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Arctic-bound HMS Westminster remembers WW2 Russian convoy heroes

Arctic-bound HMS Westminster remembers WW2 Russian convoy heroes
21 February 2018
In one of the most bleak and remote spots in the British Isles, a small party from HMS Westminster remembers sailors who made “the worst journey in the world” 75 years ago

This is Loch Ewe in northwest Scotland, marshalling point for ships sailing to or back from the Soviet Union during World War 2.

The sheltered waters – an hour’s drive west of Ullapool – offered a relatively safe staging area for Arctic convoys.

With the Portsmouth-based warship heading north for winter training in those same Arctic waters, the frigate’s crew wanted to know what to expect. With its crumbling bunkers and decaying gun emplacements, Loch Ewe remains an evocative site – brought to life especially by enthusiasts and the Arctic Convoy Museum they run.

“Every sailor has deep respect for those who served in the Arctic Convoys, but having re-read their story and now that I am taking Westminster back through the same waters in the depth of winter I felt that we had to take some time to recognise the sacrifice of all those who served in what was proportionally the most deadly theatre of war,” said Commander Simon Kelly, Westminster’s CO.

“The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, manned by a team of passionate local volunteers went out of their way to support this remembrance, for which all in HMS Westminster would like to thank them.”

Every sailor has deep respect for those who served in the Arctic Convoys, but having re-read their story and now that I am taking Westminster back through the same waters in the depth of winter I felt that we had to take some time to recognise the sacrifice of all those who served in what was proportionally the most deadly theatre of war

Commander Simon Kelly, HMS Westminster’s Commanding Officer

For four years, the Allies delivered supplies to the Soviet Union via northern ports such as Murmansk.

In doing so, they faced the harshest weather conditions and had to run the gauntlet of German bombers, U-boats and, occasionally, surface ships, based in occupied Norway.

More than 100 warships and merchant vessels were lost, while over 3,000 sailors and merchant seamen were killed.

They are remembered, inter alia, by a large memorial stone, which provided the ideal setting for a commemorative service for which the Westminster sailors were joined by museum volunteers.

“We enjoyed hosting the shore party from HMS Westminster – and showing them around the new Exhibition Centre. We all wish them well on their voyage north of the Arctic Circle,” said acting chairman Bruce Hudson.

Visiting the memorial and museum proved a useful – and sobering – eye-opener for the sailors. “Seeing photographs of the weather and sea conditions experienced by the sailors and seeing how they were equipped made the team really appreciate the value of the new Arctic clothing they had been issued,” said Cdr Kelly.

In February 1944, the loch was filled with the ships of convoy RA 56, safely returned from Russia having delivered its cargo – and evade the attention of 15 U-boats.

For Westminster, just coping with the cold is battle enough this winter deployment conducting anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare training off the very northern city of Tromsø.

“We’ve spent the past two months preparing for the cold weather, reconfiguring machinery, issuing specialist clothing and preserving the upper deck,” explained Weapon Engineer Officer Lt Cdr Matt Cox.

“We’ve planned for conditions as low as -20˚C, where the waves can freeze as they crash over the bow and ice forms on the superstructure.”

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