Rösselsprung was the largest operation of its type mounted by the Kriegsmarine during World War II, and arguably the most successful, resulting as it did in the near destruction of arctic convoy PQ-17. Ironically, this success was entirely indirect, as no Rösselsprung ship caught sight of the convoy, or fired a shot at it, all PQ 17s losses being due to U-boat and aircraft attacks. Also, a number of the Rösselsprung ships were damaged in the course of the operation, while only five aircraft were shot down, and no U-boats lost or damaged in the attack on PQ 17.
The name Rösselsprung refers to the Knight’s Move in Chess. It was an attempt to intercept the arctic convoy expected in late June 1942; this would be PQ-17. Two naval forces were assembled and held in readiness: the first, at Trondheim, comprised the battleship Tirpitz, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and six destroyers under the command of Admiral Otto Schniewind; the second — at Narvik — was composed of the heavy cruisers Lützow and Admiral Scheer and six destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Oskar Kummetz.
A patrol line of U-boats was established in the Norwegian Sea north-east of Jan Mayen island; code-named Eisteufel (Ice Devil), this group comprised six boats, increasing later to eight.
An advance line of three boats was also established in the Denmark Strait, east of Iceland, to give early warning of the convoys departure.
The plan was that when the convoy was sighted, the two battle groups would move north, concentrating at Altenfjord; there they would re-fuel, and await the order to attack, aiming to intercept the convoy in the region of Bear Island.
However, Rösselsprung was handicapped by a complex command process, with authority to go at each stage resting with Hitler himself, and a contradictory mission statement; the forces were instructed not only to attack and destroy the convoy, but also to avoid any action that would lead to damage to the capital ships, particularly Tirpitz. This would prove fatal to the success of the mission.
PQ-17 left Hvalfjörður on 27 June 1942 but it was not detected by the advance patrol. No warning of PQ-17 was raised until 1 July, when it was spotted by U-456 of Eisteufel; by this time the convoy was already past Jan Mayen Island, and was closing with QP-13.
With the complex decision-making process binding Rösselsprung no move was made until 2 July; Tirpitz, Hipper and four destroyers left Trondheim at 20:00 on 2 July, while Lutzow and Scheer with their five destroyers left Narvik at 12:30 on the 3rd. These journeys were taken through the Leads, the channels between the Norwegian Islands and the main coastline. The Leads are sheltered and hidden, but tricky to navigate, and the battle groups encountered trouble almost immediately; three of Tirpitz's escorting destroyers ran onto rocks and were forced to return to port. Tirpitz and Hipper with one remaining destroyer arrived at Vestfjord, off Narvik, on 3 July and at Altenfjord at 10 Am on 4 July. Kummetz’s battle group also had trouble. Lutzow ran aground in Tjel Sund and was also forced to retire, Kummetz shifting his flag to Scheer ; they also arrived at Altenfjord on the 4th.
Meanwhile the movement by Tirpitz and Hipper northward had been detected by Allied Intelligence, and in response to this threat the Admiralty took the controversial decision to scatter the convoy, which commenced at 22:15 on 4 July. Without the mutual protection provided by sailing in convoy, the ships would be easy prey to the aircraft and U-boats that would beset them; Over the next six days, 20 ships would be lost, totalling twenty four from the convoy altogether.
German Intelligence (B-Dienst) quickly realized that the convoy was scattering, and Schniewind requested permission to sortie. Again, the extended chain of command hindered movement, permission not being received until 15:00 on 5 July, and then only with the caveat to avoid any action with the Allied capital ships; the U-boats of Eisteufel were instructed to leave the attack on the convoy ships to concentrate on finding and attacking the Home Fleet, particularly the carrier HMS Victorious.
At 15:00, the fleet — now consisting of Tirpitz, Hipper and Scheer, with seven destroyers and two torpedo boats as escort — left Altenfjord and headed northwest toward the ships of PQ-17.
Almost immediately they were sighted by Soviet submarine K-21, commanded by Cdr N A Lunin. Lunin sent a sighting report, and attacked the fleet, claiming a hit on Tirpitz; however this is not confirmed by Western sources. An hour later, the fleet was sighted by a British Catalina, and again after another two hours by British submarine HMS Unshaken.
Both these sighting reports were detected by B-dienst, and at 21:30, Erich Raeder — concerned that the fleet was steaming into a trap — ordered a recall, just six hours after they had set out.
Despite indirectly causing the catastrophic losses to PQ-17, the Rösselsprung operation was a disappointing performance by the German capital ships. Also, Tirpitz, Lutzow and the three destroyers spent a considerable time in dock for repairs. Following this, the Kriegsmarine were unable to mount such an extensive operation again in the Arctic campaign, and never saw a comparable naval success.
- Kemp, Paul (2000). Convoy!: Drama in Arctic Waters. Cassell. ISBN 1-85409-130-1.
- Schofield, B.B. (1984). The Russian Convoys. Pan Books. ISBN 0-330-28388-X.
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