World War II Russian Arctic Convoys

 

For the gruelling years of the Second World War the Soviet, British, American, Canadian, South African and other military and merchant sailors ploughing the Arctic seas within the Convoys discharged their allied duty with honour. They endured the fire miles of the World War II, having supplied arms, ammunition, food and thousands of tons of other strategic cargo to Soviet Russia essential to our war effort.

Originally convoys started to be used in the beginning of the WWII in 1939. The system of convoys provided for formation of large groups of merchant ships under the escort of military vessels for making sea trips. Such a system is organizationally complicated and hardly effective since speed of any convoy does not exceed speed of its slowest ship.

In April 1940 the fascist Germany occupied Norway under the pretext of defence of its nationals from the British invasion. On June 22, 1941 Germany treacherously attacked the USSR. On July 12, 1941 Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the treaty on 'mutual assistance' against Germany.

In August 1941 Allied convoys commenced running to the Arctic port of Murmansk (with the exception of several months in 1943 the convoys to the Soviet Union ran from 1941 until the war's end). The northern route of less than 2,500 miles was practical, but it crossed the cruellest sea of all, the Arctic Ocean. This Arctic route became known as the Murmansk Run.

A convoy set off each month, except in the summer when the lack of darkness made them very vulnerable to attack. On the other hand, in the darkness of the Arctic winter, when the sun never rose, keeping station was difficult for the poorly equipped merchant ships, so there was always a danger of ship-to-ship collision. Sailing around the northern tip of Norway, the convoys would be exposed to one of the largest concentrations of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world. Strict orders forbade the halting of any ship for even a moment for fear of being attacked by prowling German U-boats, and individuals who fell overboard or survivors seen adrift on the waters had to be ruthlessly ignored. Each delivery of arms was an epic achievement, described as undertaking the impossible.

Some of these convoys are particularly notable.

On August 12, 1941 the first convoy 'Dervish' departed Liverpool to Scapa Flow. It was composed of 6 British and a Dutch merchant ship. It reached Archangel with no losses on August 31 and delivered 10 thousand tons of rubber, 3800 depth-bombs and magnetic mines, 15 'Hurricane' fighters and other equipment.

Originally, the Allied convoys went unnamed and unnumbered. After several round trips were successfully completed, a coding system was established. All convoys bound for the Soviet Union were designated 'PQ' and those returning were designated 'QP' (the name of the officer who was monitoring convoys in the British Admiralty was P. Q. Edwards, his initials 'PQ' were used to mark the convoys heading outward and QP - homeward).

On September 28, 1941 the first of the PQ-convoys made up of 10 merchant ships under the escort of a cruiser and 2 destroyers departed Iceland to Archangel and reached it safely on October 11, 1941.

By the end of 1941, seven convoys had delivered 750 tanks, 800 planes, 2,300 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of general cargo to the Soviet Union. Convoy PQ-8 was attacked by a U-boat but came to Murmansk on January 19, 1942. By early February 1942, 12 northbound convoys including 93 ships had made the journey with the loss of only one ship to a U-boat.

During 1941 the enemy did not put up serious resistance to the convoys in the Arctic still setting hopes on 'blitzkrieg'. After the failure of the offensive on Moscow Germany started systematic fight against convoys by means of its fleet, submarines and 'Luftwaffe' forces.

By the beginning of 1942 Germans additionally deployed here one of the worlds' best battleships - 'Tirpitz', two heavy cruisers, 10 destroyers and later another battleship and cruiser, plus 260 'Luftwaffe' military aircraft. Most of the time all these forces acted simultaneously by delivering massive strikes at the convoys.

By the end of June 1942, PQ-17, the largest and most valuable convoy in the history of the run and known particularly for the tremendous losses among the merchant ships, was formed up and ready to sail for Murmansk and Archangel. Its cargo was worth a staggering $700 million. Crammed into bulging holds were nearly 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, and a general cargo that exceeded 150,000 tons. It was more than enough to completely equip an army of 50,000.

It sailed from Iceland on June 27, 1942. Thirty-five cargo ships were escorted by six destroyers and 15 other armed vessels. One ship was a catapult-armed merchantman that carried a Hawker Hurricane fighter which could be launched to intercept enemy aircraft and perform reconnaissance. Due to the threat from German surface ships, the convoy was ordered to scatter on July 4, and the escorts were withdrawn rather than risk their loss.

The toll taken on the abandoned convoy was horrendous. Only 11 of the 35 merchantmen that left Iceland finally made it to the Soviet Union. Fourteen of the sunken ships were American. More than two-thirds of the convoy had gone to the bottom, along with 210 combat planes, 430 Sherman tanks, 3,350 vehicles and nearly 100,000 tons of other cargo. More than 120 seamen were killed and countless others were crippled and maimed.

PQ-18 was the last convoy of this series which became the largest convoy formation. It departed on September 2, 1942 and was escorted by more than 30 military vessels, including 1 cruiser and 14 destroyers, as well as 2 tankers, 4 trawlers and a salvage ship. In total 51 vessels took part in this operation. 27 transport ships of PQ-18 delivered 150 thousand tons of cargo to Archangel which equaled to the total cargo amount supplied in 1941.

In November 1942 the convoys' marking was changed for the reasons of secrecy to the following identifiers: JW for the journey to Russia and RA for the return journey.

By the end of 1942 well over a million tons of Allied shipping had been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. 85 U-boats had gone there too. Slowly but surely the Battle of the Atlantic was turning the Allies' way.

In January 1943 a great success was achieved. The convoy JW51B was attacked by the cruiser 'Hipper' and the pocket battleship 'Luetzow', but the allied escort was able to drive off the attacking forces. After this victory, convoys ran regularly, with breaks from March to November 1943 and in the summer of 1944, until the end of the war. A total of 14 convoys sailed to Russia from November 1943 to May 1945 with only 13 ships lost altogether.

U-boats were losing their effectiveness as Allied submarine-hunting techniques improved through 1944. The battleship 'Tirpitz', always more potent as a threat than actual weapon, was finally sunk at her Tromso anchorage by RAF bombers on November 12, 1944.

The last convoy left on May 12, 1945, arriving at Murmansk on May 22, 1945. It had no losses.

Between August 1941 and the end of the war, a total of 78 convoys made the perilous journey to and from north Russia, carrying four million tons of supplies for use by Soviet forces fighting against the German Army on the Eastern Front.

In summary, about 1400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to Russia. 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. Towards the end of the war the material significance of the supplies was probably not as great as the symbolic value hence the continuation of these convoys long after the Russians had turned the German land offensive.

On the whole these convoys delivered about 4,5 million metric tons of cargoes, which is about one fourth of western allies' total aid. The cargoes included over 7,000 airplanes, about 5,000 tanks, cars, fuel, medicines, outfit, metals and other raw materials. The cargoes went in both directions, and significant volume of essential materials was delivered from the Soviet Union to Great Britain also to support the Ally's war efforts.

The Allied seamen showed true heroism in their long and perilous sea passages in convoys, being constantly attacked by enemy forces in the appalling weather conditions of the Arctic. The bravery of these men and women who unsparingly fought for the Victory will be always remembered and respected.

The series of commemorative medals was awarded to the surviving veterans of the Convoys by the Soviet and later Russian Governments. In 2013 the British veterans were awarded the Arctic Star by the British Government.

The last surviving British warship which participated in the Arctic Convoys is HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames opposite the Tower of London. Victory Day commemorations and award ceremonies for UK veterans of the Convoys are held aboard. In 2010 a restoration project for HMS Belfast was conveyed by a number of Russian companies.

An Arctic Convoys Museum exists in Scotland. It is located in Aultbea in Wester Ross, on the shores of Loch Ewe that was once an important logistics point for the convoys. Further information on the Museum may be found at http://www.russianarcticconvoymuseum.co.uk/

Scotland is also a home for two Arctic Convoys Memorials - one in The Cove, also on the shores of Loch Ewe, and another one on the island of Hoy on Orkney. Every year representatives of the Russian Consulate General in Edinburgh together with the representatives of the local communities and officials lay wreaths at this memorials on the 9th of May which is celebrated in Russia as the Victory Day.

Another memorial, although not commemorating the Arctic Convoys per se, but closely related to this theatre, is located in Dundee and is devoted to the crew-members of the Allied submarines that were based in the city during the war and were lost in the sea. Some of this submarines would operate in Arctic waters. One of them is the Soviet Northern Fleet's V-1 lost off the Scottish coast in July 1944.

There is also a number of Arctic convoys memorials in Russia, particularly in the cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. There are also the associations of the Russian veterans of the Arctic Convoys.

 

A selection of books in the National Library of Scotland on the Arctic Convoys

This list highlights a few of the titles which can be requested for consultation in the reading-room of the Library.

Through ice and fire : a Russian Arctic convoy diary 1942 / Leona J. Thomas. (2015)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB2.215.5.110

 

Road to Russia : Arctic convoys 1942 / by Bernard Edwards (2015)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB8.215.411/4 

 

Voices from the Arctic convoys / Peter C. Brown (2014)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB8.214.587/12 

 

Arctic convoys : men and ice / research and text: Sandra Marwick. (2014)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB5.216.539/24

 

Last but not least : H.M.S. Goodall torpedoed 29th April 1945 : the survivors and their rescuers / Vic Ould. (2013)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB5.213.1293/10

 

Commodore Robin Aveline Melhuish / Arnold Melhuish (2013)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB5.214.8/16

 

Arctic warriors : a personal account of convoy PQ18 / by Alfred Grossmith Mason; edited by Julie Grossmith Deltrice (2013)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB2.214.2.188

 

Forgotten sacrifice : the Arctic convoys of World War II / Michael G. Walling (2012)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB2.212.11.519

 

Arctic convoys, 1941-1945 / Richard Woodman (2007)

Shelfmark in NLS: PB8.208.192/1 

 

Royal Navy and the Arctic convoys : a naval staff history / with a preface by Malcolm Llewellyn-Jones. (2007)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB3.206.12.255

 

Eyewitness accounts of the World War II, Murmansk run, 1941-1945 / edited by Mark Scott (2006)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB2.207.4.551

 

Sacrifice for Stalin : the cost and value of the Arctic convoys re-assessed / David Wragg (2005)

Shelfmark in NLS: HB2.207.10.666 

 

Arctic victory : the story of Convoy PQ 18 / Peter C. Smith (1994)

Shelfmark in NLS: H3.95.3075

 

Convoys to Russia : allied convoys and naval surface operations in Arctic waters 1941 - 1945 / by Bob Ruegg and Arnold Hague (1993)

Shelfmark in NLS: HP3.93.621 

 

Arctic convoys B.B. Schofield (1977)

Shelfmark in NLS: H3.77.3592

 

Kola run : a record of Arctic convoys 1941-1945 / [by] Sir Ian Campbell and Donald MacIntyre (1975)

Shelfmark in NLS: 5.6290 

 

Ordeal below zero. (The heroic story of the Arctic convoys in World War II.) [With plates, including portraits, and a map.] (1956)

Shelfmark in NLS: NF.803.c.15

 

Please, feel free to address the National Library regarding any of the items through www.nls.uk

(Any of the material in Library collections is not for lending out, but any item can be consulted at the premises of the Library).