Halcyon Class Minesweepers Report of SBNO (extracts) - March 1944
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30th MONTHLY REPORT – 1st to 31st March 1944 (Extracts) 

To meet the heavy recent inroads made on depth charge stocks in the Kola Inlet an urgent request was signalled that replacements might be sent out in JW 57. Unfortunately it was not found possible to meet this request, though what component parts were available at Scapa were embarked by the home Fleet destroyer escort. Even so the position gave rise to anxiety, not in any way alleviated by a signal from V A (D) while o passage asking for ample supplies to be made available as expenditure had been heavy. At this end we were all too aware of this from intercepted signals of continuous attacks on U-boats. Attempts to bring round by sea what stocks (particularly pistols) remained at Archangel failed on account of the ice situation, forwarding by rail having also fallen through due to transport difficulties on the Dvina – the Northern Fleet were appealed to. Could two hundred pistols and certain components be flown over? The answer was an immediate Yes, two transport planes being placed at our disposal. Then the weather took a hand in the game – for days no flying was possible; however on the day before RA57 was due to sail, a break in the poor visibility came, the pistols etc arrived and the situation was saved.  

For this cooperation we have to thank the Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Fedorov, who took a marked personal interest in the matter. I have found him very easy to work with and always helpful. A shy, rather retiring manner but essentially honest and if he says he will do a thing he can be relied upon to do it. His distinct sense of humour also helps during negotiations. He has not much English but he understands quite a bit and even more so when no Politicals are present. 

RA 57 sailed on the 2nd March, 32 ships. It was a model convoy leaving harbour, a great improvement on its predecessor. The local name given it was the ‘Empire Bard’ convoy. This crane ship, so urgently asked for by the Ministry of War Transport for several months, was eventually accepted, the speed of the convoy being reduced to 8 ˝ knots in order to do so. She was placed close to the Commodore where station keeping would be reduced to a minimum; she was completed with the best coal; she had the united prayers of all here. A general sigh of relief went up as she cleared the harbour. That was on the 2nd March. Forty eight hours later when the convoy was being attacked by U-boats to our horror a signal was received from V A (D) that the Empire Bard was missing after the first night, having straggled. Sure enough the following day, 5th March, the lost sheep turned up at Iokanka and was on our hands again. Steering trouble was alleged but lack of speed was probably the main cause as she only averaged six knots on passage back to Kola Inlet, with bursts up to eight when one of the escorts in desperation’ sighted’ a submarine.   

A group of seven ships ex JW 57 which had to wait in Kola Inlet till berths were ready at the White sea ports, sailed on the 8th March and had a difficult passage, taking seven days to make it. This was due to a sudden deterioration in the ice situation. At one time the position looked serious, only a few miles progress having been made in 72 hours and the ice breakers running out of coal. They just managed to break through in time into the thinner ice of the White Sea proper. Fortunately the wind shifted to a favourable quarter to make this possible.  

It had been arranged with the Russians that four of the escort with this group, parting company at the ice edge, would bring the Empire Bard from Iokanka back to the Kola Inlet. Not hearing anything of this movement enquiries were made only to find that it had commenced 24 hours beforehand, and that instead of four escorts only two had been provided. I saw the C in C to protest about this and ask for an assurance that agreements should be kept and that I should be kept fully informed of all movements of allied ships. He acknowledged the fault and promised that it would not occur again.  

The departure of the Minesweepers from North Russia (they returned with RA 57) is thus already being felt as the control over our coastal convoys has now passed into Russian hands. I have had to make a stand, too, over an attempt to exclude my Staff Officers from the conferences for these convoys, and to insist that British Liaison Officer is embarked in the Senior Officer’s ship of the escort. These points have been acceded to so now all is peace – till next time. 

Several talks have taken place with Golovko and his Chief of Staff on the possibility of bombing Tirpitz, during which I pressed for any opportunity that presented itself to carry out this operation to be taken. This was readily agreed to. However the weather on the whole this month has been anything but favourable for flying, much low cloud, snow and fog. On three occasions I was assured that a force was sent but unable to reach their objective due to weather, alternative targets being chosen… 

Passages have been arranged in American merchant ships sailing in RA58 for over a hundred Russian flying personnel who with some others already there, will bring back 20 Catalinas from the USA. These aircraft will form a very useful addition to the Soviet Coastal Command.   

Escorts of JW convoys often ask if their journeys are really necessary, having the impression that the sailing of these convoys is dictated by political expediency rather than necessity. From all the information at my disposal I feel confident that the munitions, fuel, food and transport etc that is brought out are all very much in demand. I have even been told on more than one occasion by Russians who should be able to speak with authority, that but for this source of supply it is doubtful if Leningrad would have been held. It is to be admitted however that the general attitude of the Russians might give the impression quoted above. They are a sensitive people, loathe to admit that outside help is needed and rather grudging in expressing any appreciation when such is given.  However, anyone who attends meetings about these convoys cannot fail to be impressed by the dismay displayed if there is any question of delay or reductions I the numbers of ships.  

The unloading rate and clearance of the dock area at Murmansk have both shown a remarkable improvement during the past six weeks. The new broom in the person of Krutikov, Trade Commissar, has made his presence felt. In this he has been assisted by the arrival of a couple of hundred American five ton trucks, more than half of which have been retained locally to clear the docks… 

The Russian Government, to show their appreciation of the men who have brought supplies to this country, present a bonus to the crews of merchant ships of US convoys. This runs from one thousand roubles for a master down to three hundred for a fireman. The idea being that this money should be spent during their stay in harbour, and as roubles may not be exported from the USSR, any remaining have to be surrendered before the ship sails. That is the theory: in practice it can work out somewhat differently. Cases have been reported of one set of officials coming off in the forenoon of the day of sailing and paying the bonus, while another called in the afternoon to collect it. The Master of one tanker to whom this had happened in Archangel told me he had some difficulty explaining away a deficiency to the afternoon callers; his crew, knowing the conditions and unable to get a run ashore, had used the roubles for quite a different purpose – the notes being a handy size.

This is my last report as within a few days I hand over to Rear Admiral H J Egerton. Looking back on the eleven months spent in this health resort one is struck by the fact of how much longer it has seemed. It has not been altogether an easy time but even so has not been without its interest. At all events no one who has served here could ever again attach any importance to the Communist bogey – that is a system which just would not work in Britain. In fact it is doubtful if it has worked even here, despite lip service still paid to it there is an obvious swing to the Right. This has been very noticeable in regard to the Red Fleet, the raising of the status of the officers, the maintenance of discipline, the re-introduction of ceremonial – Colours, Sunset, falling in for entering and leaving harbour, shore patrols, saluting and so on. No doubt to, the increased use of Polyarnoe by Home Fleet destroyers has had its effect – they have set a fine example and the way they have been handled has impressed our Chums to no small tune. 

I have nothing but praise for the conduct and bearing of British personnel who have played up so well and taken the various restrictions and general lack of amenities to which they are accustomed in their stride and managed to keep cheerful. Without that support, well – life would have been much more difficult. 

E R Archer
Rear Admiral, SBNO North Russia

31st March 1944

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