Icebreaker Fyodor Litke
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Fyodor Litke among ice floes
|Name:||Фёдор Литке / Fyodor Litke|
Government of Canada (1910-1914)|
Russian Empire (1914-1917)
Northern Sea Route (1932-1958)
|Out of service:||August 1958|
|Displacement:||4 850 tonnes|
|Installed power:||7 000 h.p.|
|Speed:||17 knots (31 km/h)|
The icebreaker Fyodor Litke (SKR-18, Russian: Фёдор Литке, СКР-18) was a Soviet ship active in the Arctic until the late 1950s. It was built in 1909 in England for the Saint Lawrence River service and initially named C.G.C. Earl Grey after Albert Grey, Governor General of Canada. After four years in Canada it was sold to Russian government and eventually renamed Fyodor Litke in honour of Arctic explorer Fyodor Petrovich Litke.
The Litke[nb 1] became famous for its Arctic operations in 1932—1935, survived the operations of World War II and was retired in 1958 after nearly 50 years of active service. Unlike conventional icebreakers that crush ice with their own weight from above, Litke belonged to an older generation, relying on ramming and cutting ice with its stern horizontally. For this reason, Litke was uniquely classified as an ice-cutter (Russian: ледорез) or icebreaking steamship (Russian: ледокольный пароход), rather than a true icebreaker.
As Earl Grey
Albert Grey, the ninth Governor General of Canada, was interested in developing the Hudson Bay area. His project entailed construction of a coastal railroad, establishing new seaports (Port Nelson) and charting the waters of Hudson Bay. Grey paid his first visit to the Bay in 1910, returning home in a luxuriously appointed suite on board an icebreaker bearing his namesake, C.G.C. Earl Grey.
Earl Grey was built in 1909 in Barrow-in-Furness for the Saint Lawrence River winter service as an icebreaking freight and passenger steamer. Its engine was just 30% less powerful than the engine of Yermak, the largest true icebreaker of the period, although Yermak was slower due to a bulky ice-crushing layout. Earl Grey was equipped with a clipper style Stanley bow, giving it a yacht-like appearance; its owners claimed it to be First Canadian ice fighting machine. Later Russian crewmembers praised its living quarter luxuries but scorned the substandard shower room. The ship also rolled excessively, even on relatively calm seas.
Earl Grey continued service between Charlottetown and Pictou until the outbreak of World War I; in 1914 it was sold to the government the Russian Empire and renamed Canada, operating in the Arkhangelsk area from 9 October 1914. Canada and another Canadian icebreaker, Lintrose (Sadko in Russian service) were key in extending Murmansk navigation season of 1914 to the end of January 1915, escorting a total of 146 British transports with military supplies.
Russian Civil War
In 1918—1920, when general Evgenii Miller controlled Arkhangelsk, Canada remained in the port, loyal to Miller's government. However, on 16 February 1920, when defeated Miller was evacuating the city, Canada and Ivan Susanin refused to cooperate with the white forces and stayed in Solombala harbor.
Armed, Canada now in the hands of local commissars who were leaning towards the Bolsheviks, sailed out to seas chasing the convoy and intercepted it and becoming trapped in the ice in the morning of February 21. An Artillery duel between Canada and Miller's icebreaker Minin was probably the only sea battle between icebreakers, ended in favor of Miller. Canada retreated due to hull damage and the Bolsheviks blamed the failure on commissars Petrov and Nikolayev, who could have negotiated with the fugitives.
New Bolshevik owners renamed Canada to III International and eventually to Fyodor Litke - after Fyodor Petrovich Litke, the notable Arctic explorer, geographer, and tutor of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia.
In 1926 a team of Soviet explorers equipped with three years of supplies landed on Wrangel Island. Clear waters that facilitated the 1926 landing were followed by years of continuous heavy ice blocking the island. Attempts to reach Wrangel Island by sea failed and it was feared that the team would not survive their fourth winter.
In 1929 Litke, as one of most capable Soviet icebreakers, was chosen for a rescue operation. It sailed from Sevastopol with captain Konstantin Dublitsky in command, reaching Vladivostok on 4 July 1929; here all Black Sea sailors were relieved and replaced with local staff. Ten days later Litke sailed to the North; it passed the Bering Strait safely, attempting to pass De Long Strait and approach the island from south. On August 8 a scout plane reported unpassable ice in the strait, and Litke turned north, heading to Herald Island. It failed to escape mounting ice and on August 12 the captain shut down the engines to save coal and had to wait two weeks until ice pressure eased up. Making only a few hundred meters a day, Litke reached the settlement on August 28. September 5, Litke turned back, taking all the 'islanders' to safety. This operation earned Litke the order of the Red Banner of Labour (January 20, 1930), as well as memorial badges for the crew.
1932: First Dalstroy campaign
From 1932 until 1933 Litke was employed by Dalstroy, an NKVD organization in charge of Far Eastern gold mining. The gold tracts were separated from Magadan Harbor by virtually unpassable mountains; however, the mines could be reached from the Arctic coast of Chukchi Sea by river route - if the ships managed to break through from Bering Strait to Kolyma River inlet. On 23 January 1932, the government assigned Litke and a smaller icebreaker, Davydov, to guide Arctic convoys with over 13000 tonnes of supplies, over 1000 passengers and numerous small river craft to Kolyma settlements. The plan also considered the contingency that the ships will be trapped in the ice for the winter of 1932—1933, and they were supplied sufficiently to survive 14 months. Formation of the first convoy was delayed by the lack of Arctic-ready transport ships that had to be assembled from Black Sea and Baltic Sea fleets or built at Dalzavod yards in Vladivostok.
Ships of the first large convoy - Litke, six transport ships and a motor schooner, towing 26 smaller craft and carrying 867 passengers, most of them prisoners, - sailed from Vladivostok individually between June 27 and July 5, 1932. Litke, under command of captain Nikolay Nikolayev, sailed on July 2. Due to delays in Vladivostok, the convoy missed the optimal, calm period (June) and faced heavy storms in the Sea of Okhotsk. Two 500-tonne welded barges towed by Litke suffered hull cracks as early as in La Perouse Strait and had to be repaired in the rough seas. Litke arrived in Petropavlovsk on July 10, making an average 7 knots with 4 out of 6 boilers.[nb 2] In the following week it resupplied from a Japanese coaler, taking special precautions to block any contacts between Soviet and Japanese crews. Sailing to Provideniya (July 18—26) was uneventful except for a minor storm off Cape Olutorsky, damaging the barges again.
While the convoy assembled in a formation off Cape Dezhnev, two larger transports, Anadyr and Suchan, attempted to head west to Kolyma on their own. They were stopped by heavy ice; Litke released them on July 31 and immediately returned to Cape Dezhnev. Most of the August was spent for seeking ice-free westward passages - with scout planes grounded by weather till August 15, the ships moved by trial and error around unpassable ice formations. Litke with half of the transports headed west, making 12 to 25 miles (40 km) a day; the other transports were relieved from a possibly fatal breakthrough.
The convoy reached Ambarchik Bay (Kolyma inlet) on September 4. Ambarchik became the main "port of entry" for the prisoners of Kolyma for the next decade. A. P. Bochek, leader of the expedition, cited Litke efforts as the main factor of the operation's success. However, the convoy ultimately failed to unload its cargo - 18 of 20 days of Ambarchik anchorage were stormy, so 5980 of 10890 tonnes of cargo were left in the holds. Thus it was decided to relocate the transports to a safe winter anchorage in Chaunskaya Bay; the short journey was plagued by increasingly heavier ice that damaged Litke's rudder on September 26. Divers confirmed that the damage could be fixed only in a dry dock; from that moment Litke could only sail accompanied by a tugboat.
Between October 2-—7, crippled Litke was busy clearing passage to Uritsky, trapped in ice off Cape Shelagsky. Fearing that Litke itself would be trapped away from the convoy, Bochek and his staff aborted its efforts; Litke joined the main forces in Chaun Bay, preparing to stay there for the long Arctic winter. October 31 Litke was fully set for the winter; it still carried 500 tonnes of coal, with 150 allocated for heating at the anchorage. Its large luxurious saloons were used for propaganda and entertainment assemblies of the whole convoy. Meanwhile, its crew morale was failing; ship surgeon and cook were relieved from duty for absenteeism.
1933: Chelyuskin disaster
After a winter in Chaun bay, Litke was declared seaworthy again June 20, 1933. June 28 Litke assisted two transports, beached by a storm, and on July 1 sailed to relieve Uritsky from its ice trap.  By this time Litke carried 450 tonnes of coal - a seven days worth in heavy ice. To save fuel, she moved in a start-stop manner, shutting down its boilers for days when ice density of fog forced it to idle. July 18 Litke finally approached Uritsky; both ships safely reached Kolyma Inlet on July 21. Meanwhile, the fleet in Chaun Bay finally unloaded their cargoes and on August 16 Litke with Anadyr sailed to Vladivostok, picking up other stranded ships on their way. The short run to Bering Strait became a hazardous operation again, with numerous ships trapped in the ice and fuel running low. As the coastal ice grew heavier, the convoy had to turn north, and reached Vankarem only on September 13. Later in September, the convoy, in small isolated groups, was stuck in coastal ice east of Vankarem. Litke, the only icebreaker in Chukotka area, managed to get them through, but accumulated wear and damage by the ice weakened gradually reduced its capacity.
At the same time SS Chelyuskin, attempting a single-season passage from Murmansk to Vladivostok, was stuck in ice in the same area, off Cape Koluchin. On September 22, while attempting to clear passage for three ships trapped in ice, Litke again damaged its rudder and propeller, hardly escaping an ice trap itself, and had to retreat to clear water in Provideniya bay. In the middle of October, Cheluskin was firmly trapped in solid ice pack and drifting westward through Chukchi Sea. Litke, protecting a far larger convoy, had to complete its mission at the cost of leaving Cheluskin alone with the Arctic.
October 10, Litke reached Cape Dezhnev in clear water, but on the next day ice floes pushed it back, westward; two transports, Schmidt and Sverdlovsk were nearly crushed by ice and had to be rescued at all costs. When Litke reached Cape Dezhnev again on October 14, she suffered multiple hull cracks, damaged rudder, lost propeller blades, but most importantly - its right shaft was warped to the point which rendered the right engine useless. At half power Litke could not break through thick ice and had to retreat to Provideniya. October 26 Sverslovsk and Schmidt managed to break through and all three ships arrived in Providenya on November 2. Meanwhile, Cheluskin, drifting off Cape Dezhnev, became a subject of a massive propaganda campaign and its rescue - a national emergency.
On November 5 Litke, still crippled, offered help by radio; Otto Schmidt, aware of Litke condition, at first declined the offer. Five days later, desperate Schmidt himself radioed Litke for help, hoping that an icebreaker and explosive blasting can clear passage through 3/4 mile of thick ice. Litke sailed to seas without proper refit and resupply; in the next few days it was damaged to the point when the captain considered beaching onto Alaska coast to save his own crew. Schmidt let Litke abort its mission on November 17, when two ships were separated by 30 miles (48 km). Litke, assisting Smolensk and other transports south from Bering Strait, reached Petropavlovsk December 14, and after two weeks of makeshift repairs finally sailed to Vladivostok for an overhaul, arriving there January 4, 1934.
Litke soon was refitted in Japan while Cheluskin sank in February 1934, crushed by ice. Contemporary authors directly link Litke failure in November 1933 to the wear and damage of two Dalstroy seasons.
In 1934, icebreaker Fyodor Litke became a Soviet propaganda icon as the first vessel to pass the complete Northern Sea Route, east to west, in one season. In the following season it escorted the first freighters through the passage in the opposite direction. Since then, hundreds of vessels have completed the passage in both directions.
This time, captain Dublitsky was in overall charge of the convoy, with captain Nikolay Nikolaev in command of the ship and professor Vladimir Wiese in charge of the scientific programme. Litke sailed from Vladivostok on 28 June 1934 and passed the Bering Strait on the morning of 13 July. She was considerably delayed by ice at the De Long Strait but on 2 August she was able to enter the Laptev Sea.
As she approached the Taymyr coast Litke again encountered ice. By the evening of 11 August, while she was manoeuvering among heavy floes, Litke spotted the masts and funnels of three trapped ships close to the Komsomolskaya Pravda Islands. These were the Pravda, the Volodarskiy and the Tovarich Stalin. They appeared dead ahead, separated from Litke by 10 kilometers of solid ice. After a week of breaking through the ice, Litke succeeded in rescuing the freighters at the cost of major damage to its hull structure. Then the freed freighters separated: Stalin followed Litke west to Arkhangelsk via Vilkitsky Strait; Volodarskiy headed east towards the mouths of the Lena and Pravda southwards to Nordvik.
Dublitsky, Nikolayev and Wiese received a welcoming address from Joseph Stalin (September 23, 1934) and became public celebrities on par with the rescuers of Cheluskin.
In 1935 Litke escorted two transports, Vantzetti and Iskra, through the Nortnern Route west to east. They sailed from Leningrad July 8 and arrived at Vladivostok October 8, 1935. At the same time Anadyr and Stalingrad made the east-to-west journey, reaching Leningrad on October 16. Rabochiy made a near double trip from Arkhangelsk to Kolyma and back.
In 1936 Litke was temporarily relieved from NKVD duties. Litke, under command of captain Yury Khlebnikov and overall management of Otto Schmidt, completed a purely military operation - clearing the Arctic passage for Stalin and Voykov destroyers, dispatched from Kronstadt via the Northern Route to join the Pacific Fleet. Litke, sailing from Arkhangelsk, reached Novaya Zemlya on August 1. Here, the convoy picked up more transports and oil tankers; destroyers reached Vladivostok in October 1936. The operation nearly ended in a disaster when the oil-powered destroyers ran short out of fuel in stormy weather in Sea of Okhotsk; mechanics managed to burn wheat flour to maintain minimum boiler pressure. Meanwhile, in the season of 1936 as many as 16 ships traversed the Northern Route.
The season of 1937 was designed to be far superior to past seasons in terms of tonnage and number of ships involved (which also meant that many ships were not fit for Arctic conditions at all). However, it also proved to be the hardest. Two convoys, led by Litke and Lenin, as well as Krasin, scrambled to rescue them, were trapped in the ice off Khatanga Gulf for the winter. Through bad planning, weather and luck 25 of 64 ships engaged on the Northern Route in 1937 were out of action - at least until next spring; one, Rabochiy, perished. Only in April 1938 Krasin, resupplied from the coastal coal dumps, broke through and released Litke and its transports. Failures of 1937 where used as a pretext for replacing Northern Sea Route management, at least 673 men fell victims to the Great Purge. Glavsevmorput itself was limited to maintaining coastal navigation, its auxiliary function relegated to Dalstroy and other organizations.
1941—1945: World War II
In late summer of 1941 Litke was armed with artillery at Severodvinsk shipyard No. 402 and acquired a frigate pennant number SKR-18. It was assigned to a newly formed Northern Unit of White Sea Flotilla. Litke served the rest of 1941 in its principal function, guiding Arctic convoys in the Eastern sector (White Sea to Dudinka); in the winter of 1941-1942 it cleared the frozen approaches to Arkhangelsk for the Atlantic convoys. This seasonal work pattern - deep Arctic in summer, White Sea in winter, two refits at shipyard No. 402 - continued throughout the war. Sailing in western Arctic could be as dangerous as in the Far East; for example, in February 1942 Litke failed to clear passage to Indiga Bay and its convoy had to return to Iokanga, vulnerable to German air and submarine attacks.
During Operation Wunderland, on August 20, 1942, German submarine U-456 (Lt. Captain Teichert) tried to sink Litke off Belushya Guba in the Barents Sea by firing torpedoes at it but was unsuccessful. August 26, Admiral Scheer succeeded in destroying the coal dump in Dikson. Litke and icebreaker Taimyr were summoned to lead an emergency convoy of coal barges, saving the town from extinction.
In the same summer of 1943 icebreaker Joseph Stalin, recently refitted in Seattle, escorted three transports from the United States to Tiksi; here, Litke awaited the convoy to double Stalin's ice-crushing capacity. However, threat of German submarines and bottom mines scattered in the shallow coastal passage caused a delay in further travel - until the Navy assembled sufficient defensive escort.
Two transports of VA-18 convoy,[nb 3] Arkhangelsk and Kirov, and a minesweeper were destroyed by submarines in Kara Sea on September 30 and October 1. Surviving transports of VA-18 were left behind in Dikson, but the Navy could not afford leaving the icebreakers there for the whole Arctic winter - they were needed in western ports to assist Atlantic convoys. Despite increasing submarine presence, Litke and Stalin sailed west from Tiksi to Arkhangelsk with a minesweeper escort, codenamed Convoy AB-66.[nb 4] A deep sea route via Amderma and Kara Strait was safe from bottom mines, but at least 600 of 1,100 nautical miles (2,000 km) of it were packed with "young" ice, slowing down the convoy and consuming fuel (Litke sailed with only 900 tonnes of coal and 290 tonnes of water). The second leg of the journey was almost all ice pack (eliminating the submarine threat).
On November 11, AB-66 reached clear waters and was joined by a defensive destroyer escort (Convoy AB-55). Six more destroyers sailed from Arkhangelsk and Iokanga to protect AB-55 in home waters. November 16 the destroyers intercepted a German submarine and sighted a Ju-88; both intruders were forced to abort their missions. Two more submarines were intercepted by the minesweepers. The convoy reached Severodvinsk without casualties on November 18, 1943. According to Soviet reports, total count of AB-55 and AB-66 stands at two submarines sunk, two damaged. More important, Litke and Stalin proved the viability of extending polar navigation to October; their observation of young ice formation in October 1943 changed the previously held perception of the phenomenon.
In 1947-1948 Litke was refitted by Merseyside yards, and continued Arctic exploration. Two campaigns (1948 and 1955) were completely dedicated to hydrographic studies of Arctic seas. In 1955, it set the world record of reaching 83°11', or only 440 nautical miles (810 km) from the North Pole with normal propulsion and steering and safely returning to home port (Fram went even further, to 86°14' - but completely trapped in ice, unable to turn back). 1955 expedition was also notable for locating the deepest known point of the Arctic Ocean, named Litke Depression (5449 m), and drilling geological samples from the ocean floor.
After a long career, Litke was towed to the Murmansk scrapyard in August 1958 and scrapped in 1960; she remained listed by Lloyd's Register to 1961.
- (English) Barr, W. The Drift of Lenin's Convoy in the Laptev Sea, 1937 - 1938. Arctic, v.33 no.1 (March 1980) p.4-20 
- (English) Barr, W. The First Soviet Convoy to the Mouth of the Lena. Arctic, v.35 no.2 (June 1982) p.317-325 
- (German) German Naval Warfare in 1942
- (English) International Polar Year - Badges for Imperial Russian/Soviet Polar Exploration and Research
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- (Russian) Combat chronicles of the Russian Navy (Боевая летопись русского флота: Хроника важнейших событий военной истории русского флота с IX в. по 1917 г. — М.: Воениздат МВС СССР, 1948 )
- (Russian) Dremlyug, V. V. Naval logistics in the Arctic (1941-1945) (В. В. Дремлюг. Обеспечение морских операций в Арктике (1941-1945) / Конференция "Война в Арктике", г.Архангельск, август-сентябрь 2000. )
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- (English) Fraser, R. J. Early Canadian Icebreakers. Arctic, v. 16, no. 1, Mar. 1963, p. 2-7, ill. 
- (Russian) History of World War I, vol.II (История первой мировой войны 1914-1918 гг. — М.: Наука, 1975, т.II)
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- (Russian) Larkov, S., Romamenko, F. Zakonvoirovannye zimovschiki (Ларьков, С., Романенко, Ф., Законвоированные зимовщики. / Земцов А. Н. (ред.)., Враги народа за полярным кругом. - М: ИНЕТ им. С. И. Вавилова, 2007. ISBN 978-5-98866-014-9 )
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- (Russian) Seliverstov, L. S. Pomorie to the Ocean (Селиверстов Л.С. Из Поморья - в океан : записки моряка.- Мурманск: 2005. ISBN 5-85510-293-9)
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- (Russian) Smirnov, A. V. History of biological studies at the Arctic and Antarctic Institute (A. В. Смирнов. Исторический очерк биологических исследований, проводившихся Арктическим и Антарктическим научно-исследовательским институтом. ААНИИ, 2007. Arctic and Antarctic Institute)
- (Russian) Smirnov, K. D. 1943 ice operation in the Arctic (К. Д. Смирнов. Крупная ледовая операция в 1943 году в Арктике )
- (Russian) Sokolov, B. The fall of Northern Region (Борис Соколов. Падение Северной области. / Гражданская война в России: Война на Севере. — М: ООО «Издательство ACT». ISBN 5-17-024052-Х)
- (Russian) Stalin, J. S. Complete works, 2006 edition, v.18 (Cталин, И. В. Cочинения. – Т. 18. – Тверь: Информационно-издательский центр «Союз», 2006.)
- ↑ Fraser, p.3
- ↑ Papanin, ch.3
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Fraser, p.6
- ↑ Seliverstov, p.57
- ↑ Combat chronicles..., p.426
- ↑ History of World War I, vol.II, p.379
- ↑ Sokolov, p.413
- ↑ Sokolov, p.418
- ↑ Sokolov, p.428
- ↑ Bochek, Introduction 
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 11.2 Bochek, Work in Vladivostok. Loading and sailing out 
- ↑ Bochek, Preparation work in Moscow 
- ↑ Larkov, Romanenko, p.172
- ↑ Bochek. Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk. 
- ↑ Bochek, Resupplying in Petropaplovsk 
- ↑ Bocher. Petropavlovsk to Providenya. 
- ↑ Bochek. Failure of Anadyr and Suchan 
- ↑ 18.0 18.1 Bochek, Operations of the second group of ships 
- ↑ Bochek, Unloading process 
- ↑ 20.0 20.1 Bochek, Kolyma to Chaun  Cite error: Invalid
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- ↑ Bochek. Personnel quarters and their preparation 
- ↑ Bochek, December 1932 
- ↑ Bochek, February 1933 
- ↑ Bochek, June 1933 
- ↑ Bochek, Winter on Uritsky 
- ↑ Bochek, Return from Ambarchik anchorage 
- ↑ Larkov, p.139
- ↑ 28.0 28.1 Larkov, p.140
- ↑ 29.0 29.1 Bochek, Litke delayed in Polar region 
- ↑ Larkov, p.141
- ↑ Bochek, Provideniya to Vladivostok 
- ↑ Barr 1982, p.324
- ↑ Barr 1982, p.323-325
- ↑ Stalin, v.18. p.70
- ↑ 35.0 35.1 35.2 Barr 1980, p.4
- ↑ Rudny, ch.5 
- ↑ Barr 1980, p.17
- ↑ 75 years of Northern Sea Route, p.3
- ↑ Barr 1980, p.18
- ↑ Schmigelsky
- ↑ 41.0 41.1 Dremlyug
- ↑ Popov, p.47
- ↑ K. D. Smirnov
- ↑ 44.0 44.1 Fraser, p.7
- ↑ A. V. Smirnov
- ↑ Evseyev
- ↑ Seliverstov, p. 181