In the stillness of night they wait, antler horns silhouetted against the moonlit sky as heads turn, unfazed, towards their master. Hot air plumes from flared nostrils, hooves dig at the packed snow beneath. They wait; ready to move on his command, ready to be sent into the icy darkness with their sleigh full of longed-for items, to be delivered into expectant hands.
You might be thinking of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and, possibly, a certain Rudolph, but me…I’m thinking of the nameless reindeer – the ones who gave their lives in the fight for freedom from Nazi domination.
What do you mean you never heard of the reindeer that went to war…?
Well, it’s a little-known fact but in 1941, during World War II, approximately 6,000 reindeer and more than 1,000 reindeer herders (mainly Nenets) from Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Komi began risking their lives to transport ammunition, food and communications for the Soviet Army.
It is estimated that 25 per cent of war supplies and munitions manufactured in North America during the war were shipped across the Arctic to America’s Soviet allies. The supply route used was under constant siege from the weather as much as the Germans.
Reindeer were the perfect beast of burden in this environment, but their use wasn’t a Soviet innovation – Finnish troops had used Sámi reindeer to transport equipment on sledges during the Winter War.
The Soviet reindeer corps worked an area from Murmansk to the Karelian front. It was an arduous and highly dangerous journey in harsh conditions and one which was constantly subject to German attack. Of the 800 herders who went to the northern front in 1941, only 600 returned. By the end of the war almost half the herders and their reindeer had perished.
According to one reindeer herder, Vladimir Kanev (as recorded in Running With Reindeer – Adventures in Russian Lapland), he and his compatriots “rushed to the front, transporting as many shells and mines as we could load on the sledges. After that we spent all winter running between Murmansk and Litsa”.
When they weren’t carrying much-needed equipment, the reindeer were put to other, vital uses. The herders sometimes found pilots who had been shot down, and the reindeer helped carry them out of danger. Kanev said: “Often working under fire, we wrapped the wounded in deer skins, tied them down on the sledges and ran them to the hospitals.”
Reindeer were even used to tow downed aircraft back to base in order to salvage the parts. Reindeer pulling a sleigh, I can imagine, but pulling a fighter plane… now that’s an image to conjure.
At this time of year it’s only right to spare a thought for the portly gentleman in the red suit who is probably tearing his beard out in the rush to deliver all those presents. The real heroes, though, are the reindeer that take him on his trip around the world, ensuring that boys and girls everywhere get a little Yuletide magic.
Remember them this Christmas week and remember, too, their cousins who gave their lives on the battlefield in the fight for freedom.