Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - Feb-Apr 1943
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19th Monthly Report: 26th February to 11th April 1943

 Convoy JW53

The date of sailing  of the convoy from the UK was confirmed as the 15th February, after enquiries as to the possibilities of postponement on account of congestion at the discharging berths at Murmansk. Arrangements were made with the Russian staff to keep Soviet submarines clear of the areas commanding the approaches to Alten Fjord West of 24˚E. No Russian submarines were in fact stationed in the areas in question to the Eastward of that Longitude. ..

C in C Home Fleet 1309/21 was received saying that the convoy had passed position C 48 hours late on account of bad weather. Admiralty 1327/21 and NCSO Loch Ewe’s 1916/22 gave information that five ships had returned on account of bad weather, the Nimilies, Explorer, John Laurence, James Bowie and Joseph E Johnson. A report of broken ice in the vicinity of the North Easterly area of the convoy route, which was received from Russian air reconnaissance was passed at 1655/21.

At 1055/24 SBNO NR warned the convoy and Force R that Russian aircraft might be sighted to eastward of 30˚E. As far as is known, the only Russian aircraft to sight the convoy at any considerable distance from the land, approached it too closely, and did not carry out recognition procedure until after three ships of the escort had opened fire upon it. This matter was represented to the Russian authorities, in the hope that steps might be taken to improve the behaviour of their aircraft in this respect, which has been the source of much trouble on many occasions, both while operating at sea and over the Kola Inlet. 

Information was received from the Russian staff on the 25th the 12 Ju88 and 10Me109 aircraft had proceeded seaward at 1030A and this was passed to the convoy (1050/25). The Scylla’s report of an attack at noon that day by 14 Ju88 appeared to confirm the accuracy of this information.

The report of Russian visual reconnaissance of Alten Fjord, showing 1 cruiser and three destroyers there, was passed to AIC 1602/25. Three Russian destroyers, two escort vessels and HMS Britomart were detailed to meet the convoy at position MU and provide escort as far as the ice edge for the seven ships diverted to the White Sea ports. However, after Scylla’s 0724/26, giving the ETA of the arrival of the convoy at position MU as 0115/27, it was decided that in order to ensure a daylight meeting, that the local escort should rendezvous with the White Sea section off Cape Teribarski, and the Scylla was requested to detach a part of the ocean escort until the rendezvous had been effected.

A number of Russian D/F fixes of U-boats were passed to the convoy during the last few days of its passage, the Russians estimate of the number of U-boats concentrating on the convoy being 10. A ‘HELP’ message was received (1237/26) from the convoy, but it was not possible to promise any assistance apart from passing an assurance from the Russian staff that fighters were in the vicinity of the convoy. Scylla’s 1921/26 was received reporting an attack by high level bombers, who had dropped bombs from above cloud level, and had caused no damage. The same signal reported that no U-boat attack had yet developed.

The Murmansk section of the convoy arrived in the Kola Inlet at 0600A/27, and the escorts detached to screen the White Sea ships at 1900A/27. The White Sea section made a fast passage through the ice and arrived at Molotovsk at 0700A/2nd March. 

Convoy RA53

In order to accommodate the large number of ships present in the Kola Inlet during the 48 hours turnaround of the JW53 escorts, seven of the merchant ships awaiting sailing in RA53 were anchored in bays near the entrance, and at some considerable distances from the usual anchorages. While there, one ship, the Empire Portia, was bombed and damaged, and was unable to sail with the convoy. There were altogether at this time 4 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 2 minesweepers, 6 corvettes, 3 trawlers and 45 merchant ships in the harbour, not including crane ships, ships under repair and, of course, Russian ships, naval and mercantile. Fortunately the weather was good as if gales had occurred, several ships would have undoubtedly been driven ashore due to bad holding ground in many of the berths….. 

White Sea

The five allied merchant ships of convoy JW53 were brought to the Kola Inlet in two groups, after discharging their cargo at Molotovsk, The first, composed of the two tankers Beacon Hill and marathon, and the SS Bering left Molotovsk at 0125C/20 March, were clear of the ice at approximately 0900C/22, and arrived in the Kola Inlet at 1000C/23, having been escorted from the ice edge by two Russian destroyers and HM Ships Britomart and Bluebell.

The second group, consisting of the merchant ships City of Omaha, Israel Putnam and one Russian ship left Molotovsk at 2030C/23, and took slightly longer through the ice, which they cleared by about 0630C/26, where they were met by  HM ships Jason and Camellia, who were later joined by two Russian escort vehicles. The convoy arrived at Kola Inlet at 0645C/27. 

Remarks on combined local escorts

Russian destroyers and escort vessels have no idea of carrying out correct escort procedure when in company with merchant ships, and when the escort force is composed of mixed Russian and British ships, with the senior officer in a Russian ship, the Senior British Officer is obliged to take charge of the merchant ships if any kind of order is to be maintained. In practice it has been found desirable not to determine in advance who is to take Senior Officer of the escort. The Senior British Officer is then free to direct the merchant ships, and the Russian escorts conform without further discussion. 

Relief of SBNO North Russia

On 12th April I left Polyarnoe for Moscow to take up my new appointment as Head of the Naval Section of the British Mission to Moscow in succession to Rear Admiral Miles. At the time of writing, there is no information as to when Rear Admiral Archer, who has been appointed to succeed me as SBNO North Russia is likely to arrive. Until his arrival, Captain G O Maund (SBNO Archangel) will be Senior Officer in North Russia. Commander J Sanders RN will be in charge in the Kola Inlet area. 

Douglas Fisher
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia

10th April 1943

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