"The Worst Journey In The World" - A Brief History of the Arctic Convoys
30 August 2016
On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, bringing the USSR into the Second World War on the Allied side.
Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, demanded help and Britain and her allies responded by sending vital supplies of munitions, tanks, planes, raw materials and food by sea, around northern Norway, to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel.
The route the Arctic Convoys sailed was fraught with danger, as it passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway. Convoys faced almost constant threat from German submarines, aircraft and warships – including the German battleships Scharnhorst and Tirpitz.
Conditions were also among the worst faced by any Allied sailors. As well as the threat of attack, they faced extreme cold, gales and pack ice. Sailors had to hack huge lumps of ice off the decks, guns and structures of their ships to keep their vessels seaworthy and combat ready. The loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route. Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, described it as “the worst journey in the world”.
The first of the Arctic Convoys, codenamed ‘Dervish’, arrived in Archangel (modern day Arkhangelsk) on 31 August 1941. On board, amongst many provisions, were 24 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes, which later defended the skies of Moscow.
Between August 1941 and May 1945, around 1,400 merchant vessels, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and US Navy, made the journey – delivering more than 4 million tons of supplies.
Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy ships (two cruisers, six destroyers, and eight other escort ships) were lost during the convoys and more than 3,000 Allied sailors and servicemen died.
The majority of those who died have no known grave but the sea, and are remembered by the Commission on memorials to the missing in the UK – at Tower Hill, for the Merchant Navy, and Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, for sailors of the Royal Navy, but there 21 Arctic convoy war graves in the CWGC plot in Murmansk Russian Cemetery Extension.
Members of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm also lost their lives in raids against German ports and vessels in support of the convoys. Those with no known grave are remembered at the CWGC’s memorials at Runnymede and Lee-on-Solent in the UK.
The CWGC also maintains war graves at a number of other locations in northern Russia – most notably at Archangel Allied Cemetery and Murmansk New British Cemetery.
The cemetery at Archangel was begun immediately after the Allied occupation of the town in August 1918. It was used by a number of local hospitals and now contains more than 220 First World War burials and commemorations.
During the Second World War, Archangel became an Allied air and naval base in support of the Arctic convoys. The cemetery contains 7 Second World War burials.
Murmansk New British Cemetery was created in 1930 when more than 80 First World War graves were moved there – the graves marked with pedestal markers rather than headstones due to the harsh climate.