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Arctic convoys of World War II
Part of World War II
View from the cruiser HMS Sheffield as she sails on convoy duty through the waters of the Arctic Ocean. In the background are merchant ships of the convoy. The image was taken during the twilight of the arctic winter—the short time each day that the sun is seen during winter near the pole. In the foreground is the silhouette of a lookout using a telescope.
View from the cruiser HMS Sheffield as she sails on convoy duty through the waters of the Arctic Ocean. In the background are merchant ships of the convoy.
DateAugust 1941 – May 1945
LocationNorwegian Sea and Arctic Ocean
 United Kingdom
 Soviet Union
 United States
 Nazi Germany
Casualties and losses
85 merchant vessels
16 warships
4 warships
30 submarines

The Arctic convoys of World War II were oceangoing convoys which sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland, and North America to northern ports in the Soviet Union - primarily Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk, both in modern day Russia. There were 78 convoys between August 1941 and May 1945 (although there were two gaps with no sailings between July and September 1942, and March and November 1943), sailing via several seas of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

About 1400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program, escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and the U.S. Navy. Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships (two cruisers, six destroyers, eight other escort ships) were lost. The Nazi German Kriegsmarine lost a number of vessels including one battleship, three destroyers and at least 30 U-boats as well as a large number of aircraft.

Convoy organisation

Ice forms on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield while she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia.

The Arctic convoys ran in two series, following the first convoy, which was un-numbered but code-named “Dervish”.

The first series, PQ (outbound) and QP (homebound), ran from September 1941 to September 1942. These convoys ran twice monthly, but were interrupted in the summer of 1942 when the series was suspended after the disaster of PQ17 and again in the autumn after the final convoy of the series, PQ18, due to lengthening daylight hours, and continued preparations for Operation Torch.

The second series of convoys, JW (outbound) and RA (homebound) ran from December 1942 until the end of the war, though with two major interruptions in the summer of 1943 and again in the summer of 1944.

The convoys ran from Iceland (usually off Hvalfjörður) north of Jan Mayen Island to Arkhangelsk when the ice permitted in the summer months, shifting south as the pack ice increased and terminating at Murmansk. After September 1942 they assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland.

Outbound and homebound convoys were planned to run simultaneously; a close escort accompanied the merchant ships to port, remaining to make the subsequent return trip, whilst a covering force of heavy surface units was also provided to guard against sorties by German surface ships, such as the Tirpitz. These would accompany the outbound convoy to a cross-over point, meeting and then conducting the homebound convoy back, while the close escort finished the voyage with its charges.

The route was around occupied Norway to the Soviet ports and was particularly dangerous due to the proximity of German air, submarine and surface forces and also because of the likelihood of severe weather, the frequency of fog, the strong currents and the mixing of cold and warm waters which made ASDIC use difficult, drift ice, and the alternation between the difficulties of navigating and maintaining convoy cohesion in constant darkness or being attacked around-the-clock in constant daylight.

Notable convoys

A British wartime poster about the Arctic convoys

Several convoys are particularly notable:

  • The "Dervish" convoy assembled at Hvalfjörður and sailed on 21 August 1941. It arrived at its destination, Archangel, ten days later. The convoy was relatively small and consisted of only six merchant ships: Lancastrian Prince, New Westminster City, Esneh, Trehata, the elderly Llanstephan Castle, the fleet oiler Aldersdale and the Dutch freighter Alchiba. The Commodore was Captain JCK Dowding RNR. The escorts comprised the ocean minesweepers HMS Halcyon, Salamander and Harrier, the destroyers HMS Electra, Active and Impulsive and the anti-submarine trawlers HMS Hamlet, Macbeth and Ophelia. As evidence of Churchill's astute mastery of propaganda, on board Llanstephan Castle were two journalists and the artist, Felix Topolski.[1]
  • On 30 May 1942, the surviving ships of Convoy PQ 16 arrived, most ships to Murmansk and 8 ships to Archangel; the convoy was such a success in terms of the war stores delivered that the Germans made greater efforts to disrupt the following convoys. The heavy lift ships from PQ16 including SS Empire Elgar stayed at Archangel and Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk) unloading convoys for over 14 months.
  • In July 1942, convoy PQ 17 suffered the worst losses of any convoy in the Second World War. Under attack from German aircraft and U-boats, the convoy was ordered to scatter, following reports that a battle group, which included the battleship Tirpitz, had sailed to intercept the convoy (although the German group did not leave port until the following day, and was subsequently ordered to return to port). Only 11 of the 35 merchant ships in the convoy succeeded in running the gauntlet of U-boats and German bombers. This convoy is said to have inspired author Alistair MacLean to write his first novel HMS Ulysses.
  • The Battle of the Barents Sea: In December 1942, German surface forces, including the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and pocket battleship Lützow sailed to intercept Convoy JW 51B. The German force was driven off by a combined force of destroyers and cruisers.
  • In December 1943, Convoy JW 55B was the target of the German battleship Scharnhorst. However two British warship Forces were in the area. In the resulting Battle of the North Cape, Scharnhorst first encountered British cruisers then was sunk by HMS Duke of York and her escorts in a night action before it could return to port. German destroyers missed the convoy which had been diverted north based on intelligence from the Norwegian resistance movement.[citation needed]

List of Arctic Convoys


Outbound Homebound
Dervish departed Hvalfjörður, Iceland August 21;
arrived Arkhangelsk, Russia, August 31
PQ 1 departed Hvalfjörður September 29;
arrived Arkhangelsk October 11
QP 1 departed Arkhangelsk September 28;
arrived Scapa Flow, Scotland October 10
PQ 2 departed Liverpool, England, October 13;
arrived Arkhangelsk October 30
PQ 3 departed Hvalfjörður November 9;
arrived Arkhangelsk November 22
QP 2 departed Arkhangelsk November 3;
arrived Kirkwall, Scotland November 17
PQ 4 departed Hvalfjörður November 17;
arrived Arkhangelsk November 28
PQ 5 departed Hvalfjörður November 27;
arrived Arkhangelsk December 13
QP 3 departed Arkhangelsk November 27;
dispersed, arrived December 3
PQ 6 departed Hvalfjörður December 8;
arrived Murmansk, Russia December 20
PQ 7a departed Hvalfjörður December 26;
arrived Murmansk January 12, 1942
QP 4 departed Arkhangelsk December 29;
dispersed, arrived January 9
PQ 7b departed Hvalfjörður December 31;
arrived Murmansk January 11


Outbound Homebound
PQ 8 departed Hvalfjörður January 8;
arrived Arkhangelsk January 17
QP 5 departed Murmansk January 13;
dispersed, arrived January 19
Combined PQ 9 and PQ 10 departed Reykjavík, Iceland February 1;
arrived Murmansk February 10
QP 6 departed Murmansk January 24;
dispersed, arrived January 28
PQ 11 departed Loch Ewe, Scotland February 7;
departed Kirkwall February 14;
arrived Murmansk February 22
QP 7 departed Murmansk February 12;
dispersed, arrived February 15
PQ 12 departed Reykjavík March 1;
arrived Murmansk March 12
QP 8 departed Murmansk March 1;
arrived Reykjavík March 11
PQ 13 departed Reykjavík March 20;
arrived Murmansk March 31
QP 9 departed Kola Inlet, Russia March 21;
arrived Reykjavík April 3
PQ 14 departed Oban, Scotland March 26;
arrived Murmansk April 19
QP 10 departed Kola Inlet April 10;
arrived Reykjavík April 21
PQ 15 departed Oban April 10;
arrived Murmansk May 5
QP 11 departed Murmansk April 28;
arrived Reykjavík May 7
PQ 16 departed Reykjavík May 21;
arrived Murmansk May 30
QP 12 departed Kola Inlet May 21;
arrived Reykjavík May 29
PQ 17 departed Reykjavik June 27;
dispersed, arrived July 4
QP 13 departed Arkhangelsk June 26;
arrived Reykjavík July 7
(August sailing postponed) (August sailing postponed)
PQ 18 departed Loch Ewe September 2;
arrived Arkhangelsk September 21: first convoy with aircraft carrier escort (HMS Avenger)
QP 14 departed Arkhangelsk September 13;
arrived Loch Ewe September 26
(PQ cycle terminated ) QP 15 departed Kola Inlet November 17;
arrived Loch Ewe November 30
Operation FB sailings by independent unescorted ships (QP cycle terminated )
JW 51A departed Liverpool December 15;
arrived Kola Inlet December 25
JW 51B departed Liverpool December 22;
arrived Kola Inlet January 4, 1943;
see Battle of the Barents Sea
RA 51 departed Kola Inlet December 30;
arrived Loch Ewe January 11


Outbound Homebound
JW 52 departed Liverpool January 17;
arrived Kola Inlet January 27
RA 52 departed Kola Inlet January 29;
arrived Loch Ewe February 9
JW 53 departed Liverpool February 15;
arrived Kola Inlet February 27
RA 53 departed Kola Inlet March 1;
arrived Loch Ewe March 14
(cycle postponed through summer) (cycle postponed through summer)
JW 54A departed Liverpool November 15;
arrived Kola Inlet November 24
RA 54A departed Kola Inlet November 1;
arrived Loch Ewe November 14
JW 54B departed Liverpool November 22;
arrived Arkhangelsk December 3
RA 54B departed Arkhangelsk November 26;
arrived Loch Ewe December 9
JW 55A departed Liverpool December 12;
arrived Arkhangelsk December 22
RA 55A departed Kola Inlet December 22;
arrived Loch Ewe January 1, 1944
JW 55B departed Liverpool December 20;
arrived Archangel December 30;
see Battle of the North Cape
RA 55B departed Kola Inlet December 31;
arrived Loch Ewe January 8


Outbound Homebound
JW 56A departed Liverpool January 12;
arrived Archangel January 28
JW 56B departed Liverpool January 22;
arrived Kola Inlet February 1
RA 56 departed Kola Inlet February 3;
arrived Loch Ewe February 11
JW 57 departed Liverpool February 20;
arrived Kola Inlet February 28
RA 57 departed Kola Inlet March 2;
arrived Loch Ewe March 10
JW 58 departed Liverpool March 27;
arrived Kola Inlet April 4
RA 58 departed Kola Inlet April 7;
arrived Loch Ewe April 14
(escorts only to Murmansk) RA 59 departed Kola Inlet April 28;
arrived Loch Ewe May 6
(cycle postponed through summer) (cycle postponed through summer)
JW 59 departed Liverpool August 15;
arrived Kola Inlet August 25
RA 59A departed Kola Inlet August 28;
arrived Loch Ewe September 5
JW 60 departed Liverpool September 15;
arrived Kola Inlet September 23
RA 60 departed Kola Inlet September 28;
arrived Loch Ewe October 5
JW 61 departed Liverpool October 20;
arrived Kola Inlet October 28
RA 61 departed Kola Inlet November 2;
arrived Loch Ewe November 9
JW 61A departed Liverpool October 31;
arrived Murmansk November 6
RA 61A departed Kola Inlet November 11;
arrived Loch Ewe November 17
JW 62 departed Loch Ewe November 29;
arrived Kola Inlet December 7
RA 62 departed Kola Inlet December 10;
arrived Loch Ewe December 19
JW 63 departed Loch Ewe December 30;
arrived Kola Inlet January 8, 1945
RA 63 departed Kola Inlet January 11;
arrived Loch Ewe January 21


Outbound Homebound
JW 64 departed Clyde, Scotland February 3;
arrived Kola Inlet February 15
RA 64 departed Kola Inlet February 17;
arrived Loch Ewe February 28
JW 65 departed Clyde March 11;
arrived Kola Inlet March 21
RA 65 departed Kola Inlet March 23;
arrived Loch Ewe April 1
JW 66 departed Clyde April 16;
arrived Kola Inlet April 25
RA 66 departed Kola Inlet April 29;
arrived Clyde May 8
JW 67 departed Clyde May 12;
arrived Kola Inlet May 20
RA 67 departed Kola Inlet May 23;
arrived Clyde May 30

Strategic impact

The Arctic convoys caused major changes to naval dispositions on both sides, which arguably had a major impact on the course of events in other theatres of war. As a result of early raids by destroyers on German coastal shipping and the Commando raid on Vaagso, Hitler was led to believe that the British intended to invade Norway again. This, together with the obvious need to stop convoy supplies reaching the Soviet Union, caused him to direct that heavier ships, centred on the battleship Tirpitz, be sent to Norway. The Channel Dash was partly undertaken for this reason.[2]

As a "fleet in being", Tirpitz and the other German capital ships tied down British resources which might have been better used elsewhere, for example combating the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. The success of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in Operation Berlin during early 1941 had demonstrated the potential German threat. However, as the air gap over the North Atlantic closed, Huff-Duff (radio triangulation equipment) improved, airborne centimetric radar was introduced and convoys received escort carrier protection, the scope for commerce raiding diminished.

Aside from an abortive attempt to interdict PQ12 in March 1942 and a raid on Spitsbergen in September 1943, Tirpitz spent most of World War II in Norwegian fjords. She was penned in and repeatedly attacked until she was finally sunk in Tromsø fjord on 12 November 1944 by the RAF. The other Kriegsmarine capital ships never got to Norway (e.g. Gneisenau), were chased off, or were sunk by superior forces (e.g. Scharnhorst). In particular, the unsuccessful attack on convoy JW-51B (the Battle of the Barents Sea), where a strong German naval force failed to defeat a British escort of cruisers and destroyers, infuriated Hitler and led to the strategic change from surface raiders to submarines. Some capital ships were physically dismantled and armament used in coastal defences. .[3]

Leningrad under the siege was one of important destinations for supplies from the convoys. From 1941 food and munition supplies were delivered from British convoys to Leningrad by trains, barges, and trucks. Supplies were often destroyed by the Nazi air-bombings, and by Naval Detachment K while on the way to Leningrad. However, convoys continued deliveries of food in 1942, 1943, and through 1944. Towards the end of the war the material significance of the supplies was probably not as great as the symbolic value hence the continuation—at Stalin's insistence—of these convoys long after the Soviets had turned the German land offensive.[4]

Role of intelligence

ULTRA intelligence gained from the cracking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park played an important part in the eventual success of these convoys. Pre-emptive action was not always possible, but the intelligence did allow the Royal Navy to prepare for battle and convoys could be given appropriate escorting forces. The interception and consequent sinking of Scharnhorst by HMS Duke of York was greatly assisted by ULTRA intercepts.[5]

Literary depictions

The 1967 Norwegian historic account One in ten had to die (Hver tiende mann måtte dø) by writer Per Hansson is based on the experience of decorated Norwegian sailor Leif Heimstad and other sailors of the Norwegian merchant fleet during World War II.

The 1973 Russian novel Requiem for Convoy PQ-17 (Реквием каравану PQ-17) by writer Valentin Pikul depicts the mission of Convoy PQ 17, reflecting the bravery and courage of ordinary sailors in the merchant ships and their escorts, who took mortal risks to provide Allied aid.

At least two well-known novels were written about the Arctic Convoys: in 1946 HMS Ulysses by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, considered a classic of naval warfare literature in general, and in 1967 The Captain by Dutch author Jan de Hartog. The two books are very different from each other in style, characterisation and underlying philosophy (de Hartog was a pacifist, which cannot be said about MacLean). Still, they both convey vividly the atmosphere of combined extreme belligerent action and inhospitable nature, pushing protagonists to the edge of endurance and beyond. Both books are evidently inspired by the fate of Convoy PQ-17, though not following its course in detail.

Other supply convoys

The Arctic route was the shortest and most direct route for lend-lease aid to the USSR, though it was also the most dangerous. Some 3,964,000 long ton of goods were shipped by the Arctic route; 7% was lost, while 93% arrived safely.[6] This constituted some 23% of the total aid to the USSR during the war.

Other routes used for the passage of goods were the Persian Corridor and the Pacific Route.

The Persian corridor was the longest route, and was not fully operational until mid-1942. Thereafter it saw the passage of 4,160,000 tons of goods, 27% of the total.[6]

The Pacific route opened in August 1941, but was affected by the start of hostilities between Japan and the US; after December 1941, only Soviet ships could be used, and, as Japan and the USSR observed a strict neutrality towards each other, only non-military goods could be transported.[7] Nevertheless, 8,244,000 tons of goods went by this route, 50% of the total.[6]

A branch of the Pacific Route began carrying goods through the Bering Strait to the Soviet Arctic coast in June 1942. From July through September small Soviet convoys assembled in Providence Bay, Siberia to be escorted north through the Bering Strait and west along the Northern Sea Route by icebreakers and Lend-Lease Admirable class minesweepers. A total of 452,393 tons passed through the Bering Strait aboard 120 ships.[8] Part of this northern tonnage was fuel for the airfields along the Alaska-Siberia Air Route. Provisions for the airfields were transferred to river vessels and barges on the estuaries of large Siberian rivers.[9] Remaining ships continued westbound and were the only seaborne cargoes to reach Archangel while JW convoys were suspended through the summers of 1943 and 1944.[8]

See also



  1. Woodman, p. 36.
  2. Woodman, pp. 63–64.
  3. Woodman, pp. 329–330.
  4. Woodman, pp. 443–445.
  5. Sebag-Montefiore, pp. 293–303.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kemp p235
  7. Sea routes of Soviet Lend-Lease:Voice of Russia Retrieved: 16 December 2011
  8. 8.0 8.1 Vail Motter pp.481&482
  9. "The Unknown World War II in the North Pacific" Alla Paperno Retrieved: 13 July 2012.


Further reading

External links

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