the merchant seamen:
I should like to record the excellent conduct of the convoy, the majority of which were American ships unused to convoy work. Their steadiness when the torpedo attack took place and leading ships, including the Commodore and Rear Commodore's ships were sunk, their speed of opening fire and their excellent station keeping made the task of the escorts very much easier. It was largely due to the good conduct and discipline of the convoy that twenty-two ships out of twenty-five arrive at Murmansk undamaged.


  1. Hi I have been compiling a family tree for a friend his £x Gt Grandad was an Ali Dad who died aboard the SS Botavon 1942 he was a fireman. I wondered if you had any info I tried to access the list of names but could not gain access.
    Cheers C gaish r8088697@googlemail.com

  2. my father james Roberts dsm was a stoker on cape pallister

    1. Hi. My father was on the Cape Palliser too. Please contact me. Marilynhusbands@hotmail.com