Fighting for History: Dr Frances Houghton discusses Convoy PQ17 and some recent libel trials…

Early this year a film slid into the British cinemas, enjoyed a few weeks’ showing, and then slipped quietly away again. Denial (2016) recounted the story of a bitter battle waged between two historians in a libel court in 1996 over the ‘right’ way to create a historical record of the Holocaust. Defending her assertion that David Irving had deliberately distorted historical facts to fit his own ideological agenda of Holocaust denial, Deborah Lipstadt noted that this misrepresentation of history formed part of a worrying wider ‘assault on truth and memory’. During 2016 and 2017, we have repeatedly seen similar distortions of history conducted throughout the corridors of political power on both sides of the Atlantic. Bizarrely – and frighteningly – the Holocaust was once again foregrounded in these debates, as influential people who ought to have known far better fought to legitimise current political conduct upon a decidedly shaky knowledge of history.

From my own perspective as an historian with research interests in war and memory, the timing of all this was particularly significant. Those issues of hotly contested historical memories, and who may legitimately claim the right to write and deploy history, have repeatedly surfaced in the area of the Second World War that I am currently researching. In examining the lived and remembered combat experiences recorded by British Second World War veterans in their military memoirs, it became apparent that these former servicemen were using memoir as a site from which to contest unsatisfactory official and scholarly representations of a war which many veterans regarded somewhat possessively.* In particular, former naval personnel sought to challenge the way in which blame for wartime tragedies at sea had been recorded for posterity by certain historians. Whilst conducting this research, one of the key players in the Lipstadt affair also surfaced, with unfortunate (and expensive) results for all concerned. In 1968, David Irving published The Destruction of PQ17, a history of the eponymous wartime Allied convoy which met with a bloody fate in July 1942. The story of the demise of PQ17, that infamous ‘Convoy to Hell’, has been told, re-told, and mis-told so many times that one might well wonder why historians are still seeking to dredge up anything new to say about this disastrous wartime event. But PQ17 is like the Titanic. It possesses the same haunting power of majestic tragedy that ensnares the maritime historian in an icy web of appalled fascination. Long before the Lipstadt case in 1996, that convoy was also the subject of a vicious libel case which was settled in the High Court in 1970.


An arctic convoy of 1942, following PQ17. Image copyright: Imperial War Museum © IWM (A 12022) 

In this instance Irving, then a reasonably credible upcoming young historian, was on the receiving end of a libel suit. He was sued by Commander Jack Broome, the former escort commander of convoy PQ17, whom he had blamed for the loss of the convoy in his book. The court case centred upon the former naval officer’s actions in scattering the convoy and removing its protective escorts. When disaster descended upon PQ17 on 4 July 1942, only eleven out of thirty-four British and American merchant ships survived to limp into Russian ports. Attacks from German U-boats and bombers strewed the rest, along with their precious cargo of war materials, across the bottom of the icy Barents Sea. Although various other wartime convoys suffered similarly heavy losses in terms of tonnage and lives, PQ17 was granted special infamy by the circumstances under which the convoy was destroyed. As Senior Officer of the Close Escort for the merchantmen, Commander Broome and his destroyer HMS Keppel were charged with ensuring that the convoy reached its destination safely. However, on 4 July 1942, the Admiralty sent out orders for the convoy to ‘scatter’, believing that an attack by heavy German surface forces, including the dreaded battleship Tirpitz, was imminent. Meanwhile, convinced by a prior series of signals received from the Admiralty that the supposedly looming Tirpitz constituted an immediate threat to the scattering convoy, Broome decided to attach his destroyers to a covering force of cruisers under the command of Rear Admiral Louis Hamilton, in anticipation of engaging the expected enemy. This was, as was repeatedly asserted in court nearly thirty years later, actually an act of incredible bravery. Had the Tirpitz really been on the horizon, it is unlikely that Broome and his elderly destroyers would have survived the encounter. Knowing this, Broome still made the decision to lead what would, in an earlier age, have been described as a ‘forlorn hope’. Left to their own devices, however, the fragmented convoy and remaining escort vessels became easy targets for the pursuing U-boats and aircraft, with disastrous results. The tragedy of PQ17 was deepened by the fact that the entire affair stemmed from a tangle of miscommunication between the Admiralty and surface forces, and poor reconnaissance, as the Admiralty’s information that the pride of the German navy was at sea was based on negative rather than positive intelligence. The Tirpitz, in fact, remained snugly berthed at Altenfiord, Norway, throughout the hunting and destruction of PQ17, and the expected battle with the enemy’s heavy surface forces never materialised.

In 1968 Irving’s inflammatory account of these events attributed the loss of the convoy to Broome’s maverick and hubristic tactical decisions. Having surreptitiously obtained a copy of the manuscript, Broome was outraged by this slur and began legal proceedings against Irving and his publisher, Cassell, for defamation. Showing the same indomitable spirit with which he had led his little cluster of destroyers off to face the guns of the Tirpitz, thirty years later Broome firmly marshalled former British naval veterans to rally once more to the defence of PQ17, albeit this time in court and to testify against ‘history’. When the trial concluded in 1970, Broome was awarded £40,000 in compensatory and exemplary damages, plus costs. At this time, this figure represented the highest damages ever awarded in British legal history.


Photograph of David Irving and Jack Broome shaking hands outside the court after the libel case concluded in 1970. Image courtesy of

As an historian of the Second World War, misrepresentation and cultural abuse of that war is a professional cross that one must constantly grit one’s teeth and bear. The Second World War is one of those historical events that everyone ‘knows’ – or at least claims to possess some knowledge of. At best this is faintly irritating. At worst, however, wilful manipulation of historical facts, whether by politicians or professional historians, can be downright dangerous, with the power to cause physical, psychological, and emotional damage to real people. This was something that Jack Broome recognised when he stood up in court thirty years after events that had cost the lives of many wartime seamen and demanded that the history of PQ17 should be told sensitively, professionally, and – above all – accurately. During a number of our taught MA classes this semester, we have discussed the ethical responsibilities of the historian. In this year of political uncertainty – which also marks the seventy-fifth commemorative anniversary of convoy PQ17 – it is perhaps clear that all of us who hold any degree in history must take these responsibilities ever more seriously and to challenge flagrant political misuse of history equally vociferously.


*  Dr Frances Houghton is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Manchester. Her forthcoming first monograph, The Veterans’ Tale: British Military Memoirs of the Second World War, provides an in-depth examination of how veteran-memoirists from all three armed services deployed their narratives to ‘set the record straight’ on a variety of controversial wartime events including mutiny during the North African campaign (1943), Bomber Command and the Dresden raid (1945), and the loss of convoy PQ17 (1942).

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