Arctic Convoys 1942: The Luftwaffe Cuts Russia’s Lifeline

24 Feb 23

The sub-title of this book is “The Luftwaffe cuts Russia’s lifeline”, and this pretty much summarises the particular thrust of the author’s thesis. Whilst this may be thought to be a bold assertion, it remains the case that, following the Luftwaffe’s successes in 1942, the Allies ceased sending convoys to Russia during the long arctic days of the summer months.

The Arctic convoys were staged between August 1941 and May 1945. Whilst initially unopposed, the transfer of Luftwaffe assets to the north, primarily to deter a British invasion of Norway and also in support of the Wehrmacht’s land operations, soon resulted in heavy losses to allied shipping, with the terrible weather, the cold seas and the ice all adding to the fearsome reputation that these demanding endeavours gained.

The author postulates that these actions marked the highwater of Luftwaffe successes during the war. Whilst the German effort was constrained by inter-service rivalries, it did not help that the Admiralty largely perceived the main threats to the convoys to be surface raiders and U-boats.  With the considerable demands being made elsewhere on allied sea-based airpower, the convoys were not well-placed to repel the airborne threat. However, although early German efforts were perhaps surprisingly ineffective, this changed with the introduction of aerial torpedoes in May 1942, further aided by the cracking of the British Naval Cypher No 3 in February 1942.

The German successes in 1942 were as much a result of British failings as of German endeavours. The story of the ill-fated PQ17 is narrated in full, along with the fight-back with PQ18, where the presence of an escort carrier was a key component of the enhanced convoy defence. Nevertheless, some 75% of all of the Arctic convoy losses occurred in 1942.

The support given to Russia’s war effort was substantial – but the suspension of summer sailings denied the Russians of much needed support when it was most needed. Whilst the Admiralty remained transfixed by the perceived threat of surface raiders, the long summer days were actually a problem for the U-boats. Also, convoy air defences were much improved from mid-1943, with the introduction of escort carriers and an increased availability of anti-aircraft mountings both representing an effective deterrent to attacking aircraft. In the event, German surface ships accounted for just three of the 122 ships that were lost in Arctic convoys.

Mark Lardas has written an interesting book detailing the capabilities of the principal protagonists and outlining the conduct of the campaign. His analysis of the actions and the strategic background is both perceptive and persuasive, and his enthusiasm for the subject is apparent (he is the author of more than 40 books on military, naval and maritime history).  This soft-backed book, priced at £14.99, is just 96 pages long and is amply illustrated with photographs and diagrams; it is an easy and engaging read.