Buried in an unremarkable grave in Hampstead Cemetery is a remarkable man. Few people know of August Agboola Browne who, although born in Nigeria, became a hero of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. It seems fitting that this courageous man should be remembered during black history month.
August Browne was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd July 1895; his father was a longshoreman who brought his family to England in search of work. When the family arrived in England August, who was a musician, joined a touring theatre troupe and travelled with them to Germany and then Poland. The young Nigerian arrived in Warsaw in 1922 and by the 1930’s was well known as a jazz percussionist who played in many of Warsaw’s music clubs and restaurants. August was polite and well-liked, his affinity with languages (he spoke six) meant that he was soon conversant in Polish, married and had two sons. Although the marriage failed August took care of his family and at the outbreak of war sent them to England (this was not too difficult for him to do as he was a citizen of the then British Empire). Although he could have travelled with his family August chose to stay in Poland to fight the Nazis.
August was in his mid-forties when Germany invaded Poland, and after having lived there for 17 years he felt an affinity for the country and its people. He helped to defend Warsaw when it was besieged, then later went on to distribute underground newspapers as well as shelter refugees from the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto was a section of the city which had been sealed off by the German’s as living space for the Jewish population. Conditions inside the ghetto were terrible with 91,000 people dying from starvation and disease; a further 300,000 Jews were transported from there to their deaths in German concentration camps.
In 1944 there was an Uprising against the German occupiers of Warsaw in which August is believed to have been the only black person to fight. Code-named ‘Ali’, he served as part of the Iwo Battalion of the Polish Underground known as the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The Uprising began when the Armia Krajowa attacked the occupying forces on 1st August 1944 and swiftly gained control of much of the city. Germany sent in reinforcements to crush the resistance whilst nearby Soviet troops, who were supposed to be allies of the Poles, sat back and did nothing to help. The Warsaw Uprising was the largest resistance action to take place during the Second World War; the Poles held out for two months without proper equipment or help but the outcome was inevitable and they were forced surrendered on 2nd October. During the 63 days of the Uprising 16,000 Polish fighters and 200,000 civilians were killed, and the city almost totally destroyed. During those heroic days Polish deaths exceeded those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
As the only black member of the resistance in Warsaw August must have been conspicuous which put him at greater risk than his companions, yet he managed to survive in a city where 94% of the population were either killed or displaced. After the war Auguste continued to live in Warsaw, where he remarried and continued his music career as well as working in the Department of Culture and Art, before emigrating to Britain in the late 1950’s. Living in London he continued to work as a jazz percussionist and gave piano lessons.
August died in 1976 and is buried in Hampstead cemetery, in what is an unremarkable grave for a very remarkable man.
On August 2nd 2019 a stone was unveiled in his memory in Warsaw: “In honor of Augustine Agboola Browne, nom de guerre “Ali”, a jazz musician and a participant in the Warsaw Uprising of Africa origin. Poland was the country he chose to live in”.
“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Lyudmila Belova was born 12th July 1916 in Bila Tserkva in the Ukraine (near Kiev). Her mother was a school teacher and her father a factory worker who worked his way up to a position of responsibility. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to a new town every year which in turn meant that Lyudmila had to start again each year at a new school with new friends.
Lyudmila was a tomboy – preferring to play rough and tumble games with the boys rather than with girls. When she was 14 the family moved to Kiev where one boy kept bragging that he could shoot better than anyone else, this annoyed Lyudmila who thought she could do anything that a boy could do so she joined a local shooting club. She had a natural talent and was soon winning medals at competitions.
As a teenager Lyudmila worked at the Kiev arms factory as well as working so hard at her studies that she graduated from college a year earlier than other students of her age. Lyudmila married a doctor, Alexei Pavlichenko, when she was 16 and they had a son called Rostislav. Russian women were expected to marry young and start a family so this was not unusual; it was also a matter of pride for women to work full-time and also look after their young family, not like the ‘stay-at-home-mums’ of other European countries. The Russian idea was that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so everyone helped to look after the children of the community which enabled the women to work.
Lyudmila was not satisfied with working in the armament’s factory – she wanted an education and a career, unfortunately her insistence on this led to her and Alexei getting a divorce. Lyudmila studied for a Bachelor’s degree in history at Kiev University with the aim of becoming a teacher. The young Russian was planning to do a Master’s, but then the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and her plans were put on hold after the death and destruction she witnessed during the battle of Kiev made her put aside her dreams of becoming a teacher in favour of killing Nazis.
Lyudmila was 24 when she enlisted in the Russian Army, this was a year before women were conscripted but she didn’t want to wait. The authorities felt that as a woman she should become a nurse but Lyudmila had other ideas and when she showed them her shooting medals she was allowed to join an all-male sniper school (a women’s sniper school was not set up until 1942). When she was sent to the front after her training Lyudmila was initially set to digging trenches, it wasn’t until a colleague was too wounded to continue and he handed her his gun that she had a weapon at last. The young woman had been bullied at sniper school and the other snipers still did not accept her fully so they set her a test – to shoot two of the enemy standing in a field, if she couldnd’t do it she would be sent home. Lyudmila surprised everyone by killing both Germans with two very quick headshots and she was accepted in the ranks of the snipers.
On her first day on the battlefield Lyudmila was frozen with fear and couldn’t bring herself to lift her gun and fire on the enemy. Then a young Russian soldier moved beside her but before he could settle in a shot rang out and he was killed. The shock spurred Lyudmila to action as she had liked the ‘nice, happy boy’, and from that moment on there was no stopping her.
During the Siege of Odessa which lasted from 8th August until 16th October 1941, Lyudmila killed 187 of the enemy saying that she was so successful because she hated the enemy too much to fear him. On one occasion Germans had marked her position in a tree and were firing at it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they killed her Lyudmila deliberately fell out of the tree and played dead until nightfall when she slipped quietly away. It was at that point that her comrades began to call her ‘Lady Death’.
Lyudmila later took part in the battle of Sevastopol where she killed 70 more Germans (taking her total to 257) and she was assigned to become a counter-sniper – in other words to target and kill enemy snipers. This took great skill and perseverance as she had to sit still and wait until the enemy sniper revealed himself before taking her shot; on average this took 15 – 20 hours. On one occasion Lyudmila had to lay still in her hiding place for 3 days without food or water waiting for the enemy sniper to reveal himself. In all she was sent against 36 enemy snipers and killed them all.
By the time she had killed 309 Germans Lyudmila had become a Lieutenant and fallen in love with Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko who was also a sniper; the couple were married but Leonid was killed soon after.
The Germans knew who Lyudmila was and were so afraid of her skill that they tried to persuade her to defect by offering her chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. Lyudmila was never going to agree so the Germans said that when they caught her they would tear her into 309 pieces. This pleased Lyudmila because it meant that everyone knew her tally!
Lyudmila was shot four times whilst on active service and also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds although these did not stop her and she continued to fight. After being hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell the ace sniper was withdrawn from the battlefield (by submarine from Sevastopol) to spend a month in hospital. Rather than sending her back to the front the Soviet High Command posted Lyudmila to train snipers, she was also given the role of propagandist.
Stalin had been trying to encourage Roosevelt to open a Second Front in Europe without success so in 1942 Stalin sent Lyudmila to America to tell her story. The young Russian woman arrived in Washington where she became the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Lyudmila to accompany her on a tour of the country so that she could tell Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat. Rather than being impressed with Lyudmila reporters on the tour asked why she didn’t wear make-up or style her hair, and what she thought of the military uniform which made her look fat. She replied that “I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed with the young Russian and gave her advice on public speaking. As they travelled through 43 states Lyudmila’s confidence grew and she and the First Lady became very good friends. This boost in confidence became obvious when they reached Chicago and Lyudmila confronted the men in the audience by saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She also addressed the subject of equality by saying “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
Lyudmila also visited Canada before traveling to Coventry in England where she accepted donations of £4,516 from local workers to pay for three X-ray units for the Red Army. She also visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before returning to Russia and continuing to train snipers until the end of the war.
Lyudmila was a national symbol of women in the USSR, she was even featured on a ration postage stamp. After the war Lyudmila returned to Kiev University and finished her Master’s Degree in History, but instead of becoming a teacher she was given a position as a research specialist for the Soviet navy.
In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Russia and the two women were re-united for an afternoon reminiscing about their tour of America.
Lyudmila died in 1974 aged 58. Her life was commemorated with a second postage stamp.
Awards and honours
Hero of the Soviet Union (25 October 1943)
Two Order of Lenin (16 July 1942 and 25 October 1943)
Two Medals “For Military Merit” (26 April 1942 and 13 June 1952)
Leslie Howard was a superstar actor of his day. The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary he was born in London in 1893 and served during the First World War, he was mustered out of the army a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916 as he was suffering from shell shock. It was actually his doctor who suggested acting as a therapy little knowing that Howard would go on to international fame, particularly for his roles in Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind. When the Second World War broke out the English actor gave up his lucrative Hollywood contract (including his share of the box-office takings for Gone With The Wind) and returned home to see what he could do to further the war effort.
Howard was not the only Hollywood actor to join up at the first opportunity, Americans Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Charles Bronson also served whilst Clark Gable and James Stewart were awarded medals for their bravery; on the other side of the Atlantic British actors Richard Todd, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde all served in the armed forces.
Leslie Howard, however, decided that rather than fighting he would put his acting skills to use and so offered to do whatever he could for the British government. One of the first things he was asked to do was to make broadcasts to the United States which still remained a neutral country with Churchill doing everything he could to get the Americans to join the war as Britain’s allies. Many women in America were isolationists and strongly against the war, it was recognised that their views had a not insubstantial effect on the views of American men so it was thought that a matinee idol such as Howard might go a long way towards making them change their minds. But America was only a part of his focus as Leslie Howard also made programmes for the domestic audience appearing on ‘Britain Speaks’ and making National Savings documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Many of his broadcasts focused on British values which the soldiers at the front were fighting to protect – freedom, tolerance and decency. The propaganda programmes which Howard was involved in were so successful that William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw) singled out Howard as a target in his radio broadcasts from Europe (‘Germany Calling’) saying that he should ‘stick to acting’.
Howard’s work for the government also included directing, co-producing and starring in several war films including 49th Parallel, The First Of The Few (the story of RJ Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) and Pimpernel Smith (based on the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescued aristocrats from Paris during the French Revolution, only this time the plot revolved around an English professor rescuing refugees from the Germans). The work that Howard did was obviously propaganda but he felt that it was justified whilst the country was at war with Hitler, in one broadcast Howard even used what was considered strong language for the 1940’s when he said “To hell with whether what I say is propaganda or not, I’ve never stopped to figure it out and I don’t think it matters anymore.”
Howard had met Winston Churchill in 1937 when they had several informal talks where Howard made his anti-Nazi views known. Churchill remembered this and when he became Prime Minister he used Howard and other actors, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, to get access to famous or important people who might be able to help with the war effort. To this end Howard went to Spain and Portugal in May 1943 purportedly to open links between Spanish and British film-makers and present a series of lectures on his films and the role of Hamlet, but it is believed that his real purpose was to try to prevent General Franco from joining the Axis powers. The Iberian peninsula was neutral during the war and so became a magnet for spies from both sides which meant that the actor was closely watched by German agents during his visit.
Howard left Portugal in June 1943 on a civilian Douglas DC-3 which flew regularly across the Bay of Biscay as there was an informal agreement for both sides to respect the neutrality of civilian planes. On this day, however, the agreement was ignored and six Junkers JU88 fighters shot it down killing all seventeen passengers and crew. The news of the death of incredibly popular Leslie Howard shocked the British people, and the reason for the German action raised many questions which have not been fully answered to this day.
Why was the plane shot down? Was it an accident or deliberate? If deliberate, who was the target?
One thing we do know is that this same plane making its daily Lisbon to London run had been attacked for the first time two weeks earlier, but it was assumed that the aircraft had been hit by mistake and so the flights continued. Now the plane had been fired on again, and this time shot down with a number of people on board who could have been a possible target. There was Arthur Chenhall, Howard’s manager who was travelling with him and who looked a lot like Churchill. There was also Kenneth Stonehouse who was a reporter for Reuters, Wilfred Israel who was a Jew from Berlin whose work with the Kindertransport had been, in part, the inspiration for Pimpernel Smith, Tyrrel Shervington who was the Lisbon manager for the Shell Oil Company, and Ivan Sharp who had been negotiating tungsten and wolfram imports which were important for the British war effort and deals which the Germans would obviously like to prevent. Any one of these men could have been targeted by the Germans although many thought that the clear target was Howard as when Goebbels (the German Propaganda Minister) had seen the film Pimpernel Smith he had taken it as a personal parody of himself and wanted to kill the director and star.
There is, however, another possibility. On the same day that Howard’s ill-fated plane set off from Portugal Winston Churchill also took off from Gibraltar to return to Britain after a visit to North Africa. The British Prime Minister was to have flown in a similar flying boat and on a similar flight path to the plane which was shot down but, due to bad weather, he decided to take a bomber instead. The German pilots who brought down the plane took photographs of the wreckage before flying back to their base in France. So, was Leslie Howard the target of the German Junkers, or did they mistake the civilian plane for the one carrying the British Prime Minister? What a coup it would have been if they had been able to shoot down and kill the man who was the inspiration for so many of the Allies.
Three days after the plane was shot down the New York Times reported that “It was believed in London that the Nazi raiders had attacked on the outside chance that Prime Minister Winston Churchill might be among the passengers.” When secret files about Ultra (the Allies’ secret Nazi code-breaking capabilities) were finally made public decades after the Second World War it was learned that the British had known in advance that the Germans assumed Churchill was on Flight 777 and so might target the plane. It was obviously vital for the war effort that Ultra could not be compromised and so the intelligence was not passed on to the Portuguese authorities or the airline. When Churchill wrote his history of the war he fed the flames of the mistaken-identity thesis when he referred to Leslie Howard’s death as one of “the inscrutable workings of fate.”
We will never know for certain the true circumstances of the death of Leslie Howard, but JB Priestley spoke for many when he made a broadcast after the actor’s death was announced on the BBC – “The war has claimed another casualty, the stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.”
The long weekend of 8th – 11th May 2020 was supposed to see massive celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day (the ending of the Second World War in Europe) with the British May Bank Holiday being moved for only the second time in history to accommodate this. We are, however, living in unusual times with many countries in lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic so ceremonies and celebrations will not go ahead as planned. I believe it is hoped that these can be postponed until August to coincide with VJ Day (Victory against Japan), but until then we can remember and celebrate online…
VE Day marked the end of six long years of war against Germany which had caused so much suffering and death for many countries. April 1945 saw many of the Allied forces beginning to overrun Germany from the west whilst Russian troops were advancing on the eastern front. The two armies met at the River Elbe on 25th April and it was obvious to everyone that Germany could not win the war.
The inevitable defeat of the Nazi forces had long been anticipated, and with Berlin surrounded by Allied armies Hitler took what many saw as the cowards way out by naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor then killing his dog and his new wife, Eva, before committing suicide himself on 30th April 1945.
On 4th May Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in northwest Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark at Lunehurg Heath near Hamburg. Three days later The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at Reims with General Jodl signing the document on behalf of the German people. The agreement was for the war to officially end the following day on 8th May 1945.
The long-awaited end of the war in Europe was announced in a radio broadcast on 7th May and the following day declared a national holiday.
As soon as the news of victory was announced flags and bunting were strung across streets and house fronts, bonfires were built and lit, and the pubs were full as many people did not want to wait one more night to begin their celebrations!
After years of rationing people were told on the morning of the 8th that they could buy bunting without ration coupons, many restaurants quickly put together a ‘victory menu’, there were parades, street parties, and services of thanksgiving – St Paul’s Cathedral in London accommodated 10,000 people in ten services which ran one after the other.
Throughout the war years the British people had been led by Winston Churchill who spoke on the radio in the afternoon of the 8th reminding people that ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ He was, of course, referring to the fact that the war in the Far East was still on-going with British soldiers, sailors and airmen still fighting and dying for freedom. Later in the day the Prime Minister stood on the balcony of the Ministry of Health and thousands listened to his speech declaring that ‘This is your victory’ to which the crowd replied ‘No, it’s yours!’
As the victory celebrations unfolded huge crowds collected in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace to see the royal family. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went out onto the balcony no less than eight times, once accompanied by the Prime Minister. During their last appearance two young women standing looking up at them were no less than the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret who had been allowed to go out incognito to join the celebrating crowds. Queen Elizabeth later said ‘We stood outside and shouted, “We want the King”… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.’ (see The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II).
It is thought that around 50,000 people were crowded around Piccadilly Circus as the first VE Day came to an end with people dancing and singing in the streets. The joy of victory broke down the famous British reserve as people spoke and danced with complete strangers as pubs and dance halls stayed open until midnight to allow the celebrations to continue.
Celebrations took place around the world, although there was sadness in America that President Roosevelt who had led the country throughout the war did not live to see the final victory (he died on 12th April 1945). Even so the celebrations were so great that large numbers of police officers were detailed to control the crowds in Times Square. In Paris huge numbers flocked to the Champs Elysees and Place de la Concorde. There were also celebrations in Australia although the war so close to them in the Far East was still ongoing. In Canada where the liquor stores had been closed for the celebrations military personnel in Halifax rioted and led the looting of liquor stores which led to a number of deaths.
Amidst the celebrations for the ending of the war in Europe there was also sadness at the thoughts of those who had died and would never return home to a country at peace, and people were aware that the hard times were not yet over – the war against Japan still had to be won, rationing would no doubt continue and there was a great deal of re-building to be done. But for now, for one day, they celebrated the ending of an era of destruction and a new beginning…
In my previous article about the North Atlantic Convoys I mentioned the German battleship Tirpitz. This ship was over 250 metres long and weighed over 50,000 tons with a hull made of 30cm thick steel. Tirpitz also had not one but eight of the biggest naval guns ever built – 38cm. With a crew of over 2,600 men and a speed of 30 knots it was bigger and faster than any of the opposing Allied ships, a formidable weapon which instilled fear in all those who faced her. Yet this behemoth which could have played such a significant role in the war at sea was rarely out of coastal waters and contributed little to the German war effort.
One would have thought that Germany’s biggest warship should be deployed in the Atlantic but instead it was sent to a remote area in Northern Norway for one simple reason – the Arctic convoys which set out from Britain to supply the beleaguered Soviet Union. With the Tirpitz in northern waters Hitler hoped that he would be able to attack the convoys whilst at the same time preventing any Allied attack against Nazi-occupied Norway.
When the Tirpitz originally arrived in Norway in January1942 she was anchored in Trondheimsfjord from where she made an attack on the mining communities of Spitsbergen, the only major attack that the ship ever carried out. Then, in March 1943, her mooring was moved to Kåfjorden; with an approach to the fjord which was easy to defend and a greater distance by air from Britain the Tirpitz was well protected and able to continue to menace the convoys.
Winston Churchill saw the Tirpitz as a direct threat to the success of the supply convoys to Russia and was determined to sink her. Kåfjorden was out of reach for the British bombers so the Allies decided to try an underwater attack using X-craft – 51ft long submarines with a diameter of just 5ft and with a four-man crew. The plan was for each submarine to drop two 1.5 ton charges of Amatex high explosive beneath the Tirpitz. This was not going to be an easy attack as anti-torpedo nets protected the ship but it was hoped that the midgit submarines would be able to get around these. Moonlit nights between the 20th and 25th September provided ideal conditions for an attack so six normal sized submarines towed the smaller X-craft close to the target where the operational crews then took over ready for the attack – two submarines targeting a small battleship called the Scharnhorst, one targeting a heavy cruiser called the Lutzow, and the final three making for the Tirpitz, although two of the attacking X-craft were lost en-route.
Although the raiders were able to plant explosives which tore an 18 meter long gash in the hull of the Tirpitz they were unable to sink the ship which was fully repaired by April 1944. Over the next seven months the Allies carried out six bombing aids on the Tirpitz which although unable to sink the ship did enough damage for her to be kept in port undergoing constant repairs. The Germans eventually moved the ship to Håkøybotn near Tromsø in October 1944 in the hope of getting better protection, but things went badly wrong for them on 12th November that year when thirty-two Lancaster bombers attacked with Tallboy bombs weighing five-tons each and capable of piercing the thick armour of the Tirpitz. Following three direct hits the pride of the German fleet sank in only eleven minutes with the loss of between 1,000 and 1,200 men.
The Tirpitz was arguably the finest battleship of the Second World War yet she made very little contribution to the conflict. It is true that her presence in the Norwegian fjords was a constant threat to the Arctic Convoys but she did very little actual damage there. The Germans were not able to utilize the Tirpitz as much as they had hoped in Norwegian waters as there was a constant shortage of fuel. Neither was the ship deployed into the Atlantic where she could have created havoc amongst the convoys bringing food and supplies from America to the hungry and beleaguered United Kingdom. It is possible that the Tirpitz tied up men and resources which could have been used to better advantage elsewhere, indeed it could be argued that when all actions are taken into consideration the huge battleship which saw so little action was more of a hindrance than a help to the German war effort; it seems likely that the journalist Ludovic Kennedy was right when he wrote that the Tirpitz had “lived an invalid’s life and died a cripple’s death”.
This year sees 75 years since the end of the Second World War and no doubt there will be many events to commemorate that fact. Often memorials focus on the soldiers who fought and died for their country, but while the men were away at the front it fell to the women to work in the factories and fields on the Home Front of England. Approximately 950,000 women worked in the munitions factories alone, producing the shells and bullets used by their fathers, husbands, and sons at the front. One of the largest of these factories was at Rotherwas, Herefordshire, which employed up to 4,000 women at its height and produced around 70,000 shells a week. Many of the women who worked there were as young as 16 but others were considerably older, some were even the daughters of women who had worked in the munitions factories during the First World War.
The job was relatively well-paid for a woman at that time, but the hours were long with the women often working eleven- or twelve-hour shifts to keep the factories running day and night. During these mammoth shifts the workers were only allowed a couple of short breaks, and this went on day after day, seven days a week, with just the occasional leave day granted every now and then. As well as long hours the job was also dangerous. There was the ever-present threat of an explosion, and the women suffered physically due to the effects of the chemicals which they were handling constantly. The TNT reacted with melanin in the body causing the women’s skin and hair to turn yellow, which earned them the nickname ‘Canary Girls’. The effects of the chemicals were more than skin deep however, as any of the women who became pregnant whilst working there gave birth to yellow ‘Canary Babies’. The colour gradually faded away but the women must have been afraid that there might be long term effects on their new born babies.
Little, if any, training was given to the women who worked in the munition’s factories – they would simply turn up for their first shift and within minutes were filling shells with TNT. It was delicate work as they collected the hot explosives from a huge mixer (something like a cement mixer), filled the shells and inserted the tube to take the detonator which they then had to tap in very carefully in order not to cause an explosion. In other parts of the factory women had to clean the shells ready to be filled, they did this by rubbing a pad on something like an emery board before inserting the pad into the top part of the shell, this was followed by another disc, tiny screwdrivers and screws were used to finish the fuse and put it in place. It was tedious, and dangerous, work. As well as the constant fear of explosions the workers were also at serious risk from accidents with dangerous machinery. It was not uncommon for women to lose fingers and hands, to suffer burns and blindness. In February 1944 19 workers, mainly women, were in a shed in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Kirby, Lancashire when one of the anti-tank mine fuses they were working with exploded, setting off a chain reaction amongst the other fuses. The girl who was working on that tray was killed outright, her body blown to pieces, other workers were injured, one fatally, and the factory badly damaged. There were also explosions at factories in Barnbow near Leeds, Chilwell in Nottinghamshire and Ashton-under-Lyne.
To reduce the risk of explosions the women had to pass through the `Shifting House` twice daily – on the way in to work and on the way out again. This was a long building divided down the centre by a red barrier, one side being the dirty side and the other side the clean. Such were the fears that a rogue spark caused by static might lead to an explosion that the women were banned from wearing nylon and silk. On arriving to start their shift their outdoor clothing, jewellery and hairpins were removed along with any matches and metallic items in their pockets (although jewellery was taken off women could continue to wear their wedding rings as long as they were taped up). The women would then be checked for any metallic fasters on their under garments (only lace up corsets could be worn, no bras with metal clasps) before they could pass to the clean side and put on their regulation cream coloured gowns buttoned right up to their neck and tight around their wrists, and their regulation issue hats – a tightly fitted mop cap with as much hair tucked away under it as possible. Of course, at the end of a shift or to leave the danger buildings area for any reason the complete reversal had to be undertaken so to save time the women were not allowed out on their breaks but had to use their own canteen inside the Danger Building where everything was stained the same ubiquitous yellow as the girls.
If the dangers inherent in the job weren’t enough there was always the threat of bombing by the Germans. The factory at Rotherwas was bombed at dawn on 27th July 1942 when the Luftwaffe dropped two 250kg bombs on the 300 acre site. The women were coming to the end of their shift and ran out when the sirens sounded. To their dismay they found that the air-raid shelters were locked so they sought cover wherever they could. The attacking plane flew in so low that the women could clearly see the black cross on its wings and the bombs falling from beneath it. There was a direct hit which ignited some of the munitions on the ground, the result was absolute carnage – from one unit of two hundred and thirty women only two survived.
It is a credit to the Canary Girls that despite all that they endured they rarely complained about the terrible working conditions, they were proud to know that they were doing their bit for the war effort and saw it as a patriotic duty. These women were putting their lives on the line every bit as much as the men who had gone to war, yet the numbers of women who were killed or seriously injured whilst working in the munitions factories is not known, and few people know of the work that they did and its lasting effects on their lives. Although the Canary Girls lost their yellow colouring when they left the factories the women often suffered with illnesses in later life ranging from throat problems to dermatitis, the most debilitating was a liver disease called toxic jaundice caused by prolonged exposure to TNT, which often proved fatal. As we celebrate 75 years since the end of the war this year, I hope we take time to remember all those who served, including the Canary Girls of the munition’s factories.
As I wrote in my last article, the Japanese attack on the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor precipitated the entry of the US into the Second World War. The population of the United States was understandable angry and eager for revenge; but Japan was so far away and America not yet fully prepared for war so what, if anything, could they do to build morale?
Within a month of the attack, in January 1942, an audacious plot was hatched by the Americans: why not raid the Japanese mainland? In one blow they could inflict damage on Japanese industrial sites as well as to the psyche of the civilian Japanese population who believed that their homeland could never be attacked by a force coming all the way from America. At the same time, an attack on Japan would also improve America’s relationships with her other allies in the war and boost the morale of the American people.
The initial plan was to launch a bombing raid from aircraft carriers, recover the planes and head back home; but whilst the B-25 could take off from a carrier it soon became obvious that landing on a ship was going to be much more difficult. It was therefore decided to launch the attack from ships positioned east of Tokyo, but instead of turning round and heading back to the aircraft carriers the planes would fly on to either China or Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. When approached about this Stalin was not keen on the plan as he was afraid that it might provoke Japan to attack Russia and so the Americans decided that all of the planes were to head for China. (For an overview of US/China relations at this time please see my article about Pearl Harbor).
The raid was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle; the planes to be used were prepared for the mission by adding extra fuel tanks and stripping out all non-essential equipment to lighten the aircraft. The volunteer crews began their training in early March 1942 with a focus on night flying, cross-country flying, low altitude approaches, and evasive manouvers.
The Japanese knew that the Americans would not let the attack on Pearl Harbor go unpunished and so were monitoring US naval radio. From this they knew that an attack was planned for some time in April but had no radar so their early warning system was poor, relying on converted fishing trawlers positioned in parallel lines offshore to act as pickets. Surprisingly, one of these pickets detected the approaching US ships on 18th April, 650 miles from Japan, and whilst the plan had been to launch at closer to 400 miles from land the Americans could not risk losing more ships after Pearl Harbor and so launched immediately. This attack by long-range bombers took Japan completely by surprise as targets were hit in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and Kobe where the American planes met very little opposition before flying on; one plane eventually landed in Vladivostok (where its crew were interned) whilst the other fifteen continued to China.
The damage inflicted on Japan by the ‘Doolittle Raiders’ was minimal, but its effect on the enemy was enormous. As a consequence of the raid the Japanese decided that it was imperative to meet the US advance in the Pacific head-on (which led to the Battle Of Midway), whilst for civilians the belief in the invulnerability of their homeland was now gone. For the Americans the raid did a lot to restore their self-belief and pride after Pearl Harbor – their first major strike of the war had been an attack on the enemy capital and they now had the confidence that they would eventually be the victors.
But the story of The Doolittle Raid did not end with the American bombers reaching safety in China, and the consequences were far more wide-ranging than anyone could ever have anticipated. Unable to hit back directly at the Americans it was the Chinese who bore the brunt of the brutal revenge meted out by the Japanese.
In early 1942 Manchuria as well as some industrial and commercial centers and key ports in China were occupied by Japan who was determined that she would hold on to these as well as prevent the Chinese from helping the Allied war effort. The American planners of the raid were aware of the situation before they set out, and they knew that the Chinese would suffer for the actions of the US but they went ahead regardless. The eighty volunteers who flew the Doolittle Raid knew before they set out that it was a one-way trip and so were prepared to bail out or crash-land in China when their fuel ran out; when this happened local guerrillas, missionaries and villagers willingly helped and cared for the downed airmen. Japan was quick to retaliate.
Individuals who had helped the Americans were identified by the little thank you gifts which the airmen had given them – maybe a cigarette packet, or a glove, or badge – these people were then tortured and murdered as punishment for the help they had given. But retaliation was not limited to individuals who had helped. One report by a Canadian missionary records how the Japanese flew 1,131 bombing raids against Chuchow (where the Doolittle Raiders first landed) in which 10,246 people were killed and another 27,500 left destitute when over 62,000 homes were destroyed, over 7,500 head of cattle killed and 30% of the local crops burned. Altogether there were twenty-eight market towns in the region, of which only three were not destroyed.
The town of Ihwang was one of those where the civilian population helped the airmen, and one of the missionaries who worked there (Father Dunker) later described the Japanese retaliation – they raped all women aged 10 to 65, then shot everyone (men, women and children) as well as all the livestock they could find, the town was looted and then burned to the ground. The bodies of the civilians were left to rot.
The Japanese also took the town of Nancheng where they remained for a month. 800 women were rounded up and kept in a storehouse where they were repeatedly raped, the men were killed. Nancheng had a population of 50,000 when the Japanese arrived, when they left the town had been completely destroyed, hospitals looted, railway lines pulled up and the iron shipped back to Japan. The town burned for three days.
In the summer of 1942 the Japanese razed an estimated 20,000 square miles of China – livestock was slaughtered, irrigation systems wrecked beyond repair, crops burned, bridges and roads and airfields totally destroyed. But that was not the end. When the Japanese finally withdrew they contaminated rivers, wells and fields with plague, cholera, anthrax and typhoid; they left behind food rations contaminated with these diseases knowing that the hungry locals would eat them and so spread the sickness further. This part of China had been prone to such diseases before the Japanese action so it is not possible to know quite how many died as a direct result, but it was in the many thousands.
A US raid which had been designed to lift the spirits of the American people after Pearl Harbor led to a three-month campaign across the Kiangsi and Chekiang provinces of China in which it is estimated that 250,000 Chinese died, with the Japanese retaliation being likened to the Rape of Nanking in 1937-38. America honours the men who took part in the raid, but I hope they will also never forget the unsung, unnamed tens of thousands of Chinese heroes who will for ever be a part of this story.
According to President Franklin D Roosevelt 7th December 1941 was a “a date which will live in infamy”. On that day the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, was attacked by Japanese forces. Many people think that this attack came completely out of the blue but it was, in fact, culmination of more than a decade of steadily worsening relations between the United States and Japan.
American foreign policy in the Pacific in the late 1930’s was to support China against an increasingly aggressive Japan which had taken control of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, although open warfare did not break out between Japan and China until July 1937. America continued to support China by giving the country a loan in 1938, and terminating their 1911 treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan in July 1939. By 1940 America was restricting exports to Japan which could be used in the war, and tensions between the two countries continued to mount. Matters were not helped when the Japanese allied themselves with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy). This caused America to sever all relations with Japan, freeze her assets and place an embargo on Japanese shipments carrying materials of war.
Many of the hierarchy in the Japanese military resented the fact that America was supporting China and wanted to end their interference. They also saw the German invasion of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for Japan to extend her reach in the Far East without the intervention of Russia. Even so, there were attempts by some to smooth things over between America and Japan right through the autumn of 1941, although the Japanese Prime Minister had already privately decided that war was the only way forwards – his theory was that if the Japanese could destroy the American Pacific Fleet it would leave them able to conquer all of South East Asia unopposed. The attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of Japan, Admiral Yamamoto, with the fleet coming together in the Kuril Islands on 16th November, although Yamamoto was prepared to be recalled if negotiations with the Americans proved successful. Admiral Nagano, the Chief of the Naval General Staff did not want to risk the fleet so far from home, particularly as that would limit the forces they could use for other actions in the Far East, but Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan was axed so all opposition was ignored.
On 26th November 1941 the American Secretary of State wrote to the Japanese to try to smooth things over, however his requirement that Japanese troops should be withdrawn from China and Indochina did not go down well. The note was seen as irrelevant by the Japanese anyway as their forces had already set sail to attack Pearl Harbor on the same day.
The US Pacific Fleet along with military and naval forces were stationed at Pearl Harbor as the tensions between the two nations steadily mounted. Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short were warned three times (16th October, 24th November, and 27th November) that war was possible and they should take appropriate defensive measures. Short ordered his forces to be on the alert for sabotage, and moved all of his planes to Wheeler Airfield to protect them, as well as ordering that radar should be monitored from 4 – 7am (the most likely time of day for an attack). Kimmel was equally relaxed in his preparations – although he was not able to locate the main parts of the Japanese Fleet he did not send his reconnaissance north-west (which would have been the logical direction for an attack to come from); he also allowed personnel on shore leave after mooring the entire fleet in the harbour.
On the US mainland the Japanese Ambassador had asked for a meeting with the American Secretary of State in Washington at 1pm on 7th December (7.30am Pearl Harbor). General Marshall, the American Army Chief-of -Staff sent a telegram to Kimmel to say that war was imminent, but it did not arrive in Pearl Harbor until after the attack began. There were other signs, however, that Kimmel should have realised could be fore-runners of an attack. The first happened four hours before the attack when a Japanese submarine was sighted near the Harbor, it was later fired upon by the USS Ward. Then at 7am, when the radar should have been switched off, Private George Elliott decided to get in some more practise; he noticed a large group of planes on the screen but was told to ignore them as a flight of bombers was expected to arrive that morning. Kimmell was still awaiting confirmation of the submarine encroachment when the air attack began. (Kimmel and Short were later blamed for mistakes and errors of judgement at Pearl Harbor and were dismissed.)
The Japanese had already landed forces in Malaya and Thailand a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor began (for them, Pearl Harbor was seen as a supporting operation). The attack against America was, however, incredibly well planned with an entire fleet including six air craft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers travelling 3,700 miles across the North Pacific undetected. It was necessary to refuel on the way which could not be done in rough weather and so the Americans did not think an attack could come from that direction. However, they were wrong, and at 7.55am on the morning of 7th December 1941 the attack began with 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempting to damage or destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible.
In the first attack the planes and hangers on the island’s airfields were targeted by bombers as torpedo planes attacked the warships at anchor. Four battleships were hit in the first five minutes, followed minutes later by the sinking of the USS Arizona when her gunpowder supplies took a direct hit, killing 1,177 of her crew. The attack was devastating, but it was not the end as less than two hours later a second wave of 170 aircraft arrived. The Americans fought back but were completely unprepared (only 6 planes managed to get into the air) and in just two hours 18 American warships had been either damaged or sunk, almost 200 aircraft destroyed and over 2,400 American service men and women killed. The Americans were lucky that the three aircraft carriers, seven heavy cruisers and a division of destroyers attached to the Pacific Fleet were not in harbour and so escaped without damage. The Japanese in contrast lost less than 60 planes, 5 midget submarines, possibly 2 fleet submarines, and less than 100 men; the main fleet returned to Japan without being attacked.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had an immediate impact on the course of the Second World War. Up until that time the Americans had been supporting the Allies through the Lend-Lease Agreement by supplying war supplies, but most Americans did not want to get actively involved in the fighting. However, they were outraged by the Japanese attack and the next day the US declared war on Japan, finally entering the conflict on the side of the Allies.
The Tripartite Pact signed by Japan, Italy and Germany in September 1940 meant that Germany was obliged to go to war if America attacked Japan but not if Japan attacked America. Roosevelt did not want to be seen as the one to declare war on Hitler but knew that such a conflict would be inevitable if the US declared war on Japan. As he had foreseen, Hitler declared war on American in support of Japan on 11th December and the President was able to get the full support of Congress to declare war on Germany.
The Japanesse attack was devastating, but six of America’s eight battleships (excluding the Arizona and Oklahoma) were repaired and returned to service whilst the strategically important oil storage facilities on the island remained intact. The most important result of the attack, however, was it’s impact on the American public – the deaths of thousands of Americans in a surprise attack early on a Sunday morning without any formal declaration of war could only have one outcome – a uniting of public opinion behind the war effort, and the beginning of the end for Germany.
Most people are familiar with the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall which is the focus of Britain’s National Service of Remembrance every November and commemorates British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. The ceremony is televised and is attended by Prince Charles (representing the Queen), religious leaders, politicians, representatives of state and the armed and auxiliary forces, all of whom gather to pay their respects to those who gave their lives defending others. It is a well-known and well-loved ceremony, yet many people are unaware of the history of the Cenotaph and how it came to be where it is.
The word ‘Cenotaph’ comes from the Greek for ‘empty tomb’ and is used to describe a tomb or monument erected to honour a person or group of persons who are buried elsewhere, or who have no known grave.
The First World War saw casualties on an unprecedented scale (the British Empire alone lost more than 1 million military personnel). Although the fighting ceased on Armistice Day on 11th November 1918 the war did not formally end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919, and the British government decided to hold a victory parade of soldiers marching down Whitehall to celebrate this on 19th July 1919. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, decided that a temporary memorial for the troops to salute should be included as part of the parade and he approached Sir Edwin Lutyens to design it. (Lutyens was one of the most well-known architects of the time having designed much of New Delhi; he was also already involved in work with the Imperial War Graves Commission to create memorials in the cemeteries of the battlefields). Lutyens memorial for the Victory Parade was made of wood and plaster and completed in just two weeks.
The Saturday of the Victory Parade was a Bank Holiday and Public Holiday so that everyone could celebrate victory and remember the dead and wounded. The unveiling of the temporary Cenotaph took place on the previous evening and was a quiet, unofficial ceremony to which Lutyens was not invited. Thousands travelled to London overnight to see the Parade and experience the bands and performances in London’s central parks. In the morning King George V issued a message: ‘To these, the sick and wounded who cannot take part in the festival of victory, I send out greetings and bid them good cheer, assuring them that the wounds and scars so honourable in themselves, inspire in the hearts of their fellow countrymen the warmest feelings of gratitude and respect.’ During the Parade 15,000 soldiers and 1,500 officers marched past and saluted the Cenotaph, including General Pershing representing America, Marshal Foch representing France, with Field Marshal Haig and Admiral of the Fleet Beatty representing the British armed forces. The royal family also attended.
From the early days of the war, when casualty figures began to mount, it was decided that the fallen would be buried close to where they fell and the repatriation of the dead was forbidden. After the Victory Parade the temporary Cenotaph unexpectedly became a focus for those who had lost loved ones, a substitute grave for them to visit. For days after the Parade people came to lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of the memorial, an estimated 1.2 million visited during the first week alone.
Four days after the Parade war veteran William Ormsby-Gore, MP for Stafford, suggested in Parliament that a permanent Cenotaph should replace the temporary one; the idea was supported by many other MP’s and so was put to the Cabinet. The following week the idea was taken up by The Times newspaper as hundreds of letters came flooding in in support of a permanent memorial. The Cabinet agreed on 30th July that Lutyens should create a permanent memorial in Whitehall.
Lutyens made a few minor changes to his design – replacing real wreaths with stone sculptures, and using the subtle curves known as entasis (he had already incorporated this into his design for the Stone of Remembrance to be used in the war cemeteries). Lutyens wanted to replace the flags with sculptures because he thought that the real ones would soon look untidy, but this idea was rejected and real flags are still used today. Construction of the permanent Cenotaph began in May 1920. The design is a rectangular column made of Portland stone with an empty tomb surmounted by a wreath at its summit. The design is rather plain with the intention of focussing the eye and the thought on the tomb and a number of carved wreaths; the only words engraved are The Glorious Dead and the dates of the war. Lutyens Cenotaph is 35 feet (11 m) high and weighs 120 tonnes (120,00 kg.)
The new monument was unveiled on November 11th 1920 (this time Lutyens was present). The coffin of the Unknown Warrior was taken to his tomb in Westminster Abbey that morning on a route which took it past the Cenotaph. King George V laid a wreath on the coffin before unveiling the Cenotaph, then he acted as chief mourner and followed the gun-carriage of the Unknown Warrior to the Abbey. So many people visited the Cenotaph in the following days that Whitehall was closed to traffic; within a week the flowers lay 10 feet deep and more than 1.25 million people are thought to have paid their respects.
The Remembrance Service of today has changed little since it was first introduced in 1921, with hymns, prayers, and a two minute silence observed before the laying of official wreaths on the steps of The Cenotaph. The ceremony ends with a march past of war veterans who salute the monument in a poignant gesture of respect for their fallen comrades.
Lutyens’ cenotaph design has been reproduced in other parts of the UK as well as in other countries allied to Britain, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Although he had originally wanted the flags to be carved in stone this was overruled and real flags are still used. Immediately after the unveiling of the Cenotaph the flags on display were a Union Flag, a White Ensign and a Red Ensign on one side, with a Union Flag, a White Ensign, and a Blue Ensign on the other side. On 1 April 1943, an RAF Ensign was substituted for the White Ensign on the west side. The flags which are now displayed (since 2007) represent the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Merchant Navy. The Blue Ensign represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and other government services. In the early days the flags were changed every six to eight weeks so that they could be cleaned, and the flags would be used for 15 months before being replaced. By 1939 the flags needed to be cleaned every six weeks and were washed just twice before being replaced. When the flags are finally removed they are sent to the Imperial War Museum which gives them to accredited organisations.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.