BBC2 showed an excellent documentary the other night, PQ17 - An Arctic Convoy Disaster. Written and narrated by Jeremy Clarkson, it told the story of the convoys that took vital supplies from Britain and the USA to the beleaguered Soviet Union during World War Two. The vessels which undertook these perilous voyages, running a gauntlet of Nazi U-Boats and torpedo bombers, were mostly old and battered merchant navy ships. Not designed for the rigours of Arctic Ocean pack ice, the sailors had to face incredible odds. The ships became caked in ice, meaning their decks had to be cleared constantly to avoid capsizing. The waves could tower way above the ships. And the cargoes themselves, comprising of tons and tons of tanks and ammunition, turned the ships into floating bombs.
The PQ17 convoy, the largest to head to Russia's northern ports, set off via Iceland. But unfounded rumours that the German super battleship Tirpitz was heading to intercept them were believed by First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound. Despite suffering from a brain tumour that caused him to blackout during crucial Admiralty meetings, he gave the unilateral order for PQ17's Royal Naval escort to turn tail. Abandoned to the mercy of the Luftwaffe and the U-Boats, the merchant ships were then ordered to 'scatter'. Twenty-four out of 35 ships were sunk.
The bravery of the sailors was often jaw-dropping. At one point Leo Gradwell, a barrister who was captaining a customised trawler, HMS Ayrshire, defied orders and escorted three of the merchant ships to Arkhangelesk in the far north of the Soviet Union. The American crews were all for scuttling their vessels, but he persuaded them to proceed to their agreed destination. During their mission his mini-convoy got snagged in heavy ice flows. Gradwell ordered his crew to paint the ships white, then use bedsheets to mask the decks. Weapons were brought up from the hold in case Nazi ships approached - he even contemplated using the Ayrshire to ram the Tirpitz. Gradwell was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross in 1942. After the war, he survived polio then went on to represent Stephen Ward during the 1963 Profumo Trial.
Clarkson has produced an illuminating study of a little-appreciated aspect of World War Two. In the past he has put his foot in his large gob on countless occasions, insulting everyone from foreigners to striking workers to those people with mental health issues who die on railway lines. Thankfully there were no 'Johnny Suicides' who deserved to be left for foxes in his film about PQ17. He left his boorish Top Gear persona back in Blighty (although he did relish being on the deck of a US warship demonstrating the equivalent of a hand-brake turn mid-ocean).
But, as Clarkson explained, the Arctic convoys maintained a vital supply chain against considerable odds. That the Soviets were eventually able to turn the tide of the European war against Hitler owed much to the heroism of sailors like Gradwell.