The Importance of Allies: The Arctic Convoys of World War II

As I read about the heroic contributions of the many, many Armenians who served in World War II, including 20,000 in the U.S. military, I think of just how indebted we are to our grandparents and great grandparents.  While we have all read about the most famous battles and generals, winning the war required heroic efforts by many people, not just the most renowned.

On March 14, 2020, President Trump signed the law authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for the American merchant mariners in honor of their bravery and contribution to the Allied victory 75 years ago.  Our merchant mariners suffered the highest per capita casualty rate in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, with one mariner out of every 26 lost.  Of the 250,000 merchant mariners deployed, an estimated 8,300 mariners lost their lives, and another 12,000 were wounded.  These sailors were incredibly brave, and made a critical contribution to the Allied war effort.  One of the most dangerous routes they sailed to supply vital war materiel to the Soviet military was the “Murmansk Run, also known by the sailors as the “Suicide Run.”  Altogether, more than 100 Allied ships in these Artic Convoys – with over 3,000 men on board – were lost by the war’s end.

The American sailors included Armenian-Americans like Harold Bogigian, who joined the US Navy at age 18 and was assigned to the merchant ship SS John Stevenson as a radioman. Bogigian explained that the merchant ships were pretty slow and made easy targets, so the US Navy provided guns, gunners, a radioman and a signalman and they traveled a zigzag course to avoid detection by the Germans.  When there was action, Bogigian would record it in the newspaper he wrote for his fellow sailors, the “Gun Crew News.”  He says the most hazardous trip he ever took was to Murmansk in the winter of 1944.  The ship’s commander, Ismail Thomas Higgs, recalled that the convoy had 60 ships going into Russia and he only counted 22 coming out.  For nine harrowing days the SS John Stevenson traveled up the coast of occupied Norway and across the Arctic to Murmansk, packs of submarines chasing the convoy beneath the surface while unseen but deadly fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo-firing aircraft zeroed in on their slow-moving targets from above.

Harold Bogigian. Source: “Life in the Woodlands,” September 2019.

The ship was covered with ice one foot thick and the water was so cold, Bogigian recalls, if you fell in there was no way you could survive and they couldn’t even try to save you. Once Bogigian got to Murmansk, his ship was frozen in until April 15.   He recalls that the stay in Murmansk was a real culture shock, saying you could see how repressive the system was, with guards stationed to ensure sailors didn’t take magazines off the ship or carry a camera into town.  But he said the people were friendly and knew the sailors were bringing them help from the outside world.


Indeed, despite the dangers on what Churchill described as “the worst journey in the world,” the sailors knew how important it was to transport war supplies to northern Russia for the fight against Germany.  When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it destroyed over 1,000 Soviet aircraft in one day. Speaking on June 22, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that although he had been a consistent opponent of communism, “Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. …we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people.”  And on June 24, U.S. President Roosevelt stated, “Of course we are going to give all the aid we possibly can to Russia.”  The United Kingdom and United States recognized that we had to work together with the Soviet Union as Allies in order to defeat Fascism.

During the long, Arctic summers the ships had no way to hide from Luftwaffe and U-boat attacks, while in the Arctic winter they fought frozen seas and bitter cold weather.  Yet the Allied Arctic convoys—merchant marine ships escorted by Allied naval ships—transported more than 4 million tons of provisions and munitions from 1941 to 1945, bringing everything from tanks and aircraft to trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines and boots.  After the first convoy of ships arrived in Murmansk, the Arctic became the main focus of the war at sea in the European theater for the rest of World War II; by war’s end, over 40 nations took part in the Allied convoys, escorted by more than a dozen fleets — not only the U.S. Navy, Britain’s Royal Navy, and in the eastern part of the journey the Soviet fleet, but also French and Polish fleets.

WWII Convoy Ships Lost, 1941-45, by nation
USA – 47 naval ships and 292 cargo vessels
UK – 36 naval ships and 184 cargo vessels
Soviet Union – 11 naval ships and 56 cargo vesssels
8 Panama-flagged naval ships and 29 cargo vessels (crews of many nations)
Norway: 11 cargo vessels
Netherlands: 1 naval ship and 5 cargo vessels
Honduras: 2 cargo vessels
Belgium: 1 cargo vessel
Poland: 1 cargo vessel

Total ships lost: 581

The Soviet Union lost about half of its tanks in the second half of 1941, and had just 670 tanks (of which only 205 were heavy or medium tanks) to defend Moscow at the end of November.  British tanks made up 30-40% of the tanks outside Moscow in the beginning of December – making a critical difference in the defense of the capital and survival of the Soviet war effort.  U.S. tanks soon became widely available to Soviet forces, too, as did U.S. aircraft, which helped to protect the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga that supplied besieged Leningrad through the winter of 1941-42.

A truck travels over frozen Lake Ladoga on a route known as “the Road of Life.” During the winter months of the siege, the frozen lake allowed food, ammunition, and fuel to move into the city, and allowed children, the elderly, and the wounded to be evacuated. (Source: RFE/RL; Photo credit: TASS)

The huge quantity of food the United States sent to the Soviet Union in 1941-45 was also incredibly important for the war effort.  As People’s Commissar for Foreign Trade of the USSR Anastas Mikoyan explained, “Imagine, for example, the army, equipped with all necessary weapons, well-trained, but its soldiers are undernourished, or worse. What will happen to these warriors?” he asked. He then went on, “when we began to receive American stew, shortenings, egg powder, flour, and other products, imagine what extra calories are our soldiers got! And not only the soldiers: something was given to the rear.”  After the war ended, Marshal Georgy Zhukov said, “The Americans gave us so many goods without which we wouldn’t have been able to form our reserves and continue the war… We didn’t have explosives, gunpowder. We didn’t have anything to charge our rifle cartridges with. The Americans really saved us with their gunpowder and explosives. And how much sheet steel they gave us! How could we have produced our tanks without American steel? … Without American trucks we wouldn’t have had anything to pull our artillery with.”  Mikoyan estimated that without the Allied help, the war against Germany would probably lasted another year or two.

American shipments to the Soviet Union, 1941-45
14,795 aircraft
7,537 tanks
471,257 trucks, jeeps, tractors, and motorcycles
11,155 rail cars
1,981 locomotives
Over 345,000 tons of ammunition and TNT
Steam locomotives, rifles, machine guns, telephone wire, radios, boots, sheet metal, oil, and other supplies

4 million tons of food, including:

Cereal products – 1 million tons
Meat products – .79 million tons

Animal fat – .6 million tons

Vegetable fat – .5 million tons

Sugar – .6 million tons

Source: RIA Novosti

The defeat of the Axis powers was a joint victory, accomplished thanks to the close cooperation and shared sacrifices of Armenians, Americans, and the peoples of all of the other Allied countries, whether they were military or merchant marines or manning the home front.  If you are interested in reading more about the feats by sailors on the Murmansk Run, several American sailors have written books about their experiences. Some of those memoirs have even been translated into Russian.  Here are just a few:

I would like to conclude by sharing photos of three of the American men who served on the Arctic Convoys, and were honored by the Russian government, receiving Ushakov medals “for personal courage and valor shown during World War Two while participating in the Arctic Convoys”.


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