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Out and About

Old Sailors Never Die
(they just go to the movies)
Ian Mitchell

On Wednesday 7th December, the British Ambassador to the Russian Federation, His Excellency Tim Barrow, invited a group of Russian sailors and their fellows from other Allied countries of the Second World War, to the Embassy to watch the screening of a new film made about the museum ship, HMS Belfast, which is berthed in the Pool of London. This ship was one of the important participants in the Arctic convoys which delivered armaments and other aid from Britain and north America to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk right throughout the period of Soviet participation in the war against Nazi Germany. It is the last surviving fighting ship from World War II. It is also the only British naval vessel since HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, to have been made into a museum.

The film is called The Last Witness, and was made as part of the fund-raising effort mounted by the Imperial War Museum, which owns the ship, and a group of Russian industrialists who have helped restore some parts of it that have been affected by rust. In particular, $2 million was raised over the last few years to replace the badly corroded masts. The replacements were made in St Petersburg, and the film records the co-operation between the Russian engineers and the British custodians of the ship.

The importance of the Arctic convoys can hardly be overstated. Nearly half of the Allied aid delivered to the USSR came through this route, the first convoy sailing in August 1941, less than a month after the German attack, and the last arriving in Murmansk on 20 May 1945, a fortnight after the end of hostilities in Europe. During that period 1400 merchant ships delivered supplies which included 22,000 airplanes, 14,000 tanks, half a million motorcycles, 470 million shells, 13,000 locomotives and rail cars, 2 million kilometres of telephone cable and food worth over $2 billion. One of the Russians present at the event said in a speech afterwards that without this aid, a good proportion of which went straight to Leningrad, that the city might not have been able to survive the three-year long siege.

The merchant ships carrying these supplies came from both sides of the Atlantic, and assembled in joint convoys in a remote fjord in Allied-occupied Iceland, from where they were escorted largely by the Royal Navy to Russia. As was dramatically shown in The Last Witness, these convoys had to skirt the north Norwegian coast, from where the Luftwaffe attacked constantly, as did U-boats. More ominously still, the German Navy had stationed the giant battleship, Tirpitz (sister ship to the Bismarck) there, and the powerful, modern battle-cruiser the Scharnhorst. HMS Belfast played a key role in sinking that vessel during the climax of the four-year long convoy struggle, the famous Battle of North Cape, which was fought in the freezing Arctic night on Boxing Day, December 1943. It was decisive in that it caused Hitler to sack as Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine as he lost faith in surface ships generally. After that, the convoys suffered steadily diminishing losses. But they continued to act as a powerful symbol of Allied co-operation, as they do today.

The Embassy also mounted a small display of artefacts from wartime Britain where bodies like a factory committee from the London suburb of Willesden sent a consignment of home-knitted woollen socks and a book of goodwill messages on one of the convoys. The spirit of mutual comradeship in the face of danger is revived at meetings like this, making modern disagreements seem petty.

Would it be going too far now, seventy years later, to extend this spirit of generosity even to the former enemy? Within an hour of the Scharnhorst going down with all but 36 of her complement of 2000, the commander of the squadron that sank her, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, addressed the officers aboard his battered but still functioning flagship, HMS Duke of York. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the battle against the Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as the Scharnhorst was commanded today.”

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