History of convoys

Arctic Convoys 1941-1945
To the 75th Anniversary of the arrival of the first allied convoy “Dervish” to the port of Arkhangelsk

Guidelines for Veterans 

On August 31, 1941 6 foreign ships flying the British flag sailed into the port of Arkhangelsk under the cover of warships. Only a few people knew then that the operation on convoying the vessels was code-named Dervish, and nobody could guess that the convoys that followed will map the most important route for the USSR. Until 1944 this route will have to ensure opening of the second front in the Arctic, and throughout the whole war it will secure the war outcome on the most important marine battle grounds. Moreover, the Arctic Convoys will be remembered as a unique cooperation experience of over 40 nations and fleets against the common enemy – the Nazis.

History of the Arctic Convoys is closely connected with the history of international relations and agreements that gave grounds for delivery of strategic supplies to the USSR and back. The foundation for these agreements was laid by the American Lend-Lease Law of March 11, 1941, and the Soviet-British “Agreement on Goods Exchange, Credit and Clearing” of August 18, 1941. According to the lend-lease bill, for the duration of the war the US had the right to supply essential weapons and munitions to its allies. Before the US entered the WWII the supplies were delivered on credit basis, but since 1942 the credit basis was removed and the supplies came under a new lend-lease concept called the pool.

At the very beginning of the war, especially during the Battle of Moscow, supplies imported under the First (Moscow) Protocol (signed October 1, 1941 for deliveries to the USSR for the period prior to July 1, 1942) allowed to make up for 30-40% military equipment losses suffered by the Red Army. Taking into account the huge losses suffered by the Soviet troops in the first war months, this was a considerable assistance. However, as it turned out, despite enormous losses, the Red Army was still superior to the German one in key quantitative and qualitative characteristics. According to the General Directorate of the Red Army at the beginning of 1942 the USSR could put twice or three times as many tanks and aircrafts as the German troops had in the East. Therefore at that time it was more important to establish its own, more modern production and gain moral support of the world’s leading powers. It was exactly the role that British-American supplies performed in 1941-1942. Not coincidentally most of the allied supplies were directed to Moscow. 75% of all supplies were machines, industrial equipment and raw materials – all that the Soviet Union needed to tune up its own production.

The northern route was the chief supply route at that time. 61% of all supplies that the Soviet Union received from its allies in the first war year came through the northern supply route. This is why the Arctic saw major sea battles of the war. They cost the Allies the loss of 57 transport (including 4 Soviet ones) and 6 combat vessels, including new British cruisers Edinburgh and Trinidad.

Allies of the Soviet Union continued to provide great support also during the radical change battles that coincided in time with the implementation of the Second (Washington) Protocol. By this time the situation in the Pacific and in North Africa had stabilized, the American military production programme (the so-called Victory Programme) was launched, new supply routes AlSib, Persian, African and Pacific corridors appeared. As a result, during the second war year the allied aid was doubled and its cost was almost three times higher than the supplies under the Moscow Protocol.

Although the Washington Agreement allies fulfilled their obligations only by 75%, imported weapons and materials played a very important role in the radical change of the Great Patriotic War course. Aircrafts delivered under the Second Protocol were quite enough to replace the loss of Soviet aviation in all the major battles of that period. Every tenth army tank was imported. Moreover, military supplies still occupied only a quarter of the tonnage. The rest of the place in the holds was loaded with industrial equipment and raw materials.

Expansion of existing and creation of new supply routes has definitely reduced the role of the northern corridor. Although the goods imported via this route (986 000 tons) slightly exceeded the amount of cargo delivered in the first protocol period, their share in total supplies to the Soviet Union has decreased from 61% to 16% in the period between the middle of 1942 and the end of 1943. However, almost all British supplies were still delivered via this route, as well as the most urgent overseas goods. About half of all weapons imported in the Soviet Union were delivered by the northern convoys. Along with the provision of strategic materials to the USSR the Arctic convoys allowed the British Admiralty with the support of Allied ships and agents in Norway to track the location of the main Kriegsmarine forces more accurately, preventing their entry into the Atlantic where main arteries ensuring resiliency of the British Isles were. It was worth it to continue risking the fleet. During battles of 1943, the Allies lost five warships and 26 transport vessels. Kriegsmarine also suffered serious damage in the Arctic. After sinking three German warships, including the heavy cruiser Scharnhorst and 4 submarines, and damaging the Tirpitz and the Hipper, the strategic lead in this battle theater finally went over to the coalition. It remained with the Allies until the end of the war. The latter circumstance greatly contributed to the increase of import of goods to Russia.

The bulk of allied supplies came in 1944-1945. It was 9.9 mln tons or 60% of all wartime cargo. 9.9 mln tons also included supplies from Canada that has independently signed the Third Protocol. In contrast to the supply under the Second and especially the First (often called “British”) Protocols, almost 90% of all materials and weapons at the end of the war were received from the United States. Ships and planes delivered under the last Protocols, as well as under a special programme additional to the fourth Protocol aimed at helping the USSR in the war against Japan (the so-called October 17 programme or Maylpoust) would be enough to fully compensate the loss during all strategic operations by the Soviet Army at the end of the war; artillery barrels would compensate a quarter of the loss, and tanks – 11% of it. Every other armored vehicle, and every tenth tank used in the front line during that period have been imported. In practice, owing to allied supplies two more fleets equal to the Northern and the Pacific fleets were created. Almost all delivered equipment has been tested at the war fronts and was ordered by the Soviet specialists with due regard to that. Means of communication and special equipment was of high quality so they received special attention in the Soviet orders. Radio stations and telephones supplied to the USSR in 1944-1945 could equip from 300 to 500 divisions. Over 80% of radar equipment in the army and in the Navy also was of British-American origin.

However, planes, tanks, ships and other military goods were only 9% of the total volume delivered to the Soviet Union at the end of the war. The remainder was allotted for industrial machinery and equipment, metals, and petroleum products. A quarter of all the tonnage was taken by food. Another quarter has been allotted for the means of transport – cars, locomotives, carriages and special equipment.

Shift of the lead to the Allied fleet and increase of supplies at the end of the war provided for increase of the role of the northern route. In 1944-1945 22% of all cargoes were delivered via that route. It equaled 2.2 mln tons in absolute terms, which was more than all the goods delivered via this route under the First and the Second Protocol. At the same time the Soviet vessels were excluded from convoys from the end of 1943, and the biggest part of the goods devolved upon the allied transport vessels mainly flying the American flag.

In total during the war by our count 745 ships took the northern route. 699 transport vessels took the way back. 43 Allied cargo ship and 22 Allied warships were lost in the battles.

Summing up the assistance provided to the Soviet Union by the allies we should recognize its great importance. Owing to this assistance the USSR could allocate additional labour reserves for the front, the army was provided with food and communications by 70-75%, its mobility increased to a certain extent, and losses of military equipment were made up for to a certain extent. At the same time, the study of the Lend-Lease concept change (from the instrument of participation in war without taking part in battles to the pool concept, and subsequently – to Soviet involvement in the global economy) revealed the historical importance of this assistance. The Soviet Union needed it as much as the coalition needed the Russian front.

Mikhail Suprun