23 April 2014
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ARCTIC ALLIED CONVOYS (1941-1945)

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 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 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: http://www.russianarcticconvoymuseum.co.uk/ 



COMMENTS

Comments: 7


13.03.2014 17:02 - David McWhinnie

I've just received notice from Artic Star to Russia that the Ushakov Medal has been awarded to British veterans of the Arctic Convoys. However my father's name is missing from the list and I am led to believe that we/he should have applied for it last year. Is there another time scale available for applying? My dad is 90 years old and served on HMS Berwick ib the Artic Convoys and on one occasion they sailed into Murmansk.


27.02.2014 17:25 - lynne powell

I should like to know when the UK veterans are likely to receive the Ushakov medal which has been awarded by Russia as recognition of help and bravery during the Arctic convoy campaign in World War 2. Thank you.


08.10.2013 06:28 - Rene Newman

On Commemoration Days I am proud to wear the Artctic Emblem, Arctic Star and the Russian 60th Anniversary Medal for which in Russia is known as the Great Patriotic War victory. The Russian ambassador Mikhail Nikolaevich Lysenko presented over 30 New Zealanders with this medal at the Takapuna Returned Servicemens Club in May 2005. A memorable day blessed with His Excellency accompanied with his charming wife honouring us with his visit to our club. Rene Newman FX 562683 PS No doubt those who are awarded the deserved Ushakov Medal will be as proud and treasure it. l


10.09.2013 15:01 - michele dennick

My grandad has just received the British artic cross and is in the process of getting the Russian one to we are so proud of him


19.03.2013 22:12 - Daphne Thurlow

Thank you for a wonderful article on the convoys here. I found it whilst researching my Dad's time in the RN during WW2. It is very pleasing to see that the few remaining men from the convoys have at last been awarded the Arctic Star. It is a fact that for many years the Russian government were willng to award these brave men with a medal of their own, but the British gvernment would not allow it. A bit pathetic on their part. Sadly most of the men have now passed away, including my dear Dad, whom I think may have been involved in the convoys, but as he never spoke of his war service except on the rare occasion, I am having a problem finding the info. I shall keep trying, meantime, I have enjoyed reading this article, many thanks. I only wish our countries were more friendly toward one another. I visited Russsia many years ago, and found people to be so very welcoming and helpful, and I learned that whoever we are, and wherever we live on this globe, we are all pretty much the same.


03.08.2012 11:30 - Derek Martin

Perhaps the Russians are not represented because we have rejected their efforts of post-Stalin friendship by refusing acceptance of the Russian medals to British forces. Also. Why no mention of the RAF contribution such as No/210 Squadron Flying Boats based at Archangel ?


11.06.2012 21:05 - Patrick Moran

On Merchant Navy Day in Liverpool we have a religious and civil service where we pay homage to more than 60,000 allied merchant seafarers who died in the Battle of the Atlantic. Many of these men and women died on the Russian Convoys and many of them were Russian. Every year we have requested that a Russian diplomat attend this service but so far without success. In view of the above article on the Russian Convoys we find this hard to understand, most of the other allied nations do send diplomatic representatives. This years services are at Noon on 2nd September at the Liverpool Parish Church of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas and at 1300hrs at the Merchant Navy Memorial on the Pier Head. We will send an official invitation to His Excellency Ambassador Yakovenko and hope that this year a senior diplomat will attend. Your sincerely Patrick Moran Chairman Merchant Navy Day Committee