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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The White Ships

On the 27th of June 1942 Convoy PQ-17 left Iceland, where it had assembled, bound for Arkhangelsk. It consisted of thirty-five merchantmen and was extremely heavily escorted with both a close in escort, and larger squadrons ranging further afield to block any German surface units getting within range. As well as the full-blown escorts, such as destroyers, the convoy also included several auxiliary vessels such as HMS Palomares and HMS Pozarica. These latter two were sister ships. Both had been taken over from their peace time duties as banana boats. These were designed to transport banana's at high speeds (before they ripened) for sale. As the war broke out, they were fitted out to become AA ships, mounting a whopping eight 4in AA guns and a similar number of 2-pounder AA guns. In addition to these there were rescue ships, minesweepers, several other auxiliary vessels and even a pair of submarines. One of the ships was the Royal Navy Patrol Services' (RNPS) trawler, HMT Ayrshire.
HMT Ayrshire at Iceland.
The convoy's speed was just 7 knots and covered about twenty-five square miles. The Germans made contact with it on the 1st of July, and a series of German planes began to shadow the convoy. The planes would circle around the convoy outside of firing range. One exasperated captain ordered a signal sent by lamp to the German which read ' Please go round the other way!'. The plane promptly flashed back a signal 'Anything to oblige an Englishman' and promptly reversed course, to orbit the convoy in the other direction.

PQ-17 at Iceland.
Several U-boat attacks were foiled, and one large scale torpedo attack, where the Germans broke off their attack in the face of the weight of fire the convoy could throw up. One of the planes was caught out as it broke off and headed for home. It had not noticed that one of the destroyers from the screen was returning to refuel and the plane flew right by it, only to be swatted out of the sky.

By now the convoy was in the pack ice near the arctic circle. One eyewitness reported seeing an iceberg with a crashed German plane on it, shot down by a previous convoy. The pack ice damaged a couple of merchantmen who were forced to turn back. There were also two more air attacks. There are a variety of reasons for what happened next, a misunderstanding of signals and conflicting intelligence. These facts have been analysed and scrutinised by many historians, and even people who barely count as historians (e.g. David Irving). The situation was this, the Admiralty believed that a force of German capital ships was bearing down on the convoy. The messages they sent were miss-understood to the extent the commander of the convoy expected to see the upper-works of the German ships to break the horizon at any moment. Thus, he issued the fateful order for the convoy to scatter. He took his escort ships with him and headed south to reinforce the screening squadrons so as to delay the Germans. Several of the merchants hooked up with the auxiliary vessels. HMS Palomares and HMS Pozarica took charge of a few merchants apiece and were supported by some of the other auxiliary vessels such as a minesweeper.

HMS Palomares, one of the converted 'Banana Boats'
Three merchantmen, the SS Troubador, SS Ironclad and an American ship the SS Silver Sword linked up with HMT Ayrshire. The trawler was armed with a single 4" gun, and a pair of machine guns (we've covered RNPS trawlers before), she had been a fishing trawler before the war. In charge was the RNVR Lieutenant Leo Gradwell. Before the war Gradwell had done some private sailing as a hobby. Now with no charts, firepower or anything else he had three merchants to protect. He led them north deeper into the Arctic Circle. There, they became stuck in ice. Around them the rest of the convoy was being slaughtered by German aircraft and U-boats. Lt Gradwell took charge. First, he camouflaged the ships, this was done by using supplies carried on one of the ships, which included cloth and white paint. After disguising their ships as icebergs, they sat and watched German reconnaissance planes searching the area looking for more targets to pass on to their attack squadrons. The planes seemed to ignore them. Even so he had the crews ready for an attack. Some of the ships were carrying tanks on deck. He had the guns unlocked and traversed to face the most likely direction of attack and loaded. If nothing else, they would be able to give a single defiant salvo at whatever German hove into view.
Blohm & Voss BV 138, likely the reconnaissance planes used by the Germans, and possibly one of the stupidest designs I've ever seen. The armament of this plane was a pair of 20mm's, one in a turret at on the nose (roughly where the bloke is in this picture, you can see the mount for it, but has been removed in this picture). The other is in a turret at the rear, about where the tarpaulin on this picture disappears under the tail boom. Thus most of your field of fire is blocked by the tail boom. It seems to counter this a single machine gun was placed at the back of the top engine.

The ships managed to free themselves from the ice, and there was no sign of attack. It appeared the disguises had worked. Using his sextant and a copy of the Times World Geographic Pocket Book that he had on him, Lt Gradwell led his ships to safety. One account suggests the crew of the US ship wanted to stop at the first land they encountered and off-load then declare themselves neutral. Lt Gradwell talked them out of it. There are similar accounts from another eyewitness who saw a US ship where the crew had disabled their guns, halted in a bay and were camping ashore. In the other case the eyewitness blames the inexperience of the crews, as many were landlubbers tempted by the pay, and the heavily unionised nature of the US merchant fleet.

The three ships escorted by HMT Ayrshire arrived safely. In total only eleven ships made it to port, most likely as part of the groups escorted by MS Palomares and HMS Pozarica.

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