The secrets of Lend-Lease

Trivia about the program that kept the Allies alive

President Roosevelt signing the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941
(Photo: Library of Congress)

While not as visually interesting as a tank or an airplane, or as rousing as the story of a pitched battle, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 was nevertheless one of the underlying cornerstones of the Allied war effort, and was responsible for keeping America's allies on their legs and fighting. The United States sent over 48.3 billion dollars' worth of raw materials, supplies and equipment to other Allied nations – that's some 649 billion today when adjusted for inflation. This article is a collection of a few facts about Lend-Lease you might not have known.

The act had a historical Easter Egg hidden in it. Its full title was "An Act further to promote the defense of the United States, and for other purposes." More relevantly, the bill number was H. R. 1776, referencing the year in which the U.S. Declaration of Independence was passed and the American War of Independence began. This was no accident. Some people have suggested it was a way to "snub Britain," but that doesn't make sense, since the very purpose of Lend-Lease was to help Britain, not to insult them. The number was simply chosen for its generic patriotic value to help overcome resistance from isolationists who were against American entanglement in the war.

The first page of the bill
(Photo: National Archives)

It wasn't for profit. People sometimes erroneously suggest that the United States somehow "made a profit" on Lend-Lease. This is simply not true. The terms of the act stated that goods delivered to recipient countries would later have to be paid for or returned, except for equipment that was destroyed or lost (and quite a lot of it was). Roosevelt never intended to get the value of Lend-Lease aid back directly, and in fact stipulated that repayment would occur by "joint action directed towards the creation of a liberalized international economic order in the postwar world,” or cooperation in the war and afterwards in other words.

One important reason for not insisting on repayment was the harsh lesson learned after World War I. The outstanding debts of the victorious entente nations, and the fact that European countries were broke after the war and unable to settle those debts, were a major factor in the Great Depression that began in 1929 and dominated the 30s. Roosevelt realized that the countries of Europe would be broke once again after the new world war, and insisting on the repayment of massive debts would just throw the world into another economic crisis.

Unemployed men in front of a soup kitchen in Chicago in 1931, a sight the government was keen not to repeat after World War II
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

It should also be noted that the United States was in deficit spending during the war anyway, and the totality of Lend-Lease "only" made up 15% of its war spending. Countries are not run like businesses; a government's ultimate job is not to see a positive balance book every year, but to ensure the safety and prosperity of its citizens; making sure that Britain and the Soviet Union could stay in the fight and post-war Europe would be dominated by America's allies rather than a victorious Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union was worth far more than money in the long run.

Was Lend-Lease a garden hose or a chewing gum? The question of Lend-Lease recipients having to return the goods after the war prompted an exchange between Roosevelt and Republican Senator Robert A. Taft, a major opponent of the act. During a press conference, the President compared Lend-Lease to lending a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire. "What do I do in such a crisis? I don't say ... 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it' ... I don't want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over." Taft's response was "Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum—you certainly don't want the same gum back."

Senator Robert A. Taft
(Photo: U.S. Senate Historical Office)

Some of it was still repaid, though not very quickly. The act was terminated in September 1945, Britain kept receiving supplies afterward. These could no longer be legally given under the same generous terms, so they were sold at a 90% discount. Since Britain was broke, the U.S. also gave the country long-term loans so it could actually pay that discounted price. The last installment on those loans was paid back on December 29, 2006, two days before it was due.

The Soviet Union was a much less cooperative debtor. The Soviets received 11 billion dollars' worth of aid, and the U.S. asked for 1.3 billion dollars after the war to settle outstanding debts. The Soviets, rapidly enmeshed in the hostility of the Cold War, were reluctant to comply. Negotiations went on until 1972, when the U.S. accepted a Soviet offer to pay back 722 million dollars, only a quarter of what was asked for if inflation is taken into account. Even that was dragged out, and the final payment made by the Russian Federation after the Soviet Union's collapse.

British Matilda tanks being loaded into transport for shipment to the Soviet Union
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Lend-Lease worked both ways. It's not very commonly known that the United States also received goods and services from its allies in what is usually described as "reverse Lend-Lease." Against the 48 billion dollars' worth of Lend Lease, this reverse aid amounted to around 8 billion dollars, 90% of it coming from the British Empire. Most of the Soviet reverse Lend-Lease came in the form of strategic raw materials, mainly chrome and manganese ore. British aid sent to America also contained some raw materials such as petroleum products from India, crude rubber from Ceylon and chrome, rope fibers, asbestos and cocoa from Africa, but also included a variety of finished products such as small ships, barrage balloons and airplanes.

One example of British planes sent as reverse Lend-Lease was the Bristol Beaufighter, a design that served in a variety of roles from long-range escort through attack plane and torpedo bomber to night fighter. The United States lacked a proper night fighter until the introduction of the Northrop P-61 Black Widow in 1944, so Britain supplied over a hundred Beaufighters to serve as the backbone of the American night fighter force in Europe and the Mediterranean until the Black Widow’s arrival. Some other planes, such as de Havilland Mosquitoes and Supermarine Spitfires (Read our earlier article) were also given to the U.S. and used as photo-reconnaissance craft.

A Beaufighter in American colors
(Photo: Classic Wings Magazine)

Another major form of reverse Lend-Lease was servicing and supplying American troops stationed overseas in England, Australia and New Zealand. These troops lived in barracks and used hospitals, supply depots, airfields and other facilities built by the host country with no cost to the U.S. Soldiers stationed in England received supplemental food rations from Britain, and almost all of the bread they ate was baked in British bakeries. Australia and New Zealand were particularly generous in proportion to their own economic strength, and spent more goods and money on reverse Lend-Lease in the summer of 1944 than what they received in the normal program over the same time period.

American sailors with an Australian soldier in Brisbane, Australia
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)

Some items found unexpected popularity abroad. Different fronts had different conditions and different nations had different military doctrines, so it's not surprising that the same weapon or vehicle would be more or less successful depending on where it was used. A prime example of this was the Bell P-39 Airacobra, and its successor, the P-63 Kingcobra. The Airacobra was an innovative design, but rough around the edges, and the Western Allies, who had plenty of alternatives, didn't think it was good enough to merit waiting for an improved, definitive version. Once it was shipped to the Soviet Union, however, Soviet pilots quickly became fans of it – so much so, in fact, that the Airacobra still holds the highest number of kills attributed to any American fighter design in history, and most of those kills were achieved over the Eastern Front.

A former Soviet Airacobra in the Aviation Museum of Central Finland
(Photo: Bergfalke2 / Wikipedia)

The Airacobra had two big problems: it had short range, and performed poorly at high altitudes. Neither of these bothered the Soviets: their airfields were always located close to the frontline, and they used the plane to shoot down German fighters and light bombers flying low (since the Germans didn't have high-altitude heavy bombers in meaningful numbers). Meanwhile, the Airacobra's good armor, heavy-hitting Browning 37 mm M4 autocannon (Read our earlier article), and reliable radio system were highly appreciated.

An Airacobra in Soviet service
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Another hit item, though one that was also well-liked in the west, was the M4 Sherman (Read our earlier article). This in itself is unsurprising, since the Sherman was decently fast, reliable, easy to maintain, and had decent firepower as well as armor that was unlikely to suffer spalling (fragments breaking off inside and hurting crewmen when a shell hit the tank but failed to penetrate). A less obvious reason for the Sherman's popularity in the Red Army was the artificial leather covering the seats. A damaged or destroyed Sherman had to be constantly guarded by its crew, or else the infantry descended on it and ripped out the leather covers to turn them into warm articles of clothing.

Soviet Lend-Lease Shermans in Berlin
(Photo: Red Army)

Yet another Western hit in Russia were American trucks, namely the Dodge ¾-ton, and the Studebaker 2½-ton. Russia's own, older trucks did poorly when the rasputitsa mud season arrived and rendered offroad travel almost impossible, but the newer American vehicles were quite capable of hauling cargo or people even through the mud. They also had interior heating, which mattered a lot during the Russian winter. Most of the famous Katyusha rocket launchers ended up being mounted in Studebakers, which is a testament to the truck’s usefulness and reliability.

Katyusha rocket launcher system mounted on a Studebaker truck
(Photo: Nick Lobeck / Wikipedia)

The famous Arctic convoy route was far from the largest one. The Arctic convoy route that supplied the Soviet Union with vital goods despite terrible weather and German attacks is rightfully famous, but not the largest one that went to Russia. That distinction went to the Pacific route, which departed from the West Coast, crossed the Pacific and ended at the port of Vladivostok on the eastern coast of the Soviet Union, from where the goods travelled west across the continent on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. You might be surprised to learn that the Japanese did nothing to shut down this convoy route, but there was a rationale behind their reluctance. Japan and the Soviet Union were at peace with each other until the day after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and Japan, already spread thin across the Pacific and the China-Burma-India Theater, was keen not to make another enemy. Therefore, they let the convoys pass as long as the cargo was carried by Soviet ships. The volume of cargo that passed through the Pacific route was twice that of the Arctic one.

Map showing total tonnage of Lend-Lease items on various routes
(Photo: Department of State)

In fact, the Arctic route wasn't even the second largest. That was the Persian Corridor, which involved ships sailing down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the eastern coast of the continent into the Persian Gulf. Once there, cargo continued through the neutral country of Iran by rail or road. This route, the only one viable all year round, was considered so important that Britain and the Soviet Union decided to invade Iran just to ensure its safety. Iran's ruler, Reza Shah, was ousted from power, sent into exile in South Africa, and replaced with his compliant son to make sure that Iran would remain firmly on the Allied side and the Persian Corridor could continue unimpeded operation.

American train in Iran, hauling Lend-Lease goods bound for the Soviet Union
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Some Lend-Lease supplies were rather unusual. Lend-Lease included some surprising items besides the raw materials, tanks, aircraft and the like. An entire Ford tire plant was moved piece-by-piece to the Soviet Union to allow for local production.

Another item that had an unexpected Lend-Lease career was spam, the oft-maligned canned meat. Hardly anybody's favorite, it was still a high-calorie, high-protein food with no special preparation needed, and the 2.5 billion cans of spam shipped to the Soviet Union saved the lives of many people, soldiers and civilians alike. The surprising part is that American factories even started to produce svinaia tushonka, a spam variant tailored to Russian taste buds, based on an old recipe from the Ural Mountains. Tushonka production carried on in the Soviet Union after the war, and the item became a symbol of just how far Soviet industry and economy had advanced.

Cans of tushonka being prepared at the Kroger grocery and baking company in Cincinnati, Ohio
(Photo: Library of Congress)

The most unusual Lend-Lease item, however, had to be gold thread. This material had one single use: to be used on the epaulettes of uniforms for high-ranking Soviet officers. Though hardly a strategic material, it was included in shipments to Russia on Stalin's insistence.

The oldest surviving Sherman tank is a Lend-Lease. Its name, proudly displayed on a plaque, is Michael, and it's on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in England. Michael isn't only the oldest surviving Sherman, but also the second one ever to roll off the production line, and the first one sent to Britain. It was named in honor of British industrialist Michael Dewar, the representative of the British tank acquisition effort in Washington, D.C.

The Lend-Lease Sherman “Michael” at the Bovington Tank Museum
(Photo: Max Smith)

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