In 1939, when war broke out in Europe following Hitler's invasion of Poland, US President Franklyn D. Roosevelt passed through congress the Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States of America, also known as the Lend-Lease Act. This Act allowed the US to supply Britain, France, China, Canada and Australia will massive amounts of military equipment and raw materials, in exchange for a fifty year repayment scheme or leases on military bases of interest to the United States (such supplying Britain with 10 destroyers in exchange for naval bases in Iceland).
America at this time was a neutral country. There was a strong neutrality lobby in the US and Roosevelt, although his sympathies lay with England during the struggle against nazism, was politically handcuffed against getting involved. Lend-Lease was his answer. Between 1939 and 1941 the US supplied nearly $15 billion (nearly $225 billion today) in supplies to the allies. This included raw materials for industrial production and armaments produced in the United States. In order to maintain within the bizarre laws of neutrality, US warplanes bound for Britain could not fly directly to the UK. Instead, they had to be flown to the US-Canadian border and towed across by tractors, from whence they could fly to the conflict zone.
In June 1941, when Hitler attacked the USSR and nearly succeeded in destroying it, Congress extended the Lend-Lease Act to include Russia. By this point the neutrality lobby in America was losing steam as, following the occupation of all of Europe (save for England, who stood alone against tyranny) by fascist forces, public opinion swung towards getting involved.US ships began to bring goods bound for Russia to British ports and then British and Canadian convoys were to transport them to Murmansk and Arkangelsk in Russia's arctic. As Germany was occupying Norway, this meant the convoys had to brave ferocious German attempts to stop the convoys by submarine and air attacks in what became known as the "Arctic Run". When ships were bombed and torpedoed, the sailors who ended up in the Arctic sea with no protection lasted less than 20 seconds before hypothermia killed them.
Losses in the first few convoys were so heavy that the British Admiralty decided to stop the runs, and US Lend-Lease materials bound for Russia piled up in British warehouses. Meanwhile, Leningrad was besieged, the Ukraine overrun and Moscow barely saved.
Hitler recognized that Lend-Lease was barely-disguised American involvement in the war and from June 1941 German U-boats were authorized to begin sinking US ships outside of American waters. By October of 1941 US losses to German submarines reached over 100,000 tonnes of shipping.In December, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, American neutrality was over and the industrial giant geared up for total war. In an attempt to stop increased Lend-Lease to Britain and Russia, a massive German U-boat assault was carried out along the US coastline.
Far away from the theatres of war, American cities were under no blackout restrictions and ships sailed independently from port to port. This meant that for the U-boats ships were perfectly silhouetted against lit-up city skylines from New York and Boston to Miami. German U-boat crews called this period "The Happy Time", as nearly a million tonnes of American shipping was sent to the bottom along the Atlantic seaboard.By January 1942 British and Canadian naval advisors, who had been fighting the U-boat menace for over two years, convinced the US admiralty to run their ships in protected convoys and to blackout their coastal cities. By March 1942 American lend-lease began to arrive in Russia in earnest.
The Arctic Run to Murmansk was resumed, this time with a heavy US presence. Although the U-boats and the Luftwaffe continued to cause serious losses on the convoys, aid got through. Only a few convoys reached the northern Russian ports without incident; most had to endure a week-long gauntlet of submarines, dive-bombers, machine-guns and fast German torpedo attack boats. A few heavy German battlecruisers threw their weight in but most were tied down in Norwegian fjords as a "fleet in being": that is, their mere presence in Norway kept the mighty British Home Fleet on standby off the coast of Norway in case they ventured out. This meant that no heavy British warships were available to protect the convoys to Russia, and the small British, American and Canadian destroyers and corvettes had to do all the work.
The most famous Arctic convoy was PQ17, which left Reykjavik, Iceland on June 28 1942 bound for Murmansk. 33 merchant ships escorted by 21 warships set out. Off the northern coast of Norway it was spotted by a German Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor, which radioed the convoy's position and course back to HQ.
The German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, Germany's only 4-engined warplane type, was used extensively to intercept Russian-bound convoys in the Arctic.
A few hours later the first flight of Stuka dive-bombers swooped in on the convoy. 2 merchant ships went down in that first attack and an American destroyer was heavily damaged and had to turn back. That night a wolf pack of German U-boats pounced on the ships, sending 5 to the bottom with all their crews. The U-boat assault continued throughout the morning when daylight brought more German aircraft down on the defenseless ships.PQ17 lost 21 of its 33 ships and the convoy scattered in confusion and terror. Only 4 ships reached Murmansk three days later, one loaded with tins of SPAM for the Russian war effort. PQ17 was the worst maritime disaster of the war, with thousands of men and tens of thousands of tonnes of shipping lost to the Arctic waters.
Nevertheless the convoys to Russia continued, and the weight of their material began to be felt by the Germans on the Russian front.
Despite what Russian history books teach today, by 1943 nearly 1/3 of all Russian trucks and cars were American. 50% of the iron ore Russia was using for weapons production was American. 1/4 of the grain and non-perishable food Russia was surviving on came from American and Canadian farms. The US even managed to supply over 1,200 warplanes and 5,000 aircraft engines to Russia. It was only because of US Lend-Lease that Russia was able to replace the losses she was taking at the front, while Allied bombing of Germany was preventing the nazis from doing likewise.
The famed Russian katyusha rocket launchers were mounted on the flatbeds of American Ford and Chevrolet trucks, paid for and supplied, at great cost in lives, by the Americans. Russia, to this day, has still not repayed the US for the Lend-Lease agreement they actively signed on to at their moment of greatest despair, a fact which, 60 years later, continues to sour US-Russian relations.
After the war most of the vehicles and equipment with American markings on them was melted down and made into "Soviet" vehicles and equipment. Veterans of the war who talked about American food and vehicles were quickly arrested and exiled to GULAG camps for "counter-revolutionary" talk, and all memory of US Lend-Lease, and the sacrifices of American, British and Canadian sailors in delivering it, was erased from the national consciousness.
A rare photo of Russian soldiers with an American jeep. This photo was confiscated by the NKVD and the owner "disappeared", until it was released in 1991 by the Russian state archives.
In all, Lend-Lease supplied nearly 40% of the Soviet Union's total war output and may be one of the key reasons why the USSR was able to absorb the ferocious German assault and throw them back. Between 1941 and 1945, America supplied Russia with $12 billion worth of Lend-Lease (nearly $200 billion adjusted for today's prices). Rather than repay or even thank the US for the mighty effort involved to keep Russia fighting, the Soviet Union's leaders instead chose to engage in a near-world-ending cold war and geopolitical brinksmanship for 50 years, and refuses to even acknowledge this effort today. To do so would run contrary to the myth that has developed in Russia that the Second World War was a purely Russian war, and that Russian stubborness saved the country and freed the world of fascism forever after.
The facts, of course, run contrary to the official Russian school book history, and while those Russians who go on to study history in higher learning or have a keen interest in the history of the Second World War know the truth, most Russians today have no idea that their great salvation and victory over fascism was won with Ford, GM, Chevrolet, SPAM and the lives of thousands of sailors.