Halcyon Class Minesweepers

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Halcyon Class Minesweepers in North Russia

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

Source: ADM 199/2112

(This extract is not attributed to any person or ship but appears to relate to HMS Gossamer’s experiences.)

Experiences of Ice at Archangel

The approach to Archangel over the bar of the River Dvina is followed by 24 miles of narrow and very tortuous channel. Navigation is done entirely on shore transits as no buoy mooring can stand up to the ice. The North Dvina Light-ship is removed in winter for the same reason. When the river is free of ice it is a two hour trip for fleet minesweepers.

We encountered the first sheet of ice on 22nd October. This was some 3 inches thick. We nosed our way through it with infinite care, thinking ourselves to be some sort of Shackletons. However a Norwegian officer serving in one of our ships told us, correctly, that this was nothing. So we took to charging through it contemptuously at our full 14 knots.

By 25th October the ice was a little thicker and more widespread. Our changing tactics merely led to one engine, and often both, having to be stopped because the condenser inlets were choked by ice. Some tense moments resulted among the hairpin bends. The ice was not, at this stage, thick enough to stop the ship provided one engine could be kept running (to have both going simultaneously was a very rare occurrence). “Bogey” for the 24 mile course had now risen to about five hours.

Our Engineer officers then got really busy, assisted by some professional advice from the Russians, and the stage was reached where, more often than not, they could keep both engines going provided we left the revolutions to them. They used to give from six to eight knots. It was about this time that the Gossamer and the Hussar tried to spend a night alongside the Norfolk on the seaward and more ice-free part of the river. Loose lumps of ice coming down with the tide piled up between the ships, forcing their bows apart. Eventually six wires parted simultaneously leaving the two minesweepers to drift down the river.

As the ice got thicker we found that at some six to eight knots we frequently stuck. Going astern and having butt at it usually enabled us to make slow and jerky progress. When going astern failed to unstuck us, a short burst of speed ahead was often effective, although this was invariably followed by choked condensers. Another discovery we made was that when butting through the ice, wheel and engines are often quite ineffective in steering the ship. In spite of our best efforts, the ship goes in the direction in which the ice breaks – usually straight ahead.

To get alongside a jetty also presented a new problem. Our bows would go in, but all our efforts to coax our sterns alongside were thwarted by a cushion of ice between ship and jetty. For this we eventually discovered two effective solutions. One was to push the bow into the jetty in the place where one eventually aspired to berth the stern. By going ahead with wheel towards the jetty it was then possible to scrape the jetty clear of ice for the ship’s length. The other, and rather neater, solution was to approach the jetty stern first. By moving engines ahead and astern one could gradually disperse the ice with the wash of the propellers.

By 2nd November a time had arrived when no amount of backing and filling or of spurting could get us through the ice and assistance became necessary. This took the form of tugs with blunt, shallow bows which ride up on the ice until the weight of the tug breaks it. Their method of procedure was to circle our ships (“breaking them out”) until the ice had been loosened, when they would take station ahead for us to follow them. The trouble about this was that, if we followed close the lumps of ice forced down by their screws led to the continual choking of our inlets, while if we kept our distance, the ice had time to solidify and we frequently stuck. We always tried to make them tow us, but this was obviously against their principles, possibly because from time to time both ships would stick, which meant that they had to cast off the tow and break us out again. Our best passages at this time were accomplished when we could find a merchantman going in the same direction as ourselves and were able to follow her at about five cables. “Bogey” for the 24 miles had now risen to 48 hours.

One of the disadvantages of ships being able to move only when within a “lane” of broken ice is that these lanes are usually only wide enough for a single ship. When two ships meet head on in the same lane complete deadlock ensues as neither can give way. There is nothing to do except to stay there until an icebreaker of some kind comes along and widens the lane. This may not be for 24 hours or more. When in one of these traffic blocks, particularly in 47 degrees of frost, one’s instincts are to ring off and all go below to warm up. This, however, is fatal. One must keep jogging ahead and astern, if it is only for a quarter of a ship’s length, or within five minutes the ship will completely frozen-in beyond all hope of escape.

The ice became really thick by 4th November when even the Russians admitted that a proper ice breaker was necessary. Accordingly the celebrated Lenin appeared looking rather like a battle ship of the Iron Duke class on a smaller scale. She certainly seemed to rush through anything, leaving a wide lane in her wake. Her main employment appeared to steam up and down so as to keep the main channel sufficiently loose for merchantmen to move alone or with the help of tugs. About this time we began to find it somewhat disconcerting to have to use our sirens to remove people and even horses from the track of our ship. It seemed strange to pass a market on the ice in full swing only a few yards from us. Furthermore our tactics for getting alongside a jetty no longer worked. The only recognised method now appeared to be for the ship to stop some 15 yards from the jetty while a tug dispersed the ice by steaming to and fro between the ship and jetty. Even with the assistance of two tugs, however, we only managed to get our stern in. This was our last attempt before we abandoned the river on 13th November.

On 22nd November we were leading a convoy towards Archangel at first light when some five miles short of the bar there was a familiar scrunching noise and we found ourselves in thick ice. This was something quite new, but we eventually managed to extract ourselves and to anchor in clear water to seawards. That night more ice drifted out of the river, surrounded our ship and dragged us for 1 ½ miles. Again we got out successfully, but had to re-enter in order to fuel from a tanker, alongside which we spent the night. The tanker had 90 fathoms of cable, but when the morning came we found that the entire area of ice had drifted no less than 20 miles, taking the tanker, the Gossamer and several other craft with it.

Except when trying to move about, we used to anchor even when surrounded by ice. But this was probably unnecessary as the ice always held the ship only too securely without assistance. Indeed, when the ice did decide to drift, no amount of cable served to prevent dragging. Moreover as the frost had cracked the cylinders of the capstan-engine we were reduced to running the capstan by man power, and, in consequence, had quite a struggle each time we weighed anchor. We shall not easily forget the sight of our resourceful First Lieutenant on the forecastle encouraging six seamen who were digging in the ice with axes and shovels to make a hole through which he could raise the anchor.



Source: ADM 199/624 1st & 6th MSF Report of Proceedings



From:                Senior Officer, First MSF, HMS BRAMBLE 

Date:                3rd December 1941 

To:                    The Senior British Naval Officer, North Russia


1. The following circumstances prompted me to report that I consider ice conditions at Molotovsk and Dvina River were dangerous for minesweepers, 

(a) On morning of departure of QP2, ICARUS, ECLIPSE, BRAMBLE and GOSSAMER were iced in at Brevennick and it took two icebreakers six hours to clear a passage for ships into the main stream. 

(b) GOSSAMER, HUSSAR and SPEEDY were delayed sailing for minesweeping prior to arrival of PQ3 for 36 hours owing to ice breakers not being provided at the time promised. GOSSAMER and SPEEDY subsequently grounded on the bar as Light Vessel had been removed without their knowledge. If they had known they would have taken pilots. 

(c) BRAMBLE and SEAGULL waited six days for oil at Ekonomia, I being promised daily. Two days before ships were due to sail SEAGULL filled up from LEDA and oil for BRAMBLE was personally assured by Chief of Staff for the following day. Oil eventually arrived with the ice breaker that was to take BRAMBLE and SEAGULL out of harbour and I was given the choice of oil or proceeding to sea. If the latter choice was taken, oil was available at Molotovsk where there was stated to be no ice. I decided since the icebreaker was available to proceed down harbour. 

(d) LENIN broke BRAMBLE and SEAGULL out of the ice and they followed astern of her down river without trouble till arrival in the sea reaches, where they both stuck. LENIN then towed BRAMBLE to roadstead and returned for SEAGULL. Ships left Ekonomia at 0900, and SEAGULL was not clear of ice until 1545. 

(e) BRAMBLE proceeded to Molotovsk and stuck in thick ice six miles from shore. She was towed clear by Russian collier who stated that ice was very thick ahead. An American Naval Attaché, two Russian pilots and an interpreter were transferred to the Russian collier, and it has since transpired that they had to remain for five days. 

(f) Following damage has been sustained by ships due to ice and limitations of ice breaker service:

BRAMBLE:     Plates strained aft causing leak into tiller flat

GOSSAMER:  A/S 60% out of action

SPEEDY:      A/S 100% out of action and chipped propellers

SEAGULL:     Extension of damage to fore peak; original damage was sustained in very bad weather on passage from UK.

All ships sides show signs of slight corrugation and all ships have suffered from choked condenser inlets continually. 

(g) The long sea time put in by all ships in bad weather, long hours of darkness, and difficult navigation, throws a considerable strain on Commanding Officers, especially with the limited experience of the majority of their officers. It is necessary if the ships are to continue to operate efficiently that Commanding Officers should have adequate rest on return to harbour. This they will not get if they are to be concerned with possible damage to their ships, failure to fuel, and doubts as to being ready for sea when required. Every one of my commanding officers has said that they would rather be at sea continually than return to the uncertainties, troubles and worries of Archangel.

2. There appears to me to be no reason why either Dvina or Molotovsk should be used by escorts. The difference of distance between Murmansk and the swept channel and Archangel and the swept channel is not great. In fact, allowing for the time that would be necessary to get in and out of the ice, at Molotovsk, ships can get a longer stand off by fuelling at Murmansk. 

3. Should the ice breaker service fail to work with absolute certainty and to an accurate timetable, which with the varying conditions, appears to me to be out of the question, the only alternative if escorts are to fuel at Molotovsk is for them to anchor in a completely open roadstead where steam would have to be kept continually. 

4. With the advance of winter, conditions are obviously going to get worse, and although a slight thaw may have temporarily improved conditions at Archangel and Molotovsk, and although the Russian Navy taking over control of ice breakers may improve the efficiency of the organisation, I have no reason to alter my opinion that Archangel approaches and Molotovsk are quite unsuitable for escorts, an opinion which I have held and not hesitated to express since my arrival in North Russia.  

On 14th November I reported to the Commander in Chief, Home Fleet that the main troubles were berthing, fuelling and harbour movements consequent on limitations of icebreaker service, which were then acute; that the river should no longer be used by escorts and that Molotovsk was not likely to be satisfactory for long. This was at a time when ice conditions were only just starting. 

5. A general analysis of the work carried out by the minesweepers is attached.  

Harvey Crombie


1. In addition to minesweeping of swept channel escorts have been provided as follows: 















QP4:         BRAMBLE, SPEEDY, LEDA TO United Kingdom.

2. The following passenger service has been carried out: 

GOSSAMER, HUSSAR, SPEEDY - RAF Officers and ranks, Murmansk to Archangel


SEAGULL - Russian general, RAF Officers and ranks (ex Bedouin) Orlov to Archangel


BRAMBLE - Captain Maund, three officers and ten ratings, Murmansk to Archangel 


BRAMBLE - American Naval Attaché, Archangel to Molotovsk.


GOSSAMER - Russian Officer, Archangel to United Kingdom  


3. Since the arrival of PQ2, LEDA has been employed as W/T ship for SBNO Archangel.



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