Arctic Convoys

Arctic Convoys, 1941-45

Film shot by Captain John Litchfield OBE RN. Used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum

Torpedomen of the light cruiser HMS JamaicaTorpedomen of the light cruiser HMS Jamaica. Repro ID: AD21167The National Maritime Museum marked the 70th anniversary of the first Allied Arctic convoys to Russia in 2011 with a free exhibition telling the story of this gruelling campaign, said to have been described by Winston Churchill as ‘the worst journey in the world.’ Arctic Convoys 1941–1945 includes contemporary photographs, paintings by war artists and clothing worn by sailors. Some of the striking images featured in the exhibition have never been on display before.

The Arctic convoys made their way from Britain to northern Russia between 1941 and 1945. Their vital cargo included tanks, fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials, and food. In total the convoys transported over four million tonnes of supplies to the Soviet Union, but the human and material costs were high. By May 1945, the treacherous Arctic route had claimed 104 merchant and sixteen military vessels. Thousands of Allied seamen lost their lives.

Dressing on Northern Patrol, by John WorsleyDressing on Northern Patrol, by John Worsley. Repro ID: PT0742Under constant threat of attack by German U-boats and aircraft, the Arctic convoys also had to contend with severe cold, storms, fog and ice floes. Arctic Convoys 1941–1945 examines the challenges faced by the men on board, some of whom spoke of conditions so harsh that salt spray froze as it fell, waves so huge they tore at ships’ armour plating and pilots so numb with cold they had to be lifted out of their cockpits. Veterans of HMS Belfast and SS Empress of Australia visited the Museum in November 2011 to share their experiences with members of the public.

Despite being one of the most dangerous sea-faring campaigns of the Second World War, the Arctic convoys were not greatly celebrated in the subsequent Cold War years. Arctic Convoys 1941–1945 looks at the contribution this unique operation made to the Allied war effort and the role it played in forging a working partnership between two ideologically unlikely allies.

Arctic Convoys 1941–1945 was supported by a weekend of events including a journey through the National Maritime Museum’s archives to find out more about the ships that sailed the Arctic route, and a special screening of In Which We Serve, the classic wartime film directed by Noel Coward and David Lean.

Exhibition information for visitors:

Venue: National Maritime Museum, ground floor, Micro gallery - see floor plan
Opening times: Every day, 10.00–17.00
Visitor enquiries: 020 8312 6565
Admission: Free

Arctic Convoys on Flickr

  • The convoy rescue ship Rathlin
  • Early morning take-off
  • A casualty is transferred ashore
  • ‘Whisky’ the cat, pet and mascot of HMS Duke of York
  • Torpedomen of the light cruiser HMS Jamaica
  • British and Soviet naval officers enjoying a concert aboard HMS Duke of York
  • A V/W class destroyer dropping a depth charge
  • Convoy steaming through ice-covered water
  • The bridge of the light cruiser HMS Sheffield in bad weather
  • An oil tanker in convoy with a cargo vessel beyond it
  • The funnel and bridge area of the destroyer HMS Onslow
  • Survivors from the destroyer HMS Achates
  • Anti-aircraft gunnery course
  • Crewmen hoisting the whaler back aboard HMS Wells
  • Merchant seamen attending a DEMS gunnery course
  • The destroyer USS Wainwright DD419 refuelling from the cruiser HMS Norfolk