Captain Colbeth and Arctic Convoy PQ 17
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
78 years ago this August, an American Merchant Marine captain from Chebeague Island Maine had safely moored his merchant ship in Archangel after the tragic scattering of Arctic Convoy PQ 17.
Captain Clyde W. Colbeth, Jr. was Master of the SS Silver Sword, a 4937 ton steamship built in 1919 at a New York shipyard. The Silver Sword had sailed from Iceland on 27 June 1942 in a large Archangel-bound convoy of 34 merchant ships that was escorted primarily by British warships. However, several American warships were also involved and subject to British command, including U.S. Navy Task Force 39 that had sailed from Casco Bay Maine earlier that spring.
The Convoy sailed during perpetual summer daylight and feared attack not only by German U-boats and aircraft, but also by German warships based in occupied Norway, led by the massive 52,000 ton German battleship Tirpitz. Unfortunately, on 4 July 1942, a false report that Tirpitz had departed her fjord and was leading a large surface attack caused British First Sea Lord Dudley Pound to order the Convoy PQ 17 to “scatter” without adequate escorts and to proceed to Archangel as best the ships could on their own.
German submarines and aircraft soon attacked at will and they hunted down and sank 23 of the 34 defenseless merchant ships (with much loss of life and war supplies). However,
Captain Colbeth’s ship joined two other merchant ships and a small (540 ton) British patrol boat and headed north into the Arctic ice pack to hide. While in the ice pack, all the ships were painted white to blend in with the ice and thus were able to avoid being spotted by German patrol aircraft. The adventures of this lost little four-ship ghostly white convoy are the subject of a new book written by American author William Geroux entitled “The Ghost Ships of Archangel” (see attachment). Mr. Geroux visited Archangel as part of his research for this book. Notably, another ship that survived PQ 17 and made its way to Archangel was the British merchant ship Ocean Freedom that had been launched 20 December 1941 at the South Portland Maine Shipyard.
Eventually, these “Ghost Ships” ran low on coal, left the ice pack and made a desperate run to Archangel. They sailed far to the East of the White Sea and made initial landfall at the remote island of Novaya Zemlya. There they found friendly Russian aircraft and escort ships and made the final run to the White Sea and Archangel, arriving there on 25 July 1942. The precious cargoes of battle tanks, crated fighter planes, food and other war supplies were unloaded quickly and sent by rail to the defense of besieged Leningrad. Many crewmembers of these little ships were impressed by how hard the Russians worked to unload and ship the supplies under threat of German air attack. As author Geroux notes “A nation of people willing to endure everything the citizens of Archangel were enduring would be difficult to defeat” (page 193).
On 13 September 1942, these three “Ghost Ships” joined homeward bound Convoy QP 14 that consisted of survivors of PQ 17 and other earlier convoys. This homeward-bound convoy was also attacked and several merchant ships were sunk. Unfortunately, old friend SS Silver Sword, with a cargo of chrome ore and wood pulp, was torpedoed and sunk in the cold Greenland Sea on 20 September 1942. Captain Colbeth and all but one of the crew were
rescued by other ships and taken to Scotland where they boarded the British troopship RMS Queen Mary and arrived in Boston on 14 October 1942.
After the war, Captain Colbeth returned to raise a large family and had a long career in the food service industry. He passed away on 7 March 1998 and is buried on his beloved Chebeague Island.