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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : PQ17

27 June to 4 July 1942

Location: Arctic Ocean, near Spitzbergen, Norway.
Outcome: Only 11 of the original 37 merchant ships reached their destination, 153 seamen died, and precious supplies were lost including an estimated 3,850 vehicles, 430 tanks and 2,500 aircraft.

The Arctic convoy PQ17 sailed from Iceland on 27 June 1942, guarding supplies destined for Russia. The supplies were essential to support the Red Army in the battle against the German forces who had invaded the previous year. The convoys constantly faced threat and those who took part became familiar with mountainous seas, biting cold and the continual fear of attack by air or sea.

When PQ17 sailed in July 1942, it was thought by the Admiralty that the convoy faced imminent attack from four battleships: the 42,000-ton Tirpitz, the cruisers Hipper and possibly Admiral Scheer, along with the pocket battleship Lützow. Ultra intelligence could not prove this, but had suggested that the four ships were gathered at Altenfjord, Norway, poised for attack.

A series of signals were issued on 4 July, culminating in the order from First Sea Lord Admiral Pound for PQ17 to 'scatter'. Believing that they were steaming to intercept a bigger force in order to protect the convoy, the British destroyers and cruisers headed west.

However, the threat did not materialise and the merchant ships came under U-boat and air attack. Only 11 of the original 37 merchant ships reached their destination, 153 seamen died, and precious supplies were lost. The recriminations reverberated for many months.

The Tirpitz force sailed on 5 July but was recalled as their work had already been done.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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