Seventy Merchant and Royal Navy arctic convoys delivered war supplies from Britain to the Soviet Union via the treacherous Arctic, between 1941 and 1945. As part of one off BBC documentary PQ17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster (9pm, January 2, on BBC2), Jeremy Clarkson will retrace the thrilling route the crew aboard these ships took more than 50 years ago.
“We focus on one convoy in particular – PQ17. It took off from Iceland in June 1942 and became one of the most infamous naval disasters of the 20th century,” explains producer Dan Trelford, who helped map out the journey for the show.
Clarkson and the crew took the journey into the frosty Arctic wilderness via a special icebreaker vessel. “Once you are out in the arctic ocean you feel as though you are in miles and miles of emptiness," explains Trelford.
“We slept on board the boat; but we didn’t get a lot of sleep because we were going through rough seas. Whenever we weren’t filming we were trying to get warm inside.
“Jeremy did a piece to camera where he said ‘I’m wearing countless layers and polar clothing and it’s absolutely bitterly cold. It’s almost impossible to do anything on deck for any length of time.’ He got a real sense for what it would be like if you were out there on watch, looking out for German planes. For him, walking around on the deck for any amount of time was bad enough, if you were at war under those circumstances it would be absolutely terrifying.”
Most of the boats in the original PQ17 convoy were attacked or sunk. They faced arctic waters, icebergs, rough seas and minus degree temperatures, and also encountered the Nazi U-boats and air bases along the coast of Norway. The documentary follows the story of a veteran who, as his boat was sinking, managed to make it to the lifeboat and drift.
“A lot of crew died in lifeboats because of the water and sheer cold,” explains Trelford. “One of the guys we spoke to said that they had water inside the lifeboat and people got frostbite. Because they had to abandon ship very quickly they weren’t dressed properly, they may have been shovelling coal into the engines and they came out wearing vests and trousers.”
Other vessels would find themselves stuck in polar ice sheets. Clarkson and crew travelled to the beautiful area of Spitsburg, where there are towering ice cliffs, glaciers and thousands of seabirds. Here the team got to experience polar ice sheets. “Jeremy actually went up to the ice sheet,” says Trelford. The crew forged their boat through the ice sheet up to the point where they couldn’t go any further because it would destroy the boat's hull and be extremely dangerous. Then Jeremy got off the boat and was able to walk across the ice sheet himself.
“We had to have someone on watch with a shot gun,” explains Trelford. As well as minus degree temperatures and frozen waters, Clarkson had to contend with polar bears. “It was their hunting season,” says Trelford.
“Jeremy mentions in the film that it’s amazing to think a German pilot going over the arctic waste would look down to see these boats stuck in the ice, and wonder how on earth they got there. They’re were in the middle of nowhere. It was quite an experience being out there in that barren land.”
Not only did the crew take on this challenge to get a sense of what it was like for those merchant sailors and members of the Navy in WWII, but they also had their own "epic adventure,” says Trelford.
Watch PQ17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster at 9pm, January 2, on BBC2.