Fighting the Weather and the Enemy in the Arctic I

In September 1939, it seemed clear to the British and French Allies that the Soviet Union and Germany were allies. The Soviet Union was able to occupy the eastern part of Poland some weeks after the German invasion that started the war. It was clear that the two countries had agreed a division of territory in the east, while Germany was heavily reliant upon the Soviet Union for many items including timber, food and, most important of all, oil.

Finland was next to feel the might of Soviet ambition and military strength as the two countries were at war throughout the winter of 1939–40 but although far stronger, the Soviet Union was unable to break Finnish resistance. In the end, Finland was forced to make some territorial concessions to the Soviet Union, but retained most of its territory.

All of a sudden, this changed overnight with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The Soviet Union had been supplying Germany with many of its vital war needs up to the day before the invasion. To observers in the West it was no surprise, and indeed they had done their best to warn the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, of German intentions. Warnings had come from elsewhere as well; however, Stalin refused to heed any warnings. Russia’s armed forces were largely equipped with weapons, aircraft, vehicles and ships that were obsolete, while pre-war purges and trials had removed half the senior officers, especially from the army and air forces (of which there were several, including Frontal Aviation), meaning a great loss of experience. Even the more modern Soviet equipment was inferior to that of the other belligerent nations.

Operation BARBAROSSA, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, had been delayed by the need for Germany to assist Italy in Yugoslavia and Greece, although a late thaw and wet spring also played a part as the terrain was too soft for a massive armoured thrust. This delay was to affect the success of the operation as it proved impossible to take the main objectives before the Russian winter set in and, as Napoleon had discovered almost 130 years earlier, ‘General Winter’ was Russia’s most successful general! As it was, the actual attack came as a surprise to the Russians and it caught most of their aircraft in the west on the ground and troops not deployed in the right defensive positions.

In the years of war that followed, the Soviet Union was to be heavily dependent on the United Kingdom and the United States for supplies and for upgrading the country’s armed forces. It proved to be a difficult relationship. Stalin was a demanding and unreliable ally. He fully expected the Allies to ease the pressure of the Germans fighting the Russian armies by opening a so-called ‘second front’, ignoring the practical problems that this entailed, and also ignoring the fact that the Allies were first engaged in fighting in North Africa and then in Italy, and at the same time fighting at sea, not least in protecting the vital convoys across the Atlantic, and that from December 1941 the United States was also engaged in war against Japan.

On the plus side, the start of Operation BARBAROSSA eased the pressure on the British. The blitz on British towns and cities ended, far too soon from the point of view of the Luftwaffe, and the pressure on Malta eased as well. On the debit side, Soviet preoccupation with Germany also allowed Japan to concentrate on fighting the Americans. While the Soviet Union did not declare war on Japan until August 1945, Japan’s presence in China had been the cause of much friction.

On balance, the British welcomed their new-found Russian allies. It also eased the political situation in the United Kingdom where many on the left of politics and who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union had been lukewarm in their support for the continuation of the war against Germany. The British felt the need to support their new ally and stiffen Russian resolve. There were fears that Stalin might have been tempted to cede territory to the Germans in order to make peace; this would have freed German forces to return to their attacks on the British Isles and Malta, as well as in North Africa.

Petsamo and Kirkenes

German occupation of the ports of Petsamo and Kirkenes, north of the Arctic Circle, made it more difficult for supplies to be sent. The most direct route, through the Baltic, was out of the question. Kirkenes was a key location at the northern tip of Norway; Petsamo (or modern Pechanga) in Russia was originally part of Russia before passing to Finland, but was ceded to Russia again as part of the price of peace in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40, and then regained when Finland joined Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union, which to the Finns was a continuation of the ‘Winter War’.

Given the distances involved, the only possible means of making an impact on the German forces invading the Soviet Union lay with the Royal Navy and especially with naval air power. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, was urged by Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, to carry out an attack that would be ‘a gesture in support of our Russian allies to create a diversion on the enemy’s northern flank’. At the time, an aerial attack on the two ports seemed to be the only way forward. The Royal Navy deployed one of its newest aircraft carriers, Victorious, and its oldest, Furious .

Aircraft for the attack were Fairey Albacore torpedo-bombers, complemented by Fairey Swordfish, escorted by Fairey Fulmar fighters. Victorious sent twenty Albacores from Nos 827 and 828 Naval Air Squadrons, escorted by Fulmars from 809 NAS. Furious sent nine Swordfish of 812 NAS and nine Albacores of 817, escorted by the Fulmars of 800 NAS.

Unlike the raid on Taranto, the operations had to take place in daylight because of the almost twenty-four-hour summer daylight of the far north. German aerial reconnaissance was far more methodical than that of the Italians; the carriers soon became known to the enemy and the nature of the operation also became clear. The final approaches to the targets were also far more difficult than at Taranto.

Aircraft were flown off late on the afternoon of 30 July 1941, with those from Victorious going to Kirkenes, while Furious sent her aircraft to Petsamo. The operation was jeopardized from the start as the aircraft from Victorious had to fly over a German hospital ship en route to the target and were ordered not to attack it, although, of course, those aboard could warn the authorities ashore. The approach to Kirkenes was over a mountain at the end of the fjord, before diving into the bay where they found just four ships. After enduring heavy anti-aircraft fire from gun installations on the cliffs, the attackers were themselves attacked by German fighters and most of them had to jettison their torpedoes in a desperate bid to escape. They managed to sink just one cargo vessel of 2,000 tons and set another on fire. The slow and lumbering Fulmars did well to shoot down four Luftwaffe aircraft. Petsamo was even worse, for the harbour was empty. Frustrated air-crew could do nothing more than aim their torpedoes at the wharves, hoping at least to do some damage.

Afterwards the attackers attempted to escape, which was easier said than done, especially for the torpedo-bombers that were obviously much slower than the German fighters. Swordfish and Albacore pilots and aircrew were trained in a defensive drill that entailed taking their aircraft as low as possible over the water and waiting to be attacked. The telegraphist-air-gunners would watch for the cannon shells hitting the water and at the last second call out to the pilot ‘hard-a-starboard’ or ‘hard-a-port’. Flying just above the surface of the water also forced the fighters to pull out early or risk a high-speed dive into the sea.

Inevitably, even when these defensive measures worked, they could only last so long if the aircraft were to return to their ships. Altogether forty-four aircrew were lost; seven of them killed and the remainder taken prisoner. Had the losses at Taranto been on a similar scale, seven aircraft would have been lost rather than just two. ‘The gallantry of the aircraft crews, who knew before leaving that their chance of surprise had gone, and that they were certain to face heavy odds is beyond praise,’ remarked Tovey. ‘I trust that the encouragement to the morale of our allies was proportionately great.’

The Arctic Convoys

Grimmest of the many Second World War convoy routes were those to Russia, sailing past enemy-occupied Norway and north of the Arctic Circle where the weather was as much of an enemy as the combined efforts of the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe. Not for nothing are the veterans of these convoys singled out at Remembrance Day parades with their distinctive white berets. The Malta convoys were also grim but the weather was less cruel and, of course, far fewer ships and personnel were involved. A total of 811 ships sailed in the Arctic convoys to Russia, of which 720 completed their voyages, another 33 turned back for one reason or another, and 58 were sunk, giving a loss rate of 7.2 per cent. Of the ships that reached Russia, 717 sailed back (some were being delivered to the Soviet Union), and of these 29 were sunk, a loss rate of 4 per cent. This was the price of delivering some 4 million tons of war stores, including 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft. The sinking of a 10,000-ton cargo ship was the equivalent, in terms of matériel destroyed, of a land battle.

The problems of keeping the Soviet Union, industrially and technologically backward and ill-prepared for war, in the conflict were many. Both the United States and the United Kingdom went to great lengths to keep the Soviet Union supplied. Most of the aid went via the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and then overland from an Iranian port, with Soviet troops occupying Northern Iran. Very little took the short route from the west coast of the United States to Siberia, partly because the Soviet Union did not enter the war with Japan until August 1945, and partly because of the limited capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railway to move matériel to the western USSR where it was most needed against German forces. Most attention has centred on the Arctic convoys from Scotland and Iceland to Archangel and Murmansk.

In summer, the almost constant daylight left the ships open to attack from the air and from U-boats and surface raiders. In winter, the almost constant darkness provided just three hours of weak twilight in the middle of the day, and the weather was another hazard. One naval officer having difficulty eating a meal as his cruiser rolled to angles of 30 degrees consoled himself with the thought that life must be even more difficult in the destroyers and corvettes, which rolled as much as 50 degrees and sometimes even more! For the airmen, life was hard. The cold meant that they had to wear as much as possible, limited only by their ability to get in and out of the cockpit. Metal became so brittle that tail wheels could break off on landing.

The first convoy to suffer heavy losses was PQ13, which sailed on 20 March 1942 and was attacked not just by U-boats and aircraft but also by destroyers based on Kirkenes. Despite Ultra intelligence warning of the impending attack, which led to one German destroyer being sunk and two damaged by the cruiser Trinidad, the convoy lost five ships. The scale of the Luftwaffe attacks was considerable, with Convoy PG16 being attacked by no fewer than 108 aircraft on 27 May 1942, contributing to the convoy’s overall loss of seven ships.

Most famous of the Arctic convoys was the ill-fated PQ17, which sailed from Hvalfjordur in Iceland on 27 June 1942 without an aircraft carrier among its escorts which might have prevented the tragic events that occurred. The original cause of the disaster was the German battleship Tirpitz that was lying in Norway’s Altenfjord and was observed moving by Norwegian resistance who thought that she was preparing to go to sea on 4 July, although in fact she was simply moving from one berth to another. In London, the Admiralty had been aware that an attack was likely and the convoy was given a heavier escort than usual, but with nothing heavier than cruisers in the distant escort, Ultra intelligence had revealed that the cruisers Admiral Scheer and Hipper and possibly Scheer ’s sister ship Lutzow were also in the Altenfjord.

Faced with the strong possibility that this powerful force could overwhelm the convoy escorts, First Sea Lord (the service head of the Royal Navy) Admiral Sir Dudley Pound ordered the convoy to scatter and the escorts to return to base. This left the thirty-seven ships of the convoy at the mercy of U-boats and the Luftwaffe. In the ensuing attack, just eleven ships of the thirty-seven originally in the convoy reached their destination. This meant the loss of 153 lives, 2,500 aircraft, 430 tanks and almost 1,000 lorries and other vehicles. Tirpitz meanwhile had remained in harbour, believing that a British battleship was included in the distant escort. When aerial reconnaissance confirmed that no battleship was present, she left port with the other ships during the afternoon of 5 July, but returned to her berth when it was clear that the convoy was already destroyed.

The order to scatter the convoy remains one of the most controversial of the war, especially the war at sea. With hindsight, the entire convoy should have been turned back and brought under the protection of the heavy units of the Home Fleet. On the other hand, had it tried to continue without scattering, the entire convoy and its escort would have been at the mercy of the Tirpitz battlegroup which would have destroyed both the convoy and the escort.

The disaster was a clear indication that the convoys, and not just those on the Arctic run, needed good air support and that meant having an aircraft carrier present at all times.