FIFTY YEARS ago this week, the nation observed its first World War II Fourth of July. Martin Gilbert, in his recent history of the war, tells this sad story:
"On that day, for the first time, American aircraft -- six in all -- joined a British bomber formation in a raid on German airfields in Holland. But in the inner circles of British and American war policy, July 4 saw the beginning of one of the most serious setbacks of the war, the scattering that night of the merchant ships of Convoy PQ 17, on its way to Russia with precious war cargoes. . .
"On the morning of July 4, as the first phase of a long-planned German attack, code-named Operation Knight's Move, four merchant ships had been sunk from the air by the torpedoes of a Heinkel torpedo-bomber. Fearing the arrival of four German warships. . . the convoy was told to scatter.
"Hitler, nervous about the fate of his finest ships, was to order them back. . . But his submarine and air forces wreaked a trail of havoc against the scattered Allied ships, of which 19 were sunk, and only 11 reached Archangel.
"Of the 156,492 tons of cargo loaded, 99,316 were sunk, including 430 of the 594 tanks on board, 210 of the 297 aircraft and 350 of the 4,246 vehicles; 153 men were drowned.
"Had the convoy not been told to scatter, the [surface ships'] foray might have been continued, and all the merchant ships been sunk."