Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dangers Fore or Aft

The Murmansk Run

After Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the dynamic of the Second World War changed. Britain no longer stood alone and without allies against the Nazis; the enemy of her enemies became her friend, at least until 1945.

But Stalin’s Russia, despite its size and population, was ineffectual and vulnerable due to more than twenty years of depredations by the Communists. Stalin had the manpower, but was unable was unable to supply his war effort with adequate arms and equipment. He was desperate for help from the capitalists.

The problem for Britain — and for the United States after Pearl Harbor — was how to get supplies to the Soviet Union. The Nazis’ rapid advance through Eastern Europe closed off all possible routes except for two. One was a rail line running from the head of the Persian Gulf through the Caucasus into Russia, but materiel could not be moved quickly enough by that route for it to be viable.

The other route was known as the Murmansk Run. It was possible, even in the dead of winter, for Allied merchant ships to set sail from Iceland or northern Scotland, cross the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea, and round the North Cape of Norway to reach the Russian ports of Archangel (during the ice-free months) and Murmansk (all year round).

Starting in the late summer of 1941, British, Canadian, and eventually American merchant ships, along with their naval escorts, transported massive quantities of arms, equipment, and supplies to the Soviet Union via the long and dangerous route through the Arctic to Murmansk and Archangel. Without this enormous logistical operation the Soviet war effort might well have collapsed. The disappearance of the Eastern Front was strategically unthinkable, so the death trap of the Murmansk convoys had to continue.

Ships on the Murmansk Run veered as far north as they could, pressing close against the limits of the polar pack ice to try to minimize the danger of enemy attacks. The Germans committed a substantial portion of their naval forces to defend against a possible Allied invasion of Norway, and also used them against the merchant convoys on their way to Russia. U-boats and destroyers based in the fjords of northern Norway attacked and sank as many of the supply ships as possible. During the Arctic summer, when there was daylight for twenty-four hours a day, any ship that entered the range of the Germans could expect no surcease from attack for the rest of the journey around North Cape.

The Murmansk Run

The Second World War offered no shortage of horrific ways to die in battle, but the Murmansk Run was one of the worst. Depending on which sources are consulted, between one in fifteen and one in eight of the merchant ships and their escorts failed to return to port. The environment was as harsh as human beings can be forced to endure, with intense cold, fierce storms, and an icy sea in which a floating sailor could survive for no more than a few minutes.

Not only that, ships were under absolutely strict orders to maintain full speed, no matter what. There could be no turning around to pick up any men who fell overboard. If a ship hit a mine or took a torpedo, it could not expect help from any other ships in the convoy. There were no stops allowed before Murmansk.

The men who never came back from the Barents Sea were not just the sailors of the Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy. The ships carrying essential materiel to the Russians were British, Canadian, and American merchant vessels in service of the war effort, and the brave men who went to the bottom with them were civilian heroes who served their country as fully as anyone in the military.
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The toll on Allied shipping was enormous, but it was especially damaging to the British. Merchant ships were the blood and bones and sinews of the British Empire, and the damage done by the Germans, both in the Arctic and elsewhere, could never be repaired. The British effectively consigned a large part of their capital stock to a watery grave — from a practical point of view, it was the fiscal equivalent of towing barges of gold bars up to the frozen north and sinking them in the Barents Sea.

Britain’s leaders knew what they were doing. They realized that their actions would likely spell the end of the British Empire. They knew that the capital losses they were sustaining could never be repaired, but they went through with it all anyway. Defeating the Nazis was simply more important.

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I told the story above in order to introduce a song by Al Stewart. I haven’t featured it before now because the album which contains it had been impossible to obtain until recently.

“Murmansk Run” is from the 1980 album 24 Carrots, which was out of print for many years, but has now been re-released:

Murmansk Run
by Al Stewart

Your father sailed on the Murmansk run
To guide the flocks of the ships home one by one
Grey beneath the Arctic sun
Or the glow of Northern Lights

I see you have his photograph
His eyes are watching for dangers fore or aft
Trading days beneath the sun
For the cold and wintry nights of the Murmansk run

He never did come home to you
It’s long forgotten, a childhood dream or two
But something of the cold got through
And it lingers in your eyes

On days like these you hear the wind
And feel the chill of the ice floes closing in
Trading days beneath the sun
For the cold and wintry nights of the Murmansk run

Save our souls, river of darkness over me
Save our souls, lost on the dark uncharted sea

Now you hide yourself from view
You seem to find it an easy thing to do
Trading days beneath the sun
For the cold and wintry nights of the Murmansk run

Save our souls, river of darkness over me
Save our souls, lost on the dark uncharted sea

The lyrics above actually comprise only the first half of a two-part song called “Murmansk Run/Ellis Island”. “Ellis Island” is a change of topic, a look at another group of people who made a perilous sea crossing.

Follow the link to the lyrics if you want to read what Al Stewart has to say about the wretched refuse who opened the golden door at Ellis Island.


Whiskey said...

I'd take issue with the idea that it was the ships that sank that sank the British Empire.

Ships are just capital equipment. Which can be replaced. With newer, faster, more efficient ships hopefully as technology advances.

Rather the huge expansion of American ship-building for trade (the Liberty Ships), the loss of merchant seamen who could NOT be replaced easily, and just as important the loss of European and Asian trade for the better part of a decade after the war, as economies only slowly rebuilt, along with the knowledge that the Colonial powers were waning and waiting to be defeated.

After WWII the anti-Colonial forces with unlimited Soviet/Chinese backing and facing a tired, poor, and already defeated European powers with a populace simply craving peace at any price, knew that victory was absolutely inevitable.

Whiskey said...

But good points on the tremendous will to keep fighting to defeat Hitler.

The men on those runs were terribly brave.

Baron Bodissey said...

Whiskey --

What you say is true, but it's also true that the Brits took a capital hit from the war that killed their empire.

They emptied their treasury, converted all their gold, to pay for the war. When they needed more, they went into debt to the USA.

After the war we were determined -- from the motive of anti-colonialism, perhaps left over from 1776 -- to compel the British to divest themselves of the rest of their empire. Our arm-twisting (concerning the rescheduling of the debt, which took them more than 50 years to pay off) helped bring that about.

Read a full history of the aftermath of the war, or of the British Empire. You'll find it all in there.

Yorkshireminer said...

Thank you Baron,
for you excellent explanation, I cannot fault it. I would just like to add to it and elucidate it.

The British government had always had a short fall in it current account from somewhere in the 1870s the short fall was always made up and exceeded by the return on capital from our investments overseas and the carrying trade. At one time 60% of all the worlds trade was carried in British shipping. These two pillars of the British economy were literally destroyed during the war. After the war we were literally hoping around on one leg instead of standing firm on three. We tried to convert our industry to peacetime production and at the same time retool it for exports while maintaining our commitments abroad. We were on our knees and were not help by the conditions imposed on us by the American loan making the currency convertible after a certain time and fixing our exchange rate, also getting rid of imperial preferences. Beggars can't be choosers. It was very much touch and go, we might have made it if the icy blizzard of 1947 had not shut the countries economy down. Coal which was pilling up at the Pit heads could not be moved to the steel mill 15 miles away. The blast furnaces cooled and it was an 8 month job to get them back in order again. We lost nearly a year of production and we couldn't make it up. We began shedding our overseas commitments, like clothes on a hot day, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. America had to take up the slack. If you want to know the reason why we handed over the problem of Palestine to the U.N. now you know.

We did not sink but we slowly subsided our of the ranks of the Great powers during 1947. We were a pale shadow of our former selfs in 1948. We did stand by most of the commitments we made, and we paid off the last installment on the war loans in December last year. I still think it was a good bargain.

Deep Regards

Yorkshire Miner

YoelB said...

There's a terrific website (terrific in terms of content, not graphics) at
It's the site for info on the US Merchant Marine. I've met Dan Horodysky, the man who put it together. It is a true labor of love. Spend some time there and spread the word.

Arcane said...

Starting in the late summer of 1941, British, Canadian, and eventually American merchant ships, along with their naval escorts, transported massive quantities of arms, equipment, and supplies to the Soviet Union via the long and dangerous route through the Arctic to Murmansk and Archangel.

There is no "eventually." It should be noted that the first American warship was lost off of Iceland escorting American, Canadian, and British resupply ships, prior to the U.S. entering World War II: it was the USS Reuben James and she was torpedoed by a German u-boat on October 31, 1941, nearly a month and a half before the U.S. officially entered the war.

It should also be noted that American merchant ships with Merchant Marine crews, along with many American owned ships with civilian crews, were fighting and dying from late 1940 on, long before the U.S. officially entered the war. In fact, U.S. Merchant Marine sailors during WWII had the highest casualty rate of any service: 1 of every 26 died.

Baron Bodissey said...

Arcane --

I appreciate the correction. It's good to have additional information from someone who really knows the topic.