Tag Archives: Wrangel Island

I’ll take the North-East Passage: Earl Grey – the Russian Years

From White to Red

When the Dominion Government Steamer Earl Grey was commissioned as the HMCS Earl Grey in August 1914 its fate could hardly be imagined. Having served as an icebreaker on the winter route to Prince Edward Island and as a summer yacht for the Governor General its role in the middle of an international war was far from clear. Purchased by the Imperial Russian Government to keep the supply lanes through the frozen White Sea open it was one of dozens of ships converging on the northern coast of Russia, the normal routes west through the Baltic having been blocked by the German navy.


Rare photo of the vessel bearing the name Kanada ca. 1918. Note the wheel barrows with coal and supplies.

The Grey (which had been renamed Kanada) and other icebreakers helped guide 146 British transport ships with military supplies through the ice and extended the shipping season to the end of January 1915. She also worked through 1916 but in January 1917 she sank following a collision. She was raised and repaired in England, returning to become part of the White Russian fleet after the October revolution when Arkhangelsk remained in government hands. However when the city fell to the Reds in February 1920 the crews of the Kanada and the Ivan Susnian (formerly the DGS Minto) aligned themselves with the Bolsheviks. The ship, now armed, became involved in a battle with an icebreaker under White Russian control. This is probably the only sea battle in history to take place between icebreakers. The Kanada was forced to withdraw with damage to her hull. Under the Bolsheviks the name of the ship was changed to III International and later to Fyodor Litke.

Litke VCCG 3Icebreaking and science

Fyodor Litke was a 19th century geographer, arctic explorer and navigator who contributed to the mapping and exploration of Arctic Russia and Russian Alaska. The name assigned to the ship was particularly apt as in many ways her activities over the next thirty years extended knowledge of the area. Based in Leningrad in 1923 she was transferred to the Black Sea  in 1925 and to Vladivostok  in 1928.

In 1929 the ship was dispatched to rescue a scientific expedition which had traveled to Wrangel Island, north of eastern Siberia, which had been trapped on the island by ice for three years and was unlikely to survive a fourth winter. Sometimes making only a few hundred metres a day the ship battered its way to the island rescuing the exploration party. The ship was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for its success.

During the winter of 1932-33 the Litke conducted a convoy of six transport ships, a motor schooner and 26 smaller craft carrying 867 passengers from Vladivostok to the Kolyma river where a new settlement serving gold mines was to be established. Owing to damages fighting the ice the Litke was forced to overwinter in the area.  In fighting her way out of the ice in the fall of 1933 she was badly damaged, lost propeller blades and warped one shaft effectively reducing her power by half.

After being refitted in Japan in 1934 the Litke achieved fame being the first vessel to complete the Northern Sea Route (North East Passage) from East to West in one season. The following year she traveled the same route from west to east. She served as an escort for a number of Northern Sea traverses in the following years.

Stamp commemorating the F. Litke. Part of a series depicting Russian icebreakers

Stamp commemorating the F. Litke. Part of a 1976 series depicting Russian icebreakers

With the outbreak of World War II she was armed and assigned to the White Sea flotilla. As in the Great War, shipping of material to the northern ports such as Murmansk was essential to the war effort however this time the German air and naval forces in northern Norway made the work more than just smashing ice. The Litke helped a number of convoys through the dangerous ice-filled waters throughout the war as well as supporting vessels carrying essential raw materials from ports in northern Russia to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. She successfully dodged a number of German attempts to disrupt the trade.

In 1947-48 the ship had a major refit in England and returned to arctic exploration , mostly detailing the hydrography of the Arctic Sea. In 1955 she set a world record for the furthest north by a surface ship at 86 degrees, only 440 miles from the North Pole. In 1958, just shy of 50 years of service  her work came to an end and she was towed to a Murmansk scrap year where she was broken up two years later. Several reports indicate that owing to her service record her wheelhouse and radio shack are preserved in the maritime museum in Moscow however this has proven difficult to confirm. There is a fine model of the ship and other information regarding her at the State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg.

The Earl Grey / Kanada / III International / Fyodor Litke in pictures

There are a large number of images from Russian sources available, most from the web page referenced below. Click on any image to see the slide show.


An extensive series of posts (in Russian)and photos detailing the history of the Fyodor Litke can be found at http://www.polarpost.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?t=677.  The pages also reference a 1934 Russian newsreel showing the provisioning of the ship, its officers and a few seconds of the ship underway . The video can be found at YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRpoxUQo_xE