Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - Nov - Dec 1943
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27th MONTHLY REPORT – 22nd November to 26th December 1943 (Extracts)

The first convoy of the season from the United Kingdom JW54A on the 24th November, followed by JW 54B on the 2nd December and JW55A on the 20th December.  In all 53 ships have so far arrived in North Russia without loss. The fact that up to date there has been no enemy reaction in the form of air attack may be in part due to poor flying weather; it may also be due to the depletion of their air force in the north, already reported, and the time is required, with many other calls on it, to bring again there force in North Norway up to the operational strength required. 

In this connection Russian reconnaissance shows that Banak aerodrome is being cleared of snow though as yet no increase of aircraft there is reported. The fact that convoys to North Russia have restarted is now well known to the Germans as U-boats from the Bear Island Boulevard have reported and shadowed them and their reconnaissance aircraft have also been in contact. The Russians on the other hand have materially increased their air force attached ti the Northern Fleet, as the result of which several raids have been carried out on Kirkenes, Luostari, Hoybukten and one on Potsamo recently. The first three places were airfields and such details of the raids as are available are given in the Intelligence summary. The anti-aircraft defences of Kola Inlet have also been strengthened. The Russian reconnaissance reports must still be accepted with reserve, some are good no doubt, but some are anything but. An example of the latter was the reporting of CS One’s force on the 22nd November, W/T silence being broken to do so. Our cruisers were reported as one hostile cruiser and two destroyers and this despite alleged careful briefing. I saw the C in C Northern Fleet about this and he promised it would not happen again and that W/T silence would be maintained by these aircraft. 

Everyone out here is happier in having something concrete to do, at least that is in theory; in practice the experience of working with the Russian Trade and Harbour authorities at Murmansk has reduced more than one of our newcomers there to a state of frenzy. That is the first stage which is succeeded by one of philosophical resignation – or Yarmouth. This year it would appear that Yarmouth may become overcrowded unless our chums can be persuaded to provide slightly more experienced dockworkers than the Ukrainian peasants whose first sight of Blue Water this is, let alone a ship. It is the same at Archangel. The semi-skilled labour of last season was moved to the Far East in the spring from North Russian ports, and none has been brought back. The Russian attitude of Nichevo (it doesn’t matter) may be admirable in some ways but it is not a very practicable one for unloading ships. 

The serious of the situation and the possibility of convoys having to be delayed in sailing, or at least reduced in size, has been made clear, and the Northern Fleet has been pressed to increase their quota of personnel lent to assist. At present these number 400 at Murmansk, each one of which is worth three Ukrainians but that is not saying much. The congestion on the dockside has to be seen to be believed.     

With reference to this congestion, large quantities of provisions and naval stores arrived in convoys JW54 and 55; these were to replenish exhausted stocks and build up a reserve which had been used in the summer for the marooned merchant ships. The conditions at Murmansk had not been visualised to the full, namely, that the dock labour would be so raw, that there would be inadequate storage space provided for British use in the port area, thanks to the non return for our use of a promised shed, and that such bad weather would be experienced so early in the season just as British stores were being unloaded. The net result was that these stores spent and are spending a long time in the snow unattended on the quays. It is to be hoped that pilferage and damage by frost is not exceeding 20 percent of the whole. As an example, a Jeep, consigned to the MWT representative, was minus a spare wheel, carburettor and driving mirror within two hours of unloading. It was unattended while customs formalities were being fulfilled. Mr MacGregor of the MWT takes a very poor view of this.   

It is requested that in future all stores for the British in North Russia may be sent in HM Ship. It is realised that the quantity sent at any one time will be smaller but this is in itself is an advantage because the stores can be handled and dispersed in the various stores of the Inlet more easily by the small supply staff available. Further there will be no risk of confusion in the markings on cases and bills of lading between lease-lend goods and Naval stores. A request has been forwarded to Moscow to increase storage space in the Murmansk port area and so decrease the possibility of pilfering and also assist in the sorting of British stores for onward transit.

Two convoys have been sailed for the United Kingdom, RA54B an the 26th November, and RA55A an the 22nd December the former got through without loss, the latter is still on passage. The present plan for sailing a home going convoy (RA) about 24 hours after the arrival of one from the United Kingdom (JW) leaves very little margin for any delay due to weather in the Inlet, fuelling, collecting stores, convoy conference etc but above all, ships’ companies have little opportunity for rest after a strenuous eight day passage with a similar one ahead of them. The necessity for a quick turn round in view of the forces available is fully realised but it is for consideration that an interval of 48 hours may be allowed for in view of the factors involved, particularly the human one. Fifty tons of gold and silver which has been waiting in Murmansk for some months for shipment was sent home in the three cruisers covering RA 54B. Any further shipments of this commodity will be dealt with in the same way using the code word ‘caviar’; this is appropriate as that delicacy is becoming as rare as gold. 

Since the Moscow conference the question that all visitors ask is ‘Have relations improved?’. The answer is ‘Yes’ as regards our opposite numbers in the Northern Fleet, who without doubt have received instructions to be more friendly. These relations have always been better than those with other organisations despite an obviously tight hand kept on individuals by the Political department of the Northern Fleet. One of our destroyers – the Beagle – early in December whist lying at Vaenga had quite an entente with a Soviet destroyer berthed close by. Visits and meals were exchanged at the close of which one Russian CO advanced and kissed a somewhat astonished CO of Beagle on both cheeks. Fortunately the Russian in question was freshly shaved. 

In many ways an improvement is noticeable, more readiness to provide water transport, berths alongside for our destroyers, general helpfulness in cooperating over convoy arrangements, provision of extra cinema facilities, loan of Russian concert parties and so on. Some Russians even joined in with a football game on the jetty in the snow although it must be said that a number of spectators quite obviously considered this a further proof that all Englishmen are mad.   

As regards other organisations, Customs, Frontier Guard, Narkomindel etc, so far no such improvement can be recorded; pinpricks still occur. I attribute this largely to the continued presence in Murmansk of one Comrade Tomashenko as ‘Head Nark’. He is an unpleasant piece of work, as straight as the hind leg of a donkey and unpopular alike with the Allies and the Russians. He is behind the move to try and have Vaenga Hospital closed (strongly opposed by Golovko, the C in C Northern Fleet), he also has attempted to make bad blood between the Americans and ourselves, without the slightest success, thanks be. His sole topic of conversation is the Second front, of which we have heard more than enough. If the Russian Government is sincere in its declaration to work closely with the Allies etc, they might, as proof thereof, give this individual another post, one for preference where he would have to deal with the Japanese; they should get on excellently together.  

The Americans have been sending out to the Northern Fleet some motor minesweepers and submarine chasers in the last few months, and with them a few officers to act as instructors and for liaison duties while the Russians are working up these craft. The Gilbertian situation has now arisen whereby the American officers are not allowed on board – very secret these ships.  This tended to nonplus them at first but on being reassured that there was nothing new in it and that they should play the ‘Ask Moscow’ game, they have called in the diplomats to square the circle. 

Admiral Fisher came through here in the middle of December for an all too brief stay of 48 hours. However as we were not able to meet when relieving each other, there was plenty to talk about and it is hoped to provide a further opportunity for discussion by a visit to Moscow in the not too far distant future. 

Reading through these reports I see that none would be complete without a mention of mail – this time a brief mention of the one arriving for Christmas on the 20th December and which spent the festive season in the hands of the Russian censors. When on Christmas Day we sang lustily about Goodwill to All Men we of course included these men and blessed them. In case it should be thought how disappointing the above must have been, it might be mentioned that there was a difference in weight between the mail as it arrived in the cruisers and when it arrived in the Murmansk Post Office. This was due to a process known locally as milking.  

The main event to report is the visit of the Commander in Chief Home Fleet in Duke of York, with Jamaica and four destroyers in company. He arrived on the 16th December, and there can be no doubt of the impression made by this visit, it will be talked about for a long time to come. I have heard many of the reactions to it, all of them most favourable. In the bare 48 hours available a full programme was fitted in which included in the order given: in the afternoon of the 16th December a call of the C in C Northern Fleet and his reception by a guard and band, his tour of the ship lasting an hour. Then a visit by our C in C to the Naval Hospital at Vaenga, his reception at the jetty by having to climb up a vertical iron ladder covered by ice; a wooden ladder had been promised but did not materialise until after the visit. His walk round the hospital and talk to the patients and staff which cheered them considerably; the back to Duke of York, still via the iron ladder, for a dinner which he gave to our Allies, kindly inviting a number of the British senior and staff officers from the Inlet. 

That dinner alone made the visit worthwhile – however much of a Communist one may be I defy anyone not to appreciate good food, perfectly cooked and served in such surroundings, the band playing, the whole atmosphere breathing as it does of centuries of tradition. Certain it is that the Russians were impressed. After dinner the Russian Concert Party of the Northern Fleet entertained a very full house in the Ward Room with folk and other songs and dances. This Party consists of men who have the necessary talent and are kept for the purpose of entertainment, visiting the various places where Red Fleet men are serving ashore such as Ribachi Peninsular, as well as in ships. They are first class. 

After breakfast on the 17th December the C in C Home Fleet, with other officers visited Vaenga aerodrome and saw types of aircraft operated from there, then down the Inlet to Polyarnoe in a Russian Hunter craft. On arrival this craft berthed alongside a Russian destroyer lying at the jetty. A band was at the gangway and the ships’ company was drawn up in two ranks along the upper deck. Our C in C was received by Golovko, the band first playing our National Anthem (with variations) and then the Internationale with which they were more at home. This is the first time as far as I am aware that such a ceremony has been staged out here and I can imagine that the local band had to put some intensive over night to get as near God Save the King as they did. 

A tour of our establishments followed before 1400 when we were due to lunch with Golovko. This function came as a surprise to us residents inasmuch as that which appeared on the table must have been specially brought up for it, probably by air, caviar and champagne for example. Luncheon lasted the statutory three hours or so when we adjourn4ed to the Red Navy Club to have the pleasure of seeing and hearing again the Russian concert party in action. Finally the C in C left at 1930 for the Duke of York after a contact with the Russians which can only be described as completely successful and of infinite help and encouragement to the British out in these parts. The talks with the staff were also most helpful. Duke of York sailed at 0900 o the 18th December. 

One high ranking Russian said to me some days later ‘Now we can understand what the British Navy stands for, have you many more like the Duke of York at home?’ They are also I trust beginning to understand what forces are employed in the operation of getting convoys through to them and to appreciate all that it entails. No opportunity is missed of stressing this.   

CS10 in Belfast paid a welcome return visit to these parts on the 19th December, being warmly greeted by Golovko when calling on him on the 21st December. This call was followed by lunch at my flat to which Golovko came with two of his staff. On leaving I was glad to see he noticed the litter in the hall; thanks to the habits of the occupants of the two downstairs flats, who use it as a rubbish heap, it is not a good advertisement for a cultured country such as this. I was also interested to see his reaction to the ice covered slope and steps up which one approaches this block of flats. The next day a working party appeared, the hall was cleared and proper steps were cut in the ice outside, and the steps cleared. I must have him to lunch more often…. 

Golovko, poor man, is far from well; the trouble is in the back premises where evidently a series of carbuncles will not clear up or the wounds heal properly. That combined with tummy trouble has pulled him down. At times he looks ghastly. He has had three spells under the doctors care this year and has been advised to got to Moscow for treatment but so far refuses to do so, apparently he has not got much faith in his own doctors. 

An interesting document, namely the instructions to the liaison department of the Northern Fleet at Polyarnoe, came into my hands in November mixed up with a number of victualling accounts. It directs how to keep an eye on the British with particular reference to their tastes as regards wine, women and song, how to extract information and what was wanted etc etc. It is to be hoped that our dossiers do not contain too many purple patches as a result of this kindly interest in our private lives. The reference to women is rather superfluous as we never meet any.    

E R Archer
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia. 

26th December 1943

Appendix:  Operation FT. Intention for passage of convoys JW 54A and JW 54B from Loch Ewe to Archangel and Murmansk and return of RA 54B 

JW 54A

Comprising two tankers, 16 other merchant ships, 1 rescue ship left Loch Ewe on 15th November with White Sea escort Inconstant, Whitehall, Heather, Hussar, later joined by 7 other escorts…. Arrangements were made for the White sea section to be met at 0600A/24 by Seagull with two Russian destroyers and three Russian M/S in company; this local force leaving Iokanka after topping up with fuel oil at 0200A/24… 

RA 54B

The White Sea section comprising 8 ships left Dvina Bar on 26th November 1943 escorted by Hussar and Seagull until met by Captain D 17 with destroyers escort, tanker Norlys and rescue ship Copeland who had left Kola Inlet on 26th November. 

JW 54B

Consisting of 15 ships and through escort left Loch Ewe on 21st November… At position M the Murmansk section of 7 ships was detached for the Kola Inlet, reaching there 2nd December and the White Sea section of 8 ships proceeded with the through escort, except Halcyon who was later detached with Ocean Strength and Fort McMurray for Murmansk…   

Operation FV

Two groups of ‘empties’ were sailed from White Sea to Kola Inlet in readiness to leave with RA 55A, which was intended to sail 24 hours after JW 55A. 

JW 55A

Consisting of 19 ships and MMS’s 1005 and 1023 left Loch Ewe on 12th December… The White Sea section of 8 ships was met a.m. 20th December by Hussar, Halcyon, 3 Russian destroyers and 3 Russian M/S and arrived Dvina Bar a.m. 22nd December.

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