Operation Dervish: the First Arctic Convoy

On 21 August 1941, Operation Dervish was launched from Hvalfjoror, Iceland, when five British and one Dutch merchantmen left the harbor to convoy to Archangelsk, Soviet Union, far above the Arctic Circle. As it was the first such convoy into unknown waters, it was heavily escorted lest a German success against the convoy be seen as the Allies balking in their commitment to help the Soviet Union who was doing the lion’s share of the fighting against Germany. Dervish was escorted by three destroyers, three minesweepers, and three anti-submarine trawlers, with a heavy cruiser and three destroyers on patrol in the Norwegian Sea to deal with German raiders if needed.

The Dervish convoy was unlike any other convoy so far in the war. The bitter cold, icebergs, and unpredictable storms made the ten day journey treacherous. Combatting ice buildup on the ships was a constant chore, and the perils of not doing so were quickly felt when on the third day, ice formed from normal sea spray grew so heavy and thick on one trawler that it nearly capsized. The entire convoy made it safely to Archangelsk on 31 August without German interference. (The Germans had no air reconnaissance in Norway at the time. That changed quickly once word got out.)

The Soviet reception (or lack thereof) at the port threatened to derail the whole operation. No stevedores were available so the sailors unloaded the ships themselves, only to face the wrath of the local Soviet bureaucracy for faults both unintentional and imagined (Such as placing the crated Hurricane fighters in the wrong warehouse). Events came to a head when sailors were arrested and beaten for not having the proper identity papers. But fortunately, a high ranking Soviet official from Moscow arrived and released the battered detainees, before there was further bloodshed.

The successful Dervish convoy proofed the Arctic route, and established common procedures for both the Allies and Soviets. Further Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union were given the “PQ” designation (the tragic PQ-17 being the most famous), and those returning QP. The Dervish ships themselves would be “QP-1”, and PQ-1 would leave Iceland later in September. 25% of all Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union went via the Arctic convoys.

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