The worst journey in the world – the Arctic Convoys of World War 2

On 23rd August 1939, just days before Germany invaded Poland in the opening moves of the Second World War, the world was surprised to see two sworn enemies – Germany and Russia – sign a Non-aggression Pact in which they agreed not to go to war against each other for the next ten years. For Stalin the treaty meant that Russia could stay on peaceful terms with Germany whilst building up her own military strength; for Hitler it meant that he would be able to invade Poland unopposed. In September Hitler attacked Poland and the country was soon under Nazi control, this meant that Hitler had got what he wanted from the Pact so in June 1941, much to the anger of Stalin, Germany invade Russia with more than 3 million troops. This was the largest invasion in history (in comparison the D Day landings in Normandy saw 156,000 Allied soldiers come ashore). Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia) was initially a success with the Russians losing 4,500 planes in just nine days, a number which constituted half of their air force, within six months the Russian army had lost 20,000 tanks. By the end of the year the Germans were within 15 miles of Red Square in the centre of Moscow and a desperate Stalin begged Churchill to send Russia tanks, planes and guns to halt the German progress.

Operation Barbarossa © IWM (HU 111387)

Churchill didn’t like either communism or Stalin, but he knew that Britain would not be able to defeat Hitler alone. So far America was only sending supplies to Europe not troops and so Churchill had no real alternative but to help Stalin in an effort to keep a large part of Germany’s troops occupied in the east rather than freeing them up for an invasion of the British Isles. Churchill knew that to defeat Hitler in Russia would be a colossal undertaking and so he promised Stalin that there would be deliveries of supplies every 10 days. But how would they get there? They could be sent across the Pacific from America and then by train across Russia, or they could go around Africa and then overland from India, but both of these routes would take weeks, if not months. The only realistic route to deliver supplies quickly and regularly would be to go the north of Norway to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel; the problem with that route was that Germany already held Norway so the convoys would have to run the gauntlet of German ships, submarines and planes as well as struggling with the treacherous conditions of the Arctic Ocean. As Churchill said, it should take about 10 days but it would be the worst journey in the world.

ARCTIC CONVOY. ON BOARD HMS INGLEFIELD , 14 FEBRUARY TO 13 MARCH 1943, DURING CONVOY DUTY IN ARCTIC WATERS. © IWM (A 15400)

The Merchant Navy was delegated to man the convoys. Before the war merchant vessels had brought trade goods to Britain from all parts of the world, but the experienced sailors who served in the Merchant Navy had never signed up for active service during a war. As a non-military fighting force these men – aged from 14 to 70 – were ill-equipped with little more than a long coat, leather boots and balaclava. One of their main jobs whilst the ships were on the arctic run was to clear the ice from the decks so that it didn’t jam up the winches and guns, or build up until the ship became so top-heavy that it would capsize. Most of the ships in the Merchant Navy were old and slow, many dating from the First World War, and they had certainly not been designed for the harsh Arctic Ocean. The brave merchant seamen who took on this task were paid as little as £10 a month, and it was the rule that a sailor’s pay would be stopped the moment his ship sank!

Ice forms on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield while she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia

Only 1 of the 103 ships which sailed in the first 12 convoys to Russia was lost and so huge numbers of supplies reached their destination, so much so that in the Battle of Moscow at the end of 1941 75% of the tanks used by the Russians were British made and had arrived via the convoys. As well as tanks the ships cargos included fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials, and food. Ships would return to Britain either with ballast or some passengers who were mainly survivors of sunken merchant ships, British servicemen and Russian diplomats.

The convoys were co-ordinated by a control centre in Liverpool. At the heart of the convoy were the merchant ships with the supplies, usually travelling in rows eight abreast. Surrounding these were the warships which offered close protection – destroyers, armed trawlers and anti-aircraft ships. The distant protection was provided by heavy cruisers which would be 30 or 40 miles further out to combat any threat from German surface ships – the German ship Tirptz in particular was in Norwegian waters and considered a constant threat. Sometimes there were also one or two submarines offering protection to the convoy. In the summer months as the ice retreated the convoys would take the route from Iceland (usually off Hvalfjörður) north of Jan Mayen Island to Archangel, but as winter approached and the pack ice increased the convoys would take a more southerly route to Murmansk. From February1942 convoys also assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe* in Scotland.

Loch Ewe during the war

As if the threat of German attacks wasn’t enough the merchant convoys also had to contend with the severe weather conditions of the Arctic Ocean – fog, freezing temperatures which went down to -60, gales with winds of up to 100mph, mountainous waves, strong currents, drift ice, and the difficulties of navigating so close to the North Pole all meant that the loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route. The journey meant days of heightened tension for the sailors, a particular fear was that your ship might sink because if it did there was little hope of rescue as you would only be able to survive for minutes in the freezing waters and the other ships in the convoy needed to keep moving as a unit and so often couldn’t stop to help.

The most infamous convoy was PQ17 which had the distinction of being the first significant joint Anglo-American operation of the war, was the largest arctic convoy to sail, and was also one of the biggest naval disasters of the 20th century.

The convoy of 35 ships in PQ17 assembled at Hvalfjord, Iceland, at the end of June 1942.  One ship grounded when leaving harbour and another was damaged by floating ice and had to withdraw, but the remaining 33 merchant ships headed east for Russia on 27th June. The 33 British and American merchant ships were carrying enough tanks and munitions to equip an army of 50,000 men. By this time Germany had realised that the convoys had to be stopped if they were ever to defeat Russia and so Hitler had increased the number of planes, ships and submarines in Norway. British command recognised the danger and gave PQ17 a massive armed escort – a close escort of 19 ships and a cruiser force of 7 further out. The British were also put in charge of this joint Anglo-American force as they were the only ones with the experience of Arctic convoys. The ships set out at their top speed on a voyage that was expected to take about 10 days, and for the first 7 days there were no major incidents as any U-boats that came close were driven away by the destroyers, and the anti-aircraft ships saw off any German planes. (Film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr served onboard one of the escort ships for PQ17).

USS Wainright

But the massive convoy’s luck did not hold out and disaster struck on 4th July at 8.20 pm when the Germans launched a full assault. The first wave of the attack came from a flight of Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers. The USS Wainright broke ranks, turned away from the convoy and headed off alone to try to shoot down the planes; the heavy fire they gave caused most of the German planes to drop their torpedoes too early or turn back. After this initial success another more persistent wave of bombers came and within a short time 3 merchant ships had been hit with a loss of just 3 German planes. At the same time Naval HQ in London received news from Swedish intelligence that German surface ships had left Norway and were heading for PQ17, they reported that the Tirpitz was with them. The Tirpitz was the most advanced warship in the world with massive armour yet it was fast and had a huge number of colossal guns. The ships protecting the convoy could fire their shells a distance of 16 miles, but the Tirpitz’s guns could hit them from 22 miles away. The convoy stood no chance against such a ship.

Tirpitz

First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound (who was suffering with a brain tumour) had to make a decision – should he order PQ17 to turn back? If he did so it was possible that without the supplies Russia could lose the war, but if he ordered the convoy to continue it was likely to be destroyed and Russia could still lose the war. Pound decided that the Cruiser escort should turn around and return to Britain because they couldn’t take on the Tirpitz and the British could not afford to lose so many ships. The convoy itself should be ordered to disperse and head for Russian ports on their own. His theory was that if the merchantmen remained together the Tirpitz would be able to sink them all, but if they scattered at least some of them should get through. The messages from London created a sense of panic amongst the convoy who were not sure what to do. When the cruiser escort turned around Captain Broome was left in charge of the close escort and took overall control of the convoy, but with the merchant ships scattering in all directions he believed that it would be impossible to protect them so he turned around too, thinking that he could perhaps help the cruisers fight the Tirpitz. The merchant ships were left alone with no protection and 800 miles still to go.

Sir Dudley Pound

The Germans began their main attack on PQ17 with a force of 133 bombers, 12 torpedo planes and 12 U-boats; the unprotected ships were sitting ducks and it was a disaster for the convoy. The attack continued for 2 days with 12 merchant ships lost in the first 24 hours; and during that time there was still no sign of the Tirpitz. First Sea Lord Pound was eventually informed that the Tirpitz was still at anchor in Norwegian waters, there had been no need to abandon the convoy after all.** This is when the most puzzling decision of all was made, rather than bring the convoy back together Pound, for some unknown reason, said it must remain scattered. That order meant the effective end of PQ17.

It was at this point that the hero of Convoy PQ17 appeared. Captain Gradwell was a volunteer sailor who had been a barrister before the war but was now in command of a trawler which had been converted with a couple of guns and depth charges, and whose crew was mainly fishermen. Gradwell decided that the order to abandon the convoy was so bad that he would disobey it and stay with the scattered merchant ships. He found 3 US merchantmen whose officers agreed to follow his trawler as he led them as far north as possible, intending to hide amongst the ice until the attack was over and then head for Archangel. Gradwell didn’t have the charts he needed for the area and so was using a Times Handy Atlas! And he only had a certificate to captain a leisure cruiser in coastal waters! Gradwell took the ships as far north as he could, only stopping when the ice was too thick to go further, then he ordered the crews to paint the ships white and cover the decks with white sheets and tablecloths. At least one German plane flew over but didn’t see the camouflaged ships against the ice. Gradwell then ordered the tanks on deck to be loaded and pointed south to where any enemy would come from. And there the ships waited whilst chaos reigned in the south. When a fog came down Gradwell decided that it was time to try to escape and led the ships back south. On the morning of 25th July, two weeks overdue, Gradwell and the three ships he was escorting arrived in Archangel. Only 11 out of 33 of the convoy’s ships reached the Soviet Union, and 153 men lost their lives on those that were sunk. Captain Gradwell was awarded the DSC for his actions on Convoy PQ17.

Arctic convoys continued to the end of the war and the mistake of scattering the ships in the face of a German attack was never made again; but PQ17 was not the only one of the 78 arctic convoy missions to suffer losses. A total of 104 Allied merchant ships and 18 warships were sunk with the arctic convoys; over 3,000 personnel were killed. Russia also lost 30 merchant ships and an unknown number of personnel. Germany lost 5 surface warships, 31 submarines, and an unknown number of aircraft in her attacks on the convoys.
Over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians by the Arctic convoys including tanks, aircraft, trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines, sheet metal, food, and boots. The supplies were not as vital towards the end of the war but the convoys continued as a symbolic show of unity amongst the Allies.

The role which the convoys played in keeping Russia in the war cannot be overstated, but because they were Merchant Navy those who crewed the merchant ships did not receive a medal at the end of the war. It wasn’t until March 2013 that the role they played was finally recognised and they were awarded the Arctic Star.

*RUSSIAN ARCTIC CONVOY MUSEUM  near Loch Ewe in Scotland. Please take a look at their website, and call in if you are ever in the area – it is a fascinating museum.   There is some interesting video of Loch Ewe here (filmed in 2012 so some information about the museum and medal is out of date).

**Aside from an abortive attempt to intercept PQ12 in March 1942 and a raid on Spitsbergen in September 1943, the Tirpitz spent most of the war in the Norwegian fjords. She was repeatedly attacked by Allied forces and was finally sunk in Tromsø fjord on 12th November 1944 by the RAF.

 

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