The First Arctic Convoys – The Foundations for our Wartime Alliance

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London - Veterans News. It is late August 1941 and some twenty merchantmen and their Royal Navy destroyer escorts gathered in Loch Ewe, Scapa Flow to undertake a first in the war to date; to make the arduous journey north to Russia’s northern Arctic ports.

During the course of the war there were many such voyages but this one was unique in that it marked the start of an extraordinary relationship between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union on the 22nd June 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced a series of measures to support our new wartime ally in its hour of need. The plan envisaged the extensive supply war materiel, munitions, foodstuffs and fuel to the USSR via Russia’s northern ports as well as the overland routes from north Africa via Persia.

Operation Dervish was the first and arguably one the most crucial convoys of the war that marked the start of an alliance that culminated with defeat of Nazi Germany.

A Common Enemy & The Need for a Secure Northern Supply Route

Signed on the 12th July 1941 in Moscow, the Anglo-Soviet Pact offered a wartime alliance to fight Nazi German, an existential threat to both the United Kingdom and its Empire as well as the Soviet Union.

As the Wehrmacht consolidated its position in Western Europe and began its march on Moscow, what became abundantly clear was the need for regular supply of materiel and equipment to keep the Soviet Armed Forces on the march.

Whilst the overland routes via Persia offered a convenient and safer route to supply the USSR’s southern flank, the largely vehicle-based convoys could not deliver the sheer volume of supplies needed. In short the Northern convoys offered a tough but necessary route to keep the USSR supplied and on the move. Running from August 1941 to May 1945, some 1400 merchant ships, spread over 78 convoys delivered crucial lend-lease cargoes including armoured vehicles, trucks, tanks, fighter planes, fuel, munitions and food.

During this period thousand of sailors and airmen from the UK and its Empire, Canada and the USA helped to contribute millions of tonnes of essential supplies to keep the Soviet Union fighting, tied down large numbers of Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe assets and demonstrated a fraternal desire to do all that was possible to support our Soviet ally until a second front in the west was opened.

Before this could be achieved however, the establishment of shore facilities, military liaison and air cover.

Prelude to Operation Dervish – Establishing the Royal Air Force in Russia

RAF Hurricanes at Vaenga AirfieldFollowing the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the RAF High Command established the need to provide essential air cover to support all future convoys entering the northern ports of Murmansk, Polyarny and Archangelsk. To this end N0.151 Wing of the RAF, comprising of two squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes was selected, alongside some 2700 men to make the journey north.

Based at the primitive but functional Vaenga airfield in the Murmansk Oblast, the pilots and crew provided essential air cover for the approaching convoys as well as a base of operations for the conversion training for Soviet pilots in the use if the Hawker Hurricane. During the war many thousands of Hurricanes were provided to the Soviet air Forces and as with the Battle of Britain, provided a superb match to the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front.

As 1941 drew to a close, air operations were grounded to poor weather but nonetheless the men and Hurrricanes of No.151 Wing helped to form a protective air cover for Murmansk and the approaching convoys

Operation Dervish – Building the Foundations for Future Operations

A ship in the water

Description automatically generated with low confidenceWith air cover, key port facilities and key personnel now in place, the inaugural ‘Dervish’ convoy formed a part of a series of naval operations in the Arctic during August 1941.

Following a number of raids on German occupied Norwegian ports, some twenty vessels consisting of six merchantmen, a fleet oiler and 14 relay escorts of the Royal Navy. The way was now clear for the convoy to make the ten day voyage north.

Laden with war materiel including fifteen crated Hurricanes and bound for Archangel, the convoy was escorted at any time by three to four Royal Navy vessels, including destroyers, anti-submarine trawlers and mine sweepers.

With command and control of all naval assets directed from the aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious under Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker, a Distant Cover Force from the Home Fleet provided all naval air cover and surface operations to locate and engage Kriegsmarine surface vessels.

Whist the convoy managed to unload successfully in Archangelsk, the German High Command would in the future tie up considerable naval and air assets to slow the supply of cargoes destined for the Eastern Front.

The operation in itself was symbolic if nothing else – it sowed the seeds for future operations in the Arctic and provided essential mission planning and the setting of future operating procedures, whilst helping to setup the core shore, liaison and air cover foundations for subsequent convoys.

In Conclusion

Whilst the convoy in comparison to others may have been smaller, it allowed for the building of foundations for all future supplies which amounted, when all was said and done to account for some 12% of Soviet war supplies. The immeasurable provision of armour, fuel, vehicles and fighter aircraft allowed the Soviet Union to continue its epic struggle against the Wehrmacht.

Known as one of the worst wartime journeys a sailor could undertake, a vessel in distress or sunk would spell almost certain death to those that entered the icy seas of the north and thousands of British, Canadian, US and Commonwealth sailors laid down their lives to deliver much needed supplies to our Soviet comrades.

The convoys marked a proud moment in our wartime alliance and provided an enduring friendship between our peoples – this is especially poignant today as the number of ‘White Caps’ dwindle in number, but both the UK and Russia have recognised their enormous contribution with the awarding of the Arctic Star and Ushakov awards.

As we move into the modern era, where geopolitical rivalries and political disagreement are the watchwords of the day, we must never forget that we have  a  united past of comradeship that provides a basis for future relations. We were allies once and we owe it to those who paid the ultimate price to do our best to keep the spirit of their sacrifice burning.

They gave their tomorrow so that we might enjoy our today.

Nicholas Cobb

Head of the International Department Veterans News (Great Britain)

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