Halcyon Class Minesweepers

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Halcyon Class Minesweepers in North Russia

Halcyons in North Russia (Source: PQ17 - Godfrey Winn)

Memories of Archangel

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A2021446

By Brodnax Moore

My father David Moore wrote this account of his visiting North Russia in 1941 with convoys. He was flotilla navigating officer in HMS Halcyon.

"I was in or based on Archangel in North Russia between August and October 1941 and the abiding impression is of a pleasant and stimulating period, no doubt due to the surprisingly warm climate in Archangel at the time, the lack of enemy activity and the excitement of penetrating the Communist USSR and having to deal with its people.

On the voyage out in the first convoy to Russia we were issued with lots of intelligence material, but it was straight from the experiences of the Allied and British forces that had been in Archangel in about 1918-1920 trying to keep the port from falling into Bolshevik hands. They failed; but the intelligence stuff was quaint and old-fashioned in 1941 and had little to relevance to what we would find.

After the fog incident and leading the convoy to Archangel our first surprise was a Russian woman pilot to take us up the Dvina river to our berth in the timber yards. We thought this was an example of the progressive attitude of a communist state, but we later found that women in the USSR at that time were given hum-drum subservient jobs, including dirty labour like mending and sweeping roads. The Dvina river approach was several miles long and very winding, but it was all clearly marked with leading lights, so for an experienced navigator it was quite easy and as soon as I got some Russian charts we were able to dispense with a civilian pilot. Thereby I qualified for some extra money as pilotage allowance from the Admiralty, which came in useful in those penurious days. We went up and down the river a number of times.

Our regular captain, Cdr. 'Tishy' Hinton, had been temporarily replaced on this operation, probably because of the back injury he suffered the previous year when we were mined in Tees Bay. His relief was a Cdr. Bill Bayley, who was a typical destroyer eccentric (he always wore a battered green pork-pie hat at sea) but was quite easy & rather an intellectual type of officer. Later he got us worried when he began to get crazy enthusiastic ideas about taking the sweepers into the inland waterways of N. Russia, but of course these came to nothing.

After a few days in the timber yards some of us took a boat into the city for a 'run ashore'. There was Fred Bradley our big RNVR First Lieut., who in civilian life was a wealthy Lloyds underwriter. Also I think Lt. Mason, the 'Guns', and myself. Fred was always good for a laugh and could make any party go. On reaching the landing-stage we were met by a good-looking Russian girl and our first impression was that we were being picked up by one of the locals. However, it did not take us long to realise that she was a KGB (or whatever it was then) agent and that she had been detailed off to escort us to a café where she stood us some insipid lager. Our questions about the USSR, the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 and so on, were neatly parried.

Archangel was really a rather dilapidated place with old buildings which appeared to date from prosperous times before WW1. It was obviously a somewhat neglected outpost of the empire. The afternoon did not develop into any jolly night-life, because there wasn't any, and we returned to the ship without having met any genuine Russians.

We did, however, meet quite a few USSR Navy officers on an official basis. There were at least two meetings with the local staff attended by us and the Senior British Officer, North Russia, a Cdr. RN who had been sent out in advance of the first convoy. I think he was an ex-Navigator and also a Russian interpreter, so was very effective in dealing with the obstruction and plain lies about the navigational aids that the Russians put out at first. The SBNO threatened to veto all minesweeping aid until they were more cooperative. After that they were quite helpful, but their navy at that time was relatively backward technically and not very efficient.

We soon realised that it was literally more than their life was worth for the local authorities to take decisions that might be politically wrong. Every decision about us had to be referred to Moscow, even the question of moving our berths in the timber yards. This explained their initial attitude.

Our minesweeping efforts in the White Sea and along the Murman coast produced no evidence of mines. It remains a puzzle as to why the Germans did no minelaying in the White Sea, and also why the Russian Navy, with a long tradition of mine technology, had no minesweepers (which is why we were there). The fleet minesweepers of the Halcyon class remained in N. Russia until 1944, but they were mostly used as convoy escorts.

As we steamed north from the White Sea and bid farewell to Archangel, snow showers in October already enveloped us and soon the White Sea would be iced over. Quite why I have agreeable memories of Archangel is hard to say, but it is probably a contrast with the arid icy wastes around Murmansk which was to be our base during the dire events of the first half of 1942."

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This site was last updated 17 Januar 2012