The History of Anadyr

  For a simple steamship, Anadyr seems overburdened with history: a British ship built for a French owner that is enlisted by the Russian Navy to fight the Japanese, which later carries Polish POWs on behalf of the Soviet government, and then still later is sunk while carrying American cargo by German aircraft operating out of Norway.

Anadyr was launched by Vickers, Son & Company in Barrow-in-Furness in 1902 as Vickerstown. It displaced 7,363 gross tons, measured 476 feet in length and was powered by twin steam engines. The name Vickerstown was almost certainly a placeholder pending the sale of the ship, possibly due to a canceled order. The ship was renamed in 1903 as the Franche-Comte followings its purchase by a Monsieur Le Boule from Harve, but by all accounts the ship remained laid up in Barrow for about a year and quite possibly this latter deal fell through as well. It must have seemed the ship would never set to sea.

On April 27, 1904, Franche-Comte left the shipyard for the first time, ostensibly for a French port for final outfitting. But she was never arrived in France - during the journey the destination was changed to Libau. It seams that Franche-Comte had been drafted into the Russian Imperial Navy as part of the Second Pacific Squadron.

Drawing of Anadyr early in its career, with full sail riggingSource: Tapaca

Since this Second Pacific Squadron needed to be largely self sufficient, a small armada of transport ships was assembled. One of these was Franche-Comte, renamed Anadyr and reconstituted as an auxiliary cruiser. The ship was equipped with eight 57mm French cannons, strengthened with some minimal armor, and served by a crew of 16 officers and 245 men.

Anadyr after its masts have been trimmedSource: Navoidev

Anadyr joined the other ships of Second Pacific Squadron on its epic journey to the Far East. It was a difficult transit and not without incidents. While departing from Tangier, Anadyr's anchor line became entangled with an underwater telegraph cable. The decision was made to cut the telegraph cable, thereby severing all communications between Tangier and Europe. This, while ostensibly an accident, had the side benefit of making it more difficult for the agents of unfriendly nations to report details of the armada's departure from Tangier.

Nearing a potential site of conflict with Japan, the fleet commander, Admiral Rozhdestvensky, dispatched most of the auxiliary ships to safe locations but retained eight to accompany the battle fleet forward. This included two hospital ships, two tugs, a repair ship, and three transports- one of which was Anadyr. As the fleet approached Tsu-Shima, Anadyr took the lead position in the column of transports, following behind the two divisions of battleships.

Fortunately for Anadyr, it was one of the very few Russian ships to escape sinking or capture, the fate of almost all of other auxiliaries. Anadyr itself was a source of some of the losses, as it accidentally rammed the Rousse, one of the tugboats, while attempting to rescue crews from the sinking auxiliary cruiser Ural. As it was, Anadyr managed to escape to Madagascar, and then back to Russia.

When World War I erupted, Anadyr was again employed in the Tsar's navy, participating in Russian operations against Germany. Enough time was taken out from the war in 1915 for Anadyr to receive a major overhaul. Anadyr was handed over to the Soviet government in March 1918 and was laid up in port starting in April 1918. On October 9, 1918, Anadyr was transferred to the merchant fleet. On October 25, 1919 it was assigned to the Baltic fleet in the young Soviet Navy but returned to commercial service with Transbalt on June 4, 1920.

Anadyr's military days were not over, and in 1921 it was drafted for the third time into the military as naval auxiliary, where it served as part of the government fleet in service against the Whites in the Civil War under the command of Modest Vasil'evich Ivanov. After 1922, it returned to civilian registration, this time with the name Dekabrist, in recognition of the group of Army officers who challenged the authority of Tsarist rule in the early 1800s. Dekabrist operated with registration UOML and spent at least some of that time operating in the Pacific to and from Vladivostok.

Retouched photograph of DekabristSource: Rudnev

In 1940, Dekabrist was withdrawn from its normal civilian duties for a special mission. The Soviets had captured large numbers of Polish soldiers during its 1939 invasion and were debating the fate of these prisoners of war. The Polish contingent also included civilians in Poland rounded up by the Soviet government. It was decided to send these prisoners completely across the Soviet Union to the furthest point from Poland: the gold mines of Kolyma. The Dekabrist was called upon to perform this mission and transported approximately 5,000 prisoners from Vladivostok to Magadan. It is very possible that this is the only trip made by this ship in Gulag service.

Dekabrist was then employed on the infamous Kola Run during World War II, transporting Lend Lease cargo from U.S. and Canadian ports to Murmansk and Archangel in the Soviet Union. On one particularly heroic voyage ending on December 20, 1941, Dekabrist was the first ship to bring into Murmansk vital engineering cargo, operating on this dangerous route without escort, radio communication or navigation lights and under constant threat of enemy air and submarine attack.

In late 1942, the Allies decided to open a new front against the German forces in North Africa, and this required pulling away escort ships from Lend Lease convoys. The Allies simply did not have enough ships to both escort merchant ships to the Soviet Union and to support Operation Torch's amphibious landing force.

Ultimately, troops took priority over cargo, and the escorts were withdrawn. But the Allies were also conscious of the need to maintain clear public support for Stalin's forces, at the time engaged in heavy combat against German invaders. The halting of Lend Lease convoys at that time might have undermined Stalin's confidence in Allied support, and the Teheran Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was just around the corner. So the decision was made to send a group of merchant ships back on the Kola run without escort, sailing individually in the hope that they could sneak through to Murmansk. The Dekabrist was one of 12 ships selected for this mission, codenamed Operation FB.

For Dekabrist, which had narrowly escaped destruction at the battle of Tsushima, this voyage was a disaster. The Dekabrist was sunk by German Ju-88 aircraft of I/KG30 on November 4, 1942. Another four ships were sunk and three others turned back long before reaching their destination. Of the 13 ships sent to the Soviet Union, five were sunk and only five managed to complete the journey. It was a loss nearly as decisive as the one at Tsushima, 37 years before.

Nineteen men survived the sinking and were stranded at the top of the world in small boats, eventually finding their way to Hope Island (Hopen), a small outpost of land south of Spitzbergen. Here they were stranded for two years before, during which time 16 of the men died from hunger, cold or illness. When they were finally rescued in 1943, most likely as the Germans arrived on Hope Island to establish a weather outpost, it was only to be taken to a German concentration camp. The three survivors were ultimately freed by advancing Soviet armies.

Source: Martin J. Bollinger