Saturday 24th September 2022

At 08:25 our navigation system showed us to be in the Norwegian Sea (part of the Atlantic Ocean) at 72N 19E with a heading of 355⁰ towards Spitsbergen. Located midway between the archipelago and Norway is Bjonoya (Bear Island) the home to a weather station and radio navigation systems as well as to giant colonies of seabirds. It is also thought to have the archipelago’s oldest house dating from 1823.

The area of the convergence of the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean is seen by mariners as a most turbulent stretch of water. Here the North Atlantic Drift is still effective in keeping Norway’s ports ice-free, compared to those in Russia and Canada at the same latitude. A problem lies with the clash of warmer water with the colder and less dense Arctic waters. The seas mix more slowly than the accompanying air masses. Consequently, in storms the spray (the sea) that any ship ploughs through quickly freezes on cold steel forming a coating called rime and would easily overturn a ship, so keeping watch and breaking off the ice is an essential of winter sailing in these waters.

During WW2 the North Atlantic convoy system was transferred to the Arctic in 1941. They delivered tanks, ammunition, aircraft, other essential war materials and food. They played an important role of keeping Russia in the war at a time when the Germans were victorious across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The convoys of around 40 ships, protected by cruisers and other armed vessels were assembled in Hvalfiordur Fjord (Iceland) and sailed north and east to Archangelsk and Murmansk in Russia.  Overall Arctic convoys were very successful. Of a total of 40 outward (east) convoys (numbers prefixed by PQ) comprising 811 ships only 58 were sunk.   

From Bear Island the usable waters narrow as the ships had to squeeze through the gap between the southern extent of the Polar ice and the North Cape (Norway’s most northern point) around land-based German aircraft could inform the big ships at anchor and hidden in the deep Norwegian fjords. The UK Admiralty assumed that at short notice the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen could attack the convoys with ease. The British, it seems, were transfixed by this threat and considered ways of destroying the ships before they could inflict damage. It was a few years before these ships were found and sunk.

By the summer of 1942 some Members of Parliament and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound doubted the value of convoys and described them as ‘a regular millstone around our necks’. Eventually a decision was taken, that, when the orders were issued to convoy PQ17 resulted in catastrophic losses. It is believed that Hitler considered ultimate victory by destroying the greatest possible weight of Allied shipping as we were reliant upon the movement of fuel and war reserves across the Atlantic and by 1942 so were the Russians who after defeating the Nazis were now our allies. However, at this time, the British had cracked the secret Enigma Code and U-Boats were easy targets. The Admiralty continued with the convoys, but the records show that Rear-Admiral Hamilton is on record saying that “the primary object is to get PQ17 to Russia but an object only slightly subsidiary to providing an opportunity for the enemy’s ships to be brought into action”, and therefore we sink them. This was in effect a trap to catch the Tirpitz using the bait of over 30 heavily laden and mostly American ships. The British Admiralty saw these ships as terror weapons and in effect did Hitler’s work for him.

It all came to a head on 4th July 1942 when PQ17 was chosen as the convoy that was at greatest risk from an attack by the Tirpitz. However, it never left Altanfjord and U-Boats hadn’t sunk any merchant ships or even entered the protective screen provided by the cruisers. The pivotal argument is related to the stubborn, autocratic nature of the Admiralty who made the decisions instead of the people actually in charge of the convoys. PQ17 was deemed to be at threat and the order issued to break up the convoy. After a quiet voyage from Iceland PQ17 was around 200 miles west of Bear Island on 1st July 1942. A German reconnaissance plane spotted the convoy and next day six U-Boats attacked. On 4th July there were salvos from torpedo bombers which led to the loss of an escort vessel and some merchant ships. At 240 miles west of the North Cape and with 1000 miles to go to Russia it was thought all was well.

Shortly after 21:00 the decision was taken in London to withdraw the cruisers and scatter the convoy. “Most immediate. Cruiser Force withdraw to westward at high speed”. (21:11 B/4), followed by, “Immediate. Owing to the threat from surface ships convoy is to DISPERSE and proceed to Russian ports”. (“21:23 B/4) and then, “Most immediate. My 21:23 B/4 message is to SCATTER” (Admiralty records). The difference between “disperse” and “scatter” here is important. To disperse is to break formation and proceed at best speed. Scatter is to separate from each other as quickly as possible. These decisions were the deadliest for ships and crew of any in the whole war but those involved, and their sacrifices, have had little recognition with only recently an Arctic convoy commemorative medal issued.

At 12 noon the Captain was “pleased to see many passengers had found their sea legs and that later this afternoon we wil pass Bear Island”.

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