When Hell Froze Over

Those of you who have lived by a large body of water know how incredibly cold it can be in mid-winter when the wind blows over the water.  It seems to penetrate to the very bone.  Many years ago I served briefly in the naval reserve, and I experienced a cruise in the North Atlantic.  The weather was not particularly severe, but I have rarely felt colder than I did that night as I stood watch on the deck of a destroyer.

Sometimes I reflect on the travails of those merchant seamen who endured the Arctic run to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk during World War II.  Most of us have heard the phrase “when hell freezes over.”  That colloquial expression means “It will never happen,” but those sailors on the Arctic run thought otherwise as they experienced a lethal combination of fire and ice.  Not only did they brave the heaving waves, icy floes, and fierce arctic winds; at the same time they were subject to fearsome attacks from German aircraft, submarines, and surface vessels.

When reflecting on military hardships and endurance, I often thought that nothing could be have been worse than World War I trench warfare; month after month in the mud and filth, the pervasive smell of rotting flesh, the agony of burns from mustard gas, the constant exposure to artillery and small arms fire.  But perhaps I have been wrong.  It may be that the Arctic run of World War II was even more difficult for flesh and blood and mind to endure.  The passage itself was torture, and death hovered over every ship.  Thousands of merchant mariners were incinerated in blazing ship fires as their vessels were burned or torpedoed. Those fortunate enough to escape a sinking ship often froze to death in the frigid seas between Iceland and Murmansk.

The Arctic shipping convoys began shortly after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.  The Nazis were the common enemy, and Churchill promised to do everything he could to help the Soviets in their struggle.  Of course, the United States soon joined the British in providing material support to the Soviet Union, and quickly we became the main supplier.  The merchant vessels and seamen came from every free nation.

There were three principal supply routes to the USSR.  In addition to the Arctic run, supplies were shipped in via Iran in the south and via the Pacific to Soviet Siberia.  The Iranian corridor did not become active until late 1942.  The Pacific route was strictly confined to non-military goods transported on Soviet vessels. The Arctic route was the first one used to send vital military supplies. It was much shorter than the other routes but also much more dangerous.

Arctic run

The Arctic Run

The first convoy, consisting of only six merchant ships and a large number of escorts, sailed from Iceland on August 21, 1941, and arrived at Arkhangelsk ten days later.  It was the beginning of a long procession of 78 convoys, with the last convoy taking place in May 1945 at the very end of the war in Europe.  Unfortunately, the Arctic route took the ships very close to the coast of Nazi occupied Norway.  Once that first convoy went through, the Germans immediately began countermeasures.  Their air and naval strength along the Norwegian coast increased, and a large number of U-boats were also diverted to the north.  The convoys soon suffered the consequences of those moves.

Outbound homebound convoys were organized to run simultaneously.  A close naval escort accompanied the merchant ships to their Soviet destination and then remained to make the subsequent return trip.  Sometimes, for part of the voyage, a covering force of heavy surface ships was provided to guard against sorties by German battleships or cruisers.

The severe weather, the frequency of fog, the strong currents, the ever-present drift ice, and the alternation between the difficulties of navigating and maintaining convoy cohesion (especially in the constant darkness of winter convoys), made even a peaceful passage extremely hazardous.  But passages were rarely peaceful.  Light or dark, there was always the danger of U-boat attacks.  In daylight, close to the Norwegian coast, the convoys were exposed to constant bombing or strafing by German planes, augmented on occasion by shelling from surface ships. It was a living, frigid hell for the mariners.  Late 1941 through the first half of 1943 was the worst period.

Arctic 3

Fighting the Elements

The heaviest loss by any convoy took place in July 1942.  The 35 ship convoy was already under heavy attack by German aircraft and U-boats, and the British command received reports that the heavy battleship Tirpitz  (sistership of the famed Bismarck) had sailed to intercept the convoy.  Ships in the convoy were ordered to scatter.  Only 11 of the 35 merchant ships in that convoy managed to run the gauntlet of U-boats and German bombers and make it to a Soviet port.


The Tirpitz

Many more mariners died and ships were lost, but over time the situation for the convoys gradually improved.  The breaking on the German Enigma ciphers was especially important as it made the U-boats more and more susceptible to counterattack, and eventually their losses were unsustainable.  German surface forces were also exposed to discovery by British intelligence and destruction by British airpower. One of the last, the mighty Tirpitz, was sunk in November 1944. By that time the Arctic run had become relatively routine and trouble free.

Free men should never forget the bravery of the World War II merchant mariners.  The Arctic run was not the only difficult area, nor was it the place of greatest loss.  3.1 million tons of merchant ships were destroyed in World War II. Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 26, which was the highest rate of casualties for any major American service. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost and 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished in troubled waters and off enemy shores.  I salute them


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