The SA Naval Museum, in co-operation with the Embassy of the Russian Federation in South Africa, opened its latest display earlier this month.
Titled “Russian Arctic Convoys 1941-1945”, Commander Leon Steyn, Officer in Charge SA Naval Museum, says the purpose of the display is to honour those South Africans who served on the daring voyages in their pursuit to assist the besieged Soviet Union during World War II.
The opening of the display was officiated by the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in South Africa, Mikhail Petrakov and the SA Navy’s Flag Officer Fleet, Rear Admiral B.K. Mhlana. Two of the last surviving World War II veterans of the Arctic convoys in the Cape Town area, attended the opening. Joseph Wilkinson (89) served on the Tribal-class destroyer, HMS ASHANTI, while Peter Gordon Poland (92) served on the M-class destroyer HMS MATCHLESS.
The Russian Arctic convoys of World War II were oceangoing convoys from the United Kingdom to the northern ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the Soviet Union in order to provide much needed supplies in response to the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Between 1941 and 1945 there were 78 convoys, in which 1 400 merchant ships delivered essential supplies to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. Escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, in which 250 South Africans served, eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost.
Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine lost a number of vessels, including one battleship, three destroyers and at least 30 U-boats. The wintry Arctic conditions were atrocious and for the slow merchant supply vessels, the passage was even worse, thanks to prowling U-boats and threats posed by the German Luftwaffe, from the air.
Reflecting on the Arctic convoys, Poland remembered: “From January 1943 I served as navigator of the destroyer MATCHLESS. Our main task until April 1943 was to escort a convoy, PQ-17, to the Russian port of Murmansk. The Germans had taken measures to attack the convoy by basing a large force of surface vessels, U-Boats and Luftwaffe near North Norway. It was very cold and very dangerous, with frequent attacks of the U-boats and Luftwaffe”.
Steyn says that it is not known precisely how many South Africans served in the Russian convoys, but there were no less than 250 that served on Royal Navy warships. One hundred and fifty men served in the cruiser HMS SHROPSHIRE which sailed in the first Russian convoy codenamed DERVISH.
The Russian Federation and its community have always held the actions of the sailors of the Arctic Convoys in high esteem. As recently as 2015 a commemorative medal were awarded to those surviving veterans that participated in the convoys. The Jubilee Medal ‘70 Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945′ was established on 21 December 2013 by Presidential Decree to denote the 70th anniversary of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. It was preceded by the 50 Year Jubilee Medal (awarded in 1995), 60 Year Jubilee Medal (awarded in 2000) and 65 Year Jubilee Medal (awarded in 2005).
In his speech at the opening of the new display, Flag Officer Fleet referred to the unique historic military relationship that existed between the Russian Federation and South Africa. At the turn of the previous century, the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) brought an estimated hundred and fifty Russian soldiers to South Africa to fight a war out of sympathy for the Boer cause. During the apartheid era, the USSR was one of the key supporter of the struggle for liberation and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing.
Furthermore, many serving South African Navy flag officers received their military training in the former USSR. Admiral Mhlana mentioned that bilateral relations between the Russian Federation and South Africa have been strengthened in recent years, stating that the co-operation shown between the Ambassador of the Russian Federation and the SA Naval Museum, to mount this new display, was a continuation and affirmation of such relations.
In addition to the seconded South Africans who had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in South Africa and were lent to the Royal Navy, a number of South Africans were already serving in the Royal Navy or Royal Naval Reserve. From the 10 332 officers and ratings serving in the SA Naval Forces, 2 937 were seconded to the Royal Navy. South African Navy losses during the war amounted to 338.