These dangerous Arctic convoys saved Russia during World War II

Allied sailors braved one of the world’s most dangerous oceans while dodging German U-boats and Luftwaffe attacks to keep the Soviet military supplied throughout World War II.

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Convoy PQ-17 groups up on Apr. 30, 1942, before sailing on its way to Russia. (Photo: Royal Navy Lt. C. J. Ware)

When Germany attacked Russia in June of 1941, the Allied Powers gained a new and powerful member. The massive Soviet Union had a significant industrial capacity and a large population that suddenly found itself joined with the British and French.

But Hitler’s gamble wasn’t entirely crazy. He had real reason to believe that an invasion of Russia could succeed, giving the Third Reich all of the Soviets’ great treasure. To win the war, the Allied Powers had to make sure that Russia didn’t fall.

This meant that the Soviet Union would have to be supplied with massive amounts of planes, tanks, oil, barbed wire, soap, and a thousand other necessities. The British concentrated their outbound logistics on two major routes, the Meditteranean which allowed supplies to reach Malta and the Arctic route which gave access to the U.S.S.R.

The Arctic convoys had the more dangerous route, and approximately 3,000 sailors died while sailing it during World War II.

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A sailor works an ice-encrusted 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield during an Arctic convoy to Russia on Nov 30, 1941. (Photo: Royal Navy Lt. R. G. G. Coote)

German Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe forces maintained bases on the northern edges of Norway, allowing them to conduct constant patrols against Allies in the Arctic. Frequent storms caused ice to collect on ships, especially in the winter.

The summer brought its own danger as the Arctic Circle experiences periods where the sun doesn’t set. In some of the northernmost parts of Norway and Finland that the convoys had to pass, the sun doesn’t set for up to three months. During those portions of the year, the convoys were susceptible to being spotted and attacked during every hour of every day for the entirety of the approximately 10 to 15-day trip each direction.

Robert Carse, a sailor on one of the convoys, described what it was like to suffer a combined Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine attack in the North Atlantic:

That was hell. There is no other word I know for it. Everywhere you looked aloft you saw them, crossing and recrossing us, hammering down and back, the bombs brown, sleek in the air, screaming to burst furiously white in the sea. All around us, as so slowly we kept on going, the pure blue of the sea was mottled blackish with the greasy patches of their bomb discharges. Our ship was missed closely time and again. We drew our breaths in a kind of gasping-choke.

Carse and the convoy beat off multiple Messerschmitt attacks until one was able to drop a bomb that headed directly for the TNT-loaded ship. Miraculously, a last-second wind gust blew the bomb off to the side of the ship. The resulting concussion damaged the ship but failed to detonate the explosives the ship was carrying. Carse and the convoy continued along their route.

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Royal Navy Able Seaman Thomas B. Day stands near a frozen turret on the HMS Belfast in November 1943. (Photo: Royal Navy)

The Arctic deliveries continued until May 1945, just after Germany signed the articles of surrender ending World War II. In the tense build-up to the Cold War, Russian Premier Joseph Stalin denied the importance of the deliveries to keeping the Soviet Union in the war. But, Russian Consul General in Scotland Andrey A. Pritsepov recognized the merchant marine and Navy veterans in an August 2016 ceremony.

“Russia is indebted to the brave Scottish men who risked their lives in dangerous conditions to deliver vital aid and equipment to the eastern front,” he said. “It was a journey against all odds. Many have never returned. Their sacrifice and heroism comprise a proud chapter in our shared history.”

Author’s note: A previous version of this story stated that the United Kingdom maintained two sea supply routes into Russia, the Meditteranean and the Arctic. In fact, the Mediterranean route did not give access to Russia, but to Malta.

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