'Our escorts all over the world are so attenuated that losses out of all proportion are falling on the British Mercantile Marine'.
Mr. Churchill to Mr. Eden, 9th January 1943.1
It will be remembered that the landings in North Africa in the autumn of 1942 caused the temporary suspension of the Arctic convoys, greatly to the disgust of our Russian allies. Then, just at the turn of the year, convoys JW 51A and B were fought through with outstanding success.2 It made no difference to the Russian authorities whether other pressing needs, such as the supply of Malta or the combined operations in the Mediterranean, claimed for a time first call on our resources; they seem not to have cared whether recent convoys had suffered terrible losses or had survived the most menacing dangers; such considerations as the perpetual daylight of the summer months seemed to trouble them not a whit. Their stubborn pressure for convoys to be run, cost what they might, continued relentlessly and monotonously. Most of this pressure fell, as was natural, on Mr. Churchill; for the American President was able to take a more detached view of the problems involved and the risks entailed. The Prime Minister fully understood the urgency of Russian needs, and was prepared to do all he could to meet them; but he was not prepared to sacrifice Malta, to jeopardise Allied strategy in the west or to press the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, beyond a certain point. He has left a full record of the way the Russians treated him in this matter, and little need be added here.3 Early in 1943 his patience was exhausted, and on the 9th of January he told the Foreign Secretary that 'Monsieur Maisky is not telling the truth when he says I promised Stalin convoys of thirty ships in January and February. The only promise I have
made is contained in my telegram of December 29th.4 . . . Maisky should be told that I am getting to the end of my tether with these repeated Russian naggings, and that it is not the slightest use trying to knock me about any more'. None the less the next east-bound convoy (JW 52) sailed from Loch Ewe less than a week after the arrival of the preceding west-bound one (RA 51). January was the last month during which lack of daylight would probably defeat the enemy's air reconnaissance. Moreover from February until midsummer ice conditions would force us to use a more southerly route, passing within 250 miles of the enemy's air bases for four days of the passage, and even closer to the surface ships in Altenfiord. These two factors meant that after the end of January any convoys run would have to be escorted as strongly as had been PQ 18.5 If, therefore, a large number of cargoes were to reach north Russia early in 1943, there were cogent arguments in favour of doing all that we could quickly.
The strength of the Home Fleet was, at the moment, reasonably satisfactory, except that it possessed no aircraft carrier. In addition to the three new battleships King George V, Anson and Howe, the Malaya was working up after a refit; and there were four 8-inch and five 6-inch cruisers, and about a score of destroyers. Of the enemy's ships, the Tirpitz and Lützow, the Hipper (which had been damaged in the fighting on New Year's Eve6), the Nürnberg and Köln, about eight destroyers and some twenty U-boats were based on Norway; the Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen, the light cruisers Emden and Leipzig and eleven destroyers were in the Baltic; and we believed, incorrectly, that the Graf Zeppelin was approaching completion. German air striking forces in Norway had been greatly reduced, but their reconnaissance was still efficient. On the 11th of January the Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were sighted off the Skaw steering northwest.7 Admiral Tovey had for some time expected that these two ships would be sent to reinforce the squadron in north Norway, or to break out into the Atlantic. No. 18 Group of Coastal Command flew strong reconnaissances, six submarines were sent to patrol off the Norwegian coast, and a destroyer flotilla, supported by two cruisers, was ordered to sweep the waters south of Stadlandet. The enemy, however, reversed course soon after he had been sighted; our reconnaissance aircraft lost touch, and the striking forces which had
been sent out failed to find him. Meanwhile the heavy ships of the Home Fleet in Hvalfiord had made ready to deal with an Atlantic break-out; but none of these precautions were actually necessary.
A fortnight later the German warships repeated the attempt to pass to north Norway. Though they were again sighted off the Skaw, the very bad weather 'robbed [our aircraft] of their prey', and they again reached home safely. Admiral Tovey and Air Marshal Joubert now discussed ways and means of improving our air shadowing tactics; but in truth it was the weather rather than any fault in the conduct of the searches which had defeated Coastal Command.
Early in February the Hipper and Köln returned to the Baltic, leaving only the Tirpitz, Lützow and Nürnberg in the north. When the enemy announced that Dönitz had succeeded to Raeder, Admiral Tovey expected greater enterprise to be shown in attacks on our convoys in the Barents Sea and that 'a chance for us to accept fleet action under conditions of exceptional favour might occur', or that the enemy 'might venture all on a desperate break-out' into the Atlantic. He and the Admiralty reviewed the steps needed to cope with either eventuality. They were to bear fruit at the end of the year, though not until after Admiral Tovey had relinquished command of the Home Fleet.
To retrace our steps for a short distance, convoy JW 52, originally of fourteen ships, enjoyed unusually good weather and made a fast passage. One merchantman had to be sent back, but the remainder arrived at Kola Inlet on the 27th of January. Enemy air attacks were on a small scale, and the escort drove off the U-boats by energetic counter-action based largely on direction-finding wireless reception. The cruiser covering force (the Kent, Glasgow and Bermuda) went right through with the convoy, and Admiral Fraser (Second-in-Command, Home Fleet) in the Anson provided distant cover from a position south-west of Bear Island. Only two days' rest were allowed to the escorts, and then they sailed again with the eleven ships which were all that were ready to join the homeward-bound convoy RA-52. One ship was sunk by a U-boat on 'the nineteenth consecutive day for the majority of the escort in these wintry northern waters'. The rest of the convoy arrived at Loch Ewe on the 8th of February.
The next east-bound convoy (JW 53), for which only twenty-eight of the thirty ships detailed for it were ready, sailed a week later. The initial escorts were relieved off Iceland by the Scylla (Captain I. A. P. Macintyre), the escort carrier Dasher and fifteen destroyers. It was essential to protect this convoy on the full 'summer scale' because, in the Barents Sea, the hours of daylight were now increasing rapidly. Admiral Burnett, in the Belfast, with the Sheffield and Cumberland provided the cruiser cover, while the heavy ships of the fleet carried out their usual watchful role of distant cover.
Exceptionally severe gales beset the convoy. The Dasher and Sheffield were both damaged and had to return, as did several merchantmen. The main convoy was badly scattered and delayed, but by the 20th twenty-two ships were rounded up by the escorts. Thereafter they made good progress. Though the convoy was sighted and shadowed by enemy aircraft, bombing attacks were light, and the escorts again kept U-boats at a distance. All twenty-two ships reached Russian ports safely.
The corresponding homeward convoy (RA 53) of thirty ships was less fortunate - chiefly because another heavy gale caused the merchantmen to scatter; and that, as so often before, gave the U-boats their chance. Three ships fell victim to them, and one foundered in the gale. On the 8th of March our reconnaissance aircraft found that the Scharnhorst had left Gdynia. Admiral Fraser in the Anson moved to Hvalfiord. The fleet carriers Indomitable and Furious, which were in the Clyde, came to short notice and the usual air and surface ship 'break-out' patrols were restarted in the Denmark Strait and the Iceland - Faeroes passage. Cruisers were sent out from Seidisfiord to meet the approaching convoy RA-53.
On the 11th the Tirpitz was sighted leaving Trondheim, and our aircraft soon found that she, the Scharnhorst and the Lützow were all in Altenfiord. Dönitz had by this time pursuaded Hitler to revoke his 'irrevocable decision' to pay off the big ships8, and thus we were faced with the most powerful concentration yet assembled in the far north. To provide additional safety to our Atlantic shipping the American Task Force 22, which normally included a battleship and a fleet carrier and had recently been covering the convoys from America to North Africa, now reassembled in Casco Bay (near Portland in the Gulf of Maine) and was placed prospectively under Admiral Tovey's control if a break-out into the Atlantic should take place. 'The return of this force at the time of the enemy concentration in Norway', wrote the Commander-in-Chief, 'was most welcome'.
Although the Atlantic routes were thus well covered from Scapa, Iceland and the American coast, the Arctic route could not be similarly safeguarded. With the hours of daylight now greatly lengthened and so powerful an enemy squadron in Altenfiord, Admiral Tovey considered the risks involved in sailing further convoys to Russia unjustified. Even such strong escorts as had been provided in the previous summer could not guard against a surface ship threat on this scale.9 If the convoys must continue, the battle fleet would therefore have to be sent into the Barents Sea - a risk which the Commander-in-Chief had always been unwilling to accept. The attitude of the Russians themselves was, at this time,
Convoy JW 53 passing through pack ice on passage to North Russia, February 1943. (See pp. 399-400).
Clearing ice from the forecastle of H.M.S. Scylla while escorting convoy JW 53, February 1943.
Destroyers Matchless, Musketeer and Mahratta in rough seas in the Arctic.
Merchantmen of Convoy JW 53 arrive North Russia, February 1943. H.M.S. Norfolk and two destroyers of escort shown. (See pp. 399-400
hardly calculated to improve our willingness to accept great risks with our fleet on their behalf; for they started a new campaign of obstruction against our officers in North Russia, and lost no opportunity of indulging in the exasperating game of pin-pricking their Allies. Two of the four British wireless stations in the north were closed in February, and permission was refused to land the R.A.F. ground staff, which was essential to the running of summer convoys. Such a policy, which seems to have been dictated from Moscow and was 'apparantely repugnant' to the Russian naval Commander-in-Chief in the north, must in any case have made continuation of the convoys difficult. But in the event it was another, and overwhelmingly important, factor which was decisive. For it was in this same month of March 1943 that Dönitz made his supreme effort with the U-boats against our Atlantic convoys; and we were suffering terrible losses there.10 By postponing the next pair of Russian convoys, about twenty-seven flotilla vessels and an escort carrier could be released from the Home Fleet to reinforce the hard-pressed Atlantic escort groups. The crisis which had arisen in our one absolutely vital theatre was so serious that all other needs had to be sacrificed to meet it. As Mr. Churchill told the President, 'the sinkings in the North Atlantic of seventeen ships in two days in convoys HX 229 and SC 12211 are a final proof that our escorts are everywhere too thin. The strain upon the British Navy is becoming intolerable'. Mr. Roosevelt agreed, and at the end of March every possible escort vessel was accordingly transferred from the Home Fleet to the Western Approaches Command. At the same time the final decision was taken to postpone the sailing of the next pair of Arctic convoys. This rapid switch of our flotilla strength was as successful as it was necessary, for it was mainly these splendidly trained and led ships which were formed into the Atlantic 'Support Groups'; and their great contribution to the 'Triumph of the Escorts' in May 1943 has already been recorded.12
As no more convoys sailed to the Arctic until November we may summarise the results achieved in this phase. Enemy air and submarine attacks had been much lighter than in the preceding phase, and no losses were caused to the warships involved on either side.
While the Battle of the Atlantic was rising to its climax, and was being fought with unparallelled ferocity, comparative quiet reigned in the northern waters for which the Home Fleet was responsible. The removal of a large part of Admiral Tovey's destroyer strength was bound to cramp the offensive use of the rest of his fleet. Furthermore several cruisers and destroyers were lent to the Commander-
in-Chief, Plymouth, in May, to cover convoys crossing the Bay of Biscay against attack by the German destroyers which had reached Bordeaux.
Table No. 37. Russian Convoys, 1st January - 31st May, 1943
Convoy No. of Ships Ships Turned Back Ships Sunk Ships Arrived Escort Losses Enemy Losses JW 52 14 1 0 13 Nil 2 aircraft RA 52 11 0 1 10 Nil --- JW 53 28 6 0 22 Nil --- RA 53 30 0 4 (1 by weather) 26 Nil --- Independents
6 0 2 4 --- --- TOTALS 83 + 6 Independents 7 5 + 2 Independents 71 + 4 Independents Nil 2 aircraft
In the same month substantial transfers of strength took place between the Home and Mediterranean fleets, with the purpose of building up our forces on the latter station for the invasion of Sicily. The new battleships King George V and Howe went out, and the Rodney followed the Malaya home. To compensate for this weakening of the Home Fleet the American battleships South Dakota and Alabama, with five destroyers, under Rear-Admiral O. M. Hustvedt, U.S.N., came from Argentia to Scapa. On the enemy's side the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow all remained in the far north, but the Nürnberg went back to the Baltic early in May. She was several times sighted between Stadlandet and Stavanger13, and Coastal Command's torpedo-bombers were sent to attack; they failed, however, to find her. Two of our motor torpedo-boats attacked the light craft which were escorting the enemy cruiser, but success eluded them as well. In our home waters the phase thus ended in a state of suspense. The powerful enemy squadron in the north remained a serious challenge, and it was impossible for us to attack it at such a distance from our home bases. Nor could the long-range bombers and torpedo-bombers deal with the enemy squadron effectively, unless they could work from north Russia; and, apart from the climatic and administrative difficulties of doing that, we were unwilling to jeopardise our still inadequate air striking power by sending a large proportion of it to so great a distance, except during the passage of the Arctic convoys. Because the few torpedo-bombers available at home might at any time be needed off southern Norway, or in the northern passage to the Atlantic, we could not afford to keep them in Russia waiting for an enemy sortie from Altenfiord. Moreover if they were sent there heavy losses were likely to be incurred on the ground, for the
Russian bases were still ill-defended. All Admiral Tovey could do was to keep his heavy ships disposed at Scapa and at Hvalfiord, so as to cover the Atlantic passages, while he awaited the return of his flotilla strength and the resumption of the Russian convoys. The latter was bound to lead to further heavy demands on his fleet, and to reintroduce the possibility of another major clash with the German surface ships. But neither was to come to pass within the period of Admiral Tovey's command, for on the 8th of May he struck his flag and was succeeded by his second-in-command, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser.
For two and a half years Admiral Tovey had commanded the fleet to whose officers and men he now paid warm tribute for their 'devotion to duty . . . and their cheerful patience in bleak surroundings'. He also recorded his 'appreciation of the whole-hearted cooperation received from Coastal and Fighter Commands [of the Royal Air Force]', and his admiration for the gallant perseverance of the aircrews'. The action for which Admiral Tovey will, of course, be chiefly remembered is the chase and sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941.14 It happened early in his period of command - nearly two years before his relief. Nothing of equal dramatic interest took place during the succeeding two years; yet month after month his ships had fought the Russian convoys through, had provided reinforcements for the Malta convoys and sometimes for still more distant operations, had covered the vital Atlantic passages, and had never relaxed the watch on the enemy's major warships. It was those 'far distant ships' of the Home Fleet which made much else possible. Without them the Atlantic convoys could not have gone steadily on, to and fro, winter and summer; nor could the Middle East troop convoys have been sent safely off on the first stretch of their long journeys, nor the coastal convoys sailed along the routes which girdled the British Isles. The Home Fleet's strength helped to launch the first strategic offensive in Africa, and it contributed greatly to the offensive harrying of the enemy's coastal shipping. All these, and many other equally important duties had been faithfully and unremittingly carried out throughout Admiral Tovey's long period in command; his fleet knew him and trusted him to lead them to victory whenever the chance should arise. In his dealings with the Admiralty, and even with the Prime Minister, Admiral Tovey had been outspoken if he felt that unacceptable demands were being made; and his forthright opinions had not always been welcomed in London. None the less his courage and his utter integrity inspired confidence throughout the fleet, which he turned over to his former second-in-command in splendid fighting order. His next appointment was that of Commander-in-Chief, The Nore.
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