Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - Dec '43 - Jan '44
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28th MONTHLY REPORT – 25th December 1943 to 31st January 1944 (Extracts)

As far as resources allowed the most was made of Christmas time. I think everyone enjoyed it, particularly the young ratings for many of whom it was their first Christmas away from home. Concerts, cinemas, carol singing and on the day itself a real old-fashioned blow out, with beer to wash it down, all took place. Presents were exchanged with the high ranking Russians and their Liaison department, beer, whiskey and tobacco from us as a set off to vodka, Port Wine and cigarettes (horrible) from them. As Christmas is not observed by the Russians our gifts were sent for New Year’s Day which is a national holiday with them. On no day in the year however is the Russian averse to a drink, so when on Christmas Day a number of them were asked to the Mess for that purpose, there was no holding back (as heretofore) for political reasons, they all came and stayed. Drinks were at 1130 as a pre-luncheon affair was intended, but the party was in full swig (I mean swing) at 1600. This was taken as an outward and visible sign of the inward and ‘spiritual’ era of brotherly love inaugurated at the Moscow conference. 

By far the best of the Christmas festivities was the thrill provided by the C in C Home Fleet at his Boxing Day meet with the kill more or less on our doorstep. What excitement here, our Chums went hopping mad as a kind of running commentary was relayed to them – square six and all that. It was grand news and how British shares soared and have remained high as a result thereof. The Duke of York, cruisers and destroyers engaged in the action entered the Inlet at various times during the next day to fuel, land wounded and in the case of Norfolk, make temporary repairs. Only one destroyer, Saumarez, was hit and she could not be made ready for sea in time to sail with the remainder so was berthed alongside at Vaenga. 

Fuelling a force of this size strained local resources somewhat severely, the Russians needed a fair amount of jollying along to accomplish even what they did. The truth is that this base is only equipped for servicing the Northern Fleet flotilla of destroyers with one main oiling jetty at Rosta and one small tanker (1500 tons), with another even smaller tanker carrying diesel oil for submarines… 

JW55B arrived complete on 29th December and very thankful to do so – the cheese in the mousetrap, cheese which fortunately was not even nibbled despite Scharnhorst being at sea and an unwanted escort of U-boats for several days. The destroyer escort were weary men after an anxious passage with little or no rest….. RA 55B  (8ships) sailed on the 31st December and arrived in the UK intact….. 

During January two groups of discharged merchant ships have been brought round from the White Sea ports to Kola Inlet to await convoy, Gleaner (Lt Commander J G Hewitt DSC) being the Senior Officer on both occasions. I like the practical way he goes about this work and the initiative he displays while maintaining W/T silence. People who chatter by W/T are just asking for trouble with enemy air bases so close. No names, no pack drill but some of our visiting escorts are not apparently as much alive to this as they might be, at any rate not until they get a blast about it. One of the occasions mentioned above that I especially liked was on the night of 8th/9th January when Gleaner led his group of six merchant ships for eight hour in thick fog right into harbour without any assistance, a good piece of work. His British and American charges were much impressed…. 

The weather during January has been very wild and cold with much fog; one of the worst blizzards known in these parts occurred on the 8th January. Those who know Polyarnoe will appreciate the fact that the short journey from my flat to the Base was made only with great difficulty. The snow in places was four feet deep. Electric light and power has failed for hours or even days at a time making life not only a bit gloomy but also rather chilly as the central heating is a very lukewarm affair. 

Rear Admiral Olsen the newly appointed American Admiral to Moscow, paid a short visit to Polyarnoe on the 11th January to call on Golovko after which he came to tea with me. He was particularly interested in the use that the American built A Class minesweepers are being put to by the Russians. They are well fitted up for this work but as far as I know have only been employed on escort duties. Similarly with the wooden minesweepers Nos. 1003 and 1025 which we turned over to the Russians at the end of December. They have apparently done no work since, all enquiries bring the same reply that the crews are learning about the ships. During the turnover the said crews knew all about these vessels after a week and did not want any more demonstrations of the gear etc despite the offer to retain the key British ratings as long as they wished. No, they were quite satisfied. When asked in that case could they steam our crews to the cruisers in Vaenga Bay in which they were taking passage as a final demonstration – oh no, there might be an accident. Funny people. 

To meet the shortage of Russian chauffeurs in Murmansk for our motor transport it was decided to take out licences for some of our personnel. This is not such a simple matter as one might suppose judging from the rather low standard of driving of the Russians. In point of fact it took anything up to a week mainly spent in getting various passes signed but there was also a thorough medical examination and a long interrogation on the Highway Code, with practical demonstration on models. The driving test itself was a farce, consisting of driving up and down a road once. Enquiries elicited that the panel of doctors for the medical examination consisted of six women and it would appear that there was almost a blackguard rush for these driving licences. However later reports indicated that the said doctors were rather Ham-faced and that interest in licences was waning. 

The slow rate of unloading merchant ships remains a big problem. The threat of a delay in convoys for this reason immediately produced in Murmansk a Trade Commissar from Moscow. He proceeded to shake things up and did effect a temporary improvement, more labour being brought in. The crux though, is the lack of rolling stock to remove the landed goods. At present at both Murmansk and Ekonomia (River Dvina) the conditions are chaotic. A few bombs dropped anywhere in the dock area would do an infinite amount of damage. It is only fair to add that at Ekonomia the Russians are handicapped by the mild winter which up to date has prevented the laying of a railway track across the ice to connect with the main line to the south. At the same time the ice is thick enough to prevent water transport. And soothe accumulation grows but very fortunately the Germans have not started bombing. 

JW 56A on passage lost three ships, SS Fort Bellingham, USS Penelope Baker and USS Andrew G Curtin by submarine attacks in the vicinity of Bear Island, the first casualties since the resumption of convoys in October. The escorts picked up 176 survivors. The convoy arrived Kola Inlet without further loss during the night of 27th/28th January, the local escort of British and Russian ships having been sailed twenty hours earlier than planned to reinforce the escort. On arrival the convoy survivors were landed, kitted up and distributed to merchant ships awaiting convoy. This was a good test for the organisation for dealing with this situation. 

As a result of this and indications of an even heavier concentration of U-bots, RA 56A was not sailed as arranged, its destroyer escort, Senior Officer D26 in Hardy, being used to reinforce that of JW 56B and to act as a striking force. Up to the time of writing this plan has been successful in so far as the convoy has been concerned but unfortunately Hardy was torpedoed and sunk at 0430 on the 30th January. No details are available as yet other than it is hoped that at least two U-boats were damaged if not sunk. 

I have seen Golovko a number of times to discuss the offensive use of his augmented air force might be put to, in particular enemy ships in North Norway and the provision of A/S air escorts for convoys. He has promised to do all he can when weather makes these measures possible. I feel he does realise their importance now though obviously very dear to his heart is the bombing of enemy airfields and bases which offer easier targets nearer home than does, say, Alten Fjord. In this connection Boston aircraft for the first time provided air escort for JW 56A on the 27th January and would have done so on the 26th January if they had not been grounded by fog locally….   

E R Archer
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia

31st January 1944

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