GENERAL ARTICLES

Russia's BACK DOOR LIFE LINE

The dramatic story of the fantastic 13,000 mile ocean-railroad-air-sea supply route which carries lend-lease to Russia

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES May 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

Russia's BACK DOOR LIFE LINE

The dramatic story of the fantastic 13,000 mile ocean-railroad-air-sea supply route which carries lend-lease to Russia

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES May 15 1944

Russia's BACK DOOR LIFE LINE

GENERAL ARTICLES

RAYMOND ARTHUR DAVIES

MOSCOW (By Cable)—As far as I could see within the endless, unwinding spiral of the Atlantic horizon there were ships. Liberty ships, Victory ships, tankers, whalers, tugs, ancient tramps, shiny new freighters—American, British, Canadian, Australian, Norwegian, French and Dutch. There were hundreds of ships and millions of tons of supplies headed east, ever east, toward the enemy, toward the fighting fronts.

At the rim of the horizon the escort vessels, destroyers and corvettes steamed back and forth. Barely visible far ahead was the convoy’s darling—a trim and fast aircraft carrier. Overhead PBY’s circled ceaselessly and reassuringly, and now and then the planes roared by in pairs.

What I saw was an Allied convoy headed for the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and to Italy, Egypt, India and Russia. Every ship was loaded to the gunwales. The deck cargo cases, painted battleship grey and surmounted by mazes of catwalks, bore labels to Naples, Algiers, Alexandria, the U. S. S. R. and India. A nearby ship carried Canadian wheat; the ship behind had 1,000 mules aboard. A freighter in the next column had a deckload of locomotives, while the ship on the other bow carried small landing craft. Each shipload was worth a fortune and represented the cumulative labor of tens of thousands of people . . . Each cargo might mean battles won, or, if sunk, battles lost.

The enemy was all around, careful, invisible and watchful. But he was no longer self-assured. The convoy was a little world in itself in what had been his hostile universe. He was awed by our tremendous concentration of strength. Times had changed and the hunter had become the hunted. The wall of vigilant warships grimly guarded the convoy world with its 10,000 sailor inhabitants.

For days, for weeks, the life of the convoy went on. The engines pounded; the commodore’s ship changed signal flags; courses were altered; the radio crackled ciphered stories of battles to the north; SOS and SSS signals came in; enemy planes were suspected; submarine danger zones were entered and cleared; gun crews kept constant vigil; fire and boat drills were held; ships had target practice and a sick sailor was taken off a freighter for treatment on a destroyer. The convoy sped on, seemingly urged by the desire to arrive, unload and return.

My ship was No. 34, fourth in the third column. I was her sole passenger—one of the few in the entire convoy. I had been aboard now for nearly two weeks

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The dramatic story of the fantastic 13,000 mile ocean-railroad-air-sea supply route which carries lend-lease to Russia

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and before me still stretched thousands of miles of ocean and weeks of travel. Moscow, where I was headed, was still 10,000 miles away. Russia seemed dim and distant.

One felt disorientated in the absence of the aerial age of speed we discuss so much. The world is huge in wartime and realities force us to stick close to the earth. The flour and weapons we send our Russian Allies must travel by sea nearly 6,000 miles to Murmansk, or nearly 10,000 miles to the Persian Gulf ports. I chose the second route when I left Toronto, in November, for Moscow as the first Canadian since the beginning of the war to serve as a Russian correspondent.

Also I was one of the first correspondents to travel the whole tortuous supply route from America to Moscow by ship through the four war theatres— Atlantic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eastern—then by train to Teheran, by truck to the Caspian Sea, by ship across the Caspian, and finally by train from Baku to Moscow.

Enormous Problem

One needs to make a journey like this to realize some of the enormous supply problems that have had to be, and were brilliantly, solved during the past two years. It is impossible not to enormously respect the seamen, the ships, the officers, the construction workers and the soldiers and sailors without whom the goods could not have reached the fighting fronts.

My ship was a 10,000-ton Liberty ship, fully loaded with the most miscellaneous consignment for Russia imaginable: machines, machine tools, Canadian flour and cheese, American medicaments, hundreds of cases of clothing collected in Toronto and New York, trucks, airplane parts, and, most impressive of all for a greenhorn passenger—and even for the officers and crew—hundreds of tons of high explosives! A single torpedo or bomb would certainly have blown the ship sky high. ‘‘We ain’t got a chance,” Tubby, a Canadian from Halifax, said one day as we discussed the peculiarities of torpedoes—a favorite discussion aboard ship. Indeed there was no moment during the whole journey when the memory of those explosives did not linger in the subconscious mind, causing a gnawing anxiety that never completely left until we reached port. At first I thought I was the only one to feel this way, but one day the captain, an old salt with a score of wartime voyages to his credit, confessed that the one thing he most desired was to be rid of the cargo.

The journey began uneventfully enough. For a week we steamed close to land, forming our convoy, then headed toward Europe. In my cabin was laid out a folded overall rubber suit and life preserver to which were attached a knife “for sharks,” a whistle with which to attract attention and, most important, a tiny redlensed zinc flashlight for use on water at night. On the advice of the ship’s officers I prepared a “going away” kit of clothes—socks, sweater, flannel shirts, etc., and wrapped my passport and credentials in a piece of rubber.

Even while preparing all this I convinced myself that nothing could or would happen at this stage of the war. In the midst of such philosophizing the alarm bell rang with a sudden tremendous clatter. Everyone was on deck in a matter of seconds. It was pitch dark and in the distance could be discerned red patches of tracer bullets.

We stood tense and silent. In half an hour came the all clear. It was a false alarm—a machine gun had gone off on one of the ships.

All that evening in the officers’ mess stories were told of lost ships, vagaries of torpedoes, sailors who survived 40 days on water and others who died after 10 minutes. It was not all empty talk. The ship’s chief mate had been decorated for saving an engineer from a ship that was already under water. The third engineer had been torpedoed off Archangel. The Negro messboy had been torpedoed twice in one night off Iceland and the second engineer’s ship had gone down in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

For two weeks there were no alarms. The weather was good and there were no SOS calls. Then, a few days from Gibraltar, the commodore’s blinker warned that enemy U-boats were known to be operating nearby. That night we slept clothed, but nothing happened.

One night we re-formed convoy and then, in double file, sped past the Rock of Gibraltar in full daylight. We kept peering at the crags on the Spanish and Spanish-Moroccan side, trying to see the German spies that were known to infest them. “Well, I guess the Germans know all about us now,” said the chief mate as we filed out from the Strait.

Nearer To Germans

We did not enter the harbor of Gibraltar but our escort changed. The United States warships left us and in their place we got an escorting screen of British, Greek and French vessels. We were coming nearer and nearer to the Germans. A few hours past Gibraltar an alarm brought everyone on deck. “Enemy planes,” someone said. I had volunteered and been appointed an aircraft spotter. “Torpedo planes,” we were told, “generally sneak up in the evening when you can’t see them.” I believe I was at my post in less than a minute, although I first had to go to my cabin and don life jacket and gas mask before running aft. We stood at our posts for about an hour and then came the all clear. The planes had been friendly.

We cursed the escort captains for the false warning, told off the commodore, swore we would pay no more attention to alarms, and had just settled down to our supper when the alarm went off again. I have never seen a room cleared so quickly—even by children. It was a calm night and the ships were clearly outlined by their phosphorescent wakes. Somewhere airplanes hummed. Again the all clear sounded. Again it was a false alarm.

In the morning “sparks” informed us that during the night a message had been received reporting enemy attacks off Crete in which 10 of 30 enemy torpedo planes had been shot down. The enemy had used radio controlled torpedoes and some of the ships had been damaged. So we might expect action after all.

We paused at some of the African ports and as we steamed past Algiers, Tunis and Sicily alarms became more frequent. We were approaching Malta one afternoon at lunchtime when suddenly the whole ship heaved, the floor plates jumped, and the floor resounded with such force that our knees struck the table top. “Depth charges,” someone shouted as we rushed to our posts. Ahead we could see our escorts dropping charge after charge as great greenish white geysers sprang up. For safety we turned back for a few hours until we were certain no submarines lay ahead. Then we headed east again. Soon our Italian-

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bound ships left us with merry toots and we steamed on. This was the most dangerous portion of the journey. German torpedo planes were based on Crete less than 200 miles away. We doubled the guard on the guns and kept a constant alert. But the Germans must have had enough the last time and it was with relief that we passed into Alexandria and headed into the Suez Canal.

Here began the vacation portion of our trip. We steamed leisurely through the Canal and continued on through the Red Sea in beautiful weather. We spent all the time possible lounging in our shorts on the deck cargo, becoming more and more tanned. Forgotten was the warning given us by the Coast Guard officer in New York not to lounge on crates over the holds because this was the weakest part of the ship and when a torpedo strikes, “Whoosh, that’s all there is; there won’t be any more.” But that was far away and the almost equatorial sun was hot and lovely after the raw Atlantic and Mediterranean.

We were not yet through with the war, however. After we had left Aden we received reports that Japanese submarines were active in the Indian Ocean. Again we stood on guard, but again everything was quiet. When we reached the Persian Gulf we had beaten many records. The 10,000-mile journey had been made without a single meeting with the enemy and without a single true alarm. No one on board had experienced such quiet since the war’s beginning. What a tribute to the vigilance of the Royal Navy and the U. S. Navy! What a proof of the growing weakness of the enemy !

The run through the Persian Gulf was uneventful. We no longer had so many ships with us and all about porpoises played and mackerel swam in such numbers that the water jumped and shimmered.

The journey was drawing to its end. The last night we had our first and only close call. At 2 a.m. I felt a terrific jar and was thrown from my bunk. In my pyjamas I rushed on deck. We had struck a ship, or rather the other ship had backed into us. Next morning we discovered the other ship had troops on board and shivers ran down our spines at the thought of the tragedy that would have happened had our explosives gone off.

Forty-nine days after leaving New York we pulled into port in the Persian Gulf safe and sound, with not one ship lost or damaged and with not one bit of lend-lease goods affected.

Dante’s Inferno

This port, only one of half a dozen to handle Russian-bound freight from Canada and the United States, is the terminal for the Iranian railway. The scene could have been taken from Dante’s Inferno. In all directions outside the little settlement there was sand, nothing but sand. There were no trees, not a blade of grass and no animal life. The port itself consisted of the railway station, a few sidings and a few buildings in which American troops lived and worked, supervising the unloading of the ships by mobs of dirty ragged coolies.

In the summertime the temperature during the daylight hours rises to 130 deg. and work is all but impossible. The humidity is close to 90 and yet the work goes on, and the unloading capacity of the port has been tripled as compared with before the war. Most of the other ports in the area did not exist before the war and were constructed by Americans during the past 18 months. Some of the railways

linking the port with the north are also new, as are the highways which now handle an amazing volume of traffic.

Work never stops here. Plants built in the desert wilderness assemble trucks and airplanes. Aircraft fly to Russia constantly. Trucks are formed into convoys of 50 or 75, loaded and run north by British, American and Iranian drivers.

Two railways run from the Iranian and Persian Gulf port to Teheran and Kazvin and from Basra to the Iranian border on the north. Highways supplement the railways, although the heaviest truck traffic is from the northern railway terminals to the Russian receiving depots in two or three Caspian seaports. Between the terminals of the Iranian railways in the north and the southern terminals of the Russian railways is a gap of nearly 300 miles that must be bridged by lorries.

The Persian Gulf is under the command of the United States Army, which is in charge of the unloading and movement of supplies. A very careful division of work is effected between the Americans, British, Russians and Iranians. The British are responsible for the security of Iran and the routes to the north, and through the British Commercial Corporation they do some of the delivery of supplies. The Iranians help out wherever needed and the Russians receive the goods and carry them to the fighting fronts.

The centre of activity in southern Iran, near the receiving ports, is an ancient town of some 100,000 people, about 80 miles from the coast. The main headquarters of the Americans is a few miles from Teheran. Not long ago it was a hub of German imperial intrigue for the Middle East. The Germans built an imposing club, a number of residences and an enormous bank building. They had obviously planned to establish themselves for a long time. The Anglo-Soviet occupation of northern and southern Iran frustrated these plans and now the German buildings are used by the Americans and British.

I stayed at a former German club now called Folley’s Hotel and used as an American Officers’ club. Here one may see men who only four or five days ago dined in Miami or New York and had piloted Ferry Command planes across all Africa. Officers come and go constantly and the excellent dining room is always filled as is the bar which, wonder of Middle Eastern wonders, is served by European girls, mostly Polish refugees. The double cognac I had here was surely concocted of nitroglycerin, liquid fire and carbolic acid.

Enormous Traffic

The town is the railway junction for the ports and from here trains roll to the north in steady streams toward Teheran over a railway that only a short while ago was still referred to as the “Shah’s Folly.” Then the railway was more than sufficient for Iran’s needs. But with the beginning of the lend-lease torrent it has been improved. Sidings have been built, water towers and roundhouses constructed, rolling stock brought from America, Britain, India and Australia and experienced railwaymen from the U. S.

The volume of traffic handled by the Iranian railway is enormous, although for obvious reasons no figures are available. During my 24-hour trip from “A” to Teheran the train stopped every few miles to let pass empty southern-bound freights and northernbound trains loaded with food, weapons and munitions.

It is one of the great scenic railways

of the world and in a more sane world will probably become a tourist mecca. We passed through more than 130 tunnels. In some places the snow line on the imposing peaks was below us and we seemed to be rising precipitously into the skies. Occasionally we looked down at the clouds.

On the south the railroad began among the sandy dunes. Then irrigation began. Bushes appeared and coarse grey-green grass, then huge flocks of sheep and adobe villages. Life seemed to be the same as in Biblical days when Daniel, whose tomb we passed, trod these same lands. In the foothills the farms began. The land was turned by wooden plows drawn by tiny, docile donkeys. On the northern slopes of the 15,000-foot ranges nearer Teheran the vegetation was richer and orchards followed orchards, all fed by myriads of irrigation ditches.

My first-class car was filled with American, British and Indian officers, with a sprinkling of .Russians. Everyone was trying to converse, but since the British and the Americans knew no Russian and the Russians knew no English it was a bit difficult. The problem was solved, however, with much backslapping, international pidgin, and vodka for lubrication. This spirit of friendship, by the way, characterizes Allied relationships in Iran where British, Americans and Russians work side by side.

Just before we reached Teheran the conductor told me that there was another Moscow-bound passenger in the car. I introduced myself. He was Captain Patrick K. Bolton, personal secretary to the British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr. He was on his way from India, Bolton told me, with 37 cases of supplies for the Embassy. It was a fortunate meeting. Bolton needed someone to help him care for the cases and I wanted someone to help me get British transportation from Teheran to the Caspian Sea.

We stayed at the Park Hotel in Teheran for four days. The city and the hotel are the most expensive in the world and the hotel prices would put the Waldorf Astoria in the class of a Bowery flophouse. It was not odd, therefore, that we were anxious to move on and finally we left in two trucks supplied by the British Commercial Corporation.

World’s Worst Roads

Our course was set for the Caspian coast, with a stopover for the night at “K”—a terminal for rail-borne lendlease goods. The highway ran through high mountain passes and then descended in a sort of modernized goat path by precipitously clinging to the mountainsides. The first leg of the journey lay through the grim and cold flatlands between two mountain ranges where occasionally, we were told, snow drifts to 15 feet, blocking all traffic. The cold was penetrating and biting. The road was mother earth’s worst road and the drivers were the sons of the world’s worst drivers. I spent most of the journey thinking how to tell the drive in Iranian, “May I get out? Please stop.” At “K” we passed the night in the most ungrand Grand Hotel I had ever had the misfortune to visit.

Next morning we resumed our journey. Soon we met the first Russian patrols. Every 15 or 20 miles from “K” to the coast are Russian traffic stations manned by girl soldiers sporting tommy guns and looking as if they knew how to use them. We could tell we were in the Russian zone.

At the traffic stations trucks are held

up until the next station on the road signals an all clear. It is a wise precaution for often the road is only wide enough to accommodate one truck, though our driver insisted on rounding its hairpin curves at 50 miles an hour.

On the evening of the second day we reached “P” and another Grand Hotel overlooking the Caspian. This was a better hotel than the one at “K” but the prices were better too and $20 a day is considered reasonable.

Our ship, the Soviet packet Akhundov, was late and we had to wait four days. We walked around “P” watching the loading of lend-lease goods aboard small Caspian steamers, shouldered our way through markets, ate and walked again. Everywhere there was a feeling of war. Loudly singing Russian soldiers marched by carrying tommy guns and antitank rifles. Airplanes droned overhead; Army trucks rushed about the streets. Supplies were coming in at such a rate that every evening hundreds of trucks were waiting to be unloaded and often the trucks had to be held outside the town so as not to jam the docks. Already it was obvious to us that the Russians were determined to strain every effort to prosecute the war. Some of the ships being loaded had no engines, or were under repair, but they were being used as barges and would be towed to Russian ports. “Everything for the front” is a slogan that one can justifiably associate with the Russians wherever they are.

Finally the Akhundov arrived. It is a mean little vessel of 400 tons, an antique built in 1861 and probably the oldest steamship in operation with the oldest oil-burning engine. Formerly the Akhundov transported goats along the Caspian coast, but now it had been pressed into passenger service aâ ail the modern ships had been taken for Army work.

The Akhundov pitched and rolled so badly in the storm that developed after we sailed that we had to take refuge at anchorage and our 200-mile sea voyage took us five days. Finally we arrived at Baku. Fighting Russia at last. Toronto was 64 days behind.

Baku was busy. Ships were being unloaded at every slip. Across the bay the oil refineries were at work. In the city women had replaced men at nearly all the occupations. We saw women streetcar conductors, customs officers, etc.

I don’t know what it is about Baku that will remain with me longest— the sight of a working city so responsible for Russia’s success in the war, or the wonderful hot bath at the modernistic and comfortable hotel. It was the first hot bath I had had since leaving Toronto, for aboard ship we had only showers and in Teheran the bathroom was too cold to be used.

We stayed in Baku only a few hours and in the evening of the day we arrived we were already on our way to Moscow.

Major Tragedy

I had not miscalculated the value of Captain Bolton’s companionship. No sooner had the Akhundov cast anchor than a representative of the Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs came aboard and offered his assistance. He obtained special cars for Bolton’s baggage and at seven o’clock we were driven to the Government waiting room of the Baku station. The room was draped in red plush and on its walls were paintings of Lenin and Stalin. We chatted awhile and then were escorted to a waiting train. There was no time to get all our baggage and one of Bolton’s luggage cases and all our food for the five-day trip was left behind.

That was a tragedy of major dimensions. There are no diners on some of the Soviet wartime trains. Wordless, Bolton and I sat in our carriage and wondered what to do. Just then an elderly man wearing a nondescript fur coat of great age passed. “How are you?” he said in broken English. We looked up and, as always happens on Russian trains, told him our woes. “Don’t worry,” he exclaimed. “You are our guests. We shall take care of 3’ou foreigners.” His word was good and thenceforth we had no trouble and no lack of food. Later we discovered he was a high official of the Soviet control commission supervising armament production in one of the southern regions. We met other passengers: three Moscow-bound members of the Supreme Soviet—a poet, an Army major and a collective cotton farmer. Later two more companions _ joined us. One was an important construction engineer of the Internal Affairs Commissariat and the other was a Hungarian, now a Soviet citizen, returning from Batumi where he supervised a shipment of 420 million Georgian Tangerines to the Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad fronts.

From the moment of meeting we became firm friends and for five days shared the food available. Bolton and I had a tin can of crackers and four cans of fruit. Our older friend had Hungarian roast chicken and Tangerines and sausage and the engineer had roast goose and a gallon of honey. So we feasted and kept our provodnik (car porter), comely black-eyed and blackhaired 20-year-old Elizaveta, busy with orders.

Like everyone in Russia who hasn’t altogether lost hope, our companions were interested in the Second Front. As we passed the wrecked towns and cities of Mineralnye Vody, Armavir, Tikhoretsk and Stalingrad, our friend would point to the ruins and exclaim, “Look! We worked so hard to build them and look what the barbarians did with our labor. If only you tovarisehes would have helped sooner we might have saved so much.”

“We don’t talk about the Second Front so much now,” the engineer interjected. “We are certain that after Teheran the date has been set and the Front will open.” But the others did not look as though they had been convinced.

Devastation Everywhere

As the hours and days wore on we were never more than a few minutes from the piles of wreckage left by the Germans. The railway lines stili lay blasted except for one repaired track. Bridges were blown up and stations were levelled. Near Tikhoretsk we passed miles and miles of wrecked

German railway trains with cars from I Poland, France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. Although the piles of broken tanks, machine guns, trucks and other equipment were still mountainous, we were told that they were only a small reminder of what had been there only a few months earlier.

We had endless discussions about democracy. “Until a year ago,” one man said, “we thought that America was the epitome of democracy. Now j we think that Great Britain is.” | Friendship for Great Britain and | interest in Canada were most marked i and are a feature of Soviet thought ' toda3'. I came across this first in ; Teheran where a Soviet tank colonel j on discovering that I was a Canadian | remarked, “Oh, Canada. Your country certainly produces good tanks. Fine workmanship. We make good use of your tanks.”

Striking to the newcomer were the fierce expressions of national pride in being Russian, in beating the Germans and in doing things that had never been done before. Such pride is unexampled anywhere else in the world.

Along the route women were working on the railway—cleaning the rails, loading cars and performing guard duty. They were a hardy lot. In fact m3' main impression on the journey was that the Russians are becoming the hardest people in the world and will so emerge from this war.

A young and handsome Red Army major, a hero of Stalingrad, said: “Tliis time the Germans will pay. We shall force them to rebuild our cities, our dams and our farms. We shall make them remember this war.” After seeing Russia for a few weeks I am sure that the Russians plan just that and that they have the means to make Gernxany pay.

And there is a great deal they must pay for. I saw Stalingrad standing in ruins, but proud against the winter sky, while 160,000 workers, mostly girls, were striving to rebuild it. I saw ruined collective farms. 1 passed Red Cross hospital trains filled with wounded. I saw wounded suffering silently in the stations. The Germans caused all this, the Russians say bitterly, and they will pay for it no matter what anyone says.

And all along the 1,800-mile train journey which zigzagged to Moscow,

I saw trains of our lend-lease goods with the old familiar marks looking peculiarly at home in Russian surroundings.

The journey was coming to an end. Moscow appeared in the darkness. I stepped off the train and out of the station at the very moment when the capital’s guixs began the salute that [ marked the liberation of Leningrad. Toronto was 70 days aixd 13,000 miles west.