70 years ago, on the 27th of June, 1942, union convoy “PQ – 17”, the most famous and the most tragic convoy in history of polar convoys of the Great Patriotic war, set sail from Reykjavik towards Murmansk.
That unfamiliar word – land-lease…
During the war, Murmansk didn’t only fight heroically in order not to let the enemy reach the North. The injured people were cured there, weaponry was being produced. Tralflot sailors, despite the German submarines and aviation, set sail to the sea and fished.
Allies’ polar convoys came to Murmansk port– from the USA and Great Britain
In the first battles of 1941 the Red Army had already suffered great losses. By the middle of July,1941, over 600 planes, 10.000 tanks and 60.000 cars were burnt down or occupied, more than 2,8 million people died. Factories, producing 1/3 of all the output of the country, were destroyed. The country came under threat of capitulation.
The USSR could have been saved from capitulation either by rapid mobilization of everything that could help defend or with help from foreign countries. The best way was a combination of both of these factors.
That’s why on the 27th of June, 1941 the discussion of joint operations between the USSR and the UK in the Murmansk and Petsamo (Pechenga) regions had already begun. In August 1941 began the exchange of data and weather reports, as well as samples of weapons.
The outcome of this work was the passage on the land-lease law between the allies – the USSR, the USA and the UK. The term lend-lease is derived from the English words lend – give a loan and lease – rent out. From that moment on the head of the state could have transferred, exchanged or lent the USSR military equipment, weaponry, ammunition, food etc.
The Lend-lease program presupposed that the USSR would monthly receive more than 500 tons of cargos by water, but in order to let that happen not less than 100 modern vessels were needed. The USA practically refused to take part in the transportations and only provided cargos and vessels. The USSR itself could not transfer even 1/5 of all the cargos. Therefore Great Britain, as the greatest maritime country, supervised the process of the caravans piloting.
The Polar Convoys Routes
But there appeared a question: by which route should the cargos be provided? Traditional routes through the Pacific Ocean, Far East and the Persian Gulf were not suitable because of the vast geographical distance. The shortest and the most convenient route was through Great Britain and Iceland to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk ports. Vessels passed this distance in 10-12 days. The location of the port of Murmansk was no doubt more convenient than the Arkhangelsk port, as it was not covered with ice in winters.
The first 8 caravans came to Arkhangelsk and the next one “PQ – 8” came to Murmansk in the middle of January, 1942, because the Arkhangelsk port was frozen. However, the shortest route was at the same time the most dangerous one.
Ship piloting scheme looked the following: the scout-aircrafts were the first that flew out to provide the convoy with reconnaissance and meteorological data. Then the protection vessels, such as destroyers and frigates sailed out. From the air marine aviation (6-8 aircrafts) protected the caravan.
Due to the massive losses in 1941, the emphasis was put on the aircrafts procurement, even though they weren’t the best. That’s how “hurricane” aircrafts appeared in Russia. To train the Russian pilots for actions in the Russian North, a separate air-unit, the 151 regiment, was formed in July 1941. The majority of British pilots, included in that aviation wing, didn’t even know where they were being sent to and where Murmansk was situated.
British pilots had been fighting in the Polar region till autumn 1942. They downed 16 German aircrafts and trained Russians how to aviate the “hurricanes”. In a week time the famous Russian pilot Safonov learned how to operate the craft, and his flights on the British plane impressed the allies, as he completed stunts that British pilots didn’t evenattempt to do. They came out to the flying field and constantly yelled “Safon! Allright! Very good, Safon!” Our pilots even rearmed British “hurricanes”: replaced the armament that couldn’t stand Russian frosts.
Russian and British pilots defended Murmansk from air invasion, and first of all they protected the port of Murmansk where the convoy ships unloaded. They acted very successfully. On 14th of April, 1942, 76 fascist airplanes were moving towards Murmansk, but only 16 of them managed to break through. on May 31st, 1942 65 German planes took part in the airstrike, but none of them was able to reach Murmansk.
The history on the convoys gets interesting, starting with the second (the first one was called “Dervish”). Official lettering PQ was given by the initials of one of the British Admiralty officers – Peter Quellyn, PQ. That’s how convoys going to Murmansk were called in conspiracy measures. Caravans moving backwards were called QP.
“North Pole Conqueror ” in the port of Murmansk
The convoy ships unloaded in Murmansk port where Ivan Papanin had been appointed as transportation commisioner. Here are several facts from the life of the trading port.
As soon as the unloading had begun, it became clear that dockside cargo cranes were unable to deal with the heavy cargos. A usual American transport crane boom could have been used, but how were they supposed to make an arrangement with the allies?
So Papanin initiated a visit to an American vessel. “North Pole Conqueror, world famous polar explorer is willing to visit the American vessel” – his adjutant reported. At a set time Papanin was sitting in a captain’s cabin, fully prepared. As a result,he did get a crane boom.
In order to protect the port from the German pilots, goods depots and rail transports were being covered with camouflage nets, and a little further, on the secondary routes and mooring berths, broken and empty wagons, or “falsewagons” were put under fire.
Specialists have counted that back to these days there were enough explosive materials to destroy all the mooring berths, goods depots and ships alongside landing docks. And to take into consideration the fact that American vessel with nitrotoluene stood alongside one of the mooring berths, this means that destiny of the major part of Murmansk was on the line.
Requiem to the PQ-17 caravan
It seems like Germans either “missed” the first convoys or their main forces were aimed towards other objects, but until December, 1941 there were almost no losses in the convoys. The first attack on the PQ-6 convoy happened only on the 20th of December, 1941.
One of the most tragic convoys – is the convoy PQ-17. It sailed out of Reykjavik on the 27th of June, 1942 and consisted of 35 vessels and 3 salving-ships. 20 ships were moving in the closest escort. Mucky weather let the convoy stalk during the first four days.
The first attack on the convoy happened in the morning on the 2nd of July. The next attack was expected only after the 5th of July. Escort ships were given an order to disperse and move towards Russian port. Left behind without any protection in conditions of white nights, vessels became an easy catch for German aircrafts and submarines.
On the 5th of July emergency signals came from 13 vessels, the next day 2 more vessels were destroyed. Other 6 ships were tracked and torpedoed during the next 4 days. Only 11 out of 34 vessels reached the port, almost 200 merchants were killed and all the escort ships were destroyed.
Famous Russian writer Valentin Pikul tells about the arctic convoy’s death in a short novel “Boys with bows”. Below is given a description of the convoy death from its participant, a radio-operator cabin-boy of the vessel “TAM-216”.
“I remember this moment clearly. Soundman suddenly screamed that he had detected a propeller’s noise. We went to the boat getting “hedgehog” bombs ready for firing. We didn’t see any torpedoes’ signs. Then was an explosion and everything turned upside down. The hull deformed. Our “tamik” (“TAM-216”) was quivering.
I took the communicator and tried to make it into the air to report that the torpedo hadn’tdidn’t left any track. The new German torpedo which did not leave tracks on the water surface…The captain told us to throw pontoon boats overboard. Kolya and I stayed. We were needed there….I was working with the telegraph key and he was launching rockets into the sky one by one. Suddenly the ship started to shiver. That’s when the captain ordered us, the cabin-boys, to leave the deck. Pontoon boats with our people were already far away.
— So everyone left, except for the captain? – I asked again.
—Of course not! The officers stayed in the cabin. They didn’t leave the cannons and two gunner squads. We swam.
—Did you swim next to each other?
—All the time. But I swam two meters ahead of Kolya, because I was stronger. I constantly looked back and all of the sudden noticed the submarine cabin to surface right next to me! Two our squads started fire from the deck. They shot right to the cabin. Germans went underwater right afterwards. And right from the underwater they launched another torpedo….The fire-reddish smoke came out of the water killing all the boys. That’s when the submarine surfaced again and I didn’t realized straight away that we were being fired from stutterers”.
Arctic Convoys in assisted struggle
Despite massive losses the risk have paid off. During the two years polar convoys transported 61% of all the foreign cargos to the USSR. Not only ammunition and military equipment, but also industrial facilities and primary goods were transported. So in 1942 military branches of the USSR worked only on American supplies.
Food supplies played a special role for northern cities. 20 thousand people died from hunger in Arkhangelsk, and but for 10 thousand tons of Canadian wheat, even more people would have died.
Allies’ convoys delivered books and supportive letters. The literature that could morally support Russians was collected all around the USA. Every book was marked with the sign “to heroic people of the Soviet Union” and names of people and organization which presented the book. These unusual presents are now kept in the Murmansk region library.
Polar convoys have encouraged the development of relations between Murmansk people and foreigners: Dutch, British and Polish sailors and aviators came to the city. A.Kiselev in his book “How Murmansk people lived and fought during the war” gives some interesting facts of the help of civilians to the allies.
That’s how sailors from the two destroyed vessels of allies got to Novaya Zemlya. One of the sailors later remembered: “Ten people, who looked like hunters, got close to us and stopped nearby. Then the three of them came closer, and we were surprised to see that they were children”. They turned out to be gathering eggs of polar birds.
The boys gave us roasted birds, salted fish and dark bread and showed us where to find drinking water, taught how to catch ducks with dragnets. For more than a week, the teenagers “patronized” sailors. But when they offered the teenagers postmarks as a gratitude gift, the boys refused to take it for free. “I still keep the five rubles coin, remembered one of the sailors, which they gave me in return for the Canadian postmark”.
The war times gave us a song named “James Kennedy”, it is a song about a hero captain of British destroyer, a participant of Arctic convoys. Nikolay Minch wrote the music, words were written by Solomon Fogelson. For the first time the song was recorded in winter 1942 in the blockade Leningrad sung by German Orlov and jazz orchestra of Nickolay Mukhin, it was translated to the air and gained enormous popularity. Sailors who left sailing used to sing this song.
The people of Murmansk still keep the memories of Polar Convoys. The sign of that is a monument in the park nearby the Culture centre and a stele in honour of 50th anniversary of the first convoy in the park nearby the “Rodina” cinema.
The monument in the Culture centre park was erected in honour of comradeship-in-arms of anti-Hitler Alliance countries. It’s erection took place on the 7th May, 1975. The monument depicts a hand that keeps the earth. Hundreds of Murmansk people ans representatives of the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Norway came to the monument erection. State flagues of anti-Hitler Alliance countires were runned up, and the Nortetrn fleet sailors marched.
Events devoted to anniversary of the first Polar Convoy take place in Murmansk annually. Russian, British and American veterans – participants of Polar convoys come to the celebration. “We shared one sea for two – Russians and British” – the veterans say. Unfortunately not all the people lived to the victory. To honour the memory of the killed, veterans come to their graves, many Americans and British leave their letters to their friends from the arctic convoys on the graves.