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Germany’s ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 gave England an unlikely and problematic ally. Unlikely because Great Britain’s government was ardently anti-Communist, and problematical because of the vast distances involved in supplying aid under the protection of an already hard-pressed Royal Navy.

Political differences aside, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill felt that any nation warring with Germany was already an ally and deserved aid, from Britain as well as the United States. England’s commitments elsewhere around the globe precluded providing manpower or seizing the initiative. For now, the only aid readily available was a constant flow of supplies.

Originally, an informal agreement provided for the delivery of all goods to Soviet ships at British and American ports. The responsibility for ferrying supplies back to the Soviet Union would then rest entirely with the Soviets. But there were not enough ships in the Soviet navy to handle such a monumental task, and eventually the convoys to the Soviet Union came to consist mainly of British and American ships.

Axis domination of the Mediterranean left only two Allied supply routes to the Soviet Union open. One, through Iran, required a sea journey of more than 13,000 miles. The second was a more practical northern route of less than 2,500 miles, but it crossed the cruelest sea of all, the Arctic Ocean. This Arctic route became known as the Murmansk Run.

Sailing around the northern tip of Norway, the convoys would be exposed to one of the largest concentrations of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world. Attacks by more than a dozen subs and literally hundreds of planes at one time would not be uncommon. Strict orders forbade the halting of any ship for even a moment for fear of being attacked by prowling German U-boats, and individuals who fell overboard or survivors seen adrift on the waters had to be ruthlessly ignored. In the first two years of the run, more than one-fifth of the supplies sent to Murmansk would be lost.

Late in August 1941 a small, unnumbered convoy of seven ships made the trip from Iceland to the Soviet port of Archangel in 10 days without incident. The convoy, which had been hurriedly assembled, made the trip both as an experiment and as a gesture of good faith.

That September a military mission was sent to work out a formal aid program for the beleaguered Soviets. Negotiations at first were difficult. The Soviets dismissed all discussion concerning aid and demanded the immediate opening of a second front. They were convinced that only an offensive somewhere else could reduce the pressure the Germans were putting on them.

Several times the talks broke up after bitter disagreement. Marshal Josef Stalin often pointed out that while the Soviet Union was saddled with the burden of carrying 90 percent of the war, all the British were offering was ‘the loss of a few ships in support of the common cause. It was only after it looked as if the negotiations would break down altogether that the Soviets were finally willing to listen to aid proposals. The British and American representatives agreed to furnish all the planes, tanks and other war materiel that the Soviets felt they needed. For an industrial giant like the United States, the manufacturing would be the easy part; getting the goods safely halfway around the world would prove more difficult.

Originally, the Allied convoys went unnamed and unnumbered. After several round trips were successfully completed, a coding system was established. All convoys bound for the Soviet Union were designated PQ, and those returning were designated QP.

At first the Germans had to ignore the Allied crossings because they had few warships available to track the supply convoys. By the end of 1941, seven convoys had delivered 750 tanks, 800 planes, 2,300 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of general cargo to the Soviet Union. Convoy PQ-8 was attacked by a U-boat but safely reached Murmansk on January 19, 1942. By early February 1942, 12 northbound convoys including 93 ships had made the journey with the loss of only one ship to a U-boat.

Although the early convoys encountered little German opposition, they still had to traverse the treacherous Barents Sea, part of the Atlantic Ocean. Winter brought nearly four months of unbroken darkness, which helped conceal the convoys from the enemy but made navigation difficult. Polar ice also pushed down from the north, forcing all ships to make a closer voyage to German-held Norway. The subzero winds howling off the polar cap could easily reach hurricane velocity and whip waves to a height of 70 feet. At such temperatures, sea spray froze immediately and created a top-heavy covering on anything exposed to it. The ice had to be chipped away to prevent the Allied ships from capsizing. Binoculars iced up, as well as guns and torpedoes. Freezing decks could become mirror-smooth, making it impossible for the crewmen to walk on them.

Any man who fell into the sea during the Arctic winter was as good as lost. On January 17, 1942, the British destroyer Matabele was torpedoed and sunk. Although a rescue ship arrived on the scene within minutes, only two survivors out of a crew of 200 were safely pulled from the water. The rest had all frozen to death.

Visibility was also frequently a problem. When the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream blended with the frigid Arctic waters, the result was often an unimaginably thick fog and occassionally blinding snow. Ships had to drastically reduce speed to prevent collisions. Escorting or intercepting the convoys became even riskier.

The Germans did not remain inactive in the Arctic for long. British commando raids along the Norwegian coast had convinced Adolf Hitler that sooner or later Britain would choose that country to begin its invasion of Europe. Every ship that is not in Norway, said the Führer, is in the wrong place.

While Hitler did not want to expose the newly launched battleship Tirpitz to action in the Atlantic, he had agreed to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder’s request that Tirpitz be moved to the safety of the Norwegian fjords. The battleship not only would help deter a British invasion but also would be available to pounce on passing convoys. Hitler’s permission for the move carried a proviso, however: Until the British carriers covering the convoys were neutralized, Tirpitz would not be risked on prolonged operations at sea. The Allies were unaware of the restrictions placed on Tirpitz’s movement.

The mighty Tirpitz had arrived in the northern waters on January 16, 1942. She was later joined by the cruiser Admiral Hipper, the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow, and many attending destroyers. In early March, convoys QP-8 and PQ-12 narrowly missed being intercepted by the newly arrived enemy battle squadron.

The Germans soon began to achieve some coordination in their attacks on the Allied convoys. PQ-13, which sailed for the Soviet Union on March 20, lost five ships to German dive bombers and torpedo planes. Two ships were lost to U-boats and one to a force of marauding destroyers. In the attempt to beat back the enemy surface ships, the escorting cruiser Trinidad was sunk by one of her own rogue torpedoes.

The pack ice soon began to retreat, and the convoys were able to pass north of Bear Island and farther away from the hostile coasts. But summer also brought its own perils. It was the time of the midnight sun, when the days were nearly endless and darkness never really came. Under those conditions, concealment from a vigilant enemy was all but impossible. German long-range bombers and surface ships had little trouble locating and attacking the convoys. The greater travel distance of the northern route also added several days to the voyage.

Despite the dangers and hardships, the Allies were unanimous in their desire to keep the Soviet Union in the fight. They feared that if the Soviets were knocked out of the war, as the Russians had been in 1917, the entire weight of the German army would be unleashed in the West before the United States was really ready to fight. The British had no choice but to grit their teeth and continue to honor their pledge to send supplies to the Soviets through the ports of Murmansk and Archangel, even at the risk of shortchanging their own forces, which were stretched thinly around the world.

Realizing the strategic importance of the supplies flowing to the Soviets, Germany planned to make the trip so costly in lives and ships that the Allies would be forced to abandon any further attempts. They assembled a force of more than 260 aircraft and about 30 U-boats to greet any convoys that attempted the voyage.

Despite the increased danger from the Germans and protests from some within the Admiralty, political commitments forced PQ-16 to set out as scheduled in May 1942. A total of seven ships were lost during the run, all but one to aircraft. Clearly, Germany was gaining the upper hand in the Arctic, and sooner or later there would be a real disaster–but it was impossible to determine where and when.

By the end of June 1942, PQ-17, the largest and most valuable convoy in the history of the run, was formed up and ready to sail for Murmansk and Archangel. Its cargo was worth a staggering $700 million. Crammed into bulging holds were nearly 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, and a general cargo that exceeded 150,000 tons. It was more than enough to completely equip an army of 50,000. Although some argued that PQ-17’s run should be postponed until the shorter days of winter, it was considered politically prudent to continue supplying Russia without interruption, and the convoy left as scheduled.

Leaving Reykjavik, Iceland, on June 27, 1942, PQ-17 was an impressive sight. Thirty-five cargo ships–22 American, eight British, two Russian, two Panamanian and one Dutch–were escorted by six destroyers and 15 other armed vessels. One ship, S.S. Empire Tide, was a catapult-armed merchantman that carried a Hawker Hurricane fighter which could be launched to intercept enemy aircraft and perform reconnaissance. A cruiser force, consisting of HMS London and Norfolk, USS Tuscaloosa and Wichita, and three U.S. destroyers, steamed 40 miles north of the convoy to provide close cover. As the ships moved out in single file, Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., serving aboard Wichita, observed the move. The actor wrote that the ships waddled out to sea like so many dirty ducks…everyone who was watching paid a silent tribute and offered some half-thought prayer. Once out to sea, the ships took up their appointed positions in nine columns and plodded ahead at only 7 or 8 knots. Straight away, two ships were lost; one ran aground, and the other, suffering from engine trouble, was ordered back to the harbor.

For additional protection, the British Home Fleet was set to sail from its base at Scapa Flow on the following day. It was to trail PQ-17 at a distance of 200 miles and provide distant cover. The fleet included the battleship HMS Duke of York, two cruisers and 14 destroyers reinforced by the battleship USS Washington and the carrier HMS Victorious.

Unknown to the men of PQ-17, details of the convoy’s size and importance were already in the hands of German Intelligence. The patrolling submarine U-456 spotted the convoy as soon as it reached open water.

Early on July 1, 1942, a German reconnaissance plane arrived just as PQ-17 was passing a returning convoy, QP-13. Because of the intermingling of ships and escorts as the two convoys passed each other, the German pilot incorrectly reported the convoy’s size. In an effort to clarify the situation, the Germans dispatched U-255 and U-408 from their Ice Devil Group. After sorting things out, the Germans decided to ignore the returning convoy and to concentrate on the heavily laden PQ-17. Spared by the Germans, QP-13 unfortunately sailed into a friendly minefield in the Denmark Strait and lost four ships.

Although PQ-17 was closely shadowed by U-boats, visual contact between the Germans and the Allied convoy was suddenly broken when the icy polar winds flowing over the warmer waters created a vast and welcome fog. Visibility was severely restricted for the ships of the convoy, as well, but PQ-17’s crews took comfort in the fact that if they could not see, then neither could they be seen by the enemy.

Although every crewman hoped that the protective fog would remain, in the still, bright afternoon the fog began to lift, and another long-range German scout plane appeared. Veterans aboard the convoy vessels knew that it would circle well out of gun range and remain only long enough to replot course and speed.

Now the men of the convoy waited for the inevitable attack. At 6:30 p.m. on July 2, seven Heinkel He-115 torpedo bombers struck. Loosely organized and lacking determination, the planes were driven off before any ships could be destroyed. Concentrated anti-aircraft fire kept the attackers at bay and prevented them from making accurate passes. After losing two planes, the Germans dropped their torpedoes well outside effective range and returned to their base.

It was not until the third day that the Germans scored a hit. The victim was the American Liberty ship Christopher Newport. Severely damaged, she began taking on water and was finally given up. Despite the loss, the men of the convoy felt that they had resisted brilliantly. They were confident that together with their escort they could complete the rest of the journey in good order.

All went well until the following afternoon, when elements of the Luftwaffe tried to press home another attack. Again, stubborn anti-aircraft fire drove the planes off. Later that same day, a flight of 25 planes was observed splitting into two groups before attacking–an attempt to divide the murderous defensive fire. With the convoy gunners busy defending against level bombers overhead, several torpedo planes, flying just above the water, were able to get in close. They launched at least 20 torpedoes, but only three found their mark. The Soviet tanker Azerbaijan was hit, but her crew managed to control the damage, and she eventually made it to port. Not so lucky were the merchantmen Navarino and William Hooper; damaged beyond repair, they both went down.

Back in London, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound–nervous, war-weary and possibly suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumor–monitored developments. His sporadic intelligence reports, supplied by Ultra intelligence intercepts, confirmed that Tirpitz had slipped her moorings at Trondheim on July 3 and appeared to be moving out to sea. Due to the delays in decoding all incoming transmissions, it was impossible for the Admiralty to know exactly where Tirpitz was, only where she had been.

Tirpitz was only shifting berths, but the move was enough to put the Admiralty into action. It was obvious to Admiral Pound that Tirpitz and her battle group were undertaking a strike position. Without knowledge of Hitler’s stipulation concerning British carriers, Pound was gripped by an overwhelming fear. Even with just a cursory look at his charts, he easily calculated that Tirpitz, steaming at 30 knots, could successfully evade the Home Fleet, overpower the cruiser force and slaughter the merchant ships.

Without confirmation of Tirpitz‘s exact whereabouts, Pound believed the enemy force could already be closing on the convoy at high speed. His only alternative to maintaining the convoy was dispersal. The admiral called an emergency meeting of his naval operations staff, but his mind was already made up. Surrounded by about a dozen officers, Pound asked each one in turn which action they would pursue in light of the latest intelligence. Vice Admiral Sir Henry Moore, vice chief of the naval staff, recommended that if, and only if, the convoy was to be dispersed, there was no time to waste. The longer the delay in giving the order, the less sea room was available for dispersal, because the ships had to avoid the ice. Every other officer was against dispersal at that time. Pound politely thanked the men for their opinions, turned to an aide and said, The convoy is to disperse.

The stunned escort commanders received the Admiralty’s orders in the form of three rapid and poorly worded messages. First message: 2111…Most Immediate and Secret. Cruiser Force withdraw to Westward at high speed…. Second message: 2123…Immediate. Owing to threat of surface ships, convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports…. Third message: 2136…Most Immediate. Convoy is to scatter….

PQ-17 was stripped of all protection and abandoned. Admiral Pound had decided to save the warships and let the merchantmen fend for themselves. Individual ships stood a better chance of survival against superior surface forces than vessels that were crowded together in the restrictions of a convoy. But scattering in the narrow confines north of the Arctic Circle would prove fatal. After confirmation of the orders was received, the men of the convoy could only stare in disbelief as their protection turned at high speed to join the cruiser force some 40 miles away.

Many of the escort commanders felt that the Admiralty must have hard proof that Tirpitz and her battle fleet were on the prowl and could be expected at any moment. They erroneously believed that the escorts had been ordered to move away in a maneuver to draw out Tirpitz for a showdown. One final message read: Escort to merchant ships…sorry to leave you like this…good luck…looks like a bloody business….

Lieutenant Fairbanks wrote, It was such a terrible feeling to be running away from the convoy at a speed twice theirs and to leave them to the mercies of the enemy…. While every man aboard the merchant ships was a volunteer and had expected a hazardous run, none had bargained for a journey such as this.

Before the last of the escorts had disappeared over the western horizon, the ships of the convoy began starring–breaking up their well-disciplined lines. Some fanned out to the north toward the ice edge, some due east toward Novaya Zemlya, and some southeast, directly toward the Russian ports. The American ships were seen lowering their colors as if in surrender. But they were only defiantly replacing their faded and tattered flags with bright, new oversized ones. For the Americans in the convoy it was Independence Day, July 4, 1942.

When news of the dispersal was reported to German naval headquarters, Admiral Raeder ordered Tirpitz to make ready to sail. At noon on July 5, 1942, Tirpitz–along with Scheer, Hipper and six destroyers–set sail to intercept PQ-17. Still uncertain of the location of the Allied covering force, and with reports of successful attacks on the Allied merchantment beginning to come in from U-boats and aircraft, Raeder then reconsidered. Apparently there was no need to risk the pride of the German navy. Tirpitz was ordered back to port at 9:30 p.m. The destruction of PQ-17 was to be left to the forces already engaged.

At Whitehall, 2,000 miles away, the decoders suddenly fell silent. Tirpitz, re-anchored, was now receiving all her messages overland. Only one wireless intercept from the German naval command came in, informing the U-boats near the convoy that no German surface ships would be operating in their area and they were free to continue their attacks. That information was hurriedly forwarded to Admiral Pound in hopes that he would recall the escorts and regroup the convoy. But it made no difference. The admiral knew that his orders had been sent and were probably already being acted upon. By now the ships were well within the range of German aircraft, and they could no longer be protected by the Home Fleet. As far as Admiral Pound was concerned, the matter was closed. The order to scatter would not be rescinded.

The slaughter had begun about 8:30 a.m. on July 5. Soon the Arctic airwaves were filled with frantic distress signals from stricken ships. A British freighter, Empire Byron, was among the first victims, going down after being torpedoed by a U-boat. Next to go was an American ship, Carlton. Then a flight of nine dive bombers concentrated on Daniel Morgan and the freighter Washington, while U-boats accounted for another American vessel, Honomu. Before semidarkness mercifully put an end to the massacre, PQ-17 also lost Bolton Castle, Paulus Potter, Earlston, Pankraft, River Afton, Aldersdale, Zaafaran, Fairfield City and Peter Kerr.

The attacks continued for three more days without respite. Roving aircraft caught up with and sank Pan Atlantic, while prowling U-boats, working alone or in small wolfpacks, dealt death blows to John Witherspoon, Alcoa Ranger, Olopana and Hartlebury. One ship, Winston Salem, miraculously evaded numerous attacks only to be intentionally beached on the island of Novaya Zemyla, where she floundered until some of her cargo was salvaged. July 9 passed without incident; however, on the 10th, enemy planes caught Hoosier and El Capitan while they were making a desperate run for landfall southeast of Murmansk. They, too, were pounded to pieces and sent to the bottom within 100 miles of safety.

Two little-known incidents illustrate the merchant ships’ dramatic struggle for survival in the Arctic. During the height of the attacks on July 5, the armed trawler Ayrshire made a desperate move. Serving as escort for Silver Sword, Ironclad and Troubadour, she led them in a mad dash directly into the ice barrier. Once anchored, the ships’ crews hurriedly painted their superstructures white to camouflage the vessels. Then, moving slowly along the ice edge and skirting the eastern extremes of the Barents Sea, the four ships eventually made for port.

Another incident involved the men of the naval armed guard serving aboard Washington, who actually chose to make the last leg of their trip to the Soviet Union in open lifeboats. Washington was carrying more than 600 tons of high explosives when she came under dive-bomber attack on July 5. Several hits had set the deck cargo ablaze, and with the flames raging out of control, the order to abandon ship was given. The gun crews loaded into two lifeboats and pulled away from the fiery wreck as fast as they could. When another ship tried to save them, the survivors repeatedly waved off all rescue attempts. They reasoned that they would simply be leaving one target for another and voted to remain adrift. It was their hope that once in the lifeboats they would be ignored by the attacking Germans. Within hours, just as anticipated, they witnessed the sinking of their would-be rescuers, hit by three torpedoes. Rigging sails and rowing in shifts, they reached the Soviet Union after 10 freezing days.

Air attacks by the Luftwaffe had temporarily closed the port of Murmansk, further disrupting deliveries of supplies, and the remaining ships of PQ-17 were rerouted. Only two ships made it across the White Sea to be unloaded at Archangel on July 9. Over the next few days, more stragglers came limping in, but it would take until July 28 for the last of the survivors of PQ-17 to arrive.

The toll taken on the abandoned convoy was horrendous. Only 11 of the 35 merchantmen that left Iceland finally made it to the Soviet Union. Fourteen of the sunken ships were American. More than two-thirds of the convoy had gone to the bottom, along with 210 combat planes, 430 Sherman tanks, 3,350 vehicles and nearly 100,000 tons of other cargo. More than 120 seamen were killed and countless others were crippled and maimed. The financial loss exceeded half a billion dollars.

For the Royal Navy, the massacre of PQ-17 and the abandonment of the convoy was one of the most shameful episodes of the war at sea. Details of the losses were kept from the public until after the war. The British decision to withdraw its protection from the convoy strained Anglo-American relations. Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of U.S. naval operations, was so enraged that he was very reluctant to have American and British ships continue operating together. Churchill lamented the fate of PQ-17 and wrote in his memoirs years later, All risks should have been taken in the defense of the merchant ships.

To make matters worse, the suspicious Soviets refused to believe that 24 ships from one convoy had been sunk. They openly accused their Western allies of lying about the disaster, and remained oblivious to the dangers and hardships endured by the merchantmen and escorts alike. No thanks were ever extended for the safe delivery of 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 fighters and bombers. The Soviets never acknowledged that the 4 million tons of supplies that did arrive through the Arctic ports and the Persian Gulf may have kept their forces from being defeated by the Germans in the summer of 1942.

Shaken by the colossal losses taken by PQ-17, Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, over strong Soviet protest, postponed the sailing of PQ-18 until autumn. When the convoy did sail, it was protected by 53 warships, including two submarines and the aircraft carrier Avenger. Once again, the Germans mounted a major effort to prevent the delivery of supplies and weapons. They managed to sink 13 ships of PQ-18. Bowing to pleas from within the Admiralty and in the wake of such unacceptable losses, all further sailings were suspended until winter.

With the exception of several months in 1943, when the Battle of the Atlantic was at its peak, the convoys to the Soviet Union ran from 1941 until the war’s end. Campaign ribbons were awarded for service in almost every other theater of the war, but not one was awarded for service in the Arctic. Before the fighting ended, however, Allied seamen had taken 1,526 individual ships in 77 convoys on the Murmansk Run. Nearly 100 ships were lost to enemy action and the unyielding weather. Allied losses in the Arctic eventually exceeded those in the North Atlantic sea lanes, and before the war ended the Arctic route had accounted for nearly 37 percent of all Allied surface ships sunk in all theaters of the war.

After the tremendous losses incurred by PQ-17, the Admiralty developed improved defensive tactics for convoys, including assigning greater numbers of escort vessels for each convoy as well as using radar, sonar and improved weaponry aboard the escort vessels. Because of the Allies’ improved defensive tactics and its own worsening military situation after 1942, Germany would never again be able to dominate the northern seas. Later convoys would still be subject to attack, but no other convoy, before or since, suffered such death and destruction as PQ-17.

This article was written by Raymond A. Denkhaus and originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!