One of our Destroyers: HMAS Norman journeys to Russia
- December 1988
- Ramsay, George
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
HMAS Norman was built at Thornycroft’s Yards, Southampton, England. Launched 30th October 1940, and commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in September 1941, ‘on loan’, with four other ‘N’ Class ships – Napier, Nestor, Nizam, and Nepal, from the Admiralty. She was the fifth of the class to be commissioned. Her Captain was Commander H.M. Burrell, RAN; 1st Lieutenant LCDR. J. Dowson, RAN, with a complement of 225 officers and men.
(Both these officers went on to Flag Rank in later years. Thirty years later Vice Admiral Burrell wrote: ‘It was a great ‘shot in the arm’ for the Royal Australian Navy to be invited to man the ‘N’ Class destroyers. We had the manpower and a significant number of naval reserves who quickly produced officers and sailors fitting to take their place in any ship’s company.It was most generous of the Royal Navy to let us man these magnificent ships. They were of the latest design – very fast – 35 knots, mounted three twin mounted 4.7″ guns, ten torpedo tubes and fitted with the latest A/S, and 285 radar. A commander could not wish for a better fighting ship to command.’)
On passage from the South of England, Southampton then from Devonport to Scapa Flow, Norman escorted the RN cruiser HMS Kent, and our first gunnery experience was when we opened fire on a German Condor bomber caught dropping mines in the Irish sea. We may have frightened it off – that’s all. Trials and ‘working up’ exercises followed, the latter with the Home Fleet based on Scapa Flow, and were carried out in some pretty heavy Atlantic conditions, common in that area.
The vital ‘working up’ exercises were only half completed, when Norman received her first occupational orders, and the operation was one of the most unusual ones during the war years – the transport of a British Trade Union Mission to Russia. On Monday, 6th October, it was piped, ‘The ship is proceeding to Iceland’, and steamed off at 30 knots arriving there the next day and to berth alongside HMS Antelope, an RN destroyer, which had previously embarked the Trade Union delegation led by Sir Walter Citrine near the end of September, but now Antelope had broken down with engine problems caused by water freezing up in their condensers. By now the delegation were indignant on a couple of scores – first, all the delays, and also the fact of a mere destroyer being allocated for their voyage, especially after their recent meeting with Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt, when the visit to Russia was agreed upon, and that took place in comfort on the new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales.
So, Norman embarked the six man delegation immediately from Antelope and sailed for Arkhangelsk (Arkangel). Accommodation for the delegation was very limited, and this also resulted in discomfort for the ship’s officers too. The passengers mainly dined in the captain’s day cabin (i.e. that was when they were ‘on the air’).
Of course the weather turned bitterly cold – we were certainly not kitted up for these conditions, and we roused through our lockers to put on every vestige of clothing we could find, to keep us warm. It was surely different to the weather down in the Mediterranean, as the temperature fell below freezing point and ice formations covered the for’d gun mountings and guard rails, with constant falls of snow. It was soon piped, ‘Danger on the Upper Deck – Lifebelts to be inflated’, as we ploughed northward into rising seas. The best that could be said of the conditions was that it was a good shield against any enemy air or sea attack.
Into the Barents Sea and passing north of Bear Island, then turning southward past Murmansk, and into the White Sea. On Sunday, 12th October, we were met by a pilot and two officials on a very smart Soviet motor launch, (skippered by a tall attractive lady in a white uniform), who then guided us into the Dvina River to proceed along the tree lined and snow covered shores to a berth in Arkangel. From our berth, all seemed to be wood – ice – snow, and the settlement reminded me of an ‘old time’ American army outpost – a wooden village surrounded by poles and huge doors, as seen in the ‘Old Wild West’ movies, with the exception that everywhere was snow covered. A band of very sizeable women (probably appearing so under a lot of protective clothing), patrolled the dock area to keep the urchins away, but they seemed to elude the sentries easily enough, and avoid those logs of wood those women carried in their ample hands. Those urchins turned out to be the traders, and as we had no Russian money someone soon found out that a bar of chocolate or a packet of cigarettes could barter all that was on offer, which wasn’t too much. We did venture into a small canteen- bar (up on poles, like an old time railways signal box, and of similar size), a couple of times, and the onion beer was awful to drink, and more devastating in results. And, for recreation over the first four days, someone from either of the two RN destroyers we found up there – H17 Escapade and I.II Impulsive, produced a ’round’ football, and again it was hilarious playing football in the deep snow.
But then it was back down the river again with those two destroyers to the White Sea and a rendezvous with the cruiser HMS Suffolk. Those three ships were all having engine problems through water freezing up in their condensers, as we carried on with anti submarine sweeps. Shortly after though, Norman received a signal from Suffolk – ‘Bon Voyage’ and next we were retracing our course north out of the White Sea and happily heading back again for Iceland. But, that did not eventuate, as in an urgent signal received 0230 Saturday, 18th October, Norman then did a 180 degree turn to return all the way back to Arkangel once more, where we berthed again at the same fairly desolate spot.
Back to our football in the snow, with some canteen leave too, and even a visit for each watch to the nearby larger town across the water, but after a cold drenching crossing the wide river in our motor boat it wasn’t too enjoyable, with little to buy and only our canteen items to buy with. Back on board, it was a constant job easing off the ship’s mooring lines, to let the ship move out from the wharf, as the chunks of ice floating down the river were enough to build up between ship and shore, and alarmingly heel us over. This gave the OOWs and the duty watches a full time occupation.
After two days alongside, Cmdr. Burrell received ‘A submarine in the White Sea’ report, and we sailed again, to try and intercept it, but nothing was found before it was cancelled, and we returned to our berth.
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