With the entry of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, the British and American governments had agreed to send unconditional aid to their Soviet allies. The problem lay with getting the vast amount of supplies needed there in one piece.
However a method of transiting in convoys combining merchant vessels and Royal Navy warships had been developed. To put simply they worked by putting the merchant vessels carrying the vital supplies in the middle of the convoy, surrounded by a Royal Navy escort consisting of anti-aircraft ships, armed trawlers and destroyers. Then further out from the main bulk of the convoy would be a couple of fast-moving cruisers and submarines in order to provide early detection from an inbound threat.
So on the 27th June 1942 a joint British and American task force of 35 merchant and 26 warships sailed in formation eastbound from Hvalfjord, Iceland for the port of Arkhangelsk, Russia; it was the biggest Arctic convoy ever assembled.
The convoy was located by German forces on 1 July, after which it was shadowed continuously. But the strength of the formation of the convoy meant most of the attacks from German air raids and submarines were unsuccessful.
However after receiving intelligence that the far superior German battleship Tirpitz was heading towards P.Q.17, The First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound sent an order at 2111hrs on July 4th that the Royal Navy escort was to return to Britain at speed, and the convoy to scatter.
He believed the navy escort would be no match against the Tirpitz and his intent was to save as many of the ships as possible. The intelligence proved to be incorrect and the strong formation of the convoy had now been broken up leaving it dangerously vulnerable.
Not long after the signal for the Navy escort to abandon the convoy came German U-boats and planes returned but this time did not meet any resistance; the Merchant vessels were sitting ducks for an attack that lasted 48 hours.
Stalin expressed his opinion of the decision to remove the escort as “difficult to understand and explain”.
But the only man who could, Lord Admiral Dudley Pound, died a year later of a brain tumour while never satisfying anyone with an explanation as to why the escort didn’t return to the convoy once the intelligence had been proven wrong.
In all 24 merchant vessels, 210 planes, 430 tanks, 3,350 vehicles, 100,000 tonnes of munitions and 153 men were lost.
Winston Churchill called it: “one of the most melancholy episodes of the entire war”.