HMS St Albans has spent five days in Iceland to pay her respects to Arctic convoy heroes – and build up links with the land of fire and ice.
The Portsmouth-based frigate took part in official ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the crucial period in the convoys to Russia when sailors braved air and U-boat attack to deliver crucial aid to the USSR.
Pictures: LA(Phot) Abbie Herron, HMS St Albans
IN UNFAMILIAR rugged surroundings, the captain of HMS St Albans Cdr Tom Sharpe and Britain’s Ambassador to Iceland Ian Whitting cast a wreath into Hvalfjörður – once a vital staging in the Arctic Convoys to the Soviet Union.
Seventy years ago this month, the lifeline to the USSR delivering food, ammunition, trucks, tanks and other supplies aiding the Soviet war effort against the Third Reich, entered a critical phase.
In May 1942, the 35 merchant ships of convoy PQ16 mustered in these same waters. Despite a huge escorting force comprising British and American battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers, only 25 would safely reach their destinations of Murmansk and Archangelsk, having run the gauntlet of U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers off northern Norway. Eight ships were sunk, two more were damaged.
In spite of such losses, PQ16 was hailed a success, but its successor, PQ17, suffered even heavier losses – only 11 of the 35 ships making for northern Russia got through.
Escorts and merchant ships of the ill-starred convoy PQ17 gather in Hvalfjörður before sailing in June 1942. Behind the destroyer HMS Icarus is the Russian tanker Azerbaijan. Picture: Imperial War Museum, A8953
Seven decades later and the Portsmouth-based frigate sailed from Reykjavik with international dignitaries, British Embassy staff and Icelandic media, in company with the Coast Guard patrol vessel Thor for a service of commemoration in the fjord just ten miles north of the island’s capital.
On the flight deck of the Type 23 frigate the ship’s company mustered for a service of remembrance, before a wreath was dropped into the chilly waters in memory of all those who served on the most challenging of all convoy routes in World War 2.
Between 1941 and 1945, more than 100 merchant and warships were lost carrying aid to the Soviet Union. Grievous though these losses were they accounted for just seven per cent of the shipping; nearly four millions tons of supplies were safely delivered – accounting for a quarter of all the material supplied by the Western Powers to the USSR throughout the war.
Sight for Thor eyes… St Albans carries out close manoeuvres with the Icelandic Coast Guard patrol ship
As well as ceremonies in Hvalfjörður, St Albans took the rare chance to exercise with the Icelandic Coast Guard, practising ‘officer of the watch’ manoeuvres with Thor, as well as a winching exercise with the Saint’s Merlin helicopter.
These days RN visits to Iceland are few and far between, so St Albans made the most of her rare opportunity to see the land of fire and ice – and allow locals to see a cutting-edge British warship.
The frigate opened her gangway to several hundred Icelanders toured the upper deck of the ship and Merlin helicopter to see first hand what the ship is capable of and speak to members of the ship’s company.
The Saint also hosted an official reception and capability demonstration for more than 60 foreign dignitaries and British Embassy staff. Guests witnessed a number of briefings and demonstrations, included fire-fighting, first aid, search and rescue helicopter operations and bridge reactions.
The unmistakeable silhouette of a Type 23 frigate… HMS St Albans as seen from her Merlin just off Hvalfjörður
Away from the ship, which was berthed just a mile and a half from the heart of Reykjavik, a large number of her crew visited the hot springs at the Blue Lagoon and went on the Golden Circle tour which included Thingvellir national park, a 30-metre geyser which erupted every ten minutes and the Gulfoss waterfalls.
And the frigate’s rugby team had a run out at Hvaleyrarvatn in Hafnarfjörður against an Icelandic representative side drawn from teams all over the country.
Officer of the Watch Lt Matt Taylor said: “Iceland were well-drilled despite being a new team with the depth of talent and experience showed early in the first half.
“This being the first time a British side had played in the country, the hosts came out hungry to prove a point. Conceding early on St Albans made a brave comeback against a stronger side but ultimately could not provide answers to the questions being asked of them.”