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Arctic Convoy: Operational Scenarios
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2014

Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy turned out to be a very satisfying design experience. I knew enough World War II naval history to understand the campaign, but many of the individual actions were new to me, and it was fascinating to see it all come together.

Thanks to political reality, the convoys had to be pushed through regardless of Soviet tank and plane production in their own factories. Whether the Red Army "needed" the materiel — and there are a few reputable historians who dispute this — really didn't matter. The Soviet Union had to be given tangible proof of Western support in its struggle against the Nazis. Not sending the convoys was not an option.

But geography lay in the Germans' favor. Arctic conditions would force the convoys to come within range of bases in northern Norway. And while the Allies had a significant edge in naval fighting power, the hard conditions of the Murmansk Run meant that warships could not be run continually without suffering machinery breakdowns. Convoy escorts had to sail every time a convoy went to sea; the Germans could pick and choose when they wished to intercept. They had a limiting factor of their own: fuel oil shortages meant they would not sail without a good chance of success (the Kriegsmarine, of course, heaped scorn on its ally the Regia Marina for following the same policy in the Mediterranean).

I went into the Arctic Convoy design work looking at the counter sheets thinking it would be very difficult to craft a balanced game that was fun for everyone: there are eleven Allied battleships, for example, to just one for the Germans. Instead, that part turned out to be easy. All 11 are never available at once, and there's a lot of gray water in which that one Nazi battleship can hide before she strikes. The cat-and-mouse hunt is very tense and the game should be a very satisfying play experience.

Here's a look at the operational scenarios.

First Sortie
2–15 March 1942

The German battleship Tirpitz moved from Germany to Norway in January, preparing to interdict convoy traffic in the Arctic. Allied aircraft searched frantically for the battleship, but had not yet located her when a German recon plane spotted Convoy PQ.12 heading toward Murmansk. The battleship headed out with a destroyer escort, but the British Home Fleet was also at sea.


Tirpitz came within 50 miles of QP.8 and 110 miles of PQ.12; some of her destroyers passed much closer to the Allied convoys. But the only contact came from the air, and a British escort shot down a Luftwaffe bomber while Tirpitz fended off an attack by carrier-based torpedo bombers and avoided a night-time ambush laid by eight British destroyers off the Norwegian coast. The Germans had burned 8,000 tons of fuel oil, with absolutely no result to show for it.

Scharnhorst's End
22–31 December 1943

In mid-December, Adolf Hitler authorized use of the battle cruiser Scharnhorst against the next Allied convoy to northern Russia. The temporary fleet commander, Rear Admiral Erich "Achmed" Bey, strongly urged using only destroyers, but Admiral Karl Doenitz was not about to set aside the hard-won permission to send Scharnhorst to sea. Aboard his flagship, Vice Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser had his staff practice all the radio signals they would need for a radar-guided surface engagement, including, "Make to Admiralty: Scharnhorst sunk."


Scharnhorst came close to the approaching convoy, but was intercepted by a squadron of three British cruisers. After a day-long running fight, she ran into the British battleship Duke of York and a destroyer squadron. Suffering up to a dozen torpedo hits, she exploded and sank in the evening of 26 December.

First Convoy
19 August – 10 September 1941

With the decision to send aid to the Soviet Union via Arctic waters, the Royal Navy gained responsibility for a new theater of war but no additional ships or aircraft. Adding to the headaches of Jack Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, his political and military superiors could not help demanding new special missions. And so Tovey's fleet sailed, with covering the first Allied convoy to Archangel as just one of its responsibilities.


This would be the first and last Churchillian adventure in the far north. The Home Fleet staff was overstretched planning multiple, simultaneous missions: air attacks on German ports, surface raids against coastal traffic, a trip to Spitzbergen, flying off fighter planes for the Soviets, and of course a convoy loaded with wool and rubber. Service in the far north was very hard on ships and men; they could not handle frivolous extra tasks and hope to escort the vital convoys at even partial efficiency. The Royal Navy accomplished all of its goals but afterwards Home Fleet commander Sir John Tovey insisted on a tight mission focus. Winston Churchill accused him of holding "an unenterprising attitude of mind," but the admiral held firm against more hare-brained schemes.

"I See Nothing But Red."
22 December 1942 – 9 January 1943

The Western Allies suspended convoy traffic to North Russia in the fall of 1942 to divert their assets to the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. When they resumed at the end of the year, the Germans were ready to intercept with a complicated double operation: One cruiser would attack the convoy, while the other would move on into the North Atlantic to raid there.


Bad weather disorganized the convoy, and when a submarine made a sighting the Germans set out to intercept. Adm. Oskar Kummetz's force ran into the convoy escort and fought a confused night battle in which one British destroyer and a minesweeper were sunk. A German destroyer was sunk after mistaking Sheffield for Admiral Hipper and trying to line up behind her. Lützow slipped past the British but contented herself with lobbing 11-inch shells at the convoy from long range — despite the escort's having been drawn away. Enraged by the results, or lack of them, Adolf Hitler ordered all the Navy's capital ships scrapped, though bureaucratic inertia saved them from the cutting torches.

Polish Blood
21 May – 1 June 1942

Deploying Tirpitz to northern waters had benefits far beyond what the fighting value of one very average battleship implied. Heavy ships had to be detailed to protect the convoys, with enough strength to still defend the merchant ships if Tirpitz lured some of them away. Unable to deploy what they considered sufficient strength, the Royal Navy waited while over 90 loaded ships piled up and both Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin complained to Winston Churchill. Churchill ordered a very large convoy to set out regardless of the threat. "The operation is justified if half gets through," he wrote. "Failure on our part to make the attempt would weaken our influence with both our major allies." But once again, the Allied Powers would find themselves fighting to the last drop of Polish blood.


The Germans did not sortie with their surface warships, but the planes came in waves; over 100 separate air attacks were recorded. Seven merchant ships were sunk, plus another after its arrival in Murmansk. The Polish destroyer Garland suffered four near-misses that riddled the ship with splinters. Twenty-five of her crew died and 43 were injured, and she staggered into Murmansk to be met by medics from the tanker Hopewell. In her whitewashed corridors they found, written in the blood of dying sailors, Niech yje Polska.

Oranges and Lemons
6–14 September 1943

Stung by Allied attempts to hunt down German meteorological teams in the Svalbard Archipelago, Adolf Hitler asked the Navy to stage a raid against the islands. Taking aboard a battalion of infantry, a German squadron set out with two battleships and nine destroyers — the most powerful force the Kriegsmarine deployed outside of coastal waters.


In the best tradition of Britain's sailing admirals, Home Fleet commander Bruce Fraser set out to intercept the Germans with what he had available on the spot — a force slightly inferior to the enemy squadron. The Germans vandalized the islands' tiny capital, Longyearben, and set a coal mine fire that would burn for another nine years. Then they boarded their ships and returned to Norway unscathed; there would be no "even fight" in Arctic waters after all.

The Next Convoy
2– 22 September 1942

The disaster of Convoy PQ.17 shook the confidence of both merchant and naval sailors. A morale-building speech by Rear Adm. Robert "Bullshit Bob" Burnett, commander of the "fighting destroyer escort," did little to encourage them. Meanwhile, leaders in the Soviet Union also lost faith in the ability and the will of their Western Allies to continue sending support. To restore morale all around, Winston Churchill insisted that the next convoy be defended by fleet carriers and a heavy escort of battleships. The carriers were not available, and the mission plans were captured by the Germans when a bomber foolishly sent over Norway to Murmansk with a full set of briefing papers was shot down and recovered.


The Germans planned to hit the incoming convoy with submarines and aircraft, and the outgoing convoy with surface ships. The surface ships did not sortie after all, but the Luftwaffe more than made up for their lack, sinking 13 ships from PQ.18. The Germans pressed their attacks to the very end of the convoy run, and the timely arrival of four Soviet destroyers drove off several intense attacks. U-boats claimed four ships from the returning QP.14.

Operation Zarin
22–29 September 1942

With the German surface squadrons ready for action but having missed Convoy QP.14, the naval command ordered an alternative mission. Still obsessed by the traffic from Siberia that Admiral Scheer had failed to find and destroy, the Germans now would try an offensive mining operation to interrupt these routes. An earlier mission had ended in disaster when the minelayer Ulm was shot up by British destroyers; this time the minelaying force would be much more heavily armed.


The cruiser and destroyers successfully laid their mines and returned to base without incident. As one of the few arenas where the German navy could be assured of surface superiority, they came back into the Kara Sea several times during the war, but never justified the wear on their ships and personnel and the fuel expenditure with serious results.

Someone Had Blundered
26 June – 12 July 1942

In later years, the designation "PQ.17" would become synonymous with "utter disaster." With the Red Army falling back before an overwhelming German offensive, every bit of assistance was needed and the ill-fated convoy would be pushed through with a powerful escort. Though PQ.16 had suffered serious losses, PQ.17's escorting battleships were considered more than enough to repel any German attack.


The most powerful force the Germans sent to sea during World War II began to fall apart even before leaving coastal waters, as one armored cruiser and three destroyers suffered grounding damage. Based on intelligence that the German ships were moving — though there was no confirmation that they had headed out to sea — and knowledge that they could reach the convoy before the Allied battleships could get there, First Sea Lord Dudley Pound ordered PQ.17 to scatter. German aircraft and submarines then hunted down the scattered merchant ships, sinking 24 of them with hundreds of tanks and planes and thousands of other vehicles aboard plus 100,000 tons of other war material. Morale plummeted among the Allied forces; in the first Anglo-American naval operation of the war, as some American sailors saw it the "yellow Limey bastards" abandoned the merchant crews. This was unfair: At least one British destroyer commander seriously contemplated faking a machinery failure rather than accede to his orders, while the commander of the heavy cruiser London reported his crew as "near mutinous" over the decision.

The People's Battleship
15–31 August 1944

Following Italy's surrender in September 1943, the Soviet Union demanded a share of the Italian fleet. To mollify their Soviet ally without antagonizing a potential new Italian friend, the United States and Britain agreed to temporarily transfer several aged warships of their own to Soviet control. The British transferred the ancient battleship Royal Sovereign in May 1944, and in August she set sail along with eight old destroyers as part of a convoy escort. The Germans had completed repairs on the battleship Tirpitz and conducted her shakedown exercises just a few days before, but a British carrier strike was expected to keep her out of action.


The convoy arrived safely, losing one escort to a German submarine's acoustic torpedo. The Soviet battleship and destroyers separated from the convoy and the submarines concentrated on the wallowing old ship, loosing numerous torpedoes at her which detonated short of the target. Meanwhile, the Home Fleet's carrier force made 247 sorties against Tirpitz, scoring minor damage to the battleship on the few occasions they could get through the heavy flak screen and waiting fighters. A u-boat torpedoed the Canadian-manned carrier Nabob, which made it back to port but never sailed again. Tirpitz did not leave port, and the Red Banner Northern Fleet was spared an unequal surface action.

The Forgotten Convoy
1–16 November 1943

With German submarine activity increasing in the mid-Atlantic, all available escorts were diverted from the Arctic theater to that vital area. That left a number of merchant ships stranded in Murmansk, where they rusted through the summer while their crews brawled with the dockside populace. Finally, an escort group arrived and the merchants set out for home.


The Germans were ready for the unusual one-way operation and had the proper permissions to go after it, but thick fog shielded the convoy and the support groups from both submarine and aerial reconnaissance. With no contact made, the German ships never sortied and the merchant ships finally made it back to Western ports.

Self Abuse
21–31 March 1942

Admiral Tovey believed that the Gremans had been reinforced, and so for Convoy PQ.13 he prepared an even stronger surface escort. Heavy storms drove the convoy closer to Norway's Arctic coast than planned, close enough that the local German commander decided to send out a trio of destroyers on his own initiative.


Four merchant ships were lost to a combination of air, submarine and destroyer attacks; two others arrived at Murmansk but were considered total losses (though their cargo was salvaged) and two more turned back. Trinidad with three British and two Soviet destroyers engaged the German destroyers in a sharp but confused surface engagement, sinking Z26 but suffering a damaging hit from one of her own torpedoes that turned and ran straight back at her.

Scheer Audacity
29 July – 31 August 1942

Since 1932, the Soviets had used the North East Passage along the northern coast of Siberia to move convoys assisted by huge icebreakers between Archangel and the Soviet Far East. The annual summer voyage continued during the war, and the Germans decided to follow up their success against Convoy PQ.17 by doing something about it. A secret base was established on the island of Novaya Zemlya, and from there aerial reconnaissance could lead the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and u-boats to the Soviet freighters.


Admiral Scheer spent a month raiding the lightly-guarded shipping routes of the Kara Sea, but inflicted little damage as the wily Soviet convoy commodores used their big, tough icebreakers to take their charges into the pack ice where Scheer could not follow without exposing herself to ice damage. The icebreaker Sibiryakov was sunk after a bitter fight, but the cruiser caught no other victims. Frustrated, Capt. Wilhelm Meendsen-Bohlken took his ship to bombard the Arctic port of Dikson, but found that even here, far from the front lines, the Soviets had installed heavy guns that damaged the cruiser and drove off the marine platoon landed to assault the port.

Destroyer Sweep I
27 May – 3 June 1944

Having won the Battle of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy pressed its advantage over the u-boats by following them back to their dens. Destroyer patrols moved closer and closer to the coast of Norway in hopes of sinking submarines or driving them back before they even reached the Atlantic. Apprised of these movements, Capt. Rolf Johannesson of the German 4th Destroyer Flotilla decided to interrupt their hunt. Complicating things was a British carrier strike also at sea.


The British tin cans sank one submarine, U289, but despite reports from the stricken u-boat the German flotilla missed the British. Both sides returned to port unscathed, but they would get another chance to find one another in the cold northern waters. The carrier force could not attack Tirpitz in the worsening weather, and never contacted the German destroyer flotilla.

Destroyer Sweep II
28 June – 3 July 1944

A month after Johanneson's sweep failed to produce results, a very similar opportunity presented itself and he prepared to take advantage again. Three of the British 3rd Flotilla's destroyers were tasked with rushing ammunition and mail to Murmansk for the escorts there, and the German 4th Flotilla had a chance to intercept them.


Johannesson got his flotilla into position to stop the British destroyers on their way back from Murmansk, but somehow the two small forces missed one another in the wide gray seas. Once Tirpitz was repaired once again, the German destroyers lost their freedom of action as they now were tasked with supporting the battleship.

Flight of the Weser
Fall 1942

German aircraft carrier development went through several starts and stops. In the summer of 1942 Adolf Hitler ordered the nearly-complete heavy cruiser Seydlitz converted into an aircraft carrier. Her superstructure and armament had been removed when Hitler changed his mind again in January 1943, when all work stopped. With only a very small air group, how much help would the carrier have given the Kriegsmarine on the Murmansk Run?


Germany's inability to maintain secure communications meant that any radical move — like deploying aircraft carriers to Norway — would have been detected by the Allies. Heavy American reinforcements to the north would have slowed the campaign in the Pacific, but would have made the German task very tough even with a tiny aircraft carrier of limited capabilities to help them.

A Supported Convoy
8–22 April 1942

With Tirpitz still lurking somewhere in the Norwegian fjords, First Sea Lord Dudley Pound urged his political superiors to suspend the convoy traffic. This could not be done, but U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt backed his tough talk with a powerful task force to support the Home Fleet. The convoy went forward, as the Germans prepared a coordinated air and submarine response.


One of the most successful Allied convoy operations, PQ.14 only lost one ship (to a Ju.88 bomber). German destroyers hove within sight of the cruiser Edinburgh, but veered off without engaging her. The American task force did not need to sail, and even before the convoy arrived Wasp was detailed to carry British fighter planes to Malta.

The Golden Cruiser
26 April – 9 May 1942

While public statements called the materiel sent to the Soviet Union "Lend Lease" or "aid," this was not strictly true. The Soviets were expected to pay for the weapons, ammunition and other goods, and since the ruble was not convertible into dollars or sterling, the payments came in gold bullion. A lighter brought five tons of gold destined for the United States to the cruiser Edinburgh before she sailed from Murmansk. "It's going to be a bad trip, Sir," an RN rating told an officer as the rain washed away the painted labels in large red splashes. "This is Russian gold, dripping with blood."


Stricken by both bomb hits and a u-boat torpedo, Edinburgh turned back for Murmansk with two British and two Soviet destroyers as escort, plus several minesweepers. The Soviet destroyers had to leave to refuel, and before they returned three German destroyers came out of the snow. After a confused fight the Germans sank the cruiser and left both destroyers dead in the water, but fled when the British destroyers in turn sank Heinrich Schoemann. Divers salvaged the lost gold in 1981.

Coming Home
13 – 20 May 1942

The sinking of Edinburgh shook the British naval command, and they laid on a major fleet operation to make sure the damaged cruiser Trinidad and several damaged destroyers made their way back from Murmansk safely. Soviet welders, most of them female, had patched up her self-inflicted torpedo hit as best they could, stiffening the inadequate plates provided by the Royal Navy with scavenged railroad iron. A long stint in an American shipyard awaited Trinidad, if she could make it home. The Germans meanwhile had shifted their two "pocket battleships" to Norway — as they used relatively plentiful diesel fuel, the Kriegsmarine's fuel oil shortage would not keep them from sailing.


The damaged cruiser could only make 20 knots, and her two damaged consorts weren't much faster. A single Ju88 dropped a stick of four bombs directly on Trinidad, blowing open her damaged plates and setting many fires. Destroyers took off her crew and Matchless sank her with three torpedoes. Sixty-three crewmen lost their lives.

Solo Efforts
29 October – 14 November 1942

Soviet anger over the abandonment of PQ.17 had not abated when convoy missions halted following PQ.18. The warships that had been covering the convoys were needed for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Seeking to mollify Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill promised to send individual unescorted freighters to Murmansk under cover of the dark Arctic nights. Seeking to mollify Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill promised they would all be British ships with volunteer crews. But every other ship was American, with some Soviets thrown in for good measure, and no crew of any nationality was asked its opinion before setting out. Anti-submarine sweeps only managed to alert the Germans that something was up.


Operation FB saw about half of the merchant ships dispatched actually make it through. With no escort or convoy, crews of stricken ships could expect no rescue in time to save them from the freezing waters. The cruiser Hipper proved singularly ineffective, sinking a single Soviet tanker, with most of the sinking attributed to u-boats.

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