Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - February 1944
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29th MONTHLY REPORT – 1st to 29th February 1944 (Extracts)

JW 56B arrived on the 1st February intact, but only so thanks to the vigorous counter of the escorts, one of whom, Hardy (D26), was sunk while following up a radar contact. The U-boats were persistent, remaining with the convoy until daylight on the day of arrival, i.e. fifty odd miles from Kola Inlet. In return for this attention they were generously entertained with depth charges, some 740 of which were expended. Meeting the demand for replenishments and for these and other armament stores was a good test for the local arrangements. These cannot yet be (nor perhaps ever will be) described as fool proof and perfect, but at any rate thanks to the experience gained on this occasion, we are now nearer that ideal. 

Up to date the Russians have persistently refused to allow the Officer in Charge of Ammunition or any of his staff to visit the magazines to pick up whatever was required. Oh no, very secret these places – you give a list and we will deliver the goods. Very well, if you insist – but there will be no mistakes? Oh No etc. In practice there was found to be nothing but mistakes, wrong fuses, wrong this, wrong that. Even the Russians were eventually forced to admit how hopeless this arrangement was, and now we have full permission to go ourselves and select the items required. In the main, thanks to some fairly strong language and last minute improvisations, the main requirements were met, but only just. 

The above and arrangements for re-fuelling, discharging stores, conferences, kitting up hardy survivors, embarking passengers, repairing ice damage to Savage etc kept the shore based personnel pleasantly occupied during the turn round – twenty hours a day was the average time put in. From many of the signals received from our visitors it might appear that we have been raised in their eyes to the status of a Fleet Base. In our own, Harry Tate or Heath Robinson is a more apt description for the facilities available.  

The Commander in Chief Northern Fleet entertained all the Commanding Officers of ships berthed at Polyarnoe (Captains D3 and D26, and four others) to a prasnik on the 2nd February, a very friendly and enjoyable affair despite the presence of Rear Admiral Nikolaev, Head of the Political department of the Northern Fleet (otherwise known as The Slug). This was his first appearance for several months at a function of this kind. He made one of his usual political speeches, a kind of Gin with more than a dash of Second Front Bitters. My reply took the form of a Tehran Cocktail. 

RA 56 sailed as one convoy of 39 ships on the 3rd February, ships which could not maintain 9 ½ knots being excluded. At the conference the Senior Officer of the Escort (Captain D3) warned Masters that if in the first 24 hours there were any stragglers they would be sent back when the local escort parted company. This was the largest convoy sailed from the Kola Inlet, nevertheless it took far too long getting out of harbour - 3 ¾ hours. Enquiries showed that this delay was in part at any rate due to a Russian pilot not allowing ships with pilots junior to himself to pass his ship which he was taking out very slowly. This is something quite novel in rank consciousness, also very stupid, and it is to be hoped that as a result of the representations made it will not be repeated. Some confusion may have also occurred over the time being kept, it having been the practice to put clocks back to BST on the Commodore passing Toros Island. This will be done in future after the convoy has sailed.  

True to his word Captain D sent back two stragglers on the 4th February, the SS Empire Pickwick and the USS Philip Livingstone, both protesting by signal and later, in the case of Empire Pickwick, on paper, the Master demanding an enquiry. He appeared to consider that he was made an example of and had been unfairly treated. The escort evidently held other views. This convoy arrived intact and from the absence of any signals, presumably got through without any incident. A last minute diversion to the eastward ordered by the Admiralty, evidently achieved its object of dodging some U-boats patrolling about a hundred miles north of Kola Inlet near the original route. 

The inability of the Russian to provide A/S air escort has been the subject of much discussion with their Naval Staff. It must be particularly galling for escorts of those convoys making the passage of the Barents Sea in perfect visibility, surrounded by U-boats and shadowed by Ju88’s, to be without air cover of their own. Every effort is made to lay this on but the truth is that the Russians are not experienced pilots over the sea, their equipment is poor and above all Vaenga airfield and Kola Inlet approaches are liable to be fog bound. Further west where the German airfields are situated, the conditions are better…

The mixed British and Russian escorts for local convoys are giving the latter much needed experience of this work. Before each convoy a conference is held in a British ship where the operation ids gone over in detail. By tacit agreement, whatever the relative ranks may be, the Senior British Officer act as Senior Officer of the Escort. The Russian Commanding Officers now bring their navigators with them to the conferences. Apart from what is learned about escorting convoys apparently much is also learned about the superiority of British cabin furnishings and plumbing, judging by the admiration shown. At one recent conference all the Russians present felt compelled to go in batches into the Commanding Officer’s bathroom and work a certain handle there. Evidently their own fitting is somewhat more primitive. All reports go to show a definite increase in Russian efficiency at sea. Minesweeping in company and manoeuvres using the Anglo-Soviet Code have been exercised. During the month three groups of ships have been brought round from White Sea ports, thus clearing them.   

The winter has been unexpectedly mild. This has enabled 43 dry cargo ships to be taken at the |Dvina ports up to date i.e. just over 50% of the total numbers which have arrived in JW convoys this season. This fact has saved Murmansk from becoming more congested than it would normally have been; a great thing this, as with the inexperienced labour, the chaotic state of the docks and slow rate of discharge, conditions have been bad enough as it is. Recently a minor purge of local officials and more labour being drafted in has effected an improvement.  

There has been some quiet fun in Murmansk during the month provided by the Militia stopping Americans’ cars and asking for driving licences which none of the drivers have got. The stock reply has been ‘All right, if we can’t use our transport, unloading must stop’. The unloading has gone on – as have the cars. I do not know if there is any connection between this move and the recent American refusal to embark in their ships for passage to the UK Soviet women and children, the families of Soviet diplomatic officials. There may well be a connection as shortly after the refusal the stopping of American cars commenced. The American point of view is why should these families travel in wartime. There is a lot to be said for it; certain it is that of Masters, British and American alike, have quite a lot to say on the subject and not in Parliamentary language either – and who can blame them. 

Murmansk has had its first bomb which fell near the British Mission, members of which now have their bomb story. Polyarnoe had its bombs in September after the attack on the Tirpitz. These removed much of our glass which owing to shortage has not been replaced to any appreciable extent. This leaves stairways and landings in our blocks of flats in perpetual darkness owing to the boarding over all the windows. To overcome this a light has been fitted outside my door; the resident ladies in the flat opposite, and their male visitors, do not appreciate this kindly light as they might be expected to, in fact it has been removed on several occasions. Perhaps if I had fitted one of more reasonable hue it would have been more appropriate (I hasten to add – for the flat opposite) and have been left undisturbed. Now, however, this flat has been allocated to the Americans to house their small Mission which is shortly to be established here in connection with the minesweepers and submarine chasers built in the USA and handed over to the Russians. I trust the change of address of the late occupants receives due publication or else the new tenant may be disturbed of nights… 

February on the whole has been a month of wild weather (contrary to local expectations), blizzards have been frequent and days suitable for flying few and far between. The worst gale yet experienced sprang up on the evening of the 22nd February, blowing from the north-east with almost continual snow. One ship, the USS Woodbridge Ferris, was blown ashore from her anchorage in the inlet, but was refloated undamaged 48 hours later when conditions improved. 

JW 57 arrived 28/29th February intact but very unfortunately again one of the escort, Mahratta, was the victim of gnat torpedoes; there were only 19 survivors. With the convoy came the last batch of American built motor minesweepers and submarine chasers, three of each. Everyone spoke very highly of their good station keeping in bad weather and the grit displayed by their Soviet crews.    

Owing to the return to UK with RA 57 of minesweepers normally stationed in North Russia, the local escort for the White Sea section of JW57 was, for the first time, an all Russian one, the Senior Officer being Rear Admiral Kolchin (recently promoted). It had been arranged that Gleaner and Seagull would accompany the Russians to assist in effecting a meeting then return to Kola Inlet. On Sunday 27th February it was learned quite casually that Kolchin had intentions of sailing 24 hours earlier than the pre-arranged time and without the British ships. (The lad is quite a grown man now, thank you, and is able to stand on his own feet. As the convoy’s route was being constantly altered, all of which tended to shorten it and alter the ETA, this plan of Kolshin’s, who was as yet unaware of the above, left much to be desired. I imagine too that VAD in Black Prince would hardly welcome 15 assorted Russian ships stooging about rather lost in his vicinity at night, although being on the old route the probability is that they would have missed the convoy altogether, thanks be.   

This kind of incident does happen from time to time followed by profuse apologies when asked what the something they think they are playing at (couched somewhat more diplomatically of course). Apart from that relations with the Naval Staff have, I feel, never been better – much more real friendliness which means naturally very much better cooperation. It is true that the fiat has gone forth from Moscow that this was to be but certainly at Polyarnoe it has been interpreted in a very liberal manner. It is obviously a relief to all concerned to have political control relaxed thus allowing them to be more like themselves.  

E R Archer
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia.

29th February 1944

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