ALSIB – THE ROUTE OF COURAGE
On June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union, bringing down on this country the might of the Nazi war machine. The losses sustained by the Red Army during the first months of the war were horrendous – in both manpower and military equipment. In his letter to British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill of September 3, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wrote about ‘…the mortal danger looming over the Soviet Union’ that could be removed by promptly delivering to Russia at least 400 planes and 500 tanks per month. On October 1 the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Moscow Protocol, which marked the beginning of regular Allied war supplies to the USSR.
The main problem in providing war materiel to Soviet Russia was delivery. The logistical difficulties and the hazards of the northern sea lane to Archangel and Murmansk made the Allies consider new supply routes. One of them was the air bridge between Alaska and Siberia. President Roosevelt believed it could become the most effective route for delivering American lend-lease airplanes to Soviet territory. At first, the project was rejected by Stalin, who said the route was ‘too dangerous’, because of possible provocations on the part of Japan. Instead, Stalin suggested an air corridor from Canada via Iceland and Britain to
Murmansk. However, the necessities of wartime, namely, the acute shortage of warplanes on the Russian front, made the Soviet leader re-consider his attitude to the Alaska-Siberia connection. Stalin’s letter to President Roosevelt of July 2, 1942, said: “…I fully share your opinion about the expediency of an air route for transferring American aircraft through Alaska and Siberia to the western front”.
Built within a record short period of time, the Alaska-Siberia route, widely referred to as Alsib, was put in operation on October 7, 1942. It became a critical link for transferring United States-manufactured war and transport planes to Russia. Among them were the Airacobra fighters that came to be known as a symbol of the Soviet lend-lease. This type of aircraft was flown by a legendary Soviet ace, Alexander Pokryshkin, who scored 48 victories when flying “Cobras”.
The aircraft that flew along the Alaska-Siberia air lane covered the distance of 14,000 kilometers. Their epic journey began at Great Falls, Montana, from where the American crews transferred them along the Northwest Staging Route through Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. From there the lend-lease planes flew further via Nome, Alaska, across the Bering Strait to Krasnoyarsk. The task was entrusted to especially selected experienced Soviet pilots of the First Ferry Aviation Division under the command of Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel Ilya Mazuruk. The division consisted of five regiments, each of them flying a separate leg. The 8th Transport Aviation Regiment was responsible for bringing the Soviet Alsib crews back to Fairbanks, Alaska. The route ran across Eastern Siberia via the Pole of Cold at Oymyakon. During their flight over the Verhoyansk Range, the crews had to wear oxygen masks. The trying weather conditions and extremely difficult terrain were made up for by the safety of the route, which was out of reach of Nazi aviation. In Krasnoyarsk, the fighter planes had their wings removed and continued their travel to the battle-lines by rail, while the bombers flew directly to their combat units. The first American-made fighter aircraft that reached Krasnoyarsk were immediately sent to the Stalingrad Front, where fierce fighting was raging. In mid 1943 the number of lend-lease airplanes delivered along the Alaska-Siberia route exceeded one thousand. During the war, a total of 8,000 airplanes were transferred to the Soviet Union via Alaska and Siberia.
A successful aircraft ferrying route, the Alsib air bridge was also used to deliver strategic war cargoes to Russia. Besides, it was an important diplomatic and passenger air lane. Among those who flew along the Alsib route were Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Ambassadors to the United States Konstantin Umansky, Maxim Litvinov and Andrei Gromyko, Vice-President of the United States Henry Wallace. In November of 1943, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexi flew across the Bering Strait to the United States for negotiations on the opening of the Second Front in Europe.
Russian archives, declassified in the 1990s, suggest that 113 Soviet pilots perished while flying missions over that vast and deserted area. Wreckage of lend-lease planes that crashed over Siberia during the war are still found in the taiga. In October 1992, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Alsib air bridge, a monument was unveiled at the Yakutsk airport to pay homage to the aviators who lost their lives on that strenuous route, later called the Route of Courage. With the blessing of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and with the approval of the President of the Russian Federation, a memorial flight along that historic route was carried out in 2000. On August 27, 2006, the official opening of the Lend-Lease Monument took place at Fairbanks, Alaska, to commemorate the interaction between the Allies in that war of annihilation – the war against Nazism.