The Ghost Ships of Archangel

We tend to forget about the war in the Arctic and about the Merchant Marines who sailed into waters heavily patrolled by Nazi U-boats that stalked them. World War II was such a sprawling conflict, and the sites of major determinative battles so numerous, that what transpired in a remote corner of the planet where Allied forces were not massively deployed is easy to overlook.

We are mistaken in doing so however. Even before the United States formally entered the war, Americans were fighting it indirectly. And one of the most important ways they did so was with supply convoys that shipped thousands of tons of war materiel, clothing, food, factory goods and other necessities to the besieged Soviet Union, where by 1941 Hitler had directed his fury. Accompanied by U.S. and British naval personnel and ships, Merchant Marines braved death to keep the flow of provisions moving.

Of the many convoys that traversed northern seas ferrying goods to Soviet ports, none met a fate as awful as the one numbered PQ-17. It departed from Iceland on June 27, 1942, during the peak of Arctic summer daylight, and tried to evade the notice of the Germans, who had heavily fortified the occupied Norwegian coast with planes, submarines, and surface vessels concentrated on hunting them down. What followed has been told in many books, including first-hand memoirs, but it still bears repeating. And thanks to William Geroux’s recent work of layman’s history, “The Ghost Ships of Archangel,” we have another volume recounting this tragic and heroic chapter of the Second World War.

Geroux is a reporter by trade, not a historian, and he’s drawn from both secondary as well as primary sources in drawing this story together. He also interviewed the last known living survivor, enhancing the eyewitness feel that permeates this well-written and captivating tale. And with the passage of nearly 80 years, he’s able to place the events into the broader historical narrative. It’s a vital and easily accessible work for those wishing to discover more about this remarkable saga.

For the 2,500 men and 35 ships of PQ-17, the journey turned disastrous. After several fairly uneventful days, the trap the Nazis had set for them was sprung. German intelligence knew the convoy was bound for the Soviet Arctic port of Murmansk, and the city was ruthlessly bombarded for days, so heavily that the convoy was rerouted to Archangel, further to the east. Meanwhile, submarines and aircraft searched the Barents Sea, pinpointing the convoy’s location.

The bulk of the merchant ships were American, and were packed full of supplies, with tanks and other vehicles lashed to their decks. In a cruel and deliberate act, the Nazis attacked the convoy on July 4, disrupting celebrations. Ships were sunk, but surprisingly few lives lost considering. Still, it was only the beginning.

As the blitz intensified the following day, the men were betrayed from on high. Sir Dudley Pound, Britain’s first sea lord and admiral of the fleet, balked at the potential loss of naval vessels that were protecting the convoy. In an order that still sparks rage today, he commanded that the convoy disperse, and the British Navy ships return to port.

The result was carnage. Twenty-two of the 33 ships still part of the convoy were sunk (two had returned early to Iceland owing to noncombat impairments). Men who abandoned ship were thrust into frigid seas on overloaded lifeboats, when they weren’t washed into the waters themselves, where they were incapacitated in 20 minutes and dead in 30. A surprisingly high number were retrieved by rescue craft or taken prisoner by Germans, but more than 150 were lost.

Geroux, however, focuses much of his story on the handful who made it through. Three merchant ships and the British trawler Ayrshire, which remained with the convoy, made a daring but life-saving move. While the other ships scattered and either attempted to steam for Archangel or reach the all-but-uninhabited Russian arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, captains on the four vessels decided to seek refuge to the north in the sea ice, on the ultimately correct assumption that the Germans would not expect this. It worked, and when they were forced out, it was by winds shifting the pack ice, not because of discovery by the enemy.

The story of how they got to Archangel, as well as the sometimes equally calamitous return to America, is told by Geroux in intense detail. One crisis after another beset the men while out at sea. A particularly horrifying scene comes when a return vessel is cleaved in half by a torpedo during a violent storm with swells reaching 80 feet, ice floes littering the surface, and snow pounding down from the sky. Into these seas one of the central participants that Geroux follows jumps into a lifeboat and escapes.

As he tells the story of PQ-17, Geroux weaves in accounts of the delicate negotiations that transpired between the highly demanding Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, who was sufficiently blinkered by his counterpart in the Kremlin to believe that a good relationship could be had, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who saw Stalin for what he was, but knew the war was lost without him.

During their time on Russian soil, meanwhile, the Americans witnessed the abject cruelty of the Soviet system, where prison laborers could be shot dead for tripping on the ground and the citizens lived in daily fear brought on by Stalin’s years of terror that preceded the war. Some of them likely perceived the impending Cold War that would commence with Germany’s defeat, even if Roosevelt remained blissfully oblivious.

“The Ghost Ships of Archangel” is an outstanding work of popular history about a too often forgotten part of history’s largest conflict, of the Merchant Marines who performed heroically, and of what happened on the Arctic front, far from the major battles, but critical to the war’s outcome.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

“The Ghost Ships of Archangel: The Arctic Voyage That Defied the Nazis”

By William Geroux

Viking

352 pages

2019 • $28