Book Review – Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War Two

Michael G. Waling, Forgotten Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys of World War Two. Oxford: Osprey, 2012. Bibliography. Index.

This fast paced account of the Arctic convoys begins with   an over view or ‘briefing’ which provides those unfamiliar with the topic with basic information about their nature and purpose and their role in the overall strategy of the war.  A useful map clearly show the routes of convoys in relation to the limits of summer and winter ice and the range of the Allied and German aircraft.

The accounts of the initial convoys  of late 1941 and early 1942 which the author dubs ‘skirmishing’, and their difficulties,  are narrated in an interesting and detailed manner  laced with first-hand accounts  of the merchant and Royal Navy  participants. However, it is frustrating that sources are not referenced and the reader is unable to look up the provenance of some interesting source material that he or she might want to investigate further.

The difficulties experienced by the convoys, facing heavy seas, sub-zero temperatures, and being attacked by the Luftwaffe from their bases in Norway and Finland, and the Kriegsmarine, are graphically described in chapters that deal chronologically with the different phases of the convoys.  First- hand accounts are used generously to describe crews surviving in lifeboats in icy seas and there is a poignant account of the burial of the victims of German bombing the   convoy vessels in an inlet near Murmansk.

The author contends that the supplies arriving in Russia during the winter of 1941/42 were enough to help the Soviet Union continue fighting. The increasing efficiency of the German torpedo planes using the ‘Golden Comb tactics’ is well described.  June and July of 1942 is described as ‘Apocalypse’ as the convoys were exposed to attack in the long ‘white nights’ of the Arctic Summer. The decision to order the scattering of the PQ -17 convoy in the light of information that the capital ships of the Tirpitz group were about to emerge is analysed in some depth.

In the final chapter, the convoys from Loch Ewe in 1943 are described and the battle of the North Cape, resulting in the sinking of the Sharnhorst on 26th December, at which point the author is of the opinion that hope of a serious challenge to the allied Arctic Convoys by the German Navy disappeared . The convoys continued until May 1945, facing danger from German U-boats and the present Arctic weather.

A considerable amount of research had gone into this book. The author thanks in his acknowledgements the Russian Naval Archives and the Russian State Library and thanks British researchers for their help in searching British Archives. Russian and British Veterans have been interviewed. The information gathered is use to create a detailed narrative, but to enthusiasts or students it is frustrating that it is difficult to trace the origins of the first-hand accounts or primary evidence of the naval engagements. There is an extensive bibliography but again it is difficult to sort out the way in which it has been used.

It was not in the remit of this book to produce statistical evidence as to the success of the Arctic Convoys. However, the author has so vividly described the experiences of Arctic Convoys, it would have been fitting to have had a more in depth conclusion giving the authors judgment on the strategic success of the vessels battling against such heavy odds to provide Russia with war materials.

The author is of the opinion that the sacrifice made by the men of the Merchant and Royal Navies in the Arctic Convoys has been forgotten. As a relative of a Petty Officer who survived the experience, I am not so sure that in Britain, at least, this is true. However, Forgotten Victory will, I am sure go a long way to rectifying this, as it is a fast paced and interesting read which brings the experiences of the men the author wishes to be remembered vividly to life.

Reviewed by Linda Parker, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of this review here.

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