Remembering the Arctic Convoys:
Sailors, Merchant Marines Undertake Perilous Journeys During World War II
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Great Britain acquired an unusual and precarious ally.
"The story begins in June 1941, when over 3 million German troops stormed into the USSR," said Jeremy Clarkson, who hosted the BBC documentary "PQ-17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster." "It was the largest invasion in the history of warfare."
The Soviet alliance was also precarious because of the almost 2,500 nautical miles between Britain and the Soviet Union, whose industry had been disrupted by the Nazi invasion. The distance proved problematic in sending aid to help the beleaguered Soviets, yet Churchill believed both Britain and the United States should supply them because they shared a common enemy, and because not doing so could have meant fighting a war on British or U.S. soil.
Though the U.S. hadn't yet formally joined the Allied war effort, it pledged support, and the countries came to an informal aid agreement known in the U.S. as the Lend-Lease program. But with a shortage of Soviet ships to provide transportation, the task of getting much-needed supplies to the front lines fell largely on British and American naval assets. This proved to be no easy feat.
Axis powers controlled the Mediterranean Sea, and attempting to sail through to the Black Sea was not an option. To make matters worse, the less treacherous of the two remaining routes went through Iran and measured approximately 13,000 miles.
"The only realistic solution was to go around the top of German-occupied Norway, through the freezing, dreadful, violent Arctic Ocean into Murmansk or Archangel," Clarkson said. "This would only take about 10 days, but, as Churchill conceded, it would be the worst journey in the world."
An experimental convoy of seven ships first made the "Murmansk Run" in late August 1941. Although the convoy was hurriedly assembled, all seven made it without incident. British and American representatives eventually agreed to furnish all the aircraft, tanks and other supplies the Soviets deemed necessary for war.
Following several successful convoys, all subsequent northbound groups were designated "PQ," while southbound returning groups were designated "QP."
By February 1942, only one ship out of 12 PQ and QP convoys had been lost to a U-boat attack. More than 2,300 vehicles, 800 aircraft, 750 tanks, and 100,000 tons of ammunition and raw materials made their way safely to the Soviet Union. Morale was high for Allied naval assets, but that changed when later convoys began to encounter more Nazi opposition.
After several successful British commando raids along the Norwegian coast, Adolf Hitler had become convinced an eventual Allied invasion would come from Norway.
"He believed that if the Western Allies were successful in capturing Norway, they would be able to supply the Soviet Union regularly, thereby posing a serious threat to the German northern front," Dr. Milan Vego, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote in "The Destruction of Convoy PQ17." "At a meeting with [Adm. Erich] Rader on 22 January, Hitler stated that, from the latest information, Britain and the United States were planning to attack northern Norway. If successful, this would decisively influence the war. In Hitler's view, every German heavy surface ship that was not in Norway was in the wrong place."