The actor Lt. Douglas E. Fairbanks, Jr., served on board “The Witch,” heavy cruiser Wichita (CA 45), during the terrifying battle of convoy PQ-17 in WWII. Born to his famous father in New York City in 1909, Fairbanks had also pursued the acting profession; however, he heeded his nation’s call, commissioned, and joined Wichita during a grueling run to help the Russians.
Before they sailed, King George VI toured the cruiser as the band played ‘God Save The King’; “Well, what are you doing up here?” he asked Fairbanks, “I’ve not seen you since we played golf at Sunningdale about five years ago!”
For a year the Russians had desperately struggled to hold back Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Churchill and Roosevelt sent them supplies, but the Germans again tore open the Soviet lines and raced toward Stalingrad. The ships of PQ-17 sailed on 27 June 1942, but because the pack-ice floated so far south, the convoy’s route passed within range of German bombers that spotted them in the continual day light.
“Hi-yo Silver!” a lookout called out as he pointed toward the bombers. The Germans reported the ships to their superiors and raced in to attack. “Air defense–take battle stations!” sounded as the bugler’s blast sent sailors and Marines to action.
As the men of the convoy fought for their lives, the monstrous German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship of Bismarck, led her consorts to attack the convoy in Operation Rosselsprung (Knight’s Move). On the 4th of July the Allies learned of the enemy sortie, which sent ripples of panic through them: “Most Immediate…Convoy is to Scatter” the British Admiralty signaled. The skippers reluctantly obeyed and sailed off to make their way around icebergs and pack ice, unaware that the German ships had experienced trouble that forced them to return to Norwegian waters. German submarines and bombers, however, eagerly hunted the helpless ships.
Fairbanks described the frantic efforts that signalmen made to lure away the convoy’s tormentors with false messages, and their horror as they intercepted one distress call after another from victims but could not help. “The radio room is bedlam,” Fairbanks noted. “The bridge cannot keep up with the reports.” Disregarding regulations, many men began to sleep above the waterline to avoid ‘the hammer’ (a torpedo).
When gunners shot down a German bomber, the crew broke from Battle Stations and cheered as if they were “in a football game,” and Fairbanks had to remind them to return to their stations. The tension on the bridge grew thick as they debated whether to come about and help shipmates, however, the thought that lucky shots from bombers or U-boats would leave them helpless against Tirpitz persuaded them to stay on course.
As they left the ships to their fates, one of the British merchantmen cheerfully radioed “Celebrating your holiday with fireworks as suggested.” The men of Wichita, however, resolutely discussed returning to help, and British Rear Admiral Louis H. K. “Turtle” Hamilton, their commander, shared their sense of solidarity with his final signal: “I hope we shall all have a chance of settling this score with them [the Germans] soon.”
The Germans sank twenty-four of the convoy’s thirty-four ships. However, they assessed that their victories against PQ-17 were ironically due to the convoy’s failure to maintain formation.
After serving in what Fairbanks called “A Hell of a War,” he returned to acclaim as a screen star.