Icebreaker Fyodor Litke

Icebreaker Fyodor Litke

The icebreaker Fyodor Litke (SKR-18, _ru. Фёдор Литке, СКР-18) was a Soviet ship which was active in the Arctic until 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.Fraser, p.3] After four years in Canada it was sold to Russian government and eventually renamed "Fyodor Litke" in honour of Arctic explorer Fyodor Petrovich Litke.

Ship "Litke"Name of the ship was usually reduced to "Litke", omitting "Fyodor".] 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. [Papanin, ch.3] For this reason, "Litke" was uniquely classified as an "ice-cutter" ( _ru. ледорез) or "icebreaking steamship" ( _ru. ледокольный пароход), rather than a true icebreaker.


As "Earl Grey"

Albert Grey, the ninth Governor General of Canada, was keen on devepoping Hudson Bay area. His project entailed construction of 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 the icebreaker wearing his own name - "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".Fraser, p.6] Her engine was only 30% less powerful than the engine of Yermak, the largest true icebreaker of the period, although "Yermak" was slower due to bulky ice-crushing shape. "Earl Grey" was equipped with a clipper style Stanley bow, giving it a yacht-like appearance; her owners claimed it to be "First Canadian ice fighting machine".Fraser, p.6] Later Russian crewmembers praised its living quarter luxuries but scorned the substandard shower room. The ship also rolled excessively, even on relatively calm seas. [Seliverstov, p.57]

"Earl Grey" continued service between Charlottetown and Pictou until the outbreak of World War I; in 1914 it was sold to the government of Russian Empire and renamed "Canada", operating in Arkhangelsk area since October 9, 1914 [Combat chronicles..., p.426] . "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. [History of World War I, vol.II, p.379]

Russian Civil War

In 1918-1920, when general Evgenii Miller controlled Arkhangelsk, "Canada" remained in the port, loyal to Miller's government. However, on February 16, 1920, when defeated Miller was evacuating the city, "Canada" and "Ivan Susanin" refused to cooperate with the white forces and stayed in Solombala harbor. [Sokolov, p.413]

Armed "Canada", now in the hands of local commissars Petrov and Nikolayev, leaning towards Bolsheviks, sailed to seas chasing the convoy and intercepted it, trapped in the ice, in the morning of February 21. [Sokolov, p.418] Artillery duel of "Canada" and Miller's icebreaker "Minin" - probably the only sea battle between icebreakers - ended in favor of Miller: "Canada" retreated due to hull damage. Bolsheviks blamed the failure on Petrov and Nikolayev, who could have colluded with the fugitives. [Sokolov, p.428]

New Bolshevik owners renamed "Canada" to "III International" and eventually to "Fyodor Litke" - after notable Arctic explorer, geographer and tutor of Grand Duke Constantine Nicholaievich of Russia.

1929 expedition

In 1926, 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 Sebastopol with captain Konstantin Dublitsky in command, reaching Vladivostok July 4, 1929; here all Black Sea sailors were relieved and replaced with local staff. Ten days later "Litke" sailed to the North; it passed Bering Strait safely, attempting to pass De Long Strait and approach the island from south. On August 8 scout plane reported unpassable ice in the strait, and "Litke" turned north, heading to Herald Island. It failed to escape mounting ice; August 12 the captain shut down the engines to save coal and had to wait two weeks until the ice pressure eased up. Making a few hundred meters a day, "Litke" reached the settlement 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

In 1932-1933 "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. January 23, 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. [Bochek, "Introduction" [] ] Bochek, "Work in Vladivostok. Loading and sailing out" [] ] 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. [Bochek, "Preparation work in Moscow" [] ]

Ships of the first large convoy - "Litke", six transport ships and a motor schooner, towing 26 smaller craftBochek, "Work in Vladivostok. Loading and sailing out" [] ] and carrying 867 passengers, most of them prisoners,Larkov, Romanenko, p.172] - sailed from Vladivostok individually between June 27 and July 5, 1932. "Litke", under command of captain Nikolay Nikolayev, sailed on July 2.Bochek, "Work in Vladivostok. Loading and sailing out" [] ] 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 July 10, making an average 7 knots with 4 out of 6 boilers. [Bochek. "Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk". [] ] 4 out of 6 boilers were normally used in clear water. 5 or 6 were used in heavy ice only.] In the following week it resupplied from a Japanese coaler, taking special precautions to block any contacts between Soviet and Japanese crews. [Bochek, "Resupplying in Petropaplovsk" [] ] Sailing to Providenya (July 18-26) was uneventful except for a minor storm off Cape Olutorsky, damaging the barges again. [Bocher. "Petropavlovsk to Providenya". [] ]

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. [Bochek. "Failure of Anadyr and Suchan" [] ] 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 a day; the other transports were relieved from a possibly fatal breakthrough.Bochek, "Operations of the second group of ships" [] ]

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.Bochek, "Operations of the second group of ships" [] ] 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. [Bochek, "Unloading process" [] ] 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" 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.Bochek, "Kolyma to Chaun" [] ]

October 2-7 crippled "Litke" was busy clearing passage to "Uritsky", trapped in ice off Cape Shelagsky. Fearing that "Litke" herself would be trapped away from the convoy, Bochek and his staff aborted her efforts; "Litke" joined the main forces in Chaun Bay, preparing to stay there for the long Arctic winter.Bocher. "Kolyma to Chaun" [] ] October 31 "Litke" was fully set for the winter; it still carried 500 tonnes of coal, with 150 allocated for heating at the anchorage.Bochek. "Personnel quarters and their preparation" [] ] Her large luxurious saloons were used for propaganda and entertainment assemblies of the whole convoy. [Bochek, "December 1932" [] ] Meanwhile, her crew morale was failing; ship surgeon and cook were relieved from duty for absenteeism. [Bochek, "February 1933" [] ]

= 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. [Bochek, "June 1933" [] ] 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 her to idle. July 18 "Litke" finally approached "Uritsky"; both ships safely reached Kolyma Inlet on July 21. [Bochek, "Winter on Uritsky" [] ] 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. [Bochek, "Return from Ambarchik anchorage" [] ] 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.Larkov, p.139]

At the same time "Cheluskin", attempting a single-season passage from Murmansk to Vladivostok, was stuck in ice in the same area, off Cape Koluchin. September 22, attempting to clear passage for three ships trapped in ice, "Litke" again damaged rudder and propeller, hardly escaping an ice trap herself, and had to retreat to clear water in Provideniya bay.Larkov, p.140] 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 her 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 her 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 - her right shaft was warped to the point which rendered the right engine useless.Bochek, "Litke delayed in Polar region" [] ] 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,Bochek, "Litke delayed in Polar region" [] ] 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.Larkov, p.141] Schmidt let "Litke" abort her mission on November 17, when two ships were separated by 30 miles. "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. [Bochek, "Provideniya to Vladivostok" [] ]

"Litke" soon was refitted in Japan [Barr 1982, p.324] 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.Larkov, p.140]

1934 expedition

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. [Barr 1982, p.323-325]

Dublitsky, Nikolayev and Wiese received a welcoming address from Joseph Stalin (September 23, 1934) [Stalin, v.18. p.70] 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.Barr 1980, p.4]

In 1936 "Litke" was temporarily relieved from her 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. [Rudny, ch.5 [] ] Meanwhile, in the season of 1936 as many as 16 ships traversed the Northern Route.Barr 1980, p.4]

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).Barr 1980, p.17] 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.Barr 1980, p.4] Only in April 1938 "Krasin", resupplied from the coastal coal dumps, broke through and released "Litke" and her 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. [75 years of Northern Sea Route, p.3] "Glavsevmorput" itself was limited to maintaining coastal navigation, its auxiliary function relegated to Dalstroy and other organizations.Barr 1980, p.18]

1941-1945: World War II

In late summer of 1941 "Litke" was armed with artillery at Severodvinsk shipyard No. 402 [Schmigelsky] and acquired a frigate pennant number "SKR-18". It was assigned to a newly formed Northern Unit of White Sea Flotilla. [Dremlyug] "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. [Popov, p.47]

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 convoyVA acronym stands for "Vilkitsky Strait to Arkhangelsk"] , "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, [Dremlyug] 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"AB acronym stands for "Deep Arctic to White Sea"] . A deep sea route via Amderma and Kara Strait was safe from bottom mines, but at least 600 of 1100 nautical miles 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).

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. [K. D. Smirnov] More important, "Litke" and "Stalin" proved the viability of extending polar navigation to October; their observation of young ice formation in October of 1943 changed the previously held perception of the phenomenon.

Post-war service

In 1947-1948 "Litke" was refitted by Merseyside yards, and continued Arctic exploration.Fraser, p.7] Two campaigns (1948 and 1955) were completely dedicated to hydrographic studies of Arctic seas. [A. V. Smirnov] In 1955, it set the world record of reaching 83°11', or only 440 nautical miles from the North Pole "with normal propulsion and steering" and safely returning to home portFraser, p.7] ("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 meters), and drilling geological samples from the ocean floor. [Evseyev]

After a long career, "Litke" was towed to the Murmansk scrapyard in August of 1958 [Seliverstov, p. 181] and scrapped in 1960; she remained listed by Lloyd's Register to 1961.Fraser, p.6]


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* Evseyev, V. V. "Geological studies of the AANII" ("Евсеев, В.В. Горно-геологические исследования института." [ Arctic and Antarctic Institute] )
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* 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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