On 27 June 1942, convoy PQ17 set sail from Hvalfjord in Iceland for the Russian port of Archangel. The convoy comprised 35 merchant ships and a close escort of destroyers, submarines, smaller craft and two anti-aircraft ships, one of which, HMS Palomares, was commanded by my grandfather, Jack Jauncey. The convoy was also covered, at a distance, by four cruisers and four destroyers.
Four days out from Hvalfjord, the convoy was located by the Germans who began to shadow and harass it with aircraft and U-boats as it steamed north. Despite the defensive efforts of the escort, two merchantmen were sunk and their surviving crew picked up by the convoy’s rescue ships.
Three days later, the Admiralty received information that a force of German surface ships, including the battleship Tirpitz, was about to sail from the Norwegian port of Trondheim and an attack on the convoy was imminent. This later proved to be a false alarm, but the Admiralty was being more than usually cautious because PQ17 was the war’s first joint Anglo-American operation under British command, and the convoy included a number of American merchantmen, known as Liberty ships.
In the evening of 4 July, the cruiser squadron received an urgent order from the Admiralty to abandon the convoy in order to intercept the anticipated German attack. The escorting destroyers were ordered to go with them. Then, a few minutes later, came the order that every merchant seaman dreaded: the convoy was to scatter, which meant that each merchant ship was now to find its own way to port in Russia.
This left Grampa Jauncey in Palomares, with one other anti-aircraft ship and a handful of other smaller naval vessels, as the senior officer in command of what remained of the hopelessly inadequate escort. By the following evening, 5 July, six merchantmen had been sunk by the Luftwaffe and a further six by U-boats.
Merchant Navy radio channels reverberated with desperate messages of being attacked by squadrons of aircraft, of being on fire in the ice, of a pack of U-boats approaching on the surface, of abandoning ship. Some of the surviving crews were rescued; others were not so lucky and spent days of terrible hardship in their ships’ lifeboats before reaching the Norwegian coast and immediate internment by the Germans.
Over the next five days further merchantmen were picked off one by one as the escort did what it could to repel aircraft and U-boat attacks on the widely scattered convoy in the 24-hour daylight of mid-summer. Palomares eventually made it to the safety of the Matochkin Strait, in Nova Zemlaya, 500 miles north of Archangel, and was joined there by other surviving ships which she later led south, under heavy air attack, to Archangel. Two of the five merchant ships in this convoy were sunk en route.
Of the 35 merchantmen that sailed from Iceland in PQ17, only 11 made it to Russia. 153 merchant seamen were lost, along with 130,000 tons of the original 200,000 tons of supplies. Grampa Jauncey received the DSO for ‘bravery and resolution while taking a convoy to North Russia in the face of relentless attack by enemy aircraft and submarines.’
PQ17 accounted for almost half of all the losses suffered during the 40 Arctic convoys of the war. The order to scatter remains controversial and is deemed by most to have been misguided and catastrophic, not least for Anglo-American relations. A number of books have been written on the subject, including The Destruction of Convoy PQ17 by David Irving, in which he accused several officers, including Grampa Jauncey, of either incompetence or cowardice. He was sued in 1970 by Captain Jackie Broome, who had commanded the convoy’s destroyers. The jury awarded Broome what was then one of the largest sums of damages, including punitive damages, ever recorded.
But that was not the end of my 53-year-old grandfather’s war. Later in 1942, during the Anglo-American ‘Torch’ landings in North Africa, Palomares was hit astern by a bomb, sustaining many casualties and a fire that raged for several hours, after which she limped into Algiers with badly damaged steering gear. A year later, though, she was back in action in Italy, providing anti-aircraft cover for the allied landings at Salerno, south of Naples. Grampa was awarded a bar to the DSO for ‘outstanding courage, resolution, leadership skill and devotion to duty in operations on the Italian mainland at Salerno.’
A hero, one would reasonably say. But like so many heroes one hears of, an unlikely one from what I remember of him; and what really is heroism anyway? Exceptional disregard for one’s own safety? Exceptional regard for the safety of others? Dogged observance of duty in the face of great peril? I’m not sure; and I guess that most people who behave heroically have no idea they’re going to until the moment is upon them. Personally I suspect I’m a coward; I have too much difficulty controlling my imagination.
But one thing I’m certain of: heroism is costly. How many of those men and women who internalised the horrors they’d experienced, never to speak of it even to their loved ones, paid the price later? Grampa Jauncey died of cancer of the throat; a naval commander who ultimately lost his voice. And it’s my guess that up until his final illness, that small, twinkling, fastidious man’s retreat into the miniature, orderly, mechanically perfect and perfectly safe world of clocks and watches was how he kept himself steady and sane. He would have needed something.