Right after Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, British leader Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt from the United States of America announced their support for the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazism. But this did not happen out of love for Soviet Russia, and of course it was not an act of charity. It was not without reason that Churchill, in his speech on the radio on the evening of June 22, 1941, stated that over the past 25 years no one has been a more consistent opponent of communism than he himself. However, for the first time since the start of World War II, England and its overseas partner obtained an ally, which possessed a military and economic potential, equivalent to Hitler’s military machine. This could be the beginning of the end for fascist Germany, as well as the end of the period of British military failures.
Taken by surprise in the beginning of the war, Soviet Union suffered one defeat after another and required help itself. And this help came quickly and effectively. It happened already in July and August of 1941 when the governments of the USSR and Great Britain concluded agreements on joint actions and mutual assistance in the war against Nazi Germany and on trade turnover. A bit later similar documents were signed with the United States too. The majority of goods, which started to come to the USSR, were delivered from the USA in line with the law on land-lease. It permitted to provide military and economic assistance to the allies in required volumes as it was not directly linked to the payment for supplies. It was a question of lending or leasing military equipment for the duration of combat operations. Thus, everything that is to survive after the war was supposed to be returned.
As soon as it became obvious that cargoes from Great Britain and the United States were to come to the Soviet Union soon, the issue on the routes of their delivery came up immediately. The closest and safest way from America to the USSR in the summer and autumn of 1941 ran through the Pacific Ocean. But, firstly, out of all the Soviet Pacific ports, only Vladivostok had a railway connection with the front. Secondly, cargoes, delivered to the Maritime Region relatively quickly, got stuck on the Trans-Siberian Railway for many weeks. Thirdly, by that time it was necessary to take into account the position of Japan, and after its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, cargoes could only be transported by Soviet vessels. Despite this, the Pacific route functioned throughout the whole war, and 47% of imported cargoes were delivered to the Soviet Union through it with the account the air bridge over Chukotka.
One more route ran through the Persian Gulf and Iran. This route, which was quite inconvenient in many respects, had been prepared only by the middle of the year 1942. The reason for that was the necessity to fully modernize ports and the Trans-Iranian railroad, extend it to the Soviet Transcaucasian railroad, re-organize the appropriate motorway, deliver hundreds of trucks and railway rolling stock. But even this was not enough. Plants on the assembly of transportation planes and trucks were built in Iran. The passage of vessels from New York to the Persian Gulf around the Cape of Good Hope took about 75 days. After all the organizational problems had been resolved, this route accepted nearly 24% of all the allied supplies. But that was done later, and help was badly needed already in the fall of 1941.
Considering that almost all the military supplies to the Soviet Union originally were channeled exclusively through Great Britain, the third route – through the waters of the Norwegian and Barents seas to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk – was seen as the most appropriate one.
Irrespective of the obvious proximity of the northern ports to the center of the country and the front and the fact that the vessels overcame this route in only 10-12 days, this route had significant weak points. For instance, the ice-free port of Murmansk was only 60 km from the front line and therefore was subjected to continuous air strikes. Arkhangelsk, relatively remote from the front line, used to become inaccessible to vessels for several months a year due to the freezing of the White Sea. The route itself from the British Isles to the Kola Peninsula ran along the occupied Norwegian coast and, thus, was continually threatened by the German Navy and Air Force throughout its entire length.
In 1941, the German Navy did not consider the Polar region as a possible theater of operations. As a result, the German forces “outslept” not only the first English support ship, i.e. the British “Adventure” mine layer, which delivered a batch of magnetic mines and depth charges to the USSR, but also the first allied convoy consisting of seven vessels, which arrived at the port of Arkhangelsk on August 31. At that time, the convoy did not have its designation. Later on, it was named “Dervish” as the operation itself was called. As far as the follow-up convoys are concerned, they became known for their designation by letters PQ. It is not in the common knowledge that those mysterious letters were the initials of Peter Quellyn, a British officer of the operational directorate of the Admiralty, who was responsible for the planning of convoy operations to the Soviet Union. Convoys, returning to Britain, were designated QP – letters just changed places. Since the end of 1942, the abbreviation changed: now ships heading to the Soviet North were designated JW, and those going back - RA. The Germans failed to find it out, and therefore they pedantically added figure one to the designation of each new allied convoy, using characters PQ and QP.
The organization of convoys and responsibility for the safety of their crossings to Soviet ports and vice versa rested with the British. Initially, the bulk of the transports were British vessels. From November 1941 to March 1943, Soviet transports also took part in the convoys, but since 1942 the USSR began to transfer its entire cargo tonnage to the Pacific Ocean. After Japan entered World War II, only Soviet vessels were able to operate on the routes linking the United States and the Soviet Far East. Since 1942, more than half of the vessels in the polar convoys were the newly-made American vessels of the “Liberty” project, which were normally built in 25–27 days, and sometimes even faster.
Convoys were followed by guard ships, i.e. an oceanic escort. In the proximity of the final destinations, the protection was reinforced by means of a local escort by the Soviet Northern Fleet. Most convoys were guarded by detachments of cruisers and battleships. Cruisers were normally used to repel enemy’s attempts to attack a convoy with its own cruisers and destroyers. A detachment of operational cover, which included battleships and sometimes an aircraft carrier, were designed exceptionally for the fight against German battleships “Tirpitz” and “Scharnhorst”. Normally, this detachment took its position in the Eastern part of the Norwegian Sea.
The planning of passages was carried out in such a way that the same protection forces, having completed the voyage to the ports of the USSR, after a short rest, received another convoy returning to Great Britain and the USA. In some cases, two convoys were simultaneously in the sea, i.e. one going to our ports, and the other - towards the west. Each of them had its own escort, but the operational cover of both oncoming convoys was carried out by the same detachment.
Irrespective of the actual lack of counteraction from the enemy, there were more than enough difficulties. For instance, in mid-January 1942, navigation in the White Sea was closed due to freezing, although all icebreakers were concentrated there. By that time, Arkhangelsk had received 52 ships, which delivered 699 aircraft, 466 battle tanks, 330 small tanks and many other cargoes, at that time amounting to 95% of all the supplies of the allies to our country. Since then Murmansk became the main recipient of cargoes. However, the state of this port was deplorable. Firstly, almost all valuable equipment was evacuated in the beginning of the war. Secondly, there was a lack of dockers in Murmansk! As a result, fifteen hundred people gathered on the Kola Peninsula, two thousand were mobilized in the Ryazan region, 500 workers were delegated by the Arkhangelsk port. They were purely civilians to include many teenagers and women. But they all had to get used to the life on the front line. Severe frosts alternated with stormy winds and blizzards; work went on at polar night with the observation of the light discipline measures.
Only by the beginning of 1942 the German leadership realized the influence of lend-lease and allied convoys on the entire course of combat operations on the eastern front. Clouds were gathering over the polar convoys. The first losses were suffered by PQ-7, starting with PQ-13 they became regular. A kind of a turning point, the deepest crisis, happened in July 1942 to PQ-17. In the conditions of polar day, it was subjected to combined attacks from the air, surface ships and submarines. As many as 12 transports out of 34 in the convoy and one rescue vessel were sunk by the enemy, 13 vessels were damaged. Out the damaged ones, 11 were finished off by the guard ships of the enemy after the crews were evacuated. Thus, the convoy lost 23 transpots and one rescue vessel. A total of 153 merchant seamen were killed on the vessels of convoy PQ-17.
As a result, with the end of the polar night in February 1943 and before it started again in November, not a single convoy came to Soviet ports: the defeat of PQ-17 was so painful. However, it was 1943 that became a turning point in the war, and this fully applied to the Polar area. During th the next winter of 1943-1944, the polar convoys, sent to the USSR, did not lose a single transport.
It is very difficult to single out one out of the total number of polar convoys as each of them was something significant. However, the JW-55B is worth mentioning separately, because this convoy became a kind of a revenge for the disgrace of the 17th. At that time, thanks to a cunningly planned operation, the operational cover ships destroyed the last operational German battleship “Scharnhorst”. Since then, the guards began to focus solely on the struggle against the underwater and air assets of the enemy. German surface ships were no longer taken into account.
Convoy PQ-17 was a symbol of defeat for the allied navies, convoy JW-55 - a triumphant revenge, and JW-58 became the apotheosis of polar convoys. On March 27, 1944, 49 vessels left the coast of Iceland. Their defence and cover was actually carried out by the entire British Home Navy. In total, the operation involved two battleships, two heavy and six escort aircraft carriers, six cruisers, 43 destroyers, and more than a dozen escort ships. It can be assumed that it was the first simultaneous concentration of such a great number of ships and vessels in Arctic waters in history. On April 3, Soviet ships took their designated places in the cruising formation. One day later, the Soviet escort followed a part of the caravan’s transports to the neck of the White Sea, where it transferred them to the icebreakers. The rest of the convoy entered the Kola Bay. The vessels of this convoy alone delivered 34 fighters, 118 M4A2 tanks, 73 armored personnel carriers, 102 tractors, 33 torpedo boats, tens of thousands tons of ammunition, radios, spare parts, industrial equipment. The largest convoy operation was successfully completed, with only one transport lost, which was actually damaged after a collision with an ice floe and had to return to Iceland.
During the years of the war, 40 convoys of 830 vessels passed through the Arctic waters to the Soviet Union. Of these, 58 transports were lost at the crossing and 43 returned to ports of departure. In the opposite direction, from the Soviet Union to the ports of Great Britain and Iceland, 718 vessels left as part of 35 convoys, of which 28 were lost at the crossing, and 11 came back. Thus, in both directions during the war years, as part of polar convoys, 1 548 vessels traveled the entire route, the loss amounted to 86 transports, 71 of which occurred in 1942. In addition, since August 1942 to September 1943, 41 ships attempted single passages along the northern route: 14 - to the Soviet Union, and 27 - in the opposite direction; eight of them were sunk.
But polar convoys are in no way a one-way street. For instance, in 1941, which was a very hard year for the country, 153 977 tons of various cargoes were delivered to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk by convoy vessels. And in the opposite direction, to the coast of Great Britain, 136 000 tons of valuable timber, rare metals and chemicals were dispatched from Arkhangelsk.
Throughout the war years, the volume of inland sea shipping in the Arctic had also increased steadily, primarily along the Northern Sea Route. This route from Arkhangelsk to the Far East and to the United States was shorter and safer than through the Atlantic. In addition, it reduced the load on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Starting from the navigation of 1943, the volumes of traffic within the Arctic basin became relatively high, primarily between the mouths of Siberian rivers, which were natural routes towards the mainland, less loaded, if compared to land routes. The total losses of the Northern Fleet on inland maritime routes for various reasons, including the navigational ones, during the entire war period amounted to 16 transports, 42 vessels, seven auxiliary vessels and about a hundred small floating crafts. During the Great Patriotic War, 2568 vessels passed their routes as part of internal convoys, of which only 11 domestic and three allied transports were lost, which amounts to slightly more than half a percent. Perhaps, this is the most unequivocal answer to the question on the extent, to which the Northern Fleet was successful in protecting its internal routes during the Great Patriotic War.
There is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have won the war even without lend-lease. But the final defeat of the enemy might have been postponed for many months, and for every day of delay, the country would have had to pay lives of thousands of Soviet people. The Great Patriotic War consisted of countless elements, and the loss of any of them immediately makes the overall picture incomplete and deceptive. Indeedm there was the defence of Moscow, and the battle of Stalingrad, and the Kursk Bulge ...
But there were allied convoys in the Arctic too - a heroic page in the chronicles of that terrible war.