Operation Benedict

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Force Benedict
A Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIB of the No. 151 Wing RAF at Murmansk
Type Re-inforcement and joint RAF / VVS operations
Location Kola Peninsula
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Planned by Air Marshal Charles Portal
Objective Protect North Sea convoys from Luftwaffe and Suomen Ilmavoimat air forces
Date 29 July 1941 (1941-July-29) to 6 December 1941 (1941-December-06)
Executed by No. 151 Wing RAF and 72ndSAP
Casualties 1 killed

Force Benedict was an operation during World War II in which a fighter aircraft Wing of the Royal Air Force (RAF), together with the units of the VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily - soviet air forces), were deployed against the Luftwaffe (German air force) and the Suomen Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) over the North Sea.


On 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union was attacked by troops of the Third Reich and Axis powers, and as a consequence, the Allied Power of Great Britain was also considered attacked. In the framework of the resolved military assistance for this country (Lend-Lease Act), Winston Churchill commissioned the British ambassador in Moscow, Stafford Cripps, to explore the options for collaboration. On 27 June, Cripps submitted the proposal of a British/Soviet operation to protect the convoys that were scheduled to travel through the North Sea to the destination ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk to the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. At the same time, pilots of the VVS were briefed on British aircraft in order to be able to use them at a later date. During discussions in London on 9 July between British admirals and a Soviet delegation, as well as a cabinet session by day appointed for this purpose, the proposal was confirmed.


On 12 July 1941, a British commission met representatives of the Royal Navy (RN) and the RAF in Murmansk to review the circumstances in the field. On their recommendation, a decision was made to use the Vaenga airfield for the operation. The contingent was originally meant to consist of two squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and one squadron each of twin-engined Bristol Blenheims and Bristol Beaufighters. In the end, the commander-in-chief of the RAF Charles Portal decided on 25 July to send only the Hurricane squadrons; No. 81 Squadron RAF (81 Sqn) and No. 134 Squadron RAF (134 Sqn) were deployed on 29 and 31 July, and consolidated into the No. 151 Wing RAF (151 Wing), equipped with a total of 39 aircraft and 550 men, pilots and ground crew. Neville Ramsbottom-Isherwood was appointed their commander. The pilots had been taken from 81 Sqn and No. 504 Squadron RAF (504 Sqn) or had just completed their training.

The majority of the airmen embarked together with 15 Hurricanes packed in crates on the steamship RMS Llanstephan Castle at the Scapa Flow anchorage in the Orkney Islands. The remaining 24 aircraft were stationed with their pilots on board the aircraft carrier HMS Argus. The ships departed from Scapa Flow on 17 August 1941, together with the Dervish Convoy. RMS Llanstephan Castle reached its destination port of Archangelsk on the night of 31 August / 1 September. The 15 Hurricanes were assembled at the nearby airfield at Keg-Ostrow, and on 9 September flew to Vaenga (renamed Severomorsk in 1951). The aircraft from HMS Argus cruising off the coast began their ferry flights on 7 September. On 10 September Ramsbottom-Isherwood declared his unit ready for duty. A day later, the first six mission flights took place.


The first encounter with German aircraft occurred on 12 September. Five Hurricanes came upon an equal number of Messerschmitt Bf 109s of Luftflotte 5, which were flying fighter cover for a Henschel Hs 126 reconnaissance aircraft. In the subsequent skirmish, three Bf 109s were shot down; the British lost one Hurricane. Pilot Flight Sergeant N. H. Smith died in the crash and was thus the first airman of the fleet killed in action.

Until 10 October, the 151 Wing flew missions almost daily, either air patrols over the port of Murmansk, Kola and Russian Shipyard Number 10 at Polyarny District, or escorting Soviet bombers that attacked German or Finnish airfields. There was aerial combat on five days during the operation, in which the fleet shot down twelve Bf 109s, one Hs 126, and two Junkers Ju 88s. Most of the shots targeted the experienced pilots of 81 Sqn, who had previously fought in the Battle of Britain. The most successful pilot C. Haw with three kills came from this unit.

From 10 to 21 October 1941, the British pilots briefed Soviet pilots of the 72nd SAP (Smeshannaya Aviatsionnyy Polk – composite air regiment) on the Hurricane. Individual pilots, among them Boris Safonov, who at this time was the squadron leader of the 72nd SAP, were flying this type as early as the end of September. From 9 October onward, the first Soviet squadron was ready for duty; on 25 October, the first Soviet air victory was achieved over a Messerschmitt Bf 110.

After completing pilot training, 81Sqn left the USSR in the middle of November, 134Sqn already having been shipped back to Great Britain at the end of October. Upon 81Sqns arrival in Scapa Flow on 6 December 1941, Force Benedict came to a close.


On 17 March 1942, pilots Boris Safonov, Ivan Tumanov, Alexander Kovalenko, and Alexei Kucharenko were awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross. Conversely, Commander Ramsbottom-Isherwood and pilots A. Rook, A. Miller, and C. Raw received the Order of Lenin. Previously, the commander of sea air forces of the northern fleet Alexander Kusnezov had received a "personalized" Hurricane as a gift from the British pilots.

Prior to World War II, the RMS Llanstephan Castle had been a luxury cruise liner plying the route between Europe and Africa for the Union Castle line. Built in 1914, by Fairfield of Glasgow, she’d been designed for the East African Service between England and Natal via Suez. She was requisitioned in 1917, when she carried troops across the Atlantic, and in 1919 she brought back the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha, from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Alongside the men of 151 Wing, the RMS Llanstephan Castle also carried some 24 civilian passengers on her voyage to Archangelsk. These included members of a Polish Legation and their wives, and a Czechoslovakian mission, with both parties heading to Moscow; Vernon Bartlett, the MP for the Bridgwater constituency in Somerset; American journalist Wallace Carrol, and Polish artist Feliks Topolski, who was travelling on the liner as an accredited war artist for both Polish and British Governments. He was also under contract to Picture Post magazine, which published many of his drawings after his return. The episode is covered in his autobiography ‘Fourteen Letters’ which was published by Faber & Faber, and a number of the drawings from his time on the Llanstephan Castle can be found in his book, “Russia in War” which was published by Methuen in 1942. Also on board was Charlotte Haldane, who at the time was married to geneticist JBS Haldane. She was travelling as a war reporter for the Daily Sketch newspaper.

The Hurricane in the polar sea mission

151 Wing flew exclusively the Hurricane IIB, which was simultaneously the first delivery of British Lend-Lease aircraft to the Soviet Union. A total of 2,952 Hurricanes went to the VVS. The Soviet pilots assessed this type as not very good. It was judged as being not heavily armed enough. Safonov had the twelve 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Browning machine guns exchanged for two 20 mm (0.787 in) ShVAK cannon and two 12.7 mm (0.500 in) Berezin UB machine guns in the Hurricanes of his squadron, with which better results were achieved.

The Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engine installed in the IIB proved itself unreliable, with a short service life in the low temperatures of the polar sea region. Because of these circumstances, many of the Hurricanes were unairworthy due to a lack of spare parts.



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Further reading

External links