During World War II, something like one half of Lend Lease supplies reached Russia via Vladivostok and the Trans Siberian railroad (what I call the eastern route); one quarter to south Russia from the Persian Gulf, (the southern route); and one quarter through Archangelsk from Britain, (the western route).

The last was the shortest route, but the most dangerous because convoys had to pass German-controlled Norway through a short time window. Specifically, Archangelsk was ice bound several months a year. Also, convoys could not run mid-year because the days were too long, giving free reign to German bombers and submarines.

Was it possible to avoid some of these problems by approaching Archangelsk from the east, that is, from Alaska instead of Scotland? Or was it a matter that if the "eastern" route was used, it was easier to ship goods by train from Vladivostok than over the White Sea in the north? (Note: Under their non-aggression pact with Japan, the Soviets were allowed to import food and raw materials, but not arms through Vladivostok.)

Archangelsk : A city in the north of European Russia

4 Answers 4


Assuming that there was not significantly less ice during WW2 than there is today, you might want to refer to this YT video (or, actually, any other animation of artic ice cover data).

You will see that there is only a very small window of opportunity -- two, or three months at best -- during which a passage Alaska -- Archangelsk would have been possible.

If you stick very close to the coast, that is...

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If you miss that window of opportunity by just a little bit, your path is blocked.

Too early and you won't be able to get through...

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...or just a little bit too late, and you will be stuck for a year (if you're lucky and don't get crushed).

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No, the eastern approach by sea is not a viable alternative, and going via Vladivostok / train was the far superior solution.

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    I would add that Arctic weather in the 1930's is a bit warmer than today, but started getting cold again about 1940 (until roughly 1980). The Lost Squadron was found a couple of years ago in Greenland under more than 300 feet of ice accumulation since 1942. Jun 19, 2019 at 1:58

I guess ice poses some danger, or outright makes Archangelsk unreachable from the east. To quote from the Wikipedia article on the North-East passage:

In 1932, a Soviet expedition on the icebreaker A. Sibiryakov led by Professor Otto Yulievich Schmidt was the first to sail all the way from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route. After trial runs in 1933 and 1934, the Northern Sea Route was officially defined and open and commercial exploitation began in 1935. The next year, part of the Baltic Fleet made the passage to the Pacific where armed conflict with Japan was looming.

A special governing body Glavsevmorput (Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route) was set up in 1932, with Otto Schmidt as its director. It supervised navigation and built Arctic ports.

During the early part of World War II, the Soviets allowed the German auxiliary cruiser Komet to use the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 1940 to evade the British Royal Navy and break out into the Pacific Ocean. Komet was escorted by Soviet icebreakers during her journey. After the start of the Soviet-German War, the Soviets transferred several destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Northern Fleet via the Arctic. The Soviets also used the Northern Sea Route to transfer materials from the Soviet Far East to European Russia, and the Germans launched Operation Wunderland to interdict this traffic.

If the ships had to be escorted by icebreakers during summer, my guess is that during winter the route was unnavigable. Thus, shipping from Britain to Archangelsk allows all-year shipping.

Wikimedia also has a map of Arctic showing the North-East passage.

Map of the Arctic, from Wikimedia

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    The present-day usability of the Northern Sea Route is due to the Arctic weather being rather warmer nowadays than during WWII. Jun 18, 2019 at 7:42
  • @JohnDallman I'd rather argue that the present-day usability is mostly about the number of more advanced ships available. (While ice-free period indeed does increase for recent decades, the one or two weeks change it's actually about can't affect the navigation significantly). Jun 18, 2019 at 11:15

These days, the Arctic route is reasonably accessible, thanks to nuclear-powered icebreakers. These have the vast amounts of installed power required to break through the ice reliably.

During the winter, the ice along the Northern Sea Route varies in thickness from 1.2 to 2.0 metres (3.9 to 6.5 feet). The ice in central parts of the Arctic Ocean is on average 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) thick.

Before that (the first nuclear-powered icebreaker, Lenin was commissioned in 1957), I suspect building an ice breaker with enough power and endurance would have been difficult: 100,000 shp burns a lot of fuel.


My father was a Polish prisoner of war following the partition of Poland in 1939. The Soviets sent him to Siberia to work on a railroad to Archangelsk that would enable them to ship supplies south. This would have occured in 1940-1941, in time for Stalin to get help from Churchill following Hitler's invasion in Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Subsequently, at Churchill's request, the Soviets released the Polish prisoners of war, who were Britain's ally. My father ended up in the Polish contingent of the British Navy, being picked up by British ships from Iran's Persian Gulf. So definitely the Soviets had intention to use Archangelsk as a supply route, and I know that British sailors had to brave the bitter cold of the Arctic to make these deliveries. I don't think my father was on the Arctic route, but he was on a destroyer escort for convoys crossing the North Atlantic through the wolf pack.

  • 1
    It got flagged, so I'm adding the standard mod message for posts with no citations. Personal or family anecdotes can be a bit of a problem here, but also it seems a bit silly to ask a poster to put their anecdotal content on another website, just so it can be "referenced". I'd suggest seeing if you can find some reference at least for the non-anecdotal content (eg: "At Churchill's request..." ought to be supportable if it happened).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 3 at 22:10
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    The key problem is that this doesn't answer the question. The question is asking about how accessible Archangelsk was from the east. British supply convoys to Archangelsk came from the west.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 3 at 22:19

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