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ARCTIC ALLIED CONVOYS (1941-1945)


 

Ushakov Medal for Arctic Convoy Veterans Letters Of Gratitude of Arctic Convoy Veterans

 

 

For the gruelling years of the Second World War the Soviet, British, American, Canadian, South African and other military and merchant sailors ploughing the Arctic seas within the Convoys discharged their allied duty with honour. They endured the fire miles of the World War II, having supplied arms, ammunition, food and thousands of tons of other strategic cargo to Soviet Russia essential to our war effort.

Originally convoys started to be used in the beginning of the WWII in 1939. The system of convoys provided for formation of large groups of merchant ships under the escort of military vessels for making sea trips. Such a system is organizationally complicated and hardly effective since speed of any convoy does not exceed speed of its slowest ship.

In April 1940 the fascist Germany occupied Norway under the pretext of defence of its nationals from the British invasion. On June 22, 1941 Germany treacherously attacked the USSR. On July 12, 1941 Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the treaty on ’mutual assistance’ against Germany.

In August 1941 Allied convoys commenced running to the Arctic port of Murmansk (with the exception of several months in 1943 the convoys to the Soviet Union ran from 1941 until the war’s end). The northern route of less than 2,500 miles was practical, but it crossed the cruellest sea of all, the Arctic Ocean. This Arctic route became known as the Murmansk Run.

A convoy set off each month, except in the summer when the lack of darkness made them very vulnerable to attack. On the other hand, in the darkness of the Arctic winter, when the sun never rose, keeping station was difficult for the poorly equipped merchant ships, so there was always a danger of ship-to-ship collision. Sailing around the northern tip of Norway, the convoys would be exposed to one of the largest concentrations of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world. Strict orders forbade the halting of any ship for even a moment for fear of being attacked by prowling German U-boats, and individuals who fell overboard or survivors seen adrift on the waters had to be ruthlessly ignored. Each delivery of arms was an epic achievement, described as undertaking the impossible.

Some of these convoys are particularly notable.

On August 12, 1941 the first convoy ’Dervish’ departed Liverpool to Scapa Flow. It was composed of 6 British and a Dutch merchant ship. It reached Archangel with no losses on August 31 and delivered 10 thousand tons of rubber, 3800 depth-bombs and magnetic mines, 15 ’Hurricane’ fighters and other equipment.

Originally, the Allied convoys went unnamed and unnumbered. After several round trips were successfully completed, a coding system was established. All convoys bound for the Soviet Union were designated ’PQ’ and those returning were designated ’QP’ (the name of the officer who was monitoring convoys in the British Admiralty was P. Q. Edwards, his initials ’PQ’ were used to mark the convoys heading outward and QP - homeward).

On September 28, 1941 the first of the PQ-convoys made up of 10 merchant ships under the escort of a cruiser and 2 destroyers departed Iceland to Archangel and reached it safely on October 11, 1941.

By the end of 1941, seven convoys had delivered 750 tanks, 800 planes, 2,300 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of general cargo to the Soviet Union. Convoy PQ-8 was attacked by a U-boat but came to Murmansk on January 19, 1942. By early February 1942, 12 northbound convoys including 93 ships had made the journey with the loss of only one ship to a U-boat.

During 1941 the enemy did not put up serious resistance to the convoys in the Arctic still setting hopes on ’blitzkrieg’. After the failure of the offensive on Moscow Germany started systematic fight against convoys by means of its fleet, submarines and ’Luftwaffe’ forces.

By the beginning of 1942 Germans additionally deployed here one of the worlds’ best battleships - ’Tirpitz’, two heavy cruisers, 10 destroyers and later another battleship and cruiser, plus 260 ’Luftwaffe’ military aircraft. Most of the time all these forces acted simultaneously by delivering massive strikes at the convoys.

By the end of June 1942, PQ-17, the largest and most valuable convoy in the history of the run and known particularly for the tremendous losses among the merchant ships, was formed up and ready to sail for Murmansk and Archangel. Its cargo was worth a staggering $700 million. Crammed into bulging holds were nearly 300 aircraft, 600 tanks, more than 4,000 trucks and trailers, and a general cargo that exceeded 150,000 tons. It was more than enough to completely equip an army of 50,000.

It sailed from Iceland on June 27, 1942. Thirty-five cargo ships were escorted by six destroyers and 15 other armed vessels. One ship was a catapult-armed merchantman that carried a Hawker Hurricane fighter which could be launched to intercept enemy aircraft and perform reconnaissance. Due to the threat from German surface ships, the convoy was ordered to scatter on July 4, and the escorts were withdrawn rather than risk their loss.

The toll taken on the abandoned convoy was horrendous. Only 11 of the 35 merchantmen that left Iceland finally made it to the Soviet Union. Fourteen of the sunken ships were American. More than two-thirds of the convoy had gone to the bottom, along with 210 combat planes, 430 Sherman tanks, 3,350 vehicles and nearly 100,000 tons of other cargo. More than 120 seamen were killed and countless others were crippled and maimed.

PQ-18 was the last convoy of this series which became the largest convoy formation. It departed on September 2, 1942 and was escorted by more than 30 military vessels, including 1 cruiser and 14 destroyers, as well as 2 tankers, 4 trawlers and a salvage ship. In total 51 vessels took part in this operation. 27 transport ships of PQ-18 delivered 150 thousand tons of cargo to Archangel which equaled to the total cargo amount supplied in 1941.

In November 1942 the convoys’ marking was changed for the reasons of secrecy to the following identifiers: JW for the journey to Russia and RA for the return journey.

By the end of 1942 well over a million tons of Allied shipping had been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. 85 U-boats had gone there too. Slowly but surely the Battle of the Atlantic was turning the Allies’ way.

In January 1943 a great success was achieved. The convoy JW51B was attacked by the cruiser ’Hipper’ and the pocket battleship ’Luetzow’, but the allied escort was able to drive off the attacking forces. After this victory, convoys ran regularly, with breaks from March to November 1943 and in the summer of 1944, until the end of the war. A total of 14 convoys sailed to Russia from November 1943 to May 1945 with only 13 ships lost altogether.

U-boats were losing their effectiveness as Allied submarine-hunting techniques improved through 1944. The battleship ’Tirpitz’, always more potent as a threat than actual weapon, was finally sunk at her Tromso anchorage by RAF bombers on November 12, 1944.

The last convoy left on May 12, 1945, arriving at Murmansk on May 22, 1945. It had no losses.

Between August 1941 and the end of the war, a total of 78 convoys made the perilous journey to and from north Russia, carrying four million tons of supplies for use by Soviet forces fighting against the German Army on the Eastern Front.

In summary, about 1400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to Russia. 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. Towards the end of the war the material significance of the supplies was probably not as great as the symbolic value hence the continuation of these convoys long after the Russians had turned the German land offensive.

On the whole these convoys delivered about 4,5 million metric tons of cargoes, which is about one fourth of western allies’ total aid. The cargoes included over 7,000 airplanes, about 5,000 tanks, cars, fuel, medicines, outfit, metals and other raw materials.

The Allied seamen showed true heroism in their long and perilous sea passages in convoys, being constantly attacked by enemy forces in the appalling weather conditions of the Arctic. The bravery of these men and women who unsparingly fought for the Victory will be always remembered and respected.

The last surviving British warship which participated in the Arctic Convoys is HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames opposite the Tower of London. Victory Day commemorations and award ceremonies for UK veterans of the Convoys are held aboard. In 2010 a restoration project for HMS Belfast was conveyed by a number of Russian companies.

An Arctic Convoys Museum exists in Scotland: http://www.russianarcticconvoymuseum.org/

 

Update: Book about HMS Belfast “The Last Witness” published in 2010



COMMENTS

Comments: 35

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19.07.2017 18:53 - Mike Horne

Dear Sirs. My late father, Denis Horne (b.1926 d.1979) was on the "Arctic Convoys" during WWII. His job was a wireless communications officer (morse code) and to escort vital supplies to Russia. One could not really imagine that dreadful voyage there, a toss between "U" boats and terrible freezing conditions! I have his "Arctic Star" medal from the U.K, and it would be great if he received his "Ushakov" medal as well. I understand that these were not issued posthumously, but there have been events where the veteran's families have been issued with them. Please could you get in touch with me?. Kind regards Mike Horne, Leeds, U.K


30.03.2017 14:00 - Kathryn Plaziuk

Wayne Aves, I've asked repeatedly about the Ushakov Medal being awarded posthumously, the reply I got was it would be impossible to give medals to all, only those alive when applying can get one, so sad when many truly deserve this medal.


30.03.2017 14:00 - Kathryn Plaziuk

Wayne Aves, I've asked repeatedly about the Ushakov Medal being awarded posthumously, the reply I got was it would be impossible to give medals to all, only those alive when applying can get one, so sad when many truly deserve this medal.


22.02.2017 17:25 - Anna McKessock

My late Father, Stanley McKessock, was on the convoys during WWII and, although it is too late for him, our family support the Veterans. We are part of the Russian Arctic Convoys Club (21st Century) and we have just found the family of a Veteran who is on the Ushakov List for which the Russian Federation have been searching. We are so happy to unite this special Medal with his family and hope the Russian Consul in Edinburgh will work with us in the future to ensure the legacy of these men is not forgotten.


05.01.2017 17:44 - andrew jackson

I received a visit from a member of the Russian Embassy to present My late father Keith Howard Jackson with a Ushakov Medal, he was in 1941 / 42 a junior Merchant Navy Officer on the SS Empire Portia , whilst in Murmansk the ship was bombed resulting in a longer stay than was intended, about 9 months in all having spent the winter in Northern Russia, although not alive to receive it himself he knew it was coming and was looking forward to it arrival.


26.12.2016 10:05 - Wayne Aves

In response to Ian Johnson. No I have not received a reply about the Usahkov medal being awarded to those Veterans who have passed. I intend to write directly to the ambassador in London and also send a copy to his Australian counterpart.


21.11.2016 16:55 - david mcginn

my father was on the Shera and met his death on the Shera He was William Kerr McGinn age 24 LT/KX 145988 this ship was not sea worthy all the crew knew it, captain gave them shore leave to see there family's for the last time under the promise that they would come back, all came back! my father had two boys I was 10 months old my brother was 21 months old! we have suffered all our lives because of this action, its been hard to say the least!!


03.11.2016 23:54 - Ian Johnson

To Wayne R Aves - Did you ever receive a response to your question about posthumous award of the Ushakov Medal? My Grandfather was killed following the sinking of SSBotavon in PQ15 in May 1942. It seems sad that those who made the ultimate sacrifice aren't entitled to the award. I've recently successfully applied for his WW2 campaign medals which were never awarded originally and it would be fantastic to add to that an award from Russia, the country that he was helping when he paid with his life.


03.11.2016 23:45 - Ian Johnson

To Michael Davies- I'm interested in receiving a copy of your Gandfather's story. My Grandfather was a merchant seaman on SS Botavon when it was sunk in PQ15 in May 1942. He was killed just over a week later whilst being repatriated on HMS Trinidad when it was bombed. Email ianjohnson1892@gmail.com.


29.09.2016 13:27 - George Milne

Having just returned from Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg for the Dervish 75 commemorations, I wish to thank, on behalf of the UK delegation (which included two British RAF veterans who were on Dervish and six others, two of whom travelled from the US), all the Russian authorities who made the trip possible. It was an outstanding demonstration of gratitude and kindness with wreath-laying, receptions, gifts, free accommodation and above all friendship. As chairman of the Scottish multi-site museum project at Loch Ewe, I wish to tell Michael Davies, and any other relative of an Arctic Convoy veteran, that we would be very pleased to receive information about anyone who was involved in those convoys - at sea or on land. Please contact our emails: info@theracmproject.org - or - marketing@theracmproject.org - or - look at our websites: www.theracmproject.org - or - www.russianarcticconvoymuseum.co.uk

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