This week, an exhibition opened at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle on how the allies supported the Soviet Union in the Second World War through Arctic convoys to the north Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk.
The convoys plied some of the most dangerous routes operated by merchant ships during the war and thousands of lives were lost. The route was the Russian lifeline. As Hitler’s forces crossed German-occupied eastern Europe and invaded the USSR in Operation Barbarossa, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin needed new supply lines for his war effort. The British, Americans and other allied shipping began to resupply Russia.
Some 78 convoys sailed north between 1941 and 1945. Some 1,400 merchant ships delivered supplies under the Lend-Lease programme escorted by naval ships from Britain, Canada and the United States. A fifth of aid to Russia during the war was delivered by the convoys. Of the 1,400 ships that sailed, 85 merchant vessels were lost along with 16 Royal Navy escorts. The Germans lost a battleship, three destroyers and more than 30 U-boats, plus numerous aircraft shot down by convoy guns.
The convoys sailed from various points around the Scottish coast, marshalling in Loch Ewe, Iceland and North America. They battled through mountainous seas, freezing fog, snow and pack ice to reach the Russian ports. The mixing of warmer and cold waters played havoc with the radar used to detect submarines. The challenge of seamanship was immense. Depending on the time of year, a convoy was often in either perpetual darkness or daylight. Holding the convoy together, keeping a steady course and speed were all hindered by the constant attacks from air, sea and submarine.
Of all the convoys that sailed, some were notably newsworthy. The “Dervish” convoy sailed from Iceland in August 1941. It was relatively small, but featured in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s propaganda effort as one of the merchantmen carried two journalists and the artist Felix Topolski. Convoy PQ17, sailing in July 1942, suffered the worst losses of any convoy. Under German attack, the convoy was ordered to scatter as reports indicated the German battleship Tirpitz was steaming towards the ships. They were subsequently picked off by U-boats and of the 35 ships that left, only 11 reached the safety of port. This terrible attrition and loss of life inspired Scottish author Alistair MacLean’s novel HMS Ulysses.
This supply route helped Stalin turn the tide against Hitler. Leningrad was under siege. Supplies by sea were then transported by train, barge and truck to ameliorate the starvation conditions.
Shetland has an abiding link to these convoys. Most of Shetland’s war dead were lost at sea, but the attrition rate on the Arctic route was particularly severe. Shetland lost more men than any other county of the UK in those four years. This is a powerful exhibition and I hope many Scots visit.
• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland