Some personal recollections of Ordinary Seamen
Dudley John Mills
serving aboard HMS Cassandra, 6th D.F. Home Fleet,
Mills (1925-2010) researched the torpedoing of HMS Cassandra and the months he and
his shipmates spent in Murmansk whille their ship was under repair for
the rest of his life and Cliff Longfoot sent me the results of his
research in two bulging ring binders. Their contents formed the basis
for A Long Night for the Canteen Boat: The torpedoing and salvage of HMS Cassandra December 11 1944, edited by Peter Erwood for the
6th Destroyer Flotilla Association and published by Arcturus
Press in 1996 but no longer in print.
"Dudley was rated Ordinary Seaman. Cassandra
was his only ship. He had trained to be an officer but the attrition
rate on D Day was not as expected and he was not commissioned. He spent
his working life with the Thames Water Board. Later in life he married
the widow of Bob Fisher one of his shipmates" (Cliff Longfoot, Honorary Secretary of the HMS Cassandra Association). Dudley Mills' portrait on the left was drawn by Morris Birkett at the RN Hospital in Vaenga.
is extremely difficult to be certain and precise about events which
happened almost fifty years ago. These incidents are recalled from the
depths of a not too reliable memory and aided by reference to details
recorded in letters written home at the time, which are still in my
There remains for me an area of uncertainty right at the beginning of
my tale. The homeward bound convoy of 28 merchant ships, RA.62, sailed
from Murmansk on Sunday, 10 December 1944. My records indicate that Cassandra,
in company with some other escorts, put to sea from Polyarno, late at
night on Saturday 9 December, to carry out an anti-submarine sweep of
the Kola Inlet in advance of the main convoy's sailing.
All went well until the early morning of Monday 11 December. Luckily, I
had the morning watch and had been closed up in the Charthouse since
0400 hours as assistant to AB Parry, the Navigator's Yeoman. The
Navigating Officer, Lt. F. Hope RN, had
come into the compartment a few minutes before 0600 hours, when
suddenly at 0602 hours there was the sound of an almighty clang, but
deadened and not resonant, as if a huge muffled hammer had struck a
metal plate. At the same time the ship gave a mighty lurch and I was
flung against the frame supporting the Loran PPI radar set, getting
only a very slight cut on the nose, together with a large lump.
The Captain, Lt. G.C. Leslie RN,
grabbed his cap and dashed for the bridge. There was a slight trickle
of water dripping down on to the plotting table cover from the
binocular bridge-viewer above, probably the seals had distorted. I was
alone in the Charthouse and suddenly a voice, probably from Caprice came over the TBS radio link saying: Cassandra
has been torpedoed. This was my first indication of what had happened.
I certainly heard no explosion, only the clang. Miraculously the ship
remained on an even keel and the lights kept on. It was pitch dark
outside at that time of day in the Arctic in midwinter. There seemed no
reason for me to remain in the Charthouse for the moment so I made my
way out on to the bridge wings to see what was happening. The bridge
itself was a hive of activity, centred on the Captain, Lt. Leslie, R.N.
The fighting lights on the yardarms had been switched on and there was
some spectacular arking at the rear of the director tower where a
transmitting aerial, parted by the whipping of the ship, was dangling
against the steelwork, and suddenly the whole scene was brilliantly
illuminated by a 'snowflake' flare fired by another ship, perhaps Caprice,
making us a "sitting duck" as we lay there in the confused sea with
engines stopped. Looking forward, I could see that the blast shield on
'B' gun deck had been bent back and forced up into a vertical position,
but the most astounding thing was that there was nothing beyond. No
fo'c'stle, no bows, no 'A' gun. Everything had completely disappeared;
there was just the sea foaming in the harsh magnesium light. The
'snowflake' burned out and the scene was plunged into darkness again
except for the fighting lights. I went back into the Charthouse, shaken
to the core,
little later AB Parry (right) came in having been ordered to collect
the chart from the automatic plot. The ships position at the moment of
impact was clearly marked by a splodge of ink where the stylus had
jumped with the shock. Cassandra had been torpedoed in position
71.52N, 33.12E. Gradually the realisation dawned that we must
have sustained some casualties, and probably some fatalities, in view
of the amount of damage, but there was little time to think of such
things as all spare hands were turned to help out. At one stage I found
myself staggering to the guardrails and dropping 4-5 inch fixed
ammunition into the sea as we jettisoned shells from the after
ready-use lockers; it was all I could do to carry them. Some time
during the day we fired 8-21 inch torpedoes to further reduce the top
Damage control parties were fully employed forward, but all access to
the spaces there was barred. Right after, Lt. Hope and his party were
struggling to get the towing wire passed to the frigate Bahamas and get
it safely secured. I seemed to remember corned beef sandwiches and
fannies of Kye being handed round the ship.
All other memories about that day and of what we did during the slow
voyage back under tow have faded completely; strangely, I have no
recollection of where I slept and was messed for the rest of my time on
board, and I made no mention of it in my letters home. Obviously all my
kit had gone when 3 mess was blown open to the sea. All too soon we
realised that quite a few familiar faces were missing and we were
informed that the torpedo had claimed about one third of the ship's
company, all from the forward mess decks.
The weather was foul, blowing a severe gale. I remember watching often
the towing wire dipping into the sea over most of its length and at
times almost losing sight of Bahamas as she slid down into a trough
with only her masthead showing above the angry waves before climbing up
out again. But there, way towards the horizon was the reassuring sight
of her sister ship Somaliland ceaselessly circling us in a protective ring, together with Tortola.
The weather moderated later and the tow was transferred to a Russian tug sent out to meet us. Bahamas
joined her sister in screening us. Some bodies had been recovered from
the wreckage forward, and Lt. Leslie held a brief burial service on the
iron deck, and our shipmates were committed to the Barents Sea. A very
sad moving moment, made all the more poignant by the fact that none of
the ratings present was in proper uniform. We had only what we stood up
in, but nobody worried.
think that we arrived back at the Kola Inlet on Thursday 14 December -
we were certainly berthed alongside at Rosta Dockyard on Friday 15th.
Arrangements were made to transfer our wounded out of the care of
Surgeon, Lt, Ivey RNVR (left), the ship's doctor, to the RN Hospital at
Vaenga and also for various officers and ratings to take passage home
in the Bahamas and the Somaliland
which were preparing to sail almost Immediately. This gave rise to a
great flurry of writing of letters by those staying aboard to be handed
to friends going back for posting as soon as they set foot in the UK.
This kind act was greatly appreciated, especially as it was almost
Christmas. We found out later that they arrived in good time. They
sailed pm on 15 December. I reverted to my old harbour routine job of
Bos'n's mate, on watch with AB Norman Kemp as my Quartermaster.
The only dry dock at Rosta was occupied by an old Russian destroyer
undergoing a routine boiler-clean. Meanwhile there was concern as to
how long we could remain afloat due to the weakened state of our
forward bulkhead, so magnificently shored up by the Damage Control
party under Chief Stoker Willis, Even though we had sustained the
damage whilst engaged In the supply of war materials to our Russian
allies, it required the intervention of the British Admiral, SBNO NR
(Senior British Naval Officer Northern Region) to persuade them,
reluctantly to clear the dock for our more urgent need.
My small brown attaché case had been found by one of the Damage Control
party towards the end of the tow back and the contents were not too
badly damaged. Some of the letters were still readable and my father's
old 1914 war army mug was intact, but the enamel was chipped. My pay
book was never found.
As the dry dock was pumped down, seemingly dozens of "Zombie" like
Russian dockyard workers swarmed aboard. More bodies were found and
transferred to HM auxiliary trawler, Chiltern, for burial at sea off
the Kola Inlet. I have recently received a letter from John Black, who
was in the Chiltern,
recalling that sad service for Cassandra and mentioning that some of
our ship's company were aboard Chiltern for the short trip.
I remember witnessing a. vicious knife-fight between two "Zombies" in
the bottom of the dock; they were fighting for possession of a "green"
loaf found somewhere in our wreckage.
Before long, some stained £1 and 10 shilling notes, which had been
found by the Russians in the damaged mess decks were being
surreptitiously offered to us in exchange, they hoped, for food, soap
or tobacco. Not one survivor had any truck with this despicable
behaviour. A mess deck auction of various personal items of kit, which
had since been found, was held to raise a little money for the next of
kin of our dead shipmates.
I shall never forget the odd feeling within me as I first re-entered
the remains of what had been previously our "home". 3 mess was a mass
of buckled plating, twisted pipes and ladders, open to the stonework of
the dry dock at the forward end. The aluminium foil Arctic insulation
was hanging in ribbons. I tore some down and used it to decorate the
Silver Wedding anniversary card, which I was making for my parents from
materials kindly supplied by Ted Wraith, the Captain's writer. The card
reached house on January 27th, the exact day. I did not go down into
the remains of the stokers’ mess deck.
I visited Surgeon Lt. Ivey on the 22 December, having a very sore
throat and high temperature and was immediately admitted to the sick
bay with tonsillitis. Norman Kemp brought me all my meals for the next
four days, but Dr. Ivey allowed me up for a few hours to join my
shipmates for Christmas Day. "This was after Norman had brought me my
Christmas breakfast of fried bacon, beans, fresh white roll and coffee.
Later on there were some mince pies, made with currents and sultanas,
and sausage rolls handed round - followed by an invitation to the
Wardroom in the late forenoon "bring your own cups". On arrival we were
served a most lethal Punch, concocted from almost every bottle left in
the Wardroom store. My salvaged chipped mug must have wondered what had
hit it - I know I did even more so at the end of the session when we
emerged into the freezing Arctic air. Anyway, it was a happy gathering
after our recent experiences, the more so for me as I did not draw a
tot, being "U/A".
I see that our Christmas Dinner comprised roast beef, tinned chicken,
peas and potatoes, followed by Christmas pud and more mince pies. After
tea, it was time for me to return to the Sick Bay so I was not able to
participate in the Christmas concert.
I was already a member of the "KKK" the ship's concert party, run by
ABs Dick Collyer (left) and Len Shaw (right). Its full title was "Kassandra's Kola
Klowns", but by now our original cast was somewhat depleted. Leading
Stoker, George Kish and AB Atkinson had returned to the UK. Those
remaining included Lt. Holroyd and Bentley, Vic Heale, the Gunner (T),
Dick Collyer, Len Shaw, Norman Kemp, Jeff Roberts, Ted Wraith, Bob
Dawson and myself. Various shows were put on during our enforced stay
in North Russia at such venues as the In tourist Club at Murmansk, the
RN Hospital at Vaenga and one show in January, 1945 was held in the
vast tiller-flat of the cruiser Diadem at anchor in Vaenga Bay. The destroyer Myngs had
been sent to collect us and return us to Rosta after the show. We
received various presentation books from Tania, the official hostess at
the Intourist Club, all duly autographed later by ourselves and some of
the Russian dancing girls who also appeared with us. After the New
Year's Eve show we all had some vodka and caviar before returning to
the ship by lorry.
We seemed to eat quite well on board. An American liberty ship had sent
us over a few boxes of "goodies" at Christmas and also we had a special
issue of vitamin tablets and halibut oil capsules from the Sick Bay. I
was released from the Sick Bay on 27 December to resume my duties, but
barred from 'piping' for a day or two until the throat had healed, so I
just whistled through my teeth as I went about the ship making the
During my visits to the Wardroom I saw Lt. Holroyd painting a beautiful
picture in watercolours of the ship; a port bow view of her, damaged
and stopped in the water, at sea. It was about 24" x 12". I often
wonder what became of it.
During our night watches, Norman and I carefully eked out our dwindling
reserve of bottled "Camp coffee" which had cost four shillings and four
pence from the NAAFI. Somehow it had withstood the explosion and was
intact in a locker.
English money was no use ashore, there was no exchange-rate with the
Rouble and so a small issue of Pusser's soap and "nutty" was made
available to us, if we wanted it.so that we could barter with the
natives and get some decrepit skis and skates to provide us with some
entertainment and recreation. I got some old ski's, which had to be
lashed to my sea boots with codline, and a pair of sticks and set forth
over the snow covered hillocks in and around the Dockyard - soon
managing to spend more time under way than flat on my back, I didn't
trust the skates "on offer", I had more respect for my ankles.
My letters record that we were given a ration of three Mars bars, four
boxes of matches, an apple, three oranges, a packet of Rinso and a
tablet of Lux toilet soap on Sunday 31 December 1944. We also received
three pennyworth of biscuits each morning. On New Year's Day I had the
luck to buy two bottles of Horlicks through the NAAFI. How they came by
it I do not know.
We also had various quizzes aboard, such as England v Scotland and
seamen versus torpedo men. I spent some time clambering all over the
ship noting down details on a signal pad ready for making a model at
some later date. One other thing that stands out in my mind was seeing
the bright lights all along the dockside at Murmansk as the precious
cargo was unloaded from the freighters; it was in stark contrast to the
blacked-out Britain that we had left behind.
The landscape was of snow covered low rocky hills with patches of dense
woodland. The local housing seemed to consist of some drab rectangular
tenement blocks. At each street comer, the poles carrying the overhead
electricity cables supported one or two Tannoy speakers from which came
interminable military music, except at certain times, obviously known
to the local inhabitants, who would emerge from their houses, or
wherever, and stood motionless beneath the pole and looking up to the
speakers. All of a sudden the music stopped and a long discourse in
Russian held their attention. Then it was over until the next time, and
the group would disperse as quickly as it had formed. The men and women
in thick winter quilted coats, fur helmets and felt boots, hands in
pockets, would shuffle back to where they had come from. Whether these
announcements were news bulletins or Party propaganda we never
Some of us went into Murmansk by train - I still have my ticket -
hauled by an old steam locomotive fuelled mainly by logs from the local
hillside. We sat through hour after endless hour, either at the Inter
club or some cinema watching Ivan the Terrible
- and it was - a lumbering slow and sombre story, all in Russian. We
also saw a few much newer American films at the Red Navy Club at
Vaenga. There we were in our element as they had the original sound
track, with Russian sub-titles. Sadly, our own cinema projectionist,
George Bauer had been killed, and I dare say that his equipment was
lost as well.
A small Russian puppy also found his way aboard, probably seeking food and warmth. He was adopted and named "Sippers". He also needed to be house trained.
One stage of our stay up north which I had completely forgotten about
until a recent remark by Morris Birkett (left), made me dig out my old
letters, was a short recreational visit by a party of us to Vaenga
Hospital, We were there from 21 January until 21 February, living in a
separate part or the hospital building for a complete rest from
shipboard life in dry dock and after our recent experiences. We slept
in proper beds. I had six blankets on mine because it was so cold, and
our only duties were to polish some taps and assist the hospital staff
to "hump" stores about. Other than that the time was our own. Me even
had early morning tea brought to us in bed by the hospital staff - an
undreamed of luxury. Time was spent in reading and writing, often by
the light of a few candles, "stuck" to the table top by wax, and
joining some of the convalescents tobogganing down a long 45° slope in
the hospital grounds as well as the odd "sitting” for an excellent
crayon portrait by Morris. On our arrival we were each given a bar of
chocolate and a fresh fried egg for supper - not reconstituted powder.
Our breakfast consisted of corn flakes, bread and jam, and syrup, and
more tea. We were not roused until 0800 hours.
One evening after seeing Rita Hayworth in "You were never Lovelier"
at the Red Navy Club, Tom Rankin and I were picking our way back in the
dark when we both fell into a snow-filled trench up to our waists. At
the end of this most enjoyable break from the ship we stopped at a
supply depot on the way back to the Dockyard and took a whole load of
stores with us. Before leaving Vaenga I must mention one of the
convalescents, a Stoker, with a leg injury. He was getting quite upset
as to how he was going to explain away his "war wound" when he got home
as he had been clobbered by the mess piano when it broke adrift with
the impact of the torpedo.
A few days after getting back from Vaenga I was told that I was being
sent back with a few more of us when the February Convoy came up. I had
made a new "suitcase" by sawing in half a corned beef crate and
screwing on some hinges, adding a spliced rope handle, so felt quite
happy about packing my few belongings, but very sad in a way, to be
leaving the ship and our shipmates with whom we had shared so much
since the fateful day back in December.
I am ashamed to relate that I do not remember the names of any who came back with me, taking passage in the destroyer HMS Orwell of the 17th Destroyer Flotilla, escorting Convoy RA.64, which sailed on 17th February, 1945.
It was quite an eventful trip. Firstly, we gave a rousing cheer to the sloop Lark under tow back to Kola, minus her stern, as we passed close to her. Her circumstances all too familiar to we ex Cassandra's.
Shortly after there was the ominous column of black smoke way over by the horizon marking the place where the corvette Bluebell
had just blown up after being torpedoed. Sometime later the convoy was
attacked by waves of low-flying German torpedo-bombers, based at
Bardufoss in northern Norway. We then ran into some really foul weather
and the convoy became scattered in the storm. Our fuel was running low
after the subsequent rounding up of stragglers, so Orwell
and another escort were detached to re-fuel alongside an old "War"
Class Fleet Oiler tucked away in a steep-sided fjord in the Faeroe
Islands. It was sheer bliss to be in sheltered water for a while and to
be able to get a shave and a meal at a mess table that remained steady.
Here, it must be said, that the ship's company of Orwell
gave us a total welcome aboard their already overcrowded ship. We had
no hammocks, but chose to sleep on the padded locker seats as close as
possible to the port passageway leading out to the iron deck. I was
also afraid, at first, to visit the "heads", which, in Orwell were deep down forward; I felt happier once we were well out to sea, and hopefully, clear of U-boats.
We heard that some additional escorts were being sent out from Scapa to
meet us and when they joined we saw among than two of our newly
completed Flotilla mates, Carron and Cavalier. Carron, if I remember correctly, was still awaiting her main armament fit.
We arrived back in Scapa Flow on 27 February and before long were on
the train south from Scrabster. At Chatham Barracks we were re-kitted,
but the renewal of my lost pay book caused consternation to the old
Chief Petty Officer pensioner who was dealing with me. No rating is
ever parted from his pay book. No pay book - no rating - therefore “I
did not exist”. This impasse was cleared by the more imaginative and
understanding Chief at the adjacent table and he issued me with my new
book; next came some money and that all important rail warrant,
together with chit authorising me to proceed home on 14 days "In from
sea" and "Survivors" leave.
On my return to Barracks at the end of the leave the only ex-Cassandra I saw was Jim Petrie, the Captain's Steward.
I spent the next few months on various courses, coming across Lt. Ivey at one of them and we had a very long chat together.
I changed my Port Division to Portsmouth and finished up in the 'Hunt' class destroyer Eggesford in the Reserve Fleet moored in the trots up Porchester Creek in Portsmouth Harbour.
I was demobbed from Stamshaw at Portsmouth on the 19 November 1946, less than a week before my 21st birthday.
In the autumn of 1950 I was visited at home by the parents of Don
Berry, and then by John Barren's father and was able to answer their
questions as to how and where their sons had died.
I later visited the repaired, refitted and modernised Cassandra
in No. 12 Dock at Portsmouth on 14 February, 1965, almost twenty years
to the day since I had left her at Rosta, also in dry dock. I was
warmly welcomed aboard, given tea, and then a conducted tour round the
ship by the Officer of the Day. There were a lot of changes, but I was
most interested in seeing the "new" bows and forward Mess Decks
installed while under repair at Gibraltar.
My small model of the damaged ship proved to be of great interest to all of those aboard who saw it.
I was able to get along to the Round Tower at Portsmouth on 2nd March
1965 in time to wave her out of harbour at 0945 hours - my last view of
our old ship.
**** **** ** **** **** ****
HMS Cassandra was finally
placed on the disposal list in December 1965, sold to Thomas W. Ward
and Company in March 1967, leaving Portsmouth under tow on 25th April
and arriving at Inverkeithing on 28 April 1967 to be broken up.
Attached is a copy of the ship's routine, while in North Russia, taken
from the notice board and given to me by Tad Wraith as a souvenir
before I left to come home. Also attached is a copy of a drawing I did
on the 17th January 1945, showing the battered state of my old home,
The portrait shown is a reduced black and white copy of the coloured drawing, done by Morris Birkett as described previously."
Remembering HMS Cassandra and those who died
The HMS Cassandra
Association was formed in 1994 and a Memorial Plaque in the D-Day
Museum at Southsea, inscribed with the names of the 62 men who died,
was unveiled in 1999 by Admiral Sir Jock Slater, the Navigating Officer
on Cassandra in 1962/3 when Cliff Longfoot was his Yeoman. Admiral Sir Jock Slater went on to become First Sea Lord. A wreath is laid at the Memorial Plaque by The HMS Cassandra Association on the 11 December each year, the day on which she was torpedoed in 1944.
Admiral Sir Jock Slater reflected in the newly unveiled Memorial Plaque at the D-Day Museum, Southsea, 14 May 1999 The ship's bell hangs above the Plaque and Sir Jock Slater is gripping a corner of Cassandra's ensign.
Fourteen survivors at unveiling of HMS Cassandra memorial, D-Day Museum, Southsea, 14 May 1999 Back row: John Barnard, Bill
Robinson, Michael Facer, Dudley Mills, Roy Butler, Morris Birkett, Doug
Foskett, Vic Gilbert, Les Stockwell. Front row: Cliff Wickstead, "Bunny" Scott, Captain Frank Hope RN (Ret), Rev John Brooks, "Nick" Carter.
Left: Cliff Longfoot, Secretary to the HMS Cassandra Association, and Admiral Sir "Jock" Slater at the unveiling of the HMS Cassandra Memorial
Right: Dudley Mills remembering former shipmates in front of the Memorial and the ships bell