Thursday, 19 January 2012

Arctic Convoy PQ 16: The Battle

The Arctic convoy PQ 16 consisted of 35 merchant vessels: 21 of them were American, 8 British, 4 Soviet, 1 Dutch and 1 Panamanian. Close escort was provided by destroyers HMS Ashanti, HMS Volunteer, HMS Achates, HMS Martin, ORP Garland, the anti-aicraft ship Alynbak, four Flower class corvettes, one minesweeper, four trawlers and the CAM ship Empire Lawrence. The officer in charge was Commodre H.G Gale, aboard Ocean Voice.

Due to the threat of German surface vessels, PQ 16 was covered by two support groups: the first was a Cruiser Cover Force comprising the cruisers HMS Nigeria, HMS Liverpool , HMS NorfolkKent and the destroyers HMS Onslow, Oribi and Marne, commanded by R. Admiral Burrough; the second support group was the Distant Cover Force, comprising the carrier HMS Victorious, the battleships USS Washington and HMS Duke of York, the cruisers USS Wichita and HMS London, and 13 destroyers.

The CAM ship Empire Lawrence
The Germans first had suspects of an incoming convoy when, in early May, agents in Canada reported the gathering of shipping in Canadian harbours. It was estimated that the convoy would have reached Iceland to form up, leaving for Murmansk from the 17th onward. Confirmation of this suspects occured when the Fw 200 Condor units first sighted the British portion of the convoy on its way to Iceland, and then spotted  the Distant Cover Force, correctly identifying the carrier and the battleships.

After reaching Iceland, the convoy sailed from Hvalfjord on 21 May. At this time of the year, the convoy would operate under particular conditions: due to the perpetual daylight of the Arctic summer, in fact, it was easier to spot and prevent U-boat attacks, but the daylight conditions also left the convoys more exposed to aerial detection and bombing.

The Luftwaffe planned several aerial reconnaisance sorties, but due to persistent banks of clouds and fogs, it was only on 25 May that PQ 16 was spotted by a FW-200, 120 miles east of Jan Mayen island. That same evening, the Luftwaffe mounted the first of a five-day series of attacks.
Units involved were KG 26 with its torpedo-armed Heinkel He 111s, and III./KG 30 with bomb-carrying Ju 88s. The Heinkels weren't successful, loosing one of their aircraft to a Hurricane launched by a CAM ship. The Ju-88 damaged one merchant vessel, the 5,127 ton Carlton, which was towed back to Iceland.

All attacks were repulsed on the 26th, but the 6,191 ton Syros was torpedoed and sunk by U-703. On 27 May, the air attacks began to break through: now southwest of Bear island, the convoy was attacked by several waves of German bombers, KG 30 alone mounting more than 100 sorties that day. First to be hit were the Russian Starshy Bolshevik and the ORP Garland, which were damaged but managed to stay afloat. The second wave of bombers hit the Alamar and the Mormacsul, 5,689 and 5.481 tons respectively, which both sank. The CAM ship Empire Lawrence was then hit by three Ju-88s, followed by a fourth in space of minutes, and sunk.
Other two ships were hit: the Empire Purcell (7,049 tons) blew up at around 20:00 hrs, while the City of Joliet was damaged and sank the following morning.
While the Junkers were wreaking havoc of the convoy, a gaggle of He 111s of KG 26 approached the vessels at low altitudes and sank the Lowther Castle with two torpedoes.
Ju 88s of II./KG 30 photographed over Norway, 1943

The following day, 28 May, the convoy was joined by three Soviet destroyers and four minesweepers, giving the amount of firepower needed to drove off subsequent attacks.
PQ 16 split up on the 29th, six ships heading for Archangel, while the rest of the convoy for Murmansk. The Ju 88s attacked again on the 30th, but this time they couldn't score any hits, and actually lost two of their numbers. According to John Weal, the Russian ace Boris Safonov (26 kills) scored at least one victory, before disappearing without trace. 

Further attacks were carried out after the convoy reached port. On 1 June KG 30 attacked the unloading merchants and dropped mines around Murmank, sinking the 5,685 ton Steel Worker.

In total, the Luftwaffe sank 8 ships, plus one damaged which was forced to turn home. The lost ships were:

  • Alamar 
  • CAM Empire Lawrence 
  • Empire Purcell 
  • Mormacsul 
  • City of Joliet 
  • Lowther Castle
  • Syros
  • Steel Worker 
The Lowther Castle was sunk by He 111s. The Spyros by U-703. All the other merchant vessels were sunk by bombs (or mines) launched by Ju 88s of KG 30.

In the book Luftwaffe anti-shipping units 1942-45, a Royan Navy report on German attacks can be found:
Bombing attacks: The Naval Authorities attributes the successes during the period of most intensive operations fom 11.15 to 21.30 hours on 27 May chiefly to the fact that the weather at the time was cluds but not completely overcast. The Junkers Ju 88 pressed home their attacks during this period to a much greater extent that when the sky was cloudless or completely overcast. The aircraft are reported to have dived at 60 degrees to a height of about 1000 feet before releasing their bombs of which they are reported to have carred four.
Torpedo attacks: The operations by torpedo-carrying aircraft do not appear to have been very successful. The aircraft approached flying low and released their torpedoes at about 10 feet. There is little information on ranges but it is known that the only hit obtained was the result of random shots from 400 yards and that, in general, the attacks were not pressed home. 

Chriss Goss, Luftwaffe anti-shipping units 1942-45, Luftwaffe Colours, 2006
John Weal, Junkers Ju 88 Kampfgeschwader on the Russian Front, Osprey Publishing, 2010

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