RFA Aldersdale on the Convoy from Hell

The wartime Convoys to Russia started in August 1941 after the German invasion of that country and began with Operation Dervish, Gauntlet and Strength, the first of the famous PQ series of Convoys sailed in September of 1941.  It is reputed that the designation for this series of Convoys came from the initials of Commander P. Q. Edwards, who was responsible for the planning of these early operations.



The outbound convoys were designated PQ, with the returning convoys designated QP, this series continued until late 1942 and were succeeded by the JW and RA series until the last Russian Convoy, RA 66 which sailed from Kola Inlet on the 29 April 1945.

RFA oilers took part in 24 of the Arctic Convoys, though only two of our ships were lost RFA Gray Ranger on QP 14 and RFA Aldersdale on PQ 17, the latter was the Convoy that was the most notorious of the whole series and came to be known as “The Convoy from hell”. This is the story of that Convoy and the part played by RFA Aldersdale.




RFA Aldersdale


Long before PQ 17 sailed for Russia a plan was being formulated by the Admiralty to try and lure German capital ships out of their base in Norway in an attempt to destroy them and remove the threat to the supply chain to our Russian ally.


Convoy PQ-17 map 1942


Convoy PQ 17


This plan involved an Icelandic seaman who had been captured by the Germans in Denmark, and subsequently was trained by the Abwehr as a spy and taught to use a radio transmitter, principally to spy on and report the movement of allied shipping in and around Iceland.

The man was taken by U Boat to Iceland by his German handlers. He was put ashore, where he quickly contacted the British Authorities and was recruited as a double-agent with the codename ‘Cobweb’.

The plan to lure the German fleet out of its Norwegian Base was conceived by the Commander in Chief Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the bait was to be the ships of Convoy PQ 17.   Unfortunately the plan though well conceived soon went horribly wrong.

The Double Agent ‘Cobweb’ was given the code name Land Spider.  For this operation, he was instructed to feed false information to his German masters that a convoy was assembling in Iceland with another at Scapa Flow. These two Convoys were embarking troops for a proposed landing on the Norwegian Coast.  The Convoy assembling at Scapa Flow was a dummy intended to fool German reconnaissance.

Land Spider was to broadcast the movements of the Icelandic Convoy twice a day, using messages made up by his British handlers, but there was a suspicion that he passed on more information than he was actually given.

One of the ships assigned to this Convoy was the “Dale” class oiler RFA Aldersdale, who had already taken part in two Arctic Convoys as a Convoy Escort Oiler and had successfully replenished warships at sea using the stern method with copper hoses, but in the sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic waters in winter were found to be totally unsuitable, Summer sea temperatures are not too bad there.

As a consequence prior to the ship sailing for Iceland where she arrived on the 24/25th April 1942, the copper fuelling hoses were replaced with rubber ones which were also a lot easier to handle and deploy.  One of the first duties for Aldersdale whilst she was based at Seidisfjord, Iceland was as a guard ship across the harbour entrance to hamper U Boats, as HMS Sheffield had been hit by a torpedo along the coast.  Aldersdale was to be based in Icelandic waters for some time.

Whilst at Seidisfjord the weather was quite warm, sometimes in the 60’s and the crew got a little warm, on one occasioned the First Radio Officer, a man named Harris decided to go for a swim and  jumped in the water from the gangway pontoon.  Almost immediately he dragged himself back on to the pontoon in a state of near collapse.  Despite clear blue skies and temperatures in the 60’s. The water was freezing. Harris was indeed lucky to have survived his swim as a few more seconds in the water would have been fatal.

Whilst the ships of the convoy began to gather a force was forming in Norway.   Two groups of German surface ships were receiving orders to sink the convoy.  They would be bolstered by U Boats and aircraft to cause as much damage as possible to the allied war effort.  The operation was code named “Rosselsprung” or “Knight’s Move” and involved the battleships Tirpitz (8 x 15 inch guns) under the command of Admiral Otto S. Schniewind, with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper (8 x 8 inch guns) and a small group of destroyers, based at Trondheim and the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lutzow (6 x 11 inch guns) under the command of Vice Admiral Oskar Kummetz, and six destroyers based at Narvik.  The bait laid by Land Spider had been taken.

The German plan also envisaged line of eight U Boats stretching from Norway to Jan Mayen Island; this ‘Wolfpack’ was codenamed “Eisteufel” or “Ice Devil”.  Another group of three U Boats in the Denmark Strait positioned to warn the German Fleet when the convoy was approaching.  The whole of the operation was commanded by Adolf Hitler and each stage of the operation was only allowed to proceed on his specific orders, which somewhat hampered things.

RFA Aldersdale sailed from Seidisfjord to Hvalfjord to refuel an Aircraft carrier in the middle of June 1942 and after completing this she sailed for Reykjavik to join the assembled Convoy PQ 17.  The final departure of the convoy took place on the 27th June, destination Archangel, Russia.

Soon after the convoy left RFA Gray Ranger, which was one of the two escort oilers struck an iceberg and sustained damage to her bow, the ship was forced to return to Iceland and her duties were taken up by Aldersdale.  It was around this time that an enemy aircraft was detected in the distance; obviously it was a reconnaissance aircraft reporting on the convoy’s movements.  Warning of the convoy’s approach had also been signalled on the 1st July from the U 456 of the Eistefel group as the convoy passed Jan Mayen Island and was approaching the returning QP 13 convoy.  Not long after this the PQ 17 started to come under attack by German long range aircraft and U Boats whose job was made easier by the calm seas and clear blue skies.

The convoy had an immediate escort of six destroyers, three corvettes, 4 minesweepers, 4 trawlers and 2 submarines with 3 Rescue ships and 2 Anti Aircraft Ships.  Close cover was provided by a force of 4 Heavy Cruisers and 4 Destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Louis H. K. Hamilton.  This cover was placed at some distance from the convoy whilst a full Battle group was following on behind in the hope that Tirpitz and her battle group would be drawn out of their hiding place in Norway.  This Heavy Battle group consisted of 2 Battleships, HM Duke of York and USS Washington with the Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious, 2 Cruisers and up to 12 Destroyers in support were intended to deal with the Tirpitz threat.




HMS Duke of York


HMS Illustrious

The enemy planes which were of three types He 115’s of K 406, JU 88’s of II/KG 30 and He III’s of I/KG 26 which continued to harass the convoy.   Aldersdale experienced many bombing attacks, which she evaded due to her good turn of speed and the efficiency of her gun crews.   The ship was armed with a 4” HA/LA gun, 2 x 20mm Oerlikon guns and 2 x Hotchkiss machine guns the latter proving to be somewhat unreliable.




HE 111

One of the Oerlikon gunners was a member of the ship’s crew from Newcastle, who zealously looked after his gun, often polishing it and making sure it was kept well oiled and in perfect working order.  Oerlikons were able to traverse through 360 degrees, at the first sight of an enemy aircraft, this ‘Geordie’ gunner would fire indiscriminately at the marauding enemy.  Unfortunately his ministrations with this weapon was sometimes to the detriment of his ship mates, as he is credited with putting shell holes in the funnel, bridge wing and the foremast.

Because the decisions to move the German surface fleets rested with Hitler, no orders were given to the waiting capital ships until the 2nd July, on that day Tirpitz and her group left Trondheim at 20:00 hrs, whilst the Lutzow and her group left Narvik at around midday the following day.  The separate groups sailed through the Leads, the channel between the Norwegian Islands and the main Coast to avoid detection, however three of the destroyers with Tirpitz ran aground and had to return to port, whilst Tirpitz and Hipper with only one destroyer arrived off Vestfjord on the 3rd July and at Altenfjord the following day.  The Germans problems were far from over, as Lutzow had also ran aground, this time in Tjel Sund and the ship was also forced to return, by now the German surface fleet was severely depleted.

RFA Aldersdale commenced replenishment operations on the 1st July and continued practically continuously from 06:06 hrs until 23:00 hrs and from 14:50 hrs on the 3rd until 06:25 hrs on the 4th July, during this period six different ships were refuelled.  Unlike modern operations almost the entire crew was involved as lower decks needed to be cleared so that defensive armament was manned throughout the fuelling operation.

The first of the convoy casualties were sunk on the 4th July 1942, these were the American cargo ships Christopher Newport and William Hopper.  The Christopher Newport was hit by a torpedo dropped from a German He115 aircraft, the explosion severely damaged the engine room and the ship veered across the convoy lines before being brought to a stop   By this time the crew were abandoning ship, and as the floating wreck posed something of a danger to the rest of the convoy and was torpedoed by the British submarine P 614.  Despite this the Hopper managed to stay afloat until discovered by the German U 457 who despatched the hulk with a single torpedo.




Convoy under attack




German submarine U457


Later that day the William Hopper was also hit by a torpedo launched from a German aircraft, this time from a He111, again the ship was badly damaged and had to be abandoned, the floating wreck was then shelled by one of the escorts and like the Christopher Newport remained afloat, she was located by U 334 later that night, the U Boat fired one torpedo at the ship which failed to explode, she then fired a second which missed its target, the ship was then shelled and sank.

The German Battle Fleet had been sighted by the Russian Submarine K 21 (Commander N. A. Lunin), on the 4th July, who immediately communicated the sighting and about an hour later another sighting was made by a single Catalina from 210 squadron RAF.  The plan had worked and the German fleet had been lured out of their hiding places in Norway.  Both of these sightings were quickly communicated to the Admiralty in London.

At around 21:11 hrs on the 4th July the Admiralty signalled Admiral Hamilton, flag officer commanding the Cruiser squadron that his force was to withdraw to the West at high speed. By 21:23 hrs Admiral Hamilton had received another signal, this one marked “Most Urgent” which instructed him to order the Convoy to ‘Scatter’ as it was though at the time that an attack from the Tirpitz battle group was imminent.

RFA Aldersdale intercepted a signal at around 21:40 hrs instructing the convoy to scatter, and the ship hauled out of her line as the convoy escorts steamed away over the horizon leaving a few small ships to protect the remaining merchantmen.

The convoy remained under constant attack by both enemy aircraft and U Boats, and on the 5th July, just after 14:30 hrs RFA Aldersdale spotted HMS Salamander and decided to keep up with her.  At around 15:10 hrs the lookouts spotted a group of four enemy aircraft approaching from astern and all guns were manned and ready as the aircraft started to circle.  Suddenly two of the aircraft broke away from the formation and started a run in from the stern, all of the ships armament opened up on these two planes, even the Master of the Aldersdale, Captain Archibald Hobson joined in, firing one of the bridge Hotchkiss machine guns at the enemy, whilst resting the weapon on the shoulders of a signalman.

One of the two enemy planes dropped down to low level and commenced to press home his attack, dropping three bombs which exploded under the ship and causing extensive damage to the engine room, boiler room and the after pump room, totally disabling the engines and breaching the hull in the engine room.

Due to the damage caused to the engine and the fact that she was stopped and making water and the proximity of the enemy aircraft the Master gave the order to abandon ship. This was carried out in good order with the crew getting away from the ship in three of the lifeboats.  The crew quickly started rowing toward HMS Salamander who was about two miles to the South as this ship made its way to the stricken Aldersdale to pick up the survivors; luckily there had been no casualties.

Captain Hobson consulted with the Captain of HMS Salamander (Lt W. R. Muttram), and it was decided that the minesweeper would go alongside the stricken oiler to see if the ship could be towed.  A group of volunteers from amongst Aldersdale’s crew then went back aboard to make a rapid survey of the damage to the ship, they quickly decided that the ship was too badly damaged to tow and the volunteers returned to HMS Salamander. Following the boarding it was then decided to try and sink the hulk and an attempt was made with gunfire and depth charges but the ship remained afloat.

HMS Salamander’s commanding officer had by this time decided it was time to proceed as enemy units were still operational in the area, and when last seen RFA Aldersdale seemed to be quickly settling by the stern.

At 11:40 hrs on the 7th July the drifting wreck was spotted by U 457 (Fregattenkapitan Karl Brandenburg) the U boat surfaced and proceeded to sink Aldersdale with the submarines 88mm gun which fired 38 high explosive shells into the ship along with 37 incendiary shells, as well as the 20mm gun which fired 40 rounds into the wreck.



Fregattenkapitan Karl Brandenburg

At 14:56 hrs U 457 then fired a torpedo into the ship which broke in two and sank within twenty minutes in position 75N 45E.

Whilst this was occurring, the German fleet under Admiral Schneiwind on board Tirpitz was still steaming along the Norwegian coast, even though they had been spotted by allied planes and submarines.  Admiral Schniewind requested permission to engage the British Fleet, but because the request had to be approved by Adolf Hitler personally, a reply was not received until 15:00 hrs on the 5th July.   But even the permission contained a clause, the German fleet was not allowed to engage British capital ships as Hitler had no intention of allowing Tirpitz or her battle group to be sunk or damaged.

The U Boats were instructed to withdraw to leave a clear field for Admiral Schniewind’s Group, instead the U Boats were instructed to find and sink ships of the allied fleet, especially the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious.  However the sighting reports relayed to the allies had also been intercepted by German Intelligence and reported to Grand Admiral Raeder, who became concerned that his fleet were sailing into a carefully laid allied trap.


Grand Admiral Erich Raeder 

The Tirpitz battle group, which had only been at sea for six hours, was immediately ordered to withdraw.




Tirpitz firing broadside



The Allied fleet was withdrawn from protecting PQ 17 to hunt for the Tirpitz Battle group, which in turn had been withdrawn because the German High Command feared a trap and the merchantmen of Convoy PQ 17 were therefore left to more or less fend for themselves against waves of Luftwaffe aircraft and a U Boat threat that claimed another twenty ships, by far the biggest loss of any of the Arctic Convoys.

HMS Salamander eventually reached the Russian port of Archangel where she was greeted by an old wood burning frigate.  The survivors from RFA Aldersdale were taken ashore and berthed in a local hospital, where they found that some of the beds they were allocated still had blood stains on them from previous occupants.  The food was atrocious, for breakfast they were given a sort of porridge, sometimes this had a sort of gravy on it and reputedly tasted vile.  Sometimes they had meat, but this was either whale meat or Yak meat which was full of gristle.  In the evening the meal consisted of black bread, occasionally served with butter or cheese and if they were lucky a bottle of local beer.

Even in Russia, where the survivors were to remain for three months they came under constant bombing from the Germans and if this wasn’t bad enough they were constantly watched by the Russian Secret Service.  Eventually the survivors were moved out of the hospital as it was needed for those wounded in the bombing raids, they were taken to a hotel and had to sleep six to a room, in beds infested with bed bugs.

On landing at Archangel everyone had to go into a cleansing station as the Russians had considerable concern regarding Typhus at the time and consequently had to go through a cleansing station immediately after landing.  The men had to go into the room six at a time, strip completely, placing all clothes on a trestle table in the middle of the room, they were the taken to another room where they were showered and washed down with a evil fish smelling soap.  After being washed the men were issued with Russian pyjamas which they wore at all times, until a week before they were repatriated when they were allowed back in to the Cleansing Station to try and retrieve their own clothes.

A number of awards were made to crew members of RFA Aldersdale, principally for the continuous fuelling operation undertaken by the oiler, prior to her loss and reflected the essential part the ship took in keeping the escorts going in very difficult circumstances.  The awards were:


Distinguished Service Cross

Captain Archibald L. Hobson RFA

Chief Officer Griffiths Owain Wynn Gow RFA

Chief Engineer Officer William John Brown RFA


Distinguished Service Medal

Boatswain Dennis Vance

Pumpman Kenneth Richardson


All of these awards were gazetted in London on the 22nd December 1942.