The Road to Russia by Bernard Edwards

  • This is the story of the Arctic convoys to Russia in 1942, with a particular focus on the disastrous PQ17 and its opposite number QP13, now reprinted by Pen and Sword from the original Leo Cooper edition of 2002. The author served at sea in the Merchant Service, latterly in command, for nearly forty years, and, safe ashore, has turned to his pen with a number of historical books, chiefly focused on the Second World War at sea.

    The first half of the book sets the strategic scene as Stalin switches from enthusiastic supplier of war material to Hitler to desperate pleader for the same from us. It being vital to keep him in the war, and Hitler from Stalin’s and ultimately the Iranian oil fields, we set about shipping tanks, aircraft, ammunition and other things to Murmansk. The first convoy to take a real beating was PQ13 and we are given a detailed account of its vicissitudes and those of its equivalent return convoy QP10, particularly from the standpoint of the hapless merchantmen and their masters and crews which Edwards understands so well. Ill found even in their normal peacetime service for firefighting and damage control, at war - underpowered and often over their marks - with their holds loaded with ammunition or petrol their situation was truly desperate, this compounded enormously by storms, ice, fog which while offering a respite from air attack made station keeping extremely difficult, and almost continuous daylight. The loss of the cruisers Edinburgh and Trinidad is also described in detail. Meanwhile Murmansk was hopelessly ill equipped to handle the cargoes that did arrive and the situation was hugely aggravated by native Russian indolence and incompetence; Communist paranoia, hostility and total ingratitude; and continual German air attacks. Edwards provides many fascinating vignettes of the horrific experience of the merchant seamen under attack and later in lifeboats in Arctic seas hundreds of miles from shore, soaked, starving, dying, and for some who did reach safety facing amputation of frostbitten limbs without anaesthetic.

    The second half of the book focuses on the ill-fated PQ 17 and its equivalent return convoy QP13, which blundered into a ‘friendly’ minefield. The former’s battles against weather, U-boats and aircraft take us to the critical point of its being ordered by the First Sea Lord to ‘scatter’ because of a supposed surface threat from Tirpitz.

    The destroyer escort’s commander’s decision to leave the convoy and join the cruisers - effectively to join the fight against Tirpitz which the Scatter signal implied was at sea, in effect to obey Nelson’s dictum that ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy’- is fully explained by him in his 1972 book ‘Convoy is to Scatter’ which, remarkably, does not feature in Edwards’ bibliography. This account fully counters David Irving’s libel of Broome which Broome successfully contested in court.

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    The Scatter signal itself deserved a rather deeper treatment including how intelligence was handled by Captain Clayton at the Admiralty. The fudging of these two issues I found unhelpful, although I can understand it in the context of Edwards’ focus on the merchantmen. That the order to Scatter was wrong is nowadays nowhere disputed; all else, the tragic loss of ships and men, followed inexorably from that.

    On p.112 the armament of the AA ships has been misprinted. The ‘two 42-pounder’ were actually two four-barrelled 2-pounder pom-poms, inferior to the contemporary 40mm Bofors and prone to jams. The boat in figure 17 is a whaler, not a cutter.

    There have been other books about the Arctic convoys. The value of this one lies in its vivid, detailed accounts of just how ghastly the experience was for the merchant seamen involved. There and in the Atlantic and in all the oceans we who live in freedom owe them more than words can tell.

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