The Arctic Convoys

Today also marks a far less happy anniversary. On this day 75 years ago, on 29th September 1941, the Allied Convoy PQ 1 set sail from Hvalfjörður in Iceland; it arrived in Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia on October 11. This wasn’t the first of the Arctic convoys – that was Operation Dervish,  which set out in August 1941 , but it was the first of the most famous sequence, numbered from PQ 1 to PQ 18. The PQ sequence was terminated in September 1942, but convoys resumed in 1943 with a different numbering system (JW) for the duration of the Second World War. For every PQ convoy there was also a QP convoy making the return journey; the counterpart of the JW sequence was RA.

The Arctic convoys carried military supplies (including tanks and aircraft) to the Soviet Union after Germany invaded in the summer of 1941. Their purpose was largely political – to demonstrate the willingness of the Allies to support the Soviet Union, especially before before a second front could be opened.

Arctic Convoy

The reality of the Arctic convoys was unimaginably grim. Slow-moving merchant ships had to run the gauntlet of German U-Boats and aircraft. During the summer, when the Arctic ice retreated, the convoys took a longer route but the long daylight hours of an Arctic summer made for an exhausting journey with the constant threat of air attack. In the winter the route was shorter, but made in terrible weather conditions of biting cold and ferocious storms.


The map is taken from this site, which also gives detailed information about each convoy.

As it happens, one of my teachers at school (Mr Luke, who taught Latin), who was also an officer in the Royal Navy Reserve, served on Royal Navy escort vessel in some of the Arctic convoys in 1941.  I was interested in naval history when I was a teenager and when he told me he had first-hand experience of the Arctic convoys I asked him to tell me more. He talked about the bitter cold but about everything else he refused to speak, his eyes filling with tears. I didn’t such things understand then, I was too young, but later I saw that it was less that he wouldn’t talk about it, more that he couldn’t. Terrible experiences leave very deep scars on the survivors.

The most infamous convoy in the PQ series was PQ 17 which sailed on June 27 1942 from Reykjavik. Rumours that the German battleship Tirpitz had left its berth in Northern Norway to intercept the convoy led to the Admiralty issuing an order for the escort to withdraw and for the convoy to disperse, each vessel to make its way on its own to its destination. The unprotected merchant ships were set upon by planes and submarines, and of the 35 that had left Reykjavik, 24 were sunk. It was a catastrophe. Just a year earlier, Convoy PQ 1 had arrived at its destination unscathed.

There is a project under way to set up a museum as a lasting memorial to the brave men who served during the Arctic convoys. I think it’s well worth supporting. Although the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Dervish was commemorated earlier this year, the courage and sacrifice of those who served in this theatre is not sufficiently recognised .


10 Responses to “The Arctic Convoys”

  1. There can be no question about the bravery, courage and determination of all who participated in the Arctic convoy effort. To my thinking it was one of the pivots of the Second World War, because the materiel provided, particularly transports, enabled the Red Army to prosecute the campaign that finally defeated the Nazis on the ground – something the Allies could not directly do. A museum seems highly appropriate.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Alistair MacLean served on the Arctic convoys and his first full-length novel, HMS Ulysses, was intended as a tribute. It is gripping to read – and terrible, in the true sense of the word.

  3. I remember a family member, who has now passed away, telling me about the conditions he experienced while on an Artic convoy. A friend brought him a cup of tea while he was on the deck. It had already started to turn to ice by the time he received it.

    • telescoper Says:

      It is perhaps worth saying that the smaller escort ships (corvettes and frigates) had an *open* bridge that offered no protection from the weather whatsoever.

  4. Victoria Schofield Says:

    Could someone tell me what the convoys with the initials JW stands for? Thank you.

    • telescoper Says:

      The JW designation was used for outbound convoys from the UK to Russia from 1942 onwards. The return convoys were called RA. This series replaced the previous PQ (outbound) and QP (return) series.

      I may be wrong but I don’t think there’s any special significance to the two-letter designation.

  5. Victoria Schofield Says:

    Thanks but some of them did have a significance. i.e. the PQ was the first two names of Philip Quellyn Roberts – in the Admiralty. HG – Homeward from Gibraltar… etc. and I was just trying to find out about JW.. but perhaps you are right and the JW didn’t mean anything .

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t even know that! I’m by no means an expert on such matters. I suggest you contact the Arctic Convoy Museum. If the letters are significant I’m sure they will know!

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