World War II - The Arctic Convoys on The Murmansk Run
HMS Kite Memorial
What Were The Arctic Convoys in World War II?
These ocean-going convoys were part of the Allied efforts to transport strategic war materials by means of the Merchant Navy. As such, they were a part of the Battle of the Atlantic which started in 1939 and lasted until the end of the War in 1945. (See my previous article on the Battle of the Atlantic)
Another name for these specific convoys is that of Russian Convoys, because their main objective was to reach the northern ports of Soviet Russia, at Archangel and Murmansk. They also became known as the Murmansk Convoys, or the Murmansk Run.
The Arctic Ocean
Some Preliminary Facts for Understanding The Arctic Convoys
- Germany began to build up her naval power some years before WW2 actually started.
- The main efforts were centered on building submarines (known as U-boats) and also very large battleships.
- Amongst the most famous battleships were the two “Bismarck Class” ships, the KMS Bismarck and the KMS Tirpitz. Both were truly gigantic, at that time the Allies did not have anything that could compete in size.
- There were several other famous German ships, all heavily armed. They were to be feared for their size, firing power and speed.
- In April 1940, at the beginning of WW2, Germany overran Norway, and in this way acquired many protected bays and fjords in which to hide away these powerful surface raiders.
- Initially these ships raided the merchant ship convoys causing great destruction.
- However, Bismarck was sunk in May 1941, as an aftermath of the Battle of the Denmark Strait. HMS Hood was also lost in this Battle. There were 115 survivors from the Bismarck and only 03 from the Hood.
- Following in quick succession, the next month Germany attacked the Soviet Union (June 1941).
- The next month, August 1941, saw the start of the Arctic Convoys to the Soviet Union. They continued until the end of the War in 1945.
A Map of the Battle of the Denmark Strait
The Arctic Convoys
These convoys sailed from the United Kingdom and Iceland to northern ports in the Soviet Union - primarily to Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk, both in modern-day Russia.
They were not as numerous as those that were crossing the Atlantic from Canada to the West coast of Britain, but it was still a vast undertaking. About 1500 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to the Soviet Union, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the US Navy. It was a bitter experience, with many merchant ships lost and 16 Royal Navy warships also destroyed. Nazi Germany also lost numerous battle ships, a total of about 30 U-boats and a large quantity of aircraft.
The convoys were planned to sail monthly, but due to the special characteristics of the daytime and nighttime cycles in the Arctic Ocean, the crossings were suspended during the midsummer months when there was permanent daylight; they did sail during the winter months when the sun never rises and there is constant darkness. This added to the dangers, as there was a high risk of ship-to-ship collision.
Of necessity these convoys had to sail around the northern tip of Norway, and as this country was dominated by Nazi Germany, there they would be met by an enormous concentration of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft.
The ships could not stop for any reason, so they could not pick up survivors or make repairs. Each delivery was an epic achievement, and the most used expression to describe this undertaking, was to classify it as “impossible”
Arms for Russia!
What About The KMS Tirpitz?
The loss of the mighty Bismarck was a great blow to the Nazi plans. It was also a great achievement for Allied propaganda and morale.
To avoid any more similar disasters, the Nazi High Command decided to safeguard the Tirpitz by transferring her to Norway. The ship deployed in January, 1942, and went first to Trondheim, where she would start her career as the central ship of a “fleet-in-being” the technical term for this strategy.
A few days later, Tirpitz moved to close by Faettenfjord, where she was moored next to a cliff that would protect her from air attacks; she was also camouflaged with trees and branches.
For the rest of the period until she was finally sunk in 1944, this mighty battleship was able to tie up numerous Allied ships of war that were badly needed in other theaters of war, and she managed this just by the threat of her presence on the coasts of Norway.
Tirpitz was not static during this period, the ship was moved several times to nearby locations and protected fjords, and also initiated several sorties out into the high seas. Her main strength was just to be present, and her movements had strategic effects on the Arctic Convoys.
Map of Scandinavia, showing Norway and the northern ports in Russia
HMS Ulysses a Famous Book Based on the Murmansk Run!
The Convoys were all named according to a code system, usually formed by two letters and a number. The exception was the very first convoy, which carried the code-name “Dervish”. This particular convoy, which was formed by six merchant ships, arrived successfully to Russia with no losses.
During 1941 the following convoys sailed for the Soviet ports: PQ 1, PQ 2, PQ 3, PQ 4, PQ 5, PQ 6, PQ 7a and PQ 7b. The returning convoys were: QP 1, QP 2, QP 3 and QP 4.
All these convoys managed the crossing with a low level of losses. Historians have since decided that this was due to the fact that Germany was convinced that the Soviet Union would fall to their blitzkrieg tactics, and therefore did not expend much effort in attacking the convoys.
This situation changed in 1942, when Germany stepped up the attacks on the convoys, causing a much higher loss of lives, ships and war materials.
The most well known Convoy was PQ17, a really tragic undertaking. This Convoy sailed from Iceland on June 27th, 1942. It has been described as the most valuable Convoy organized to that date, its cargo was worth about $700 million and the equipment that was being transported was enough to equip an army of 50,000 troops.
The intelligence received at the Admiralty in London reported that the German battleships, including the Tirpitz, were making ready to leave their anchorages in Norway and could be expected to intercept Convoy PQ17.
With what was later considered a very controversial decision, on July 4th the Admiralty ordered the Allied escort ships to change course and proceed to intercept the German surface fleet.
The Convoy was ordered to scatter and in effect, the Merchant ships were abandoned to their own resources, which were pitifully small. The defenseless ships were then picked off one by one by U-boats. Out of the initial 35 ships that sailed from Iceland, only 11 arrived to the Soviet Union. The losses were horrendous!
The appalling truth was that the German battleship force never really left the coast of Norway, the ships merely changed places to another anchorage. Thus the strategy of exploiting the threat of the Tirpitz without actually risking the ship was completely successful, to the detriment of the efforts of the Allied Navy.
Perhaps to counteract this terrible defeat Convoy PQ18 departed in September of 1942, accompanied by a really enormous escort.
This time, the 27 transport ships, with an escort of more than 30 military ships plus tankers and trawlers, arrived safely to the Soviet Union. The thousands of tons of cargo that were delivered was equivalent to the entire amount of cargo that had been transported in 1941.
PQ18 was the last Convoy to use the code letters PQ. The code was changed for reasons of safety.
A Painting of the Battle of Barents Sea
Success at the Battle of the Barents Sea
The year 1943 started with a great success! In the first days of January, Convoy JW51b was attacked by a surface fleet of German battleships, including the cruiser Hipper and the pocket battleship Luetzow.
In a very confused naval action that was later known as the Battle of the Barents Sea, the Allied escort drove off the German attackers. Al 14 Merchant ships of the Convoy arrived safely in the Soviet Union.
Hitler is said to have been infuriated by the outcome of this Battle, because a strong German naval fleet failed and was defeated by a British escort of cruisers and destroyers (less powerful ships). The order was given to dismantle the big warships and to concentrate on the submarine warfare. Eventually, the surface ships were not scrapped, but their actions were much reduced after this date.
HMS Sheffield Sailing Under Ice
The Battle of the North Cape
In December 1943, the German battleship Scharnhorst with an escort of destroyers initiated actions against Convoy JW55b. However, the German destroyers missed the convoy, and Scharnhorst was sunk by a combined effort of HMS Duke of York and her escorts. The Merchant ships all arrived safely to the Soviet ports.
A Large and Beautiful Fjord on the Coast of Norway
And What of the Tirpitz?
This mammoth ship remained at anchor on the coast of Norway, practically immobilized by the patrols of the Allied Navy, and also by the lack of fuel to move her enormous machines. She was also hampered by the Nazi High Command’s decision to rely more on the U-boats.
Several attacks were organized with the purpose of finally sinking this mammoth of war.
In October 1942, the British Navy attempted to attack Tirpitz by means of two “Chariot” torpedoes structured for frogmen to guide towards a target. However, this mission failed badly, due to the rough seas on that date.
The next important effort was the use of midget submarines in September 1943. Ten of these vessels were employed in an attempt o damage not only the Tirpitz, but also the Scharnhorst and the Luetzow.
Two of these midgets were lost on the way to Norway, and of the 8 that remained, 2 were actually able to attach the powerful mines they carried to the bottom of the ship. Most of the crews of these midgets died in this attack, but the mines did extensive damage to the ship.
Contrary to expectations, the Nazi High Command decided to repair the Tirpitz to make her operational once again. These repairs lasted until the end of March, 1944.
British intelligence reported that the huge ship was due to initiate sea trials on the first days of April. One day prior to the launching of these trials, the ship was once again attacked, this time by an air strike. More than 40 dive-bombers, carrying armor-piercing bombs and accompanied by fighter planes, caught the Tirpitz by surprise. The attack scored at least 15 direct hits, causing serious damage and many casualties. The Tirpitz was once again non-operational.
And once again, the order was given to repair her! Bad weather obliged the Allies to cancel all air strikes against her and by June, 1944, she was again ready to go to sea, although she would not participate in a sea battle again.
In August the weather improved, and several air strikes were carried out, but the damage this time was superficial, and the raids were hampered by fog.
In October the raids were taken over by the RAF using Lancaster bombers and the powerful Tallboy bombs, designed to penetrate heavy armor. Some hits were scored that were repaired once again. By this time, Germany had a serious fuel shortage, and it was becoming too difficult to keep moving the Tirpitz
The final attack was in November 1944, again with the use of the Tallboy bombs. On the 12th of that month, the various hits by these high power bombs caused the ship to flood and to acquire a severe list. As the flooding increased, the mighty Tirpitz finally rolled over and settled upside down into the sea bed.
The Arctic Convoys were at last free of the menace of the “fleet-in-being” lead by the mammoth of the northern seas.
The Tirpitz Under Attack!
The Role of Intelligence
At the time that the Murmansk Convoys started up, Britain was making big efforts to crack the German Naval encoding systems. The Intelligence Center set up at Bletchley Park was developing an expert team with the main intent of breaking the German Enigma Codes that were based on the use of the very advanced Enigma machine.
The strategic information gained by Great Britain through the study of Enigma was code-named ULTRA and was considered to be extremely secret.
ULTRA played an important part in the over-all good results of the Arctic Convoys, especially in the planning of the movements of the Convoy and the supporting Navy warships.
The interception and sinking of the Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape was a direct result of communication intercepts that were decoded at Bletchley Park.
(See my previous article on the Enigma Codes).
Books Inspired by the Arctic Convoys
The most well known writers of these topics came from different Allied countries. Four writers would appear to be the most significant, and in order of publication dates, they were, respectively, a Scotsman (Alistair MacLean) in 1946, a Norwegian (Per Hansson) in 1967, a Dutchman (Jan de Hartog) in 1967 and a Russian (Valentin Pikul) in 1973
Of these four, the most well-known is undoubtedly Alistair MacLean. His book, HMS Ulysses, is recognized as one of best naval action stories of all time, equal to The Cruel Sea, another unforgettable epic.
At present MacLean’s work seems to be difficult to find, but Amazon is offering a Kindle version that looks very interesting. There is also a paperback version at the same source.
I personally have read this book about four times, and would probably read it again if I had the opportunity. I most heartily agree with some of the Reviews that accompany the Amazon page for this book.
Some of the terms expressed there are as follows:
- “A brilliant piece of descriptive writing”
- “I didn’t want to put the book down”
- “The characters are extremely well developed”
- “The men are truly real”
- “A classic in naval literature”
There are many more expressions like those above; you can read them by entering the link for Amazon on this Hub.
The participants in the Arctic Convoys were not only fighting against a resourceful enemy, they were also fighting the terrible seas and the freezing temperature of the area they sailed through. They were brave men, all of them!
The fact that the Merchant Navy seamen were all civilians, never fails to stun me, I’m very thankful that my seagoing family from Liverpool did not get assigned to the Murmansk Run.
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)