The year 2012 will be remembered for unusual weather. Sunny Dunny was drenched, Stonehaven flooded, Assynt suffered an unheard-of drought and much of England is still so sodden any new rain simply runs off. North of us was unusual too in that the amount of sea ice in the Arctic melted to a record low.
It might have been coincidence but on the heels of news of minimal Arctic ice, just before Christmas, the UK government followed up an equally-belated acknowledgement of Bomber Command’s 55,000 losses in WW2 with the announcement of a medal for the 65,000 men who served on the Arctic Convoys, 3,000 of whom died there; barely 200 of them are alive today.
Seventy years on, it is difficult to imagine how tough people had it. Luxuries we take for granted today—electronic gizmos, exotic foods or even more exotic holidays—were unknown. The Forces suffered hardships, bad food and endless boredom, interrupted by manic periods of people trying to kill them. Airmen tended to have it better when based at home. Yet, nursing 15,000lb of Amatol and incendiaries packed into a freezing Lancaster through pitch dark in a hail of flak at 20,000ft over Essen with radar-equipped Nachtjäger gunning for you requires stiff-upper-lip courage of a special sort.
Taking nothing away from the millions who served in the Forces to give us freedom leading to our seventy years of affluent comfort, they at least signed up for and got paid for it. While civilians from Barking to Belfast suffered waves of losses—from night bombers, followed by V1s you wished you couldn’t hear, followed by V2s you wished you could—there were civilians on the front line who had never signed up to warfare: our merchant seamen.
Most people know about the Battle of the Atlantic during which convoys of ships tried to keep Britain from starving. And while the North Atlantic is no easy place to be in winter, especially rolling around in a 1,000-ton corvette, one of the worst sea boats ever built, it was infinitely preferable to the worst billet in the entire war—the Arctic convoys to Russia.
Compared to the two-week Halifax-to-Liverpool haul, Loch Ewe-to-Murmansk looks a doddle. It’s much shorter, and with no sea ice and 24 hour daylight in summer, what could be simpler? Well, Hitler occupied Norway in 1940. The Luftwaffe deployed KG26, a crack anti-shipping wing whose He111s could carry two torpedos each. Not to be outdone, the Kriegsmarine stationed two full flotillas of U-boats and most of their heavy surface units there, including Tirpitz (15″-gun battleship), Scharnhorst (11″-gun battlecruiser), Admiral Scheer & Lützow (11″-gun pocket battleships) and Hipper (8″-gun cruiser).
When, to almost everyone’s surprise, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, it took some time for the capitalist West and communist East to behave like Allies. As Blitzkrieg bagged millions of Russian prisoners and panzers rolled up to the gates of Moscow, Stalin realised he needed all the help he could get. But getting it was not easy. Via the Pacific involved the 4,000-mile single-track Trans-Siberian railway, the Axis controlled the Aegean and therefore all access to Black Sea ports. The only option was the shortest one—to ice-free Murmansk and, in summer when the White Sea melted, Archangelsk.
Things got going in October 1941 when PQ1 of 11 ships left Iceland. Initially not much molested, as the season changed to winter, the bitter conditions were bad as any enemy. Sea spray froze into ice on the superstructures; this had to be chipped away or ships would capsize (HMS Shira lost this way—3 survivors). To touch anything with bare skin was to lose it, freezing to metal immediately as if glued. From November on, passage was in 24-hour darkness—a blessing because pack ice forced the convoys south towards the Norwegian coast so the less German patrols could see the better. (See here for details of convoys).
Lookouts had it worst, squinting into driven sleet for a whole watch. RN escorts could not stay closed up for action as AA gunners and deck parties would freeze. Deck equipment like winches was unusable; Frostbite was commonplace. The cruiser HMS Trinidad was even sunk by her own torpedos when their gyros malfunctioned in the cold and sent them in circles.
Keeping station in dark or foul weather (or both) to avoid collisions required extraordinary seamanship. Even when you got there, neither Murmansk nor Archangelsk offered facilities for visitors, the Russian treated even merchant seamen like spies: they pointed guns at those trying to unload PQ1 in the absence of stevedores because they had no permit to be ashore.
Although losses in the first six months were light, as weather improved into 1942, so did exposure to risk. In March PQ12 narrowly avoided Tirpitz in foul weather. From then on, each convoy was more roughly handled until PQ17 sailed with 33 ships at the end of June. Despite the Home Fleet providing distant cover, the Germans spotted it and sent Lützow and Scheer to attack, whereupon the convoy was ordered to scatter; U-boats and planes then had a field day picking off stragglers as there was nowhere to hide in 24-hour daylight. Only 11 ships of the 33 made Russian ports; some 1,200 merchant seamen, as well as 430 tanks, 210 aircraft, 3,350 lorries and 100,000 tons of war materials, were lost—the worst convoy disaster of the war.
Having had their fingers burned, the Admiralty held off until trying again with PQ18 in September which was roughly handled, losing a dozen ships before the remaining 28 reached Archangelsk. Then in December, a new series of JW convoys started and, taking advantage again of darkness and foul weather, these avoided many casualties, despite attempts to intercept by Lützow and Hipper. But after February 1943, all convoys were suspended until the following November because the odds against convoys in the summer months were suicidal—merchant seamen asked to face odds of dying worse than front-line soldiers or bomber crew.
Convoy JW55B, sailing in December, was used—unbeknownst to its sailors—as bait to lure out Scharnhorst, which was caught and sunk by HMS Duke of York and cruisers. With Tirpitz immobilised by the RAF, convoys in 1944 had an easier time of with no surface threat, running monthly until the final JW67 in May 1945. By ‘easier time of it’ is meant from the Germans: JW56A lost days fighting a huge storm off the Faroes, finally having to take shelter in Iceland.
Just surviving one Arctic Convoy would be a horrendously searing experience. But several ships sailed there more than once. How their crews held it together having already gone through this frozen hell already we may never know. And of the 3,000 that died on the 85 merchant ships and 16 RN warships lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea, we can only imagine what the nightmare of being thrown into stormy, sub-zero seawater after your ship sinks feels like. Survival time is minutes; the very low number hauled alive onto rescuing ships speaks volumes.
But there are two glaring reasons that make the whole sacrifice tragic that would have been known to none on the ships.
One is that all of this really was little more than a gesture. Because Britain was incapable of dealing with the Germans on any front in 1941 (we fielded five divisions then—all in Libya & only one of them all-British), the only way we could help the Russians (fielding 360 divisions and barely holding 208 Axis) was to provide these military supplies as the only direct contribution they could make. The ever-suspicious Russians actually thought Britain was just going through the motions to appear to help them and that the PQ17 losses had never existed.
The second tragedy is the Russians actually despised much of what was shipped. Our 2-pounder anti-tank guns were laughed at—their tanks were already equipped with a 76mm gun. They sidelined our slow, under-armed Valentine infantry tanks to the Caucasus side-show because the Red Army did not rate them beside their fast, powerful T34. What they did appreciate were lorries, which they used in Mechanised Corps to grind the once formidable German panzers to pieces.
Had the Arctic Convoys never happened, the outcome of the war would not have been greatly different—at worst, delayed a few weeks. In Britain, we tend to overplay our role in WW2 and nowhere is that more apparent than in the conceit that the Arctic Convoys brought materiel without which the Soviets would not have prevailed.
No-one should underestimate the courage of our sailors—both Merchant and Royal Navy—braving unspeakable trials of endurance for weeks. An acknowledgement of their sacrifices is both overdue and welcome. But don’t examine the rationale behind sending them too closely. They could ave stayed warm and snug at home for all the difference their sacrifices made to the war.
But give them the medals they have long deserved.