Jeremy Clarkson tells the story of the Arctic convoys of WWII, which delivered vital war supplies to the Soviet Union via the Arctic, and reveals the convoy's greatest disaster.
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Man has fought wars in many terrible places over the centuries,
but never has he fought in a place as terrible as this.
This is where the men who ran the Second World War Arctic convoys
went to work, among not just the German submarines and planes,
but nature at her most brutal.
100-mile-an-hour winds, mountainous waves, icebergs,
temperatures down to minus 60.
We had ice all round us.
Ice inside the bulkheads, ice in the deckheads. It was horrific.
The waves were huge. I mean, they were passing, as it were,
at the same level as you were on the bridge.
It was rough, very rough.
And you go down and it'd come above the bows.
And the weight of water on the deck split the deck,
and water pouring through the mess decks.
And all the sailors' kit floating around in the mess decks.
It was a terrible place to live
and a terrible place to die.
When you started getting the weather, plus submarines,
plus aircraft coming at you,
it couldn't get worse conditions.
And you'd think, "So, are we going to survive here or not?" You know?
The possibility of going into the sea frightened people most of all,
because they knew that if their ship was hit and they went in the water
they had very, very little chance of survival.
Throughout the Second World War there were many Arctic convoys,
but tonight we're telling the story of just one.
Codenamed PQ17, it was the largest that had ever sailed.
It was also the first significant Anglo-American operation of the war.
And on the night of July 4th 1942,
it became the biggest naval disaster of the 20th century.
I still grieve on July 4th.
I had a long naval career and I still remember it as a bleak,
horrible, awful day.
It was the worst operation of all them.
It was the hardest thing to take.
The story begins in June 1941,
when over three million German troops stormed into the USSR.
It was the largest invasion in the history of warfare.
And to start with at least, it was a huge success.
In just nine days, the Russians lost 4,500 planes.
That was half their air force.
Six months later, they'd lost 20,000 tanks,
and by that stage the Germans were just 15 miles
from where I'm standing now.
15 miles from the centre of Moscow.
In the Kremlin, Stalin was screaming at Winston Churchill for help.
He was saying, "Send me tanks, send me planes, send me guns.
"And send them now."
I've got a copy here of one of those telegrams.
And using fairly undiplomatic language,
Stalin says he will no longer be able to continue the struggle
against Hitlerism unless he has 400 aircraft a month,
500 tanks a month, and 30,000 tons of aluminium immediately.
CHURCHILL: Hitler is a monster...
Churchill was no fan of Stalin or Communism,
but as Britain was in no position to beat the Germans on its own,
and with America only sending supplies, not troops,
he agreed to Stalin's demands,
saying there would be deliveries every ten days.
How do you get equipment and materials from America and Britain
to the front line in Russia?
Well, you could go through the Mediterranean,
down the Red Sea and up through Persia.
But that is complex and there were too many bottlenecks.
You could ship everything across the Pacific and then use a train
to get it to the front line, but that would take nearly seven weeks -
The only realistic solution
was to go round the top of German-occupied Norway,
through the freezing, dreadful, violent Arctic Ocean
into Murmansk or Archangel.
This would only take around ten days.
But, as Churchill conceded, it would be...
the worst journey in the world.
The thing I remember most about the Arctic was that it was lonely.
It didn't seem to be...
anywhere on the planet.
It was just uncounted miles in all directions.
-The line to Russia is working to capacity...
The task of delivering these supplies to Russia would fall
to the men of the merchant navy,
men who were more used to bringing silk from the Far East
or fruit from exotic ports in the West Indies.
Certainly, they hadn't signed up for war.
I told them I wanted to go to sea.
So they said, "There's only one way you can go to sea,
"as you're a conscript, and that is by joining the merchant navy."
I just wanted to travel.
I'd been a trainee accountant and I wanted to see the world.
I was a boy, I was excited.
I was at sea. That's all I wanted to do - go to sea.
I thought it was going to be a wonderful life. You're going to see
the world, you're going to meet different people.
Go to America, go round the world and see it.
No danger, you didn't know about any danger.
You just got to go to American and come back.
But it didn't turn out that way.
A merchant seaman could be 14 or he could be 70.
Many were very tough.
But few were prepared for what awaited them
in the freezing Arctic wasteland.
When I realised where we were going I thought,
"My God, I hope it don't get too cold as I've only got a raincoat."
All they gave us was a long coat with a...
It's like a horse blanket, lining the bottom.
Leather boots. And I think we had balaclavas give us. And that was it.
I'm out here now,
wearing countless layers of 21st century synthetic thermals,
and the cold is just crippling.
Now, these guys in the convoys would have to come out on deck
in weather way worse than this to clear away the ice.
Because if they didn't, it would jam up the winches,
it would jam up the guns and eventually it would build up
to such an extent the ship would become top heavy and simply capsize.
And it wasn't just the men that were ill-prepared for war in the Arctic.
Their cargo ships, tankers and coal-burning tramp steamers
were mainly old and slow.
Many dated from World War I.
So these men, then,
they were on ships that weren't really designed for these waters,
and as often as not they were carrying a cargo of fuel
and ammunition, which meant they were sailing a floating bomb
right past Norway, which was in German hands.
And that meant that at any time
they could be attacked by a submarine or a plane.
The threat was constant.
I can't remember being frightened about it at all.
No-one worried about it. I mean, young people, whatever happens
don't happen to you, happens to other people.
I think they all know it was going to be a bit rough.
But you're going to be all right, aren't you?
You know, it's not going to touch your ship, is it? Not you,
it's going to touch him over there.
We knew it wasn't going to be a picnic up in the Arctic.
Merchant seamen were paid as little as £10 a month.
But if your ship was hit and you ended up in the water,
you were paid nothing at all.
A peculiar rule of the merchant navy at the time
meant that your pay was stopped the moment your ship sank.
Although I can't imagine that was foremost in the mind of any man
who'd been blown by an explosion in there.
Because that doesn't bear thinking about.
You'd be freezing to death from the neck down,
your hair would be on fire, you'd be drowning in fuel oil,
and you'd know that none of the other ships in the convoy
would stop to help, because it was a convoy,
it had to keep moving as a unit.
It would just chug by at eight knots and...
and leave you there.
NEWS REPORTER: Northwards to the Arctic circle
rides the convoy and escort, bound for ports in northern Russia.
Amazingly though, these brave men on their ill-equipped ships
were getting through.
In the first 12 convoys to make the voyage,
there were 103 ships,
and only one was lost.
Proof of this success came in the battle of Moscow in late 1941,
where 75% of the tanks used by the Russians were British.
The Arctic supply route was working.
Churchill was keeping Russia in the war.
So, how were these old ships full of untrained men
getting past all those German planes and submarines?
Well, they used convoys which were coordinated from this very basement
far below the streets of Liverpool.
And this is how they worked.
In the middle you had the merchant ships carrying the tanks,
the guns, the planes, the bullets and so on.
They would be eight abreast
and then arranged in rows.
And then around the outside you had the warships.
Close by to protect the meat
from submarines and aeroplanes,
you had anti-aircraft ships, armed trawlers and destroyers.
Then 30 or 40 miles further out,
to guard against an attack from German surface ships,
you have the big, fast, heavy cruisers.
And then if you were lucky, at the back, a couple of submarines.
That, then, was a convoy.
And it worked.
That's broadly how the convoy codenamed PQ17 was laid out
as it left the coast of Iceland on June 27th 1942,
heading via the permanent daylight of an Arctic summer
to the Russian port of Archangel.
There were 35 mainly British and American merchant ships
carrying enough tanks, planes and other materials
to equip an army of 50,000.
It was the biggest Arctic convoy ever assembled.
The ship was loaded to the point where you could hardly recognise it
as a ship.
You had crates that went up from the deck
higher than the deck was above the water.
What I've got here is the manifest from just one
of the merchant ships, the USS Samuel Chase.
And it's just staggering.
It was carrying ten tonnes of 39 millimetre guns, 37 tanks,
108 trucks, 3,800 tyres,
4,000 boxes of...lard.
Tell it was American, can't you?
1,200 tons of sheet steel, 10,000 bags of dried beans,
9,000 packages of canned meat.
The list goes on and on.
And if you think about it, if all this stuff made it to Russia,
it would take the German army months and countless lives
to destroy it all.
Whereas the same thing could be achieved with just one torpedo.
NEWS REPORTER SPEAKS IN GERMAN
By this stage of the war, the German High Command had realised this
and had increased the number of heavy warships, submarines
and planes based in Norway.
The Germans were therefore ready for PQ17, and had announced in advance
they were planning to destroy it down to its very last ship.
So the merchantmen would need a huge amount of protection.
And they got it.
Guarding the merchant ships would be a massive armed escort.
With America now in the war, the joint British and US task force
comprised a close escort of 19 ships
and a distant cruiser force of seven.
That's 26 warships.
This was the first time the American and British navies worked together
on anything like this sort of scale.
And because the Americans were the new boys,
they agreed the British should be in charge.
I thought it was very good protection.
They looked good. They sounded good.
They had a great accent.
We worked well with the British. No problem.
My impression was that it was a well-run convoy at that point.
One of the officers on the American escort ship USS Wichita,
was Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
In his memoir, Fairbanks described the scene as the merchant ships
trundled past his cruiser at the beginning of the voyage.
However, for the first seven days of what was expected to be
about a ten-day voyage,
the convoy trundled along without major incident.
U-boats that came too close were driven away by the destroyers,
planes by short bursts from the anti-aircraft ships.
The eighth day was July 4th
and the ship on which Fairbanks was serving
signalled the British commander saying,
"The celebration of Independence Day has always required
"large fireworks displays. I trust you will not disappoint us."
That night he got his wish.
At 8:20, the Germans got serious and mounted a full-on assault.
I happened by chance to be looking to the southern horizon
just at the moment that all the Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers popped up
like mosquitoes over the edge of the earth and came swarming towards us.
Now, at a time like this,
the British liked to close ranks and wait
until the aircraft were in close before opening fire.
Which is why they were probably a bit surprised to note
that one of the American ships, the USS Wainwright,
had increased her flank speed and set off on its own
straight towards the incoming planes, forward guns blazing away.
And then, when it was 4,000 yards from the convoy,
it executed what has been described as a "32-knot handbrake turn."
You're probably thinking you wouldn't notice a hard turn
on a warship.
I suspect, however, you probably would.
Here we go. Oh, yeah, that's...
Oh, my God.
Look at that. That's all...
That has really got some lean on now.
It's a big turn.
God, this must have scared the Germans.
Of course, what he was doing
was he was bringing all the guns on his starboard side to bear.
That was a lot of guns.
Such was the astonishing volume of fire
that most of the German pilots either turned tail
and fled back to Norway or dropped their torpedoes so early
they didn't stand a chance of reaching the Wainwright,
leave alone the convoy.
When the Wainwright rejoined the cover group...
everybody was cheering them.
"Hooray for the Wainwright."
The Royal Navy was astounded by the gung-ho American attitude
and sent the Commander of the Wainwright, Captain DP Moon,
a message which said,
"Thank you for your great support and congratulations
"on your anti-aircraft fire, which impressed us all."
Shortly afterwards, though, the next wave of bombers arrived,
and this time the pilots were a bit more persistent.
Bombers come in, about ten or 12 in a big line.
And the guns would be firing at them, a whole wall of fire.
And they'd fly through this. There were some being shot down.
And they'd fly right over us.
And that was ideal for the pom-poms and Oerlikons.
And it was amazing how many were shot down.
The biggest danger was the torpedo-carrying planes.
They dropped them about 1,000 yards away
and you could see the tracks coming into you.
We could swing round and sail between them
and you can watch the torpedoes going down each side.
Then you could look back,
watch the torpedo heading for a merchant ship, next thing - blow up.
In the mayhem that followed, three merchant ships were hit.
But three German planes had been shot down, so morale was still good.
I think a lot of us
celebrated the 4th of July because it's our holiday,
and we felt like we were going to make it without any problems.
After that attack our tails were up.
We thought we could get this convoy through. We were quite confident.
But, back in London, there was news from Swedish intelligence
that German surface ships had left their base in Norway
and were on their way to attack the convoy.
And among them was the most feared warship of them all - the Tirpitz.
Now, the warships from PQ17 could deal with most things,
but even if they all joined forces and attacked as one,
they wouldn't be able to deal with Tirpitz.
The most advanced warship the world had ever seen.
Its armour plating was 14 inches thick.
It weighed 43,000 tonnes, and yet it had a top speed of 35mph.
That's faster the jet skis you rent when you're on holiday.
And then there's the weaponry.
It had 12 six-inch guns, 16 four-inch guns,
16 1.5-inch guns, and 58 anti-aircraft guns.
And that's before we get to the piece de resistance.
These are 15-inch guns.
And Tirpitz had eight of them.
The bigger warships from PQ17 could fire a shell this size 16 miles.
Whereas Tirpitz could fire a shell this size 22 miles.
So, before you were close enough to unleash your virtually
harmless pea shooter,
you'd have been blown to kingdom come.
This was a problem for the man in charge of the Royal Navy,
First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.
He'd been a battleship commander in World War I
and had seen action at Jutland.
But now he was nearly 65 and not a well man.
A brain tumour had been diagnosed three years earlier,
and an arthritic hip meant that he was almost permanently
deprived of proper sleep.
And now, here at the Admiralty in London,
he was facing a tricky decision.
If PQ17 turned back, Stalin would be furious,
and worse, Russia could lose the war.
If it kept going and was obliterated,
Russia could still lose the war,
and the Americans would accuse him of recklessness.
Before deciding whether to turn the convoy around
or allow it to continue,
he had to know whether the Swedish intelligence was accurate.
He had to know whether Tirpitz really was out there on the warpath.
So he headed to the bowels of the Admiralty
to see his chief analyst, Norman Denning.
Denning was a brilliant man who had developed an almost sixth sense
for the movements of the German Navy.
Norman reckoned that if Germany really had deployed its largest,
most prized and most powerful military asset, there would be
a huge amount of radio traffic coming from the frozen north.
And there wasn't.
He also noted that no German submarine operating in the area
had been warned to be on the lookout for friendly surface vessels.
And he hadn't heard a squeak from Norwegian resistance.
The hadn't said, "Hey, you know the vast German battleship?
"It's gone missing."
So he told Pound that in his view Tirpitz was not at sea
and was therefore not a threat.
Pound, though, was still not satisfied,
so he called a meeting of the naval top brass.
All except one said the convoy should carry on.
But Pound still wasn't sure.
So, apparently he leant back in his chair and closed his eyes
for such a long time
everyone around the table assumed he'd fallen asleep.
In fact, he was mulling over an idea he'd had,
a new solution to the problem.
A solution that would turn out to be disastrous.
Eventually he opened his eyes and said he'd made up his mind.
Because neither the American nor the British cruisers
were powerful enough to take on the Tirpitz,
they should turn round and come home as quickly as possible.
And so at 11 minutes past nine
on the evening of 4th July,
the following message was sent to the escort ships.
"Most immediate, cruiser force to withdraw to westward at high speed."
This decision to remove the convoy's first line of defence
was a huge shock to the men on the warships.
We were flabbergasted.
We could not understand why.
When the signal came through,
I was on the bridge as First Lieutenant.
The Captain was there.
And we sort of froze with this...
And I'm freezing now, with this...
this dreadful signal.
We sort of held in our hands and couldn't think why
we should be doing this.
It was against every possible principle of convoy safety
and convoy escort.
The order come from the Admiralty.
If you disobey that you're in for the chop, you know.
It's like being forced on you, you know, against your will, like.
But you just had to accept it.
So, the top brass had to decide what to do about the rest of the convoy,
the merchant ships.
And Pound obviously reckoned that if Tirpitz really was out there,
it might be best if there were no convoy at all,
if the ships weren't all bunched up.
So, 12 minutes later, a second message was sent.
"Immediate, owing to threat from surface ships,
"convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports."
Then his second in command said,
"Sir, I think the correct word to use
"when ordering a convoy to disperse is 'scatter.'"
"That's what I meant," said Pound. "I want them to scatter."
So, just 13 minutes after the second signal, a third was transmitted.
"Most immediate," it said, "Convoy is to scatter."
Nobody in this room - nobody - could possibly have known
that the sequence of these messages and the seemingly trivial point
raised in the third one, would have such terrible consequences.
The reference in the second message to surface ships
could only mean one thing -
somewhere out there, Tirpitz was coming.
And because the three messages had arrived in quick succession
and they all featured words like "scatter" and "most immediate"
and "high speed", suggested Tirpitz wasn't just coming,
she was close.
These messages created a sense of panic.
And so the cruisers, the big heavy hitters,
the main defence for the convoy, simply whirled round...
and were gone.
The entire ship's company was very unhappy
that we left those ships to their doom.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr wrote...
"We hate leaving PQ17 behind.
"It looks so helpless now, the ships all going round in circles
"like so many frightened chicks.
"Have the British become gun-shy?
"How can wars be won this way?"
..ours is not to reason why, ours is to do or die.
That's the attitude in...
in the service.
You're given an order and you salute and say, "Yes, sir." And do it.
With the fast, heavy cruisers gone, this man was in charge.
Captain Broome was in command of the convoy's close escort warships,
and he was in a difficult position.
The signals from London had said the cruiser force was to head westwards
and that the merchant ships were to scatter.
But there was no mention of what to do with his destroyers.
He couldn't contact London for clarification,
because if he'd used the radio it would have given away his position.
So he had to make the decision on his own.
And he thought, "Well, if the convoy is scattered,
there's nothing for me to look after any more,
"so I may as well go with the cruisers
"and then at least I'll be on hand if they run into the Tirpitz."
And so with that,
the destroyers whirled round
and they were gone, too.
Things got kind of silent after that.
I don't know what we anticipated might happen,
but we didn't think it was very good news.
So, imagine it.
You're a merchant seaman, you have no military training,
and for reasons you don't understand,
you've been left here alone...
..on a rusting old ship full of explosives.
And your destination is 800 miles away
and you're not really sure how to get there,
because this close to the north pole
your compass doesn't work properly.
Oh, we were we were horrified.
We couldn't understand why
they took all the escort away,
left us defenceless against air attack and submarine attack.
Nobody to help us.
We were all used to following ships. That's what a convoy does.
And the moment we got this scattering order,
it didn't take anyone with the slightest amount of brains
to know that something drastic had happened because all the ships
went in different directions.
And our neat little convoy was finished, was gone.
Now it was just us.
I think everybody retreated to his own thoughts at that point.
Many of them had a pretty good idea
that we didn't have much of a chance.
The convoy seemed to disperse quite quickly.
I never quite know what the difference between
disperse and scatter is.
Anyway, we went to the north
and before long we were almost on our own.
And it was lovely.
In fact, somebody had sunglasses on on the bridge.
I think he thinks it's a summer holiday, you know?
But it was it was peaceful.
The sky was blue.
I thought, "Oh, God, we've left the war behind."
That's what it seemed like.
But it didn't stay that way, did it?
The Germans probably could not believe their luck.
They had 12 U-boats in the area,
133 bombers and a dozen torpedo aircraft.
And so, just a few hours after the scatter order was sent,
the attacks began.
They tackled the Washington first of all. I saw that was on fire.
Then they tackled us, of course, after they'd sunk the Bolton Castle.
That went down almost immediately.
Abandoned by their naval escorts,
the merchant ships were sitting ducks.
The attacks started, one after the other.
It lasted for 48 hours.
Bombers, dive-bombers, U-boats, submarines, the lot.
There were three submarines chasing us on the surface.
We could see them three miles away, and when they submerged,
we knew then they were going to attack us.
We were sunk by a torpedo.
We were looking everywhere at once.
But everywhere we looked it was the same. Just nothing but ocean.
And we never did see a periscope, never saw any sign of anything...
..until the moment it happened.
It was a noise that vibrated through your bones.
A torpedo had broken the ship in half.
This tremendous steel-bodied ship was literally going up in the air,
blown up in the air. Impossible.
Even the waves of the worst storm couldn't have done it.
In the first 24 hours,
12 merchant ships were destroyed.
And the Tirpitz still hadn't arrived.
The situation was so bleak that some of the American crews
were abandoning ship even before they were attacked.
I honestly can't say I blame them,
because for the British sailors the war was very real.
Their families and friends were being bombed back at home.
But for the Americans, many of them were just kids.
It made no sense. As far as they were concerned,
they'd been asked to risk their lives
taking tanks from a country they'd never heard of
to another country they'd never heard of
because a country called Japan
had dropped some bombs on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Why die for that?
Whilst all this was happening,
the men on the retreating warships were beginning to suspect
they were running from a threat that didn't exist.
We were the people who could see what happening in the Arctic
at that moment, and absolutely nothing was happening.
So it was puzzling.
It may have been puzzling for the men in the Arctic,
but back in London it wasn't puzzling at all.
Because code breakers had unravelled a signal the Germans had sent
to their U-boats -
"No own naval forces in the operational area," it read.
This confirmed what intelligence analyst Norman Denning
had suspected - Tirpitz was still at anchor.
She wasn't a threat. The convoy had been abandoned for no reason.
The signal was taken as quickly as possible
to First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound. He read it carefully,
and his response has puzzled historians for the last 70 years.
"We've decided to scatter the convoy,
"and that is how it must stay."
This was a death sentence for the merchantmen.
Over the next 24 hours, the losses continued to mount.
The attacks were relentless.
In the midst of all the chaos,
we find the 42-year-old Royal Navy volunteer reserve officer,
Lieutenant Leo Gradwell.
He was an Oxbridge Classics scholar who could speak six languages,
and had trained in the law.
But his qualifications as a sea captain were rather less impressive.
This is all he had -
a certificate of competence to drive a pleasure yacht in coastal waters.
He was an amateur sailor. But with a mind.
He thought for himself, he didn't completely...
He wasn't the drilled-in army or navy type.
You know, he was a... He was a volunteer.
He was a leader.
He was very much a person that thought about things carefully
and you usually trusted his judgment.
Gradwell was captain of HMS Ayrshire,
one of the few Royal Navy escort vessels
that hadn't been ordered to head for home.
It was just a fishing trawler that had been hastily converted
for anti-submarine duties.
It had a small gun on the forward deck,
and a handful of depth charges on the back.
And that was about it.
So, Gradwell, he's a barrister,
not a trained Arctic naval warfare specialist.
He's on a converted trawler. His crew are mostly fishermen.
And he's being chased, he thinks,
because nobody's thought to tell him otherwise,
by the world's best battleship.
Now, you might imagine he'd find all this a trifle overwhelming.
But during the previous evening's air raid,
this is a man who'd pulled up alongside a neighbouring vessel
and signalled, "Are you happy in the navy?"
He had demonstrated then that he had a calmness under fire.
And that calmness shone through again now.
After providing extra rations of rum and corned beef sandwiches
for his men, Gradwell decided to turn his trawler
into a floating bomb.
He did tell me once about him putting munitions on the front
of the boat, and I was amazed to hear
that he wired together all the depth charges and various other armaments
they had in front of the ship.
And if they managed to get anywhere near the Tirpitz,
which was probably unlikely, but if they did, the idea was to ram it.
He then decided to break his orders.
They said he had to proceed on his own to Archangel. But he thought
"Well, if I'm going to Russia anyway,
"why don't I escort some merchant ships while I'm at it?
"I mean, it may only be an armed trawler,
"but it's better than nothing."
The family story is that they had the order to scatter
and my father thought,
"That's not really very sensible here.
"They can't see what's going on. We could get out of this."
I think in his own mind he would have given himself permission to,
in a way, disobey orders if he thought the order was so bad
and in this case he did think that.
He is a man of distinct principles and he was there to protect
the convoy, and therefore he should stay with the convoy.
Quickly he came across three American merchant vessels
and all agreed to follow the little trawler.
I was on the wheel, steering.
After a while the Captain and the Chief Mate talked,
and so then they had me change course and head towards the ice.
Gradwell's plan was simple.
He'd head north as far as he could get from the German forces,
and then after the fury had died down
he'd head quietly to Archangel in Russia.
Men on the American merchant ships couldn't have known
that Gradwell didn't really have the right charts
for this part of the world
and was having to navigate using a Times Handy Atlas.
How did he do it? How was he navigating with this?
It isn't in it.
He was here when the scatter order came, actually going up there.
And that's what he was using to navigate, that map.
That's all he had.
Eventually, he reached the main Arctic ice shelf.
But instead of stopping, he kept right on going.
The captain of this ship has been sailing in these waters for...
Well, all his life.
He knows all the tricks - we've just hit an iceberg.
He knows all the tricks, he knows to look for dark clouds
because they tend to be above darker, open water.
Paler clouds are above ice.
He looks for something called frost smoke.
Gradwell was coming through here with no experience at all.
Just his coastal waters certificate of competence.
And he was in a trawler, not a purpose built icebreaker.
How would you drive a trawler through this
when you didn't know what you were doing?
I wouldn't drive a trawler through here even if I did think
I was being chased by a battleship.
After 25 miles, though, the ice became impregnable.
So the mini convoy couldn't go any further.
The engines were therefore shut down and an ingenious plan was hatched.
The ice got so thick we couldn't go any further.
A few hours later the captain called us out
and had everybody start painting the ship white.
The bosun started mixing paint and handed out brushes.
Even the cooks were painting.
Ordinary seamen were painting over the side on scaffolds.
And everybody, the cooks and so forth,
were all complaining about overtime.
Which they never got.
I'm sure the reason for painting the ship white
was to blend it in with the ice around us.
I think that probably saved us, because a reconnaissance plane
flew over and we all automatically stopped.
And then after it was gone, we started painting again.
The sailors were then instructed to raid the laundry baskets
for white sheets and tablecloths to cover the decks.
And after the mini convoy was all but invisible,
Gradwell ordered the tanks being carried on the decks
of the merchant ships to be loaded with ammunition.
He then had the guns pointed southwards,
ready to engage any German ship that arrived on the scene.
So, if the German navy did turn up, they'd be in for a big surprise -
tank shells suddenly raining down on them.
And they'd all be sitting there thinking,
"Where the hell did they come from?"
With the ships camouflaged and some encouraging defences in place,
Gradwell and his men sat back to wait.
The First Officer on the Ayrshire then came out onto the ice
and painted a picture of the scene.
And I've got that very picture here now.
It's rather beautiful, I think.
Meanwhile, further south, chaos was reigning.
Since the scatter order was received three days earlier,
20 merchant ships had been lost.
The Hartlebury, however, had been lucky.
This British steamer had managed to avoid the German subs and aircraft.
But her luck was about to run out.
A chap called Needham Forth, I've got a picture of him here,
he was Third Officer on the Hartlebury,
and he wrote a first-hand account of what it was like
for merchant sailors when they were attacked.
Now, I've got that account here, and as you can see,
a lot of it is waterlogged and ruined.
But the passage I need has survived and I've had it transcribed here.
"Tuesday 7th, 5:40pm. Torpedoed.
"Had just relieved Second Mate for tea, walked out on bridge,
"literally walked into torpedo, which exploded immediately below.
"Terrific crash. Everything black."
You might imagine you'd want to clear that from your mind,
but amazingly, even today...
..Needham remembers everything.
Suddenly there was a huge explosion,
and the shock blew me
across the wheelhouse.
And I went sailing through the air.
The most amazing sensation.
I remember looking at the man at the wheel as I went past
and he was equally shocked.
Anyway, I never thought of the landing.
I must have been all right. I crash landed.
"Crawled through wheelhouse, which was deserted
"and washing with water,
"got on other side just as second torpedo exploded."
And then it was abandon ship all around, you know?
The Second Officer Spence and I,
both decided to go for this one lifeboat.
And I was ahead of him and there was no ladder to the lifeboat
or anything, the only thing was the bowline.
And I'm not very good on rope...
..but fear makes you do funny things,
and I went straight and grabbed the bowline
and shimmied down into the boat.
And I turned round, thinking Spence was going to follow me.
But he hesitated there.
I suppose he was waiting for me to get off the bowline.
And at that moment somebody slipped it.
we shot away and left him.
"Was horrified to see Second Mate still on board.
"Had taken off his coat,
"life jacket and apparently resigned himself to his fate."
He gave us a wave.
He'd gone back on board
and he was on the boat deck
as she went down.
And he went down without a struggle, you might say.
Maybe he thought he could swim clear.
But he didn't.
"What a tragedy, only just married."
The lifeboat was flooded,
so we were sitting there up to our waists, at least.
There was a little Icelandic fireman.
He helped us an awful lot baling out,
and then suddenly he jumped up,
leapt over the side and swam away.
We never saw him again.
And another bloke in the boat, he started...
He started trying to swallow water
before he was dead.
You know, before...
He was shoving his face in the water
as though he was trying to kill himself.
Funny things happened.
And then we all started to die.
"First fireman Hutchinson,
"the mess boy AB Clarke,
"the 16-year-old cabin boy, then AB Dixon.
"These were dead inside two hours,
"and by midnight, Chief and two stewards,
"Cook, Gunner, Jenson, had also gone."
A couple of us tried to get oars out,
but she was far too heavy to handle...
..with that water and all those men.
We couldn't get her head on
to the waves, you know?
So the only thing we could do was get rid of the bodies
to lighten the boat.
So this young steward, he and I...
..just chucked them overboard.
No sentiment, no nothing, just fear.
Hope they were dead.
20 men had made it into that lifeboat, only four survived.
"What a tragedy.
"Only 13 miles off the land."
13 miles, that's...
The land over there's only 13 miles away.
They were dying within sight of land.
The land in question was Novaya Zemlya, a bleak,
almost completely uninhabited island 300 miles from the coast of Russia.
Strong currents meant that many of PQ17's survivors ended up here,
some arriving on lifeboats and rafts,
some on their battered and burned merchant ships.
I think when we think of being shipwrecked
we tend to think of a beach, a warm lagoon full of fish,
coconuts. Not this.
Sanctuary in a place like this...
..that must have felt like no kind of sanctuary at all.
No vegetation. Minus 30 degrees.
The only crumb of comfort they had
was the beach was littered with driftwood, which they could burn.
That way they could stay warm
and they could cook some of the sea birds they'd caught.
God, it's cold.
We thought we were going to have lovely roast birds, and so...
Somebody had some matches and we lit this,
we had a bonfire on the beach, only a small fire,
and we made bird stew, sea birds.
But they also... A few feathers went in as well.
I don't think we bothered too much about them.
But they were so salty.
An old bone, if you were eating it,
you think it's like eating a sardine.
There's no flesh on them at all, you know, it's...
Anyway, they were food.
Meanwhile, up in the icepack, a blanket of fog had arrived.
Perfect cover for Leo Gradwell and his white-painted mini convoy
to make their escape.
Although he only had his Times Handy Atlas for navigation,
he arrived on Novaya Zemlya on July 9th,
and immediately ran into yet another problem.
The American merchant ship captain's announced that,
because they'd reached Russian soil, their job was done,
so that's brilliant and can we go home now?
So Gradwell had to use all the skills he'd learned as a barrister
to convince them that delivering the tanks and the guns and the planes
to an uninhabited island in the Arctic Circle was no use
and that they had to keep going to Archangel.
The Americans weren't very keen on this idea at all.
Gradwell said they were showing unmistakable signs of strain,
and there was even talk of them scuttling their ships.
He had to talk them out of that
and help refloat them when they "accidentally" ran aground.
He was determined to reach Archangel,
and finally the Americans were brought back into line.
It's easy to see, though, why they were so reluctant.
To get from Novaya Zemlya to Archangel,
you have to sail through this passage,
which, at its narrowest point, is only 20 miles across.
That makes it an ideal hunting ground for U-boats.
Plus, it's only 30 minutes flying time
from a German bomber base in Norway.
Other PQ17 survivors were attempting the same thing,
and for the Germans they were easy prey.
There were four or five planes at a time,
and they weren't very high,
because you could see the bomb bay doors open.
You can watch it open and you can watch the bombs start to come out.
And they dropped those bombs and then they would fly off.
Another plane would come along, do the same thing.
They actually posted lookouts on the deck to watch for incoming bombs,
and then they would signal to the bridge, saying,
"Go starboard, go starboard! Go port, port!"
The captain was watching the planes. and had his feet up on the rail.
And he watches, the bombs came out, and said, "Go right."
Or whatever he said. Dodging the bomb.
The engines were screaming and the ships were zigzagging frantically.
But the truth of the matter is,
an old cargo ship can neither outrun
nor out-manoeuvre a Heinkel bomber.
Three more merchantmen were hit in this narrow channel,
and it really did look like the Germans would do exactly
what they said they'd do -
sink every single ship that had sailed with PQ17.
In Archangel, the Russians waited for their supplies.
The convoy was more than two weeks overdue,
and it must have seemed like nothing was going to get through at all.
But Leo Gradwell,
armed with his duffel coat and his Times Handy Atlas,
did just that.
And on the morning of July 25th
he arrived here in the port of Archangel
on his little white trawler
with the three American cargo ships still under his protective wing.
His little mini convoy had made it.
And even he must have recognised that that was
a fantastic achievement,
because, while he was holed up here, he wrote a letter to his mother.
I've got a copy of it.
"My dearest mother, I've had the worst month of my life.
"I can't tell you anything, of course,
"except that I've had my one big opportunity in this war
"and that everyone is being very nice about it."
And it really was everyone.
The most senior British officer in the region sent
"Congratulations and thanks."
While the Soviet commander-in-chief wrote,
"Please convey to Lieutenant Gradwell and the crew of his ship
"my gratitude and delight at their work."
The American master of the Silver Sword,
a ship in Gradwell's mini convoy, simply states,
"The services of this little ship and the officers were invaluable.
"I do not know how we could ever have reached Archangel
"without their aid."
Gradwell was awarded the DSC for his actions.
Some say he would have got the higher DSO
had be not disobeyed orders.
After the war, he went back into the law, and in 1963
presided over the sex scandal case
involving Christine Keeler and John Profumo.
He died in 1969, aged 70.
Gradwell's triumphant story, though, was unusual,
because PQ17 had been a catastrophe.
Of the 35 merchant ships which left Iceland,
24 were sunk and went to the bottom taking with them
210 planes, 430 tanks,
100,000 tons of munitions and raw materials,
and 153 men.
Churchill called it one of the most
melancholy naval episodes of the entire war.
Stalin had rather stronger views.
He said the decision to turn back the warships was
"difficult to understand or explain."
And, frankly, he does have a point.
The Admiralty sent that convoy out with...
presumably with the intention of it getting there.
And the knowledge also that Tirpitz was in north Norway
and therefore might come out and presumably the understanding
that then we would have to fight it,
even though it was perhaps a hopeless fight
but at least that convoy would be fought through.
Scattering was almost a guarantee of disaster.
So, in the prospect of facing a possible disaster,
you scatter, you're guaranteeing a disaster.
I'd like to think that I was wrong, but I don't think I am.
The Admiralty made a muck-up of it.
All those ships.
Over the years the arguments have raged over who was to blame
for the PQ17 disaster.
But when you read all there is to read,
the fault must lie with this man, Sir Dudley Pound,
who died of his brain tumour just over a year later,
having never satisfactorily explained his actions.
All these merchant seamen, all killed. Ships sank.
All because we walked out and left them.
We were charged with doing our best for that convoy
and we were told to leave it.
I still grieve, truly, on July 4th.
That's all I can really say.
The Admiralty never repeated the mistake of PQ17
and continued with the conveyor belt of Arctic convoys
until the end of the war.
They delivered almost four million tonnes of supplies to the Russians
at a cost of 105 ships and nearly 3,000 lives.
It was a good thing to do, wasn't it?
Yes. Yes, it was our duty to do it and we didn't shirk from it.
Since the war, Russia has been good at celebrating the Arctic convoys.
There have been medals and ceremonies for those who lived,
and the graves for those who died are well tended.
But in Britain, things have been rather different
for the men and boys who made what was unquestionably
the worst journey in the world,
because all they ever got was a lapel pin.
Happily, though, in March 2013
all those who served were finally awarded a proper campaign medal -
the Arctic Star.
I hate to have to say this, but about bloody time.
Jeremy Clarkson tells the dramatic story of the Arctic convoys of the Second World War, from Russia to the freezing Arctic Ocean.
Accompanied by moving first hand testimony from the men who served on these convoys, Clarkson reveals the incredible hazards faced by members of the Merchant and Royal Navy who delivered vital war supplies via the Arctic to the Soviet Union: temperatures of minus 50 degrees, huge icebergs, colossal waves, not to mention German U-boats and the Luftwaffe. It is no wonder that Churchill described the Arctic Convoys as 'the worst journey in the world.'
Between 1941 and 1945, more than 70 convoys delivered 4 million tonnes of material to the USSR, yet one convoy in partiuclar would come to symbolise the dangers faced by the men who served on them. Codenamed PQ17, this convoy of 35 merchant ships would be described by Churchill as one of the most melancholy naval episodes of the war.
Retracing the route of PQ17 from the Arctic to the Russian winter port of Archangel, Clarkson reveals how, on the night of July 4th 1942, this joint Anglo-American convoy became one of the biggest naval disasters of the 20th century. To make matters worse, the cause of the disaster lay not in the brutal conditions of the Arctic, or the military might of the Germans, but a misjudgement made in the corridors of the Admiralty in London.