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After the successful passage of PQ-12 in March the British Government had continued to send convoys of supplies to Russia as the northern summer advanced and 70 ships out of an original sailing of 103 had been safely escorted through for the cost of a cruiser and a destroyer; only 16 merchantmen were lost, 17 having to return to their port of departure owing to ice and weather. PQ-16, which had sailed at the end of May, had fought its way through against heavy air attack and the losses it received had encouraged the Germans to reinforce their torpedo bombers and to plan for a more intensive effort in the future.
In mid-June 1942 preparations were made for Operation "Rösselsprung"/"Knights move" which had as its object an attack on convoy traffic. Two groups were assembled. Battle Group I under the Fleet Commander, Admiral Schniewind, aboard Tirpitz, and Battle Group II under Vizeadmiral Kummetz on board the heavy cruiser Lützow. The target was convoy PQ. 17 with a reported 34 ships escorted by 6 destroyers, 2 AA cruisers, 2 submarines, 4 corvettes and 13 other vessels. 2 battleships, an aircraft carrier, 1 heavy and 1 light cruiser and 14 destroyers of the Home Fleet, to which a further 4 heavy cruisers and 3 destroyers were added later, were standing off as distant escort.
Convoy PQ-17 sailed from Reykjavik on 27 June and was reported by Luftwaffe reconnaissance on 1 July.
The next day Battle Group I consisting of Tirpitz, in company with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, the destroyers Friedrich Ihn, Hans Lody, Karl Galster and Theodor Riedel and the torpedo boats T7 and T15, later joined by the destroyer Richard Beitzen, set off for Altenfjord. En route Hans Lody, Karl Galster and Theodor Riedel all grounded and were obliged to drop out. Battle Group II was hit by similar problems. Having assembed in Ofotfjord on 3 July, the heavy cruiser Lützow stranded en route to Altenfjord and was forced to retire to Bogen. Vizeadmiral Kummetz's force (Battle Group II) had now been reduced to the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, 5 destroyers, Z24, Z27, Z28, Z29 and Z30, and the fleet oiler Dithmarschen.
Tirpitz, Scheer and Hipper with six destroyers sailed from Altenfjord at 1137 on 5 July 1942 in search of the convoy, knowing that the British battleships and cruisers were well to the westward and heading for home.
At 1700 the Russian submarine K.21 reported the Germans as steering 045° some 72 kilometer northwest of North Cape and claimed to have hit Tirpitz with two torpedoes. However no mention of a submarine attack is to be found in the battleship's war diary and she sustained no damage. A reconnaissance aircraft reported them an hour later and the British submarine P.54 likewise at 2029, having tried desperately for an hour to close to an attacking position. German naval command intercepted these reports and, fearful of an air attack from Victorious if the operations against the convoy continued after 0100 on 6 July 1942, at 2132 ordered Admiral Schniewind to discontinue the operation and return to Bogen.
The British was aware that the German squadron had put to sea, and as a result of a later much disputed assessment of the situation PQ-17 scattered and the escort was withdrawn, the merchantmen being left to attempt to reach their destination independently.
The threat of the surface attack had worked, the convoy was scattered and unprotected. 19 ships were to be sunk by bombs or torpedoes in the next three days. Of the 36 merchant vessels which had sailed, 2 turned back and 11 reached Russia; 23 were sunk. Without firing a gun, without even getting within 480 kilometer (300 miles) of the convoy, Tirpitz had achieved one of the outstanding naval successes of the war. The convoy was virtually wiped out.
On 23 October 1942 Tirpitz left Bogen to refit at Fættenfjord/Lofjord near Trondheim, where the necessary technical personnel were available.
The failures of Bomber Command in the spring and the terrible effect which even the threat of an excursion had produced on Convoy PQ-17 made it essential to try some other means of eliminating Tirpitz.
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