Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_Battle of the Atl

Was Churchill really worried about the Battle of the Atlantic? And if so, why?

Source 8

A personal and secret telegram from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt, 14 July 1942.


 CHAR 20/77/127-128

Simplified Transcript


1 Only four ships have reached Archangel with four or five more stuck in ice. If only half of the ships were getting through we’d have carried on, but if only a quarter are getting through then the cost is too high. For instance we’ve lost 500 out of 600 tanks sent in one convoy.

2 We therefore advise against running the next convoy to Russia.

3 Future prospects for supplying Russia by this route are bad, both because of German action and weather conditions. Before I tell Stalin we’re cancelling the convoy I’d like to hear your views. Until I hear from you the convoy will continue to load up.

4 Our shipping losses in the week ending 13 July have been higher than at any other point in the war. We can’t sustain these losses.

Original Transcript


No.113. SERIAL NO. T.998/2

1. Only four ships have reached Archangel with four or five more precariously in the ice off Nova Zembla out of the thirty-three included in convoy P.Q.17. If a half had got through we should have persevered but with only about a quarter arriving the operation is not good enough. For instance out of nearly six hundred tanks in P.Q.17 little over one hundred have arrived and nearly five hundred are lost. This cannot help anybody except the enemy. The Admiralty cannot see what better protection can be devised, nor can they hazard battleships east of Bear Island. Stark agrees with Admiralty view and that all possible was done by us last time. WASHINGTON has already been withdrawn for her task in the Pacific.

2. We therefore advise against running P.Q.18 which must start 18th at latest. If it were composed only of our merchant ships we should certainly not send them, but no fewer than twenty-two are your own American ships. We should therefore like to know how you feel about it.

3. Future prospects of supplying Russia by this northern route are bad. Murmansk has been largely burnt out and there are several signs of an impending German attack upon it. By the time that perpetual daylight gives place to the dark period, Archangel will be frozen. Some additional supplies may be passed over the Basra route. This is being pressed but it will not amount to much. Thus Russia is confronted at this anxious moment with a virtual cutting off of the northern sea communications.


We wait your answer before explaining things to Stalin. The message which it is proposed to send to him, if you agree that the convoy is not to go, is being sent to you later today. Meanwhile the convoy is continuing to load and assemble.

4. Allied shipping losses in the seven days ending July 13 including the Russian convoy were reported at not far short of four hundred thousand tons for this one week, a rate unexampled in either this war or the last, and if maintained evidently beyond all existing replacement plans.

[handwritten] 1.2 W.S.C
1.52 14.7.42

[handwritten] The King
Gen Ismay
Sir E. Bridges

What is this source?

A telegram from Churchill to Roosevelt in July 1942 describing what has happened to Arctic convoy PQ17.

Background to this source

Once Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Britain made Russia an ally. Every effort was made to deliver military equipment to Russia to make up for the losses in the first months of the war.

The Arctic convoy route was cold and dangerous, passing around the north of Norway (occupied by Germany) and convoys were difficult to protect.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why Winston Churchill was so worried about the Battle of the Atlantic. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. How many ships reached Archangel in convoy PQ17? How many were lost?
  2. How many tanks were lost?
  3. According to Churchill, what should happen to PQ18?
  4. Where is Basra?
  5. How many tons of shipping have the Allies lost in the seven days ending July 13th 1942? Is this good, or bad?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Arctic convoys to supply Russia are proving disastrous.

Churchill is confident about talking to Stalin about convoys.

There was no real alternative route to supply the USSR.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • When the Germans invaded the USSR the Soviets literally carried away factories to the east and set them up again making weapons and equipment. However, they needed more material and this came from convoys of ships.
  • This telegram was at some of the darkest times of the war when the tide was very much in favour of the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, Italy).
  • Churchill uses the phrase ‘there are several signs of an impending German attack’ when warning Roosevelt of the possibility of an attack on Murmansk. This could be a reference to the ULTRA decrypts. Britain had broken high-level encrypted enemy communications and intelligence obtained via decryption was thought to be ultra secret, hence the name ‘ULTRA’. Obviously, if Churchill had learned of the impending German attack via ULTRA decrypts, he wouldn’t want to spell this out in more detail in his telegram as this would give away the fact the British had broken the code.

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