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Telling the truth: How Britain helped the Soviets win

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, consistently downplays the role of the United Kingdom (UK) in assisting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between 1941 and 1945. His stalled assault against Ukraine has given such a narrative extra impetus. It is one full of deliberate lies, and a clear change of direction for Russian history. In the recent past, Russia has highlighted the work of Arctic convoys, awarded British veterans medals for their services before His Majesty’s Government, and hosted UK-Russian conferences which highlighted the extent of British wartime support. 

The basic facts and figures of British aid were set out in a speech to the House of Commons by Clement Attlee, then Prime Minister, on 16th April 1946, which was supported by a detailed breakdown of what had been sent and how much it cost. Reduced to basics, the UK sent £308 million in munitions (not including the cost of battleships, destroyers and submarines), and £120 million in other supplies, food and raw materials, roughly £30 billion in today’s money. This included 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aircraft, while public charitable donations provided approximately £5.3 million (roughly £490 million in today’s money) in medical stores. 

Some of these supplies were purchased in the United States (US) by the UK for delivery directly to the USSR. Most British supplies were carried by sea to Northern Russia, docking at Archangel or Murmansk, by a series of Arctic convoys, which were subject to sustained German attacks from three dimensions from powerful German forces based in Northern Norway. They suffered heavy losses of life, merchant ships and warships. This was the most challenging naval operational task of the war, perhaps of any war. Appalling weather, sea ice, ship-breaking storms, and near-permanent darkness only reinforced the grim reality that survival time for any sailors struggling in the sea was less than two minutes in these missions. While the US provided more supplies, they arrived by the Pacific and Persian Gulf routes, effectively uncontested by Axis forces. Britain provided supplies without charging for the goods, the cost of the delivery by sea, or the merchant ships and warships sunk. 

The Arctic convoys were high-profile operations. They had the incalculable psychological benefit of demonstrating that the Soviet Union had a great power ally willing to fight and provide vital supplies in the hour of need. The US provided no direct aid before 7th December 1941. Furthermore, Britain acted immediately after the German invasion of the USSR, signing an alliance in July 1941, and dispatching the first convoy in August. These ships carried tanks, aircraft and other equipment prepared for home defence and operations in North Africa. They were escorted by naval forces redeployed from the Home Fleet, which provided strategic security for the critical Battle of the Atlantic against German battleships based in Northern Norway. The first convoy included 40 Hurricane fighters, with pilots and ground crew, sent to secure Murmansk. After conducting combat operations these aircraft were transferred to the Soviet Air force, once pilots and ground crew had been trained. 

These early supplies were timely. In the critical Battle of Moscow in December 1941, roughly half of the Russian tanks, and the majority of the heavier types, were British Matilda and Valentine models. Later, significant numbers of Churchill tanks were provided. These vehicles remained in service throughout the war. The strategic value of the supplies was reinforced by the potent symbolism of an old enemy becoming an ally against a mutual foe. However, the Soviets were careful to minimise the presence of British hardware in post-war publications. 

In total, 78 Arctic convoys sailed between August 1941 and May 1945, starting from Iceland or the east coast of Scotland; there were two significant gaps in sailings, between July and September 1942, and March and November 1943. The convoys were also suspended for D-Day, when many of the naval assets off Normandy, including HMS Belfast, were veterans of the high north.

Britain, the Commonwealth and Empire made a major contribution to the Soviet war effort in 1941 and 1942, and continued to support the USSR by escorting convoys of American Lend-Lease material across the hostile Arctic until the end of the war.

The convoys were escorted by Royal Navy warships, with support from Royal Canadian and US units. In total 85 merchant ships were lost, along with two British cruisers, six destroyers and eight smaller escorts. Germany lost a battleship, three destroyers and 30 U-boats, along with most of their naval strike aircraft. The Convoys played a critical role in holding the Grand Alliance together before the Second Front was opened in Northern France in 1944. 

From late 1943, the British treated the convoys as an attritional battle in which they could force the Germans to fight, conscious that they would prevail, inflicting heavy casualties on a U-boat force already reeling from defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the Germans, stopping the convoys was essential to securing their Eastern Front. By 1944, the Soviets were unable to shift all the stores which arrived in the High North, cherry picking those with immediate utility. Alongside weapons and raw materials the UK also supplied key sensors, 293 sonar suites and almost 2,000 radar sets, enabling Soviet warships and aircraft to operate more effectively (and providing the basis for post-war Soviet technologies). Machine tools and electrical equipment were also sent in significant quantities, along with key raw materials which Britain could source globally – tin and rubber, coffee and tea being obvious – along with vital metals and ores from the Dominions and Commonwealth. 

A key calculus was that these convoys were an alternative to the early opening of a ‘Second Front’ in Europe which Josef Stalin demanded constantly. The British were conscious that a premature invasion of France would be defeated, potentially foreclosing that option. 

That said, Putin has a point. Britain, and Winston Churchill, then British Prime Minister, were especially ideologically hostile to the USSR, and disgusted by Soviet invasions of Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. In 1940, the UK and France had considered declaring war on the USSR, a plan cancelled by the collapse of France. This was consistent with British-Russian relations over the preceding two centuries. They were united in resisting the attempts by Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler to create pan-European empires, but otherwise in competition for economic access to key regions of Eurasia, strategic bases, and influence. In-between 1812 and 1814, Britain supplied cash, muskets, cannon and other military hardware to the Russian tsar’s armies. As asymmetric powers of the land and sea they waged war through their economies, an area in which Britain tended to prevail. The Bolshevik Revolution, Russia’s abandoning of its allies in 1917 and reneging on enormous foreign debts, only reinforced the British view that Russia, under any regime, was profoundly hostile, and incorrigibly aggressive. British operations in the Baltic in 1919 helped secure the independence of Finland and the Baltic states, reinforcing Soviet anxieties. Before 1939, Britain was the ‘enemy’.  

Churchill’s decision to aid the Soviets was entirely, and correctly, self-interested. The Russo-German war was a godsend for an over-stretched power with global responsibilities. Until June 1941 the possibility of a joint Russo-German effort to destroy the UK, as they had Poland, was real. After 18th June 1941 if either combatant emerged victorious they would be weakened gravely by casualties, and large-scale military occupation. £30 billion was not such a high price to pay for survival. Churchill compromised his anti-Bolshevik views to defeat Germany.   

Supplies aside, wartime cooperation was limited. At the political level relations remained hostile. The Soviet fleet had limited capabilities and was not deployed to escort Arctic convoys. British sonar and radar improved Russian ships, but commissar control and low standards of seamanship compromised their activity. Ashore, the Communist Party’s anxiety to prevent fraternisation meant British sailors received little hospitality.  

American supplies were significantly larger than those donated by the UK, but they arrived after the critical months of December 1941 and January 1942, by routes which attracted no press attention, and cost very few lives. The Americans provided around US$180 billion (£142 billion) in today’s money under the Lend-Lease Act. The headline items were 400,000 Jeeps and trucks, 14,000 aircraft, 8,000 tractors, 13,000 tanks, 15 million pairs of army boots, two million tons of oil and petrol, and four and a half million tons of food. The Vladivostok and Persian Gulf routes were safe but slow; they had little impact on the moral aspect of the conflict. 

Britain, the Commonwealth and Empire made a major contribution to the Soviet war effort in 1941 and 1942, and continued to support the USSR by escorting convoys of American Lend-Lease material across the hostile Arctic until the end of the war. These actions served both British and Soviet short-term interests. While Germany was committed to a war in Russia, there was no possibility of an invasion of the UK. This released front line army and air force assets from home defence for service in other theatres.

Prof. Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He is also a Member of the Advisory Council of the Council on Geostrategy.

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