Confident that he had neutralized Stalin by signing a non-aggression pact with Russia and offering to share ownership of a large chunk of recently- conquered Poland to boot, Hitler was ready to proceed with the next step in his plan for the conquest of the entire European Continent.
On June 22, 1941 a Nazi army of 3,200,000 invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa piling up massive casualties in their wake as they sped to the very gates of Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad. Realizing the gravity of his country’s situation and knowing that Britain and her allies were already in retreat almost everywhere, Stalin appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States for war supplies and food for his people.
The United States was still a neutral country (Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future,) but Roosevelt had found a way around a strict observance of neutrality with his “Lend Lease” agreement with Britain, and the U.S. had been massively supplying the Defense of Great Britain since 1939. Churchill – an ardent foe of communism and no friend of Stalin – quickly agreed with the need to support Russia, seeing any chance of stopping Hitler slipping away.
An immediate challenge was the availability of sea-going cargo vessels, and the great distance over the world’s worst shipping lanes to open Russian ports, to say nothing of the ferocious activity of German U-boats which were already exacting a heavy toll in the “Battle of the Atlantic”. Waiting in the wings of history was another American innovation – the Liberty ship – an ugly duckling of a sea-going freighter which would be assembled from pre-produced sections which would be welded together rather than riveted in weeks rather than months. The SS Robert E. Peary would be finished in 4 days, 15 hours and 30 minutes and sail 3 hours later! (The author would cross the Pacific in one of these “moth-balled” veterans in yet another war.)
The Russian ports chosen for this budding enterprise were in the Soviet Union’s far north including Murmansk, Archangel, and Kola Inlet on the Barents Sea, a world of floating ice floes, gale force winds, high seas and freezing rains capable of covering a ship with tons of ice faster than crews could chop it away. Patrolled by wolf packs of U-boats stationed at strategic target locations and homed in by “mother” subs and aircraft, the track the Allied convoys were forced to transit was a veritable
gauntlet. The deadly route became known as the Murmansk run, a 14 to17-day voyage of deadly boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.
The convoys were usually made up of several dozen fully-loaded cargo vessels accompanied by escort destroyers, corvettes and maybe a tanker for refueling and commanded by an officer known as the Commodore. Except for the Navy and Coast Guard crews on the warships, these crucial supply “sea-trains” were in the hands of the merchant marine, civilian sailors who drew no “combat-pay” or insurance protection, enjoyed little recognition, and were paid about $2,000 a year. Their work was some of the most dangerous of the war – especially on The Murmansk run.
One of the most noted of these precious supply trains was Convoy PQ -17 attacked by air and sea in August, 1942 – a voyage Winston Churchill called “one of the most melancholy episodes of the war.” Of the 37 cargo ships that left Iceland, 24 were sent to the bottom along with their crews and $700 million of supplies.
Somewhere on the sea bottom in Russia’s arctic north there are 5,000 tanks, 7000 aircraft, and 200,000 tons of other war materiel. More tanks were lost on the Murmansk run than in any battle of WWII. In 1942 there could be no more dangerous place to be than aboard an Allied tanker carrying 100 octane aviation fuel between the U.S. and Europe. Respective of how their governments might argue with each other, the everyday people of the United States and Russia should be proud to have been united by so great a cause in our recent past.