740.0011 European War 1939/28300: Telegram

The Chargé in the United Kingdom (Matthews) to the Secretary of State 87

1530. I called on Mr. Eden88 this afternoon to ask the results of his conversation with Maisky89 on current British difficulties with the Russians, particularly the question of basing British air squadrons [Page 625] in north Russia for convoy protection. He told me that he had summarized his talk in a memorandum for the War Cabinet a copy of which he gave me together with his two memoranda handed Maisky on February 26, all of which I quote below for the Department’s strictly confidential information. As stated in Eden’s memorandum, Maisky made no comment in reply except to ask a minor point of detail. No specific indication, it will be noted, was given in Mr. Eden’s War Cabinet memorandum that failure of the Soviet Government to accede to the British request for the basing of air squadrons in the north would necessarily result in reopening the whole Russian convoy question with the United States Government. Mr. Eden told me, however, that he had mentioned this to Maisky and that he would so inform Clark Kerr. The latter has been instructed to raise the question with Molotov along the lines of Eden’s memoranda to Maisky.

I told Mr. Eden that I should, of course, be much interested to learn the results of British representations on this question and he promised to let me know.

The texts of the three memoranda follow:

I. Eden’s Memorandum for the War Cabinet

“I asked the Soviet Ambassador to come to see me this afternoon, when I said that I had a serious communication to make to him about the despatch of our Hampden squadrons to north Russia. We had been much perturbed to receive his message suggesting that instead of despatching the squadrons we should deliver the aeroplanes to the Russians and that they should provide the required air protection. For a variety of reasons this proposal was not acceptable. I then gave His Excellency the attached memorandum to read (Annex 1).

When Mr. Maisky had finished, I told him we attached great importance to this matter and reminded him of the losses which we had suffered on these northern convoys. I gave His Excellency the attached list containing details on these losses (Annex 2). Finally I said that the matter had been fully considered by the Chiefs of Staff and the Cabinet and that, if the Soviet Government felt unable to meet us, then we should have no alternative but to re-examine the whole question of the despatch of future convoys.
The Ambassador made no comment in reply, nor at any point during his reading of the document, except to ask for the location of the Measoning Set mentioned on page 2 of the memorandum. His Excellency said that he would report my observations to his Government.”

“Annex No. 1.

In the Soviet Ambassador’s communication of the 24th of February he informed me that the Soviet Government now suggest that the agreed proposal for the despatch of British squadrons to north Russia to provide air protection for convoys should be cancelled, and that the Soviet Government should itself provide the required air protection. The Soviet Government further suggest that the British aircraft involved [Page 626] should be transferred to north Russia without the British personnel. This suggestion is based upon a lack of accommodation for the personnel.

The air protection of convoys depends upon a complicated procedure and requires considerable training and experience. A complete understanding between the naval and air forces involved is essential. The Soviet air personnel have no experience of British procedure covering enemy sighting reports, communications, codes and ‘shadowing’ and ‘homing’ methods. Direct communication between aircraft and naval escorts is, of course, an essential part of the convoy escort procedure. Apart from language difficulties, it would take many months for British and Soviet personnel to attain a satisfactory standard of mutual cooperation in this intricate kind of operation. For these reasons the suggestions that the Soviet forces could provide the necessary protection or that the Soviet authorities should exercise operational control of the British air squadrons sent to north Russia are clearly impracticable.

In these circumstances the additional air protection which is indispensable for the safety of the convoys must be provided by British squadrons under British operational control, if it is to be of any real use. The Soviet Ambassador has also intimated that the number of British personnel proposed to be sent is, in the Soviet Government’s view, excessive. His Majesty’s Government cannot agree that the efficient protection of the convoys should be impeded by attempts to operate the squadrons with fewer men than experience has proved essential. It is true that a smaller number were sent to north Russia last year, but this force was only designed to cover a single convoy. The present proposal is to cover a period of 5 or 6 months.

His Majesty’s Government find it impossible to believe that the Soviet authorities are unable to provide accommodation for 760 officers and men in all. They feel confident that on consideration of the above arguments, which in their view are unanswerable, the Soviet Government will withdraw their proposals and give their final agreement to the British proposals for the operation of the British air squadrons in north Russia under British operational command as originally agreed.

In addition, His Majesty’s Government must draw attention to the fact that the Soviet authorities are taking certain measures which must seriously jeopardize the safe passage of convoys.

For example, the Soviet authorities have sealed up and prevented the operation of the Measoning Set, the purpose of which is to interfere with the signals of the enemy aircraft shadowing the convoys, and thus prevent the attacking forces reaching them. The Soviet authorities have done this on the ground that certain permits for the introduction of the set into the Soviet Union have not been obtained. The set has been under trial for a considerable period and it is particularly important that it should be used for the current convoy. It is at this moment that the Soviet authorities on purely technical grounds choose to prevent the use of the set in the joint Anglo-Soviet interest. His Majesty’s Government request that this set should be immediately released for use in order that it may be available for the convoy which should be reaching north Russia within a few days.

[Page 627]

A still more serious interference with arrangements for the operation of the convoy is however the Soviet order that two out of four W/T transmitters at Polyarnoe and up to three transmitters at Archangel are to be closed down on the technical ground that no official permission for their operation has been obtained from Moscow. The facts are that these sets have been in use many months, and that the Soviet civil authorities have been fully informed in regard to their installation. The loss of these W/T transmitters would involve:

A most serious loss in intelligence derived from enemy wireless. A large amount of enemy W/T traffic is intercepted at Polyarnoe both by British and Soviet stations and retransmitted to the British naval authorities in the United Kingdom. This will either have to cease or be greatly diminished. Moreover, direction finding bearings will be received if at all too late to have any value for immediate operational purposes.
Serious difficulty in maintaining routine communications between the British naval authorities in the United Kingdom and north Russia and between British warships protecting convoys and the British naval authorities in north Russia. This would have a crippling effect on the whole of our communications connected with the routing and protection of the convoys.
A reduction in the number of transmitters requested by the Soviet authorities would also most seriously interfere with communication with the British Ministry of War Transport on the subject of the administration of the convoys.

It is therefore essential that the full number of transmitters at present at Polyarnoe and Archangel should be allowed to continue in use. His Majesty’s Government request that immediate instructions to this effect may be given to the Soviet authorities concerned.

Additional transmitters are now on passage to north Russia for communication between the bases from which the Royal Air Force aircraft will operate and between the bases and the aircraft themselves. These additional transmitters will be essential for the operation of the squadrons and it is requested that no impediment be put in the way of their installation and operation.

The Soviet Government have moreover in recent weeks introduced a series of vexatious formalities in connection with the landing and examination of British Government stores and official mail intended for the use of the British Naval and Ministry of War Transport personnel at north Russian ports and members of other British missions in the USSR. Similar vexatious formalities, restricting the day to day movements from ship to shore and vice versa of British personnel, have also been introduced. These formalities seriously interfere with the efficient and speedy execution by the British personnel in question of the work assigned to them in the organization of the convoy system. Such restrictions would not be imposed in the case of Soviet stores or personnel landing in the United Kingdom. Moreover, additional difficulties have been created by the action of the Soviet authorities in restricting the issue of Soviet visas to personnel whom the British authorities consider to be essential in north Russia for the efficient execution of the duties which have to be performed in connection with the operation of the convoy system. His Majesty’s Government, [Page 628] who are responsible for the running and escorting of the convoys carrying supplies to north Russia for the Soviet forces, consider it essential that their proposals in regard to the operation of British air squadrons from north Russia should be accepted by the Soviet Government in their entirety and that no further difficulties should be created by the Soviet authorities concerned in respect of the other matters mentioned.

Annex No. 2.

Since the north Russian convoys began, we have lost in the course of them 2 cruisers, 10 destroyers and 6 other warships and 74 merchant vessels.

The number of Royal Navy officers and men killed on the north Russian route exceeds a thousand, besides those wounded and taken prisoner.

Merchant Navy figures of killed exceed five hundred, the wounded and those suffering from exposure probably exceed a thousand.”

  1. The text of this telegram, except for the memoranda, was repeated by the Department in telegram No. 118, March 6, 5 p.m., to the Ambassador in the Soviet Union with the indication that the texts of the memoranda would no doubt be made available to him by the British Ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr.
  2. Anthony Eden, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
  3. Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky, Soviet Ambassador in the United Kingdom.