Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - October 1943
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26th MONTHLY REPORT – 1st October to 21st November (Extracts) 

During the period covered by this report there has been an increase in activity, operational and diplomatic. As a result the position of the British in North Russia has improved considerably. Mails are arriving more frequently as are films, thus sparing us having to watch the antics of Laurel and Hardy etc for the nth time – above all of course is the bursting of the visa dam. The latter seemed almost too good to be true, as was to be seen by the reaction of those relieved. These went about in a dream, out of which they only really awakened when safely on board the destroyers on route for the United Kingdom. It is to be hoped that none of the Russians on the jetty watching them embark could understand basic English as spoken by the Lower Deck. 

Early in October saw the conclusion of the ‘firewood’ convoys run by the British from Archangel to Kola Inlet. The bringing round of this essential commodity together with building materials has ensured a sufficient supply of fuel for the winter, and also the erection of much needed further accommodation. The Russian carpenters understand how to knock up three wooden buildings in a minimum of time; it is interesting o watch their methods. 

The bringing round of fuel oil from Molotovsk in the tanker Beacon Hill was also completed on the 26th October. This tanker made in all four trips for the Russians and this filled the available storage in Kola Inlet to capacity, including that completed during the summer – a total of 30,000 tons. This is a very different state of affairs to that which existed at the beginning of last winter when stocks were very low… 

The arrival of three destroyers on the 6th October with mails and stores was most welcome, perhaps the most prized item from them being a packet of razor blades. These are given as prizes at the whist drive – a fortnightly function – Ladies and Gents being equally keen to win one…. 

On completion of Operation FR – the passage of Russian light craft from Iceland – eight destroyers with Captain D3 in Milne (SO) arrived in Kola Inlet on the 28th October. Due to a sharp fall in temperature to 14˚F dense fog prevailed in the Inlet itself, although it was quite clear to seaward. The entry of this force under such conditions, their finding their oilers and subsequently their berths, with a complete absence of signalling between them, impressed our Allies to no small tune. In fact they were bewildered and many were the questions as to how it was done. Asdics were the answers, never radar. 

With these destroyers came a large draft to complete North Russia to full complement and provide reliefs. The results of the Moscow conference not having filtered through to the local officials (after six days) and despite the explanation given, permission to land was refused. The next day however all was well and disembarkation of personnel and stores commenced, somewhat hampered by the fog which did not clear until the 31st October. Despite this the destroyers after oiling all found their berths, four at Polyarnoe and two at Vaenga being alongside. The Russian light craft which had been escorted out by our destroyers entered harbour on the 1st November – brave men who crossed from America in those submarine chasers. 

While the third flotilla was in harbour we hope our guests enjoyed themselves, certainly their visit did the shore party good, as did the fresh eggs from their canteens – the first we had seen for months. Luncheons with the Senior Officers of both Navies were exchanged, as were ship visits by the Ward Rooms. Parties of Russian officers were also shown round our ships, in fact there was quite a modified Entente. The destroyers sailed on the 2nd November to escort thirteen of the merchant ships which have spent so long in these waters. It was a great relief to get them away, only leaving the eight slowest ships to follow at the next opportunity.

With this convoy went HMS Jason (Commander H G A Lewis RN) and HMS Britomart (Lt Commander S S Stamwitz DSC) who had also made a lengthy stay in North Russia. I cannot speak too highly of the service they have given during this period or the manner in which both Commanding Officers have maintained the morale of their ships’ companies. They leave a very good name behind them with the Russians who even offered to buy the ships, so impressed were they. 

Also with this convoy went the RAF party who had been operating PRU Spitfires from Vaenga – Operation Source – their machines being turned over to the Russians. The latter have already lost one of these – failure to return from reconnaissance of Alten Fjord. They will stick to a set route for this work which was not at all to the liking of our pilots, who quite rightly maintained it was asking for trouble, as they proved by experience. However the Russians know better – or worse. 

In this connection while urging the Commander in Chief Northern Fleet, to further damage Tirpitz by bombing her, he intimated that perhaps the British were not so keen on sinking the ship, only crippling her with the possibility of adding her to our fleet after the war. This was a poor appreciation of that gallant band who went in to make their attack against such odds, and I trust my somewhat emphatic language convinced him as to the true state of affairs. 

The Oriental strain in the Russians, coupled with the centralisation of authority in Moscow is presumably responsible for the protracted negotiations that appear to be inevitable even about the most simple matter. A generator for the beaconing station, clearly marked and duly consigned to the British, arrived in Murmansk in February. It was then ‘lost’ and only discovered by accident seven months later in the possession of the Northern Fleet. Applications for its return met with the usual stallings, references to Moscow and so forth. Recently after a further two months it has been handed over. 

The above is only quoted as an illustration of the difficulties that can be experienced in dealing with our chums – two months to return a vital piece of equipment instead of the two minutes that would be required in any other part of the world. The result of the Moscow conference has been most satisfactory when taken at its face value; doubtless instructions to the local ?? will be issued to change their attitude towards us. So far no such change is apparent but then it takes time for anything to trickle through the various departments of their bureaucracy.  

The question of the mails is the one vital matter which is still unsettled. Much difficulty can be for seen if these have still to be handed over to the Russians, particularly during the winter season when all such for Archangel and Moscow have normally to be sent on by courier from Kola Inlet by train. There is sufficient evidence to show that the Murmansk Post Office must be viewed with grave suspicion on the score of non-return of mail sent there for censuring. Before the Russians handled our mail there were no complaint; since they have done so, several representations have been made of the non-receipt of expected package. There is for example a difference of five pounds weight between that handed over and that returned in October to be explained. There is the refusal to weigh the mail handed over in November. 

I was very surprised to learn that the mail question was open to settlement on the basis of reciprocity from the Russian point of view. The fact that at the time of writing no move has been made causes disappointment and adds to the resentment which is so deeply felt by everyone, both fore and aft – the sailor just doesn’t understand. No hint has been mentioned of the indignity we have had to suffer in having our private correspondence opened was in any way due to similar action taken in Britain in respect of British mail. From all that I have heard it seems the one of the main preoccupation of the Russians is that our mail might be used as a means of smuggling in anti-Soviet literature. Perhaps they thought that they might find some such inside the tins of Barneys’ tobacco which are among the missing packages addressed to me.  

Taking advantage of a between convoy period and before the ice closed the River Dvina I visited Archangel early in November in HMS Harrier. This gave an opportunity for discussions on the winter programme, meeting the new arrivals and lunching with Golvoko (C in C Northern Fleet) whom I found still round there directing the operation in connection with the Kara Sea convoys, Kucherov, the C in C White Sea Flotilla being absent on the spot… 

The return to Kola Inlet was put forward one day due to ice forming in the river, a visit being paid to Iokanka on passage. Unfortunately it was not possible to land owing to the prevailing weather – full gale – and as the ships were dragging, passage was resumed after a general impression of the harbour was made, not, under the circumstances, a favourable one. Iokanka has a bad name in winter with poor holding ground over a considerable area of the harbour. It must however be used on occasions, either by escorts or stragglers, in relation to convoys proceeding to the White Sea after ice has formed there… 

E R Archer
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia 

21st November 1943 

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