During the Allies’ greatest naval disaster, one man’s ingenuity and disobedience saved three ships and their desperately needed cargo.
In 1941 Russia was hard-pressed to stop the Nazi invasion. The US and Great Britain agreed to supply Stalin with planes, tanks and other war materials, hoping that the Russian resistance would break the Nazi war machine.
On the ice-covered deck of a convoy ship
In order to get the supplies to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, the convoys had to pass north of the Arctic Circle. Extreme cold threatened the poorly-equipped Merchant Marine crews; the darkness of the Arctic winter hampered navigation; while the midnight sun of summer revealed ships to German planes and U-boats. Worst of all, the convoys had to sail past Nazi-occupied Norway, in constant threat of bombers, U-boat wolfpacks and the dreaded battleship Tirpitz.
Ships of Convoy PQ17 shortly before departure from Hvalfjord, Iceland
Sailing from Iceland on June 27, 1942, convoy PQ-17 was composed of 35 merchantmen guarded by a close escort of 6 destroyers and 13 other ships. Several cruisers and destroyers provided distant cover from 40 miles away, and the British Home Fleet itself followed them from a greater distance. The mission was off to a poor start: one cargo ship ran aground and another had to turn back due to engine trouble soon after departure. On top of all this, a U-boat spotted the ships as soon as they were underway.
The heavy cruiser USS Wichita was one of the escort ships ordered to abandon the convoy
From July 2 onwards, German bombers attacked the convoy repeatedly, but were beaten back with light losses. In the meantime, the British Admiralty has received information that the Tirpitz had left its berth in Trondheim. Assuming that the battleship was steaming towards the convoy to destroy it, and knowing that the fleet didn’t have a reasonable chance of defeating itself and its escorts, First Sea Lord Admiral Pound made a controversial decision. He ordered the escorting cruisers and destroyers to turn back and leave the unarmed ships to their fate, while the merchantmen were instructed to scatter in all directions and make their way to Russia alone, hoping that at least a few of them will evade the enemy. In a cruel twist of fate, the order was based on false information: the Tirpitz was only changing position and had no intention of attacking the convoy.
Confusion and panic struck the fleet when the order was received and the armed ships turned around. Early on July 4, some US merchantmen lowered their tattered flags and replaced them with larger, more colorful Stars and Stripes in defiance of the peril they now faced. The slaughter began the next morning: U-boats, bombers and torpedo planes hunted down the defenseless ships with impunity, sinking 14 on just the first day of attack. In the middle of the massacre, one ship defied orders to retreat.
Lieutenant Leo Gradwell
The Ayrshire wasn’t a proper warship; it was a trawler converted for anti-submarine duty. Likewise, its captain, Lt. Leo Gradwell, wasn’t a proper naval officer. A barrister by trade, he was in the Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was only certified to pilot pleasure yachts in coastal waters. Lt. Gradwell decided to defy Admiralty orders and teamed up with three cargo ships, the Silver Sword, the Ironclad and the Troubadour, leading them north, deep into the Arctic ice. Gradwell had the ships painted white and covered their decks with linen to blend into the surroundings. The ruse worked: one German plane flew overhead but failed to notice them.
He also had Sherman tanks brought up from the cargo holds and placed on the decks, ready to fire upon U-boats that might appear. Once danger passed, the ships proceeded to Arkhangelsk and received a hero’s welcome. Remarkably, Gradwell had no proper maps as the Ayrshire wasn’t supposed to go anywhere on its own. Since compasses were unreliable this close to the North Pole, he had to navigate with only a sextant and a copy of the Time World Geographic Pocket Book.
German U-boat U255 after the attack, flying four victory pennants and the captured flag of the merchantman SS Paulus Potter
Though Lt. Gradwell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross as his defiance of orders went quietly forgotten, the operation at large was still a disaster. Out of the original 35, only 11 cargo ships made it to Russia. Anglo-American relations were strained over the fiasco, while Stalin openly accused the Allies of lying about the attack and refusing to provide him with the aid they promised. About 120 seamen were killed, many others crippled or maimed. The lost supplies – combat planes, tanks and many other items - were worth half a billion dollars (or, adjusted for inflation, 7.3 billion dollars today).
BRING OUT THE BIG GUNS!
To the hundreds of loyal fans and curious newcomers to Beyond Band of Brothers who have requested our 2017 brochure, we appreciate your patience with our two-week delay as we polish the final details. For those who have already put in their request on our homepage, we’ll be sending our brand-new brochures right from the print shop so that you can start planning! We want to bring out the big guns and say a 25% off-sized thank you for your loyal anticipation by offering this special opportunity.
If you still want to travel in 2016, book your tour until May 20, 2016 with a 10% discount and a special full-refund cancellation available up to 30 days before departure.
If you want to combine these opportunities to book and pay in full for a tour for 2016 and another one for 2017, you’ll get 25% off and the full-refund cancellation option up to 30 days before departure on both.
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