A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Sub Lt Miroslav Stanley Lansky RNVR
Part 2: Torpedoed on HMS Cassandra while escorting Arctic Convoy RA.62 and stranded in Murmansk

Miroslav left HMS Norfolk on the 7 January 1944 a  week after the sinking of the Scharnhorst at the Battle of North Cape for officer training at HMS King Alfred (H), a former leisure centre at Hove near Brighton, requisitioned by the Navy for training officers for the RNVR. Cadet Ratings did their initial training at Mowden School in Hove, King Alfred (M), moved on to more advanced training at the former Lancing College, King Alfred (L), and completed their training at King Alfred (H). They were organised into Divisions and Miroslav was a member of Rodney Division. He completed his officer training on the 6 April 1944, was promoted to Midshipman, the most junior officer in the Royal Navy, and posted to HMS Cassandra.

HMS King Alfred, Hove, Jan - April 1944
RNVR Officers on completing their training at HMS King Alfred, Hove
Courtesy of Tamara Lansky

Midshipman M.S. Lansky RNVR was one of three Midshipmen posted to HMS Cassandra (R62), a C Class destroyer built at Scotstoun on the Clyde, in time for its sea trials and commissioning before she joined the 6th Destroyer Flotilla, Home Fleet, at Scapa Flow. One of the other "Mids" was the Hon. Timothy L. Lowther RN, the second son of the 6th Earl of Lonsdale. Miroslav hated the bad weather and the boggy landscape which made it impossible to indulge in his favourite hobby, walking. He felt trapped, was constantly seasick and for a while drank heavily - gin and lime.

HMS CassandraHMS Cassandra
Two views of HMS Cassandra at Scapa Flow, Orkney
Courtesy of Tamara Lansky

HMS Cassandra - with signatures of officers
This photograph of HMS Cassandra (R62) was signed by most of its officers soon after the start of its first Commission in 1944
The Commanding Officer, Cdr P.F. Powlett RN, had been replaced as CO by Lt G.C. Leslie RN by the time Cassandra was torpedoed
Miroslav S. Lansky's signature, followed by a cryptic "ee", is top right
Courtesy of Cliff Longfoot of the HMS Cassandra Association

Officrs on HMS Cassanra, 1944

In October 1944 Cassandra was part of the destroyer screen for the carriers launching air attacks on the German airbase at Bardufoss in Norway which operated against convoys to Murmansk on the Kola Inlet in Arctic Russia. On the 2 November Cassandra became a target for these attacks when she escorted the troop carriers, RMS Empress of Australia and RMS Scythia, taking 11,000 Russian troops captured in Normandy to Murmansk (Arctic Convoy JW.61A). Most were Prisoners of War (POW) but some were wearing German uniforms and many, perhaps most, were shot or sent to labour camps. The decision to return them to Stalin's Russia was controversial but the Allies had little alternative if they wanted Stalin to repatriate POWs overrun in German camps in Poland. Cassandra returned without incident.

Lt  G.L. Leslie RNCdr P.E. Powlett RNOn the 1 December 1944 Cassandra left the Home Fleet's secure anchorage in Scapa Flow to escort a large convoy of thirty-one 7,000 ton liberty ships (Convoy JW.62) to Murmansk. The day before leaving the Flow Cdr P.E. Powlett RN (right) fell down a hatchway and had to be sent to hospital and the first lieutenant took over as Captain.  In accordance with strict naval tradition Lt. G.C. Leslies command (left) became the junior ship of the destroyer escort and was posted at the tail end, a position often referred to as the "canteen boat". As such it was more exposed and vulnerable to attack but the outward journey was uneventful and no ships were lost.

Before joining return Convoy RA.62 on the 10 December Cassandra was, ominously, required to carry out a sweep for a known assembly of U-boats in the Kola Inlet. Later that day Cassandra rescued the pilot and observer of a ditched Swordfish plane of 835 Naval Air Squadron launched from the Escort Carrier, HMS Nairana.

That night Cassandra was torpedoed by U-365 (commanded by Lt Dieter Todenhagen) in position 71 57” N, 32 04’ E, approximately 190 miles NNW of Murmansk. OD Dudley Mills was in the chart room and all he heard was a dull thud but soon after the torpedo struck "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."

Miroslav was awake, he heard a "tremendous thud", ran outside, and could not understand what had happened at first. Then he saw that the bow of the boat was no longer there. There was no debris, no bodies in the water, just a gapping emptiness where the bow should have been. The entire bow ahead of the forward magazine, including 'A' gun turret was blown off and the structure abaft this to the forward bulkhead of the fuel tanks was wrecked. CPO Sidney Lay, Stoker, described how “It was necessary to shore up the bulkhead which was exposed to the sea. This was done by the damage control parties, led by the Chief Stoker, CPO Willis, and when the job was finished it looked just like a giant chessboard, so well had the work been done.” Cassandra was taken in tow (stern first at three knots) by the British Colony Class frigate HMS Bahamas (T/A/Lt.Cdr. W.S. Thomson, RNR). Dudley Mills recalled "watching the towing wire dipping into the sea over most of its length and at times almost loosing 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." Later the tow was passed over to a Soviet tug which brought her into the Kola Inlet. Sixty two men, one third of the ship's company, lost their lives in this attack on the destroyer with pennant number R62 while escorting Convoy RA.62, all of them ratings from the mess decks in the bow. Two days later the U-boat was destroyed, with all hands lost, by a Fairey Swordfish aircraft launched from HMS Campania.

Sub Lt M.S. Lansky RNVRThe British Admiral at Murmansk persuaded the Russians to clear the dry dock at Rosta for Cassandra and "as it was pumped down dozens of 'Zombie' like Russian dockyard workers swarmed aboard." Roberts described how “the following day the Coxwains party extracted the dead from the tangled mess of what remained of the bow section, severed from behind the B Gun. The party was given a special rum issue for this unpleasant task. The following morning I formed part of the burial party, the service being taken by the Captain, Lieutenant Leslie RN. We sailed in a trawler to the mouth of the Kola Inlet where the burials took place.” The injured were taken to the Royal Navy Hospital at Vaenga. Most of the officers and crew returned to Britain aboard HMS Bahamas and HMS Somaliland on the 15 December. Midshipman Lansky was promoted to Acting Sub Lieutenant on the 19 December 1944 and remained in Murmansk for some weeks, an opportunity to pickup Russian ("that was an easy language") but remembers very little apart from buying "a moth eaten Shapka" (a fur hat with ear flaps) to try and keep warm. The studio photograph on the right with the single ring of a sub lieutenant was taken after his return.

Dudley Mills was part of the small maintenance crew who stayed with their ship amidst "a landscape of snow covered low rocky hills with patches of dense woodland" where some crew members learned to use borrowed skies. On Christmas Day they were invited to the Wardroom in the late forenoon and "served a most lethal Punch, concocted from from almost every bottle left in the Wardroom store". Dudley was a member of the KKK, the "Kassandra's Kola Klowns", run by ABs Dick Collyer and Len Shaw who were ordered to put on a show at the Intourist Club in Murmansk, one of the few places set aside for the entertainment of foreigners, when the next convoy arrived. They occasionally took the old steam train into Murmansk to see Russian films at the cinema or newer American films at the Red Navy Club in Vaenga. At this time of the year the sun never rose and long term staff at the RN Hospital in Vaenga often suffered from depression and some severe cases had to be sent home as unfit for duty.

Dudley J Mills

HMS Cassandra remained under repair at Murmansk until April 1945. “The steel which was sent from England to fabricate a dummy bow was sunk every time. Eventually the Russians decided to use their own steel to build it and watching it being welded on by men and women, just youngsters, I never thought it would stand the strain of the voyage home but on arrival at Rosyth there was not enough water in the ship to fill a bucket” (Sidney Lay).

The sketch of Cassandra with its bow blown off (below) was made by Dudley J Mills (C/JX 425692) and his detailed account of events that night and the months following while Cassandra was under repair can be read in full on this web site. "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). His portrait on the left was drawn by Morris Birkett at the RN Hospital in Vaenga.

To find out more about the wartime service of the officers on HMS Cassandra when it was torpedoed click on the links below:

Lt G.C. Leslie RN - Commanding Officer
Lt J.P. Bentley RNVR - Accounts Officer
Lt F.S. Hope RN - First Lieutenant
Surgeon Lt J.R. Ivey RNVR - Medical Officer
Lt (E) C.A. Maxwell DSC, RN - Engineer Officer
Mid Miroslav S. Lansky RNVR
Gunner (T) V.P. Heale RN - Torpedo Officer
Mid the Hon. T.L. Lowther RN
Lt D.J.G. Holroyde RNVR - ASDIC Officer
Mid T.A.C. Clack RN
Lt J.C. Brooks RNVR - Gunnery Officer
Lt A.W. Putnam RNR - Gunnery Control Officer


HNMS Cassandra under tow stern first

HMS Cassandra, 1950s
This photograph of HMS Cassandra was taken near Plymouth
in the 1950s looking down the Tamar to Torpoint but its appearance is little changed from 1944
HMS Cassandra remained in service until 1966 and the HMS Cassandra Association includes crew members from 1944 when it was torpedoed by U-365 near Murmansk
Courtesy of www.navyphotos.co.uk

Miroslav can't recall the name of the ship on which he returned to Scapa Flow but it too was attacked and Miroslav had another brush with death when the man in the bunk below was "blown away" leaving a gaping hole in the deck. After survivors leave he was posted to HMS Venomous at Rosyth on the 20 February 1945 in response to a puzzling but urgent request for an officer who could speak Russian. Venomous was an elderly V & W Class destroyer built in 1919,  twenty five years before HMS Cassandra. Stripped of most of its armament and with one of its two boilers (and funnels) removed she had spent a dull six months in the Irish sea towing targets for Barracuda aircraft based in the Isle of Man to attack with unarmed torpedoes before nearly being lost with all hands in a hurricane on the East coast of Scotland.

But Sub Lt Miroslav Lansky RNVR joined Venomous in time to take part in Operation Apostle, the despatch of destroyers with accompanying minesweepers to accept the surrender of German naval forces in six Norwegian ports. HMS Venomous and HMS Valorous were despatched to Kristiansand South on an inlet off the Skagerack the deepwater channel between Norway and Denmark.

Part 3: HMS Venomous and the surrender of German Naval Forces at Kristiansand

Part 1: A rating on HMS Norfolk at the Battle of the North Cape, Christmas 1943


Acknowledgments

Miroslav Stanley Lansky was the last officer alive  who served on HMS Cassandra when it was torpedoed on the 11 December 1944 and on HMS Venomous when it accepted the surrender of German naval forces at Kristiansand in Norway on the 15 May 1945. He was in poor health when I contacted the family and I relied on his wife, Evelyn Lansky, and daughter Tamara, to help me tell his story.

The torpedoing of HMS Cassandra and events after it was towed into Murmansk is based on the detailed description by Dudley Mills which can be viewed and read on this site and the accounts of survivors edited by Peter Erwood for the 6th  Destroyer Flotilla Association and published by Arcturus Press in 1996 as A Long Night for the Canteen Boat: The torpedoing and salvage of HMS Cassandra December 11 1944 which is no longer in print. HMS Cassandra was a sister ship of HMS HMS Cavalier,  the last surviving wartime destroyer of the Royal Navy, which is preserved in Chatham's historic naval dockyard. The 'C' Class Destroyers by David Hobbs was published by Maritime Books in 2012 and reviewed by John Rodgaard, co-author of A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous, in this November's issue of the Mariner's Mirror.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Cliff Longfoot, the Secretary of the HMS Cassandra Association, whose members meet annually at the D Day Museum in Southsea on the 11 December to lay a wreath on the memorial to the 62 crew members who were killed on that day in 1944.



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