Convoy to Arkangelsk

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Convoy to Arkangelsk, Summer, 1942. It was just after half way through the year of '42 when the convoy set forth from Scotland, bound to bring aid to our Russian allies.

Only a small convoy was able to be formed from the available merchant ships as many were not ready in time. The dockyards were working around the clock to produce some more, but they had not yet arrived. (That is, we had only ordered some more merchantmen recently from GHQ, CinC and Panzerschiffe but they did not have time to arrive yet).


Bad Omen

As they left Scottish waters, the assembled convoy had shaken out into their standard order. It had taken a while for this to occur, with some of the merchantmen having little experience at group manoeuvres. But the convoy was settling down to some sort of order. Late afternoon, one of the young sailors pointed out a distant bird following the wake of the convoy.

"Is that bird after the fish disturbed by our wake?" the young sailor from London enquired of the experienced bosun.

"Nay laddie. It may be called a condor, and is sure a bird of prey, but it's us he's after – no' the fish."

The convoy was apprehensive. Many felt it was a bad omen to be spotted so early. The Condor was a German long range reconnaissance aircraft, which would radio back the position of targets. This would allow air strikes and U-boat attacks to be planned over the coming fortnight. They would stay out of range of anti-aircraft fire, shadow the convoy and maintain reports.

After a few hours it flew off, leaving the convoy in peace. Over the next few days the spirits were raised as they were joined by Wellington bombers from Coastal Command. These had been converted to a sub hunting role and were even equipped with Leigh lights – powerful spotlights for highlighting U-boats at night.

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First Challenge

It was not until the third night that they encountered their first U-boat. One of the newer type VIIB, U-55 was at periscope depth. Summer in the Arctic actually made it difficult for the U-boats. It was not often truly dark, with long hours of daylight and an extended twilight. And tonight the intense cold was accompanied by a spectacular aurora – the northern lights – which allowed visibility out to 5 nautical miles. This made it harder to get into the right position as the U-boats could not risk moving on the surface.

But the captain of U-55 was experienced. Sitting astride the expected route just west of Iceland, he spotted the convoy in time to adjust his position slightly. This allowed him to just drift quietly, bringing the convoy to him. It was now a waiting game.

As the convoy cruised northward at 7 knots, HMS Quail suddenly detected multiple discharges of compressed air. Oh no! Inside the escort screen! The Q class destroyer roared into action, increasing speed and turning to starboard to hunt the contact. But they could not stop the already launched torpedoes.

With only 800 yards to travel, there was no hope for the freighter Aries. Two of the four torpedoes struck home, fatally damaging the hull. The freighter slowed as water poured into the gaping holes. The captain of the U-55 did not stop to witness this. Slamming the periscope down as soon as the torpedoes struck, they dived and did a quick sprint toward the convoy, hoping to get lost amongst the noise of the stricken freighter. But this did not fool HMS Quail who was closing rapidly.

HMS Eskimo slewed around and headed towards the area indicated by HMS Quail. As the first set of depth charges went off, Quail lost the contact. U-55 went quiet, just moving along 2 knots. Eskimo now joined the hunt. Having slipped the other side of the sinking freighter, U-55 was able to stop Quail from regaining contact. But the newly arrived Eskimo finally picked up a faint echo from the submarine. The first set of depth charges from the Eskimo damaged U-55, causing it to rise rapidly. Out of control, it almost leapt out of the water before slamming down onto the surface. The crew were frantically trying to regain control. Unfortunately for them, U-55 was in a perfect position for a broadside from the Eskimo's 4.7" main guns.

Rapid fire blew away the U-boat's deck gun and shredded the hull. Acrid fumes from a battery fire filled the submarine. With no hope of regaining control and Quail arriving on the scene to add her firepower, the U-55 surrendered. The two destroyers rescued the freezing survivors from the Aries and the stricken U-boat. With the Aries already beneath the swell, some quick target practise soon had U-55 joining it, before the two destroyers raced back to protect the convoy.

 

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Next morning as the convoy travelled off the west coast of Iceland, the freighter Pollux joined from Reykjavik. This brought the number of merchantmen back to 10. Late afternoon another Type VIIB U-boat was discovered less than 3,000 yards from the convoy. The escorts quickly headed toward the submarine. Although in a good position to fire torpedoes, the oncoming escorts forced the U-boat to dive. This paid off for the U-boat. The hunting went on for a while, with sonar contact being repeatedly gained and then lost again. None of the depth charges caused any damage, but the U-boat was driven off, slowly falling further and further behind the convoy. No victims this time, but at least the U-boat would live to fight again. The escorts were happy as they had stopped an attack on the convoy.

This was a typical occurrence of convoy warfare, where the escorts were more likely to drive off a U-boat rather than destroy it. These were still successes, as it was difficult for a U-boat to regain the convoy. They would have to surface away from the convoy and try to outflank them for another attack. This could sometimes take days and relied on guessing or receiving information as to the course of the convoy.

 

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When Older is Better

After a quiet night, the convoy turned east. They were joined off the north coast of Iceland by a Catalina. This proved fortuitous as it spotted a U-boat some distance from the convoy and was able to scare it away. The afternoon was not so lucky. A fire from overheated bearings began in the engine room of the Corfu. Despite the efforts of the crew, the fire spread rapidly. Soon it was out of control and the merchantman was abandoned. With twilight approaching, the convoy commander felt that stopping to fight the fire was too risky. There was no guarantee of success and the flames would give away the position of the convoy. He let the convoy continue on as the escort finished off the doomed vessel.

Twilight brought an older U-boat into contact with the convoy. U-6 was an earlier Type IIA. The Germans were committing a lot of resources to stop this convoy. The U-101 had worked its way into an ideal position as it fired a spread of 3 torpedoes. The convoy commenced a turn just as U-101 fired. This saved the Saturn and the Largs as the torpedoes passed close by them, but did not hit. Unfortunately, as the torpedoes continued to race through the Arctic waters, the Maron, Pleiades and then the Capella each moved into the path of a torpedo. The U-boat captain could not believe his luck. The Maron was burning fiercely and sinking slowly. The Pleiades was crippled and also sinking slowly. The Capella was struck aft, flooding a rear compartment. It came to a halt, but the crew managed to stop further flooding. The ship was dead in the water, but could be towed.

It was now the turn of the German to become the hunted. HMS Obdurate hunted the U-6 for quite a while. The submariner was an experienced and crafty captain. Every time the Obdurate acquired, it soon lost its target again. Several depth charge attacks appeared to have no effect and the Obdurate was eventually ordered to return to the convoy. It took the Capella under tow and headed back to Reykjavik harbour with the damaged freighter.

Unknown to the British destroyer crew, they did have some success. One of the depth charges had caused minor flooding and some other damage to the German submarine. After waiting for several tense hours to ensure the destroyer had disappeared, the U-6 surfaced and headed slowly back to Germany for repairs.

The First Air Raid

The 6th night was uneventful. But keeping at such a slow pace was very inefficient for the destroyers. They were designed to go much faster than the 7 knots of the convoy. Unfortunately this had them burn through fuel at a rapid rate. Two of the destroyers had to detach to Seidisfjord on the east coast of Iceland for refuelling. Being so near the island, they were able to be temporarily replaced by two Catalinas.

The seventh day dawned clear, but extremely old. The destroyers returned and the air cover departed. The morning was quiet. But that all changed in the afternoon. Six Ju-88 dive bombers accompanied by three Me110 fighters appeared from the south. Unfortunately they were not spotted until they were quite close to the convoy. The Ju-88s split up and attacked several targets, hoping to confuse the AA fire. Both planes attacking the tanker Grey Ranger were shot down by the cruiser HMS Uganda. Of the two attacking the Maumee, one was shot down and the other headed home trailing smoke. This damaged aircraft did not make it all the way back to Germany, having to ditch when nearly home. The crew were rescued by a fishing trawler.

But one bomb struck the Maumee, causing some flooding and damaging the engine room. The flooding was soon brought under control, although the damage had reduced her maximum speed to 9 knots. This was enough to keep up with the convoy, but would put her remaining engine under pressure as it would be working harder - running above cruising speed.

The other pair of bombers survived with just a few holes. One bomb struck the Pollux, causing some flooding. Its speed was reduced by a few knots. This was no problem as it was one of the faster merchant ships in the convoy. More of an issue was the fuel oil leak. If not stopped, this could provide a pointer to find the convoy by following the trail.

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 Half a day later, in the encroaching twilight, another air attack arrived. This time they had circled around for a while searching for the convoy. They approached low from the starboard side. Again they split against several targets. HMS Uganda was partly successful, damaging a bomber with help from Saturn and Grey Ranger. This pair managed to land 2 bombs on Grey Ranger. The tanker slowed to a halt. Worse were the two holes rent in the hull. Somehow, the tanker’s load did not ignite and the crew set about isolating the water pouring in.

Meanwhile, the Maumee was under attack again. Two bombers approached. AA fire from the Eskimo at the rear contributed to the fire from the Maumee. The combined fire was too much for the bombers, which were both obliterated. But they had distracted the AA fire from the remaining pair of bombers. A sort way behind the other pair, two He110s approached the Jervis Bay at low level. Ineffective AA fire allowed the bombers to land 3 hits on the merchantman. The situation looked grim. Two lots of flooding and a fire above decks appeared to be too much for the crew. They desperately stuck to their tasks. One by one they averted each potential disaster. When the master took stock, the Jervis Bay was still afloat and capable of 10 knots. The only problem was that all their AA capability had been taken out.

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The Grey Ranger was still a problem. Although the flooding had been controlled, the engine room was a big problem. Some temporary repairs had enabled the engines to get going again. But the ship was only capable of 2 knots. Further investigation revealed that there was no way to repair the engine further without being in a dockyard. The convoy commander decided it was too risky to send the tanker back to Iceland on its own at only 2 knots. He also did not wish to detach another escort. So he made the difficult decision to scuttle the tanker.

The convoy had not fared well. Just over halfway to Archangelsk and only 5 merchant ships left. At the start of the 9th day the convoy encountered another U-boat. This one was ahead of the convoy and remained undetected until it loosed several torpedoes. Luckily these missed both the Maumee and Pollux.

The U-boat captain had nerves of steel. Instead of moving quickly out of the area, he went a little deeper, below the thermocline to make it harder for him to be picked up on sonar. The escorts only gained contact for a brief time. The depth charges went nowhere near the U-boat.

The captain allowed the U-boat to drift as he waited for the oncoming convoy. The convoy changed course, but it took a while to organise this and they were not able to change position far enough. Timing it nicely, the U-boat rose to periscope depth toward the rear of the convoy and loosed off more torpedoes. One hit the Pollux, bringing it to a halt with critical flooding in a forward section of the hull. The flooding was eventually halted, but the Pollux would need to be towed.

Three of the escorts now homed in on the German submarine. Somehow it survived the battering it copped from a series of depth charge attacks. But it had two of its torpedo tubes put out of action, its engine was not working and there was some serious flooding. Only by sealing off part of the submarine was the crew able to contain the flood of water and stabilise the depth.

The Largs was ordered into position and a tow line attached to the Pollux. The escorts resumed their positions as the convoy continued on. When the U-boat eventually made it to the surface, the convoy was gone. A distress call was put out to the Kriegsmarine with the ebbing battery power as the U-boat wallowed on the surface of the chill Arctic seas.

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A period of tense waiting returned to the convoy. Nothing further occurred during the rest of that day as they slowly continued onward toward Russia. Some scares during the twilight of night kept everyone on edge, but they all turned out to be false alarms. When nothing further happened the next day, the convoy was hoping (but not really believing) that the worst could be over. Little did they realise how lucky they were that a couple of air strikes had failed to find them. That night, the temporary peace was finally shattered by another U-boat. An older Type IIA, it missed the Saturn but hit the Maumee and the engineless Pollux. In its already damaged state, the Pollux was fatally wounded. The Largs had no option but to part the tow line and collect the surviving crew from the sinking Pollux.

The Maumee had to halt for a short time while it attempted repairs, but it soon had these successfully completed. The engine was only just hanging together, but despite the damage it was still able to keep up with the convoy.

 Later that day, due to the lack of tankers remaining with the convoy, the 3 remaining destroyers were despatched to Bell Sound for refuelling. Unfortunately before they could re-join, the convoy encountered a newer U-boat – a Type VIIB. It fired a spread of 3 torpedoes at the cruiser Uganda. If it could sink the only escort, it could then run amok amongst the merchant ships. All the torpedoes missed the fighting ship, but two ran into the Maumee. This was finally too much for the battered tanker. The crew abandoned ship as the Maumee slowly slipped below the waves.

To add to the discomfort of the convoy leader, a message from Admiralty came through. German warships had left Norway and were heading their way. They might meet up with the convoy in three night’s time – off Cape Kanin. The refuelled destroyers returned to find only four merchantmen left – one for each escort. And still many dangers ahead.

Aftermath

We had to finish up there as it was approaching midnight. It was looking unlikely that any merchantmen would make it through. I thought we did well considering it was the first game we tried running ourselves and time was taken up looking for charts and rules. The next game will run much quicker. Even so, it was fast paced and the players found it tense, but great fun. They demanded another game at the next club meeting in fortnight.

Using the convoy generation rules, the size of the convoys to Russia could be 14 to 50 ships. Since we only had 10 merchant ships available at the time, it was decided to ignore every 3rd encounter. Also the size of each airstrike was reduced to 2/3rds the number of planes. Even so, the number of encounters was high and it would take a miracle for any merchantman to make it through in this convoy. At least for the next game there will be a few more merchantmen available.