Stunning photos reveal brutal conditions during WW2 Arctic Convoys

The ‘worst journey in the world’: Stunning photos reveal the brutal sub-zero conditions faced by sailors protecting WW2 Arctic Convoys

  • Black and white images transformed to show harsh reality of life on ships heading to and from Soviet Union
  • Colourised images show sailors clearing away ice and planes taking off from snow-covered aircraft carriers
  • Pictures resemble scenes depicted in the 1950s novel, The Cruel Sea, which was later turned into a film
  • More than 3,000 UK seamen were killed during Arctic Convoys as ships transported arms, fuel, food and medicine to maintain Russia’s war effort

Fascinating colourised images have emerged revealing the brutal conditions faced by sailors who protected the Second World War Arctic Convoys.

Black and white images have been transformed to show the harsh life on ships heading to and from freezing ports in the Soviet Union – an operation Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world’.

Many show servicemen shovelling snow and chipping away at the ice that would regularly coat weapons and decks. One image shows Hellcats preparing for take off from the snow-covered runway of an aircraft carrier.

Frozen hell: Thousands of sailors risked their lives in Arctic convoys to transport vital supplies to Russia during the Second World War. Sailors are pictured above clearing ice and snow from the deck of H.M.S. Vansittart while on escort duty in the Arctic in February 1943

Hellcats warm up and prepare for launch on the snow-covered deck of HMS Emperor during abysmal weather conditions. The ship was deployed in March 1944 along with sister carriers HMS Searcher, Pursuer and Fencer to defend convoys

All hands on deck: Hardened British sailors would often scrape away snow and ice with their bare hands. Crew are pictured on board the cruiser HMS Sheffield in December 1941 at a Russian base ahead of deployment. The vessel hit a mine off Iceland on March 3, 1942, but rejoined the Arctic Convoy effort after repairs were completed

Deep freeze: Black and white images have been transformed to shed new light on the Arctic convoys. One expertly colourised photo shows how ice and snow would quickly build up on ship exteriors with crews regularly having to clear it away in sub-zero conditions 

A total of 78 convoys delivered four million tons of vital cargo and munitions to the Soviet Union – allowing the Red Army to repel the Nazi invasion. A colourised image shows some of the many ships that made their way to and from freezing northern ports

The pictures resemble scenes depicted in the 1950s Nicholas Monsarrat novel, The Cruel Sea, where Royal Navy sailors fight for survival on escort ship, the HMS Compass Rose, in the Atlantic. It was later made into a film starring Jack Hawkins. 

Crew members wearing heavy winter coats would regularly remove ice during bitter sub-zero conditions to stop their top-heavy ships capsizing.  

One photo, colourised by Welsh electrician Royston Leonard, shows officers posing on HMS Belfast which protected the convoys for a punishing 18 months. 


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Ships sailed through the darkness, fog and appalling cold of the Arctic winter as they were battered by huge waves.

But the weather was as nothing compared with the fear of being attacked by German warplanes, battleships and U-boats.

A total of 78 convoys delivered four million tons of vital cargo and munitions to the Soviet Union – allowing the Red Army to repel the Nazi invasion.

The cost in lives was horrific with more than 3,000 UK seamen killed in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Their sacrifice on those terrifying trips kept Russia supplied and fighting on the Eastern Front.

High seas: The colourised images show how crews had to battle through winter storms as they protected supply ships delivering essentials to the Soviet Union. In this photo, a merchant ship sails through massive waves during convoy RA 64, in 1945. The convoy left Clyde in the middle of winter on February 3 and delivered goods to Murmansk, Russia, before returning to Loch Ewe on February 28

Grin and bear it: Despite the heavy ice and snow around the superstructure of HMS Belfast in November 1943 during the Arctic Convoys, crew members were still able to manage a smile for this photo. The ship had an advanced radar system, making it ideal for work protecting supply vessels from Nazi attacks

Chipping away: As well as facing the constant threat of attack from German U-boats, the men who sailed on these ships faced some of the toughest weather conditions of the war. Ice was a significant problem and had to be removed to prevent ships from capsizing

Support: Over four years, the convoys delivered 7,000 warplanes, 5,000 tanks and other battlefield vehicles, ammunition, fuel, food, medicine and further emergency supplies. This image of a fleet of convoy ships from a Royal Air Force Short Sunderland flying boat in 1943

In total, 85 merchant and 16 Royal Navy vessels perished between 1941 and 1945. But it is likely Nazi Germany would have won the Second World War had the convoys not eventually succeeded. 

Churchill proposed the convoys following Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of Russia. Cabinet documents reveal he promised to supply Stalin ‘at all costs’. 

He knew that if Russia fell, the full weight of the Nazi military machine would be targeted at the West.

Over four years, the convoys delivered 7,000 warplanes, 5,000 tanks and other battlefield vehicles, ammunition, fuel, food, medicine and further emergency supplies. 

The cost in lives was horrific with more than 3,000 UK seamen killed in the treacherous waters of the Arctic Ocean as they undertook the terrifying trips to keep Russia supplied and fighting on the Eastern Front. In total, 85 merchant and 16 Royal Navy vessels perished between 1941 and 1945

Cold war: A Royal Navy gunner in a heavy winter coat stands in the snow and ice coating a Royal Navy destroyer in another of Royston Leonard’s expertly colourised convoy images

Norway and the Baltic states had been captured by Germany so the only way to get the goods to Russia was through the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel, both inside the Arctic Circle. The first convoys set off from Iceland and Loch Ewe in the Scottish Highlands. Two or three reached their destination unscathed

Weapons were regularly coated with thick layers of ice amid bitter weather on the convoys. Despite the brutal conditions, a crew member is pictured smiling in this colourised image taken during the convoys

Norway and the Baltic states had been captured by Germany so the only way to get the goods to Russia was through the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel, both inside the Arctic Circle.

The first convoys set off from Iceland and Loch Ewe in the Scottish Highlands. Two or three reached their destination unscathed.

The final convoy departed from the Clyde on May 12, 1945, and arrived at Kola Inlet, near Murmansk, on May 20. It sailed back into Glasgow ten days later. 

Victory in Europe had been declared on May 8 – not least thanks to the sacrifice of the heroes of the Arctic convoys. 

Clear the decks: Sailors used shovels, brushes and pix axes as they fought an on-going battle to remove snow and ice during the convoy trips. But worse still was the constant threat of being attacked by a German U-boat

More than 3,000 sailors and merchant seamen died from the bitter cold and enemy attacks on the dangerous missions to transport vital supplies from Scotland to Soviet ports in the Arctic Circle. A total of 78 convoys delivered more than four million tonnes of supplies, including 7,000 plans and 5,000 tanks, between 1941 and 1945

A sailor stands on the ice-coated deck of a ship during the convoys. The images were painstakingly transformed from black and white by Welsh electrician Royston Leonard

 

 

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