Operation Dervish (i)

'Dervish' (i) was the British first convoy to the USSR via the Arctic route (21/31 August 1941).

On 22 June 1941, the Germans began their 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, and during the evening of that same day Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast a promise of assistance to the USSR against what was now the two nations' common enemy. On 7 July, Churchill wrote to Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, and ordered the British ambassador in Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, to begin discussions for a treaty of mutual assistance. On 12 July, an Anglo-Soviet Agreement was signed in Moscow to fight together and not make a separate peace. On the same day a Soviet commission met the Royal Navy and the RAF in London, and it was decided to use the airfield at Vaenga (now Severomorsk) as a fighter base for the defence of ships unloading at the ports of Murmansk, Arkhangel’sk and Polyarny. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, believed that the proposals were essentially unsound, 'with the dice loaded against us in every direction'. When Arctic convoys passed the North Cape, the extreme northern tip of Norway, into the Barents Sea, they would be well within range of German aircraft, U-boats and ships operating from bases in Norway and Finland. The ports of arrival, especially Murmansk, only some 15 miles (24 km) to the east of the front line, were were also highly vulnerable to German air attack.

The 'Dervish' convoy was part of a series of operations in the Arctic during August 1941. In July the British had undertaken 'EF', an attack on the ports of Kirkenes and Petsamo by carrierborne aircraft, while the fast minelayer Adventure had steamed to Arkhangyel’sk with a cargo of parachute mines. At the end of July a cruiser force commanded by Rear Admiral P. Vian had investigated the Spitsbergen islands group for signs of German activity and in the process destroyed a weather station on Hope island. During August a convoy of six ships loaded with war matériel was to sail to Arkhangyel’sk, together with a contingent of RAF personnel to prepare the way for 'Strength', a plan to fly 48 Hawker Hurricane single-engined monoplane fighters from the aircraft carrier Argus to airfields in the northern USSR in a similar manner to the 'Club Run' operations in the Mediterranean to fly air reinforcements into Malta. At the same time Vian was to return to Spitsbergen and evacuate its population in 'Gauntlet'.

As an ad hoc effort designed as much to show solidarity with the recently invaded USSR as to offer matériel assistance, the convoy had no designation in the otherwise standard letter/number sequence used for Allied convoys. The convoy’s primary military task was the delivery of raw materials and also 39 Hurricane fighters, which were loaded as 24 whole aircraft in the old aircraft carrier Argus, which had already done similar service in the delivery of fighters to Malta on several occasions, and 15 crated aircraft in one of the merchant ships. The Hurricane fighters were for the use of the RAF’s No. 151 Wing, which was to be based temporarily at Vaenga near Murmansk.

Having departed Liverpool on 12 August, the convoy of six merchant ships (1,914-ton British Lancastrian Prince, 4,747-ton British New Westminster City, 1,931-ton British Esneh, 4,817-ton British Trehata, 11,348-ton British Llanstephan Castle and 4,427-ton Dutch Alchiba), together with the 8,402-ton British fleet auxiliary oiler Aldersdale, assembled in the Hvalfjörður near Reykjavik in Iceland and sailed to the north on 21 August under the close escort of the destroyers Electra, Active and Impulsive, the ocean minesweepers Halcyon, Harrier and Salamander, and the anti-submarine trawlers Hamlet, Macbeth and Ophelia. More distant cover was provided by the heavy cruiser Shropshire and the destroyers Matabele, Punjabi and Somali, and heavier support was offered by the fleet carrier Victorious and the heavy cruisers Devonshire and Suffolk under the command of Rear Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker.

At this time the German air presence in the northern part of occupied Norway was small, and the Germans therefore did not discover the passage of the convoy and could make no effort to intercept it.

Additionally escorted in the White Sea by the Soviet destroyers Sokrushitelny, Grozny, Kuybyshev and Uritsky, the merchantman with the crated fighters reached Arkhangyel’sk safely on 31 August, and Argus successfully flew off the fighters she was carrying to reach Vaenga.

An abortive attempt was made to strike at German coastal shipping to the north of Tromsø with Victorious's aircraft on 3 September and, after refuelling at Spitsbergen, a second attempt was made, this time sinking one ship.

At the same time as 'Dervish', civilians in the Spitsbergen islands group were evacuated in 'Gauntlet I' (25 August/3 September), and 'Dervish' was itself followed by 'Strength' (30 August/14 September) for the transport to Arkhangyel’sk of the aircraft that were to be operated by the RAF’s No. 151 Wing. Both of these operations were completed successfully.