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21 Feb 23

None of us has any experience of the Arctic Convoys, nor can we comprehend the sheer horror of the interminable winter darkness and atrocious weather, the constant summer daylight which gave the Luftwaffe and U-boats such an advantage, or the danger posed by the build-up of sea ice. The confusion and fear amongst a fleet of up to 40 merchantmen following a U-boat attack in thick fog cannot be imagined. Luck played a not insignificant part in survival.

The threat that Operation BARBAROSSA, Hitler’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, might succeed, prompted Churchill to send vital military supplies to Britain’s new ally. The early sailings to Northern Russia via the Arctic Ocean between August 1941 and February 1942 were largely unopposed. However, throughout 1942 German naval and air operations inflicted heavy losses on both merchantmen and escorts. Convoy schedules were interrupted by the RN’s need to support the North African landings. Strained Anglo-Soviet relations, coupled with mounting losses and atrocious weather and sea conditions, all but terminated the programme in early 1943. In the event, the convoys continued until shortly before VE Day. While Churchill may not have described the convoys as “the worst journey in the world”, for the brave men who undertook the mission, often at the cost of their lives, it most definitely was.

About 1,400 merchant ships delivered essential supplies under the Anglo-Soviet agreement and US Lend-Lease program, escorted by ships of the Royal NavyRoyal Canadian Navy, and the US Navy. Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships (two cruisers, six destroyers, eight other escort ships) were lost, some to air attack, some to U-boats, but many to the Arctic weather. The Kriegsmarine lost one battleship, three destroyers, 30 U-boats, and many aircraft. The convoys demonstrated the Allies’ commitment to helping the Soviet Union prior to the opening of a second front, and tied up a substantial part of Germany’s naval and air forces.

William Smith is an OU graduate and retired logistics civil servant whose father was in the Merchant Marine during WWII. The book is well produced with a good number of evocative black and white photographs, comprehensive Notes, and a detailed Index. The reference in the title to Churchill highlights the political nature of the enterprise, which led to some quite foolhardy risks which would otherwise not have been taken.

The book comprises a chronological catalogue of each convoy, listing the merchantmen and naval support vessels, together with dates and a diary-like outline of the voyage and any ensuing action. Some of these accounts are startling for their immediacy with some very moving personal testimonies. PQ17, dubbed a “duck shoot” and described by Churchill as “One of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war”, is covered extensively. There are instances of both great heroism and panic-induced cowardice, and of both compassion and barbarism by the U-boat commanders.

However, after a while, the repetitive sequences become tedious. There is little analysis of either the strategic imperatives which drove Churchill to commit to such a high level of support, or of the tactics developed by both sides over time.

A few details – there are occasional terminological inaccuracies, the maps are disappointing, and it is rarely clear whether vessels are merchant or warships. In conclusion, this is clearly more of a reference book than an historical analysis; nonetheless, it has its place. However, there was not enough to satisfy this general reader.


ERRATUM: There were 806 eastbound sailings (not 1,400) to North Russia and 697 westbound excluding losses, returns and diversions. The number of merchant ships and naval auxiliaries lost on passage to, from, or in North Russia was 103. The number of RN warships lost was 21, not 16, with a further 5 seriously damaged. A further 3 Allied warships were also lost. The Book Reviews Editor would like to thank William Smith, the author of Churchill’s Arctic Convoys, for pointing out this error.