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Unnecessary Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys

22 Oct

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In the early years of the Second World War, the Western Allies were facing a dire problem: they were low on munitions, and needed them desperately in order to wage a war that, at this stage, they seemed to be losing. As 1941 rolled around, Europe was at its darkest hour. With almost all of Western Europe kept trampled beneath the Nazi jackboot, safe for the United Kingdom, little stood in the way of the National Socialist onslaught. Puny England was all that remained, and it was hanging on by a thread. A thread, not of a figurative sense, but an actual thread: Lend-Lease. Signed into law on March 11th, 1941, and in direct, deliberate neglect of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939, the international law was designed to send aid, whether it be financial (heavily frowned upon following the Nye Committee’s findings in 1934, headed by Republican North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye) or direct military support, to America’s overseas allies, from China to Great Britain. In October of that same year, American representative W. Averell Harriman and British representative Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook, met in Moscow with Soviet representatives to draw up plans for joint Anglo-American aid to the Soviet Union. By this time, joint American-Canadian missions had already begun to sail from the Labrador Coast and New England to the Irish Sea, transporting much needed supplies from food, water, medical supplies, and ammunition, to the most important: moral. With each passing day, as Britain’s grip on its guns began to slacken, the lifeline of transatlantic American aid kept the British afloat as they suffered a series of staggering blows during the aborted Operation Sea Lion, a plan for an amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom that had fully deteriorated into what became known as the infamous Battle of Britain.

The supplies necessary to transport to the Soviet Union presented a particularly precarious situation. In order to reach the USSR, with the nearest available Soviet port being located in Murmansk, in the Kola Inlet on the eastern, Russian-controlled end of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the journey would force British or American merchantmen and their escorts to round the North Cape, the most dangerous region in the world for Allied naval vessels, for not only was Alta Fjord the primary anchorage of the massive warship Tirpitz, but the whole nation of Norway was also the primary anchorage for the entire Kriegsmarine. Rounding the North Cape, especially attempting to do so in the summer, when the sun never sets in the Arctic, would be near-suicide. The journey would take His Majesty’s warships from Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, to Hvalfjord, in southwestern Iceland, and then from there south past Jan Mayen, south of the Svalbard Archipelago and Bear Island, and take them directly into Soviet territorial waters. The original plan was to maintain that Soviet ships would sail to English ports and relieve them of the supplies that would be stockpiled there, but once the realization was made that the Soviets not only lacked the manpower, but also the ships themselves, to commit to such an act, the British Royal Navy and United States Navy realized it would be up to them to assume responsibility. And so the Arctic Convoys began their infamous, turmoil-filled history. With winters brutally cold and plunged into twenty-four hours of night, and summers only bitterly cold and cast into perpetual twenty-four hour daylight, the severe weather conditions made combat in these extremes not only difficult, but virtually insane. Attempting to travel to and from Murmansk in weeks of incessant sunlight, or attempting to trek there while plowing through blizzards that forced visibility to plummet to a few feet and compelled captains to operate with solely with radar and blasting through thirty foot seas made the Arctic Convoys the duty from hell, the absolute bottom, the Royal Navy’s version of Germany’s Eastern Front. But once one has reached the bottom, they have only to pull themselves back up.

The situation on the Eastern Front had reached its nadir in December 1941, five months after the first of the convoys had set sail from Scapa Flow and assembled off Iceland. With the German Ostheer looming like an armored specter over Moscow, with only a handful of snow-coated miles separating the beleaguered city from the weight of the German armored spearhead poised to come crashing down upon it. The capital was shifted from Moscow to Stalingrad in a hasty and controversial move, leaving only a sprinkling of government officials left within the city limits, including the Commissar of the People’s Defense, Josef Stalin. In a stunning move that altered the balance of power in the East, if only for a moment, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov launched a daring counteroffensive against the Germans Unternehmen Taifun, or Operation Typhoon, aimed at breaking the backs of the Soviet defenders and seizing Moscow in one fell swoop, destroying their morale simultaneously. In the meantime, American and British-made tanks and armored fighting vehicles, as well as food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies, were arriving in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk by the shipload to fuel the Red Army, although at this stage the Army was attempting to fight back while on its knees, much like a cornered fox whose assaults are fueled not by courage, but by fear.

As 1941 gave way to 1942, opposition to the Arctic Convoys seemed relatively light, as opposed to the original fear of wolf packs and surface raiders attacking the convoys en masse, yet as this fear subsided, so too did the caution and vigilance originally displayed, with the Admiralty sending only a handful of merchantmen guarded by a small detachment of destroyers or light cruisers. Now, the convoys became greater, stronger, and with them too came the strengthening of resistance. The convoys would still be forced to round the ominous North Cape, a one-thousand-seven foot promontory often referred to as the northernmost point in Europe, lying just one thousand miles short of the North Pole. With the Kriegsmarine established deeply inside Norway, utilizing the fjords to conceal their surface navy, albeit reduced in size, Norway presented the most treacherous leg of an already treacherous voyage. The Kriegsmarine had the Arctic Ocean and Norwegian Sea completely locked down, and the narrow channel that had to be used by the convoys made them easy prey, thinning out the possible routes that could place greater distance between the ice-encrusted merchant fleets and the submerged threat presented by Admiral Doenitz’s wolf packs. Other issues were now also besetting the convoys: Allied landings in Europe and Africa. As the Allies fought their way into late 1942, the plans had been finalized for Operation Torch, the joint American-British landings that would take place in Morocco and Algeria, that miraculously coincided with General Bernard Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein just days prior. This operation would take the necessary surface warships needed to offer any amount of scant protection away from the merchantmen, and if a convoy were attempted, it would be left at the mercy of the Kriegsmarine. And the Kriegsmarine was merciless.

As a general rule of thumb established by the Admiralty at the outset of the convoys, toward the final leg of their journey, when the ships lay with Bear Island ahead of them and Svalbard behind, they would be ordered to disperse, with the ships gradually moving away from one another. The mentality behind this was that it would make an attack incredibly difficult, because just locating a ship would be hard enough, let alone assaulting it once it was located. Yet the strategic attitude behind it offered very little, and in fact it presented more of a threat than the threat it was designed to reduce, as the dispersing of the ships would offer individual craft open to enemy assault without the mutual protection of another vessel. This came to befall the ill fated, and most notorious Arctic Convoy, PQ-17. Consolidating a joint Anglo-American fleet of thirty-five merchantmen, screened by a diminutive fleet of covering destroyers and other surface warships, the fleet set out from Reykjavik, Iceland, on June 27th, 1942. As the Admiralty attempted several operations to disguise the fleet’s movements, the Kriegsmarine was already upon them. The fleet had made its move in the summer: the season of continuous sunlight. This would leave the convoy dangerously exposed. As the ships made their way to the summer port of Arkhangelsk, which was utilized in the summer, but was further away than Murmansk, they continued to receive intelligence reports from the Admiralty warning of a potential breakout from the Norwegian fjords by the battleship Tirpitz, as well as the potential threats of the Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, which had made the infamous “Channel Dash” that February, placing them in an ideal position to fall upon the convoy. All the while the convoy was being decimated by German sea and air assaults. With the threat of a probable Kriegsmarine breakout now looming ominously just over the horizon, the Admiralty had no choice but to order the convoy’s dispersal on July 4th. As the convoy continued to move, intelligence reports reached the screening force that the warships had broken out, and were advancing onto the fleet’s location. The screening force was then ordered to detach and engage, leaving the merchantmen, now scattered, without the flimsy protection of the feeble destroyers. The intelligence reports had been the brainchildren of the Germans, and were designed to lure the screening force away. By the time the force was steaming back at as fast as their engines would push them, the merchantmen had already suffered their fate. Twenty-four merchantmen had been sunk, and numerous others severely damaged. It had been the worst, and most inglorious, Arctic convoy attempted throughout the entire war, and donated unto the convoy’s their ignominious name.

As the war ground on, and the Soviets began to break through, breaking the backs of the Germans at Stalingrad, Kursk, Kiev, Leningrad, Warsaw, Belgrade, Seelow Heights, and all throughout the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, the Baltic States, and the Balkan Peninsula, the necessity of the Arctic convoys diminished severely. Soon it was realized that their necessity was almost none at all. In reality, the Soviets could have waged their war without the support of the United States’ Lend-Lease program, for by 1945, they had produced over fifty thousand T-34 main battle tanks, as compared the meager amount of Stuart or Sherman tanks given them by the United States. In the end, the Arctic Convoys were one of the many lesser-known theaters of the bloodiest conflict in history, yet their sacrifice was more than many committed in other, better-known areas. Fighting in one of the most extreme, most hostile regions of Planet Earth, these men were pushed to the breaking point, and often beyond it. They have never experienced the notoriety received by other areas, such as at Stalingrad or Guadalcanal or the Normandy beaches, and the only example that comes to mind is author Alistair MacLean’s, author of such legendary literary works as The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra, H.M.S Ulysses, which demonstrates full-well the hardships endured in one of the most brutal areas of an equally brutal war. Often times it was not the enemy that befall these beleaguered men, but the weather and its constant shifting and unpredictability. In the end, although they laid down their lives, their sacrifice could have been avoided. The Lend-Lease Act was more of a symbolic gesture than a tactical one, one of the many mistakes made during the Roosevelt Administration in regards to foreign policy during the Second World War, another shimmering and blatantly obvious example being Roosevelt’s kindly attitude toward Chiang Kai-shek, the corrupt and fraudulent leader of the Kuomintang Chinese forces. The Arctic Convoys were, in the end, more emblematic than actually practical, and they did not shift the war in either direction, yet their sacrifice should never be forgotten.          

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