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80th anniversary of first Arctic Convoy remembered in Liverpool

12 August 2021
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Eighty years to the day that sailors left Liverpool on ‘the worst journey in the world’, wartime Allies paid tribute to the men of the Arctic convoys.

Representatives from the UK, United States, Canada and Russia gathered in St Nicholas’ Parish Church to remember nearly 3,000 sailors who sacrificed their lives to deliver vital aid to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945.

They ran the gauntlet of Nazi sea and air power and faced horrendous weather conditions – snow, ice, sub-zero temperatures, weeks of perpetual darkness in winter and little hope of rescue if they went in the water – to reach the ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

The mission – which began on August 12 1941 with the first convoy, Operation Dervish, sailing from the Mersey – was dubbed ‘the worst journey in the world’ by Winston Churchill.

The Royal Navy’s senior engineer Rear Admiral Jim Higham and Regional Commander for Northern England and the Isle of Man Commodore Phil Waterhouse led tributes on behalf of the Senior Service alongside personnel from HMS Eaglet, Liverpool’s Reservist unit.

They were joined by Defence Minister Baroness Goldie, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister Wendy Morton, military representatives from Russia, the USA and Canada – ships and personnel from the latter two nations took part in the convoys – and Liverpool’s Lord Mayor among other dignitaries.

“Those who sailed on the convoy displayed exceptional bravery in some of the most challenging circumstances in World War 2,” said Mrs Morton.

“Today, on the 80th anniversary of the first convoy’s departure from Liverpool, we honour all those who served and pay tribute to their heroism and sacrifice. They played a major role in the shared history between the UK and Russia – and the ultimate Allied victory.”

In a war of national survival, the operational and logistical challenges for the Arctic Convoys were tremendous and we should all admire the courage of both the Merchant Fleet and the Armed Forces as they faced the harshest conditions imaginable.

Lieutenant Colonel Guy Balmer RM

After the service wreaths were laid at the Arctic Convoys Memorial in the church grounds before participants moved to the nearby Western Approaches Museum, from where the battle against the U-boat was directed for most of World War 2.

Commemorations concluded at Liverpool’s town hall with a reception for 150 people, with two Arctic veterans the guests of honour.

“In a war of national survival, the operational and logistical challenges for the Arctic Convoys were tremendous and we should all admire the courage of both the Merchant Fleet and the Armed Forces as they faced the harshest conditions imaginable,” said Lieutenant Colonel Guy Balmer RM, the RN’s Deputy Regional Commander.

“From a local perspective, it demonstrated the depth of support the City of Liverpool has always, and will always, give the Armed Forces.”

The heavily-guarded Dervish convoy reached northern Russia without incident – it caught the Germans by surprise and they made no efforts to attack it.

But they did attack many of the subsequent 77 convoys which came within range of U-boats and German bombers based in occupied Norway.

Sixteen Royal Navy warships were lost and 1,944 Senior Service personnel were killed, while 85 of the 1,400 merchant ships which took part in the Arctic runs were sunk, a loss rate 17 times higher than in the Atlantic campaign. More than 800 merchant sailors died.

Their sacrifice was not in vain. Over four years, they delivered four million tonnes of supplies to the Soviet war effort – about one quarter of the total aid they provided to the USSR between 1941 and 1945.

The 7,000 aircraft and 5,000 tanks, plus trucks, cars, fuel, medicines, metals and other raw materials helped the Soviets to defeat the Germans on the Eastern Front.

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