They sailed with the constant fear of enemy attack, and the knowledge that if they fell overboard, they would be left to perish in the icy Arctic waters.
These were the sailors who braved the perilous Murmansk Run, one of the most dangerous missions in the Second World War. During the war, 41 Allied convoys sailed to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, carrying millions of tons of aircraft, vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and fuel to aid the Soviet Union as they fought the German army.
But the Murmansk Run took a heavy toll. The Germans knew how important those supplies were for the Soviet war effort, and attacked the ships relentlessly with planes and submarines. Eighty-five Allied merchant vessels and 16 warships were lost during the convoys. One convoy lost 24 out of 33 ships.
Seventy years after the end of the war, memories of the Murmansk Run have faded. The Arctic Ocean is now one of the oft-forgotten battlegrounds of the Second World War.
But for Alex Polowin, a Canadian veteran who sailed on four of those convoys into the frozen North, the memories are still vivid.
“You know, I think about it and it’s frightening to me right now,” he told BarentsObserver on the phone from Ottawa. “There was never a second that there weren’t the fears of the enemy being there. It was a continuous thing. And the fear drained you of energy.”
Polowin joined up in 1942, when he was only 17.
“I watched my mother cry when she got the news of her relatives being murdered in Eastern Europe,” he said. “And that sort of opened up my mind, and I got to thinking of how I could get into one of the services.”
He had his father, who couldn’t read or write English, sign a form stating that he was 18. One year later, he was an able-bodied seaman sailing north aboard the HMCS Huron, a Tribal-class destroyer in the Royal Canadian Navy.
During the convoys, Polowin was on “A” gun, up at the front of the vessel. When the ship pitched, the waves would come over the sides and drench him in freezing spray. When there was a high risk of enemy attack, he would man his gun for four-hour shifts, with four hours in between to eat and sleep. He slept in his clothes, always ready for action.
Recalling the long, dark voyages, Polowin described the Arctic sea as an enemy almost as terrifying as the Germans.
“It was a terrible, terrible time,” he said. “You were so small in comparison to that great, big, fierce ocean. If you fell over the side… in two minutes, three minutes, you were finished with that cold.”
Polowin knew no ship was allowed to rescue a man overboard. To stop in such dangerous waters would have meant risking an entire ship’s crew.
The most intense fighting Polowin witnessed on the Murmansk Run was on Dec. 26, 1943, when the HMCS Huron was present for the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst. He remembers watching as the Norwegian destroyer Stord advanced and fired a torpedo at the much larger Scharnhorst. He was impressed by the bravery of the Norwegian navy.
That evening, the HMCS Huron reached the Russian port of Polyarno, and Polowin and his crew went ashore. Ordinarily, the convoys didn’t stay in port for longer than 24 hours, since the risk of attack was so high. But that night, there was a big party.
“It was a wonderful feeling,” he said. “A great feeling, knowing that it may not be too long before we were on the winning side.”
That was one of a few bright moments on the Murmansk Run. On board, Polowin remembers the crew telling stories and playing cribbage. But beneath all of that, he said, lurked the constant fear.
“You’re sort of in the same ship together, that expression,” he said. “Everybody is sharing their fears with you. Maybe not talking about it, but you are there, and so are they.”
Unlike many who served on the Murmansk Run, Polowin returned home to Canada uninjured at the end of the war. Since 2010, he’s been awarded two medals for his service in the Arctic convoys, including the Ushakov Medal in 2013. Though recognition came late, he’s fiercely proud of his contribution.
“I’d do it over again,” he said. “I guess it’s my nature.”