The Montcalm in Russian Waters: From the Murmansk Run to the Gulags

As noted in my previous posting (found here), the 1904 Canadian icebreaker Montcalm was one of the pioneer vessels fighting ice in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, as well as originating the spring ice patrols in Cabot Strait.  In the 1920s and 1930s Canada expanded its ice fighting capability with several new and larger vessels and the Montcalm was relegated to less trying duties.     

Pronchishchev white sea ca 1951 coll Lemachko BV

Pronchishchev in the White Sea ca. 1951. Photo collection B.V. Lemachko

In June 1941 the Soviet Union was invaded by German troops.  Suddenly, as had been the case in 1915, the transportation route through the northern seas to Murmansk and Arkangelsk which had rail connections to Moscow, became essential to move supplies and equipment.  In order to keep the northern ports open the Soviets, who already had a a large fleet of icebreakers, requested additional assistance. As part of the response Canada, at the request of Great Britain, declared the Montcalm surplus and presented it as a gift to the Soviet Union.  

Montcalm port 21 MArch 1942 Imp war mus A9316 - Copy

Montcalm at Greenock 21 March 1942. Armaments can be seen on the stern and bow of the icebreaker. Imperial War Museum photo A9316

Prior to crossing the Atlantic the Montcalm was provided with minimal defensive equipment: three 12 pound guns, four 20mm guns, and eight 12.7 mm machine guns.  The old icebreaker required three attempts to successfully reach Murmansk. Initially departing on 20 January, mechanical difficulties and suffocating smoke produced by the vessels’ ancient coal-fired boilers caused two returns to Halifax. The third attempt was successful and the Montcalm finally crossed the Atlantic as part of Convoy SC72 which arrived in Liverpool on 17 March. By 21 March 1942 the Montcalm was in Greenock Scotland and joined Murmansk-bound convoy PQ15 which left Iceland 26 April. This convoy contained 26 vessels including the Soviet icebreaker Krassin which had sailed from Seattle, where it had undergone refit, through the Panama Canal to Iceland. The convoy had a substantial naval support fleet with some 45 naval vessels covering various parts of the northern passage. However, some of these were many miles distant from the convoy.  Owing to the proximity of German aircraft and naval units in Norway the Murmansk Run was an extremely difficult and dangerous route. This was exacerbated in spring and summer with longer daylight hours. On 28 April the convoy was spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft some 200 miles off the northwest coast of Norway. For the next week the convoy faced constant danger from submarines, German surface vessels and Norway-based dive bombers with  attacks on three successive days. On 2 May the convoy was attacked by 6 German JU 88 bombers but without loss to the ships.  On 3 May while passing the northern tip of Norway in the early morning hours 6 Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers attacked, sinking 3 ships and killing 70 seamen.  Late the same day another attack damaged one ship before the German aircraft were driven off by Soviet air cover. The following day, 4 May, Soviet destroyers made contact with convoy and on the next day Soviet and British patrol vessels joined the convoy and reached Murmansk.


Propaganda poster – Canadian War Museum CWM 19880069-838

The voyage of the Montcalm was memorialized by the Canadian Government in one of the war posters prepared by the Department of Defense. The Montcalm’s captain, Fred S. Slocombe, a civilian employed by the Department of Transport as Examiner of Masters and Mates,  was named as a member of the civil division of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the merchant marine. This was one of the few public acknowledgements of the important role of the Merchant Navy, whose members faced the same dangers as naval personnel but were not recognized as veterans until long after the end of the war.    


Pronchishchev in the Northern Dvina River ca. 1950. Photo collection B.V. Lemachko

The Montcalm was operated by the Russians as part of the paramilitary fleet for the duration of what was described by the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War providing transportation in the region and supply of polar stations in the Northern Basin. Right up until almost the end of the war these waters continued to be subject from attack from German submarines and surface vessels. The Montcalm had several close calls including in 1942 when the vessel just missed an encounter with the German heavy cruiser “Admiral Scheer.”  In the summer of 1942 the forehold and fo’csle of the Montcalm were filled with bunks and that year some 848 people of all ages were carried to remote communities involved with extraction of war resources.  Not all of the passengers travelled willingly as the tiny communities on the shores and rivers of Siberia leading to the Arctic Ocean were locations of great sorrow and hardship. 


Pronchichchev near an icefield at an unidentified location ca. 1950

Contrary to the normal practice which saw all Allied ship transfers renamed immediately, while in Soviet service the vessel retained the name Montcalm until November 1947 when it was renamed the Pronchichchev to honour Vasli  Pronchichchev (1702-1736) a Russian arctic explorer who explored much of the Taymyr Peninsula, the northernmost part of of the mainland of Eurasia.  The vessel was operated by the Northern Arctic Shipping Company and later the Murmansk Arctic Shipping Company until September 1954 when it was added to the Northern Fleet of the Soviet Navy. Re-named again as vessel PKZ-61 the ship served for several years as a floating barracks. In April 1957 it was removed from the naval list and scrapped. 

Screen Shot 02-19-23 at 06.57 PMThe history of the Montcalm in Russian polar waters is the subject of a volume, unfortunately available only in Russian, by noted marine historian Oleg Khimanych which details the social history of the vessel. Titled “Montcalm – Arctic Ark” the book, through extensive archival documents and more importantly interviews and reminiscences of officers, crew and passengers, describes how the Montcalm became the embodiment of war-time life in the Soviet Arctic. As one reviewer describing the volume noted “from the summer of 1942 it became the only passenger ship n the Soviet Arctic. Sometimes it took hundreds of people on a voyage, and these people in conditions of war, often in ice storms, in any bad weather, lived and got sick, died and were born on board the steamer. And they often starved – both during the war and for one year after it . . .  Montcalm carried polar winterers and builders, sailors and port workers along the Northern Sea Route, But there were also special settlers and prisoners.” Among other ports the Montcalm served the port of Dudinka which was connected to the Norilsk mining area, location of a number of gulag camps from the mid-1930s to 1956. During the period some 16,000 prisoners and workers died at the camps connected with the Norilsk operations. 

For a dozen years the Montcalm was a constant presence in the Soviet Union’s Western Arctic seas. During the war and in the immediate post-war period it became a symbol of the region’s growth and resilience.  

I am heavily indebted to researcher Peter Veselov of Arkangelsk who has provided many links and photos related to the history of the Montcalm while in service in the U.S.S.R.    



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