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The Russian Arctic Convoys - The sacrifice of hundreds of allied sailors and millions of pounds worth of equipment.
His eyes narrowed against the cutting wind and spray as the “Old Man” peered through the worsening Arctic storm, the ice coated bridge of his overworked freighter open to the elements, apart from a few flapping canvas dodgers. Around him the tumultuous seas created a deafening roar as the waves crashed over and against the hull, the gloom punctuated by a brilliant flash as one of the other cargo ships exploded, victim of torpedoes from the marauding “wolf packs” that had dogged them ever since they had reached Norwegian waters from their loading port of Loch Ewe. Cursing under his breath he slipped and slithered across the bridge to the speaking tube and spoke almost kindly to the chief engineer asking if there was any way he could coax another knot or so out of the badly worn engines. “We’re in a place we don’t want to be, chief, but at least the weather is keeping away the dammed Stukas”. He knew the answer before he asked the question, as he could hear and sense the old girl straining and rattling against the battering. He sucked noisily on his pipe, long since empty and cold as he made his way back to the helmsman, standing grim faced and grasping the huge ships wheel, as he fought to hold the ice covered bow into the huge swell. Suddenly the old man’s world seemed to dissolve before his eyes as the torpedo found the 4000 tons of high explosive ordnance in the holds. There was no sound heard by most of the crew who died instantly and for the others they were embraced by the icy caress of the ocean which quickly numbed pain and senses as they joined the thousands of seafarers before them in “Davy Jones Locker”. Little but the bow and stern remained of the ship which quickly sank to the silent depths.
This was the fate of so many of the merchantmen and their escorts as they sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland, and North America to northern ports in the Soviet Union - primarily Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk.
Between August 1941 and May 1945 there were a total of 78 convoys assembled comprising, in total, about 1400 ships. Each of these convoys was carrying desperately needed supplies to help the Russians fight back the advancing Nazi forces. Merchant ships were supplied primarily by Britain (184), USA (292), Russia (56) and Panama (29 - flag of convenience various crews) carrying British and American arms, tanks, aircraft and raw materials. A large proportion were supplied under the American Lend-Lease program and all were protected by ships of the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and after 1942 the United States Navy for short while, covering just the Atlantic leg as far as the UK or Icelandic loading port., There were, however, 5 American warships that ventured into Arctic waters (most of the American fleet being sent to combat the Japanese). The heavy cruiser USS Wichita initially stayed in Icelandic water from 28th September 1942 but carried out a couple of close escort runs until withdrawn back to USA in Oct 1942. The battleship USS Washington joined a large British fleet to offer long-range cover for convoys PQ15 and the very ill-fated PQ17. After a couple of months on Arctic escort duty the heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa, and destroyers USS Rodman, USS Emmons made a single dash carrying military freight - not escort duty, then returned to the USA in November 1942. The USS Rodman stayed on and carried out escort duties on the Arctic convoys between August 1942 and her return to the USA on 1st September 1942. Russia provided several destroyers and small escort ships at the Northern end of the run, seeing the merchant ships safely into harbour.
The total losses, during the whole period, were 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy Warships. (Two cruisers, six destroyers, seventeen escort vessels and two fleet tankers). The Nazi Kriegsmarine, on the other hand, lost a battleship, three destroyers, two escort vessels, 31 U-boats (43 U-boats are claimed but only 31 confirmed) and a large number of aircraft.
To supply this cargo between 1941-5 individual nations lost the following merchant ships:
Britain - 36
USA - 47
Russia - 11
Panama (flag of convenience, varied nationality crew) - 8
Dutch - 1
The number of cargo vessels used in the convoys were supplied and crewed by
America (Am) 292
Belgium (Bel) 1
Britain (Br) 184
Holland (Du) 5
Honduras (Hon) 2
Norway (Nor) 11
Panama (Pan) 29
Poland (Pol) 1
Russia (Ru) 56
The allied Warships lost during escort duties were: (all British except one Russian and one Polish):
Cruisers HMS Edinburgh, Trinidad (damaged by her own faulty torpedo - later sunk by huge German air attack), destroyers Achates, Hardy, Mahratta, Matabele, Punjabi, Sokrushitelny (Russian) Somali, sloops Kite, Lark, Lapwing, frigate Goodall, corvettes Bluebell, Denbigh Castle, Tunsberg Castle, minesweepers Bramble, Gossamer, Leda and Niger, submarine P 551 Jastrzab (Ex BritishPolish submarine sunk in error by Norwegian destroyer HNoMS St Albans), armed whaler Shera, and Sulla (both capsized due to ice build-up) rescue ships Zaafaran, Zamalck and Honomu, fleet oiler RFA Aldersdale, and RFA Grey Ranger,
Battleship KMS Scharnhorst, destroyers Friedrich Eckholdt, Schoemann and Z 26, auxiliary vessels/escorts Bremse and Ulm.
U 88, U-286, U-277, U-288, U-307, U-314, U-344, U-347, U-354, U-355, U-360, U-361, U-365, U-366, U-387, U-394, U-425, U-457, U-472, U-585, U-589, U-601, U-644, U-655, U-674, U-713, U-742, U-921, U-959, U-961 and U-973.
Small escort aircraft carriers, built from converted merchant ships, joined the escort ships later in the war providing desperately needed air cover. Up until then once the convoy was outside the range of British air cover they were either on their own or may have had a merchant CAM vessel with them. The CAM vessel was an ordinary merchant ship fitted with a rocket powered catapult at the bow from which could be launched a fighter aircraft. Originally 50 ships were equipped with this rocket launcher and the aircraft would be the trusty Hawker Hurricane Mk 1, usually battle weary, disposable and hurriedly converted into a Sea Hurricane or “Hurricat”.. The ships had no equipment to recover the aircraft which if it couldn’t reach land had to ditch in the sea or the poor pilot had to bail out into the freezing ocean. However, these incredibly brave men did their duty and were surprisingly successful, saving many ships and lives.
Many British people had serious reservations about using their precious dwindling reserves of food, medical and military equipment to bolster Joseph Stalin’s repressive regime. This was the man who happily worked hand in glove with Adolf Hitler in tearing apart Poland and her people until Hitler turned on him and invaded Russia under operation Barbarossa on the 22nd June 1941. Stalin imperiously demanded that the allies supply them with basically anything they wanted - food, medicines, clothing, arms, aircraft, tanks and raw materials. Churchill and Roosevelt although outraged agreed they would supply what was asked as the assault on Russia took some of the heat off the situation in southern Europe and Africa and then review things as the war progressed.
The convoys would pass through some of the most inhospitable waters ever known. From the moment they sailed from their loading port they would be followed by packs of U-boats, just waiting for the right opportunity. Long range Condors FW200s would continue to over-fly reporting their route and position. Once within range of Stukas and HE111 bombers from Nazi bases in Norway they would be bombed and dive bombed at every opportunity. The powerful British fleet ensured that Nazi capital ships would remain in hiding, but this didn’t stop the U-boats from trying. In addition to the submarines and bombers the merchant ships faced a danger every bit as great and that was the weather and extreme cold. For four years these merchant ships and escorts were subject to long periods of light making them easier targets, or equally long periods of darkness, severe storms with mountainous waves which crashed as ice on the exposed decks. The ice was a serious problem, most of the ships were not ice strengthened and it would build up on the superstructure until the vessel was so top heavy it would capsize. It was a full time job armed with axes and steam hoses to keep the ice down, all the while the ship pitched and tossed crazily.
The convoys were well planned and the very first sailed from Hvalfiourdur in Iceland comprising of just 6 merchant ships and 9 Royal Navy escorts on the 21st August 1941. This had no convoy number but was just code-named “Dervish”. It caught the Nazis on the hop and arrived in Archangel with no losses on 31stAugust 1941 and delivered 10 thousand tons of rubber, 3800 depth-charges and magnetic mines, 15 ’Hurricane MkIIb’ fighters (the first of 2952 finally delivered) and other equipment. This was very nearly the first and last convoy as the ships were treated in a very hostile manner on arrival by the Russian authorities who refused to unload them or allow the crew to unload or even set foot on Russian soil. Eventually high ranking Russian officials over-ruled this and with bad grace, the ships were unloaded.
Thereafter the convoys ran in two series: the first was numbered PQ (outbound) and QP (homebound) and these ran twice each month between September 1941 and September 1942. They assembled in Iceland (usually Hvalfjörður) and sailed, ice permitting, to Arkhangelsk. When the ice increased they sailed to Murmansk instead.
The second series were numbered JW (outbound) and RA (homebound) and ran from December 1942 to the end of the war. These convoys assembled in Loch Ewe in Scotland.
Outbound and homebound convoys ran simultaneously; a close escort of Royal Navy and Russian warships accompanied the merchant ships for the final leg into the Russian port, with the RN remaining to escort the subsequent return trip, whilst a long range covering force of battleships and cruisers was also provided to guard against sorties by German surface ships, such as the KMS Tirpitz and Scharnhorst. These large escorts would accompany the outbound convoy to a point where they met the incoming ships and then shepherding the homebound convoy back, while the close escort finished the voyage with its charges.
On 30th May 1942 convoy PQ16 contained heavy lift ship SS Empire Elgar which remained at Archangel for 14months unloading heavy items such as railway locomotives, tanks and aircraft. She was moved from port to port unloading grounded and damaged ships and operated under very dangerous and arduous conditions. The Russians were reluctant to release her and she did not return to Britain until August 1944.
By now the Nazis were starting to become very concerned at the success of these convoys and re-doubled their efforts to disrupt them.
I won’t go into details of each and every convoy as they are well documented. There was one, however, that deserves a mention, but for all the wrong reasons. Convoy PQ17 sailed on 27thJune, heading eastbound from Hvalfjord, Iceland for the port of Arkhangelsk, Russia. This was the first joint Anglo-American naval operation of the war and comprised 35 merchant ships and their escorts. Two of the merchant ships were damaged by grounding and ice and returned to port. An urgent report was received that the German battleship KMS Tirpitz, heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Hipper with 6 destroyers had broken out and was heading for this large convoy. After much consideration the ill-fated order was given for the convoy to scatter and the destroyers raced away with the fleet to intercept the Nazi warships. A few small escorts remained and tried to shepherd the slow merchant ships as best they could and keep them away from the minefields. Once vulnerable the ships were at the mercy of constant dive bomber attacks and U-boats picked them off one by one. Then horror of horrors, the information was wrong the Nazi ships were still in their hiding holes apparently re-fuelling before putting to sea. By now the convoy was scattered far and wide and being decimated by 9 U-boats and a total of 202 bomber raids which sank 9 American, 5 British, 1 Panamanian and 1 Dutch ship, leaving just 11 merchant ships to reach port. Sadly of these 11 ships a further 3 were sunk on their return to home port. This was the worst losses of the Arctic convoys and after the following PQ18 was out of the way they were put on hold whilst everything was re-appraised.
ULTRA intelligence resulted from cracking the Enigma code by the specialists at Bletchley Park and played an important part in the eventual success and reduction in losses these convoys. Pre-emptive action was not always possible or even advisable as it may give away the extent of our intelligence, but the information did allow the Royal Navy to prepare for battle and convoys could be given appropriate escorting forces. The eventual interception and consequent sinking of KMS Scharnhorst by HMS Duke of York was greatly assisted as a result of the ULTRA intercepts.
The city of Leningrad under siege was one of important destinations for supplies from the convoys. Right from the first convoys in 1941 food and munitions supplies were delivered from British convoys to Leningrad using railway, barges, and trucks. Many of the supplies never reached their destination and were often destroyed by the Nazi air-bombings, and by Naval Detachment K while on the way to Leningrad. However, convoys continued deliveries of food in 1942, 1943, and throughout 1944.
Although Britain had a very large and strong navy it was under increasing pressure to provide small escort vessels for the many convoys it had to protect. It was under these circumstances that Winston Churchill first wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to request the loan of fifty old obsolescent 4 stack US Navy destroyers built between 1917 and 1921. This eventually led to the "Destroyers for Bases Agreement" (effectively a sale but portrayed as a loan for political reasons), which operated in exchange for 99-year leases on certain British bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the West Indies, a financially advantageous bargain for the United States but militarily beneficial for Britain also, since it effectively freed up valuable British military assets to return to Europe. The destroyers were out of date when built and were in pretty shabby condition after having been laid up for years, it should also be mentioned that it was alleged that the US Navy kept 80 of the best condition and transferred the worst 50, which I hope was not true. Before they could be taken over by their British and Canadian crews they all needed to be extensively overhauled, modernised, rearmed and fitted with ASDIC. They had quite poor sea keeping qualities and were inherently top heavy, However, although It was many months before these ships were ready they did eventually contributed positively to the campaign. The Town Class Destroyers, as they were now known, accounted for four U-Boats: U-90, U-110, U-187, and U-207 and captured U-570. HMS Campletown (Ex USS Buchanan), was disguised to look like a German Raubvogel class torpedo boat (known to the RN as Mowe Class) and used to destroy the caisson of the dry dock in the famous raid on St Nazaire.
Although very rarely mentioned in any account of the Arctic convoys, in the summer of 1942 Consolidated Catalinas 1 and 1b from No.210 and 240 RAF Squadrons were posted to the Kola Inlet and Lake Lakhta near Archangel. This was to provide some desperately needed anti-submarine cover for the Russian convoys. Immediately after they arrived, the very next convoy was the ill-fated PQ.17, which suffered the heaviest losses of any of the Russian convoys. The Catalinas, based in Russia, played a major part in the safe arrival of the surviving ships. The squadron's most successful period was between 18th May and 18th July 1944 during which it sank four U-boats. One of the squadron's pilots also won the VC during this period. On 17th July Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank attacked U-347, although severely wounded he continued to fly the aircraft until the U-boat had been sunk and only then handing control of the aircraft over to the already wounded second pilot. Despite his serious injuries F O Cruickshank survived to receive his medal, from the King in person.
The six U-boats they accounted for were:
U-601 on 25th February 1942 NW of Lofoten Islands
U-254 on 23rd September 1942 in the Arctic
U-241 on 18th May 1944 NE of Shetland Islands
U-476 on 24th May 1944 SW of Lofoten Islands
U-347 on 17th July 1944 W of Narvik
U-742 on 18th July 1944 W of Lofoten Islands
Despite the continuing animosity between Stalin’s government and Britain/USA the Russian people were no fools and valued both the material aid and sacrifice of both the British and American crews. In 1943, Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in London expressed his country’s gratitude to the men whose, courage had made possible the supply of these vital war supplies to Russia:
"The Russian convoys are a Northern Saga of heroism, bravery, and endurance. This Saga will live for ever, not only in the hearts of your people, but also in the hearts of the Soviet people, who rightly see in it one of the most striking expressions of collaboration between the Allied Governments, without which our common victory would have been impossible."
The story of the Arctic convoys are not part of the curriculum in Britain's school classrooms, but the full story of the British and Allied sailors who braved what Sir Winston Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world" has been taught in Russian schools since the war ended.
Other routes to Russia
The Arctic route was geographically the shortest and offered the most direct route for military aid to the Russia, although it was by far the most dangerous. When totalled up some 3,964,000 tons of goods were shipped by the Arctic route and only 7% was lost, leaving 93% having arrived safely. This route represented some 23% of the total aid to the Russia during the war.
Other routes used to supply goods were the Persian Corridor and the Pacific Route.
The Persian corridor was the longest route, and was not fully operational until mid-1942. In total 4,160,000 tons of goods was shipped to Russia which was 27% of the total.
The Pacific route was first opened in August 1941, but was, not unexpectedly affected by the declaration of war between Japan and America. From December 1941 onward only Russian ships could be used, as Japan and Russia observed strict neutrality towards each other and only non-military goods could be transported. Nevertheless, a staggering 8,244,000 tons of goods went by this route, 50% of the total. A different branch of the Pacific Route, the Bering Strait to the Russian Arctic coast, started to transport cargo in June 1942. From July 1942 through to September 1942 small Russian convoys assembled in Providence Bay, Siberia to be escorted north through the Bering Strait and west along the Northern Sea Route by icebreakers and Lend-Lease Admirable class minesweepers. A total of 452,393 tons passed through the Bering Strait aboard 120 ships. In this instance a major part of the cargo was aviation fuel for the airfields along the Alaska-Siberia Air Route. The ships would discharge fuel for the airfields which was then transferred to river vessels and barges on the estuaries of large Siberian rivers. Remaining ships, ice permitting, would make their way westbound and were the only seaborne cargoes to reach Archangel when Arctic convoys were suspended through the summers of 1943 and 1944.
The last surviving British warship which participated in the Arctic Convoys is HMS Belfast, a light cruiser, currently moored on the River Thames opposite the Tower of London. (I understand you can buy a combined ticket for both.) Victory Day commemorations and award ceremonies for UK veterans of the Convoys are normally held aboard. In 2010 a £ 250,000 restoration project to replace HMS Belfast’s badly corroded masts was undertaken free of charge by a team of more than 20 men and women from the JSC Shipbuilding Yard Severnaya Verf, St. Petersburg, Russia, as a tribute to the 3000 British and Allied sailors who lost their lives on the convoys The work – which began in April 2009, has taken 18 months to complete. Mr Naryshkin said: "The Belfast remains a symbol of the common brotherhood of the Russian and British nations. Future generations must know the reasons for, the course and results of the Second World War. Without this, it is impossible to build a safe world."
A piece of useless but fun information - The Royal Navy has confirmed that the 6 inch guns on HMS Belfast are currently trained on Heston Service Station on the M1 motorway. Now that’s a good conversation stopper or trivial pursuit question !
According to figures supplied by Professor, Captain Uvarov, of the Russian Navy, the following totals of goods transported by the 41 convoys to Russia and via the two other routes was:
22,206 aircraft, 12,755 tanks, 471,257 vehicles, 13,150 anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, 13,633 torpedoes, 473,000,000 shells, 4,005 rifles and automatic weapons, 345,735 tons of explosives, 1,981 railway engines, 11,155 railway wagons, 54,000 tons of rails, 2,670,000 tons of fuel and oil, 842,000 tons of chemicals, 1,050,000 miles of telephone cables, 3,786,000 vehicle tyres, 49,000 tons of leather, 15,000,000 pairs of army boots, 69,000,000 square metres of woollen fabric, one battleship, one cruiser, nine destroyers, 28 frigates, 43 landing ships, 78 patrol boats, 166 torpedo boats, four submarines, 89 minesweepers, 96 cargo vessels, and three ice-breakers.
Of the total of 508 British warships and merchant ships that sailed in the convoys, 23 warships and 104 merchant ships were sunk.
An Arctic Convoys Museum exists in Scotland:
Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, c/o 20 Mellon Charles, Aultbea, Wester Ross, IV22 2JN Scotland
To join their newsletter e-mail list
The individual service records for the Merchant Navy are held at the Public Records Office in Kew, London in the Fifth Register of Merchant Seaman’s Service in BT382. These records state the names of individuals and the ships and dates they served on them. Cross referenced with the Ships Movement Cards in BT389 would determine whether an individual was on any of the ships during a Convoy to Russia.
Every decade since 1985, Russia has struck a special commemorative medal to give to the British Arctic convoy veterans in formal recognition of the vital role they played in carrying desperately needed supplies to Russia. When the Russians awarded it, the British Foreign Office ordered Arctic veterans not to wear it. Appalled, Admiral Lord Lewin intervened, and the Foreign Office pen pushers relented. However, the Russian medal is not considered a British war medal.
Sad to say the British government never awarded a medal to recognise the vitally important Russian convoys and the bravery and sacrifice of these men.
In October 2006, the British Government issued the few remaining veterans with the Arctic Emblem to show its belated gratitude for the heroism they displayed sixty one year’s previously in the face of terrible hardship. The emblem can be worn on the lapel but cannot officially be worn alongside or as part of the campaign medals.
When campaign medals were awarded at the end of WW2, it was decided that the 66,500 men who served in the Arctic Convoys should receive the Atlantic Star medal. However, 95% of the men who served in the Arctic convoys had already earned the Atlantic Star before being transferred to the Arctic. The Atlantic medal as important and worthy as it is, has no connection whatsoever with the campaign fought in the icy waters of the distant Arctic.
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On the same day another payment of US$ 22.7 million was made to Canada to finally repay our debt to them for similar assistance.
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Arctic convoy poll
Did you learn anything at school about the huge loss of British and American lives in the Russian Arctic Convoys
© 2013 Peter Geekie