Operation FB was part of the Arctic Convoys of World War II. The operation consisted of independent sailings by unescorted merchant ships between Iceland and Murmansk in the Autumn of 1942. The strategic situation in late 1942 was turning in the Allies' favour but the dispatch of supplies to the USSR by convoy via the Arctic route became temporarily impossible, due to the demands of the Mediterranean campaign. No Convoy PQ 19 was sent because Operation Torch (8–16 November 1942) would have needed to be postponed for three weeks. Arctic convoy operations resumed in late December 1942.
Discussions between Winston Churchill and the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt led to ships being dispatched independently to Russia from Iceland, using the long, winter Arctic night for concealment. The ships sailed at approximately twelve-hour intervals, with seven trawlers strung out along the routes as rescue ships. Of thirteen sailings to Russia, five ships arrived and of 23 departures from Russia, 22 ships reached their destination. No more PQ–QP convoys sailed, the new convoys being named JW and RA, beginning with Convoy JW 51A (15–25 December 1942).
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Operation FB
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Ships list
- 6 Notes
- 7 Footnotes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
In October 1941, after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR, which had begun on 22 June, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a commitment to send a convoy to the Arctic ports of the USSR every ten days and to deliver 1,200 tanks a month from July 1942 to January 1943, followed by 2,000 tanks and another 3,600 aircraft more than already promised. The first convoy was due at Murmansk around 12 October and the next convoy was to depart Iceland on 22 October. A motley of British, Allied and neutral shipping loaded with military stores and raw materials for the Soviet war effort would be assembled at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, convenient for ships from both sides of the Atlantic.[a]
By late 1941, the convoy system used in the Atlantic had been established on the Arctic run; a convoy commodore ensured that the ships' masters and signals officers attended a briefing before sailing to make arrangements for the management of the convoy, which sailed in a formation of long rows of short columns. The commodore was usually a retired naval officer, aboard a ship identified by a white pendant with a blue cross. The commodore was assisted by a Naval signals party of four men, who used lamps, semaphore flags and telescopes to pass signals, coded from books carried in a bag, weighted to be dumped overboard. In large convoys, the commodore was assisted by vice- and rear-commodores who directed the speed, course and zig-zagging of the merchant ships and liaised with the escort commander.
Due to the losses of Convoy PQ 18 (2–21 September) and Operation Torch (8–16 November 1942) in the Mediterranean, for which more than 500 ships had to be escorted, much of the British Home Fleet was sent south. The United States and Britain suspended Arctic Convoys to the Soviet Union for the autumn. The US president Franklin D. Roosevelt had favoured sending PQ 19 but the British had replied that it would delay Torch for three weeks. Roosevelt suggested sending three smaller convoys with fewer escorts but Winston Churchill called this unrealistic. Soviet forces were fighting the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) on the Eastern Front and the hiatus was much resented by the Soviet leadership, which judged British reasons for the cessation of Arctic convoys to be spurious. the British claimed that the ceaseless Home Fleet operations amounted to a ratio of warships to convoyed merchant ships of nearly 1:1 on the Arctic run and that the British contribution to the Red Army in tanks and aircraft far exceeded that of the US.
The British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) based at Bletchley Park housed a small industry of code-breakers and traffic analysts. By June 1941, the code-breakers could read quickly German Enigma machine cyphers in the Home Waters settings used by surface ships and U-boats. On 1 February 1942, the Enigma machines used in U-boats in the Atlantic and Mediterranean were made more complex, which the British were unable to read until December 1942 but German ships and the U-boats in Arctic waters continued with the older Enigma. In February 1942, the German Beobachtungsdienst (B-Dienst, Observation Service) of the Kriegsmarine Marinenachrichtendienst (MND, Naval Intelligence Service) broke Naval Cypher No 3 until January 1943. By mid-1941, British Y-stations were able to receive and read Luftwaffe W/T transmissions and give advance warning of Luftwaffe operations. In 1941, interception parties code-named Headaches were embarked on warships and from May 1942, computers sailed with the cruiser admirals in command of convoy escorts, to read Luftwaffe W/T signals which could not be intercepted by the land stations in Britain. The Admiralty sent details of Luftwaffe wireless frequencies, call signs and the daily local codes to the computers. Combined with their knowledge of Luftwaffe procedures, the computers could give fairly accurate details of German reconnaissance sorties and sometimes predicted attacks twenty minutes before they were detected by radar.
In the Arctic autumn, the hours of daylight diminished until by midwinter there was only a twilight at noon, conditions in which convoys had the best chance of evading German aircraft, ships and U-boats. The surviving ships of PQ 18 (2–21 September 1942) were still in Soviet ports, unloaded and waiting to return and forty ships were ready to sail to the USSR in convoy PQ 19 but this convoy operation had suspended by the British, to the dismay of the US and the anger of the USSR. The suggestion that some ships should sail independently, in the meantime, gained favour and a British shipowner, J. A. Bilmeir, offered cash bonuses in advance of £100 each for officers and £50 per rating to volunteers. The Russians had also asked that two Soviet ships at anchor in Iceland be sent back independently to Archangel.
Frederich Engels sailed on 11 August and Belomorkanal followed next day. Both Soviet ships arrived, which increased optimism at the Admiralty, that the slower merchant ships that had been part of PQ 19 could emulate the feat in the growing Arctic night. Churchill assured Roosevelt that any ships sent would be British with volunteer crews but this was not true. On 13 October, the cruiser HMS Argonaut with destroyers HMS Intrepid and HMS Obdurate sailed for Archangel with a medical unit equipped for men suffering from wounds and exposure; Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft spotted the ships but they were not attacked. On return the ships carried the aircrew and ground staff of the two Hampden torpedo-bomber squadrons based in Russia during Operation Orator in September.
Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine
From 24 to 28 September, the German cruiser Admiral Hipper and five destroyers conducted Unternehmen Zarin, a sortie to mine the west coast of Novaya Zemlya. On 5 November, Admiral Hipper sailed again with four escorts, after information from aircraft and U-boats, that individual Allied ships were running the gauntlet through the Barents Sea. The Germans had intended to exploit the absence of much of the Home Fleet to attack convoys with Admiral Hipper but the weather was too bad for its escorting destroyers and an operation against Convoy QP 15 was cancelled. In November, Luftflotte 5, the German air command in Norway and Finland, was ordered to transfer its Ju 88 and He 111 bombers and torpedo-bombers to the Mediterranean against Operation Torch, a decision which the British received through Ultra intercepts. Only the Heinkel 115 floatplanes, suitable for torpedo attacks on stragglers and some Ju 87 dive-bombers, remained in Norway, along with a few long-range reconnaissance aircraft to observe for the surface and U-boat forces.
29 October – 2 November
Ships departed from Iceland at roughly twelve-hour [200 nmi (230 mi; 370 km)] intervals, British and American merchantmen and one Soviet vessel making alternate sailings. The ships took different routes and had the protection of submarine patrols north of Bear Island. The anti-submarine trawlers Cape Palliser, Northern Pride, Northern Spray and St Elstan set out from Iceland and Cape Argona, Cape Mariato and St Kenan left Murmansk, to line the routes. An attack by Northern Spray on a U-boat may have alerted the Germans; the British SS Briarwood and SS Daldorch and the US John H. B. Latrobe were recalled as a precaution.
2 November 1942 – 24 January 1943
On 2 November, Empire Gilbert was sunk by U-586 (Kapitänleutnant Dietrich von der Esch) off Iceland and on 4 November, Junkers Ju 88s of KG 30 bombed and sank the Soviet ship Dekabrist and damaged SS William Clark, which was finished off by U-354 (Kapitänleutnant Karl-Heinz Herbschleb) later that day. On 5 November, a Catalina north of Iceland spotted and sank U-408 (Korvettenkapitän Reinhard von Hymmen) and on 6 November, U-625 (Oberleutnant zur See Hans Benker) sank SS Empire Sky which was lost with all hands. On 6 November Chulmleigh went aground at Sørkapp, on the main island of Spitzbergen. Unable to refloat and disabled by bombing, she was abandoned and was later torpedoed by U-625. Her crew suffered a six-week ordeal on Spitzbergen before being rescued by the Free Norwegian occupation force. Five British and US ships reached Russia and five Soviet ships sailing from Murmansk reached Iceland; with later sailings 22 ships arrived. The Soviet tanker Donbass was sunk by the German destroyer Z27 on 7 November, along with the auxiliary escort ship Musson.
Convoy QP 15
Convoy QP 15 (convoy commodore, Captain W. C. Meek) was a return convoy of thirty empty merchant ships from the USSR and was the last of the QP series. The convoy sailed from Archangel on 17 November with 14 US, 8 British, 7 Soviet, one Panamanian merchant ship and the rescue ship Copeland. On US ship failed to set out and another ran aground, both being too late to catch up; the rescue ship Rathlin was also left behind with a damaged rudder. The convoy had a local escort of four minesweepers and the close escort comprised a minesweeper and four corvettes; the Soviet destroyers Baku and Sokrushitelny accompanied until 20 November. Four British destroyers from Kola accompanying the convoy detached on 26 November with fuel shortage. Two British cruisers and three destroyers took station west of Bear Island and four submarines were sent to patrol near Altenfjord to deter surface raiders. The convoy could still be routed north of Bear Island and signals intelligence had revealed the transfer of the Luftwaffe bombers and torpedo-bombers to the Mediterranean.
On 20 November, a gale blew up and scattered the convoy in the seasonal perpetual darkness. Baku was badly damaged in the storm but managed to limp back to port; a large wave hit Sokrushitelny and ripped off the stern. Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft were grounded and Kriegsmarine ships stayed in port, as the British had hoped, when planning the convoy. Three Soviet destroyers were sent to assist Baku and managed to rescue 187 crew from the Sokrushitelny but were not able to save the ship, which sank on 22 November. Neither of the two British groups of reinforcing destroyers found the convoy, which, west of Bear Island, had fragmented. On 23 November, the U-625 torpedoed and sank the British freighter Goolistan and later in the day, U-601 sank the Soviet freighter Kuznets Lesov; both ships were lost with all hands. The rest of the merchant ships were reassembled in two groups and arrived in Loch Ewe in the north of Scotland on 30 November and 3 December.
Three ships for north Russia were ordered to turn back after a U-boat sighting, four were sunk, one was wrecked and five arrived safely. On the return journey, 23 ships sailed for Iceland, one was sunk and 22 arrived. In 1956, the British naval official historian, Stephen Roskill, had written that
These independent sailings were more successful than some people had expected.
The tactic of independent voyages resembled the "patrol and independent sailings" of the First World War, which Richard Woodman called an "absurd expedient" and "quite useless". A similar initiative in early 1943 by the Soviet authorities, for ships independently to make the westward journey, was equally ill-fated.
Operation FB, November 1942
Data for this section taken from Woodman (2004) unless indicated.
- 2 November: Empire Gilbert (UK) sunk by U-586
- 4 November: Dekabrist (USSR) bombed
- 4 November: William Clark (USA) sunk by U-354
- 6 November: Empire Sky (UK) sunk by U-625
- 6 November: Chulmleigh (UK) Grounded, South Cape Spitzbergen, abandoned, bombed by Luftwaffe, torpedoed and shelled by U-625
- 7 November: Donbass (USSR) sunk by German destroyer Z27
USSR Independents 1943
Data for this section taken from Woodman (2004) unless indicated.
- Bureya: arrived Iceland
- Leonid Krasin: arrived Iceland
- Krasnyy Partizan: sunk, U-354, 26 January
- Malygin: sunk 27 January, U-255 (Kapitänleutnant Reinhart Reche)
- Ufa: sunk, U-354 29 January 1943
- Andre Marti arrived USSR
- Mossovet arrived USSR
- By the end of 1941, 187 Matilda II and 249 Valentine tanks had been delivered, comprising 25 percent of the medium-heavy tanks in the Red Army, making 30–40 percent of the medium-heavy tanks defending Moscow. In December 1941, 16 percent of the fighters defending Moscow were Hawker Hurricanes and Curtiss Tomahawks from Britain and by 1 January 1942, 96 Hurricane fighters were flying in the Soviet Air Forces (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily, VVS). The British supplied radar apparatus, machine tools, Asdic and commodities.
- Woodman 2004, p. 14.
- Edgerton 2011, p. 75.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 22–23.
- Woodman 2004, p. 296.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 296–297.
- Hinsley 1994, pp. 126, 135.
- Hinsley 1994, pp. 141, 145–146.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 296–298.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 305–306.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 299–300.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 307–308.
- PRO 2001, p. 115.
- Roskill 1962, p. 289.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 298–299.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 298–300.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 306–307.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 307–309.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 298–299, 332.
- Woodman 2004, pp. 299, 300–305.
- Woodman 2004, p. 332.
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