Convoy PQ17 assembles at Hvalfjord, Iceland, June 1942. PQ17 was ordered to scatter as the Admiralty feared an attack by the German battleship Tirpitz. The merchant ships were attacked by U-boats and aircraft, and only 11 out of 34 reached Russia. In all, 153 merchant seamen died. In the background is the Soviet tanker Azerbaijan, whose mainly female crew saved their ship after she was bombed and set on fire.
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After Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Russia) on 22 June 1941, the Soviet leader, Stalin, demanded help, and the western Allies provided supplies. The most direct route was by sea, around northern Norway to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel.
The first convoy sailed in September 1941. The route passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway, and was very dangerous, especially in winter when the ice came further south. Many of the convoys were attacked by German submarines, aircraft and warships. Convoy PQ17 was almost destroyed.
Conditions were among the worst faced by any Allied sailors. As well as the Germans, they faced extreme cold, gales, and pack ice. The loss rate for ships was higher than any other allied convoy route.
Over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians. As well as tanks and aircraft, these included less sensational but still vital items like trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines and boots.
Although the supplies were valuable, the most important contribution made by the Arctic convoys was political. They proved that the Allies were committed to helping the Soviet Union, whilst deflecting Stalin’s demands for a 'Second Front' (Allied invasion of western Europe) until they were ready. The convoys also tied up a large part of Germany’s dwindling naval and air forces.
Cap tally for HMS Edinburgh owned by Radar Operator Arthur Bailey. In April 1942 HMS Edinburgh was detached from her usual Arctic convoy route to collect a cargo of gold bullion from the Russian port of Murmansk. Edinburgh arrived safely but after setting out to join convoy QP 11 for the return journey, she was hit by torpedoes fired by U-456 and attacked by surface ships. Edinburgh eventually had to be abandoned. There were 42 dead on Edinburgh and among the wounded was Arthur Bailey. He was taken to a military hospital at Murmansk in Russia and spent several months there recuperating. He returned to the UK in December 1943.
uniforms and insignia
An Allied Convoy arriving at Murmansk in Winter Sunshine, 1943, by James Morris. James Morris was serving as a signalman in the Royal Navy when he made these drawings recording his experiences on convoy duty in the trawler Lord Austin. In 1945 he was employed as an official war artist with the British Pacific Fleet in the Far East.
Seamen clearing ice from the forecastle of HMS Belfast in November 1943. Ice formed from frozen spray would build up on every exposed part of a ship. It had to be cleared regularly or the extra weight could make the ship capsize.
A 50-foot (15m) high wave towers above the bridge of the cruiser HMS Sheffield. During this Arctic gale the wind reached speeds of 65 knots (120kph). Visibility was less than 180m. The heavy seas stripped the armoured roof off one of the ship’s turrets.
Lookout on board HMS Sheffield in December 1941. He is dressing for the icy conditions, putting on a sheepskin great-coat, sheepskin gloves, two balaclavas, thick woollen underwear, two pairs of seaboot stockings and several pullovers.
The ammunition ship Mary Luckenbach explodes during PQ18, 19 October 1942.After PQ17 the convoys stopped for nine weeks, then PQ18 was fought through against strong opposition. In total, 16 ships were lost, along with 41 German aircraft and 4 U-boats.
Blindfolded survivors from the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst come ashore at Scapa Flow, in Orkney, 2 January 1944.Scharnhorstwas sunk attacking an Arctic convoy on 26 December 1943. Survivors only lasted a few minutes in the icy water, so just 36 of her crew of nearly 2,000 lived. The Battle of North Cape marked the end of the German threat to the Arctic convoys.