The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano on April 23rd, 2013. Photograph credit to REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson courtesy of the London Daily Telegraph.
This would have been a familiar sight to Allied sailors. During World War Two, Iceland served as a key staging point for Allied convoys to and from the United Kingdom and other destinations including the Soviet Union. In the seas off Iceland was the CHOP line or Change of Operational Control when the British convoy escorts under the control of Western Approaches Command, handed off convoy protection duty to the US Navy.
Both the Brits and the Americans used Iceland as a base for repairing, refueling and resupplying of warships and merchant ships. To keep the Germans from occupying Iceland and choking off the sea lanes to America, British Royal Marines occupied the Iceland in May of 1940 and were later replaced by US Marines.
We did not consult the Icelanders who behaved rather badly. One wonders what they would have thought if their German cousins had beat the Allies to the punch. Throughout the war Nazi pamphlets and propaganda were sold in Iceland legally and openly by Icelandic sympathizers of the Nazis.
Many of the locals went out of their way to be rude to the British and later American Marines. I wonder how the Waffen SS would have reacted.
The body of water known as the Hvalfjörður was used as the main anchorage by Allied ships. Often the weather was so rough and the wind so strong in the anchorage no matter what the season that ships had to keep steam on to maintain their positions and not drag their anchors. Sometimes stationary ships were making revolutions for three to four knots to simply stay in place.
A photograph taken in May 1942 from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious of ships in the anchorage Hvalfjord, Iceland.
Original caption from the era reads: The convoy will sail at dusk. A striking silhouette of the convoy at it’s rendezvous, waiting for the order to sail. All these ships are loaded with vital war supplies for Russia. (Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
Convoys to the Soviet Union either went to Murmansk or Archangel, the first being the only port in the Soviet Union ice-free year round. This was the most dangerous of Allied convoy routings. Ships sailed from Iceland through the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic Sea to the White Sea. For most of the voyage, these convoys would be under constant air attack by the Luftwaffe. U-Boats stalked every convoy and had great success.
85 merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy warships were sunk during the 78 supply convoys sent to the Soviet Union. Dozens and dozens more ships were severely damaged. Was it worth it? Yes. Over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two were killed by the Red Army and over 80% of the land engagements in the European theater were fought in the Soviet Union. Over 30 million Soviet citizens-half military and half civilian-lost their lives in World War Two.
Both the Allies and the Soviets were well aware of these figures which Stalin mentioned all the time in his dealings with the Allies. The number one strategic goal of the Anglo-Americans in World War Two in Europe was to keep the Soviet Union in the war. Strategy flowed from that reality.
The convoys to Russia were designated PQ (changed after the PQ 17 disaster) with the return convoys being designated QP. Of the several hundred convoy designations used by the Allies, this is the only one I am aware of which uses the initials of someone’s name that person being Peter Quellyn Roberts. This is a famous story in World War Two and some doubt its authenticity. Below is an excerpt from an email I received 18 months ago from the son of Captain PQ Roberts, RN.
“While he was at the Admiralty, father was involved in the organizing of the war relief convoys to Russia. My understanding was that they had run out of current numbers so he designated the next run PQ1 and then this would be reversed on the return to QP1 .
The question arose why these particular letters. Fathers name was PHILIP QUELLYN ROBERTS ……..PQR !”
So, there you have it from the horse’s mouth. The son is named, Paul Quellyn Roberts.