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In WWII, Reindeer Were Our Animal Allies

Originally published on August 14, 2011 6:30 pm

Of World War II's many fronts, the one you've probably never heard about was the theater of war in the Arctic. Combat there centered around a crucial supply route that stretched from North America to the Russian port city of Murmansk, across the border from the northern tip of Norway.

"It was not the easiest route," U.S. Naval historian Tim Francis tells NPR's David Greene. And it might have been impossible if it weren't for help from some of Santa's friends.

About 25 percent of war supplies and munitions manufactured in North America were shipped across the Arctic to America's Soviet allies in the war. The supply route was under constant siege from the harsh elements — and from German enemies.

"German planes would fly out of Norway. Battleships would attack on the surface. And then you had U-boats that could attack from undersea," Francis says. "So they were being attacked from all three directions."

The Allies lost maybe 100 ships on that route, he ads, carrying everything from trucks to cigarette rolling papers. But the supplies that made it to port in Murmansk still needed to be hauled to the battlefront.

Bring in the reindeer.

Once those supplies were offloaded in Mumansk, reindeer hauled them to the battlefront.

"The reindeer were pack animals," Francis says. "Anything that would work to get stuff to places where people could use it. It makes perfect sense."

"People think of mechanized armor divisions — Patton and Sherman, tanks and all," Francis says, but it was only the U.S. and Britain that had fully mechanized militaries. Animals were crucial to the war effort.

"The majority of ground combat in Europe among the Axis — and certainly the Soviets — was done with infantry on the ground using horses and donkeys. And in the north, it would be reindeer."

Across Europe in World War II, Francis puts the number of animals Allies in the millions. Today, the city of Murmansk hasn't forgotten its part in that history.

Galina Kulinchenko, director of the Lovozero Museum near Murmansk, says reindeer were so valuable in the war effort they should be particularly honored.

"During the war years, there were no roads, impenetrable thickets, bogs," she told Greene. "We have many monuments dedicated to our defenders, soldiers — to people. But reindeer — I think we should put up a monument to our reindeer."

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DAVID GREENE, host: Here are two things you probably don't know about World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: An ally is in peril and the lifeline is flung across the top of the world.

GREENE: Number one: there was a theater of the war at the top of the world: the Arctic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It is the most expeditious way of feeding embattled Russia from democracy's arsenal.

GREENE: An Arctic shipping route.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The shortest route.

GREENE: From North America to the Russian port of Murmansk, the city is above the Arctic Circle right across the border from the northern tip of Norway, a pristine place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But for the (unintelligible), the grimmest, the harshest, the cruelest.

GREENE: And so to the second thing you might not know: once those ships made that grim, harsh, cruel journey to Russia...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: ...they got a helping hand from a little-known northern member of the allied forces.

Is that a reindeer sneeze?

Reindeer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So his name is Rudolph. He was born in May this year. So now he's two months old.

GREENE: I first heard about all of this when I visited Murmansk earlier this year. That's where I found Rudolph and some fellow reindeer eating lunch.

And what are these reindeer eating (unintelligible)?

At the moment, my microphone. We'll get back to Rudolph. But first, you really got to understand what warfare was like in this icy part of the world. Hi. I'm David Greene.

TIM FRANCIS: Tim Francis.

GREENE: Nice to meet you. Thank you for doing this.

I sat down with U.S. Navy historian Tim Francis. He says 75% of World War II supplies shipped from North America went around the horn of Africa, but...

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FRANCIS: About 25% went a northern run.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At German airbases in Norway and Finland, detailed reports on convoy movements come in from long range reconnaissance planes. The Nazis have a magnificently effective plan to change the color of the Arctic from white to red.

FRANCIS: Even in the summer, Arctic convoys are difficult to run. The water is always very cold. If you fall in the water, they didn't have the same life suits that we have today. We froze to death very quickly. Storms, rough seas, ice, the tension, the stress level, constant struggles to make headway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In some convoys, only one-half of the ships survive.

FRANCIS: German planes would fall out of nowhere. You'd have surface raiders, German destroyers, cruisers. Battle ships would attack on the surface, and then you had U-boats that could attack them from under sea.

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FILM NARRATOR: If the Germans can choke off the flow of supplies to Russia, munitions, oil, food, the entire allied cause may (unintelligible).

GREENE: But of course, all those supplies didn't just need to get to Murmansk. They needed to get south into Russia.

FRANCIS: Reindeer would be like, pack animal, a convoy just to get stuff out of the danger area and get it to places where people could use it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Back in Murmansk, aside from Rudolph, I also spent some time in museums learning about the war. Germans were constantly pounding Murmansk and the city sacrificed thousands of lives to keep that port open. And one museum guide I spoke to, Galina Kulinchenko, said there's another part of the story that just can't be forgotten.

GALINA KULINCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Reindeer, she says, were so important to the allied effort, so crucial in hauling supplies she says Murmansk should put up a reindeer monument.

KULINCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

FRANCIS: Animal transport is actually one of those aspects of the entire global war that people don't fully realize.

GREENE: Again, historian Tim Francis.

FRANCIS: People think of mechanized armor divisions from World War II.

GREENE: Sure.

FRANCIS: But the majority of ground combat in Europe was done with infantry on the ground using horses and donkeys. And in the north, it would be reindeer.

GREENE: Tim Francis is an historian with the U.S. Navy. Now, starting tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll take you, our listeners, to the Arctic. Turns out countries are in this struggle there for power and influence. We'll tell you all about it this week on NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.