The Northern Sea Routes
In 1942, in the Polar Region the belligerents were engaged in position
warfare. However, GHQ, Supreme Command, assigned the task of defending the Northern
Fleet's main base and the Kola Inlet to the fleet command.
Late in July, the Northern Defence Area was formed. Lieutenant General of Coastal Defence Service S.I. Kabanov, commander of the Northern Defence Area, was subordinated to the commander of the Northern Fleet. This was done at the proposal of the People's Commissariat of the Navy. This raised no objection on the part of the General Staff or the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. The experience of the war clarified the question of which command should be responsible for the defence of naval bases from land and of coastal areas.
Once there were no roads in northern Norway the fighting capability of the German forces in the Polar Region wholly depended on the sea routes. As far as Nazi Germany was concerned the Northern sea routes were important to it, because, on their way back the transport vessels carried vital strategic raw materials, such as nickel ore from Petsamo, molybdenum, pulp and iron ore from Kirkenes. The Northern Fleet not only protected Soviet and Allied shipping, but also attacked Nazi shipping along Norway inshore routes. Starting in late July 1941, the enemy had to escort his transport vessels. The Nazis conducted systematic reconnaissance along an advanced cruiser line with the help of patrol vessels and strengthened their antisubmarine protection.
The main striking force of the Northern Fleet was a brigade of submarines under Captain 1st Grade N.I. Vinogradov. There were about 20 submarines on duty at all times. They had been transferred from the Baltic Sea. The submarines built by the shipbuilding yards hardly covered the wartime losses. By the end of 1942, the enemy and we had about an equal number of submarines in the North.
The Northern Fleet command tried to control with the help of submarines the longest part of the inshore route along Norway's northern coast. This compelled the enemy to disperse his antisubmarine forces. Meanwhile Soviet submarines penetrated into enemy held fjords and harbours in search for his vessels.
In the very beginning of the war, the submarines switched over from "ambushing" the enemy in a given patrol zone to "lone wolf" hunting in a bigger zone. In 1941-1942, the submarines of the Northern Fleet sank 77 transport vessels and 27 fighting ships, i. e. more than 60 per cent of the tonnage the enemy lost in the theatre of operations during this period.
In the beginning, the German command underestimated the capabilities of the Soviet Northern Fleet. But in 1941, the enemy started to lay minefields to protect its sea routes and deep fjords against our submarines. He established lockout and signal stations and batteries along the entire coast. The convoy screens included destroyers. In addition, the convoys were provided with air cover.
In 1941, the Northern Fleet did not lose a single submarine that attacked the enemy's shipping. But in 1942, after he strengthened the antisubmarine screens, we lost several submarines.
The submarine crews of the Northern Fleet employed not only torpedoes
and guns, but also mines against Nazi transport vessels and fighting ships. Nine Nazi
transport vessels, a destroyer and several other fighting ships struck mines laid by our
In addition to submarines and the air arm, our surface ships, mainly destroyers, and motor torpedo boats attacked enemy shipping too.
Our coastal defence batteries positioned in the Sredni Peninsula sank quite a few vessels entering Liinahamari and Petsamo, and shelled enemy batteries protecting the entrance to these ports.
The Northern Fleet disrupted the regular flow of supplies to the Nazi forces in the Polar Region. It held a sizable enemy force, preventing the Nazis from employing it on other sectors. The successful actions of the fleet were one of the main reasons why the enemy's offensive in the Polar Region was abortive. The right flank of the huge battlefront firmly held its ground.
The first Allied convoys began to arrive after an agreement on mutual deliveries was signed at the Moscow Conference of Three Powers-the USSR, Great Britain and the USA-held from September 29 to October 1, 1941.
One of the problems was to choose routes for the convoys. The enemy blockaded the shortest routes through the Baltic and Black Seas. So we had to use the less convenient routes- the Northern, Pacific and Iranian.
About half of the cargoes for the USSR were delivered by the Pacific routes. Transport vessels loaded at ports on the USA's West coast arrived at Vladivostok, Nikolayevsk-on-Amur and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. As a rule, the time at sea ranged from 18 to 20 days. It is necessary to add the time it took to deliver the goods by rail both in the USA and in the Soviet Union. When the war between Japan and the USA started, only Soviet transport vessels could be employed on this route. Though the Soviet Union strictly observed neutrality, the Japanese interfered with the passage of ships in the Pacific. Sometimes they would sink our vessels.
The route to Iran through the Persian Gulf was much longer and more difficult. It took a convoy sailing to Iran around the Cape of Good Hope 75 days to reach the port of destination. The limited capacity of Iranian ports and condition of roads increased the time needed to deliver the cargoes. It was only after the surrender of Italy, when it was possible freely to navigate the Mediterranean Sea in 1943, that the length of the route was considerably shortened.
The route from Great Britain and the USA via the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk was the shortest then. The convoys managed to cover a distance of 1,800-2,000 miles in 10-14 days. In addition, the Northern ports were much closer to the battlefront and industrial centres. Being an ice-free port, Murmansk could receive ships all year round.
However, this route passed through a zone in which the German naval forces and the Luftwaffe were highly active. Based in Northern Norway, the Luftwaffe and the German fleet conducted reconnaissance and attacked Allied convoys. The considerable length of the route and the long polar day in summer exposed the convoys to fierce enemy attacks.
As soon as I arrived in Moscow from Kuibyshev in October 1941, I was
summoned to the Kremlin, to J.V. Stalin's office. Stalin explained to me:
"You must go to the Northern Fleet without delay. I am not certain that they have made the necessary preparations for the arrival of Allied convoys."
On the following day I departed for Arkhangelsk. The first transport vessels loaded with American and British supplies were already on their way. A.G. Golovko, commander of the Northern Fleet, and I decided what forces should reinforce the British escort screen and determined the procedure for cooperation with the British Navy.
Protecting the convoys was not easy for the Northern Fleet. But in October 1941, the main forces of the German Navy were still in the West. During the long autumn nights the convoys got to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk without much trouble and quickly discharged their cargoes there.
The first ice on the Northern Dvina River appeared early in November. It heralded a severe polar winter. We were then discussing how long Bakaritsa (situated higher upstream of Arkhangelsk), Severodvinsk and the outer port of Ekonomiya would be open for ships before they were icebound. During the First World War foreign ships swarmed on the Dvina before they could be unloaded. In winter they managed to get only to the mouth of the river. In Ekonomiya the cargoes would be reloaded into freight cars and delivered to Bakaritsa. To accomplish this a temporary track was laid over the ice and the railway cars were towed from one bank to the other. As a boy I watched with excitement how in spring the freight cars ran unsteadily over the bluish, rather thin, ice. It seemed that they could plunge into the water at any moment.
Soon after Nazi Germany attacked the USSR the question of opening a second front arose. In a message to Winston S. Churchill, dated July 18, Stalin wrote:
"It seems to me ... that the military position of the Soviet Union, and by the same token that of Great Britain, would improve substantially if a front were established against Hitler in the West (Northern France) and in the North (the Arctic)...
"It would be easier still to open a front in the North. This would call for action only by British naval and air forces, without landing troops or artillery... We would be glad if Great Britain could send thither, say, one light division or more of Norwegian volunteers, who could be moved to Northern Norway for insurgent operations against the Germans."
[Correspondence Between the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and the Presidents of the USA and the Prime Minister of Great Britain During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, Vol. I, p. 13.]
Of course, this could hardly be regarded as a second front. However,
Churchill rejected even this version of a second front, complaining about the difficulties
involved and lack of forces.
It is a fact that the first proposal on opening a second front was followed by others. It was suggested that the Allies shouldrender effective aid to us in the North, even though for a short time, where it was, beyond doubt, possible. This question remained on the agenda till June 1944, when the Allied forces landed in Normandy.
The British government claimed that it was impossible, that it was not in their power, to land a descent directly in France. On September 13, 1941, Stalin proposed that Britain should land 25-30 divisions in Arkhangelsk or bring them through Iran to the USSR's southern regions. However, Churchill was unwilling to aid the USSR with troops. He offered to replace our units in Iran or to send British troops to the Caucasus to protect Soviet oil fields. This unseemly proposal revealed the real reasons why Britain was constantly delaying the opening of a second front not only in 1941-1942, but also in 1943.
A most heated argument took place in 1942. An exchange of views was held in August 1942, when Churchill was in Moscow. Though a preliminary agreement had been reached on the matter in June 1942, when V.M. Molotov arrived by air in London, in Moscow the British prime minister said that such an operation could not be executed in the immediate future. It would be fair to say that the need for a second front was, perhaps, most acutely felt in the perilous summer of 1942.
Though the situation demanded the opening of a second front in 1942 and though agreement had actually been reached on the matter, the Allies refrained from executing this operation. This is an indisputable fact.
We foundedly believed that Great Britain with its powerful Navy could exert pressure on Nazi Germany in the North. It could have executed an operation in Varangerfjorden to put the Germans in a difficult position. The point is that their sea routes to Kirkenes and Petsamo passed through Varangerfjorden. The Soviet Naval Staff maintained that this area was particularly vulnerable.
After the heads of government of the USSR and Great Britain exchanged messages I remember asking Rear Admiral Miles about the British Admiralty's practical intentions in this respect. His cautious reply gave me to understand that the British Navy could not be expected to undertake any serious operations. The only practical aid the British rendered was several minesweepers that had been dispatched to Arkhangelsk. Being outfitted with magnetic sweeping gear they were to help assure the safety of the convoys. In addition, on July 30, British carrier-borne aircraft launched a raid on Kirkenes and Petsamo. Early in August, two British submarines-HMS Tigris
and HMS Trident-arrived in the Kola Inlet. I must say that the Navy of the "ruler of the seas" rendered rather limited aid to its fighting ally.
The talks on convoys carrying war supplies were more successful. Late in December 1941, I.M. Maiski, Soviet Ambassador to Great Britain, called on me. This was the First time I met him.
He arrived in the cruiser HMS Kent together with Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister. Defying the U-boat hazard, they arrived at Murmansk by sea. From there they reached Moscow by train. I.M. Maiski and A. Eden were taken to the battlefront near Mozhaisk. They went there immediately after our armies secured their first major success in the counteroffensive near Moscow. As the British foreign minister viewed the captured German equipment he was able to see for himself that the myth about the Wehrmacht's invincibility was illusory.
Ivan Mikhailovich colourfully (he had the gift) described his trip in a cabin aboard the Kent. The noise of the engines and the rumble of the sea did not give him a moment's rest. He was also, obviously, troubled by thoughts about U-boats. History has sad experiences on record. During the First World War Lord Horatio H. Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, also sailed for Russia in the cruiser HMS Hampshire which was sunk with all hands. One could only guess why she went down, whether she was sunk by a submarine or by a mine. It was established only later that HMS Hampshire had been sunk by a U-boat.
When Anthony Eden arrived in the USSR the Soviet government again raised the question of opening a second front. Our leaders tried to prove to the British foreign minister that with the USA's entry into the war the Allies were in a position to open a second front. However, following Winston Churchill's instructions Anthony Eden repeated time and again that Great Britain and the USA were not prepared to undertake such an operation because they did not have the forces for it yet.
In the middle of May 1942, K.A. Umanski called me over the phone and then arrived at my office. He was then working at the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. He wanted to know about our relations with the USA with respect to shipping and delivery of war supplies to the USSR. In the beginning of the war Captain 1st Grade I.A. Yegorychev was the Soviet naval attache in Washington. As our business relations expanded the personnel of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs had to deal with numerous questions bearing on Lend-Lease supplies.
I discussed shipping with several American diplomats. But I remember Admiral William H. Standley who arrived in Moscow in April 1942 particularly well.
At our meeting, Admiral Standley said he wanted to speak to me as a sailor to a sailor. The main question we looked into was the increase in the sea lift between the USA and the USSR. It was the need to reach agreement on these matters that brought Admiral Standley, the US ambassador, to my office. He was a man of medium height with a shock of grey hair. His weather-beaten rubicund complexion and military bearing showed that he was a sailor.
The ambassador came with an interpreter. An officer of our foreign relations division served as my interpreter. Having expressed satisfaction with the fact that this was a meeting of sailors, I politely inquired if he had been to the USSR before. Enlivened by memories Admiral Standley said that in his youth he served aboard an American cruiser which, together with a squadron, called at Vladivostok in 1896 on occasion of the coronation of Emperor Nikolas II. Switching over to business I asked the ambassador in what way I could be of service to him.
Admiral Standley wanted to visit Arkhangelsk, one of the ports of destination of Allied convoys. He asked me to aid him in opening a US mission there. Since Admiral Geoffrey Miles of the British Navy had missions in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, it was not at all difficult for me to render him this service.
In 1941-1943 convoys were formed at Loch Ewe, Scotland, and Scapa Flow, Scotland, and Reikjavik, Iceland.
The first few convoys comprised only 6-10 transport vessels. Starting in March 1942, they were made up of more than 25 and in some cases 30-40 transport vessels.
The convoys pursued a route from the British Isles or Iceland bypassing the island of Jan Mayen and Bear Island and therefrom to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.
The transport vessels were protected against submarines by an all-round screen of escorts. The escort screen would include destroyers, corvettes, frigates, minesweepers and antisubmarine ships. Every ship had to keep her station in the cruising order. However, if an escort ship detected a U-boat she would
leave her station to pursue it. Sometimes the pursuer would depart rather far from her station.
To protect the convoy against an attack of enemy surface ships a covering force would be formed. Sometimes there would be two covering forces: a close support (cruiser) force and distant cover made up of battleships, cruisers and sometimes aircraft carriers. The distant cover would usually follow a course parallel to that of the convoy, closer to the Norwegian coast. In another case it might be on the distant approaches to the enemy's bases in order to intercept his capital ships.
In autumn 1941, a boundary was established between the operational zone of the British Navy and that of the Northern Fleet to assure the safe passage of convoys. In the beginning it was 18 degrees and then 20 degrees East.
The British Naval Mission in the USSR had offices in Polyamoye and Arkhangelsk. All the practical questions bearing on convoys were decided by the Northern Fleet command together with the Senior British Naval Officer on the spot.
Both in Polyarnoye and Arkhangelsk the British Mission had radio stations for communication with the Admiralty, the British naval base in Iceland, ships and convoys at sea. Before a convoy sailed from Britain the mission informed the command of the Northern Fleet of its composition, the date and time of departure, the route and other essential details. The Soviet command, for its part, would inform the mission about the measures to be taken to protect and receive the convoy.
Attaching special importance to Allied supplies GHQ, Supreme Command, displayed constant interest in reliable protection of the convoys. But things did not always go off without a hitch.
During the first polar night of the war the convoys did not sustain serious losses. But with the coming of spring the days grew longer and longer. The Nazi command soon became aware of the role the USSR's external sea routes played. It started to attack the convoys with large naval and air forces. Though the losses in transport vessels increased, they did not exceed 10 per cent of the total number of ships in a convoy.
The Admiralty brought pressure to bear on Churchill, because it feared a further rise in losses. Churchill attempted to stop sending convoys to the USSR till the polar night set in. His efforts, naturally, aroused vigorous protests on the part of the Soviet side. This matter was repeatedly discussed, I repeatedly raised this question at GHQ. Proceeding from the instructions I received I would draft telegrammes to our representative in Great Britain or directly to Winston S. Churchill. These signals usually contained persistent requests to continue the delivery of cargoes by the Northern route. Despite this, every time the polar day set in the British Admiralty would practically stop sending convoys to the USSR.
It is true that in summer, when the sun did not set in the North, the losses in transport vessels soared. But the losses depended, to a considerable degree, not only on the time of the year, but also on the British admirals in command of the covering forces. At this point it would be appropriate to describe the tragic fate of Convoy PQ-17 consisting of 34 transport vessels. It sailed from Iceland on June 27, 1942. Its close escort, which protected it from submarines and the Luftwaffe, was made up of six destroyers, two antiaircraft ships, four corvettes, two submarines and seven minesweepers. A close support force of two British and two American cruisers and three destroyers under Admiral Hamilton was to protect the convoy against enemy surface ships. (The close escort was also under Admiral Hamilton.) Soviet submarines were in patrol zones on the probable routes of the German battleship Tirpitz. The latter could have sailed with other ships to attack the convoy Soviet destroyers were preparing to meet the convoy on the approaches to Murmansk.
The British Admiralty also made provision for a distant cover comprising the British battleship HMS Duke of York, the American battleship USN Washington, the aircraft carrier Victorious, two cruisers and 14 destroyers [This fleet was under Admiral Sir John Tovey's command.], which was at sea west of the convoy. Enjoying such superiority the Allied force did not really have to worry about the Tirpitz, even if she did venture out to sea. However, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord and chief of the Naval Staff, ordered all the covering forces to withdraw to the west, as soon as he received an intelligence report on the appearance of the Tirpitz.
Having received this strange order Admiral Hamilton "overfulfilled" it. He ordered the close escort that directly protected the convoy to withdraw too. The transport vessels were thus left without any protection at all. Steaming at eight-ten knots, they were sitting ducks for the U-boats and the Luftwaffe. And naturally, the enemy took full advantage of the situation. Later the masters of the merchantmen told us of the plight their slow, heavily laden ships were in. The U-boats could attack them without meeting opposition. If they were damaged, U-boats could sink them with gunfire like on a firing range in order to save their more costly torpedoes.
Twenty four out of 34 transport vessels and two rescue ships were lost. After the convoy scattered the command of the Northern Fleet took vigorous measures to locate and save the surviving transport vessels. To this end it sent all the available aircraft on reconnaissance missions and all the ships to escort the transport vessels. Finally, the surviving transport vessels being located at sea or in Novaya Zemlya harbours, were brought to Arkhangelsk under protection of Soviet ships.
The Nazi squadron which had been sent to intercept Convoy PQ-17 was sighted by the Soviet submarine K-21 under Captain 2nd Grade N.A. Lunin, Hero of the Soviet Union, on July 5. Lunin attacked it firing four torpedoes at the Tirpitz. Fearing that the squadron was discovered by British aircraft and a submarine the Hitler command ordered it to reverse its course.
Thus, though the two fleets were close to each other, they did not fight a decisive engagement.
The fate of Convoy PQ-17 was widely discussed in the foreign press. Some British authors tried to justify the actions of the British Admiralty. But in 1968 David lrving published a rather big work entitled "The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17" in which he expertly describes the events.
Though in some cases his opinions are somewhat subjective, David Irving studied a large number of recently declassified archive papers and documents to write the book.
David Irving made a curious point. When Admiral Hamilton briefed the formation and ship commanding officers, he hardly referred to the need to provide reliable protection to the convoy against enemy U-boats and the Luftwaffe. He focussed their attention mainly on trapping the Tirpitz in order to deal a blow at her. Therefore, it was decided to keep the support and covering forces at a considerable distance from the convoy. Thus, the convoy was to play the part of bait for the Nazi squadron. If the German squadron was sighted, the British were to attack the capital ships with carrier-home aircraft. But then Admiral Hamilton warned that the Allies would engage the enemy only if they enjoyed a superiority over him. Admiral Pound, First Sea Lord, disliked the idea of "trapping" the enemy. He feared the loss of capital ships. These misgivings caused the chief of the Naval Staff to forbid the battle fleet to sail east of Bear Island. Admiral Hamilton's cruiser force was allowed to proceed to that area only if an encounter with the enemy's capital ships was ruled out.
The Admiralty displayed hardly any concern about the fate of Convoy PQ-17. The Admiralty's instruction was "to get as much of the convoy through as possible and the best way to do this is to keep it moving to the eastwards even though it is suffering damage".
Proceeding from German documents Irving shows what was happening in the German squadron at the time.
Hitler gave his consent to send the capital ships to intercept the convoy, only if there were no British aircraft carriers nearby. On July 3, the Nazis did not yet know the composition of the British force. Later intelligence reported that an aircraft carrier with two battleships was sighted. But then they were lost. The Nazis did not know for sure where Admiral Tovey's force was steaming. The Nazi command hesitated. This affected the actions of the fleet. As the German ships were negotiating an inshore channel the pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Liitzow and three destroyers struck the ground and could not take part in the operation. The German fleet assembled in Al-ten Fjord as late as 1000 hours on July 4. But Hitler had not yet given his consent to undertake the operation. There was a nervous exchange between the Tirpitz, Trondheim, Kiel and Berlin. At long last the squadron set sail. But then intelligence again reported sighting British battleships (a cruiser had been mistaken for a battleship). This information caused the German admirals to be wary. Having learnt that a large British force was on the high seas and that the German squadron had been sighted by the enemy, the Nazi command ordered the Tirpitz with the entire squadron to reverse her course.
The British displayed nervousness in equal degree. David Irving writes that the Tirpitz and the other German capital and heavy ships were anchored in Alten Fjord, when Whitehall radioed to the British fleet at sea:
"Secret. Most immediate. Cruiser force withdraw to westward at high speed."
The message was sent at 2111 hours on July 4. Practically at the same time another signal was received: "Secret. Immediate. Owing to threat from surface ships convoy is to disperse and proceed to Russian ports."
The author further states that, when the First Sea Lord took his decision, he "leaned back in his leatherback chair and closed his eyes". The officers of the Naval Staff tried to remind him that the German ships were still lying-at anchor, but Sir Dudley only said:
"We have decided to scatter the convoy, and that is how it must now stay."
Thus, the fate of the convoy was decided before the Tirpitz was underway. The convoy was carrying 700 million dollars' worth of cargoes that were badly needed by the Soviet forces, when they were straining every effort in a war on a tremendous battlefront.
East of the meridian of 25 degrees the convoy was left to the mercy of fate to fall easy prey to German U-boats and the Luftwaffe. In the evening of July 4, before the convoy dispersed Nazi Heinkel-l 11 torpedo bombers launched their first attack on it. Three transport vessels were badly damaged and began to go down.
The convoy continued to make headway, while the rescue ships saved the survivors from the sinking transport vessels. When they drew near the Soviet tanker Azerbaijan which was enveloped in flames, the master flatly refused to abandon ship. David Irving expressed his admiration for the courage of the Soviet crew. To everybody's surprise the Soviet tanker which was regarded as lost caught up with the convoy in a few hours to take up her station in the order.
The big losses in transport vessels in Convoy PQ-17 were repeatedly discussed both officially and privately. As I have pointed out our Allies had no reason to avoid an encounter with the Tirpitz. If necessary, they could have engaged her. During such discussions reference was made to cases, when our fighting ships left separate transport vessels without adequate cover. Of course, from a purely military point of view circumstances sometimes compel the commanding officer to sacrifice both transport vessels and fighting ships to avoid heavier losses. But the moral and ethical aspect cannot be ignored. We invariably adhered to the principle that it is wrong to leave comrades in trouble, particularly if they are unarmed.
I reported the tragic case of Convoy PQ-17 to J.V. Stalin. He was displeased with the behaviour of the British naval command. It was inconceivable for all the fighting ships to abandon a convoy. It should be mentioned that the British command took this step though it enjoyed a tremendous superiority in forces. Stalin asked me: "Was it necessary to abandon the convoy?" I replied that as far as I knew there were no serious reasons for that. Of course, the British had reasons to be wary of German battleships, particularly after the Bismarck had sunk the Hood. But this time just caution grew over into extreme caution. Admiral Pound was unwilling to risk his capital ships for the sake of a convoy bound for the Soviet Union. It is a fact that in those days some of the Allied military leaders most reluctantly offered us aid.
Winston S. Churchill took Admiral Pound under his wing. Instead of conducting an objective investigation he took advantage of the tragic fate of Convoy PQ-17 to delay the further sending of convoys till the polar night set in. He set forth his view in a message to J.V. Stalin, dated July 18. He mentioned the difficulties involved in the passage of convoys by the Northern route. He promised to increase the supplies coming through Iran. Though this was easier for the sailors, the difficulties in delivering the cargoes to the battlefronts mounted. What made matters even worse was that more time was needed, when in war there was not a minute to spare.
On July 23, with inherent straightforwardness Stalin sent a reply to Churchill. It reads:
"The British Admiralty's order to the PQ-17 convoy to abandon the supply ships and return to Britain, and to the supply ships to disperse and make for Soviet harbours singly, without escort, is, in the view of our experts, puzzling and inexplicable. Of course, I do not think steady deliveries to Northern Soviet ports are possible without risk of loss. But then no major task can be carried out in wartime without risk or losses. You know, of course, that the Soviet Union is suffering far greater losses." [Correspondence Between the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and the Presidents of the USA and the Prime Minister of Great Britain During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, Vol. I, p. 56.]
I made these points in my meetings with Rear Admiral Miles in Moscow. And Ivan M. Maiski, our ambassador to Britain, and Rear Admiral N.M. Kharlarnov, head of Soviet Military Mission, discussed these matters with A. Eden, Admiral Pound and A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, in London.
While talks were going on in Moscow and London, precious time was being lost. It was only on September 7, that the next convoy-Convoy PQ-18-sailed from Iceland. It was made up of 40 transport vessels and 31 ships forming the escort screen. In the British operational zone the protection was inadequate. As a result the convoy lost 13 transport vessels. When the convoy reached our operational zone, the escort screen was reinforced with Soviet destroyers. In addition, air cover was provided. In our zone only one transport vessel was lost. Despite this, the British Admiralty again discontinued the sending of convoys.
The Soviet command, therefore, proposed to send to Soviet ports lone blockade runners, above all Soviet transport vessels, without protection. To provide some cover en route we sent out to sea destroyers, minesweepers and submarines. The Nazis were unwilling to intercept convoys with their surface ships and assigned this task to their U-boats and the Luftwaffe. However, by then the antiaircraft and antisubmarine weapons were far more effective. This helped reduce the losses in transport vessels to a rather low level.
During the war, 717 transport vessels put out to sea from our northern ports-Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Out of this number enemy ships and the Luftwaffe sank 90 transport vessels, including 11 Soviet merchantmen. From October 1942 to February 1943, 24 Soviet and only three Allied transport vessels sailed alone from Soviet northern ports, and from Iceland-ten Allied and three Soviet transport vessels ran the blockade. Out of 40 blockade runners six Allied and four Soviet vessels were sunk.
Even after the transport vessels reached the port of destination-Arkhangelsk or Murmansk, their ordeal was not over. The enemy went to extremes to destroy the cargoes delivered. He would launch massed air attacks, particularly on Murmansk. The engagements over the ports were sometimes just as fierce as those fought at sea. Fighters and antiaircraft artillery fought gallantly to save the transport vessels and cargoes. Even the civilian population bravely fought fires and, defying danger, helped save cargoes.
When transport vessels delivered cargoes to Arkhangelsk, they too faced serious difficulties, though of a different nature. In winter the ice would be up to a metre thick. Only powerful icebreakers could pilot transport vessels through channels they made in the ice. The Barents Sea is free from ice all year round thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In contrast to this, in the entrance to the White Sea hummock ice begins to appear in December. -In January and February it is particularly difficult to negotiate it.
When I visited Arkhangelsk early in November 1941, I saw that M.M. Dolinin, commander of the White Sea Flotilla, was mainly worried about preparations for bringing the transport vessels with valuable war materials to the jetties and unloading
them in winter. He rightly concentrated his efforts on refitting the available icebreakers, and arming them for possible engagements.
Though it was only the beginning of November, I saw ice flowing down the Northern Dvina River as I looked out of the window of the staff building. The waters were carrying some of the ice-floes rather swiftly to the estuary. Everybody saw that the ice conditions would grow worse with every passing day.
Ivan D. Papanin, polar explorer, was appointed authorized representative of the State Defence Committee in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. It was he who had to brave all the difficulties the ice created and help cope with them.
The sailors of the British navy and merchant fleet lived up to their duty with courage and displayed competence. During the war I heard about their daring exploits both from our Northern Fleet sailors and commodores of convoys-real old British salts.
I appreciated the desire of the British sailors I met to share their experiences and impressions after their trying passage to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk. I keenly listened to their stories I could not help admiring these men who risked their lives to deliver to us some fighting equipment we needed so badly. Though my memory has failed to retain their names, I still remember the routes they pursued and separate engagements they fought at sea. Many of the convoys were formed at Halifax, Canada, where the transport vessels were assembled. Before sailing the masters would be briefed. Everyone would know his station in the order and would prepare for a long and dangerous voyage.
Maintaining the speed of the slowest vessel two or three dozen merchantmen would cross the Atlantic to Iceland under protection of fighting ships. The U-boat hazard on this part of the route was not very great. As a rule, there would be no losses on the way. After several days' rest and, perhaps, minor repairs the convoy would depart from Iceland prepared to beat off the attacks not only of German naval forces, but also of the Luftwaffe. Passage in summer, when the sun does not set or sets for a short time, when the night is only a few hours of dusk in the high latitudes, was particularly dangerous. A convoy had a better chance to avoid detection in the winter months. However, the ice would compel it to steer closer to the German-held Norwegian coast. Both in summer and winter several dozen slow merchantmen heavily laden with valuable cargoes were tempting targets both for U-boats and the Luftwaffe, though they were, perhaps, strongly protected by warships. As a rule, several transport vessels would fall victims to Doenitz's "wolf packs" or Goering's Luftwaffe pirates.
The crews of British and American transport vessels were least of all responsible for the policies the heads of their governments pursued. They were our sincere allies in the war against Nazism.
Summing up, I would like to point out that the Allied aid in armaments,
means of transportation and foodstuffs was, of course, of definite importance to us.
However, it should be mentioned that Allied deliveries accounted only for a small share of
the USSR's needs in war. The volume of these deliveries was incomparable with the war
effort of the Soviet people who shouldered the main burden of the struggle against Nazi
Germany and its satellites. I shall not quote any figures, because they have appeared in
many publications. But it is necessary to bring this point to light, because bourgeois
falsifiers of the history of the Second World War have continued to exaggerate the
importance of Allied wartime deliveries to our country.
The battlefronts needed the Allied war supplies, so GHQ would frequently
ask for information on the date the next convoy was expected to arrive and on the cargoes
it was bringing. As far as these matters were concerned my trip to Polyarnoye was well
Having made a report on the situation Arseni G. Golovko, commander of the Northern Fleet, showed me, with obvious pride, the command posts of the fleet, submarine brigade and the patrol forces. I must say that he was rightly proud of what he showed me. The fleet command post was built and specially equipped in a granite cliff. During air raids the commands of all formations could work without interference. The cliffs also helped conceal the submarines, destroyers and craft, and to a certain degree served as a cover for them.
The fleet staff and the political department were housed in the same building. I must say that they worked like a well matched team. This was above all due to the fact that the leadership of the fleet made up a splendid outfit.
During the war our inshore routes in the region of the Kola Inlet, White Sea and the Arctic played a tremendous role. The point is that in the North the network of railways and highways was poorly developed. It was necessary to deliver rather large quantities of goods, particularly in wartime. In many cases communications with the remote Northern regions were maintained only by sea. And sea transport was used to bring in supplies of food and equipment and carry the local products from there. In time of war the Northern Sea Route was used for delivery of imported goods from the Far East to Arkhangelsk.
We were always short of shipping, though there were 650 units in the North. But, in addition to full-fledged transport vessels, they included icebreakers, self-propelled scows, tug boats, and fishing trawlers. To make matters worse nearly half of the vessels needed repairs and adaptation. The capacity of the repair yards was small. And the fighting ships and transport vessels of the Allies enjoyed priority. The cargo handling capacity of the ports was also small. Only the ports of Arkhangelsk, Severodvinsk and Murmansk were adequately outfitted with loading facilities and provided with considerable storage space. There being only two icebreakers in the beginning of the war, the ice conditions seriously interfered with navigation on the Arctic Ocean and the White Sea.
It would be fair to say that before the war the People's Commissariat of the Navy had underestimated the role of the sea routes in the North. That is why we neglected the elaboration of measures for their protection. As a result, we were compelled to establish more naval bases and airfields and to assign ships for escort duty.
Rear Admiral Ivan D. Papanin, chief of the Northern Sea Route Directorate and authorised representative of the State Defence Committee, made a big contribution to the organisation of sea transportation in the North.
Even in time of peace the Northern Sea Route Directorate needed aid from the People's Commissariat of the Navy. The Navy in turn cooperated with the personnel of the Northern Sea Route Directorate before the war, when it had to transfer fighting ships through the Arctic seas to reinforce the Soviet Pacific Fleet. In 1942 several fighting ships were transferred from the Pacific to reinforce the Northern Fleet.
In that region it was the White Sea Flotilla, a component of the Northern Fleet, that protected the internal and external routes. The White Sea Flotilla was formed in August 1941. They comprised formations and units of the White Sea Naval Base. The first commander was Rear Admiral M.M. Dolinin.
In October 1941, he was replaced by Vice Admiral G.A. Stepanov. The straits of Novaya Zemlya, the ports and polar stations in the islands of Novaya Zemlya and in the Kara Sea were defended by sailors, fliers and coastal defence batteries.
When the Blitzkrieg on the Eastern Front, including the Murmansk Sector, proved abortive, the Nazis conducted active operations against our shipping on the Northern routes. Their U-boats appeared in the eastern part of the Barents Sea. They went as far as the Yugorski Shar and Matochkin Shar Straits. In January-March 1942, the Germans managed to avoid detection when they laid minefields in the northern part of the White Sea and on the approaches to the Kola Inlet. Starting in March 1942, the Luftwaffe launched fierce raids on Murmansk.
But the enemy could not stop our ships for a single day. It was then that we expanded our forces in the North. The White Sea Flotilla received a brigade of minesweepers. We took over a certain number of ships from civilian departments. Another naval base was created. More coastal defence and antiaircraft batteries were installed, particularly at the entrance to the White Sea and at the straits of the Novaya Zemlya islands. The Navy also equipped "waiting" harbours, where transport vessels or convoys could take cover, if threatened by Nazi surface ships or U-boats.
However, the most effective protection to transport vessels was provided by fighting ships. Merchantmen carrying more valuable cargoes would be accompanied by an all-round escort screen. It would include hunter-killer groups of ships whose purpose was to detect and destroy U-boats. The escort screen and hunter-killer groups would accomplish their missions in cooperation with the air arm. As a rule, such operations were conducted in the beginning and end of the Arctic navigation period. The ships would be escorting icebreakers and transport vessels from Arkhangelsk to the Arctic and back.
On August 24, 1942, Captain G.O. Maund, Senior British Naval Officer in Arkhangelsk, communicated to the Northern Fleet command that, according to British intelligence sources, several days before the German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Scheer had sailed from West Fjord to disappear in an unknown direction. Since her departure, she was not yet located anywhere.
The Nazi command hoped to disrupt our shipping in the Arctic in the summer navigation season in 1942. The enemy wanted to show that, though the Northern Sea Route was a thousand miles behind the battlefront, it was not immune to attacks of the German fleet. The operation was planned for the latter half of August-early September. That was not accidental either. During this period several convoys were to pass through the Kara Sea in both directions. Japanese intelligence informed the enemy in advance about a caravan of ships (unescorted convoy) that sailed from Provideniye Harbour in a westward direction early in July. The caravans were led by regular icebreakers and cargo icebreakers. The Nazis hoped to wipe out with a single blow not only the transport vessels with their valuable cargoes, but also the entire icebreaker fleet in the Western Sector of the Arctic. Enemy surface raiders intended to lay mines in Soviet waters, bombard the ports and harbours in Dikson Island, Naryan Mar and Am-derma, and to sink Soviet Fishing vessels. The surface raiders were supported by submarines and reconnaissance aircraft.
The operation started on August 10, when enemy U-boats put out to sea to proceed to their patrol zones. In the morning of August 16, the heavy cruiser (pocket battleship) Admiral Scheer drew out of Narvik.
On August 19, the Admiral Scheer reached Point Zhelaniye. In the morning of August 25, the heavy cruiser (pocket battleship) proceeded to Yermak Bank. At about 1200 hours the Nazis sighted the masts of the cargo icebreaker Sibiryakov which was heading for Novaya Zemlya with a cargo for a weather station. Increasing her speed the raider started to close in with the Sibiryakov. At 1218 hours the latter radioed to Dikson Island that she was being pursued by an enemy ship. Half an hour later the Nazi ship opened fire at the cargo icebreaker. The Sibiryakov which was armed with two obsolescent 76-mm and 45-rnm guns returned fire. At the same time she tried to hide behind a smoke screen. However, she was hit with heavy shells, caught fire and started to go under.
As soon as Captain Maund's information was verified the sea operations staff in the Western Sector of the Arctic warned all the ships at sea and the shore stations about an enemy raider appearing there. In the Arctic, radio communications worked effectively. Although the ships' radio stations were not permitted to work in radio silence zones, all the ships listened in to receive messages from the radio centre in Dikson Island at definite hours. This enabled the ships to be abreast of the developments. The fliers of the Polar Air Unit would shadow our ships from time to time. At the staff in Dikson Island an officer would meticulously move on the chart the flags with the names of ships and report to Moscow the position of each ship and the situation in the Arctic ports. The operators at the radio centre in Dikson Island and other polar stations were on watch round the clock. Putting on their headphones, they would try to identify in the chaos of sounds filling the air the call signals of a vessel in order to get an idea of what was going on the Northern Sea Route and outside it.
After sinking the Sibiryakov the captain of the raider decided to bombard Dikson Island, to destroy the port and the radio centre. His aim was to deprive the Northern Sea Route of its main base in the Western Sector of the Arctic. But a lockout at Novy Dikson post sighted the Admiral Scheer in time. The crew of the Nazi pocket battleship was surprised by fire from a coastal six-inch gun.
The defenders of Dikson Island fearlessly engaged a formidable enemy. In a battle with the Nazi raider several members of the crew of the patrol vessel Dezhnev were killed.
When the Supreme Commander-in-Chief learnt about the appearance of German warships on the Northern Sea Route, he severely reproached me for this. He said that enemy ships were passing "right under Golovko's nose" (i. e. in close proximity of the Northern Fleet's main base). I felt I deserved it. We knew from the experience of the First World War and the recent past that German admirals tried to execute surprise operations of precisely this kind.
However, the Admiral Scheer did not win any laurels in the raid in Arctic waters. Operation Wunderland actually proved to be a failure. The raider did not accomplish her mission which was to sink our transport vessels. No important installation was put out of service in Dikson Island. The raider was unable to disrupt sea transport service on the Northern Sea Route. Her only "prize" was the Sibiryakov.
Late in August 1942, the Luftwaffe and Nazi destroyers began to lay mines on the approaches to Arkhangelsk, in proximity of Point Kanin Nos, the island of Kolguyev and the north-west coast of Novaya Zemlya. U-boats laid magnetic and acoustic mines at the western entrance of the Matochkin Shar and Yugorski Shar straits.
It is true that in 1942 the enemy threatened some of our internal routes in the Arctic. However, the Nazis were unable seriously to hamper our traffic in the Arctic, not to speak of paralyzing it altogether. During the first period of the war the transport vessels made over 1,300 runs. It was then that we lost seven transport vessels, seven escort ships and ten auxiliaries.
In 1943, the situation on the internal Arctic routes far from improving grew more tense. In the latter half of February the enemy started vigorously to employ the Luftwaffe.
The experience of the early war years showed that the internal routes in the Arctic were of great importance to us. The fact that we failed to provide adequate protection for our shipping there was a grave miscalculation of ours in the training of the Northern Fleet before the war. In addition, it obviously did not have enough ships.
At the same time it should be pointed out that the small losses we suffered in warships and transport vessels on the internal Arctic routes were due to effective countermeasures. It is a pity that they had been taken with some delay. Our small losses were also due to serious blunders on the part of the enemy command.
Enemy Drive Stemmed
In summer 1942, the Nazis launched an offensive on Stalingrad and the
Caucasus. The Caucasian coast with its ports was endangered. The Germans were eager to
take Novorossiisk in order to supply their armies by sea after they started advancing
southward along the coast, as they had planned.
Though it appeared that before this the Black Sea Fleet played no noticeable role in the defence of the Caucasus, everybody saw that its part here was of no small importance. The Black Sea Fleet prevented the enemy from invading the Caucasus from the sea and from using its ports and inshore routes which he needed badly to support the Army's offensive on land.
When I returned to Moscow on May 12, GHQ was anxiously watching the developments in the Kerch Peninsula. The sad outcome was not difficult to foresee. GHQ also displayed concern for the organisation of defences in the Taman Peninsula which would stop the enemy's advance to Tuapse and Novorossiisk.
GHQ attached special importance to the latter. During those painful days of struggle for the Caucasus J.V. Stalin said to me:
"The Germans should be prevented from taking Novorossiisk".
A Novorossiisk Defence Area was established on August 17. It was made up of the Forty Seventh Army of the North Caucasian Front, ships and units of the Azov Naval Flotilla, the Temryuk, Kerch and Novorossiisk Naval Bases and a composite air group of 112 Fighting aircraft. Major General G.P. Kotov, commander of the Forty Seventh Army, was appointed commander of the Novorossiisk Defence Area, and Rear Admiral S.G. Gorshkov, commander of the Azov Naval Flotilla, was appointed his deputy for naval forces and member of the Area Military Council.
We knew from experience that coastal defence artillery would play a highly important role in the defence of the base.
Late in August, the enemy was already on the immediate approaches to Novorossiisk. The ships and units of the Black Sea Fleet fought side by side with the Forty Seventh Army. The fliers beat off the Luftwaffe attacks. Air engagements were being constantly fought over the town.
Paying a heavy price in manpower the enemy managed to take practically the whole of the town. We retained only the suburbs-the waterfront of Tsemesskaya Harbour. This was precisely what prevented the Nazis from using the port of Novorossiisk - the biggest one in the northern part of the Caucasian coast. Not a single enemy ship entered the harbour. The Nazis did not feel safe in the town either, because all the neighbourhoods were covered by our artillery fire.
The fight for Novorossiisk was a sort of turning point for the Black Sea Fleet. In February 1943, a descent was landed in Tsemesskaya Harbour near Novorossiisk. It played a big role in the liberation of the town. It was followed by several other big descents the fleet landed to liberate our naval bases.
Both sides fought fiercely for the town from the 20 August till practically the end of December 1942, when the Germans attempted to take Tuapse. The seizure of Tuapse was planned as a part of Operation Edelweiss (overrunning the Caucasus). The Nazis dreamed of getting across the Great Caucasus to advance to Tbilisi. They hoped to use Tuapse for bringing in supplies for their army by sea.
The enemy managed to get as far as Goitkh Pass which was the gate to Tuapse. But our forces firmly held their ground. And not only the land forces. In the crucial days in October 1942, all the party members of the town were mobilised. Late in October, the Germans were buried back to the other bank of the River Pshish which flows beyond Goitkh Pass. Admiral I.S. Isakov, deputy People's Commissar of the Navy, was severely wounded in the defence of Tuapse. He was member of the Military Council of the Transcaucasian Front at the time. On October 4, 1942, that fatal day, Ivan Stepanovich sent the following message to me from Tbilisi:
"Departed with the front commander for Tuapse to organise an operation on land in proximity of Khadyzhenskaya." The cars of Admiral I.S. Isakov and General of the Army Ivan V. Tyulenev, commander of the Transcaucasian Front, were near Tuapse, when a flight of six Messerschmitt fighters sighted them. The planes dived at the cars. Ivan Stepanovich was wounded by a large bomb splinter in the left leg. He was urgently evacuated to Sochi, where his leg was amputated. However, his life being still in danger, I.I. Djenelidze, head surgeon of the fleet, was quickly dispatched to Sochi.
While in hospital, Ivan Stepanovich sent a telegramme to J.V. Stalin and me. He informed us of the grave condition he was in and requested, in the event of death, to name a new destroyer after him. I had hardly had time to read the telegramme, when Stalin called me over the phone (he seldom did that). He asked me: "Have you received Isakov's message?" I said that I did and that the fleet's head surgeon had been sent to him. "Send him a reply straight away." He then explained to me what should be in it. In a few minutes I read over the telephone the telegramme I drafted. It read:
"To: Admiral Isakov. Sochi. Do not lose heart. Stand firm. The doctors say you will recover. Your wife is on her way to you by plane. In the event of a tragic outcome the best destroyer of the Black Sea Fleet will be named Admiral Isakov. We wish you health." "Who is to sign it?" "You, Comrade Stalin."
"No," he said, "let both of us sign it: Stalin, Kuznetsov." The life of Ivan Stepanovich was saved. He continued to work fruitfully for the Navy for many more years.
I thought a lot about this distinguished personality. I turned over many events in my mind, which occurred during a period of many years, when we served together. We shared a common desire to do our best to develop and strengthen our Navy. Ivan Stepanovich was a man of high culture, energy and diligence. He made a big contribution to the upbuilding of the Soviet Navy.
The summer and autumn of 1942 were a period of trying experience. The
German war machine was still powerful. We had a hard time forcing it to go astern. The
Germans had enough forces to launch a sweeping summer offensive in 1942. Their armies
reached the Caucasus and engaged us in street fighting in Stalingrad.
Just like the critical weeks of the Battle of Moscow in October 1941, the defence of Sevastopol and Odessa, and the 900-day siege of Leningrad these months have left a deep imprint on the memory of the people.
In July 1941, the People's Commissariat of the Navy submitted to the State Defence Committee a proposal for forming a training detachment on the Volga. Its purpose was to train ratings for the fighting fleets in the quiet conditions of the remote rear. When the Germans started their onslaught on Moscow in October the training detachment was transformed into a Volga Naval Flotilla. It comprised seven gunboats (converted river craft), 15 armoured boats, close to 30 minesweepers and two floating batteries.
This shows that way back in 1941 both the State Defence Committee and GHQ realised the strategic role of the Volga River as a big inland waterway. As the battlefront drew closer to the Volga in 1942, it was clear that the waterway would be used for transportation of large quantities of supplies. But none of us could conceive that a short time from then the enemy would undertake a sweeping offensive in the direction of the Volga River and that the Volga Naval Flotilla would not only assure the movement of ships, but also take a direct part in the Battle of Stalingrad.
German reconnaissance planes appeared over the Great Russian river in June. They presaged grave danger from the air. And indeed the Luftwaffe started to lay mines in the channel in July. Along the entire stretch of the river from Saratov to Astrakhan people would hear the sinister roar of engines in the air and observe mines being dropped in darkness.
This was a serious threat to shipping. To fight the German electromagnetic mine hazard you had to have special sweeps. The minesweepers had to be degaussed. We had no facilities for this on the Volga. We quickly converted a couple of dozen wooden river craft and barges and equipped them as minesweepers.
In July, the direction of the enemy's effort was already evident. His forces in the big bend of the Don were attacking in the direction of Stalingrad. In a relatively brief space of time the Nazis laid up to 350 mines in the Volga. We were not always able quickly to neutralise them. This constituted a threat to the traffic on the river. The most tense month was August. We established 500 lockout posts to watch the laying of mines. Several dozen armed ships and craft swept the existing channels round the clock or explored alternate channels to ensure the passage of freight and passenger ships. These tasks were being accomplished with difficulty. In addition, Luftwaffe bombers started to attack vessels in ports and en route. Cargo ships had to be formed into convoys which were protected by antiaircraft ships. They could no longer travel on their own as in the past.
D.D. Rogachyov, Volga Naval Flotilla commander, was constantly devising measures to assure the safe passage of ships along the vital Volga route. But the enemy attacks mounted. The sailors indomitably beat of enemy attacks defying the danger they were exposed to. It was precisely then that close to 60 different vessels were lost as a result of Luftwaffe bombing. About 20 vessels struck mines.
GHQ, Supreme Command, placed the Volga Naval Flotilla under the operational control of the Stalingrald Front. The command of the Stalingrad Front supported the flotilla with fighter aircraft. So-called ambush airfields were most effectively employed by Soviet fighters to protect the river vessels against Luftwaffe attacks.
Armoured boats were used as escort vessels for river convoys.
The threat to Stalingrad heightened with alarming rapidity. In this context the command of the Stalingrad Front demanded that the flotilla should provide all the artillery support to the Army units it could. This was essential for those fighting on the defence positions. The thrust of the German Fourth Panzer Army from Kotelnikovo and Abganerovo made it necessary to concentrate the ships and craft of the naval flotilla south of the city, where the Soviet 64th and 57th Armies were defending their positions.
The battle for the city itself started to rage on September 13, 1942. Acting on instructions from the Naval Staff the command of the flotilla proposed to the Military Council of the Front to concentrate a certain number of its ships and craft close to the northern boundary of the city where the enemy was vigorously attacking. This proposal was accepted.
From then on the ships of the flotilla supported the land forces with gun fire. The fire of naval guns was highly effective. Of course, a lot depended on adjustment.
In carrying troops, combat equipment and other war supplies across the Volga during the Battle of Stalingrad the officers and men of the flotilla displayed courage and heroism which was equal to that of the defenders of the city. It would be no exaggeration to say that in September-October the fate of Stalingrad depended on the transportation of troops and supplies from the east bank to the city and the flanks of our armies. It is true that the bulk of the traffic across the river was handled by the combat engineers of the front. But they could not have accomplished this task without the river shipping lines and the fighting ships and craft of the flotilla. In his book Beginning of the March Vassili I. Chuikov, commander of the Sixty Second Army that defended the city, wrote:
"It filled our hearts with pride to watch the ships and craft of the Volga Naval Flotilla force their way to the army berths through the ice floes."
The battleworthiness of General V. I. Chuikov's Sixty Second Army wholly depended on the uninterrupted supply of ammunition and arrival of reinforcements from the other side of the river. In those days the enemy went to extremes to thwart these deliveries. The flotilla for its part was doing its utmost to assure them. All sorts of vessels were employed for transportation, including fighting ships, craft and tugs.
While the Battle of Stalingrad was raging some 120,000 officers and men, over 13,000 tons of cargoes, 1,925 crates of mortar shells and more than 400 motor vehicles were carried across the river.
Of course, this does not exhaust the entire list of cargoes delivered to the battlefront in Stalingrad. Here is another eloquent figure. All the ships and craft made more than 35,000 runs across the Volga. This is another feat of heroism performed by the combat engineers, civilian crews of river craft and the officers and men of the flotilla. All the military leaders, including the fronts commander, directly contributed to the delivery of manpower and supplies. All the ships and craft of the flotilla, and also the vessels and barges of the Volga Shipping Lines carried men and supplies for the battlefront.
The enemy kept the entire channel at Stalingrad under fire. That was why the crews had to take advantage of the hours of darkness. The craft and river steamboats would emerge from the creeks of the Akhtuba River without being detected by the enemy. But, as a rule, they were unable to approach the city jetties unobserved. In most cases the enemy would fire flares to sight them. And then he would precipitate a wall of fire on them. Though the fighting ships would try to neutralise the enemy's weapon emplacements and batteries, this was a formidable task. The ships would force their way through one barrage after another. The enemy would try to hit the ships in the middle of the river.
Armoured boats showed the best performance out of all the other ships and craft the river naval flotillas employed in close cooperation with Army units. These shallow draught craft were armoured. This made them well suited for close support of Army units engaged in operations along rivers or for carrying troops across rivers.
Though monitors were armed with powerful ordnance, they were not employed as frequently as the 76-mm turret guns and heavy machine guns of the armoured boats. They were designed for use at a close distance from the bank. The operations conducted on rivers required such "river tanks", i.e. small but highly mobile craft capable of engaging tanks on the bank and standing up to their fire. Armoured boats easily avoided the fire of heavy guns with the help of manoeuvre. They could close in with a target and fire at it at practically point blank range. To put it in a nutshell, armoured boats were general purpose craft for warfare on rivers.
We felt a need for armoured boats already in the first few months of the war. Several factories received orders for such craft. But there were difficulties in providing them with gun turrets and armour. The need for tanks being extremely acute, this made it impossible to supply the Navy with Soviet-made armour. I repeatedly visited V.A. Malyshev who was in charge of tank production during the war. He would usually say:
"If our plants manage to produce some in excess of the planned quantity, I shall give you some armour. I answer for the output of tanks with my own life."
Despite all the difficulties, we managed to equip the armoured boats with tank turrets.
At the final stage of the war, when the Army was rapidly advancing, the river naval flotillas rendered serious services to it. Everybody said that armoured boats were the best troop accompanying craft. It was not fortuitous that they fought on the Dnieper and even in the upper reaches of the Danube, the Vistula, the Oder and the Spree. When the Kwantung Army was routed, they were used on the Amur, the Sungari and the Ussuri Rivers.
In the battle of Stalingrad sailors fought not only in the ships and craft of the flotilla, but, just like in the Battle of Moscow, in the ranks of marine brigades, regiments and composite detachments. Quite a few sailors of replacement companies and battalions entered regular army units. Close to 20,000 sailors were in the ranks of the Second Guards Army under General Rodion Y. Malinovski, which arrived at the Stalingrad Front from the reserve of GHQ, Supreme Command.
It was in the Battle of Stalingrad that armoured boats first employed rocket mortars.
This was not fortuitous, because the Navy tested rocket guns (prototypes of rocket mortars) mounted on craft of the Black Sea Fleet long before the war. We were looking for ways to compensate our shortage of big ships. However, more advanced rocket mortars which were smaller and lighter appeared only in the early months of the war. The ordnance department of the People's Commissariat of the Navy proposed to install them on armoured boats to employ them in river warfare. That was how the Katyusha (rocket) mortars appeared on the Volga, at the walls of Stalingrad.
Literature on the history of the war and war memoirs have expressed a high opinion of the feats of valour the officers and men of the Navy performed in the Battle of Stalingrad. In his memoirs Vassili Chuikov, former commander of the Sixty Second Army, writes:
"A lot has been said about the heroic exploits of the sailors of the Volga River Naval Flotilla. I would like to add that their heroic deeds were equal to the most illustrious feats performed in the great battle."
The Soviet forces suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Stalingrad. However, they not only held their ground on the bank of the great Russian River Volga, but also dealt a crushing blow at Hitler's war machine.
The victory at Stalingrad expedited the liberation of the temporarily occupied Soviet territories and brought closer the end of the Second World War both in the West and East.
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