Convoy PQ 18
Convoy PQ 18 was one of the Arctic convoys sent from Britain to aid the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi Germany. The convoy departed Loch Ewe, Scotland on 2 September 1942 and arrived in Arkhangelsk on 21 September 1942.
Following the disastrous losses to Convoy PQ 17, the British were determined to provide the convoy with air cover. The new escort carrier HMS Avenger had arrived from the United States and formed the core of the escorting force. The convoy was postponed because a large part of the Royal Navy was engaged in Operation Pedestal, protecting a vital convoy to Malta in August.
Close escort was provided by a force led by Cdr.AB Russell, in the destroyer Malcolm. The force comprised two other destroyers Achates and Amazon, two anti-aircraft "gunships", four Flower-class corvettes, four A/S trawlers and three minesweepers. The escort was supported by a Carrier group (the escort carrier Avenger and her accompanying destroyers), and a "Fighting Destroyer Escort" of 16 Fleet destroyers commanded by Rear Adm. Robert Burnett in the cruiser Scylla. The escort was augmented by local escort forces from Britain to Iceland (Campbell and six other destroyers, and 5 trawlers) and from Murmansk (four Soviet destroyers and three minesweepers).
Distant cover was provided by a Heavy Cover Force (the battleships Anson and Duke of York, a cruiser and six destroyers under the command of V Adm. Bruce Fraser) and a Cruiser Cover Force of three cruisers and their destroyer escort commanded by V Adm. Bonham-Carter.
Concurrent with PQ 18 the Royal Navy sent two forces to Spitzbergen, a Cruiser force with reinforcements for the garrison there and a Replenishment group for the convoy; these would also be available to support PQ 18. To guard against a sortie by the German surface fleet in Norway a submarine patrol force was sent to keep watch on the main Norwegian ports, nine submarines in all.
Opposing this armada, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine had established a U-boat patrol group of 12 U-boats in the Norwegian Sea and a surface force comprising the cruisers Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper, and Köln and four destroyers. Since Operation Rosselsprung in the summer the battleship Tirpitz and cruiser Lützow were in dock for repairs, as were three destroyers, leaving the surface force depleted in numbers and strength.
A combined Royal Air Force-Royal Australian Air Force detachment, made up of 32 Hampden torpedo bombers from 144 Squadron and 455 Squadron, nine Catalina maritime patrol aircraft from 210 Squadron and three photo reconnaissance Spitfires, was sent to air bases in the Soviet Union, to fend an attack by the German battleship Tirpitz, if it should eventuate. Nine Hampdens were lost on route, including one which crash landed in German-occupied Norway; plans for the operation fell into the hands of the Germans as a result. The RAF-RAAF force regrouped at Vaenga air base, 40 km north of Murmansk.
The Luftwaffe fielded a force of 42 Heinkel He 111 torpedo bombers of KG 26 and 35 Junkers Ju 88 dive bombers of KG 30. Tactics consisted of simultaneous attack by torpedo bombers and dive bombers swamping the defenders, while III/KG 26 group was trained in an anti-convoy measure involving a massed torpedo attack, known as the "Golden Comb".
PQ 18 left Loch Ewe on 2 September 1942, in the charge of its Local Escort force. On 7 September it was joined by the Close Escort, with eight merchantmen from Reykjavík, while the local escort, with 3 merchantmen, detached to there. On 9 September they were joined by Adm. Burnett in Scylla, with the Fighting Destroyer escort forces, accompanied by the carrier Avenger and her group, which would take the convoy on to Arkhangel'sk. The Distant Cover and Cruiser cover forces had sailed independently, as had the two groups bound for Spitzbergen.
On 8 September the convoy was sighted by a German reconnaissance aircraft, but lost shortly after. Contact was also made by U-boats from the "Ice Palace" group, which commenced shadowing. These were chased by the destroyers, in order to shake off pursuit, and on 12 September U-88 was detected, attacked and destroyed by the escorting destroyer Faulknor. By 13 September there were eight U-boats in contact, and that morning two ships were torpedoed and sunk. At this stage PQ 18 was 150 miles north west of Bear island, about to turn into the Barents Sea. On this day the escort force was rejoined by Scylla and a number of destroyers that had detached to refuel at Lowe Sound. This brought the escort up to full strength for the next leg of the voyage.
Also on 13 September the convoy was again sighted by a reconnaissance aircraft, a BV 138 from Banak. The air forces at Banak mounted a full assault on the convoy, using a new anti-convoy tactic, called the "Golden Comb". This involved a mass torpedo attack by full group of torpedo bombers, and resulted in the sinking of eight ships from the convoy. Two more air attacks followed, but failed to score any hits. In all eight aircraft were shot down on this day.
The following day, 14 September, the attack was repeated; on this occasion, however, the escort force had developed counter-measures to the form of attack, and the massed AA fire from the convoy and fighter attacks, the result of aggressive handling by the carrier Avenger and the AA cruiser Ulster Queen, saw the attack broken up. Three air attacks saw one ship hit and sunk, while 21 aircraft were shot down. The14th also saw further U-boat attacks. The tanker Atheltemplar was torpedoed by U-457; she was abandoned and sank later. In counter-attacks U-589 was destroyed by Onslow.
On 15 September there were further air attacks but these were again beaten off, without loss. After this there was a pause in the air offensive, as the official despatch states:
"During the whole period, just over two days, of concentrated air attack, the enemy lost at least forty aircraft: there can be little doubt that these heavy casualties, especially among his limited supply of really skilled torpedo pilots, was largely responsible for the steady decline in the size and vigour of his attacks." 
On 15 September there were still three U-boats still in contact, and another twelve in the area. These made several attempts to attack but had no success.
On 16 September U-457 was destroyed by Impulsive, and that afternoon all further U-boat attacks were called off. Later the same day Burnett with Scylla and the destroyer escort, with Avenger's group, detached to meet and escort the returning convoy QP 14, while PQ 18 continued with its close escort. The following day it met the western local escort, a group of Soviet destroyers from Murmansk.
During this period the German surface force had no impact on the convoy operation. It had been alerted when the convoy was first sighted, and on 10 September had moved north to Altenfjord, in preparation for a sortie. This move had been sighted by the British submarine patrol, and the submarine Tigris made a torpedo attack on Admiral Scheer, though without success. The force concentrated at Atenfjord, but Hitler, reluctant to risk the loss of any of his capital ships, refused to authorize it, and on 13th the sortie was cancelled.
PQ 18 was not out of the woods, however; on 18 September it was attacked again by German aircraft; one ship, the US merchant freighter "Kentucky" was sunk, while three aircraft were shot down. Another air attack the following day scored no hits, and later on 19 September PQ 18 entered the White Sea.
In total, 13 merchants were lost from the convoy.
The Tirpitz did not attack the convoy and the RAF-RAAF Hampden force undertook one patrol, on September 14. They left their 23 aircraft in the USSR before returning to bases in the UK.
PQ 18 was seen as a success by the Allies. Thirteen ships had been lost, but 28 had arrived safely, and the Arctic convoy route, which had been suspended since the loss of PQ 17, had been re-established. Furthermore, three U-boats had been destroyed, and 40 German aircraft had been shot down.
Whilst the Germans could be pleased with the losses inflicted, they had failed to stop the convoy getting through, and their own losses, particularly in trained pilots, were severe, denting the ability of the Luftwaffe to hinder future convoys. The German surface force had also been powerless to interfere, and its next venture, against Convoy JW 51B would be a debacle.
Ships of the convoy
- Smith p124
- London Gazette p. 5149]
- Peter Smith, Convoy PQ18: Arctic Victory (1975) p. 169
- Arnold Hague : The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 (2000) ISBN (Canada) 1 55125 033 0 : ISBN (UK) 1 86176 147 3
- Peter Smith (1975) Convoy PQ18: Arctic Victory ISBN 0-7183-0074-2
- Richard Woodman (1994). Arctic Convoys 1941-1945. John Murray (London). ISBN 978-0-7195-5752-1
- London Gazette; report by Adm. John Tovey
- PQ 18 at Convoy web
- PQ 18 at uboatnet
- Newsreel video of HMS Scylla fighting the Luftwaffe while protecting convoy PQ18