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The Siberian Connection

American Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union in WWII

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

By the end of 1940, Great Britain had been at war with Germany and its partners for more than a year and had spent all of its liquid reserves – the British were out of cash. Speaking to American reporters on Nov. 23, the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian, smiled as he declared "Well boys, Britain’s broke; it’s your money we want."

The U.S. was still trying to shake off the effects of the Great Depression, and many Americans remembered the horrors of the last war in Europe and its great cost in both men and money. Americans who wanted to help the British, including newly re-elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, were prevented from loaning them money by a set of Neutrality Acts, the last of which had been passed by the U.S. Congress in May 1937. These acts initially prevented the U.S. from selling war materials to any belligerent in a war, but they were later modified to allow purchases on a strictly cash-and-carry basis. Thus, each purchaser had to pay in cash and provide its own shipping to carry the materials. Another law, the Johnson Debt-Default Act, kept any nation from borrowing money from America if it had not repaid its prior war debt – which only Finland had done after the First World War.

Shortly after the British evacuation at Dunkirk in June 1940, Roosevelt and others sympathetic to the British side-stepped the restrictive acts by an outright gift of much needed munitions, worth about $43 million, by declaring the supplies "surplus." In September 1940, Great Britain received 50 old but much needed American destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases on Atlantic air and naval bases. Great Britain, however, needed much more, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill continued to pressure Roosevelt for aid.

The Arsenal of Democracy

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Americans favored giving aid to Britain, as long as the U.S. remained neutral and out of the fighting. In a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, and again during one of his Fireside Chats on Dec. 29, Roosevelt said the U.S. was not going to loan Britain money but was going to get rid of the "silly, foolish old dollar sign" with a new aid program called Lend-Lease. He likened it to a garden hose loaned to a neighbor whose house was on fire. One did not ask for payment first, but rather expected a replacement or repayment when the emergency was over. He also borrowed a phrase he had heard from Churchill, saying "We must become the great arsenal of democracy."

The Lend-Lease act was actually titled An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States when it was finally enacted on March 11, 1941. The act allowed the President to "sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of" any materiel that would promote the defense of the United States. When the news reached Churchill, he called Lend-Lease "Hitler’s death warrant."

Economic depression, however, had shrunk Americas industrial output, which was only beginning to rebound in 1940. That year, Detroit’s automobile makers produced 3.7 million motor vehicles, up from only 1.3 million cars in 1932, but still far from the over 5 million which rolled off assembly lines in 1929. The U.S. military was also rearming and expanding at this time, putting a further strain on American industry. These factors, plus a shortage of ships to deliver the goods, limited the flow of Lend-Lease supplies to Britain, France, China and other friendly nations in 1941. The Office of Lend-Lease Administration was not even officially created until August 1941.

Initially, both the Army and Navy’s air services were opposed to Lend-Lease, as it meant they were in competition with Britain and other nations for modern combat aircraft. Gen. "Hap" Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, argued against the production of so many British-specified designs, when his own pilots did not have enough modern fighters or bombers. In April 1941, however, Arnold was invited to visit England, where he met with Churchill and other leaders, including a lengthy audience with the King. Shown many of Britain’s most secret projects, including the jet engine, Arnold returned home a convert to the Lend-Lease program, and began solving the problem of delivering large number of planes across the Atlantic.

The Devil as an Ally

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union, and suddenly, Churchill and other Allied leaders found themselves with a new ally against Hitler – Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. The night before, with intelligence reports forecasting the German move against Russia, Churchill was asked by his personal secretary how he would reply to the attack in Parliament, should it come. The Prime Minister, an arch anti-Communist and longtime opponent of Stalin, calmly replied "I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."

Roosevelt and other Americans were also reluctant to provide aid to Stalin. Lend-Lease was finally extended to the Soviet Union in Nov. 1941, but significant shipments of supplies did not begin for several months. American aircraft and other aid flowed to Russia over four very different routes.

The Takoradi Air Route and Persian Gulf Ports

Established originally to support the British forces in the Western Desert, the Tokoradi air route began at the port of that name on the Gold Coast of Africa, ending more than 4,000 miles later at Abu Sueir, Egypt, near Cairo. Aircraft arrived at Takoradi onboard ships or by air from the U.S. via South America and the Ascension Islands. Other Lend-Lease aircraft and supplies bound for the Soviets traveled to ports in the Persian Gulf, and were then flown or moved north by rail through Iran, courtesy of the U.S. Military Railway Service.

The Arctic Convoys

The destination of supply convoys to Russia were the ports of Archangel and Murmansk in the Barents Sea, the later the only Soviet port that was ice-free in the winter. Aircraft in crates and as deck cargo were included in these shipments through waters patrolled by aircraft of the Luftwaffe and both surface warships and U-boats of the Kriegsmarine. The Arctic convoys endured heavy attacks from both the air and sea, even being shelled by German battleships and heavy cruisers. More than 20 percent of the ships and cargoes shipped by this route were lost.

The ALSID Air Route

Looking at a map, the shortest distance between North America and the Soviet Union is across the Bering Strait, separating Alaska and Siberia. In 1941, however, there was not even a road from the continental U.S. to the interior of Alaska. Before aircraft could be ferried to Alaska, the road and intermediate airfields had to be built. In March of 1942, U.S. Army engineers began construction of the Alcan Military Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, aiming to join the existing Richardson Highway at Big Delta, Alaska, about 90 miles south of Fairbanks. Ten months later, in Nov. 1942, the Alcan was declared open for business.

The Army Ferrying Command was founded in May 1941 at Long Beach, Ca. but moved to Great Falls, Montana in June 1942 and renamed the Air Transport Command (ATC). One of the first tasks facing ATC was establishing the ALSID (Alaska-Siberia) air route. Operating from a new field called East Base, ferry operations began over the ALSID on Aug. 3, 1942 by the 7th Ferrying Group. After being winterized, planes left Great Falls and followed the Northwest Staging Route through Canada, with stops at Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. The final stage of the more than 2,200 mile air journey, from Whitehorse to Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, Alaska, was often the worst, combining bad weather and rugged, unforgiving terrain. The author had the chance to fly this route in the 1970s in a light plane, and can personally attest to the adventure involved in such a flight, even in the summer. A base was also established at Nome, which became the last stop for planes before crossing into Siberia.

Ladd Field, today the Army’s Ft. Wainwright, was chosen as the major northern base, due to the better weather at Fairbanks and the possibility of an enemy attack on remote Nome. The first Russians arrived in Alaska in September 1942, setting up operations at Nome and Fairbanks, and in November 1942, the Alaskan Wing of the Air Transport Command was established. Commanding the Soviet mission in Alaska from Sept. 1942 to May 1944 was Col M.G. Machim. He was succeeded by Col Peter Kisilev, who served until the end of ALSID operations in September 1945.

The number of Soviet pilots at Ladd Field ranged from 150 to as many as 600 during the height of ferrying operations, but the Soviets occupied their own section of the field, away from the Americans. With winter temperatures dropping as low as 70 degrees below zero and blowing snow or ice-fog common, Fairbanks was not the most pleasant place for pilots in the winter. Occasional dances and other social activities brought the Russians and Americans together, but generally, the Soviets maintained their isolation from capitalistic influences.

Records indicate that 8,058 of 14,798 Lend-Lease aircraft provided to Russia traveled the ALSID air route, and despite its hardships, only 133 were lost, the lowest percentage of all the routes. The most numerous aircraft to make the trip were P-39, P-63 and P-40 fighters, A-20 and B-25 bombers and C-47 transports. A smaller number of P-47 fighters, AT-6 advanced trainers and one solitary C-46 were also delivered via the ALSID. Most of the fighters and trainers were flown to Ladd Field by civilian pilots under contract to the Army, however, instrument-rated Army Air Force crews flew the multi-engine bombers and transports.

The Final Tally

The cost of the Lend-Lease program has been calculated at between $42 and $50 billion in both goods and services. Great Britain and its dominions received about half of this aid, with the Soviet Union getting the second largest share, estimated at $11 billion. Free France, led by de Gaulle, received about $3.5 billion and China more than $2 billion. In all, more than 40 nations benefited from Lend-Lease aid.

Was Lend-Lease a success? Most would agree it was, especially in the case of Great Britain, where the aid was greatly appreciated and recognized. In 1944, America provided the British with over one-quarter of their military equipment. However, the role of Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union is less clear, and little recognized by the Soviets, despite the incredible quantity of supplies involved.

In addition to almost 15,000 aircraft, most fighters or bombers, Russia received over 400,000 motor vehicles, many being medium or heavy military trucks. American-built trucks and other vehicles made up 60 percent of the Soviet’s total vehicle fleet by 1945. In addition, America supplied 2,000 locomotives 11,000 freight cars and 540,000 tons of rail for Soviet railroads. Late in the war, Stalin did make some public statements praising the American aid received under Lend-Lease, but after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Americans began to grow wary of their Soviet ally. Plans to continue Lend-Lease as part of a post-war reconstruction program died with Roosevelt, as the new president Harry Truman ended all Lend-Lease aid on Aug. 15, 1945 – the day the Japanese surrendered.

Truman demanded that the Soviets repay the U.S. for many non-military supplies, including cargo ships, worth more than $2.5 billion. The Cold War that followed effectively ended any such hopes of repayment, until it finally thawed in the late 1980s with the outbreak of glasnost. In June of 1990, to qualify for U.S. loans and credits under the still active Johnson Debt-Default Act, Russia negotiated an agreement for repayment of her WWII debts.

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