British Betrayal of Its Own Convoys Carrying Supplies to Help the Soviets
The following is excerpted from the book Proxy Wars (St. Petersburg, 2017) by Russian historian, writer and political activist Nikolay Starikov.
The disaster that befell Great Britain’s legendary PQ 17 convoy, which was carrying military aid to the Soviet Union in July 1942, remains a mystery only to those who do not understand London’s true agenda during World War II.
The second front, which the Allies had promised Moscow in 1941, was not opened either in that year or the next. After all of Stalin’s diplomatic efforts and battles, assistance to the USSR came in the form of military supplies. The simplest and most efficient way to deliver that cargo was by sea. Polar convoys were assembled in Iceland and then sailed around Scandinavia to wind their way to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk. Each of them was guarded by British warships. The Germans attacked the polar convoys from airfields inside Nazi-occupied Norway. German submarines and surface vessels were based there, at military installations in Narvik and Trondheim.
Before July 1942 the convoys had experienced few casualties — the first occurred when convoy PQ 12 (March 1942, consisting of 12 merchant ships) lost one vessel and one destroyer escort. PQ 13 lost four vessels, PQ 14 — one vessel, PQ 15 — three vessels, and PQ 16 — seven merchant ships.
But out of the 34 merchant ships and tankers in the PQ 17 convoy, which set sail out of Hvalfjörður fjord on June 27, 1942, only 13 made it to the shores of the Soviet Union — 21 vessels were sunk! Out of the 297 airplanes included in that cargo, 210 went to the bottom of the sea, as did 430 of the 584 tanks, 3,530 of the 4,246 automobiles that were secured to the decks and stored in the holds, plus so much other military cargo that was so badly needed by the USSR, which was embroiled in fierce, heavy fighting on the Don and Volga. In all, 122,000 tons of cargo were lost out of the original total of 188,000 tons, in addition to the hundreds of human deaths …
But it was not these enormous losses that gave the PQ 17 convoy its own page in the history books — it was because of the reason why they happened. This reason had a human face. The fact is, the British warships … simply abandoned the convoy to the mercies of fate. They sailed away, ordering the convoy to scatter and for all its ships to make their own way to Soviet shores. Afterward, those defenseless vessels were easy prey for German submarines and aircraft …
The convoy’s military escort and covering forces consisted of six destroyers, four corvettes, four armed trawlers, three minesweepers, two submarines, and two anti-aircraft auxiliaries. Commander Jack Broome was in charge of the expedition and would later publish quite a remarkable memoir, Convoy Is to Scatter.
On July 3, 1942, after successfully fending off several German air attacks, the flagship of the escort received a coded cable from London, claiming that “photographs of Trondheim show that [German battleships] Tirpitz, Hipper, and 4 destroyers have left.”
On July 4, 1942, there were renewed German air attacks on the convoy. This time the Germans had much better luck: two ships were sunk and three damaged, but the Luftwaffe lost six planes. And then “something strange” happened. Early in the morning of July 5, Rear Admiral Hamilton gave his First Cruiser Squadron orders to retreat, withdrawing its protection from the convoy, and Admiral Pound, the Admiral of the Fleet, commanded the merchant ships to “scatter.” This decision was based on information that had allegedly been received regarding a threat of attack on the convoy from the battleship Tirpitz. It would be an understatement to say that Commander Jack Broome found this order to be utterly baffling and bewildering:
The best descriptive parallel I could think of was an electric shock. The order to SCATTER is the prerogative of the senior man on the spot when, and only when, an overwhelming force attacks his convoy, which would be more difficult to massacre spread out than if it remained concentrated. It is the last straw, the ‘sauve qui peut’ and it is, of course, irrevocable … Upon obtaining these messages, separated by an interval of only 13 minutes and arriving with increasing urgency, we could draw only one conclusion. The Admiralty had received confirmation that the Germans were ready to strike, and these confirmations were sufficiently reliable for them to decide that, in the event of unrelenting attacks from above and below, defenseless merchant vessels would thus be safer than they would in the convoy … PQ 17 was the first convoy in the history of the Royal Navy to be ordered to scatter by an officer who was not on the spot.
The official British story insists that the PQ 17 convoy was the victim of a tragic mistake. Supposedly, as soon as Lord Pound made his fateful decision and saw it through, it emerged that the German squadron had not gone anywhere and was still at its base in Norway!
But what really happened? Immediately after the treaty of alliance was signed with the USSR on May 26, 1942, British leaders, most likely Churchill himself, issued a secret order that the next convoy must not make it to the shores of the Soviet Union. All of Admiral Pound’s later actions, which are without parallel in naval and military history, are nothing more than his efforts to carry out the instructions he had been given. This not only made it possible to “help without helping” the Red Army, but also gave the British leadership a free hand to do their best to end the convoys altogether, on the pretext of having suffered “huge casualties.” This was a cutoff of assistance to the Soviet Union, right at a critical moment during the Battle of Stalingrad. What’s more, because the British practically surrendered the convoy and handed over their sea route to the Nazis by withdrawing the protecting warships, this amounted to directly abetting Hitler’s continued surge toward Stalingrad to finish off Soviet Russia. In order for the Führer to be made to see that his only way out was to crush the USSR, or in other words, to escalate the war, he needed irrefutable evidence that the British were prepared to betray Russia. And although they were officially allies, the British would be ready to make peace with the Reich if the USSR could be defeated. The British betrayal of their own convoy was proof offered to the Germans that this time a deal with them was possible.
The Germans really did know the names of each of the ships in the convoy and even the cargo each carried! The German submariners had no reason to hide. They surfaced and, not wasting their torpedoes, easily sank the defenseless merchant ships with artillery fire. The rescued Allied sailors later claimed that the Nazis were surprisingly well informed as to what each vessel was carrying. To explain this astonishing fact, the British later circulated the information that the Germans had allegedly found the code books and ship list aboard the merchant ship the SS Paulus Potter, which had been left adrift after having fallen under attack (the crew had abandoned the vessel but never scuttled it). Another oddity in the Germans’ behavior that was noticed by the eyewitnesses was their surprising nonchalance and confident sense of impunity. They did not seem to be fighting as much as … enjoying themselves, on a pleasant, innocent outing:
They were virtually handed a licence to bomb, torpedo, and photograph us, then shoot off home to photograph themselves putting on their medals! … Seldom can so much film footage have been taken of a single action at sea, all from an enemy standpoint, which reaped such a rich harvest in propaganda. (Paul Lund, PQ 17: Convoy to Hell)
One more curious detail: the radio cable ordering the convoy to retreat was sent by the British “in the clear,” in other words, without encryption! There is to this day still no rational explanation for why every basic rule of secrecy was suddenly violated. The only logical reason for sending a crucially important radio message in the clear when there was no pressing need to do so (!) would be that there was a desire for it to be immediately read by the enemy. The British openly informed the Germans that the convoy was now defenseless and could be easily attacked, but that there was no need to strike at the retreating cruisers and ships from the convoy that could fend for themselves. From that perspective it is immediately clear why the Germans behaved with such nonchalance and were so utterly confident of their impunity.
Another important fact: on July 5, 1942, the British warships received yet another radio cable, the meaning of which is difficult to interpret as anything other than a desire to cover their tracks:
Please note that the Admiralty’s message … to the ships escorting the PQ 17, to the commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron and the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet ordering the convoy to scatter was transmitted in naval encryption, and not in the clear, as was noted on the copies in circulation.” (Jack Broome, Convoy Is to Scatter).
In other words, the ship captains were asked to forge an entry in their ship’s log and to note that the telegraphed order “convoy is to scatter” was sent in encrypted form, rather than in the clear, as it actually was! Later, the Admiralty decided to destroy all the radio transmission logs from that campaign.
Is it not surprising that, after learning of the tragedy of convoy PQ 17, Stalin asked, “Do British naval officers even understand the concept of honour?”
On July 28, 1942 Stalin issued his famous order no. 227: “Not one step back!” And this was not because he had forgotten to do it in 1941, but because the state of affairs on the front lines of the war had become much more dangerous and the prospect of a Soviet military defeat seemed far more possible than it had at the beginning of the war. That is why on Oct. 19, 1942, Stalin wrote to the Soviet ambassador in England, Ivan Maisky:
All of us in Moscow have gained the impression that Churchill is aiming at the defeat of the USSR, in order to then come to terms with the Germany of Hitler or Brüning at the expense of our country. Otherwise it is difficult to explain Churchill’s behavior either in regard to the second front in Europe or the arms shipments to the USSR, which continue to dwindle.
The PQ 17 tragedy occurred in early July 1942, and Stalin’s telegram was sent in mid-October. In the interval Churchill had sent letters of “explanation,” the British had attempted to scale back the convoys, and Churchill had visited Moscow from August 12-14. As a result — Stalin became convinced, as he expressed in his telegram to Maisky, that Churchill was conspiring with Hitler.
You can judge for yourself the feebleness of Sir Winston’s “explanations” about the PQ 17 tragedy by reading the correspondence of the two leaders in its entirety, so we’ll just offer the highlights here. The British prime minister’s entire letter to Stalin on July 18, 1942 can be boiled down to one sentence: we cannot fight the Germans, because it will cost us dearly. And therefore, writes Sir Winston, we have no choice but to end the convoys to the USSR. Stalin’s letter of response on July 23, 1942 sheds a clarifying light on what was happening at that time:
I have received your message of July 18. I gather from the message, first, that the British Government refuses to go on supplying the Soviet Union with war materials by the northern route and, secondly, that despite the agreed Anglo-Soviet Communique 20 on the adoption of urgent measures to open a second front in 1942, the British Government is putting off the operation till 1943. According to our naval experts, the arguments of British naval experts on the necessity of stopping delivery of war supplies to the northern harbours of the U.S.S.R. are untenable. They are convinced that, given goodwill and readiness to honour obligations, steady deliveries could be effected, with heavy loss to the Germans. The British Admiralty’s order to the P.Q. 17 convoy to abandon the supply ships and return to Britain, and to the supply ships to disperse and make for Soviet harbours singly, without escort, is, in the view of our experts, puzzling and inexplicable. Of course, I do not think steady deliveries to northern Soviet ports are possible without risk or loss. But then no major task can be carried out in wartime without risk or losses. You know, of course, that the Soviet Union is suffering far greater losses. Be that as it may, I never imagined that the British Government would deny us delivery of war materials precisely now, when the Soviet Union is badly in need of them in view of the grave situation on the Soviet-German front. It should be obvious that deliveries via Persian ports can in no way make up for the loss in the event of deliveries via the northern route being discontinued. As to the second point, namely, that of opening a second front in Europe, I fear the matter is taking an improper turn. In view of the situation on the Soviet-German front, I state most emphatically that the Soviet Government cannot tolerate the second front in Europe being postponed till 1943. I hope you will not take it amiss that I have seen fit to give you my frank and honest opinion and that of my colleagues on the points raised in your message.
During Churchill’s visit to Moscow a few days later, Stalin would tell him quite pointedly, “The Germans do not have a large fleet, and it needs to be destroyed, rather than scattering the convoys.” Stalin knew who he was dealing with. He knew who had raised Hitler to power and the reason for that. He understood that England’s ultimate goal was to drag out the Soviet-German war for as long as possible. This was why he was so affronted by the excuse of these “circumstantial factors” that his “allies” were forced to send the PQ 18 convoy to the USSR in early September 1942. Interestingly enough, the military escort ships accompanying the PQ 18 convoy were also ordered to focus on protecting themselves, rather than the supply vessels. (Paul Lund, PQ17: Convoy to Hell ). But this time that order was ignored, and the British sailors successfully safeguarded the transports. The fact that the PQ 17 could have been protected is also evident from the fact that despite a fierce battle in the Barents Sea north of North Cape, 28 out of 41 vessels of the PQ 18 arrived safely in Soviet port, causing a dramatic loss to Luftwaffe (around 40 aircrafts piloted by the best German aces were hit by the escort during the voyage).
The history of the PQ 17 is only a small fragment in the mosaic of the elaborate games that the British establishment employed during the Second World War to achieve its elusive goals. To that end they sacrificed their own citizens and soldiers. For example, as part of the Operation Fortitude campaign of disinformation in the first half of 1944, British intelligence sent agents into various countries of occupied Europe who, for one reason or another, “knew” the place and time of the Allied landing in Europe. According to the information they provided, that landing was to occur in Pas-de-Calais. The directors of the operation also saw to it that these agents fell into the hands of the Gestapo and that the poison capsules they were given to use in the event of their arrest turned out to be worthless. But the evidence of those suicide attempts would make the information that the Gestapo obtained by torturing the captured agents seem more reliable. As a result, the credulous Germans were awaiting the Allied landing in entirely the wrong place. Moreover, after Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, Hitler, who was expecting a landing in Pas-de-Calais, failed to move several tank divisions south that would have been capable of repelling that invasion.
And what about those unfortunate agents? Some of them survived the war, and, realizing what had happened to them, demanded an investigation. But, like the logs of the arctic-convoy radio cables, the archive of the Special Operations Executive had been destroyed just in time. In response to attempts to discover what really happened, the British government has donned an expression of affronted dignity. They claim that such a course of action would have been beneath them and they are outraged by the very suggestion.
No documents exist. That means it never happened …
1. It was after that meeting in August 1942 that Churchill, in a speech to the British House of Commons on September 8, 1942, had the following to say about Joseph Stalin:
It was an experience of great interest to me to meet Premier Stalin … It is very fortunate for Russia in her agony to have this great rugged war chief at her head. He is a man of massive outstanding personality, suited to the sombre and stormy times in which his life has been cast; a man of inexhaustible courage and will-power and a man direct and even blunt in speech, which, having been brought up in the House of Commons, I do not mind at all, especially when I have something to say of my own. Above all, he is a man with that saving sense of humour which is of high importance to all men and all nations, but particularly to great men and great nations. Stalin also left upon me the impression of a deep, cool wisdom and a complete absence of illusions of any kind. I believe I made him feel that we were good and faithful comrades in this war — but that, after all, is a matter which deeds not words will prove.
(Adapted and translated by Oriental Review, October 24, 2017.)