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Cassell V. Broome Notes

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CASSELL V. BROOME FACTS The fate of the PQ17 convoy is one of the most publicised, as well as one of the most tragic, naval operations of World War II. The evidence showed that it had been written about many times, notably by Captain Roskill, R.N., the official naval historian, and by the late Mr. Godfrey Winn, whose book was said to have sold half a million copies. It is sufficient to say that the primary cause of the disaster flowed from an order to the convoy to scatter, which made the ships in it an easy prey to the aircraft and submarines by which they were attacked. This order to scatter was issued by the Admiralty in Whitehall and was due to a faulty appreciation by the naval staff, in particular, as is now known, by the then First Sea Lord himself, that the German battleship Tirpitz was at sea, and to a decision, also by the then First Sea Lord, to take the responsibility for the order on himself rather than leave the decision to the discretion of the naval officers on the spot. The naval officers on the spot, including Admiral Hamilton in command of the cruiser squadron, and Captain Broome, had no option but to obey, and the convoy was thus left to fan out on individual courses covering a vast area of sea. So far there can be no controversy. But the two naval officers, rightly considering that the order to scatter must denote the approach of a superior hostile surface force, sailed west in company. Admiral Hamilton was acting under precise orders from the Admiralty. Captain Broome was not. Captain Broome had proposed and Admiral Hamilton accepted that he should put himself under command of the admiral commanding the cruisers. That this decision was courageous there can be no doubt. What has been subsequently disputed was whether it was as wise as it was certainly brave. Some have thought that it was no more than the inevitable reaction of gallant and experienced naval officers to the threat of surface action. Others have thought that its effect was to remove from the area of the convoy the only naval elements, which might have countered the U-boat and air attacks, and thus to contribute to the extent of the convoy's losses. Which of these two views be correct it is not appropriate here to discuss. But what is relevant to the present appeal is that those who criticised the decision had previously fastened the responsibility on Admiral Hamilton. It was one of the distinctive features of Mr. Irving's book (which it may have shared with a German work with whose author he had collaborated) that it attempted to place responsibility for the withdrawal of the destroyers entirely or mainly on the shoulders of Captain Broome.

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