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Naval Armed Guard Service: Convoys to Northern Russia - an Overview and Bibliography

Related Resource: Naval Armed Guard Service During World War II

Source: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. "History of the Armed Guard Afloat, World War II." (Washington, 1946): 16-19 , 32-35. [This microfiche, identified as United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #173, is located in Navy Dept. Library, and can be purchased, or borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

Related Information: Convoy PQ-17

The Armed Guard met its supreme test in the long and dangerous voyages to North Russia. Without doubt there were more hazards in these trips to Murmansk than in any other kind of naval duty. Gales were frequent. Ice fields were a common menace to navigation. Magnetic compasses became completely unreliable. Floating mines were often encountered. Choice of routes was limited. German submarines and surface craft were able to operate from nearby bases [in German-occupied Norway]. German planes could shadow convoys for days and bomb ships from bases within twenty minutes flying time of Murmansk. Before escort [aircraft] carriers were used, only the weather and the guns of the escorts and merchant ships stood in the way of wholesale destruction of every merchant ship which ventured to the relief of the hard-pressed Russians. Convoys battled their way to the approaches of Murmansk and then underwent constant attacks in the harbor as they patiently waited to unload their precious cargoes. Cargo handling facilities were very limited, and the constant bombing of the city was not calculated to improve the situation. The story of the voyages to Murmansk, therefore, is one of almost unbelievable horror, of matchless courage, and of unlimited devotion to duty. There is nothing quite like it in all history. Ships which left the ports of the United States for Russia had about one chance in three of returning prior to the spring of 1943. After that date the odds were much better. Chances of rescue from sinking ships in sub-zero weather were not very good in spite of all efforts to save personnel whenever possible. Even if nothing happened, the long watches in severely cold weather made the trip one of the most trying experiences imaginable. But on most of the trips the Germans were encountered. Young men went to Murmansk in perfect health. They returned tired and nervous from loss of sleep and the sight of men dying all around them. Few men could stand the strain of many trips to Murmansk. They would generally agree that it was the most horrible experience of their lives. Even the return trip was full of danger. Sea power was confronting land based air power under the most trying conditions imaginable. The odds were heavily stacked on the side of the Germans. Yet the convoys, or sometimes remnants of convoys, got through. The life blood of victory never ceased to flow to the Russians. Fire power of merchant ships continually improved. Ship losses did not cease, but they decreased.

It is with the part the Armed Guard played in the drama of life and death that this chapter deals. American ships were almost constantly in North Russian waters either en route, in harbor, or on the return voyage to the United States. They were under almost daily attack. It is obviously impossible and undesirable to mention every enemy encounter. We are interested, therefore, in describing the most spectacular clashes with the enemy and in presenting to the reader a description of what life for the Armed Guard in this theater of war was like. No attempt is made to describe the losses of British ships. Many of the escorts were British and the British merchant ships were going to Russia side by side with American vessels. But the story of the part played by escorts and ships of other nationalities must be told elsewhere.

Merchant ships going to North Russia required special installations. Their bows were strengthened to give some protection from ice. Heat coils were installed in their double bottoms and in water tanks to prevent freezing. The only ships which could undertake the voyage were those which had received this special winter treatment.

The records of the Arming Merchant Ships Section of the Fleet Maintenance Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations indicate that some 347 merchant ships were dispatched to North Russia through April 26, 1945. Most of the losses were sustained between January 5, 1942 and March 14, 1943. In this period 143 ships departed for North Russia and 111 arrived. Losses en route were 32 ships and on the return voyage 14 ships were lost. These figures indicate that about one out of every three ships were lost. After this early period of heavy losses the tide turned; only 10 ships out of more than 200 were lost on the North Russia run for the remainder of the war, according to the records of the War Shipping Administration.

The Navy made every effort to give ships for Murmansk the best possible armament and large quantities of ammunition. These efforts began to pay off as expert Armed Guard crews gained experience in gunnery. While some of the early Armed Guard crews went to Russia with improper winter clothing, every effort was made to remedy this situation in 1942. The advice of Admiral Bird's expert on winter clothing was sought on the best available clothing for the North Russian climate and before 1942 ended these crews were being furnished with the best and most complete sets of winter clothing which could be obtained.

Convoy PQ-17, June - July 1942

The ferocity of German warfare reached a new high in the tragic destruction of [convoy number] PQ 17. In no other convoy to North Russia were American losses so high. We lost more than three fourths of all our merchant ships in this convoy and our losses on this voyage alone were more than one fourth of our total losses in all voyages to North Russia. The reason for these losses is to be found in the fact that merchant ships dispersed on July 4 and were left to shift for themselves. The escorts went west to meet heavy units of the German navy which were reported to be steaming toward the convoy.

The convoy left Iceland on June 27. Heavy ice floes were encountered by June 30, for on that date the John Witherspoon suffered damage to her forepeak water tank. A German plane sighted the ships on July 1. From July 1 to July 10 a large part of the convoy was wiped out. On July 2 the enemy made several attacks. One enemy plane was shot down and another plane landed to rescue the pilot. July 3 was an easy day. Enemy aircraft were over the ships and at least one bomb was dropped.

Independence Day witnessed heavy attacks in which at least eight enemy planes were knocked from the sky by Armed Guards and two American ships, the Christopher Newport and the William Hooper were sunk by torpedoes. Patrick Hugh Wright, an Armed Guard on the former ship fired his .30 cal. [machine] gun at the approaching torpedo until it struck the ship. The Armed Guard on the Daniel Morgan claimed better luck, for they assumed credit for hitting a torpedo 20 yards from the Carlton and saving that ship to sink another day. About an hour and a half before midnight the convoy received orders to disperse. The slow and heavily loaded merchant ships were left virtually defenseless except for their machine guns and a few heavier guns.

From this point the history of the convoy becomes largely a series of separate attacks by German submarines and planes, most of which ended in sinking the merchant ships involved in the attack. Most of the ships headed for Novoya Zelya and several sought safety in Matochkin Strait.

After being at General Quarters [all crew members at their battle stations] for over 28 hours, the Daniel Morgan witnessed the sinking of the Fairfield City by bombs on July 5. Five enemy planes then bombed the Daniel Morgan. Her Armed Guard shot down two planes, but the ship was so damaged by bombs that she sank. Other American ships which were sunk on that grim day were the Pan Kraft, the Washington, the Carlton, the Honomu, and the Peter Kerr. The men of the Washington spent almost 10 days in their boats. After seven days in the bitter cold weather, they went ashore on Novya Zemlya and had seagull soup. They went down to the coast again and two days later snared over 100 hell-diver ducks. This feast was shared with survivors from a British ship. Again they departed in their boats and came upon the Winston Salem grounded on a sand bar. This was their first opportunity to have a real meal in 10 days. Not until July 24 did the survivors reach Archangel [Russia]. More than a third had frozen feet. The men from the Daniel Morgan were rescued by a Russian tanker on July 6 and reached Molotovsk safely.

The Pan Atlantic was sunk on July 6 with the loss of 25 men. The John Witherspoon was sunk by torpedoes on the same date. Part of the Armed Guard and ship's crew were in a boat for 53 hours before being rescued by the El Capitan. The remainder were in an open life boat even longer before a British war ship picked them up. Far luckier were the Hoosier, the Samuel Chase, the Benjamin Harrison, and the El Capitan. They were able to make Matochkin Strait, where several other ships had also found safety. On July 5 the Ironclad joined the Silver Sword, the Troubador, and a trawler. They too were able to make Matochkin Strait. Some of the ships, including the Ironclad, the Troubador and the Benjamin Harrison were painted white so as to blend with the ice and snow.

On July 7 the Olapana and the Alcoa Ranger were torpedoed and sunk. The Bellingham took a fish, but this torpedo failed to explode and she was able to reach Archangel by July 10. Her gunners had been on almost continuous watch from July 3 to July 10.

Two ships which attempted to break out of Matochkin Strait prematurely came to grief. They were the Hoosier and El Capitan. The Hoosier was bombed and abandoned on July 9. El Capitan was bombed and sunk by escort on July 10. She was about 65 miles north of Iokanski.

The remaining American ships, the Benjamin Harrison, the Ironclad, the Silver Sword, the Troubador, the Winston Salem, the Samuel Chase, and the Bellingham were able to get safely through to Molotavsk or Archangel. Two ships, the Benjamin Harrison and the Troubador used machine guns from tanks [carried as cargo]. The former also removed ammunition from her cargo to use in defending the ship.

Two more ships, the Silver Sword and the Bellingham, were torpedoed and lost on the return trip with [convoy number] PQ 14 in September. Another, the Ironclad, went aground in Russian waters in November and was turned over to the Soviets to become the Marina Raskova. Only four American ships from the ill fated convoy were able to return safely from Russia to fight again. The loss of life had been very light because of the cooperation of all ships in rescuing men from life boats.

Survivors from the Carlton and the Honomu fell into the hands of the Germans and were not liberated until 1945. Nine of these men liberated were survivors from the Carlton Armed Guard.

For further information on Arctic convoys :

Achkasov, V.I. and N.B. Pavlovich. Soviet Naval Operations in the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981. [See ch.9, "Defense of Our Own Maritime Communications."].

Browning, Robert M., Jr. US. Merchant Vessel War Casualties of World War II. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996. [contains information on the actions and fate of each ship's Armed Guard detachment].

Campbell, Ian. The Kola Run: A Record of Arctic Convoys, 1941-1945. London: Muller, 1958

Carse, Robert. A Cold Corner of Hell: The Story of Murmansk Convoys, 1941-45. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1969.

Edwards, Bernard. The Road to Russia: Arctic Convoys 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

Evans, Mark Llewellyn. Great World War II Battles in the Arctic. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Irving, David John Cawdell. The Destruction of Convoy PQ.17. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Kaplan, Philip. Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War, 1939-1945. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998. [See "Run to the Red Star.," pp.136-151.].

Kemp, Paul. The Russian Convoys, 1941-1945. London: Arms and Armor, 1987.

Moore, Arthur R. A Careless Word -- A Needless Sinking: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered by the U.S. Merchant Marine, Both in Ships and Personnel During World War II. Kings Point NY: American Merchant Marine Museum, 1988. [Although this work contains useful information on each vessel lost, Robert Browning's book (see above) contains significantly more information on the actions and fate of each ship's Armed Guard detachment.]

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Atlantic Battle Won, May 1943 - May 1945. vol.10 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little Brown, 1956. [See ch.13, "In Arctic Waters, May - December 1943," pp. 229-244; and ch.16, "In Arctic Waters, 1944 - 1945," pp.305-316.].

____. The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939 - May 1943. vol.1 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little Brown, 1947. [See ch.7, "The North Atlantic Run, December 1941 - July 1942," pp. 158-192; and ch.14, "Ten Months Incessant Battle, July 1942 - April 1943," pp. 358-375.].

Pope, Dudley. 73 North: The Defeat of Hitler's Navy. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1958.

Roskill, S.W. The Defensive. vol.1 of The War at Sea, 1939-1945. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1954. [see ch.22, "Home Waters and the Arctic, 1st June - 31st December, 1941," pp.483-496.].

____. The Offensive, Part I, 1st June 1943 - 31st May 1944. vol.3 of The War at Sea, 1939-1945. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1960. [See ch. 4, "Home Waters and the Arctic, 1st June - 31st December 1943," pp.57-89; and ch.10, "Home Waters and the Arctic, 1st January - 31st May 1944," pp. 267-282.].

____ The Period of Balance. vol.2 of The War at Sea, 1939-1945. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1956. [See ch.5, "Home Waters and the Arctic, 1st January - 31st July 1942," pp.115-146; ch.12, "Home Waters and the Arctic, 1st August - 31st December 1942," pp. 277-299; and ch.16, "Home Waters and the Arctic," 1st January - 31st May 1943," pp.397-403."].

Ruegg, Bob and Arnold Hague. Convoys to Russia: Allied Convoys and Naval Surface Operations in Arctic Waters 1941-1945. Kendal, England: World Ship Society, 1992. [While not focused on the Armed Guard, this useful volume contains a brief narrative history of each convoy, as well as a list of participating merchant ships, information on warships escorting each convoy, and ship losses.].

Schofield, Brian Betham. The Russian Convoys. Philadelphia PA: Dufour Editions, 1964.

Taylor, Theodore. Battle in the Arctic Seas: The Story of Convoy PQ 17. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Woodman, Richard. The Arctic Convoys 1941-1945. London: John Murray, 1994.

08 August 2006