Through ice and fear for Russia: The Arctic Convoys

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As the world marks the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, we remember the dramatic and heroic story of the Arctic Convoys, a period of unique collaboration between Russia and the UK, when more than four million tons of vital military supplies were shipped across treacherous, often freezing seas.

As many as 87 Merchant Navy and 18 Royal Navy vessels were sent to the bottom of the sea during the perilous operation and over 3,000 Allied seamen died.

This is their story.

When Adolf Hitler launched his surprise Blitzkrieg – codenamed Barbarossa – on the Soviet Union in June 1941, bringing Russia into the war against Nazi Germany, Britain no longer stood alone against the fascist threat. Putting aside his lifelong antipathy to Bolshevism, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised urgent naval convoys of vital war material to Russia. Shipped across some of the most dangerous waters in the world, the Arctic Convoys between 1941 and 1945 delivered tanks, fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials and food to the Soviet Union’s northern ports.

Churchill’s genuine, if pragmatic, change of heart was announced the very day of the Nazi assault on the Soviet people. In a radio broadcast, Britain’s wartime leader said: “… we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and to the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and Allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end.”

Known as the ‘Russian’ and ‘Polar’ convoys – or by the sailors who risked their lives to bring the supplies to Russia, the ‘Murmansk Run’ – the Arctic Convoys were part of the Lend Lease programme under which the United States supplied France, Great Britain, China, the USSR and other Allied nations with food, oil, and material between 1941 and 1945. The programme started in March 1941 and ended in September 1945. Supplies to the Soviet Union also came overland via the Persian Corridor and to Russia’s Far East by the Pacific Route.

The shortest route was to Russia’s northern ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk sailing through Arctic waters above Nazi occupied Norway from Iceland and (from September 1942) Loch Ewe in Scotland.

Merchant Navy ships escorted by Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers as well as U.S. and other allied warships, carried the essential supplies.

Dervish debut

Ships at Hvalfjord, Iceland, November 1941, on board the tribal class destroyer HMS Ashanti. HMS Ashanti and some of the 6th Destroyer Flotilla at exercise.

The first Arctic convoy, codenamed Operation ‘Dervish’, set out from Hvalfjord in Iceland on 21 August 1941, sailing into harbour at Arkhangelsk on 31 August 1941.

It consisted of six merchant ships loaded with raw materials and 15 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes escorted by the Royal Navy with three destroyers (Electra, Active, Impulsive), three minesweepers (Halcyon, Salamander, Harrier), three anti-submarine trawlers (Hamlet, Macbeth, Ophelia), with additional distant cover from the heavy cruiser Shropshire and destroyers Matabele, Punjabi and Somali. Aircraft carrier Argus delivered 24 Hurricanes (the Royal Air Force’s 151 Fighter Wing) to Vaenga airfield near Murmansk. Some of the 39 Hurricanes delivered by ‘Dervish’, flown by Russian pilots, were deployed defending Moscow between October 1941 and January 1942.

Those who sailed during operation ‘Dervish’ had beginners’ luck – the convoy suffered no losses, as the Nazis were simply unaware of it.

Code letters and sequential numbers subsequently identified convoys: PQ to Russia (inbound) and QP from Russia (outbound). The letters P and Q were from the initials of Commander P. Q. Edwards, who was responsible for the planning of these early operations. The system was used until convoys PQ18 in September 1942 and QP15 in November 1942. From December 1942 the convoys were coded JW (starting with 51) to Russia and RA (number) from Russia.

A total of 78 inbound and outbound convoys did the ‘Murmansk Run’ between August 1941 and May 1945.

Rough Seas

Apart from Nazi warships, submarines and Luftwaffe aircraft, the convoys faced another, just as tough, adversary: the elements. Rough and unpredictable Arctic storms were the least of it. Temperatures were so low that water washed on board quickly froze and could add so much weight that a ship could become top-heavy and capsize. Constant de-icing of decks and guns with axes and steam hoses was a daily routine for the Arctic Convoys’ sailors.

Two of the 78 convoys represent the best and worst of the heroic missions.

The Navy experiences wintry weather in the middle of January 1941, with the destroyer HMS Kelvin. Photo shows the Arctic conditions that ships had to face during the cold winter months. HMS Kelvin shown blanketed in snow.

“The sea was violent with waves of 30 ft plus. When we met a gale in the Atlantic we went into it bow on and ploughed through, but in the Arctic, east of Bear Island, the sea was very narrow and we had to go east with no deviation. This meant we were rolling as much as 30 degrees to port and starboard.

With the deck covered in ice and snow we had to use lifelines when going aft to the guns and depth charges. These lifelines were fitted very firmly and anyone going aft on deck had to fix a rope around the body with a hook on to the lifeline and gradually move aft when the ship was steady. But when she rolled, your feet left the deck and at 30 degrees you were hanging over the sea. At maximum roll the ship shuddered for a few seconds and then decided to come back or turn over – some did.

The temperature in these seas got as low as 60 degrees below freezing. Your eyebrows and eyelashes froze and your eyes were very sore with the winds blowing into them. When you got down to the mess deck there was about three inches of water from condensation. The older men, who had hair in their noses, found that these froze solid and were like needles. Many men came off watch with faces covered in blood as they had rubbed their noses without thinking.

The main thing at this time was to keep the upper deck clear of ice and snow by means of axes and steam hoses or the ship could become top heavy.”

Bill Smith

An Arctic Convoy sailor who served on HMS Magpie

Fatal mistake

Winston Churchill had predicted the Arctic Convoys would be “the worst journey in the world”. The biggest disaster in naval history befell Convoy PQ17.

The convoy left Iceland on 27 June 1942 for Arkhangelsk made up of 36 merchant ships and six naval auxiliaries with one close and two distant escorts, 43 warships in total. The convoy was carrying 297 aircraft, 594 tanks, 4,246 trucks and trailers, and 150,000 tons of military and general supplies. It was by far the largest convoy ever to sail to Russia.

The biggest threat to the Royal Navy at the time was the German battleship Tirpitz, armed with a main battery of eight 15-inch (38 cm) guns in four twin turrets. She had been deployed to Norway in January 1942 in order to prepare to attack a convoy.

British Naval activities in winter. 20 January 1942, Rosyth, under Arctic like conditions

In March 1942, the Tirpitz launched her first attack on PQ12 convoy, but bad weather kept her from zeroing on the convoy and the attack failed. Later, the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, came up with Operation Rösselsprung (Knight’s Move), a plan to bring the Tirpitz and her entourage into contact with the next outbound convoy PQ17.

On 4 July after sending a message from Norway to the Admiralty in London, saying that the Tirpitz has moved the previous day, the First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound, fearing attack, commanded the escort ships to turn back and the convoy to scatter and to chart their own course to Russia.

It was a mistake of historic proportion that profoundly misjudged the situation and would have fatal consequences. The Tirpitz has merely changed position to the north without any plans to intercept the convoy.

Fully exposed to Nazi aircraft and U-boats without any escort, PQ17 was gradually destroyed. By 22 July only 11 of the convoy’s original 36 merchant vessels had reached Arkhangelsk, delivering just 70,000 tons – less than half the anticipated cargo.

In his monumental six-volume record of those times, The Second World War, Churchill called PQ17 “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.” U.S. Admiral Dan Gallery in his memoirs was more blunt, referring to the disaster as “a shameful page in naval history.”

“I remember it was 13 July, 1942. That day I was asked to fulfil the duties of navigation officer. Our ship was on the outer patrol near Kola Bay – the main base of the Northern Fleet. The weather was extremely good, calm and sunny. Suddenly there was a telegram cipher on the bridge. Our commander Kondratyev read the telegram, handed it to me and gave an order to navigate on the set course. The telegram read ‘To the commander of frigate SKR-32. Our submarine K-22 identified a rescue boat with sailors in distress [coordinates]. Locate the boat and save the men. Commander of the Fleet.’

The given coordinates were about 30 miles to the north of our position, and a little more than three hours later we found the rescue boat full of freezing men. Fifty sailors had spent several days in the Barents Sea. Some were unconscious. We took them aboard, gave them alcohol and dry clothes.

On our way back to Polyarnoye base we realised that six of the sailors were Russian, and they told us the story. The rescued survivors were from the British merchant ship ‘Bolton Castle’ that was part of PQ17 convoy. They had been sunk by air attack on 5 July.

Sixty-two years later, in 2004, I found one of the survivors of ‘Bolton Castle’, Albert Higgins from Bridlington.”

Anatoli Livshit

a 96 year-old Russian war veteran from St. Petersburg who visited Britain in December 2014

Between August 1941 and May 1945, the Arctic Convoys delivered more than 4 million tons of cargo to Russia including at least 7,000 airplanes, 5,000 tanks, trucks, tires, fuel, food, medicine, clothes, metals and other raw materials.

Convoy JW55B was a total success for the Royal Navy, better known for its part in the Battle of the North Cape, which was designed as a distraction manoeuvre against the Germany battle cruiser the Scharnhorst, armed with a main battery of nine 11-inch (28 cm) guns in three triple turrets.

Convoy to Russia, with a British cruiser escort on Arctic lifeline, December 1941, on board the cruiser HMS Sheffield. In the Russian base HMS Sheffield anchors and waits once more for the sailing orders. In the background can be seen snow covered hills.

The convoy consisted of 19 merchant ships that sailed from Loch Ewe on 22 December 1943 accompanied by a close escort of two corvettes (Borage and Wallflower) and two minesweepers (Hound and Hydra). Destroyers Whitehall and Wrestler, minesweeper Gleaner, and corvettes Honeysuckle and Oxlip, were also deployed as escorts. Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett, who was accompanying the homebound RA-55A with cruisers Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield, later offered further support. Admiral Bruce Fraser, expecting – and hoping – that the Scharnhorst would attack the convoy, headed for Bear Island from Iceland with battleship Duke of York and cruiser Jamaica.

Scharnhorst survivors at Scapa Flow, 2 January 1944. Blindfolded Scharnhorst survivors, in merchant seaman rescue kit, walking down a gang-plank on their way to internment.

Scharnhorst (commanded by Rear-Admiral Erich Bey) and five destroyers sailed from northern Norway on Christmas Eve. Early on Boxing Day, 26 December, JW55B was about 50 miles south of Bear Island when the enemy fleet headed north to intercept.

By 9am Belfast detected Scharnhorst as she was heading south, some 30 miles east of the convoy. Norfolk engaged and hit Scharnhorst as she turned north try to get closer to JW55B. Expecting this move Burnett continued leading his escort towards the convoy, and when Belfast regained contact with Scharnhorst all three cruisers opened fire. Scharnhorst was hit and Norfolk damaged by 11-inch shells. By this time the German battle cruiser was heading south and away from the convoy and Fraser was in a position to cut off her retreat. Soon after 4pm, the three cruisers were closing in and at 4.50pm, Belfast lit up Scharnhorst with a parachute-borne star shell. Burnett’s cruisers engaged from one side while the Duke of York and Jamaica came in from the other. Scharnhorst, hit by Jamaica and the Duke of York, was severely damaged. Other cruisers and destroyers fired torpedoes, 11 of which reached their target. Scharnhorst went down shortly after 7.30pm. Of the 1,932 men on board the Scharnhorst only 36 were rescued.

“We spent two days shadowing Scharnhorst and eventually she was sunk. I fired three torpedoes at Scharnhorst. It was so dark, whether they hit or not she went down not too long afterwards. And when she went down I had tears in my eyes, because she had two thousand men with her. All with mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, and I thought – what a waste. But, faced with circumstances, it could have been us and not them.”

Ted Cordery

A veteran of the Arctic Convoys who served on the Belfast

Few, if any of the ordinary sailors involved in the battle could have known that before the war, Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett of Belfast and Rear-Admiral Erich Bey of Scharnhorst had been friends, and they and their families had visited each other.

The Arctic Convoys, like the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, involved relatively few servicemen. But like that struggle in the skies above southern England, the debt owed by so many to those few thousand men who served on the convoys is immense. The bond forged through their courage and sacrifice with Russia endures to this day.

For both Russia and Britain, the Arctic Convoys are an enduring symbol of heroic cooperation in the joint fight to defeat Nazi Germany.

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