The long summer when 2,300 Russian sailors anchored in the Firth of Forth

They were there as part of a top secret deal to transfer British warships into Russian hands, with around 2,300 of Stalin’s sailors stationed on a vessel in the Firth of Forth in a long summer of negotiations, training and ‘culture shock’.

By Alison Campsie
Sunday, 19th July 2020, 7:30 am
Russian sailors on their way to Scotland to collect the warships from Rosyth . They arrived following a hazardous journey with one vessel in their convoy hit by a torpedo, with  23 men killed. PIC: Contributed.
Russian sailors on their way to Scotland to collect the warships from Rosyth . They arrived following a hazardous journey with one vessel in their convoy hit by a torpedo, with 23 men killed. PIC: Contributed.

HM Dockyard Rosyth became nerve centre of the handover, where a fleet that included a British battleship, six destroyers and four submarines were refitted for their new owners, with training given on how to handle the vessels and new parts forged in the workshops there.

Accounts suggest tension underpinned the transfer, with Russians remaining armed with pistols at all times and dressed in full formal naval uniform, complete with medals. The British moaned that the Russians spent too long in the bathrooms, perhaps trying to recreate the conditions of their traditional banya steam bath.

Research by the V and W Destroyer Association, which supports surviving veterans who served in ships of the class, has helped to illuminate this forgotten episode of World War Two after they were contacted by the grandson of one of a Senior Lieutenant in the Russian Navy who was one of 23 Russians killed on the long journey to Scotland in a German torpedo attack off Norway’s Bear Island.

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HMS Royal Sovereign at Rosyth in 1944 where The old British battleship was handed over to the Russian navy and renamed Arkhangelsk . PIC: Courtesy of Alexander Kovalev.

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The convoy finally arrived in Scotland on May 6, 1944 and the operation in the Firth of Forth soon began.

Frank Donald, of Edinburgh, a retired Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval and a member of the association, said: “It was collaborative but the Russians were fairly on their guard,

"There was a certain amount of culture shock on both sides.

“The Officers wore medals with uniform, and pistols, at all times. Twenty Russian Officers were expected at Lunch on the Wardroom on the first day, and thirty four turned up. It was realised that fourteen had gone round again, and in future this was prevented by hiding their napkins and napkin rings after the first pass.

"There were also a difference of expectations regarding bathrooms. The British were surprised that when the Russians did use the bathrooms they occupied them for hours and totally filled them with steam. In fact the visitors were probably trying to reproduce the atmosphere of the traditional Russian Banya, though there is no record of them jumping overboard afterwards.”

The Russians were also “very suspicious” that items which they felt now belonged to them were being taken ashore, such as old Midshipmens Chests that were in poor repair.

The ships were loaned to the Russians after the capture of the Italian Navy, with Stalin demanding that a number of vessels be handed over to Russia in order to aid “our common fight against Germany”.

After Churchill finally relented, opting instead to hand over a British battleship given difficulties in moving an Italian vessel out of the Mediterranean, an extraordinary gathering of naval might took shape in Scottish waters.

A group of interpreters was provided, whose duties included translating technical turnover information as well as the brass tallies on machinery controls into Russian.

Stalin accepted the old British Battleship Royal Sovereign – soon to be renamed Arkhangelsk – as well as the USS Milwaukee, an American cruiser that became known as Murmansk.

Six destroyers in total, including HMS St Albans and HMS Brighton, were also transferred, as well as four submarines.

A renaming ceremony was held in the Firth of Forth on May 31, which was attended by the Russian Ambassador and the Deputy First Sea Lord Admiral Kennedy-Purvis.

Mr Donald added: “Following the transfer, June and July were spent on familiarisation of the Russian crew and trials and workup exercises in the Firth of Forth.

"For security reasons, particularly with respect to details of state of the art radar aerials, the ship was anchored overnight well to seaward of the Dockyard. In mid July the Arkhangelsk moved to Scapa Flow for to continue workup, where she was joined by the destroyers.”

Then, the Arkhangelsk and her accompanying destoryers were picked up by an Arctic Convoy that that left Loch Ewe on August 15 with a ceremonial entry to the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet made 10 days later after the convoy passed Norway’s Bear Island.

It was not the last that Scotland was to see of the warships, however, with the HMS Royal Sovereign/ Arkhangelsk remaining on loan to the Soviet Union until February 9, 1949.

Mr Donald added: “Then, she was handed back at Rosyth, and reverted to her original name before being sold for scrapping at Inverkeithing.”

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