Sacrifice: Remembering the Scots in the Russian Arctic Convoys

Sailors chip thick ice from the forecastle of the cruiser HMS Scylla
Sailors chip thick ice from the forecastle of the cruiser HMS Scylla
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This week Wester Ross is holding exhibitions and events to commemorate the Scots who undertook one of the most hazardous duties of the Second World War, writes Alistair Munro

They were called The Suicide Missions by the brave sailors sent into the unknown to take part in one of the most daring, dangerous and vital episodes of wartime history.

Ships passing through Arctic fog while on convoy duty in the Northern Waters

Ships passing through Arctic fog while on convoy duty in the Northern Waters

The accurate, tragic nickname was given to the Russian Arctic Convoys, in which 3,000 young men perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic while trying to take crucial supplies and ammunition to Soviet Union allies during the Second World War.

This week, as part of a tribute to those who played a role in those missions, a series of events are being held in Wester Ross. It was there, at Loch Ewe, where many of the ships gathered before setting sail to Russia, facing German U-boats and fighter planes on the way.

The fishing village of Aultbea, on the sea loch’s shores, is hosting the inaugural WWII and Arctic Convoys Week, which runs from today until Saturday. It is hoped the event will help push forward plans for a museum in the village dedicated to the convoys.

The week has the Royal seal of approval, with HRH Prince Michael of Kent writing the foreword to the official programme. He attended the 70th anniversary memorial service in August, also held at Loch Ewe, to commemorate the first convoy to leave for Russia – “Operation Dervish”, which took Hurricane fighter planes and RAF pilots to Murmansk.

There will be eight exhibitions, telling stories about the convoys and their role in the war, and an original Enigma machine – which Germany relied upon to encrypt their communications to such an extent that when Britain’s Bletchley Park codebreakers cracked it, the course of the war changed dramatically – will be toured around local schools. There will also be a talk from Dr Mark Baldwin, an expert on codes and codebreaking.

Convoy veterans and their families have also submitted films and photographs for the exhibitions. Some of these – including footage of the Allied vessels arriving in Russia – will be seen for the very first time in public, as films were taken secretly during the war, in violation of orders that banning personal filming and photography.

One film to be shown was officially sanctioned at the time. It was taken, using a pinhole camera, by a major in a light anti-aircraft troop as he travelled from Dundee to Aultbea. For security reasons the 25-minute film was sent to the USA to be processed, and it remained there until the end of the war, and is now held in Dingwall Museum’s archive. The films will be shown in Aultbea village hall, which is a converted Nissen Hut, of the type used everywhere by the military during the war, and was used at the time as a cinema and for dances.

Also on show will be rare still images uncovered by the week’s organisers. Among these is a photograph from a woman in Gairloch of an officer in the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps. The corps had been posted to the Highlands during the war and played a major part in the convoy operations.

The local radio station, Two Lochs Radio, is running special programmes during the week, including interviews with veterans who sailed on the convoy ships and their naval escorts, and with local people, remembering life in this area during the war. There will also be an interview with the American veteran Russell M Ross, one of the few survivors of the sinking of the William H Welch, one of the Liberty Ships mass produced in the US to help with the war effort.

Museum project vice-chairwoman Jacky Brookes says: “The importance of highlighting the legacy of the Russian Arctic Convoys is central to the project plans for a Russian Arctic Convoy Museum in Aultbea. The museum project is a key part of the Aultbea Regeneration Plan, together with a new community centre, to help bring much-needed employment and income potential to the area.”

She says that during the research for the event, “One of our team found a small horseshoe with a metal detector, nearby to Loch Ewe, and it turned out to be a shoe off a pack mule belonging to the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps regiment based up here during the Second World War.

“From June 1942 these units started to serve in Inverness-shire, training for the proposed invasion of Norway. This was, in fact, a diversionary exercise, although some plans were formulated later for an actual invasion after D Day.

“Following newspaper coverage of our mule shoe find, we have made contact with several leading historians, including Lord Paddy Ashdown whose father was in charge of the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps during the war.

“He has put us in touch with two leading experts who were delighted to know of our finds. Piece by piece we are finding out more about the regiment based up above Loch Ewe at Inverasdale and above Loch Tollaidh on the road to Gairloch.

“One of our team interviewed a local lady who lived in Inverasdale during World War Two and she said she remembered the Indians coming into Poolewe shop. In fact, she said she thought she had a picture of one of the officers.

“A few minutes later she came back with this picture. We sent the picture to Lord Ashdown’s contact who was fascinated with it, as he had never seen the picture before anywhere in his research worldwide.”

It is hoped more information about the work done by the Indian Corps will come to light as a result of this week’s events.

The North Atlantic Fleet sailed from 1941-45 to the ports of Murmank and Archangel. Pprime minister Winston Churchill had decided that these these supply journeys would be decisive to the eventual outcome of the war, although he did call them The Worst Journey in the World. The supplies and ammunition were vital to the war effort, as German forces had completely blockaded any access to Russia by land. With German U-boats and aircraft intent on stopping the convoys, many ships were lost, and over 3,000 young men died, their bodies never recovered.

Supplies came initially solely from British sources, with a greatly increasing quantity from America from January 1942. Allied supplies transported to Russia included 7,411 aircraft, 4,932 anti-tank guns and 5,218 tanks.

Churchill said these were an integral demonstration of Allied solidarity. There were a total of 78 Convoys to Russia, and 19 of these left from Loch Ewe. A further 23 left from Liverpool, The Clyde in Glasgow, Oban, and Reykjavik in Iceland. A mission codenamed PQ17 was the most disastrous of the convoys: in July 1942 more than 20 vessels were sunk following orders to scatter because of fears of an attack by German warships, including the Tirpitz.

Now, a campaign to officially recognise the bravery of those who maintained supplies to Russia through the convoys is gaining momentum. Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an independent review of the rules governing the award of military campaign medals.

The review, led by former diplomat Sir John Holmes, will look at the principles behind military awards, as well as the way in which retrospective claims for medals for previous service are handled by the authorities.