Source: The Sunday Times: Captain S.W. Roskill D.S.C., R.N.


On Thursday the 22nd of May 2003 the National Archives at Kew, London released declassified material implicating MI5 in what was probably one of Britain’s worst Naval disasters of the Second World War. Also released was the name of the agent who acted on behalf of the secret service, Ib Arnason Riis, an Icelander who was codenamed Cobweb.

PQ 17 had sailed from Iceland on the 27th of June 1942 bound for Murmansk and comprised 35 (Capt Roskill declares there were in fact 36 ships) merchant ships accompanied by their escorts, however what none of the seamen knew, whether Merchantmen or Escortmen aboard the vessels was that they were in fact bait to lure out of her safe haven the German Pocket Battleship ‘Tirpitz’.


Early signs had been detected that the German Navy and the Luftwaffe were massing to attack the convoys once they had reached the Barents Sea. Admiral Tovey, Commander in Chief had expressed his fears to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound, declaring that in his opinion it would be far safer if the valuable convoy were split into two parts thus making it easier to defend, Tovey was overruled and to add to his consternation he was informed that should the situation with the convoy become critical it was going to be ordered to scatter, contrary to all previous instructions. The convoy comprised 22 American ships, 8 British, 2 Russian, 2 Panamanian and one Dutch and were initially escorted by six destroyers, four corvettes, four armed trawlers, three minesweepers, two submarines and two anti aircraft auxiliary ships. Further to the convoys normal escort were added, Rear Admiral L.H.K. Hamilton’s squadron which comprised four heavy cruisers of which two were American, and three destroyers and under Tovey’s command the Home Fleet made up of battleships Duke of York and Washington (USN), aircraft carrier Victorious, cruisers Nigeria and Cumberland and fourteen destroyers.

Armed Trawler that formed part of PQ17’s escort.

At only one other time has a convoy been so well protected, in fact the one that comes closest in merchant ship/escort vessel terms must be the Malta convoy ‘Pedestal’ but one must also bear in mind that some of the aircraft were intended to fly off their carriers and head for Malta, it was also hoped to entice the Italian Fleet out of harbour.

The inclusion of the aircraft carrier Victorious amongst the escorts according to German sources should have been sufficient to keep Germany’s heavy ships in port and Hitler had informed Admiral Raeder to that effect. However Raeder had ordered his Narvik and Trondheim squadrons north as soon as he learnt that PQ 17 had sailed, during this manoeuvre the Lutzow and three destroyers ran aground when departing Narvik. Within hours of their departure it became apparent to the Admiralty that not only had these two squadrons sailed but on the 4th of July Tirpitz had joined Hipper and Scheer at Altenfjord. By this time the convoy had made excellent progress and had passed to the north of Bear Island, however in doing so the convoy had lost three merchant ships due to intense air attacks.


Until 2003 the belief of events, which follow, were always viewed by some historians as highly suspicious and it would appear that their assertions at the time were justified and that the Admiralty and Government of the time both lied. The Admiralty claimed that on discovering the whereabouts of Tirpitz, Hipper and Scheer they ordered Admiral Hamilton’s cruisers to the west, by design he also took the convoys destroyers as well leaving the convoy with only a few anti aircraft ships, corvettes and armed trawlers to defend the merchantmen. The claimed sequence of events were that at 2111 Hrs the escorts were to steam west, at 2123 Hrs the convoy was to scatter and proceed to ports in Russia and finally at 2136 Hrs the second message was repeated but headed “Most Immediate”. At the time the removal of the escorts were said to have been a serious error of judgement, in fact the information recently released paints a very different picture and the following extract is taken from ‘The Sunday Times’ dated May 25th 2003.

Historians of the Arctic convoys, a lifeline from Britain to its Soviet allies, said this weekend that the MI5 file confirmed a long held suspicion among seamen on the convey that their shipmates had been sacrificed. “During my research, a lot of people said they thought the convoy was used as a lure. They were trying to get the Tirpitz out so that they could hit her,” said Richard Woodman, author of Arctic Convoys. “When I asked Lord Lewin, he denied the convoy had been used as a lure, but the look he gave me indicated otherwise.” Lewin, chief of defence staff during the Falklands war and a veteran of the Arctic run, died in 1999.

The ships were dispatched by the American and British navies under pressure from Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. president, for aid to be sent to support the beleaguered Soviet armies.

The biggest threat to the warships guarding the convoy was the 50,000 ton Tirpitz, which was anchored in a Norwegian fjord from where it could menace the Arctic shipping routes with its eight fifteen inch guns. The file reveals how Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, enlisted M15’s help to give the Tirpitz early warning of the convoy so that she would sail to confront it. PQ17, with only light escort ships, would retreat towards Iceland, where Tovey would be waiting with a full force of battleships, cruisers and the aircraft carrier Victorious.

A second, dummy fleet was to sail simultaneously from Scapa Flow in Orkney to give the impression of an impending British attack on Tirpitz’s anchorage. Riis, an Icelandic seaman had been captured by the Germans in Denmark and sent back to Iceland to spy on allied shipping. He immediately volunteered to work for Britain, however news of PQ17’s departure was transmitted by Riis to the Germans, who dispatched the Tirpitz with a strong task force from Altafjord, near Trondheim, in an operation codenamed Rosselsprung (Knights Move).

The Germans, however, ignored, or failed to spot, the dummy fleet from Scapa Flow and apparently possessed intelligence material that made them apprehensive about the strength of the convoy’s protection. The Tirpitz soon went back to port and the convoy sailed beyond the protection of the main fleet in Tovey’s trap. Convinced that an attack from Tirpitz was imminent, the First Sea Lord in London, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, ordered the convoy to scatter. Disaster followed, as the merchant ships, bereft of escorts and sailing at just eight knots towards Archangel on the north Russian coast, came under attack from U Boats and aircraft. Two thirds of the ships were lost and 153 men died. The file reveals how M15 believed Riis might have tipped the enemy off. He is described as “probably not so anti Nazi as us”.


The file also reveals how Riis was suspected by R J Reed, his British handler of betraying the plan by passing on too much information to the Germans. Officials in London later asked Reed how the enemy had obtained three vital pieces of information about the convoy when Riis had been ordered to leak only one item. Reed later told Riis that he had a telegram from London making inquires about the queer things, which had been said in plain language during his transmission, wrote Reed in the file.

Riis who is now 88 years of age and living in Pacifica, California reacted angrily when informed of the files release declaring, “The British can’t pin the blame on me. I had no idea what was in that message. Normally when I got the information I would code the telegram myself, but this time it was already coded and I had no idea what it was. I would have protested if I had known. It sacrificed so many ships and lives.”

The table of losses occasioned by the sinking of twenty-four ships from PQ17.

Loaded 156,492 tons, Lost 99,316 tons
Loaded 594 tanks, Lost 430.
Loaded 297 aircraft, Lost 210.
Loaded 4,246 vehicles, Lost 3,350.

I leave the final word to a Royal Navy Officer serving onboard HMS Norfolk at the time: “At 26 knots the four cruisers and all the destroyers swept close past the convoy. Our last sight of the merchantmen showed them slowly opening out and separating. The effect on the ships company was devastating. Twenty-four hours earlier there had been only one thought—that at last we were going to bring enemy surface ships to action. I had never known the men in such good heart…Then in the space of a few hours we abandoned our aircraft (which had just been flown off to reconnoitre to the east) and its crew, and we abandoned the convoy. The ship was in turmoil: everyone was boiling, and the Master at Arms told me he had never known such strong feelings before…It was the blackest day we ever knew—sheer bloody murder.”