Remembering the Arctic Convoys: one sailor′s route to Russia | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 31.08.2016
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Remembering the Arctic Convoys: one sailor's route to Russia

Princess Anne has visited Russia to remember those who supplied the USSR on the Arctic Convoys 75 years ago. Moscow Correspondent Emma Burrows spoke to one veteran - her grandfather - about the perils of the passage.

Invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Allies launched supply missions to help the Soviet Union fight back.

Food, fuel, weapons and even boots provided by the US lend-lease programme were sent on ships from the UK and Iceland which navigated a deadly course across the Arctic to northern Russia. The first convoy, Dervish, carrying Hawker Hurricane fighter planes and escorted by destroyers arrived in Arkhangelsk, in the far north of Russia, 75 years ago today.

75 years after the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union joined forces to battle Nazi Germany, relations between the UK and Russia are at a low point over the death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London and Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

In Arkhangelsk, Princess Anne told veterans taking part in the commemoration that they are "a symbol of the shared history between the United Kingdom and Russia."

"It is so important that we continue to remember and honour that sacrifice made by you, our veterans," she said.

commemoration in Archangelsk

Princess Anne attended the commemoration Event in Archangelsk

"The worst journey in the world"

The convoys across the Arctic had to navigate a treacherous route, around the top of Nazi-occupied Norway, before arriving in the northern ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Constantly under threat of attack by Nazi planes and U-boat submarines, more than 100 ships were eventually sunk, sending more than 3,000 sailors to their deaths.

"The worst journey in the world," is how Winston Churchill described it.

One ship, HMS Trumpeter, set sail from the UK in 1944, carrying aircraft and escorting a convoy to Murmansk. It was also carrying my grandfather, William Burrows. He joined the Navy aged 18, leaving southern England to serve during the war as a Leading Seaman. Now 92, he told me about the path to Russia.

William Burrows showing his medal of honor

William Burrows, now 92, joined the Navy at the age of 18 - he recalls the 'horrendous journey' to Russia

"It was a horrendous journey," he said. "There were mountainous seas and ice. The ship was frozen, it was just white. You had to try to get rid of the ice as much as possible, with a hammer or steam, because it was so heavy it could turn the ship over."

One of the most perilous parts of the journey lay off the Norwegian coast. Battleships such as the Tirpitz had been specifically stationed in Norway by the Kriegsmarine, the Nazi Navy, in order to attack convoys heading to the Soviet Union. In July 1942, Convoy PQ17 was heading for Russia when it lost 24 of its 35 ships off the coast of Norway. The loss of ships and seaman was so great that the convoys were suspended for two months while plans were drawn up to better defend them.

"If you touched any metal, you would leave your skin behind"

Looking out for enemy ships was part of the job for many sailors on board the convoys. From 1941 to 1945, thousands of sailors like my grandfather stood on ships for four hours at a time, wrapped up in duffle coats, staring into the distance, watching and waiting for something to appear. It was so cold, he said, that "if you touched any metal, you would leave your skin behind."

"It's not nice being on watch because you are looking for hours for submarines, aircraft or ships. Up on the bridge there are men with binoculars looking out all the time. That's all they've got to do. Keep their eyes open."

Staring out towards the horizon for hours, sailors had to remain alert even when it was bitterly cold: temperatures could drop to around -40 degrees centigrade. It was a game of "cat and mouse" across the Arctic - each side trying to spot the other without being spotted themselves. One wrong move could mean death.

"You are looking for anything. A flicker of light, maybe the white flick where the periscope of a submarine is going through the water. If you saw that though, you know very well you are going to be in trouble."

"Sometimes we got called up to action stations and those were the points when you started to worry. You never knew when you would get a thump in the side from a German torpedo, and then that's it. If you go over the side you've got about a minute alive in the water and then you are dead."

American goods on the western front

A man walks past flags and a vessel model during the preparation for festive ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first allied Arctic Convoy, codenamed Operation Dervish, at the northern port of the Soviet Union during World War Two in Arkhangelsk, Russia,

A model of a vessel involved in the first Allied Arctic Convoy was on display at the commemoration event in Arkhangelsk, Russia

In Russia, Soviet veterans still remember the help the Red Army received from the convoys, stocked with American lend-lease goods.

Ivan Martynushkin, now 92, served during the war and took part in the advance of the Soviet Army during the First Ukrainian Front in 1944. He said he remembers at the time how the army was sometimes resupplied from abroad.

"It was a great help," he said. "We ate American canned meat, smoked American tobacco and on the front we saw American trucks. At that time, we didn't have enough cartridges, rifles, planes and tanks so the convoys really helped."

Danger of submarines

On the ships, many of the people taking part in the 78 convoys to Russia would have felt like sitting ducks: they had no weapons to fight off a submarine and instead were protected by aircraft carriers and naval destroyers which listened out for the sound of the submarines.

"The destroyers would listen out for the pings of a submarine and try to hover over it, launching depth charges to force it to the surface," my grandfather said. "A huge great volume of water was flung up in the air and you could feel the thump right through the body of the ship."

Spectators watch as fireworks explode in the sky in front of the Victory Monument

The victory monument was one of the main locations for commemoration events on August 31

There were, however, some pleasant surprises to doing the "worst journey in the world."

"I was up on the bridge one day, entering the Kola Inlet and the entrance to Murmansk," my grandfather told me.

"It was a dangerous position because the submarines were quite prolific there and I was watching the sea when I saw them. The Northern Lights. I couldn't help but look at the sky. They were a swirling mass of beautiful colour, it was like putting oil on water. A lot of people pay a lot of money to go there to see them but I didn't pay any money. I don't think anyone has seen them as lovely as I have."

Was it not a huge price to pay, I asked him, to see the lights?

"It was a price to pay because it was so dangerous and they didn't even let us off the ship in Murmansk once we got there. That was a real shame. But it was so beautiful. I suppose I was paid back a little bit for that journey by the Northern Lights."