I and my family have been attending (pre-Covid19) the Soviet War Memorial in London since around 2010. We started this behaviour out of memory for our maternal grandfather – Seaman Arthur Gibson (1911-1997) – who served aboard the Bangor-Class ‘Minesweeper’ (a converted trawler) HMS Beaumaris Castle of the ‘Royal Navy Patrol Service’ (RNPS) in the Western Approaches and the North Atlantic. From 2010-2015, I engaged in a (primarily) written dialogue (interspersed with the odd ‘long-distance’ telephone conversation between London to Glasgow) – with Mr George Smith (1924-2016) – the former ‘Telegraphist’ aboard the HMS Beaumaris Castle. This exchange has provided me with pages of first-hand notes to share via articles, journals, blog-posts and books, etc, about the ‘true’ day-to-day life and goings-on in the North Atlantic Theatre!
The HMS Beaumaris Castle was the lead-ship of a five-ship flotilla – entrusted with all ‘hazardous duties’ and the ‘diplomatic bag’ carrying ‘classified orders’ from Royal Navy Command (Stornoway) to various geographical locations (and ships) – throughout the theatre (including its own flotilla). This also included being entrusted with the collection and dispersal of the regular ‘mail’ both to and from the serving personnel aboard all Royal Navy ships in theatre! Although seeing duty as far South as Plymouth (and the crew learning to stand-guard with ‘fixed-bayonets’ around a land-base’ in Aberdeen) – quite often the function of the HMS Beaumaris Castle was to protect the sea-ways through which the Russian Arctic Convoy would traverse (both ‘to’ and ‘from’ the USSR), and keep the sea-lanes ‘free’ of enemy mines. This would include a limited but essential ‘escort duty’ protecting the Russian Arctic Convoys as they passed through the Stornoway area (and keeping morale ‘high’ despite the terrible losses) – with the RNPG always on the look-out to bravely ‘engage’ any following Nazi German U-Boats!
Both Arthur Gibson and George Smith informed me of two very interesting incidents they experienced aboard the HMS Beaumaris Castle. On May 26th, 1942, the crew of the HMS Beaumaris Castle were told to prepare for a ‘hazardous duty’ involving the retrieval of numerous allied ‘dead bodies’ from a central mountain-top on St Kilda island. A military aeroplane had ‘blown-up’ over this area, and distributed its battered cargo and (now macabre) passenger-list over a wide-area. There was around twenty bodies possibly of Canadian (or ‘US’) military origin who were flying home on leave and carrying all kinds of wrapped and unwrapped Xmas presents intended for their families. George Smith (as ‘Communications Officer) accompanied around half the crew of the HMS Beaumaris Castle as they had to ‘row’ their life-boats toward the steep and treacherous beaches of St Kilda. Around ten crew-members of the Beaumaris Castle were separated into five-groups of ‘two’ with each pairing being issued with a stretcher and a blanket. Whilst George Smith stayed on the beach manning communications (in-case of unforeseen emergency or attack from enemy action), Arthur Gibson went up the hill as ordered with with his best friend ‘Jack Youngman’ and were told to pick-up ‘one-head’, ‘one-torso’, ‘two-arms’, ‘two-legs’ and ‘two-feet’ (they did not have to ‘match’) – and place all this upon the stretcher and secure it in-place with the blanket. These remains were carried down the hill (often ‘falling’ off and having to be retrieved) back to the beach where they were transported to the floor of the ‘cleared’ mess hall (the only available space on the HMS Beaumaris Castle), and the taken to Stornoway for ‘processing’. On the journey to Stornoway there was very rough seas and the body-parts were often ‘thrown’ out of their allocated and secured compartments. As George Smith was on ‘night duty’ at this time, he was responsible for ‘retrieval’ and ‘replacement’. The Officers quite rightly insisted that the utmost respect was shown despite the situation. When I contacted British Naval Intelligence about this incident, I was informed that such a happening could not be ‘confirmed or denied’, but that my attention, if I so desired, could be drawn to the date ‘26.11.1942’ as shown on Arthur Gibson’s War Record and simply marked ‘Duty’.
Another incident involved the ‘escorting’ of a ‘surrendered’ Nazi German U-Boat on May 8th, 1945On May 5th, 2005, George Smith was interviewed for the BBC. He states in this report that the HMS Beaumaris Castle (and flotilla) were two-days out from Stornoway on patrol in the Minches area of the Atlantic, situated near the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Although the Officers and crew knew that WWII (in Europe) was over – they were still required to carry-out their designated duties of ‘minesweeping’ the area! During the late afternoon – a ‘menacing’ Nazi German U-Boat emerged from the depths of the sea – causing panic and consternation aboard the HMS Beaumaris Castle as ‘action stations’ rang-out! Eventually, the masthead rose the ‘Black Flag’ – obeying orders issued by the German High Command – stipulating that ALL Nazi German U-Boats were to immediately ‘surface’ and surrendered to allied forces.
The British Admiralty had made special arrangements for Nazi German U-Boats to cease all hostilities whilst still at sea – and to be ‘escorted’ into a safe-dock to complete the formal surrender process. Allied Naval Authorities suggested that German U-Boats should surface in a ‘non-aggressive’ manner, report their positions to their own command stations, and hoist a black (or dark blue flag) indicating their willingness to ‘surrender’, jettison ammunition and torpedoes and follow routes to selected Allied reception ports. Nazi German U-Boats were deployed over a vast area of the world’s oceans and their crews could not ‘hoist a white flag’ and formally surrender ‘in-situ’ (as was the case with most land-based forces) whilst passively awaiting their ships to be ‘taken-over’ by inexperienced allied crews! The allies simply did not possess the manpower or expertise needed to guide these U-Boats into safe-dock – and so it was decided that a U-Boat crew could denote their ‘intention’ to surrender with a a neutral ‘black flag’ that simultaneously did not require the terminal passivity of the in-coming crew. The ‘black flag’ was a ‘flag of intent’ denoting the crew’s eventual wish to surrender – and not the formal ‘act of surrender’ itself. As ‘black’ was the exact ‘opposite’ of ‘white’ – and given that both flags were considered ‘neutral’ at the time, ‘black’ was chosen to represent this highly o=unusual situation. In this incidence, the HMS Beaumaris Castle was ordered to escort this Nazi German U-Boat to safe-dock at Loch Ewe.
Having had the honour to have originally met around thirty of the surviving Veterans of the Russian Arctic Convoys at the Soviet War Memorial in 2011 (there were just ‘six’ of these gentlemen prior to the Covid19 emergency in 2018) – and to talk to the Russian (and other) people who regularly attend Soviet War Memorial (three-times a-year in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum) – I was taken with the sheer ‘high’ level of respect the men [and women] of Britain’s Royal Navy are held-in due to the manner in which they absorbed the very ‘severe’ casualty-rates suffered in the line of duty for Britain’s then ally – the USSR! This is why I have been trying (without success), to ‘join’ the ‘Russian Arctic Convoy Museum’ with the hope of travelling-up from our family home in Sutton (South London) to visit the premises and pay our respects.
Thank you for your time in this matter.