Russia honours first British Arctic convoy, 75 years on

ARKHANGELSK, Russia, Aug 31 (Reuters) - British and Russian veterans of World War Two gathered on Wednesday in Arkhangelsk, 75 years to the day since Britain’s first Arctic convoy of military supplies steamed into the northern port.

Britain’s Princess Anne has been among those attending events honouring those who sailed and protected the convoys carrying supplies to aid the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

On Aug. 31, 1941, two months after Hitler’s surprise attack on his erstwhile ally prompted Josef Stalin to seek support from a beleaguered Britain, the first convoy, codenamed “Dervish”, sailed into Arkhangelsk -- or Archangel -- after a 10-day crossing from Iceland. Many later trips were to Murmansk.

In one of the lesser known examples of British-Soviet wartime cooperation, the six British and one Dutch merchant ships which arrived under the protection of the Royal Navy carried among other supplies a force of Hurricane fighters.

These would be flown by Britain’s Royal Air Force in aerial battles with the Luftwaffe and the Germans’ Finnish allies before being handed over to Soviet pilots three months later.

John “Tim” Elkington, a Battle of Britain veteran who arrived as a 20-year-old with the RAF’s 151 Wing in Russia, said his most frightening experience was crossing the Arctic Sea on a route that would claim more than 3,000 Allied lives over the next four years as U-boats, aircraft and mines sank dozens of ships.

“The most dangerous part was being on an Arctic convoy and not knowing what was going to happen with the submarines, the aircraft and the mines,” Elkington told Reuters in Arkhangelsk.

“But the operation in the air, there was no real danger because we were used to fighting Messerschmitts, we were used to that. And it was quite exciting to shoot an aircraft down.”

The convoys were “the worst journey in the world” in the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who used the supplies to forge an uneasy anti-Nazi alliance with Stalin that would last until the victors fell out, ushering in the Cold War.

Fears that new confrontation with NATO following the Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 has ended the post-Communist thaw have been accompanied by increased interest from President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in rekindling memories of World War Two cooperation with Britain and the United States, which entered the war alongside them in December 1941.

As commemorations of Russians’ huge wartime sacrifices have served to reinforce a sense of national pride and loyalty to Putin at home, the few remaining foreign veterans have also been assiduously feted by the Kremlin in recent years as it seeks to counter what it sees as vilification by Western governments.

One Russian veteran attending the festivities recalled being employed on the docks during the war as supplies rolled in that helped the Soviets first resist the shock of blitzkrieg and, eventually, to turn the war decisively against Hitler.

“It’s very nice to meet those sailors we saw when we were young,” he said as men, most in their 90s, reminisced together.

Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by John Stonestreet