Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - December 1942
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17th MONTHLY REPORT – 1st Dec 1942 to 20th Jan 1943 (Extracts)


It had been decided that five ships of this Convoy were to proceed to the White Sea and the remainder to the Kola Inlet; the point at which the White Sea section was to part company being five miles North of Kildin Island.

Without my previous knowledge, it was arranged in Moscow that a purely Russian escort would be provided from here to take the White Sea section to its destination. The escort eventually provided consisted of two Russian destroyers only, which was ludicrously inadequate, and as no British ship with RDF was with them they did not find the five ships for some time after they had been detached, during which time these ships were without escort.

It is better that such operational matters be left to the Commander in Chief, Soviet North Fleet, and myself to arrange.

The Murmansk section of the convoy arrived in the Kola Inlet at 0800A on Christmas Day, and the White Sea section reached its destination on the 27th December. 


Thirteen ships were ready in the Kola Inlet to form this convoy and every effort was made to ensure a quick turn-round of the tanker Oligarch. Who was urgently required to join, after having arrived a few days earlier in Convoy JW51A. The latest sailing date was given by Commander in Chief, Home Fleet as 24 hours after JW51B passed Bear Island. It was therefore judged that the convoy could sail on the 30th and by that time the Oligarch had been discharged, and the convoy sailed at 1000A made up of the following:

British: Empire Scott, Empire Galliard, Hopemount, Oligarch.

American: Richard H Alvey, John Walker, Campfire, Meanticut, Hugh Williamson.

Russian: Bellorussia, Isotga, Kotlin, Oka, Revolutioner.

Escorted by: Faulknor (SO), Inglefield, Echo, Eclipse, Fury, Beagle, Gleaner, Cape Arcona, Cape Mariato, Daneman, St Kenan.

C in C Home Fleet’s 1126/27 December ordered one destroyer to remain in Kola Inlet if the convoy was found to consist of less than 16 ships, and the Boadicea was therefore detained to relieve the Bulldog, who had been damaged in heavy weather during the early stages of the passage of JW51B and had had to return to Iceland…. 


The first news of that convoy after sailing was received in Admiralty Message 1516/24 December, saying it had probably been sighted by enemy aircraft. On the 25th it was known that the convoy had straggled due to heavy weather, though it appeared likely that it might be able to reform, becoming slightly delayed while doing so…

On receiving the first enemy reports from Captain (D) 17 at about noon, local time, on the 31st, the following action was taken:

1.   Ships in harbour were brought to short notice. Oribi having arrived in the Kola Inlet at 1100A/31, was fog bound on her way to Rosta fuelling jetty.

2.   The Russians arranged to dispose all available submarines on the enemy’s line of retreat.

3.   A force of torpedo bombers was made ready to carry out an attack, but owing to the likelihood that they would be quite unable to distinguish enemy ships from our own, particularly in half-darkness, they were discouraged from their project.

4.    A Russian destroyer and a tug were brought to short notice.

Information received from the Russian Staff that U-boats had been warned of a convoy approaching their patrol positions was passed to AIC47 at 1101A/31 December, and later that 13 enemy bombers had crossed the coast to seaward. The Russian report of reconnaissance of Alten Fjord showing two cruisers, three destroyers and one unknown ship was passed out at 1240/31 December.

On receiving C in C Home Fleet’s appreciation that action would be resumed between Force R and the enemy the following day to Eastward, the two available Russian oilers, which had been replenishing and were standing by, were reserved from other duties in case the cruisers entered harbour.  

Onslow’s 1958/31 December, giving the position of the convoy, information of the action, and damage to ships was received, and preparations were made to provide hospital accommodation and such other help as was possible on her entry the following day.

At 1308/1 January the report of Russian air reconnaissance of Alten Fjord that day was made, showing one battleship, three cruisers and six destroyers there. It was not easy to determine the accuracy of this visual report but no great reliance on it was felt to be justified, or on the report of the day before.

MS6 in Harrier with Seagull and two Russian destroyers had been ordered to meet the convoy between positions MZ and K and to take the White Sea section on from there. In spite of very foggy conditions, MS6 and the Russian destroyers made their rendezvous, and at 1501A/2 January MS6 reported that the Merchant ships had been detached and were proceeding. The Seagull, who had been delayed by fog, assisted some of the Murmansk ships into harbour.

The Onslow arrived in the Kola Inlet at 0915A/1 January and proceeded to Vaenga, where the casualties were transferred to the RN Auxiliary Hospital, Vaenga, and arrangements were made for the ship to be taken on hand for temporary repairs.

The first Russian reports of the arrival of the convoy were received almost simultaneously with the Obedient’s 0910/2 January, giving their ETA and the first news of the sinking of the Achates. The convoy had made landfall slightly to the eastward of Kildin Island, and during its passage from there to the Kola Inlet a report was received from the Russians that a U-boat had been ordered to attack ships straggling astern. This was passed to the convoy as it was known that there were two such ships escorted, it was believed, by the Bramble. The Russians later corrected their report to read aircraft and not U-boat, but too late to prevent much anxiety which the escorts must have felt at the time.

The procedure laid down in KICM, Para 25, for the meeting of convoys in fog was called into operation, but it was not noticeably effective, the pilot boat failing to transmit any sound signal. On entering harbour the Ballot went ashore on the North East side of Kildin Island, but all other ships of the convoy were led safely in by the escorts in spite of thick fog, and including the Calobes (?) which had been hit during the action and whose steering gear had been reported as damaged. The John H B Lathobe, one of the stragglers, anchored in Kildin Strait, and proceeded safely into harbour later. The White Sea section was reported in SBNO Archangel’s 0826/6 January as having arrived without further incident.

The Honeysuckle and Oxlip left harbour to give protection to the Ballot. The Russians have removed some cargo so as to lighten the ship for towing off, but her holds and machinery spaces are filled and it is feared she will be lost. The crew left the ship a day or two after grounding as there was no light or heat. They are being sent home by the next opportunity.

Enquiries from escorts and Merchant ships of the convoy regarding HMS Bramble’s movements disclosed only the Hyderabad’s reception of an enemy report of one cruiser by the Bramble at 1039A/31 December. There seems little doubt that she was sunk at about this time. Boards of inquiry have been held into the loss of HM Ships Bramble and Achates and the findings forwarded to Commander in Chief, Home Fleet.

Great skill and pertinacity was shown by Commander D C Kinloch (HMS Obedient and SO of the close escort) and by the Commanding Officers of the other destroyers in guiding the Merchant vessels of the convoy into harbour despite darkness, very thick fog, and the minimum effective Russian assistance. 

Movement of Merchant Ships from White Sea to Kola Inlet

Apart from the crane ship ‘Empire Bard’, who after some discussion, was retained at Molotovsk, there were five Merchant ships in the White Sea at the beginning of the month awaiting passage to the Kola Inlet for homeward convoy. The Harrier, Gleaner and three trawlers (the Daneman’s defective steering and lack of Asdics rendered her unserviceable) were available as escort and arrangements were made to bring the Merchant ships around the coast in three groups, escorted as far as the White Sea entrance by trawlers, and onward by the minesweepers or by both minesweepers and trawlers. The escorts operated from Iokanka where, under conditions of great difficulty, they contrived to provide themselves with fuel, coal, water and provisions, to carry out their duties.

The first group, Campfire and Empire Galliard, left Molotovsk on the 6th December and were brought through the White Sea by the three trawlers, who were relieved by the Harrier and Gleaner for onward passage to Kola Inlet, where they arrived on the 8th.  The Hugh Williamson and Richard Alvey formed the second group, sailing from Molotovsk on the 10th and arriving at the Kola Inlet on the 12th, escorted by the Harrier, Cape Argona and St Kenan. The last ship, the John Walker, who sailed on the 14th, was escorted for the whole passage by the Gleaner, bad visibility preventing the Cape Mariato from making her rendezvous. The arduous independent passage of the latter is described elsewhere. HMS Gleaner and the John Walker arrived in the Kola Inlet on the 16th…. 


There has been the usual difficulty of obtaining the regular reports from the Russians in regard to the amounts of fuel oil in stock. The y always show the greatest reluctance to divulge this information at all and experience here has taught me to treat any statement of theirs regarding fuel with much misgiving.

On 14th January I told the Russian Chief of Staff that owing to the shortage of fuel here (on the Russian showing) it might not be possible to fuel all the cruisers and escorts for JW52 and RA52 that it had been hoped to bring here and that in consequence it might be necessary to reduce the size of the next convoy (JW52). He then stated that if the two tankers with the convoy were sunk, oil could be brought in an emergency around from Archangel, provided Moscow agreed. Such a proceeding was manifestly absurd as it would take about 10 days at least to rail it round here, and the escort have only two days here in which to fuel and sail again. So he was asked to have oil sent round at once from Archangel, without waiting for the tankers to be sunk. After considerable discussion it eventually emerged that there would be 10,000 tons in the Kola Inlet on 27th December and not 5,500 tons as they had originally told me (This does not include surplus oil in American Merchant vessels).

The truth is that the Russians have got a lot of oil (I don’t know how much) stored in hulks, caves, and tanks hidden in various little places in the Kola Inlet, and they guard knowledge of its existence very carefully. As an instance of this, one of our minesweepers got permission to go alongside a certain hulk to do her boiler cleaning. While alongside there was considerable bombing activity in the neighbourhood and the Commanding Officer of the minesweeper investigated the contents of the hulk and found it was full of aviation spirit. There was considerable excitement in the Russian Naval Headquarters when later they discovered that the minesweeper had had been to the wrong hulk and had discovered one of their fuel caches. But these small storages are (I am sure) only fitted with hand pumps and I do not think that the fuel can be extracted from them at more than 15-20 tons per hour at the most…. 

Destruction of Russian fighters by allied vessels.

The Russians have been considerably agitated over their fighters being shot down by the close range fire of British and American Merchant vessels in the Inlet, the score to date being 2:1:0. The German level bombers come over on good flying days at a height of 14,000 feet or more, with very occasional dive bombing attacks down to 2,000 to 3,000 feet. When there is an alarm the Russian fighters take of from Vaenga (though sometimes they are already in the air) and cross the Inlet at a low height. They then frequently gain height over the Inlet, from any direction, and above the Merchant vessels at anchor. If this happens during an enemy attack when bombs are dropping, the Merchant vessels invariably open fire on the Russian aircraft, and I have every sympathy with the ships.

To the complaints of the Russian Naval Staff I have made the obvious reply that if the Russian aircraft will circle at a low height over the Merchant vessels during an enemy air attack they will invariably be fired on and they would be immune if they were to fly at a height at least that of the enemy aircraft and between the Kola Inlet and the enemy air bases. I was fortunately afloat in the Inlet on one of these occasions and had a good opportunity of watching an American bring a low flying Russian Hurricane down with her Oerlikon.   

The KICM’s lay down that ships in the Inlet are not to open fire at night, nor by day until the shore batteries open fire, and this is fairly well complied with… 

Fighter defence of the Kola Inlet

It is estimated that German air dispositions in North Norway enable about 10 day bombers, 15 fighters, and 13 specially fitted night bombers to operate at one time in bombing attacks on shipping and harbour works. The Russian fighter strength is quite unknown, but it is possible that their number is about equal to the German. Their effectiveness, however, is vastly inferior.

Accurate warning devices are almost certainly not in use while the principal failing of the Russian fighters is their apparent lack of direction and of knowledge of fighting tactics. During daylight enemy air raids, it is the exception rather than the rule to see Russian fighters in combat with the enemy; not that they have engaged him between his base and the Inlet, but because if off the ground they are generally cruising aimlessly around at a low height and as often as not close to the ships which are being bombed. The Russians have a few night fighters, but it is not considered that they are effective, and no instance is known of any aircraft having been brought down by them.    

Since convoys have started using the Kola Inlet this winter, enemy air attacks have been on a low scale and far below those of last autumn when no convoys were using Murmansk. It seems fair to assume that this relaxation by the Germans is caused by their need for aircraft on other fronts and may therefore only be temporary. If that is so, I fear that with only Russian fighters (even if increased in numbers) we shall suffer considerable damage to Merchant ships in the Inlet and to the docks and stores in Murmansk.

The Russian A/A batteries put up a large volume of fire but this is in itself not a sufficient deterrent. The Russians of course may increase the quantity and quality of their fighter strength here when the days lengthen and the weather improves, but it seems unsafe to rely on this. I therefore strongly urge that consideration be given at an early date to the establishment at Vaenga of at least one squadron of British fighters as being the only means of protecting from air attack the valuable vessels and cargoes in the Kola Inlet. Experience last year showed not only the immense value of these aircraft themselves, but they set a standard which is emulated at the time by the Russians….. 

Reserves of Stores

Following is a summary of the present situation regarding reserves of stores available in the Inlet:

Ammunition Reserve is nearing completion
Torpedoes 6 Mark IX 21” ready for issue (A reserve of 8 was approved but 2 were lost in transit).
RDF Stores 

‘A’ Base spares for types 271, 282 and 286 partly complete

A/S Stores 

Base spares for types 123, 128 and 129 complete – as approved.

Provisions RN: Sufficient for 1000 men for one month – this will be brought up to 1000 men for about 3 months by shipments in JW52

MWT: Fairly large quantities are now arriving in Murmansk

Clothing RN: Clothing for 500 survivors is available, except bedding, of which there is none and none obtainable from the Russians.

MWT: A quantity is available but there does not appear to be sufficient warm clothing.

A certain amount of dry provisions, but not in large amounts, still have to be issued to ships, five destroyers and three trawlers having been supplied in the past three weeks. The situation in this respect is, however, considerably better than last year and ships proceeding to North Russia stock up well before sailing. The Russians continue to be able to supply meat, fish and bread to ships in small quantities, but nothing else.

The reserve of clothing was drawn upon for Achates survivors and for Onslow which had lost much bedding and other gear as a result of the fires on the mess decks. Several trawlers which came out with PQ18 in September have had to be supplied with Arctic clothing, their bases having apparently thought that they would not be in these waters for long, and Northern Gem in JW51 was sent out with NO Arctic clothing whatever and our emergency survivor’s stock reduced to the extent of kitting up the whole ship’s company.

Douglas Fisher
Rear Admiral SBNO North Russia

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