In 1919 RFA Birchol – a 1,000 ton harbour oiler was deployed to Archangel, Russia in support of three United States Naval submarine chasers that had been sent to provide immediate naval assistance to that country’s forces in northern Russia.

 

In 1919 RFA Birchol – a 1,000 ton harbour oiler was deployed to Archangel, Russia in support of three United States Naval submarine chasers that had been sent to provide immediate naval assistance to that country’s forces in northern Russia.

RFA_Birchol

RFA Birchol

 

RFA Birchol was, in fact, possibly the RFA’s first ‘one stop shop’ carrying fuel, ammunition and, as mentioned below, other stores. She had been under the command of Lieutenant William F Clay RNR since 19 May 1919. When the crew signed BOT articles on 1 November 1919 Lieutenant William F Clay became Captain William F Clay RFA

 

The US ships were under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) G S Dole USN and his flagship was No SC 354

 

The US ships were fast 75 ton wooden hulled vessels with two 6 cylinder petrol engines. Their theoretical top speed was around 18 knots with a general cruising speed of about 12 knots. They had a range of around 1,000 nautical miles. They were crewed by 2 officers and up to 22 enlisted ratings.

 

 

US_Submarine_Chaser

US Submarine Chaser – World War 1

 

The chasers were well armed and carried up-to date (for the day) detection equipment.

 

The three submarine chasers, SC 354, SC 95 and SC 256 were deployed from Lisbon, Portugal and sailed on the 10 April 1919 via Brest, France, Milford Haven and then via the Caledonian Canal to Inverness – a distance of 1,380 nautical miles. Here they dry docked and generally refitted for the journey north including covering the hull with metal sheathing to protect from ice. They also joined up with RFA Birchol which also took onboard additional fuel, ammunition, and stores.

 

On 6 June 1919 the detachment sailed from Inverness to Lerwick, Shetland Islands for RFA Birchol to top its fuel and water. After a few hours they sailed again heading for Holmengraa, Norway.

 

Their route through the North Sea was not without incident. They had to navigate around the ‘Northern Barrage’ a series of mine fields containing 53,000 mines in an area of some 6,000 square miles. The North Sea lived up to its reputation and gave the ships a rough passage. Lieutenant Dole reported that on many occasions the crews of the US ships looked back to see if the tanker was still afloat or showed signs of distress. They had considerable anxiety concerning RFA Birchol’s cargo. Dole described that necessity makes strange companions and 2,000 rounds of live 3-inch shells and 800 tons of petrol separated by a steel bulkhead certainly possessed possibilities, especially if, as was the case, no suitable stowage for the ammunition was possible. If the shells had ever started to shift the expedition would have been off. Dole went on to say that Lieutenant Clay was game, and heart and soul with all in the expedition, driving his ship at maximum speed in all kinds of weather, so as to cause as little delay as possible.

 

From Holmengraa, they passed through nearly a thousand miles of fjords and "inner leads" north well into the Arctic Circle and around North Cape. At Syd Fuglo RFA Birchol broke down with a ‘hot bearing’, the result of forcing her engines to the limit. The detachment had been running at 9 knots, over a knot faster than the normal cruising speed of the tanker.

 

On 18 June the detachment arrived at Archangel and anchored off.

 

On the 4 July, when the United States forces in Archangel were due to observe Independence Day by full dressing ship, RFA Birchol fully dressed ship also.

 

The US Officers found that RFA Birchol was not a ‘dry ship’ and it is reported they spent many convivial hours in the ships saloon.

 

The detachment, for the entire journey sailed a total of 5,570 nautical miles in 681 hours under way - this wasn’t bad for a small harbour oiler.

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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