Convoy

Over three days, from September 29 to October 1, 1941, delegates from Britain and the United States met Soviet officials in Moscow. An agreement was reached to supply the Red Army and bolster the Soviet war effort against the Axis. The three powers signed the pact under the First Russian Protocol.
In 1941, the Germans were rapidly advancing. Soviet industry had not switched to military production and the embattled Red Army was short of everything from tanks to canned meat. In return for military aid, the Allies received Russian raw materials, including gold and other precious metals. Although Lend-Lease aid accounted for just 4pc of Soviet wartime industrial output, it arrived at a critical moment.

However, the Lend-Lease programme eventually contributed about 17pc of the fighters and 20pc of the bombers flown by Soviet forces during the war. And Soviet logistics depended on Lend-Lease: Americanbuilt lorries handled 75pc of all cargo and passenger traffic on the Eastern Front.

The Soviet Union received Allied war materiel via Arctic, Pacific and Iranian ports. The 2,000-mile Arctic route, from Iceland to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in northern Russia, was the shortest and most dangerous. It was here that the main naval battles of World War II were fought in the Arctic, immortalizing the courage and camaraderie of Allied sailors and pilots.

All Arctic convoys heading for Russia and back were designated PQ and QP respectively. On September 28, 1941, PQ-1, the second Arctic convoy, left Iceland. In the years that followed, 42 Arctic convoys (811 British, US and Soviet ships), plied the hostile waters of the North Atlantic. Each convoy consisted of highly vulnerable and relatively slow merchant ships, usually escorted by a battleship, several cruisers, destroyers, submarines and aircraft.

Sailors who served on Arctic convoys still meet to mark the anniversary of Dervish, the first Arctic convoy (August 21-31, 1941). American and British veterans often fly to Murmansk to recall their wartime experiences. One, William Short, an engineer- mechanic from the merchant vessel SS Induna, which sank in the spring of 1942, hopes to find the person who brought him back to life.

William explains how a German U-boat torpedoed his ship, and a second torpedo finished off the crew who had not had time to row to safety.

He jumped into the sea after the explosion, and did not think he could last more than several minutes. Other sailors launched a motorboat, but it was swamped as huge waves hurled the boat about and everyone on board was drenched with icy water. People started freezing and fell asleep, never to wake; the bodies of the dead were thrown into the sea.

At first William felt scared, but his fear faded as the days dragged on. Three days after the ship sank, 17 of 34 men were dead. Just as all hope seemed lost, a Soviet aircraft spotted the survivors. It was April 3, 1942.

Sergei Antropov, commander of the Russian minesweeper that picked up the survivors, said his ship had left port that morning. The crew subsequently spotted a Hurricane fighter, whose pilot told them to head north-east.

The minesweeper's lookouts spotted what looked like a submarine's conning tower, but it was in fact a one-mast boat. The minesweeper came alongside the craft and a line was thrown across to the survivors, but the British sailors were too
exhausted to grab it. The Russians had to pick up the helpless men and take them aboard.

Nikolai Dityatev, 19, was astoker when his ship, the SS Arkos, sailed to England. In May 1942, the SS Arkos joined the 35-ship PQ-16 convoy on the trip back home from Iceland.

A German reconnaissance plane flew over the convoy 24 hours later, and the Luftwaffe started bombing without respite five days after PQ-16 left port.

The SS Alamar was the first to sink. She was followed by an American ship, which cracked apart after a bomb hit her. The SS Stary Bolshevik, near Nikolai's ship, was attacked by a dive bomber and caught fire after a bomb exploded on her forecastle.

The ship was packed full of explosives, and the crew rushed to throw their cargo overboard. The corvette Rosales went to help. According to Nikolai, the intrepid warships saved crews even under heavy enemy fire.

Mikhail Golovko, son of Admiral Arseny Golovko (1906-1962) who commanded the Soviet Navy's Northern Fleet in 1941-1945, said Arkhangelsk received the first Arctic convoys.

In November 1941, heavy icebreakers had to be used to navigate the ice-bound White Sea, while Murmansk, the only ice-free Soviet port, lacked cranes and workers. Some of its piers had been destroyed, and there was no reliable air-defence system.

Mikhail said that although his father had told his superiors in August 1941 that the ships would not be able to enter Arkhangelsk in winter, no action was taken because that summer Stalin had ordered all ships to anchor there. As nobody had the courage to object, ships and human lives were lost. Valentin Dremlyug said that the ill-fated PQ-17 (June 27- July 17, 1942) had a powerful but distant escort, while its close escort comprised 23 warships. The convoy was carrying 297 aircraft, 495 tanks, 4,246 lorries and 15,600 tonnes of other materiel for Stalingrad, where the main battle of World War II was about to begin. The Germans attacked, sinking 24 of the 35 merchant ships in three weeks. The survivors reached Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Valentin, a hydrographernavigator, was sailing on the SS Murmanets, an 1898 hydromet reporting ship with a crew of 27; her only armament was two high-calibre machine-guns.

Although his ship was ordered to find convoys in the Barents Sea, this time she sailed as far north as Novaya Zemlya, high up in the Arctic.

On July 13, the Murmanets approached the Gusinaya Zemlya (Goose Land) Peninsula on Novaya Zemlya and her lookout spotted a bonfire on shore. It turned out that the survivors of the SS Olapana, sunk by a Uboat several days earlier, had lit the fire. Some sailors were dying of frostbite and the Russian ship had no doctor, yet her crew eventually got all the survivors on deck, into cabins and the radio room.

Three or four hours later, the Russians spotted a burning oil slick, hundreds of bags of flour and people in orange life-jackets drifting in the water. On July 15, the SS Murmanets rescued survivors from the SS Paulus Potter, who had spent 10 days on the high seas.

By that time, the SS Murmanets had picked up 71 people, and her food rations that were meant to last 30 days were eaten in a week. Nonetheless she carried on, eventually rescuing 147 sailors.

Yevgraf Yakovlev, then 15, was a cadet on the tanker Mikhail Frunze and had to stand watch twice a day. His ship sailed along the coast and joined other convoys en route. Yevgraf, who saw the Luftwaffe in action, met a German pilot on Novaya Zemlya 60 years later.

He explained that the Arctic Convoy society in St Petersburg had invited several Russians, Canadians, a Briton and a German to sail to the final resting place of the PQ-17 ships.

At first, nobody liked Heino Hermann, their 90-year-old German companion and a famous Luftwaffe ace, who had fought in the Spanish civil war, France and Africa and bombed London before he served in the Arctic.

Heino was already a colonel and squadron commander when his unit started bombing Arctic convoys, including PQ-17. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, a friend, subsequently transferred him to a fighter unit because he feared for his life.

After the war, Heino mined coal for 10 years in a prison camp in Vorkuta. He remembers how the malnourished local women gave him bread and potatoes to eat. In the end, everybody changed their attitude towards Heino. The Allies had won and Heino had paid for his crimes long ago.

After reaching her destination the ship stopped, and her passengers, including Heino, placed wreaths on the water in memory of the sailors and soldiers of both sides

The cost of aid

During World War II, arctic convoys were formed in Scottish harbours, such as Loch Awe and Scapa Flow, and in Iceland's Reykjavik and Hvalfjordur and subsequently unloaded in Arkhangelsk, Severodvinsk and Murmansk in the Soviet Union.

Until 1942, each convoy had between five and 12 ships, but later on their number increased to between 30-35. Allied war supplies to the USSR under the Lend-Lease Act accounted for 2pc of Soviet industrial output. In all, 42 convoys or 811 ships were dispatched to the USSR; and of that number, 58 merchant and 16 war ships were sunk and 1,944 sailors killed.

Arctic convoys supplied 22.7pc of Lend-Lease aid received by the USSR in 1941-1945. The United States estimates the volume of the aid at $9.8bn.

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