British and Russian veterans have marked the 70th anniversary of the Arctic Convoys in the far northern city of Archangel. British, American and Canadian sailors braved the icy waters of the arctic to bring aid to the Soviet Union.
Throughout the history of the USSR, Western contributions to the Soviet war effort were underplayed, but today that has changed. Years ago, Russia issued a commemorative medal for Western ships companies and finally recognised the importance of Anglo-American “Lend-Lease” assistance.
The Voice of Russia says the first British convoy, code-named “Dervish”; arrived August 31, 1941 and carried rubber and tin as well as 15 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes, more advanced than any then in the Soviet Air Force. Russian war historian and writer Oleg Rzheshevsky said the convoys were important in many ways:
"The moral aspect of the Arctic Convoys meant a lot. This was an extremely important factor both for the army and for all our people as it signalled that we were not alone in that war but had strong allies such as Britain and the United States. This helped boost our troop morale on the battlefield and supported our people on the home front."
The BBC recalled Churchill called the convoys "the worst journey in the world". 86-year-old David Cottrell, who served as a gunner on a Royal Navy destroyer remembered:
"The Germans would send in U-boats. Also, loads of aircraft. So you were being attacked by air and underneath. On occasion you did get several German destroyers out from Norway to intercept. On my second convoy, a German torpedo missed our ship by inches. It hit another vessel and sank it.
Russian war veteran Boris Grigorievich said:
"I remember the convoys coming here. They arrived battered - they were all iced over - but they helped us so much and the main thing was that Russia and the Allies were working together."
Unfortunately, along with the official Soviet silence, the report says Russian girls who fell in love with the British were likely to be sent to forced labour camps, operated by the GULAG department of the NKVD, later the KGB.
According to Naval-History Net, 78 convoys with 1,400 ships went to Russia and back and of these, 85, or six per cent, were lost. The Royal Navy lost six destroyers and eight other escorts and the Germans lost the battleship Scharnhorst.
The convoy that suffered the heaviest losses was Convoy PQ-17, which sailed in June 1942. Of the 41 ships that left Iceland, three were forced back and of the remaining 39, 24 were sunk.
Escort ships USS Wichita and HMS London.
The icy convoys inspired Alistair Maclean’s novel HMS Ulysses, which was turned into a radio play, but apparently the heroic convoys were not only forgotten by the Soviet Union, but also by Hollywood, which has not made a major movie about them. Hopefully, in future, the heroism of the seamen that sailed in the convoys will be better remembered.