The Arctic Convoys to the Soviet Union (USSR) were vital to both sides involved in World War Two. Men on the Arctic Convoys had to endure “the worst journey in the world” (Winston Churchill) but the journey to the Soviet Arctic ports of Murmansk and Archangel kept the Red Army supplied with vital military equipment and food to fight the Germans on the Eastern Front. The first Arctic Convoy took place in August 1941 and continued until the end of World War Two in the West. In total, there were 78 convoys.
Ships in an Arctic convoy had to sail 1,600 miles from ports in Scotland or Iceland to their Soviet destination. The journey was fraught with danger. U-boats patrolled the route and were a real menace while surface raiders from the Kriegsmarine added to the danger. The ships also faced a threat from the air. Along with these man-made threats came natural dangers. The seas during the journey could become very rough during bad weather and 40 feet waves were not uncommon. However, poor weather was also a blessing for the sailors as it meant that the German surface fleet had to operate in the same conditions while a heavy swell made it difficult for a U-boat to rise near to the sea’s surface to fire torpedoes.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the Arctic convoys. The Allies needed the Red Army to be at its most robust on the Eastern Front. At any given time after Operation Barbarossa in 1941, it is thought that about two-thirds of the Wehrmacht was tied up on the Eastern Front. If D-Day was going to be a success, this had to be maintained. D-Day planners knew that a successful landing – and therefore a second front – depended on facing as little opposition as was possible in occupied France.
In the immediate aftermath of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army not only lost men but also vast amounts of equipment. The very large Soviet population meant that manpower was less of an issue but lack of equipment was. The large part of the Soviet factory-system had been overrun by the speed of the German attack and these were the days before the factories had been rebuilt behind the Ural Mountains. Therefore the USSR was desperate for equipment and this is part of what the Arctic Convoys supplied. Before the factories turned out large numbers of T-34 tanks, the Red Army used British mechanised vehicles and Soviet pilots flew Hawker Hurricanes into battle. Whatever could be spared was sent to Murmansk and Archangel to ensure that the Eastern Front survived. Food was also sent and was used by the citizens of Leningrad during the very long siege endured by that city. Some 3.9 million tons of goods were shipped to the USSR by the Arctic convoys with 93% arriving and 7% being lost at sea. The importance of this aid was such that Stalin insisted on convoys continuing to the Soviet Union even after the war had turned on the Eastern Front and when the USSR could supply itself. Stalin believed that the psychological importance of the convoys to the people of the USSR was such that they had to be continued – and they were.
The dangers that faced the men in the convoys were great. Over 3000 men were killed on the Arctic Convoys with 87 merchant ships and 18 Royal Navy ships lost. Convoy PQ17 suffered the worst casualties out of all the Arctic convoys. PQ17 was made up of 35 merchant ships with their naval escorts. Only 11 of these merchant ships arrived in the Soviet Union. A misunderstanding of intelligence led to PQ17 being ordered to scatter at sea. The convoy would have sailed in a pre-determined pattern to ensure that its escort ships gave it the best possible protection. However, it was incorrectly believed that a battle fleet led by the ‘Tirpitz’ was homing in on the convoy – hence the order to scatter. Once this had occurred, U-boats would have found it much easier to pick off individual targets.
“The thing I remember most is the bitter cold. We had three lookouts above the ship keeping an eye out for German planes and battleships, even in the worst of weathers. Once we went out to relieve them and they were dead – frozen solid.” George Shreeve (HMS Shropshire and HMS Kent, both RN cruisers)
“It was unforgettable because of the terrible weather and the huge waves. The cold went right through you.” Ralph Beckett (HMS Rhododendron, RN corvette)
“The thing that frightened me the most was the size of the seas. The waves were as high as houses and they would swamp the smaller boats.” John Jacob (HMS Diadem, RN light cruiser)
“I went to sea thinking it was a big adventure but after you’d been at seas a few days, chopping thick ice off the deck and the guns, it did not seem such a lot of fun. One of the lookouts came off his shift and took off his duffel coat and it just stood up, frozen solid.” Fred Reynolds (HMS Anson, RN battleship)
“The worst thing was knowing that somewhere underneath you the U-boats lurked. Once I was moving across the deck and there was a huge explosion. I saw a column of smoke and fire and one of the ships started to sink. The poor blighters on that ship didn’t stand a chance.” Eric Alley (HMS Inglefield; RN destroyer)