No. 2, 2005

Sergey Kovalyov


The trans-Atlantic lend-lease convoys of 1941-1944 have gone down in the history of the Great Patriotic War of the USSR

Lend-lease was a unique phenomenon in the history of World War II: under extreme conditions, countries with different systems of government - the USA, Great Britain, the USSR and Canada - succeeded in reaching an accord and pooling their efforts toward victory over German Nazism.

Heading for Arctic latitudes

The Lend-Lease Act was adopted by the U.S. Congress on March 11, 1941. The U.S. Government's initial intention was to make arrangements for the United States to lend or lease weapons, ammunition, strategic raw materials, food and various supplies to the allies in the anti-Nazi coalition.

On the very first day of the Great Patriotic War of the USSR, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered an address greeting the Soviet Union as Britain's ally in the war against Germany. On June 23, 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a specially gathered press conference that his administration was ready to provide materiel support to the USSR. The two leaders' words were promptly backed by deeds.

The matter of lend-lease deliveries to the Soviet Union by Western powers was agreed upon in Moscow on October 1, 1945.

In the war years, lend-lease supplies were delivered to the Soviet ports along three routes: northern (from U.S. and British Atlantic ports to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk); eastern (from U.S. Pacific ports to Vladivostok); and southern (to Iranian ports by way of the Persian Gulf and further to the USSR's Transcaucasia).

In the early months of the war when the Soviet Union had it the hardest, the northern route bore the bulk of the lend-lease deliveries.

Toward the end of November 1941, the first batch of lend-lease deliveries - 79 light M-3 tanks, 59 Curtis fighter planes, about 1,000 trucks and over 2,000 tons of barbed wire - arrived in the Soviet ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Great Britain followed suit with the Mathilda and Valentine medium tanks and two Hurricane fighter plane squadrons which joined in the October and November 1941 defense action right away.

Before the end of 1942, polar convoys crossed the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea and then steamed along the edge of the Barents Sea arctic ice. In December 1942, they ceased stopping over off Iceland for refueling. Upon leaving British ports, they would head up north, skirt an enormous minefield between Scotland and Iceland and then turn south and proceed straight to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk by way of Medvezhy Island.

Upon their arrival in Murmansk, the transports were unloaded, and escort ships refueled in Vaenga Bay from a tanker on round-the-clock duty there. It was only from the year 1943 that escort ships started drawing upon the Polyarny base resources.

Arkhangelsk was a larger port than Murmansk and better equipped for accepting and handling war supplies. However, the White Sea froze over in mid-December and could stay closed to navigation until the end of May.

The fuel factor

Escort ship refueling remained one of the polar convoy crews' worst headaches throughout the war. The thing was that depending on the ice barrier's configuration the passage route length varied from 1,500 to 2,000 nautical miles and took 10 to 14 days to negotiate. Whereas the transports' ample fuel tanks contained enough fuel to see them to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk without a hitch, escort ships had to confine themselves, at best, to economical speed because their fuel endurance was barely enough for a one-way crossing. In order to provide for exigencies like the need to chase away enemy craft or setting up a smokescreen, escort ships had to carry a sufficient fuel reserve on board.

In order to solve the problem, each convoy, starting with the Dervish, began to take along tankers for en-route refueling. The first such tankers to accompany polar convoys were the Aldersdale (gross tonnage: 8,402) and the Black Ranger (gross tonnage: 3,417), both British, the latter being one of the color Ranger series built expressly for accompanying allied convoys. The very first convoy trip showed that just one tanker was not enough for logistic support, therefore later convoys included two or three tankers. In case of the PQ-18 convoy, there were even as many as four tankers - the Gray Ranger and the Black Ranger, carrying 5,600 tons of fuel, sailed alongside of the convoy, while the Blue Ranger and the Oligarch kept a fuel reserve ready for it in Love Sound Bay off the Spitzbergen Archipelago.

The ill-fated PQ-17 convoy was accompanied to the Soviet shore by four tankers - the Azerbaijan (master: M.I. Pavlov), the Donbass (master: V.N. Izotov), the Aldersdale and the Gray Ranger. The latter had crashed against an ice-floe early on and had to return to Reykjavik for repairs, and the Aldersdale, a veteran of polar convoys, was sunk.

Soviet tankers had to "shoulder" enough reserve fuel to last the escort ships 1.5 trips and, besides, to bear the brunt of the German bombers' and torpedo planes' furious attacks.

Upon their arrival in Murmansk or Arkhangelsk, escort ships remained in the areas specially reserved for them (Vaenga inlet in the Kola Bay, Molotovsk in the White Sea) where either non-selfpropelled oil storage depots (the demothballed craft Tovarishsh Stalin, Yakov Sverdlov and Roza Luxemburg) with up to 2,500 tons of fuel on board, or Soviet tankers converted from timber carriers (the M. Frunze, Volodarsky, Zhelya-bov, Yukagir) loaded with approximately the same amount of fuel, were waiting for them.

The tankers which delivered liquid fuel and petroleum products to ships and aircraft operating from the Kara Sea bases and to polar stations, loaded 2,500-3,000 tons of oil and diesel fuel into their holds and up to 200 drums of aviation spirit and lubricants to

the upper deck camouflaged by a tall bulwark. So each Russia-bound tanker was cram-full of petroleum products.

Oil tankers did not stay in ports of call for too long. They replenished their stocks and put to sea along with another convoy to refuel their charges in any weather and accompanied practically all the convoys in 1942-1945.

Allied convoys versus the Luftwaffe

From the very outset, the trans-Atlantic lend-lease deliveries supply route was not only the shortest, but also the most dangerous one for the anti-Nazi coalition seamen owing to the proximity of Nazi bases and airfields stationed on the Norwegian coast. Things got worse still after the Nazis' plan to capture Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula on the run had fallen through. In mid-1941 and later on, the Nazis built a number of aircraft bases for their bombers and torpedo planes in Norway. Norwegian fjords, well protected by the Arctic nature itself, were turned into German, Finnish and Norwegian U-boat bases. What's more, large Kriegsmarine forces and the Luftwaffe's Fifth Air Fleet were transferred to that part of Norway by early 1942, specifically: the battleship Tirpitz, the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer, Lutzow and Admiral Hipper, the light cruiser Koln, two flotillas of destroyers and 20 submarines which posed mortal danger to the convoys bound for the Arctic ports. Secret airfields were built for Nazi fighter planes in the Arkhangelsk Region, on the White Sea coast (near the villages of Megra, Verkhnyaya Zolotnitsa and Pogorelets).

The convoys fought their way through the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic under heavy fire from the Luftwaffe.

In 1942, practically every convoy suffered losses as a result of enemy submarine and plane attacks, and the PQ-17 convoy was lost. The shipping of oil, gasoline, as well as explosives and their components, was of special danger to transports' crews. Nevertheless, American and British seamen consciously took risks so as to make precious war supplies available to the Soviet Allies. After all, the production of gasoline with high octane rating had been one of the Soviet economy's bottlenecks since long before the war. Even on the eve of the war, the Soviet Air Force's B-78 aviation gasoline requirements were met only 4%.

Over the war years, the United States, Great Britain and Canada supplied to the Soviet Union, across the Atlantic, about 2,586,000 metric tons of aviation gasoline and light gasoline fractions.

Lend-lease aid proved to be of special importance to the Northern Fleet which, after the outbreak of the war, found itself cut off from the key Soviet ship- and aircraft-building centers not only geographically but literally as well.

The trans-Atlantic route accounted for 22.7%, and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), for another 2.5% of the land-lease deliveries that reached Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. The NSR was open to icebreaker-assisted traffic from June till October. It actually "salvaged" the lend-lease program in the summer of 1942 right after the PQ-17 convoy tragedy. Great Britain and the United States suspended trans-Atlantic deliveries then. Nevertheless, the ice-packed Northern Sea Route continued to let a trickle of strategic and war materials through before the onset of the polar night.

Contribution to Victory

By mid-1943, the Soviet munitions industry, evacuated to trans-Ural Siberia in the early months of the war, built up enough muscle to produce sufficient amounts of weapons and combat materiel for the army in the field. In the meantime, "organizational difficulties" on the eastern and southern routes were eliminated. The rates of war supplies deliveries along those routes kept growing from day to day, detracting steadily from the western route's once vital importance. Nevertheless, Allied convoy traffic across the Northern Atlantic carried on.

Altogether, 41 convoys of 738-811 transports arrived within the Arctic Circle over the war years, bringing 4.2 million tons of supplies to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Murmansk alone received 2,146 A-20C, P-39, P-40, Hurricane, Spitfire and Mustang planes; 4,198 M-3, M-4, Mathilda, Valentine and Churchill tanks; 138 selfpropelled gun mounts; 128 armored personnel carriers and cross-country vehicles; 276 tractors; 76 trailers; 640 37-90-mm artillery guns; 813 radars; 7,737 radio stations; 971 battery re-charging stations; 62 tank repair shops; 870 Diesel engines; 1,393 various petrol engines and a multitude of other supplies. The Soviet side dispatched to the West 726 transports as part of 36 Allied convoys carrying about 1.5 million tons of Soviet exports (such as strategic materials - manganese, chromium, asbestos, platinum). At sea, Nazis managed to sink 38 Soviet and 77 Allied transports plus 18 British men-of-war, with 7.5% of the supplies carried by Russia-bound polar convoys lost (as against the Atlantic convoy loss average of 0.7%).

To sum up the results of the lend-lease program as a whole, the Soviet Union received, over the war years, 21,795 planes, 12,056 tanks, 4,158 armored personnel carriers, 7,570 tractor trucks, 8,000 antiaircraft and 5,000 antitank guns, 132,000 machine-guns, 472 million artillery shells, 9,351 transceivers customized to Soviet-made fighter planes, 2.8 million tons of petroleum products, 102 ocean-going dry cargo vessels, 29 tankers, 23 sea tugboats and icebreakers, 433 combat ships and gunboats, as well as mobile bridges, railroad equipment, aircraft radar equipment, and many other items.

Scholars and historians still differ, and are sometimes even poles apart, over the issue of the lend-lease deliveries' contribution to the outcome of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union. One thing is certain, though - it was in the Arctic that a combat partnership which no ideological differences could destroy was born. It was there, and in the USSR's hour of need, that the United States and Great Britain offered it a hand, helped stop the Wehrmacht's onslaught on the bloody battlefields of 1941-1942 and to achieve a turning-point in the war thus bringing nearer the victorious May of 1945.

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Oil of Russia, No. 2, 2005
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