There are many images of World War Two that have come to be ingrained in the modern psyche. When one thinks of the war, images such as those of British soldiers forming lines on the Dunkirk beaches as they wait patiently to be evacuated to England; American and British troops storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day; and Japanese bombers destroying the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour are probably some of the first that come to mind.
However, one of the most important operations that directly led to the success of the Allied effort in ridding Europe of the Nazi scourge has never had the recognition it deserves. There have been no films made, and very few books written, about those brave men who sailed on the Russian convoys. This lack of acknowledgement and appreciation for those who fought and died in the bleakest of environments rankled with the men who saw action there long after the guns fell silent and the ships in which they sailed were broken down for scrap.
The struggle for that recognition lasted until 2014 when the British government finally issued the veterans with the Arctic Star, a medal they should have received in 1945. This followed the announcement by the Russians to award them with the Russian Ushakov medal.
But what is their story? What exactly were the Arctic convoys and why were they so important?
When the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, appealed directly to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, for aid to repel the Nazis. In July 1941 the Anglo-Soviet Agreement was signed whereby Britain agreed to provide supplies to the Soviets. This assistance came in the form of war materiel, food, raw materials and medicines. Quotas were agreed between the two countries and only two months after the invasion, the first Arctic Convoy of seven merchant ships supported by an escort provided by the Royal Navy set sail from Liverpool under the codename Operation Dervish setting sail from Liverpool on 12th August 1941. This convoy arrived in Archangelsk on 31st August and its success led to regular convoys, growing in size and strength.
The most direct route was by sea, around northern Norway to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. This route funnelled the convoys between Arctic pack ice in the north and German airfields and naval bases in Norway. Later, sailing from a mustering point of Loch Ewe in Scotland, the summer route took the convoys around Iceland and then across the Norwegian Sea, north of Bear Island to the Barents Sea, then on to Russia In the winter, due to the sea being frozen, it forced them further south bringing them closer to the enemy. No matter the time of year, the convoys were always at the mercy of U-boat wolf-packs.
Added to the dangers of the German war machine was the savage Arctic weather. Operating in temperatures at around minus 30 degrees Celsius, sailors would need to go out on frozen decks, between German attacks, to remove ice from weapons and superstructures to stop the ships becoming top-heavy and capsizing. Storms, appearing from nowhere, would throw them around as though they were toys, and any unfortunate soul falling into the sea would have around two minutes to get out before they froze to death. It was possibly the harshest place on earth to conduct a war and led to Churchill describing the Arctic convoys as “the worst journey in the world.”
The Arctic convoys supplied over four million tonnes of aid to the Soviet Union during the course of World War Two. This accounted for twenty percent of all equipment used on the Eastern Front during the war. But it all came at a cost. Eighty-five merchant vessels and sixteen Royal Navy ships were lost with over three thousand men killed. Therefore the importance and sacrifice of the men who got it there should never be underestimated.
I have been privileged to have known men who sailed on these convoys. However all have now sadly “crossed the bar”. What I found in each of them was humility and a belief that they were “just doing their duty” and had not done anything special. I begged to differ with each of them. They were true heroes.
John McKay is the author of Hell & High Water.