Operation Benedict

This was a British operation to deliver 48 Hawker Hurricane fighters to the USSR via the Arctic route to northern Russian ports at the same time as ‘Dervish’ (i) and 'Gauntlet' (21 August/7 December 1941).

The launch of ‘Barbarossa’ on 22 June 1941 made the USSR an ally of the UK, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed the British ambassador in Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, to investigate the possibilities of a British and Soviet collaboration. It was largely the delay in the start of the Finnish-German ‘Platinfuchs’ offensive from northern Finland toward Murmansk that had given had given the British the opportunity to consider, plan and offer this intervention, and within days of the start of ‘Barbarossa’, the British and the Soviets entered into a formal military alliance.

At this time the Finnish military command was disturbed by the possibilities of intelligence activities by the numerically large British military and consular representation in Finland, and Finland suggested restrictions to the size and scope of the British mission to Helsinki at a time late in July.

The British were anxious to offer immediate support to their new ally, meanwhile, and British submarines, minelayers and aircraft carriers quickly put in an appearance off Finland’s north coast. On 31 July carrierborne aircraft from Furious attacked the harbour of the Finnish port of Petsamo, losing three aircraft and inflicting only minor damage on a small freighter and harbour facilities. In a further attempt to hinder naval traffic in the area, the Royal Navy mined the approaches to Petsamo.

On 27 June, meanwhile, Cripps had submitted to the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, a British proposal designed to enhance the protection of British convoys heading to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Arkhangyel’sk through the provision of British fighter squadrons whose aircraft would then be taken over by the Soviets. Talks in London on 9 July between the British Admiralty and a Soviet delegation agreed the feasibility of the concept, a day later a British cabinet meeting confirmed the project, and on 12 July there was a meeting in Murmansk for British naval and air force representatives to asses local conditions for the basing of British fighter units. This led to a recommendation that the airfield at Vaenga be used.

The initial plan was for the despatch of two squadrons of Hurricane single-engined fighters supplemented when appropriate by single squadrons of Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined heavy fighters and Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers. Ultimately, however, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, decided on 25 July that only the Hurricane squadrons should be despatched.

On 29 and 31 July the units selected were Nos 81 and 134 Squadrons organised as Wing Commander H. Neville G. Ramsbottom-Isherwood’s reinforced No. 151 Wing of Air Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas’s Fighter Command. The wing had 39 Hurricane Mk IIB aircraft and 550 pilots and ground crew. Some 24 of the aircraft were embarked on the elderly aircraft carrier Argus, and the other 15 were crated for delivery to Arkhangyel’sk by the merchant vessel Llanstephan Castle. The convoy assembled in the Hvalfjördur of south-western Iceland and sailed north on 21 August with an escort comprising the heavy cruiser Shropshire and destroyers Matabele, Punjabi and Somali, and a more distant cover distance provided by the fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruisers Devonshire and Suffolk of the 1st Cruiser Squadron, and destroyers Eclipse, Escapade and Inglefield under the command of Rear Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker.

The merchantman with the crated fighters reached Arkhangyel’sk safely, and Argus successfully flew off her embarked aircraft to Murmansk. The opportunity was also taken for the cruiser minelayer Adventure to deliver to Murmansk a consignment of mines for the Soviet navy. On the passage home the aircraft of Victorious were despatched on 3 September in a vain attempt to locate and sink German coastal shipping in the area north of Tromsø in German-occupied Norway. After refuelling at Spitsbergen, Victorious made a similar attempt off northern Norway, and sank one small German merchant vessel.

The British had undertaken to provide air support in the Murmansk area and to train Soviet pilots for the Hurricane fighters sent to the USSR. The first elements of No. 151 Wing reached Vaenga airfield, about 6.2 miles (10 km) to the north-east of Murmansk on 7 September after flying from Argus, and were later reinforced by aircraft, equipment and personnel transported by Llanstephan Castle to Arkhangelsk and assembled there.

No. 151 Wing’s task was to provide both training and operational support to the Soviets. Though not the most modern of fighters by a time late in 1941, the Hurricane was nonetheless well-suited to service in the northern USSR as it had been designed for ruggedness, ease of maintenance and continued operability under arduous field conditions. Furthermore, the British, Australian and New Zealand pilots and ground crew were mostly veterans of the Battles of France and Britain, were therefore highly experienced, and brought with them a modern radio and radar air-control system.

During the following month, the wing’s aircraft provided air for the Soviet troops trying to prevent ‘Platinfuchs’ from reaching Murmansk and the Murmansk railway. In particular they provided fighter escorts to Soviet bombers operating along the front. The RAF pilots carried out their final operational flight on 8 October 1941, and from this time onward started to hand their aircraft and equipment to the Soviet air forces in a programme completed by 22 October. No. 151 Wing’s personnel then returned by sea to the UK, which they reached from 7 December.

It is also worth noting that on 5 July 1942 No. 153 Wing was raised in England with the intention of resuming British air operations in the northern USSR. This considerably enlarged wing had four squadrons of more capable Supermarine Spitfire fighters and two squadrons of Hurricane ground-attack fighters. The wing’s deployment would have involved some 2,000 commonwealth personnel but, probably as a result of increased convoy casualties, the operation was called off and No. 153 Wing was stood down.

On 2 September 1942 two units of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s Bomber Command, Nos 144 and 455 Squadrons, the latter of the Royal Australian Air Force, flew 32 Handley Page Hampden aircraft from the UK to Murmansk within the context of ‘Orator’ after being refurbished as torpedo-bombers for use in convoy protection operations, especially when the Germans committed their heavier surface warships. Nine of the Hampden aircraft were lost en route, largely to the harsh arctic weather, compass failure and German anti-aircraft fire. The two squadrons operated briefly from Vaenga before handing over their surviving aircraft to the Soviets. Commonwealth aircrews remained active in the Murmansk area until 1944, mainly in the form of maritime patrol and escort duty supporting Arctic convoys. At various stages, RAF, RAAF and RCAF aviators operated Consolidated Catalina flying boats, Lockheed Hudson maritime reconnaissance and Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft from Vaenga and Lakhta.