Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Convoy PQ-17

If you’ve watched World War II movies about German U-boats, you’ve seen them torpedo merchant ships which explode in a huge fireball. How could anyone survive such a catastrophe?
Supply convoys consisted of slow, lightly defended ships venturing into the war zone where they were easy pickings for U-boats or German surface vessels and bombers. Guns were installed on merchant ships and manned by a naval Armed Guard, but they provided scant protection. (The Navy Armed Guard’s motto was “We aim to deliver.” Unofficially, it was “Sighted sub, glub, glub.”) The real protection came from the escort force of warships.

In June, 1942, convoy PQ-17 sailed from Hvalfjord, Iceland, for Archangel in North Russia, a distance of 2,150 miles, a ten-day voyage. At this time, the German battleship Tirpitz terrified the Allies. Its mere presence in Trondheim, Norway, caused the British to tie up a fleet of their warships on standby to make sure it didn’t break free and wreak havoc.
First Sea Lord Dudley Pound, Admiral of the Fleet and operational head of the Royal Navy, considered the convoys a most unsound operation. They benefited the Russians and diverted American aid from the British. They’d already lost two cruisers on convoy duty, and the threat of Tirpitz endangered more of their dwindling fleet.
On July 3, a British fighter overflying Trondheim noted the Tirpitz was missing from its anchorage. A decoded German message announced the arrival of their heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in Altenfjord in northern Norway. Pound feared the Tirpitz was about to pounce on convoy PQ-17 and its escorts. The next day, he issued the order to scatter the convoy.

The first message sent to the convoy read, “Cruiser force to withdraw to westward at high speed.” The escorts assumed this meant the Tirpitz was fast approaching and they were to intercept it. A clarifying message read, “Convoy is to scatter.” Each ship was to head off on its own and hope to reach Russia.
The merchant mariners were stunned to watch the warships speed away. Convoy PQ-17’s escort consisted of a core escort of six destroyers and fifteen smaller ships: four corvettes, two antiaircraft ships, two submarines, three rescue vessels, and four armed trawlers. These ships would take the convoy all the way to Archangel.
A second part of the escort force had four heavy cruisers and a group of destroyers that would follow the convoy until they came within range of German bombers in Norway. Then they would turn back.
A third layer of “protection” included a British aircraft carrier accompanied by two battleships and a dozen destroyers that trailed hundreds of miles behind. If the Tirpitz attacked and came far enough west that German bombers could not protect it, the British aircraft would attack it.

That morning, the convoy had already come under attack by German bombers. Three merchant ships sank. The U.S. destroyer Wainwright had put up a 4th of July fireworks display that caused half the attackers to drop their torpedoes early and flee. Now the merchant ships were alone with only a German long-range reconnaissance plane circling, reporting their whereabouts.
Officers on the warships that had abandoned the merchants listened in agony. They had now learned that the Admiralty had scattered the convoy on flimsy intelligence, assuming the Tirpitz was near, and felt betrayed. Officers on one British destroyer, the Offa, had considered reporting a mechanic problem and sneaking back to protect the merchants. One recalled, “There must always be a sense of shame that we did not do so.”
The corvettes from the core escort group resented being ordered to stay with an antiaircraft ship instead of the defenseless merchants. They had reached the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya. One corvette, the Lotus, turned back to the sinking ships and rescued 81 men.
Only eleven of the thirty-five merchant ships reached Archangel. (Two had turned back to Iceland shortly after setting out.) The human casualties were surprisingly low. One hundred and fifty-three men died out of over 2,500 in the convoy. More than 120,000 tons of war supplies were lost.

For a complete account of convoy PQ-17, I recommend The Ghost Ships of Archangel: the Artic Voyage that Defied the Nazis by William Geroux. The focus is on the three “ghost ships,” the American merchants Troubadour, Ironclad, and Silver Sword, along with the British trawler Ayrshire, that sailed into the polar ice to escape the Germans.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

During my visit to New Zealand in 2007, I spent a morning at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. When I wrote Where My Heart Resides, I determined that my characters needed to visit the park too.
Wai-O-Tapu features erupting geysers, spitting mud pools, colorful scalding hot pools, and the stench of sulphur.
Join me for a quick tour.

The Lady Knox Geyser erupts sporadically every twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but that means you never know when to be present. So the park rangers help it out. The story goes that, a century ago, convicts discovered how to cause an eruption when they washed their clothes using soap powder. Imagine their surprise when their laundry shot up into the air.
Below the ground are two layers of water of differing temperatures. The soap breaks the tension between the two, and an eruption occurs. On a good day, it can go up twenty meters.

The harsh conditions around steam vents allow no vegetation.

Sulphur deposits paint the steaming lakes in various bright colors.

Mineral terraces offer more color.

If you ever have the chance to visit New Zealand, don’t miss it.

Friday, October 4, 2019

RIP Nine-O-Nine

A B-17 crashed in Connecticut last Tuesday. Seven of the thirteen aboard died. The B-17 pages on Facebook have been full of shock and sorrow.
Nine-O-Nine was built in 1945, too late to fly in World War II. It had no notable history of its own, but was named for a previous Nine-O-Nine. Many people have no opportunity to see the old warbird where they live. The Collings Foundation brought their “museum” planes to the people. Nine-O-Nine toured the country, providing thrills and excitement for the thousands who took a ride. For most, it was a hands-on introduction to the iconic airplane previously only seen in movies or books.
Pilot Earnest “Mac” McCauley spent 300 days a year touring with Nine-O-Nine as a volunteer pilot. He is quoted in Plane & Pilot, saying, “The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane, but it’s so big that it’s like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track. It’s all cables, so it’s slow on the controls. And the trickiest part of flying the B-17? It doesn’t like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.
He died at the controls of the plane he loved. “I realize how lucky I am, and it is an honor to fly it.”

I did not fly in Nine-O-Nine. I flew in Aluminum Overcast. But I did explore the interior of Nine-O-Nine. My family had no connection to the B-17. When I wrote Friends & Enemies, I put Paul Braedel in a B-17 to get him into Germany at a time when the only American military personnel in Germany were downed airmen.

The crash of a B-17 today is newsworthy. It’s a rare event. It wasn’t during the war. My research revealed too many instances of bombers crashing on take-off. Full of fuel. Full of bombs. A massive explosion. Fragile bodies torn apart and charred.
Scores of WWII veterans, now in their 90s, are dying every day. Nine-O-Nine may not have been a veteran, but it allowed us to glimpse the past, and now it is gone from our lives, too.

If you have a moment, please vote in the next two days for my e-novella Where My Heart Resides in a Cover of the Month contest at

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Just Released!

I have a new novella out this week! Where My Heart Resides is a contemporary romance, quite unlike my four WWII books.
I started this quick-read story last December when my WWI novel refused to progress. Despite knowing where I wanted the story to go, I could not keep it moving. Setting it aside for a while seemed like the best thing to do.
In the meantime, I worked on a writing exercise that included a foreign city and three objects that had to be incorporated in the story. The result is Where My Heart Resides. Writing it was fun, and I hope that shows through. It takes place in beautiful New Zealand, which I visited in 2008.
Because of its short length, this is available only as an ebook for both Kindle and Nook, and is priced at 99¢.

The rights to my WWII books reverted to me last spring and I’ve been busy getting them available again. All are listed at Amazon as ebooks, and two are now available as print books with the other two still to come. I never realized book formatting equated with rocket science, but alas, it does!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Touching History

During a visit to our hometown of Green Bay in June, we were shocked to discover the old neighborhood swimming pool is no more. Why tear up a swimming pool? My sister and I spent a lot of time there, first learning to swim and then competing on the swim team.

Several days later, while searching through for any mention of Wangards, I found repeated references to my sister and me. We’d made the sports page after doing well in swim meets.
And then, there we were. The undefeated Schmitt Park swim team. A bygone day.