Chronology, orders and plans

Background Chronology

  1. The next convoy after PQ 17, PQ 18 (39 merchantmen, 1 rescue ship, 3 minesweepers and 1 oiler), sailed from Loch Ewe on 2nd September and arrived in Archangel on 21st September. It was intended to fight its way through in daylight.
  2. The escorts and screens for PQ 18 totaled HMS Anson, Duke of York, Avenger, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cumberland, London, Sheffield, Jamaica, Scylla, 2 AA ships, 25 destroyers, 5 short range destroyers, 9 submarines, 4 corvettes, 3 minesweepers, 4 trawlers and 4 fleet oilers.
  3. The convoy lost 13 ships; the Germans lost 6 U-boats and 41 aircraft in a week of fighting.
  4. The Russian Convoys then ceased during Operation Torch.
  5. The first convoy in a new series, JW 51A, sailed from Loch Ewe on 15th December and arrived at Kola Inlet on 25th December. The Germans identified this convoy as "PQ 19".

Relevant British plans

Overall strategy

Admiral Tovey
  1. After the passage of PQ 18 in September 1942, the operations of the Arctic convoys were reviewed.
  2. The Admiralty wished to sail one large convoy, with a large escort, as PQ 18 had been, but there were insufficient numbers of escorts.
  3. This insistence meant that the convoys that did eventually sail missed the protection of the first half of the long dark winter nights from about mid-November onwards.
  4. Admiral Tovey, C-in-C Home Fleet, pressed for two smaller convoys.
  5. He considered that the lack of daylight would put a stop to air reconnaissance, and that smaller, easier handled convoys might evade both air and submarine attack. Small convoys were also easier to reform after bad weather.
  6. The First Sea Lord insisted on two cruisers sailing all the way into the Barents Sea with the convoys. C-in-C Home Fleet afterward admitted that the First Sea Lord was correct.
  7. As per PQ 18, C-in-C Home Fleet stayed at Scapa Flow in King George V to control the operations.
  8. Convoy JW 51A was the first eastbound convoy, and left Loch Ewe on 15th December, arriving un-attacked on 25th December.

Escort plan for convoy JW 51B

Captain Sherbrooke (D.17)
  1. At this latitude and time of year, the sun does not rise more than 6o above the horizon, so that there is a period of twilight from about 0830 to 1630. This means that there would be about two and a half hours at midday when there will be sufficient light to find and attack the convoy, and to be able to distinguish ships at distances up to 10 miles. (The Battle of North Cape took place under similar visibility conditions).
  2. With almost continuous darkness, the Germans were most likely to attack with surface ships, rather than U-boats.
  3. Attacks by aircraft could be almost ruled out for the same reason.
  4. He assumed that a surface attack would come from only one sector at a time.
  5. At the first sign of an attack,
    1. the 5 destroyers of 17th Flotilla (Onslow, Obedient, Orbi, Obdurate, Orwell) would, without orders, leave their positions around the convoy and join on the threatened side in line ahead.
    2. The convoy would turn away from that direction, the rear merchantmen dropping smoke floats.
    3. The other 2 destroyers, Achates and Bulldog, would lay a smoke screen between the convoy and the enemy.
    4. The remaining escorts (Bramble, Hyderabad, Rhododendron, Northern Gem, Vizalma) re-form the escort screen on the convoy.
    5. The convoy to continue to alter course to keep the enemy astern.

Cruiser screen escort plan for convoy JW 51B

Force R, Rear Admiral Burnett
  1. The convoy would be covered from about 40 miles astern, avoiding any U-boats in contact with it.
  2. The Germans would know the approximate course of JW 51B, but not how far along the course it was at any given time.
  3. In fact Rear Admiral Burnett was given a position at 1600 / 29th that was 150 miles in error to the E, so that he passed ahead and not astern of the convoy.
  4. Covering the convoy from the north gave his ships the advantage of what light there was.
  5. The convoy may also have been scattered by the gale, and this had to be considered.

Relevant German Orders

Orders received by Vizeadmiral Kummetz

  1. Before sailing, Admiral Klüber gave orders to Vizeadmiral Kummetz, Captains Hartman and Strange regarding Operation Regenboden (or Rainbow) as follows:

    The task: to destroy "PQ20" [as OKM identified JW 51B]. According to the existing report of U-354 the convoy is not strongly escorted... it is suspected that the two British cruisers and escorts that left Kola Inlet on 27th December are with the convoy, and it is expected that there are three or four enemy submarines at sea.

    Procedure on meeting the enemy: avoid a superior force, otherwise destroy according to the tactical situation.

    Admiral Klüber
    There was a separate plan for Lützow, Operation Aurora, an independent shakedown cruise after her recent refit, which she was to undertake after Regenboden. Roskill (1954) states that Lützow was under orders to break out into the Atlantic.
  2. At 1840 / 30th, after sailing, Vizeadmiral Kummetz received another order:
    Contrary to the operational order regarding contact against the enemy, [you are to] use caution even against enemy of equal strength because it is undesirable for the cruisers to take any great risks.

Plans from Vizeadmiral Kummetz

  1. He decided to attack the convoy during the two and a half hours of near daylight. He ruled out a night attack because of the risk from destroyers' torpedoes.
  2. Both forces were to approach the convoy from astern, i.e. from the W.
  3. The attack was to be made from both flanks.
  4. The destroyers would be spread out in line abreast 15 miles apart in order to find the convoy, and Hipper and Lützow would attack from different directions to confuse the defences.
  5. The destroyers were to spread out at 0800, but the convoy was identified at 0840, so the destroyers initially operated in 2 groups of three.
  6. The British escorts would be drawn off by the first attack, leaving the convoy at the mercy of the second attack.
  7. The German attack went according to plan.

Chronology for JW 51B

  1. Convoy JW 51B sailed from Loch Ewe on 22nd December 1942.
  2. HMS Bulldog was damaged in a gale and did not join the escort.
  3. HMS Anson, Cumberland and 3 destroyers reached their covering position S of the convoy on 27th, where they patrolled until the 29th to guard against an attack from the S.
  4. Force R, HMS Sheffield, Jamaica, Matchless and Musketeer, sailed from Murmansk on 27th.
  5. The convoy ran into a gale on 28th - 29th December.
  6. HMS Oribi lost contact with the convoy after gyro-compass failure on 28th December.
  7. After the gale, 5 merchantmen were no longer with the convoy, and HMS Bramble was detailed to search for them to the N of the convoy at 1230 / 29th, because she had one of the 2 best search radars.
  8. Matchless and Musketeer were detached from Force R at 0800 / 29th to sail to Scapa.
  9. Four (or three) ships rejoined the convoy on 30th.
  10. At this time, HMS trawler Vizalma was escorting SS Chester Valley to the N of the convoy and making better speed.
  11. U-354, Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb, sighted JW 51B at 1240 / 30th,, S of Bear Island. He reported a convoy of 6-10 steamers, with possibly one cruiser and several destroyers as escort.
  12. The signal was received at 1242 and Hipper, Lützow and six destroyers were immediately put under 3 hours notice to steam, for both Operations Regenboden and Aurora.
  13. Hipper, Lützow and six destroyers sailed at 1745 / 30th from Altenfjord.
  14. U-354 was spotted on the surface at 2015 / 30th, forced to dive, depth-charged and forced to break contact.
  15. At 0000 / 31st, U0354 was ordered to report RA 51B's position every 2 hours and to transmit homing signals to Vizeadmiral Kummetz.
  16. At 0830 / 31st the weather was clear, with visibility about 7 miles to the N and 10 miles to the S, except when snow squalls occurred and visibility shut down to about 1 or 2 miles, maximum. Visibility would also be poor if a ship was sighted against a background of low cloud or snow squalls. It was difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the twilight before about 1100 and after 1330.
  17. HMS Bramble and Northern Gem, SS Chester Valley and one straggler were still not with the convoy, but sailing to the north.
  18. HMS Hyderabad sighted two unknowns, but took them to be expected Russian reinforcements, at 0820 / 31st. HMS Obdurate reported these two ships astern of the convoy at 0830 and was ordered to close them. The two unknown destroyers opened fire on Obdurate at a range of 4 miles at 0930.

British Forces

Convoy JW 51B


Sailed from Loch Ewe 22nd December 1942, arrived Kola Inlet 3rd January 1943.

Total cargo of 2046 vehicles, 202 tanks, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 tons fuel, 12,650 tons aviation fuel, 54,321 tons general cargo.

No rescue ship was provided, probably because the convoy was small, and equally possibly because none were available.

  • Captain R.A. Melhuish, RIN
    Position: Commodore of Convoy
  • Empire Archer
    Commanding officer: Commodore of Convoy Captain Melhuish
    Notes: British. 141 vehicles, 18 tanks, 21 fighters, 4,376 tons general cargo.
  • Daldorch
    Notes: British. 264 vehicles, 1,744 tons general cargo.
  • Empire Emerald
    Notes: British. 2,580 tons oil fuel, 7,400 tons aviation fuel.
  • Pontfield
    Notes: British. 5,500 tons oil fuel, 5,280 tons aviation fuel.
  • Chester Valley
    Notes: US. 2 vehicles, 25 tanks, 10 fighters, 4 bombers, 250 tons fuel, 4,371 tons general cargo.
  • Puerto Rican
    Notes: US. 14 vehicles, 23 tanks, 15 fighters, 8 bombers, 100 tons fuel, 5,345 tons general cargo.
  • Executive
    Notes: US. 139 vehicles, 4 bombers, 450 tons fuel, 450 tons fuel, 4,210 tons general cargo.
  • R.W. Emerson
    Notes: US. 160 vehicles, 45 tanks, 13 fighters, 5 bombers, 780 tons fuel, general cargo.
  • Ballot
    Notes: US. 115 vehicles, 25 tanks, 18 fighters, 0 tons fuel, 5,534 tons general cargo.
  • Jefferson Meyers
    Notes: US. 376 vehicles, 4 bombers, 500 tons fuel, 5,336 tons general cargo.
  • Vermont
    Notes: US. 299 vehicles, 4 bombers, 300 tons fuel, 4,048 tons general cargo.
  • Yorkmar
    Notes: US. 188 vehicles, 150 tons fuel, 5,326 tons general cargo.
  • John H. LaTrobe
    Notes: US. 191 vehicles, 58 tanks, 10 fighters, 4 bombers, 640 tons fuel, 4,397 tons general cargo.
  • Calobre
    Notes: Panamanian. 166 vehicles, 8 tanks, 250 tons fuel, 4,534 tons general cargo.

Escort from Loch Ewe to Position "C"

Position "C" was approximately 10oW, 67oN, NE of Iceland
  • Cmdr. Rust
    Position: Senior Officer, M/S Flotilla; Senior Officer, Close Escort
  • HMS Bramble
    Commanding officer: Cmdr. Rust
  • HMS Circe
    Notes: To return to Loch Ewe with the 3 Hunts.

The destroyers were to remain with the convoy “to the prudent limits of their endurance” and then return to Loch Ewe.

  • HMS Blankney
    Notes: Returned to Scapa instead of Loch Ewe for repairs to compass
  • HMS Ledbury
  • HMS Chiddingford
  • HMS Rhododendron
  • HMS Honeysuckle
  • HMS Northern Gem
  • HMS Vizalma

Escorts from Seidisfjord, Iceland to Position "C", thence to Murmansk

Position "C" was approximately 10oW, 67oN, NE of Iceland
  • Captain R.St.V. Sherbrooke, DSO
    Position: Captain D.17
  • Cmdr. Rust
    Position: Senior Officer, Close Escort
  • HMS Onslow
    Commanding officer: Captain R.St.V. Sherbrooke, DSO
  • HMS Oribi
    Commanding officer: Cmdr. J.E.H. McBeath, DSO, DSC
    Notes: Suffered gyrocompass failure and lost contact with the convoy during a storm on the night of 27th / 28th, and arrived independently at Murmansk on 31st December.
  • HMS Obedient
    Commanding officer: Lt. Cmdr. D.C. Kinloch, DSC
    Notes: Kinloch promoted to Cmdr. , effective 1st January 1943.
  • HMS Orwell
    Commanding officer: Lt. Cmdr. N.H.G. Austen, DSO
  • HMS Obdurate
    Commanding officer: Lt. Cmdr. C.E.L. Sclater, DSO
  • HMS Achates (sunk)(sunk)
    Commanding officer: Lt. Cmdr. A.H.T. Johns
  • HMS Bulldog
    Notes: Damaged in a Force 12 gale off SE Iceland on passage from Greenock, and did not join the convoy.
  • HMS Bramble (sunk)(sunk)
    Commanding officer: Cmdr. Rust, DSO
    Notes: The fate of HMS Bramble was not known until after the end of the war.
  • HMS Hyderabad
    Commanding officer: Lt. S.C. Hickman, DSC, RNR
  • HMS Rhododendron
    Commanding officer: Lt. J.R. Angleback, RNVR
  • HMS Northern Gem
    Commanding officer: Lt. L.A. Sayers, RNR
  • HMS Vizalma
    Commanding officer: Lt. J.R. Angleback, RNVR
    Notes: Escorting SS Chester Valley, which had became separated from the convoy in a storm on 28th December, and was proceeding to Murmansk independently of the convoy.

Force R

Sailed from Murmansk 27th December.

  • Rear Admiral R. Burnett
  • HMS Sheffield (flagship)(flagship)
    Commanding officer: Captain A.W. Clarke
  • HMS Jamaica
    Commanding officer: Captain J.L. Storey
  • 2 destroyer
    Notes: Detached to UK at 0800 / 29th December.
    • HMS Musketeer
    • HMS Matchless

Convoy RA 51

Sailed from Murmansk 30th December 1943, arrived Loch Ewe 11th January 1943.

  • 16 merchantmen
  • 6 destroyers
    • HMS Faulknor
    • HMS Fury
    • HMS Echo
    • HMS Eclipse
    • HMS Inglefield
    • HMS Beagle
  • 1 minesweeper
    • HMS Gleaner
  • 4 trawlers
    Notes: Names not known.

Detached squadron of the Home Fleet

Patrolling E of Bear Island on 28th and 29th December

The squadron was to cover against a potential sortie by any large German ship, including a break-out into the Atlantic.

  • HMS Anson
  • HMS Cumberland
  • 3 destroyers

Submarine patrols

Off the North Cape
  • HMS Seadog
    Notes: Easterly, off North Cape.
  • HMS Trespasser
  • HMS Unruly
  • HMS Graph
    Notes: Ex U.570. Westerly, off Altenfjord. HMS Graph sighted Hipper as she approached Altenfkord on her return, but Hipper was travelling too fast to be attacked. Three hours later Graph sighted one German destroyer towing a second, attacked, but her torpedoes missed.
  • HNethMS O.14
  • O.R.P. (Polish) Sokol

German Forces

Operation Regenboden (Rainbow); the attack on PQ 20 (actually JW 51B); Operation Aurora (the break-out of the Lützow)
  • German Naval Staff (SKL)
  • Operations Division (I/SKL)
  • Admiral Carls
    Notes: Group North
  • Admiral Klüber
    Notes: Flag Officer, Northern Waters. Flag in KM Köln at Altenfjord.
  • Vizeadmiral Kummetz
    Notes: Flag Officer, Cruisers.

Operation Regenboden

  • Vizeadmiral Kummetz
  • KM Admiral Hipper (flagship)(flagship)
    Commanding officer: Captain Hans Hartmann
  • Destroyers
    Notes: Part of 5th Destroyer Flotilla
    • KM Frederich Echholdt (flagship)(flagship)
      Commanding officer: Capt Alfred Schemmel
    • KM Richard Beitzen
      Commanding officer: Lt-Cdr Hans von Davidson
    • KM Z-29
      Commanding officer: Lt-Cdr Curt Rechel

Operation Aurora

  • KM Lützow
    Commanding officer: Captain Stange
    Notes: After the attack on the convoy, Lützow was to operate independently.
  • Destroyers
    Notes: Part of 5th Destroyer Flotilla
    • KM Z-30 (sunk)(sunk)
      Commanding officer: Lt-Cdr Heinrich Kaiser
    • KM Z-31
      Commanding officer: Lt-Cdr Hermann Alberts
    • KM Theodor Riedel
      Commanding officer: Lt Cdr Walter Riede

Patrolling U-boats

In the Barents Sea
  • U-354
    Commanding officer: Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb
    Notes: Sighted JW 51B at 1240 / 29th. At 1145 / 31st, Lt. Cmdr. Herbschleb made his fateful signal:
    The battle has reached its climax, I see nothing but red.
  • U-626
    Commanding officer: Oberleutnant Hans-Helmuth Bugs


In Norway and Germany
  • KM Tirpitz
    Notes: At Tronheim, badly in need of a refit with numerous defects. The ship was being repaired at Trondheim (under Hitler's specific instructions), rather than being returned to Germany.
  • KM Köln
    Notes: At Altenfjord.
  • KM Scharnhorst
    Notes: Was to transfer from the Baltic in January.
  • KM Prinz Eugen
    Notes: Was to transfer from the Baltic in January.
  • 5 destroyers
    Notes: Were to transfer from the Baltic in January.
  • KM Lützow
    Notes: Arrived from the Baltic in Altenfjord on 18th December to relieve Scheer. This caused the Admiralty to send the Anson, with escorts, to Hvalfjord in Iceland, and to re-instate the Denmark Straits patrols.
  • KM Admiral Scheer
    Notes: Returned to Germany to refit in early November.
  • KM Nuremburg
    Notes: Arrived at Narvik on 2nd December. However Nuremburg was not considered sufficiently seaworthy for winter operations in the Barents Sea (Schofield), and so did not take part in the operation.


  • "The Arctic Convoys" by Vice Admiral (ret) B.B. Schofield
  • "73 North" by D. Pope
  • "The War at Sea 1939-1945, Vol. 2" by W.W. Roskill
  • "Red Sky In The Morning" by Michael Pearson