Winston Churchill called it the “worst journey in the world”. To the sailors who served aboard the Arctic Convoys in the Second World War, Churchill’s remarks certainly wouldn’t have seemed to be an understatement. As war raged across the Pacific, Africa, and Europe, the frozen expanses of the Arctic Sea did not remain untouched. Here, the battle between Nazi Germany and the Allied powers continued as a cat-and-mouse game – the Germans fighting to prevent supplies getting through to the Soviet Union, and the Allies desperately sending equipment in the hope this could help the Russians keep the Nazis at bay long enough for a second front to be launched.
The stage for this battle was set in the summer of 1941, when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had forged an uneasy peace between the two European powers. As war began, a surprised Soviet Union found itself on the backfoot trying to stem the Nazi advance. The Wehrmacht forged on ahead towards capturing large swathes of territory, setting alarm bells ringing in the Allied nations.
Russia was what lay between Germany and Britain. The Russians had long demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of adversity. But even the toughest needed guns to fight against the implacable German advance. If the Soviet Union were to fall, German forces, with the added advantage of unfettered access to Soviet mineral reserves and territorial depth, would be free to defend against any Allied excursion from the west.
In July 1941, the Allies, mindful of the consequences that would ensue should German forces be freed from the Eastern Front, gave the go-ahead to the convoys – a decision was taken at the highest levels that the Soviet Union could not be allowed to fall. The first, codenamed Dervish, set off from Iceland on 21 August 1941, arriving in Archangel 10 days later. This precursor to the later series of convoys comprised six merchant ships and a fleet oiler escorted by three destroyers, three minesweepers, and three anti-submarine warfare vessels. At the same time, a superannuated carrier, the HMS Argus – re-commissioned just prior to the war, delivered a cargo of Hurricane fighters to Murmansk. Continue reading To Hell & Back – The Arctic Convoys of the Second World War