A Persian Gulf Command truck convoy on a mountain road but by its engineers taking supplies to the border of the Soviet Union. Library of Congress.
“If our shipping losses continue at their present excessive rate along the Northern Russian route, it may become necessary to use the Persian Gulf route entirely.”—September 22, 1942 Combined Planning Staff report.
President Franklin Roosevelt called the United States the “Arsenal of Democracy.” But America’s vast industrial might would all be for naught if the mountains of weapons, vehicles, ammunition, supplies, food, and countless other necessary items could not get to where they were needed most: at battlefields and garrisons on distant soil scattered throughout the globe and in some of the planet’s most isolated and remote locations. But when it came to the many logistical challenges faced by the Navy and War Departments, none were as daunting as supplying the Soviet Union.
Of all the competing top priorities President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill grappled with, the most vexing was that of keeping the Soviet Union in the war. When the North Atlantic sea lane to the Soviet Union’s Arctic ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk were closed in July 1942 following the debacle of Convoy PQ-17 in which German forces operating out of Norway sank twenty-three out of thirty-four Allied merchantmen, Churchill in a letter to Roosevelt confessed, “My persistent anxiety is Russi…..”
With the Arctic Northern Route closed for the indeterminant future, if an alternate route couldn’t be found—and fast—Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin might sue for peace, thus freeing the more than a hundred Wehrmacht divisions fighting in the Eastern Front to fight elsewhere, a nightmarish prospect Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff all sought to avoid.
Though the Soviet Union and Japan were not foes, large-scale transport of cargo from American West Coast ports to Vladivostok presented so many diplomatic and distance obstacles as to make it impractical. The only possible alternative remaining was the Southern Route. But any savings that might be gained by transiting a “safer” route—something of an arguable point at this stage of the war—was balanced by the increased distance and time at sea. Convoys leaving from ports on America’s eastern coast embarked on a route that took them around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, up the Indian Ocean and into the Persian Gulf in what came to be called the Persian Corridor to dock at the Iranian ports; a distance of more than 15,000 nautical miles that took the convoys traveling at an average speed of eleven nautical miles per hour just under two months. Then, after the ships were unloaded and vehicles assembled and loaded, there was the overland route to the Soviet Union border, an additional 600 miles as the crow flies, but, unlike aircraft which, when weather permitted, did take that direct air route, because most of the ground route went through mountains, was considerably longer. Even then, said supplies had to travel additional hundreds of miles before reaching the front. But that was a headache for the Soviet Red Army to solve, the U.S. Army had headaches enough just getting the supplies to the Soviet border.
A PGC driver getting his truck ready for a convoy run up to the Soviet border. Note the date and details of maintenance performed on the truck written in chalk on the driver's door. Library of Congress
As if the logistics situation weren’t challenging enough, there was also the political situation in Iran, something both complex and fraught. Great Britain and Imperial Russia had been longtime rivals in the region. Even after a regime and name change to the Soviet Union in 1917, that rivalry continued. Upon the outbreak of war in 1939, and particularly after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Iran’s strategic location, known oil reserves, and Axis-leaning government led by ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi made it only a matter of time before Britain and the Soviet Union would act to protect their interests. In the summer of 1941 following Germany’s launching of Operation Barbarossa, when the shah refused their request to expel German nationals and permit Allied use of the Trans-Iranian Railway to ship supplies to Russia, the two Allies had the excuse they needed. On August 25, they invaded Iran (Operation Countenance), basically divided the country in half, deposed the shah, and installed his son Mohammad as the new, and for all practical purposes, puppet ruler. A treaty was signed that literally papered over what historian T.H. Vail Motter called “the occupation-which-was-officially-not-an-occupation” making Iran a passive, powerless, and resentful partner of the Allies.
Two Iranians standing beside their horse and cart watch a PGC soldier secure cargo to his truck. Library of Congress
The Americans began arriving in force into this political minefield and primitive land during the fall of 1942 at the behest of the British. Overextended by the simultaneous exigencies of war and preservation of its empire (India, in particular, was in turmoil), Britain needed help. As the Soviet Union was already fighting for its very existence on the Eastern Front, the only ally capable of filling the void in Iran was the United States. After a series of high level meetings between the Combined Chiefs of Staff and other senior officers and officials over a period of several weeks, an agreement of sorts was hammered out in which the Americans would take over British control and responsibility of the Trans-Iranian Railway and truck transport of Lend-Lease supplies to Russia. In return as historian Robert W. Coakley wrote, “The British were to exercise strategic responsibility for the defense of the area against enemy attack and for security against internal disorders.”
Winter conditions were appalling, with temperatures often falling below zero, and heavy snowstorms. Even so, the convoys were more often than not able to keep to their schedule. Library of Congress
The handover of responsibility occurred in November 1942, and Major General Donald H. Connolly was put in charge of what would become Persian Gulf Command (PGC). Eventually totaling 30,000 troops, PGC faced monumental challenges that were absolutely vital to the war effort that were at the same time absolutely mundane. Located in a remote, exotic land known for its carpets and the Rubiayatand far from any combat theater, Persian Gulf Command’s job was simply to offload weapons and supplies from Iranian ports, assemble what needed to be assembled, and then either fly or transport by truck or railroad everything north to the Soviet Union.
Working under appalling conditions, where in the summer temperatures would soar above 110 degrees Fahrenheit and immobilizing sandstorms lasted for days, and winters with sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowstorms, PGC transformed Iran’s primitive road and rail networks and expanded and modernized its harbors. And, it did so without arousing, for the most part, additional resentment from the Iranians.
Historians estimate that Persian Gulf Command’s success helped reduce the war on the Eastern front by at least a year. General Connolly eventually received the Army Distinguished Service Medal “for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility, as Commanding General Persian Gulf Command, during the period from 20 October 1942 to 24 December 1944.”
PGC commander Major General Donald Connolly (right) exchanges greetings with Red Army General A. M. Koroloffon the occasion of the arrival of the first All-American train from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet border where the freight load was turned over to the Red Army. Library of Congress
By the time PGC was deactivated in 1945, it had delivered more than 2.5 million tons of materiél to the Soviet Union. Peak transport of supplies was reached in 1944, with fifty percent of the aid to the Soviet Union went through the Persian Corridor. PGC assembled and delivered 200,000 military vehicles and almost 5,000 airplanes, including P-39 Airacobra, P-40 Warhawk, P-47 Thunderbolt, P63 Kingcobra fighters, AT-6 trainers, and B-25 Mitchell and A-20 Havoc medium bombers. Soviet air forces, in fact, received the majority of the A-20 production, including more than two-thirds of the B-model, alone.
The Persian Gulf Command shoulder patch.