Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Arctic Convoys 1941-1945

By John R McKay

The temperature out on deck is minus thirty degrees Centigrade. The wind howls around, making it feel even colder. The sea rises and falls in swells of up to sixty feet, the water towering over your head one second before falling to a trough as equally deep the next, throwing your ship around as though it’s a child’s toy. Somewhere close by you know there is a U-boat wolf pack, waiting for the opportunity to slam a torpedo into your side and send you to the bottom of the sea. Enemy surface ships are gaining on you. Over your head Nazi attack planes circle, looking for an opportunity to swoop down like hawks, eager to drop their bombs, to wipe you and your mates from the face of the earth and confine your bodies to the deepest depths of an icy sea.


But, like it or not, you must go out onto that very deck and chip away at the ice that has formed on the decks with picks and mauls. To leave it means the ship could get top heavy and capsize, nature completing the work the German military are trying to do. Should you be unlucky enough to fall into the sea then you have no more than two minutes before you freeze to death.

Inside the steel and iron superstructure, between watches, you attempt to gain some rest in freezing cabins and mess rooms where ice forms on your blankets as you sleep. Your frozen eyelashes break away, causing reddening and irritation, and no matter how hard you rub them, the discomfort will not go away. Most of all, you dream of home and those you love, so far away and oblivious to the hell that you are going through.

This may sound a little far-fetched, a little dramatic maybe, something from a novel. But this was the daily reality for those men of the Royal and merchant navies who took part in the Arctic Convoys of the Second World War. Voyages that Winston Churchill himself described as “the worst journey in the world”. Those necessary trips that provided real and practical support to the Soviet Union in their war on the Eastern Front.


When the German army unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union in August 1941, the Soviets were taken completely by surprise and were ill-prepared for the Nazi Blitzkrieg. The Red Army were forced to retreat deep into Russia, as far as Moscow itself. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, reached out to Britain to assist them in any way they could. They desperately needed tanks, airplanes, medicines, food and other practical supplies in order for them to maintain their fight.

For the first time since the Battle of France, Britain was not on its own in its struggle against the Nazis. Churchill realised that having an ally as potentially powerful as the Soviets was necessary if Britain was to endure. So not only was the decision to assist the Russians a practical one, it was also a political one as it showed the British public that they were no longer alone and gave hope to the country. As long as the Russians were also fighting with us, then there was the chance of an ultimate victory.

Wasting no time, Churchill ordered the Admiralty to organise a convoy of materials to set sail for Russia as soon as was possible and in late August 1941, only a couple of weeks after the German invasion, the first of those voyages set sail from Scotland. This would be the first of seventy five such journeys.

The initial stage of these voyages would be from Loch Ewe in Scotland to Iceland, where they would join other merchant ships and set sail for the ports of Murmansk and Archangel in northern Russia. In May 1940, fearing that the Germans would use neutral Iceland as a staging post for disrupting the Atlantic Convoys, the British ordered an invasion of the island and occupied it until the end of the war. This occupation of Iceland ensured the safety of the initial phase, and had Iceland been left to the Germans, then the Arctic Convoys would probably not have happened, or at least not have been as successful.

Once all the ships were prepared, they would form into ‘sticks’ with the Royal Navy and other military ships on the outside, searching for U-boats and to protect the merchantmen from enemy attack. Many of the warships involved were ‘borrowed’ from the Americans as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement of March 1941. This agreement was vital for the Royal Navy as it provided sufficient ships to carry out the convoys as well as maintaining operations in other theatres of war.


The 2,500 mile journey took the convoys around Norway to the Barents Sea and eventually to the Kola Inlet and onward to Murmansk and Archangel on the White Sea, where their cargoes would be unloaded and any repairs carried out before the return journeys back to Iceland and then Scotland. This route took them within range of Norwegian Nazi airfields and Kriegsmarine ports. Attacks were launched by the Luftwaffe and submarine ‘wolf packs’ stalked them, sinking both military and merchant vessels.

During the winter months, the further north the ships travelled, there would be very few hours of daylight. In one way this was a good thing as it reduced the amount of air attacks, the planes being unable to fly, but on the other hand it was when the worst of the weather would occur. If ice and snow was not cleared from the superstructures then the ships could easily capsize and so sailors had to go out in the harshest of conditions to clear it. Many ships were lost this way. However, during the summer months, when daylight lasted for up to twenty hours a day, they would suffer ceaseless air attacks until they were out of range of the bases.

However, once in the port of Murmansk, the ships were still susceptible to air attack as the port was bombed incessantly by German planes operating from Norwegian airfields and this only stopped when those bases were abandoned near the end of the war.

Although all the Arctic Convoys had their own perils, three particular journeys stand out from the rest in terms of hardship and naval losses:

Convoy PQ13 which sailed in March 1942 was hit by an extremely violent storm in the Norwegian Sea which lasted for three days, scattering the ships over 150 nautical miles. They were also attacked incessantly by the Luftwaffe, surface ships and U-boats and 5 of the 19 ships of the convoy were sunk. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Trinidad was also damaged by its own torpedo when engaging a German surface ship, killing 32 of its crew. (HMS Trinidad was later scuttled during the return journey to Iceland after coming under air attack, which killed another 63 men).

Convoy PQ17, in July 1942 was a particularly hazardous journey. This was the first joint Anglo-American convoy and after coming under constant aerial attack and losing many ships, the Admiralty received information that the German battleship, The Tirpitz, was en-route to intercept it. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, ordered the convoy to ‘scatter’. This effectively meant that it was ‘every man for himself’ and the merchant ships were pretty much left to their own fate. Of the 35 merchant ships that sailed on the convoy, 24 were lost, with only a handful actually making it to Murmansk.

The following convoy PQ18 did not fare much better, losing one third of its merchant ships (13 out of 39) to German aircraft and U-boats.

Nevertheless, by the end of the war the convoys had supplied the Soviets with four million tons of munitions including 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aircraft. This along with other vital supplies including food, grain and medicines undoubtedly assisted them in pushing back the Germans and ultimately winning the war. Without this vital aid they would have struggled to maintain their war effort, particularly in the early years.


In all, over a hundred merchant ships were lost during the Arctic Convoys, as well as twenty two ships of the Royal Navy (including the destroyers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Trinidad). Over 3,000 sailors lost their lives on these journeys.

It was many years after the war that the sacrifices and heroism of those who undertook these journeys was finally recognised. It was only in December 2012, 67 years after the end of the war that the British government finally acknowledged these brave sailors, issuing those who remain with us the Arctic Star, and in 2013 the Russian government issued the Ushakov medal to surviving sailors of the Arctic Convoys.

Finally, should you find yourself at a Remembrance Day parade or a maritime event and see an elderly gentleman wearing naval decorations and a white beret, then please acknowledge him. For  only those who sailed on the Arctic Convoys are allowed to wear the white beret, and no matter how small his role, he played a vital part in the war effort and endured what Winston Churchill described as ‘The Worst Journey In The World’ to give us all the freedoms we enjoy today.

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John R McKay is the author of five novels, including ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, a story set aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Arctic Convoys of World War Two.

His interest in the Arctic Convoys came from being introduced Bill Halliwell, the telegraphist on HMS Bazely, a ship which took part in the convoys in 1945. The stories he heard of Bill's time led to the research for and writing of ‘The Worst Journey In The World’.

He has recently contributed a short story to the World War Two anthology - The Darkest Hour, WWII Tales Of Resistance. This is a collaboration of ten authors, including Ellie Midwood, Roberta Kagan and Marion Kummerow and all proceeds are going to the Washington DC Holocaust Museum. The anthology will be released on 22 January 2019. For further information please check out the website www.thedarkesthouranthology.com

For further details of his work: www.johnrmckay.com
Twitter: @JohnMcKay68
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JohnRMcKayAuthor/


6 comments:

  1. Excellent article; thanks for sharing it. These men, and the planning of the Arctic Convoys, should never be forgotten. Have Tweeted.

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    1. Hi Linda. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. It's a fascinating story about some quite remarkable men

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  2. Fascinating post! I did not know about these convoys. It's good to know their contribution has been acknowledged.

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  3. Hi Lauren, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I didn't know much about the convoys until quite recently after meeting a veteran of them. His stories inspired me to write the novel and the article.

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  4. I too enjoyed the post. My late father in law served on the Arctic Convoys.

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  5. Fascinating history. How fortunate to have met Mr.Halliwell! There's nothing like meeting a human connection to history.

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Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.