The author has provided a stirring account of the massive effort by the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy to maintain a flow of vital supplies to the Russian through some of the least friendly seas in the world. Highly recommended reading.
NAME: The Road to Russia, Arctic Convoys 1942
AUTHOR: Bernard Edwards
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: World War Two, WWII, Second World War, war at sea, convoys, Arctic Circle, PQ Convoys, QP Convoys, midnight sun, Royal Navy, U-Boats, German aircraft, German surface fleet, Admiral Hipper, Tirpitz, mine fields
DESCRIPTION: The author has provided a stirring account of the massive effort by the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy to maintain a flow of vital supplies to the Russian through some of the least friendly seas in the world. Highly recommended reading.
Good though the text and supporting photo plates are, the scale of the ordeal faced by the Arctic Convoys is difficult to fully describe and equally difficult to appreciate. Britain whole-heartedly came to the support of Russia which had previously been a hostile power colluding with Nazi Germany. The only immediately practical major support was to be the Arctic Convoys in 1942. Every PQ convoy faced a long and deeply unpleasant voyage to Russia, only to turn around and fight its way back once the cargoes had been unloaded.
In the height of Arctic Summer, the wind chill could still be crippling and the seas enormous, but there was also the added danger of the midnight sun. Working above the Arctic Circle requires some adaptation because the virtually continuous daylight is a trial for body clocks that are accustomed to day and night as distinct regions. In wartime continuous daylight is a further curse because it prevents the relief of periods of darkness when enemy attacks become more difficult. Foul weather was at least partly welcomed because it provided brief relief from the worst of the enemy attacks.
On large warships, conditions were little better. The cold was penetrating to the extent that some crews built igloos from collision mats, hosed down with steam hoses, to form an icy shelter close to the guns. This was useful to anti-aircraft gun crews because their lighter weapons were not usually turret mounted, but open to the elements. Chipping ice off the upper decks was a regular and demanding task to avoid the metacentric height being altered by the weight of new formed ice. Even off-watch, conditions were still very difficult, almost impossible on the smaller warships and merchant vessels.
Once the convoys came within range of German aircraft, ships and submarines, the attacks became continuous until the convoy arrived in the Russian port. Even then they could still come under German air attack. It was an exhausting process that then continued for most of the journey back to home ports. If a ship was badly damaged, the crew were often little better off taking to the lifeboats. Death in the water was very rapid and life expectancy in open boats was little better. One group of Royal Navy sailors in one of their ship’s boats were lucky survivors from a suicidal attack on German cruisers to buy time for the convoy to disperse. The boat started off with fourteen sailors, some with wounds. By the time a rescue tug found them, there was only one survivor, who was frozen to the boat’s mast. To save him, the first task was to take a saw to the mast. Happily he survived into old age but many were less fortunate.
The courage of the convoy crews was very poorly recognized until very recently when some belated attempts were made to provide redress for this neglect. There have been a number of excuses for not adequately recognizing the extreme and sustained courage of these sailors and naval aviators. The main reason was probably the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s desire to expand made it an enemy once more.
The scale of the impact on the progress of WWII by the convoys has never been fully understood. Without the flow of supplies to Russia, the Red Army is unlikely to have been as effective in driving back the Germans as it proved to be with Allied supplies. The extent of these supplies is demonstrated by two anecdotes from the period. When the Russian and US troops eventually met up, the Russians expressed surprise that the US soldiers were mounted on ‘Russian’ vehicles. Complete Russian units were mounted on US manufactured tanks and half tracks that had been shipped to Murmansk at huge cost to Allied sailors but, before the vehicles were issued to Soviet soldiers, all marking were removed, or covered by Russian marking and the real source of the equipment never acknowledged.
This Western equipment sometimes provided humour. A Soviet fighter squadron was based next to an RAF Hurricane squadron and had received a signal that it was to receive new aircraft, that were implied to be Soviet manufactured. The first crates arrived and the RAF commander offered his units help, having recognized that the new ‘Russian’ aircraft was the US built Airacobra which was to be used very effectively by the Red Air Force as a ground attack machine. The Russians refused the offer of help and for several night the industrious hammering of construction issued from the Russian canvas hangers. A newly constructed machine was then pushed out, started up and taxied by the Russian commander. When he tried to take off, the aircraft became unresponsive and crashed into a snow bank. Two days latter a signal arrived to tell the Soviet flyers that they had already received the crates of spares and the aircraft would be arriving the next week. What had happened was that the spares were unloaded more quickly from the PQ convoy merchant men and sent straight off to the airfield because the docks were clogging up with crates. The complete aircraft were then craned off as deck cargo, wrapped in protective material and it took a while for the American technicians to unwrap, check for flight and then deliver to the airfield.