Even the most difficult situations can throw up the unlikely hero and one such was Leo Gradwell who emerged with great credit from one of the most disastrous episodes of World War Two – the decimation of Arctic Convoy PQ17.
Gradwell was born in Chester in 1899 and after studying classics at Oxford, he joined the Royal Navy and served during the First World War. When the war ended, he became a barrister.
Any sailing he did then he simply for fun in a small yacht in the Irish Sea, but when war was declared in 1939, he was given a commission as a lieutenant in Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and took command of a rather decrepit trawler that was adapted to anti-submarine duties and renamed HMS Ayrshire.
In June 1941, Gradwell and the Ayrshire found themselves part of the defensive shield for PQ17, the convoy of 35 British and American ships tasked with the dangerous mission of taking much-needed weapons and supplies to Russia following the invasion by German forces.
This was the first joint British and American convoy and followed the tried and tested pattern of having the merchant ships sailing in rows in the centre surrounded by a defensive screen of cruisers, destroyers, anti-aircraft ships and submarines that set sail from Iceland headed for the port of Archangel.
This was a dangerous mission. Apart from the atrocious weather and -50 °C temperatures that caked the ships in ice, they also had to run the gauntlet of German aircraft and submarine attacks from occupied Norway, but they were successfully protected by their escorts, at least until 4th July when troubling news came from Swedish intelligence.
The ship that the navy feared most was the Tirpitz, the most advanced warship of its time that could outgun the entire defensive fleet and word came that it had left port, with other surface ships, and was heading for the convoy. Despite grave doubts about the truth of this report, the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, issued the order for the defending warships to immediately turn back and for the convoy to scatter, but continue towards Russia.
The intelligence regarding the Tirpitz was false, but that order effectively left the merchant ships as sitting ducks for German bombers, submarines and torpedo aircraft and of the 34 ships that left Iceland, 23 were sunk in the days that followed.
But it was here that Gradwell came into his own. Still believing that the Tirpitz must be close by, he wired the small number of depth chargers and other ammunition to turn the the Ayrshire into floating bomb with the intention of ramming the Tirpitz should it appear.
Of course, it didn’t, but with bombers and submarines all around, Gradwell decided to disobey the order to retreat with the other escorts and instead turned the Ayrshire northwards for the Arctic ice-shelf, taking three of the American merchant ships with him, the Troubadour, Ironclad and Silver Sword.
Second, he had no charts to guide him, relying instead on a copy of the Times Handy Atlas.
And third, his only qualification was a certificate to navigate a pleasure yacht in coastal waters.
Gradwell and the four ships under his command reached the ice-shelf and pushed on until they could go no further. His plan was for them to remain there until the threat of attack had died down, but he prepared them for the possibility that they might be found.
Among the cargo carried by the merchants was a supply of white paint and Gradwell ordered the crews to paint the ships to camouflage them against the ice, then they raided the linen cupboards and used sheets and tablecloths to cover the decks. Next, he had the Sherman tanks they were carrying to be set up on deck with their guns pointing south.
Having evaded detection, Gradwell ordered the ships to sail east to the deserted island of Novaya Zemlya where they met a flotilla of corvettes which escorted the tiny convoy through the dangerous straits between the Bering Sea and the White Sea, arriving in Archangel on 25th July.
Gradwell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, and it might have been the higher Distinguished Service Order had he not disobeyed orders and left the ships of PQ17 to their fate.
If you are interested in the bigger picture behind the story of PQ17, I strongly recommend you watch the BBC documentary PQ17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster available from Amazon.