Operation Dervish (1941)
Operation Dervish was the first of the Arctic Convoys of the Second World War by which the Western Allies supplied material to the Soviet Union in its fight with Nazi Germany. The Convoy Commodore was Captain J. C. K. Dowding RNR. On board Llanstephan Castle were about 1,500 RAF personnel of 151 Wing, several civilians and Polish and Czech diplomatic missions.
The convoy sailed from Liverpool for Scapa Flow on 12 August 1941, departed Scapa for Hvalfjörður, Iceland on 17 August and arrived on 20 August. The convoy sailed for Russia the next day and arrived at Archangelsk on 31 August 1941, having hugged the Polar ice to keep as far away from Norway as possible. There were no attempts by the Luftwaffe or the Kriegsmarine to intercept the convoy and neither side suffered casualties.
The convoy consisted of the merchant ships Lancastrian Prince, New Westminster City, Esneh, Trehata, the elderly SS Llanstephan Castle, the fleet oiler RFA Aldersdale and the Dutch freighter Alchiba. The convoy carried wool, rubber and tin and 15 crated Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. Llanstephan Castle carried RAF personnel and civilians including Vernon Bartlett MP, the US newspaper reporter Wallace Carrol, Feliks Topolski, the Polish expressionist painter, an official British and Polish war artist, a Polish legation, a Czechoslovak commission and Charlotte Haldane a noted feminist and member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who lectured on Domestic life in Russia as part of an impromptu course laid on by the civilian passengers.
The Shakespearian class trawlers Hamlet and Macbeth were with the convoy from 12 to 21 August, the anti-aircraft auxiliary ship Pozarica and the trawlers Celia, St. Cathan, Le Tiger from 12 to 21 August, Ophelia from 19 to 31 August. The destroyer Electra was present 12–29 August, Active and Impulsive were present 16–29 August and the minesweepers Halcyon, Salamander and Harrier sailed with the convoy as anti-submarine escorts from 20 to 31 August. The cruiser Aurora guarded the convoy from 16 to 18 August. Distant cover came from the fleet carrier HMS Victorious and the cruisers Devonshire and Suffolk from 24 to 30 August with the destroyers Eclipse, Escapade and Inglefield.
The majority of the 2,700 men of 151 Wing Royal Air Force (RAF), including fourteen pilots was embarked on Llanstephan Castle. The convoy sailed for Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands from Liverpool on 12 August 1941 and arrived on 16 August. Another 15 Hurricanes packed in crates were loaded on the other ships at Scapa Flow. The ships departed from Scapa Flow on 17 August and the convoy reached Hvalfjord in Iceland on 20 August, departing for Russia the next day. The convoy sailed towards the Svalbard Archipelago and the midnight sun, to circle as far north around Norway as possible. The danger of Luftwaffe attacks on Murmansk led to the ships being diverted to Archangelsk, another 400 mi (640 km) to the east. As Llanstephan Castle sailed upriver to dock, rifle shots were heard and a member of the crew was hit in the arm, the gunfire coming from people onshore, who mistook the British uniforms for German ones.
The old aircraft carrier Argus took part in Operation Strength (30 August – 14 September) with the heavy cruiser Shropshire and the destroyers Matabele, Punjabi and Somali, protected by the Dervish covering force. Strength delivered pilots and other personnel of 151 Wing RAF to Russia and their 24 Hurricanes, which were flown off Argus direct to Vaenga (renamed Severomorsk in 1951) airfield, near Murmansk. The ships reached the flying-off point safely due to the scarcity of Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft in the region but two Hurricanes were damaged on take-off. Normal naval aircraft used a ramp at the end of the flight deck to help get into the air but the undercarriage of the Hurricane was not robust enough. The rest of the aircraft avoided the ramp and suffered no damage but the two Hurricanes crashed on landing at Vaenga.
Dervish was followed by a regular series of convoys numbered like their Atlantic counterparts. The first homeward-bound convoy, QP 1 included the Dervish merchant ships and carrying Polish troops stranded in the USSR, left Archangelsk on 28 September 1941 and arrived at Scapa Flow on 9 October. The eleven ships of Convoy PQ 1, the first convoy of the PQ series, carrying twenty tanks, 193 fighter aircraft and other cargo, sailed from Iceland on 28 September, arriving at Archangelsk on 11 October after an uneventful trip.
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