Mikhail Suprun

Mikhail Suprun: Northern convoys were on the frontlines of WWII

What role did Arctic convoys play during WWII? What was the lend-lease program? Why was the second front opened only in 1944? Dr. Mikhail Suprun, Professor and Head of the Department of Russian History of the Northern (Arctic) Federal University, answered these and other questions in an interview with arctic.ru.

— What role did Arctic convoys play during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and how badly did the Soviet Union need them?

— I think the history of the Great Patriotic War should be viewed from the perspective of the history of coalitions, that is, from the point of view of world history, the history of WWII in its entirety. This will allow us to look at many episodes of that war from a different perspective and to provide answers to what I or any other historian would consider rather complicated questions. Why, for example, was the second front opened in 1944, not earlier or later? There are many more riddles in that war. They can only be fathomed from the point of view of the entire Second World War.

This applies to the northern convoys as well. The fact of the matter is that it was a war of coalitions, just like the First World War — the anti-Hitler coalition vs. the pro-German Nazi coalition, aka the Triple Alliance. Clearly, once a coalition is formed, its members proceed to develop their strategies and convene conferences, of which there were 20 during WWII from the first ABC Conference held in February 1941 to the last, the Potsdam Conference, in 1945. Their participants developed strategies, in this case, the Allied strategy.

— What did this strategy consist of?

— Generally speaking, it comprised three essential components. The first was formulated by Churchill — "Germany first" — meaning that the operations were focused on the European theater of war, and the entire coalition was supposed to agree with it, and it did.

The Soviet Union joined the coalition at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in June 1941 and took part in almost all conferences. We only know of three meetings of the three leaders, but there actually were many more conferences. Each one was attended by our top-level military officers. The coalition lasted until May 1945. Then, when the war was over in Europe, and Nazi Germany was defeated, the coalition focused on the East, Japan.  

The second component of the strategy was based on the doctrines of one of the leading Allies. Since the United Kingdom had borne the brunt of the war since 1939 and provided shelter to the governments of the countries occupied by Germany, it was basically entitled to impose its doctrine and its national strategy, which dominated the anti-Hitler coalition until early 1944, before the opening of the second front in Normandy. The strategy was about, as during the First World War, tightening the noose around Germany and getting the Germans themselves to overthrow Hitler's government so as to avoid massive human and material losses. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom was to maintain its spheres of influence and keep its colonies in North Africa and the Middle East. Given the might of the British Navy, this noose went as far as Arkhangelsk and Murmansk from west to northeast. The British General Staff dubbed this strategy "peripheral warfare," "indirect action strategy," or "tightening the noose." That is why, when the Great Patriotic War broke out, the very next day Churchill said that even though he opposed the Soviet state strongly, in this situation, he would do everything to provide maximum assistance to the Soviet Union. That is because the Eastern front, the Soviet front, was the final length of that noose around Germany. As you may realize, northern convoys played an extremely important role in these two components of the anti-Hitler coalition's strategy, because it is here, in the north, that Churchill planned to open the second front prior to 1943, or, as he said, "to roll the European map from above." These plans are recorded in the papers of the General Staff of the British Army, the United States, and even the Soviet Union. The first operations in the Arctic, which were performed, by the way, not only by northern convoys, were to a certain extent aimed at opening the second front. This is my first point.

Second, in terms of this peripheral strategy, Arctic convoys found themselves at the epicenter of the war at sea. In other words, they were the main theater of the war at sea during the entirety of World War II. But there was even more to them than their major strategic importance. From a tactical perspective, unprecedented operations were conducted in the Northern theater, with over 40 nations taking part. They represented more than a dozen fleets — not only Britain's Royal Navy, the Soviet and American fleets, but also French and Polish, to name a few. Needless to say, the importance of this experience is hard to overstate, not to mention the feats performed by sailors of all nationalities that took part in Arctic convoys.

Finally, lend-lease was the third component of the strategy pursued by the Allies. Set up by an American law passed in March 1941 to save the United States from war, the program was a means of waging a proxy war (participating in the war but not in hostilities). At one time President Roosevelt said American soldiers would not fight on foreign lands for foreign interests, so the United States would rather help the distant front of England or other states fighting against Germany in Europe but without taking part in military operations. However, after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the United States found itself drawn into the war and changed the lend-lease concept. The proxy war concept was replaced with the pool concept, a kind of "victory pool" to which each state contributed what it could and from which it took whatever was needed to fight the war. This is what lend-lease meant as a strategy.

There is no doubt that lend-lease cemented the coalition. In the beginning of the war, in 1939, the coalition consisted of three, four and then five states, whereas in January 1942, 26 states signed a UN declaration and became members of this coalition. By the end of the war over 40 countries signed onto lend-lease and over 60 states became members of the Allied coalition. Importantly, none of them withdrew, which demonstrates the importance of lend-lease in pooling efforts.

After the war, the lend-lease inertia was so strong that it developed into the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Essentially all modern international organizations were midwifed by lend-lease in the postwar years. Lend-lease largely laid the groundwork for the formation of the Potsdam system of international relations. Arctic convoys played a very large role in making lend-lease a component of the strategy of the anti-Hitler coalition.

Mikhail Suprun on the "pool" concept

— How effective were the Arctic convoys?

— From 1941 to the middle of 1942, over 43 percent of all supplies to the Soviet Union were shipped by Arctic convoys. This was the shortest route — it took 10-12 days, which was four or five times faster than the Persian corridor opened in the fall of 1942 or the Far Eastern corridor that only began to be used in full that same fall.

In 1942-1943, supplies by Arctic convoys fell to around 30 percent compared of the total on all routes. In 1944-1945, when all other routes began to function normally, the share delivered by Arctic convoys dropped to about 22 percent. In absolute figures, Arctic convoys carried four million tons of cargo or a quarter of the total. The supplies of 1941-1942 were the most critical.

— It is often said that supplies under the lend-lease program were minor and did not make a tangible contribution to victory. Is it true? What is the role of the arms and food supplies by Allies to the Soviet Union?

— Speaking about the lend-lease in general, its importance for the Soviet Union and whether it was a lot or a little that was supplied are still debated. There are different ways to calculate it, all of them complicated. First, it is argued that $13.5 billion worth of supplies were sent to the Soviet Union. In 2001 money, that is about $110 billion. In current money, it would be about $150-180 billion adjusted for inflation. Another calculation is not quite accurate and involves tonnage. The approximately 16 to 17 million metric tons of cargo delivered to the Soviet Union don't tell us much. It is difficult to say how much that is, if you compare the cost of production of various kinds of materials with that in the Soviet Union, since the supplies included 30,000 to 40,000 items ranging from tanks, aircraft and spare parts, ships and spare parts to golden buttons for our officers' uniforms, hats, glasses, etc.

If you look at the lend-lease and its role in the war from the perspective of the coalition's strategy, I think that the Soviet Union needed this aid just as much as the coalition needed the Eastern Front. Debating who made a greater contribution to victory is the wrong way to go about it, because the discussion takes on a moral slant. We poured the blood of Soviet soldiers into that pool of resources and received materials, weapons, and so on from that pool. I don't think there is any foundation to this debate for any other nation either, so it's time to stop arguing about it. Each party contributed to victory as much as it could in accordance with the pool concept. The small nation of Mongolia could supply sheep, meat, and wool, and it did. New Zealand could supply meat and rubber, and it did, too. So, I think that lend-lease was an absolutely brilliant idea.

Mikhail Suprun on the Lend-Lease program and its role in WWII victory

— Professor Suprun, let's focus on how bad the people in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, or Severodvinsk needed food delivered under the Lend-Lease Act.

— For Arkhangelsk, it was extremely important. Arkhangelsk was starving. Arkhangelsk was second only to Leningrad in terms of deaths from starvation and disease, even though it was not surrounded or besieged. According to official data, out of 210,000 residents in pre-war Arkhangelsk, 38,000 died. Those are official numbers. The actual number is, of course, much greater. Every fifth resident of Arkhangelsk died of starvation or disease. Almost all birds, cats and dogs were eaten in Arkhangelsk, just like in Leningrad.

In December 1941, the Arkhangelsk Regional Party Committee asked the authorities to let the city keep at least one ship loaded with wheat. It is believed that this ship helped Arkhangelsk survive. In later years, lend-lease played a crucial role for Arkhangelsk. If it were not for lend-lease, a lot more people would have died there.

 What kind of food was supplied under lend-lease?

— When I studied the lend-lease food deliveries, I used a simple method: I added up all of the food that was delivered to the Soviet Union, then grabbed a chart which our girls use for building their diet plans, and crunched some numbers to see how much food in terms of calories was delivered to the Soviet Union. I think this is the most accurate method, since the ration during the war was developed based on calories. For example, pilots and patients in hospitals were supposed to have 4,000 kilocalories a day, whereas non-working family members were entitled to 2,500 kilocalories. I based my calculations on the maximum ration of 4,000 kilocalories, and translated all the food we received except alcohol, of course, into calories. The numbers I got were enough to feed an army of 12 million during the entire war. There was enough food to keep another 2 to 3 million people alive during the entire war. Food aid in 1941-1943, when we began to liberate our territory, was of particular importance. The troops came to the scorched barren land, and almost half of the population had nothing to eat. Food supplied under lend-lease played a critical role. US food supplies, too, were based on calories, including peculiar but very rich foods, such as chocolate-covered chicken, canned stew meat, which is believed to have been made according to the recipe provided by Anastas Mikoyan, SPAM spiced luncheon meat, chocolate-covered lard and so on. There also was powdered milk and egg powder. In a word, food that could be easily packaged and delivered in huge quantities to the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Suprun on food supply under the Lend-Lease program

— How risky was the journey for Arctic convoys?

— Very risky, the same as on the frontline. It was difficult not because you could be hit by shrapnel or washed overboard but because you had to wait in fear for this to happen. You are continuously gripped by fear and cold. It is very difficult to travel on ships in the Arctic, even on modern ones today because the cold is penetrating. The feeling does not leave you until you go ashore and visit a sauna. Furthermore, and everyone on convoys understood this, you won't survive for more than 10 minutes if you fall into the water. As a rule, people froze literally in ten minutes if they were not caught by nets and taken out. Moreover, an attack could take place anytime. At night, you could run into a minefield or face a submarine attack without warning. Aircraft attacked during the day. The only respite was during a strong storm, but then it was hard to relax on top of a steep wave. So I think psychologically people were more affected by this waiting for a threat to materialize. Sometimes people would go crazy. It is hard to imagine being under such pressure for 12-14 days.

— You met with British and US veterans. What did they say about the Arctic convoys? What do they think about their own role?

— The role of convoy participants was underrated both in Britain and the United States for many years. They were not considered war veterans. They did what they could to uphold their rights. Special badges were made literally just five years ago. Although their pensions were not increased, British and Canadian veterans of Arctic convoys received special awards five years ago. Naturally they were happy to attend any and all meetings of Arctic convoy veterans and willingly shared their recollections.

Since 1991 I have published the almanac "Arctic convoys: Research, memoirs and documents." Its second part included the recollections of these people. I have many different accounts. Some have been published while others are still waiting to be published. All of them are breath-taking. I can talk endlessly about episodes from these memoirs. American professor Max Scott recently released a book of memoirs. It is very interesting and deserves attention.

So-called international clubs were opened in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and Severodvinsk. I remember one story about an American who asked a Russian girl to dance at such a club once. She explained to him the entirety of Das Kapital by Karl Marx while he was slow dancing with her. There are tons of amusing stories like this one.