The flash of thousands of guns lit the horizon as the Germans and their Axis allies launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The attackers surprised the Soviets and within weeks their tanks pushed halfway to Moscow. The speed of the Blitzkrieg had stunned the world since 1939, and to many it appeared that the Axis powers would quickly attain another victory.
British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill realized that the British would no longer face the enemy might alone, and threw aside his longstanding commitment to contest communism and initiated a series of overtures between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union that culminated in the Soviet-British Mutual Assistance Pact of 12 July 1941. By its provisions, the British pledged to provide military and economic aid to the Soviets. Meanwhile, things on the other side of the Atlantic heated up, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the Lend-Lease Act, which Congress passed on 11 March 1941 under the patriotically designated House Bill 1776, to lease additional aid to the Allies. The Americans initially restricted their aid to the British, but later extended Lend-Lease to the other Allies. While the Soviets struggled against the enemy onslaught, they feared even the slightest delay, and believed that convoys steaming the Arctic routes offered the swiftest way of delivering these goods.
The men who sailed these ships into the treacherous waters controlled by the enemy also endured the eternal fight against the sea. Fierce storms sent mountainous waves that roared down onto ships, buckling funnels, smashing boats and knocking them loose from their chocks, crushing bridges out of shape, and sweeping men overboard into the foamy maelstrom, their cries unheard in the howling fury. Storms swept ships apart, and escorts groped blindly for their charges. Cooking proved all but impossible in the tumult, and the relentless misery of seasickness ensured that few men wished to eat. Long days of battling the bitter Arctic weather sapped the strength of the crewmen, the endless cold permeated every part of their bodies, and sailors sometimes went for days without sleep.
The darkened horizon of the “midnight sun” reduced visibility for nearly half the year, and the sense of isolation caused depression among the hardiest of souls. The winter darkness impeded aerial operations and often left ships without air reconnaissance or rescue. The long hours of summer light, however, brought death from attacks that continued around the clock. Atmospheric interference caused signal errors and men misinterpreted orders or never received messages. The need for accurate forecasting led both sides to fight “The Weather War,” which included establishing weather stations on islands in the region. Bitter experience led sailors to strengthen ships’ bows against the heavy seas, and to install steel propellers to cope with the pack ice. The Allies rarely had enough icebreakers, and the pack ice compelled the convoys to steam to the south — and closer to the German occupied Norwegian airfields and fjords.
The 17 ships of the first two convoys, code named Dervish and PQ 1—the Allies designated the outbound convoys as PQ and the return QP—set out from Hvalfjord, Iceland, and reached the Soviet port of Archangel without mishaps (21–31 August and 29 September–11 October 1941, respectively). By the end of the year the British delivered 53 ships carrying more than 100,000 tons of cargo, without losing a single vessel. These supplies represented only a fraction of what the Soviets needed, but they strained the hard-pressed British, who required shipments for their own far-flung forces. These safe voyages led to a certain degree of complacency among Allied leaders, however, that vanished quickly as Adolf Hitler increasingly considered Norway “The Zone of Destiny” and ordered the Germans to reinforce their forces there. Over the winter of 1941–42, the Germans dispatched additional Luftwaffe (air force) and Kriegsmarine (fleet) aircraft, ships, and U-boats (submarines), including battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship to Bismarck, lost the previous year.
The Americans also deployed to the fighting with Task Force 39, commanded by Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox Jr. and including aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7). It sailed from Portland, Maine, to reinforce the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on 26 March 1942. The following day, Wilcox was lost overboard from battleship Washington (BB-56) during heavy seas, and the command of the force devolved upon Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen.
Wasp and her consorts participated in the Arctic battles as the fighting escalated and the Germans savaged convoy after convoy. Tirpitz narrowly missed intercepting PQ-12 during Operation Sportpalast (sports stadium—the convoy sailed 1–12 March 1942), and Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine attacks sank eight of PQ-16’s 35 merchantmen (21 May–1 June 1942). The apparent safety of port proved illusory as the Luftwaffe pounded the Soviet anchorages, and the air raid siren wailed more than 70 times while the survivors of PQ-16 berthed at Murmansk. When the Allies believed that Tirpitz and her screen were about to descend on the 34 ships of PQ-17 during Rösselsprung (Knight’s Move), they sent them a chilling message: “Most Immediate….Convoy is to Scatter.” The merchantmen scattered and enemy bombers and U-boats did not have to face the withering fire of the convoy’s concentrated guns and depth-charges. They picked off 24 of the ships (27 June–10 July—see rare photos here). Following that disaster, the Germans resumed their assault and sank 13 of 28 ships in PQ-18 (2–19 September). The Allies rounded out the year by driving off German armored cruiser Lützow and heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and their destroyers when they attacked convoy JW-51B, during Plan Aurora in the Battle of the Barents Sea on New Year’s Eve 1942. The German failure enraged Hitler and he threatened “to throw the whole surface fleet into the dustbin!”
In September 1943, British X-craft midget submarines temporarily immobilized Tirpitz, and the following month Ranger (CV-4) carried out the only U.S. carrier operation in Northern European waters during World War II in Operation Leader—a raid against German forces in Norway made possible by the removal of the threat that Tirpitz posed. Ranger launched a strike against German ships at Bodø and a second raid along the coast from Alter Fjord to Kunna Head on 4 October. The year ended thunderously when British battleship Duke of York (17) and her screen sank the German battleship Scharnhorst the day after Christmas, as the Germans attacked the 19 ships of JW-55B (sailed 20–30 December 1943) during Ostfront (East Front). Tirpitz survived repeated bombing raids until British Avro Lancasters sank her during Operation Catechism on 12 November 1944. The Allies continued to send supplies to the Soviets by way of the Arctic but increasingly sent convoys to the Persian Gulf and Siberia, which dramatically reduced the risk of casualties as the ships sailed farther from enemy airfields and ports.
The Allies sent 811 ships in 40 Arctic convoys to the Soviets, and 715 ships in 37 convoys made the return run. The majority of these sailed in 1942—256 ships in 13 outbound convoys and 188 in 13 inbound. These freighters carried an estimated 3,964,000 tons of cargo (approximately 23 percent of the total shipped to the Soviets), 93 percent of which arrived safely. At least 16 Allied warships and 85 merchantmen were lost during what crewmen called “The Suicide Run,” and the fighting claimed the lives of as many as 1,944 naval sailors and 829 merchant mariners. The Germans lost Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, several destroyers, and at least 30 U-boats, together with hundreds of aircraft.
The convoys emphasized Allied resolve to aid the Soviets, especially during the first two years of the Axis invasion when Soviet collapse appeared possible, and provided desperately needed material to help them defeat the invaders. The Arctic has no memorials at sea except for the hulks of the ships that rust within the cold depths, yet it is the courage and sacrifices of the Allied sailors that writes the epic story of the Arctic battles.
Essay by Mark L. Evans, NHHC Histories and Archives Division, December 2016
Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume I The Battle of the Atlantic September 1939–May 1943. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966.
United States Naval Administration in World War II Office of Naval Operations History of the Naval Armed Guard Afloat World War II. Chapter II The North Russia Run. OP-414 (Ex Op-23).
The Royal Navy and the Arctic Convoys A Naval Staff History. London: Routledge, 2007.
Supplement to The London Gazette of Friday, 13th October, 1950 Tuesday, 17 October 1950 Convoys to North Russia, 1942. 39041, 5139.
Naval and Marine Operational and Personnel Records. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.: https://www.archives.gov/research
ADM Admiralty Records. National Archives, Kew, U.K.: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/