Convoy PQ 18

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Convoy PQ 18 under attack

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.

Ships[edit]

The convoy consisted of forty merchant ships (11 British, 20 US, six Soviet and three Panamanian) and four Fleet auxiliaries; two oilers, a rescue ship and a CAM ship.

Close escort was provided by a force led by Commander A. B. Russell, in the destroyer Malcolm, with two other destroyers Achates and Amazon, two anti-aircraft ships, 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 Admiral Robert Burnett in the cruiser Scylla. The escort was augmented by local escort forces from Britain to Iceland (Campbell and six other destroyers and five 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 Vice Admiral Bruce Fraser) and a Cruiser Cover Force of three cruisers and their destroyer escort commanded by Vice Admiral 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.

Air forces[edit]

Main article: Operation Orator

This convoy was notable for being the first Russian convoy to use an escort carrier; HMS Avenger carried 10 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes and three Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers.

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.[1] The RAF-RAAF force regrouped at Vaenga air base (renamed Severomorsk in 1951), 40 km north of Murmansk.

In addition to reconnaissance aircraft of Luftflotte 5,[2] the Luftwaffe fielded an attack force of 35 Junkers Ju 88A-4 dive bombers of KG 30 and 42 torpedo bombers of KG 26 (I/KG 26 with 28 Heinkel He 111H-6s and III/KG 26 with 14 Ju 88A-4s.)[3] 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".

Battle[edit]

A merchant ship blows up

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 Blohm & Voss BV 138 flying boat, but fighters from Avenger subsequently kept reconnaissance aircraft out of visual range of the convoy.[2] 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 HMS 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.

On 13 September the convoy was again sighted by a BV 138 from Banak. Aerial attack from Banak opened with unsuccessful dive bombing by KG 30 Ju 88s. While the fighters from Avenger were chasing the Ju 88s away, 24 He 111s of I/KG 26 with about 14 Ju 88ss from III/KG 26 mounted a mass torpedo attack on the starboard side of the convoy, using a new anti-convoy tactic, called the "Golden Comb". The torpedo bombers sank eight ships virtually obliterating the two starboard columns of the convoy. Every bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Four of the I/KG 26 aircraft made emergency water landings while returning to base, and only one crew was rescued by Seenotdienst. Two aircraft reaching base were too badly damaged for further operations. III/KG 26 bombers forming the second wave encountered fully prepared gunners and lost several aircraft.[2] The Royal Navy claimed to have shot down 5 torpedo bombers with 4 confirmed via incomplete Luftwaffe loss records.[4] In the late evening, He-115 torpedo bombers attacked, with several lost to ship's gunfire.[5][6]

Just after noon 14 September,[5] I/KG 26 attacked Avenger with 22 He-111s. Approximately 10 Sea Hurricane fighters from Avenger were launched as I/KG 26 separated to attack their target from opposite directions as two groups of eleven aircraft each. The He 111s attempted to regain their defensive formation before the fighters could reach them, and then discovered the ship they had initially targeted was not Avenger. The compact formation of He 111s attempting to reach Avenger then passed over the convoy at torpedo release altitude under simultaneous attack by three fighters and massed AA fire from every ship in the convoy. Only two He 111s launched torpedoes, and both missed Avenger. Five He 111s fell near the convoy, four more fell before reaching land, and only eight of the thirteen reaching land could be repaired for further operations.[2] The Royal Navy claimed to have shot down 13 torpedo bombers.[7] Three Sea Hurricanes were also shot down in error by Royal Navy and Merchant Navy gunners.[5] III/KG 26 Ju 88 torpedo bombers and III/KG-30 Ju 88 dive bombers attacked later in the afternoon. Their attack was badly coordinated sinking only the ammunition ship Mary Luckenbach. The Royal Navy claimed another 9 aircraft destroyed.[7] Luftwaffe records show at least 23 I/KG26, III/KG26, III/KG30, I/.406, and I.906 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed throughout the day's attacks.[8] By the end of the day on 14 September, I/KG 26 had only 8 serviceable aircraft.[9]

The 14th 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 HMS 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." [10]

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 HMS 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 the 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,[11] 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 14 September. They left their 23 aircraft in the USSR before returning to bases in the UK.

Assessment[edit]

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[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Smith p124
  2. ^ a b c d Bekker, Cajus (1964). The Luftwaffe War Diaries. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 394–398. 
  3. ^ Wood & Gunston, pp.70&72
  4. ^ SIG, 13 September 1942.
  5. ^ a b c Thiele, p.46
  6. ^ SIG, 14 September 1942. Some late evening losses on the 13th were recorded as being on the 14th
  7. ^ a b Thiele, p.46.
  8. ^ SIG, 14 September 1942.
  9. ^ Bekker, p.273
  10. ^ London Gazette p. 5149
  11. ^ Peter Smith, Convoy PQ18: Arctic Victory (1975) p. 169

References[edit]

  • Bekker, Cajus (1964). The Luftwaffe War Diaries. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Arnold Hague : The Allied Convoy System 1939-1945 (2000) ISBN 1-55125-033-0 (Canada), ISBN 1-86176-147-3 (UK)
  • Peter Smith (1975) Convoy PQ18: Arctic Victory ISBN 0-7183-0074-2
  • SIG: Special Interest Group Luftwaffe in Norway.
  • Harold Thiele (2004) Luftwaffe Aerial Torpedo Aircraft and Operations in World War Two, Hikoki (England), ISBN 1 902109 42 2
  • Tony Wood & Bill Gunston (1990) Hitler's Luftwaffe, Crescent Books (New York), ISBN 0-517-22477-1
  • Richard Woodman (1994). Arctic Convoys 1941-1945. John Murray (London). ISBN 978-0-7195-5752-1

External links[edit]