The Russian convoys, 1941-1945

After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 the Atlantic convoys became not only the means of ensuring Britain’s survival, but also that of the Soviet Union.  Britain immediately agreed to send some of her precious American Lend Lease supplies direct to Russia.

The first Russian convoy sailed under Royal Navy escort from Reykjavik in Iceland to Archangel in northern Russia in late August 1941.  Many others, including ships of several Allied nations, followed regularly throughout the rest of the war.   From spring 1942 they faced, in addition to the terrible ordeal of the Arctic winter, relentless attacks from strong German sea and air forces based in Norway.  Sailing in almost continuous daylight or total darkness in these latitudes, the convoys were especially vulnerable.

The 2,500-mile voyage to northern Russian took convoys to within 750 miles of the North Pole, where temperatures could be as low as 50 degrees of frost.   On reaching journey’s end in winter the ships concerned, in addition to their original cargoes, were often carrying an extra load of 50 to 150 tons of ice.

Because of the extreme Arctic weather conditions often experienced on convoys to Russia, seamen had to undergo a special medical examination before sailing.  If passed fit, they were then issued with extra-thick clothing to help them to withstand the cold.  Duffle coats were lined with lamb’s wool and had extra hoods, with only slits for the eyes and mouth.

Captain Henry Richard Saalmans, OBE

The Liverpool-born Captain Saalmans was awarded the OBE and Lloyd’s War Medal for his work in supervising the unloading of war cargoes from Allied merchant ships at the north Russian port of Murmansk in 1942-1943.

Saalmans was Master of the 3,000 ton ‘SS Empire Bard’, which sailed in convoy for Russia in March 1942.  After surviving heavy air attacks, the ‘Empire Bard’ arrived at Murmansk on 6 May.  For the next ten months, in the absence of cranes on shore, she acted as a floating crane for Allied merchant ships reaching Murmansk with their cargoes.   By the end of her stay, despite being damaged several times by air attacks, she unloaded 27,000 tons of war supplies for Russia.

The Arctic graveyard

Between June 1941 and May 1945 one in every twenty Allied merchant ships (104 in all) sailing in convoys to or from North Russia were sunk.  These figures are comparable with the worst annual sinking rates (for 1942) for the much more numerous North Atlantic convoys during the war.  The cost of the Russian convoys to the Royal Navy was also high (22 ships) and included the sinking of the cruisers ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Trinidad’.  The German Navy lost 4 surface warships and 31 U-boats.  On both sides, casualty rates among crews were often even higher than in the Atlantic due to the appallingly cold Arctic winter.

Convoys PQ 17 and PQ 18

In mid September 1942 the strongly-protected convoy PQ18 lost one third of its merchant ships (13 out of 39) to German aircraft and U-boats.  Two months earlier the disastrous convoy PQ17 had lost two-thirds of its merchant ships (24 out of 35).  The main damage to both convoys had been caused by aircraft.  The switching of many of these aircraft to other theatres of war led to much lighter losses on later Arctic convoys.