Olga and (some of) her ‘sisters’ – Reindeer from the Soviets


AS MANY PEOPLE KNOW, the story of ‘Olga’ the reindeer and her stay on HMS Belfast (one of three IWM sites in London and the largest exhibit in the IWM collection) is not a happy one.

‘Olga’ was a gift from Russian Northern Fleet Commander – in – Chief Admiral Arseniy Golovko to a Royal Navy counterpart, Admiral Robert Burnett, Flag Officer 10 Cruiser Squadron.

The animal was being carried aboard his Flag Ship, HMS Belfast when the British cruiser was involved in the sinking of the German battleship KMS Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943.

Housed in one of the former seaplane hangars on the ship – the Supermarine ‘Walrus’ aircraft of HMS Belfast Flight, 700 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air had been removed earlier in the year as advances in radar had made them redundant – the reindeer was driven insane by the noise, smells and vibrations of the battle.

Unable to be calmed ‘Olga’ had to be dispatched by the ship’s butcher and his assistant. (1)

large_Supermarine Walrus aircraft being unfolded on the flight deck of the EDINBURGH preparatory to flight_© IWM A 5026A

Although not taken on HMS Belfast (but the similar Town class cruiser HMS Edinburgh) this picture gives an idea of the size of the Supermarine Walrus aircraft and the hangar that accommodated it. As can be seen the wings were folded and the aircraft entered the hangar on a handling trolley. Image © IWM catalogue reference A 5026.

But ‘Olga’ wasn’t the only reindeer to be sent as a gift to Britain – or the only one from Admiral Golovko.

There was ‘Pollyanna’; a reindeer who spent six weeks with fifty six British sailors… on HMS Trident… a ‘T’- class submarine (2).

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, HMS Trident (pennant number N-52) was based at Polyarny near Murmansk in the Arctic Circle during the latter months of 1941.

The boat’s task was to promote closer working practices with the Soviet navy and to aggressively patrol the area between North Cape and Varanger Fjord. By so doing they would not only be attacking German supply routes but also diverting German naval resources away from British convoys suppling Russian forces via Murmansk. (3)


Commander G M Sladen, DSO, DSC, RN, Captain of HMS Trident (left) in conversation with Captain H M C Ionides, RN, Captain S3, after the submarine’s arrival alongside the Depot ship HMS Forth. Image © IWM catalogue reference A 7936.

On their last evening in the port before returning home Commander Geoffrey Mainwaring Sladen, DSO, DSC, RN was being dined by a Russian admiral.

In his speech to the assembled officers Sladen apparently mentioned that his wife was having difficulty manoeuvring their baby’s pram in the winter snow of his home town.

The Russian admiral – who is unnamed in accounts – is supposed to have remarked that what was needed was a reindeer.

According to a letter in a copy of the ‘New Scientist’ (dated 3 January 1957) (4) as the submarine was making ready to leave, two crates arrived on the quay, addressed to Commander Sladen, compliments of his Russian host from the night before.

Inside one crate was a large quantity of local fresh moss.

The other contained a young reindeer.

A submarine about to leave on a long voyage is a place with little empty space.

Food and other supplies are everywhere.

No doubt a little confused and at a slight loss as to how to cope with the gifts, Commander Sladen ordered the gifts taken aboard the submarine through the torpedo loading hatch on the main deck. According to the letter she was put into the ‘heads’ – the boat’s toilet – apparently as the reindeer was somewhat incontinent.

Each night the submarine would run on the surface for a short period to recharge its batteries.

During this time the hatch would be left open to give the crew fresh air and feed the diesel engines that powered the vessel on the surface as well as charging the batteries for the electric motors Trident used beneath the waves.

When this happened the reindeer would be allowed out to share the fresh cool air.

Instead of proceeding home HMS Trident went to another patrol area and the moss ran out leading to the crew feeding ‘Pollyanna’ scraps and it was apparently with difficulty that the officers  were able to stop the animal being fed things such as ‘chocolate and cigarette ends – a diet that could have proved fatal’ (5).

Nevertheless on arrival in the UK it was found that the animal had put on so much weight that she had to be trussed up to enable her to be fit through the torpedo loading hatch.

Once ashore she was sent to Regent’s Park Zoo in London where she lived out her days, ironically dying within days of HMS Trident being decommissioned in 1947.

Furthermore another ‘T’ – class boat (HMS Tigris, N-63) brought another reindeer to Britain.

Little information is available but it was apparently called ‘Minsk’ and was a gift to Admiral Sir Richard Bevan, Senior British Officer, North Russia and commander of the Royal Naval contingent at Polyano. (6)

After arrival in Britain it went to Whipsnade Zoo, north of London.

Lieutenant Commander D J Foster RN (retired) who had served aboard the submarine made reference ‘Minsk’ in a short letter to the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper in 2002. (7)

In early November yet another reindeer was gifted by another Soviet Admiral.

This time the donor was Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov, Minister for the Soviet Navy and Naval Air Arm and it was No. 151 Wing, the RAF contingent defending Murmansk that had the honour of receiving it – one that did not last long as the three month old animal (named ‘Droochok’ or ‘Little Friend’) died a fortnight later (8).

large_NO 151 wingA

Hawker Hurricane Mark IIB, Z3977 ‘FN-55’, of ‘B’ Flight, No. 81 Squadron RAF, No. 151 Wing (Force BENEDICT) at readiness at Vaenga airfield, near Murmansk, Russia. Image © IWM catalogue reference CR 36. The aircraft suffered minor damage as a result of an attack on the airfield on 6 October 1941. (9)

In contrast to the story of ‘Minsk’, there are many stories concerning ‘Pollyanna’s’ antics including that she had the run of the submarine, slept in the Captain’s cabin and more. (10) (11)

Undoubtedly some of these stories are true. But how many?

Clearly the animal would have been in a very unfamiliar environment and at times, all most certainly very frightened.

And apparently reindeer can bite hard!

Another ‘Olga’ is the subject of a number of pictures taken by Lieutenant F A Hudson RN (an accomplished photographer) in the online IWM Collection. Confusingly this animal was also a gift from Admiral Golovko in December 1943.

This ‘other Olga’ arrived at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow having made the journey on board the heavy cruiser HMS Kent. (12) *


‘Olga’, Admiral Sir Lionel Wells, his wife Lady Aline and Petty Officer A E Dowdswell shortly after the animals arrival at Scapa Flow. Image © IWM reference A 20919.

 According to the captions on the IWM images ‘Olga’ was met by Sir Lionel Wells and his wife Aline on arrival, the animal having been transferred to a landing craft in the company of her ‘keeper’ Petty Officer Dowdswell RN who was from Westminster, London.

At some point Olga was presented to Edinburgh Zoo.

No doubt Petty Officer Dowdswell was pleased to return to his regular duties.


Sources and further information

(1) https://londonist.com/2016/09/secrets-of-hms-belfast

(2) http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/hampshire/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8386000/8386947.stm

(3) https://www.warhistoryonline.com/guest-bloggers/bletchley-parks-codebreaking-led-stunning-victory-arctic-ocean-unusual-gift-soviets-reindeer-named-pollyanna.html

(4) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=emSw4D8wVzwC&pg=PA52&lpg=PA52&dq=pollyanna+reindeer+new+scientist&source=bl&ots=iK-YGpTPgX&sig=d4aHU2Va7M6wj0KSkwYdlC_3AXk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj1jd-5h6rYAhUpC8AKHTiZBuAQ6AEIajAN#v=onepage&q=pollyanna%20reindeer%20new%20scientist&f=false

(5) ibid

(6) http://www.ross-shirejournal.co.uk/News/Animal-yarns-shed-fascinating-light-on-Wester-Ross-event-23042013.htm

(7) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/3572281/Navy-pets.html

(8) ‘Force Benedict’ by Eric Carter with Antony Loveless (2014) Hodder and Stoughton, page 229

(9) http://lend-lease.airforce.ru/english/articles/sheppard/hurricanes/index.htm

(10) https://www.nmrn.org.uk/news-events/nmrn-blog/royal-navy-reindeer-submariner%E2%80%99s-starring-role-bbc%E2%80%99s-one-show

(11) http://old.themoscowtimes.com/sitemap/free/2002/1/article/reindeer-sailed-on-world-war-ii-sub/249160.html

(12) https://www.battleships-cruisers.co.uk/hms_kent.htm

* Some sources also state that the reindeer’s journey was made partly aboard HMS London and partly on HMS Kent. However according to http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-06CA-London.htm HMS London returned to Scapa Flow in November 1943 and then was under refit from the end of that month until April 1944.








The finding of Australian Submarine AE1 – more than a century after it sank



HMAS AE1 underway on the surface. Image © IWM. Catalogue reference: Q 74848


September 14 1914 saw the loss of AE1 – a British designed and built ‘E’ class submarine and the first submersible for Australia’s navy.

Built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness between 1911 and 1913, the vessel was commissioned in February at Portsmouth, England.  HMAS AE1 set off in March of that year on the long trip to Sydney, Australia, together with the similarly designed HMAS AE2.

Arriving 24 May 1914, the boat had completed the longest voyage by a submarine ever at that time. Albeit that most of the voyage was on the surface it was never the less a great source of pride for the Royal Australian Navy,(1) its title having been officially recognised by King George V on 10 July 1911(2), a decade after Australia became a self-governing federation(3).

With war declared the two Australian boats set about the capture of Germany’s Pacific colonies, including the surrender of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, to the east of New Guinea on September 13 1914.

The following day AE1 rendezvoused with the destroyer HMAS Parramatta and then proceeded to Cape Gazelle.

At around 09:00 the submarine was ordered to a new patrol point and to anchor with the destroyer at Herbertshohe (the German name for what is now Kokopo, New Guinea) at 17:30.

Visibility varied between five and ten nautical miles because of haze and HMAS Parramatta subsequently reported that submarine was obscured by the mists and the commander of the destroyer thought it advisable to maintain visible contact with the submarine for as long as possible.

Five hours later at 14:30 the two vessels were in signal contact with the submarine asking for a report on the visibility in the immediate area.

An hour later the destroyer lost sight of the submarine and decided to investigate further. When nothing was found it was decided that the boat had returned to harbour and the Parramatta proceeded with its ordered task of anchoring at Herbertshohe.

With the destroyer anchored as order ed and the submarine now overdue a search was made to find AE1. No distress call had been received.

Despite an extensive search nothing was found at the time and the loss of the submarine with all thirty five crew was the first major tragedy in the history of the Royal Australian Navy and the first loss of an Australian naval vessel.


Lieutenant Charles Lewis Moore. RN one of three Royal Naval officers aboard AE1 when the vessel was lost. Image © IWM. Catalogue reference: HU 125835

The crew included three officers from the Royal Navy and Cyril Lefroy Baker, the boat’s  telegraphist and the first man from Tasmania to die in the First World War.(4) (5)

Several searches were carried since the vessel went missing but none could locate the wreck.

On 21 December 2017 –  almost 104 years after AE1 disappeared – the Australian government announced that the mystery of the submarine’s final resting place had been solved.

An underwater search which began on 17 December and funded by the Australian government and the Silentworld Foundation and assisted by the Submarine Institute of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Fugro Survey N V, the government of Papua New Guinea and Find AE1 Limited a not for profit organisation established to finding the wreck, managed to  locate the submarine in 300 metres (985 foot) of water off Duke of York Islands, a group of islands in St George’s Channel, Papua New Guinea.

There are said to be more than twenty shipwrecks in the area

With the Australian government attempting to find descendants of the 35 Australian and British crew members, talks were beginning with the Papua New Guinea government regarding a lasting memorial for the site.

However, how the submarine met its end remains a mystery.

The fin or conning tower structure is separated from the main body of the boat and the absence of oil at the time of the sinking suggest that the vessel sank intact and not as the result of an explosion.

Sources and further information

(1) http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-ae1

 (2) http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/royal_australian_navy

(3) http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/federation

(4) http://seafarersmemorial.org.au/memorials/vessels/ae1.php

(5) http://www.examiner.com.au/story/2557549/100-year-old-mystery/



‘Tirpitz the Pig’ and the bears and lions at the Royal Navy zoo on Whale Island.



TO MANY HMS EXCELLENT ON WHALE ISLAND near Portsmouth on Britain’s south coast will always be associated with training Royal Navy gunners and the home of the Portsmouth Field Gun Crew who competed at the Royal Tournament in London against teams from Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm until the Tournament ceased in 1999.

Although other units have also shared ‘Whaley’, few have been as usual as Royal Navy zoo based there between 1893 and 1940.

The zoo was started as a place where official gifts of animals presented to ships or adopted as mascots (as well as probably a number of exotic pets that outgrew their welcome in sailor’s homes) could be housed and live out their days. (1)

In May 1940 it was decided that with war progressing, and the likelihood of the adjacent naval base being bombed it should be closed.

Today the site of the zoo is a garden and there is a small cemetery that gives an indication of the variety of animals and birds housed there, including ‘Barbara’ a polar bear who was there at some point during the Second World War.



‘Barbara’, a polar bear at the Royal Navy’s zoo at Whale Island greeting old shipmates. Note the sailors dark topped caps and their gas respirator haversacks over their shoulders © IWM Catalogue reference: HU 45273


The bear was (according to the caption on the IWM online collection) rescued from an ice floe off Greenland by a ‘cruiser’ although it does not identify the ship or when the bear was rescued. (2)

Also there is ‘Jack’ a parrot that had arrived after a cyclone in Samoa in 1889 and lived for three decades in the zoo.

Besides the remains of ‘Barbara’, the cemetery contains those of another polar bear (‘Nicholas’), a pair of sun bears from tropical forests of East Asia (‘Henry’ and ‘Alice’) as well as lionesses ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’.

Despite protests, these and other animals were all dispatched by armed sailors in May 1940 as there were fears that if the area were bombed the frightened animals may cause havoc in Portsmouth.

Leslie Bailey a Fleet Air Arm observer mentions briefly in an IWM oral history interview available online about his training at HMS Excellent in February 1940 that it was possible to hear the animals as one passed by the main gate and that there was a lion that roared at night.

He continues ‘I know because it used to frighten me to death when I went past the gate!’ (3)

What happened to another lioness called ‘Lola’ (who gave birth at the zoo to three cubs around July 1936) (4) is not known although it may be that ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’ were two of her cubs.

large_Tirpitz_© IWM (Q 47559)

‘Tirpitz’ onboard HMS Glasgow around 1916.
Image: © IWM Catalogue reference: Q 47559


‘Tirpitz’ the Pig’ was also at the zoo after being rescued by British sailors serving on HMS Glasgow after the ship sank the German cruiser SMS Dresden during the Battle of Más a Tierra in Chilean waters on 14 March 1915.

But ‘Tirpitz’ was trouble – at least for some of the residents at the zoo, where it caused havoc amongst the smaller animals by stealing their food and smashing its quarters up.

The pig was sent to John Luce (the former captain of HMS Glasgow who had been promoted to Commodore and was busy developing a naval aviation flying school at Cranwell in Lincolnshire) and although history does not recall what his thoughts were on being reacquainted with this former ship mate, ‘Tirpitz’ was put up for sale.

The pig was bought by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.

He paid 400 guineas (£420) for the animal in December 1917, the money going to the British Red Cross and the Agricultural Relief of Allies’ Fund of which the Duke was President.

Two months later he himself put ‘Tirpitz’ up for sale and the animal made 800 guineas for the two charities, with the Duke of Portland buying back the pig!

On Monday 5 August 1918 ‘Tirpitz’ was once more put up for sale by the Duke and this time raised another £550. (5)


 ‘A horrid name – even for a pig’


As an added incentive he said that he would change the name of the pig to ‘Beatty’ (after British Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Beatty), as ‘Tirpitz’ was ‘a horrid name – even for a pig’, if the animal raised more than £500. (6)

When in 1919 the inevitable occurred and the pig died, the Duke had the pig’s head preserved and mounted and then donated it to the Imperial War Museum where it was exhibited when the museum was housed at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in South London.


Mounted head of ‘Tirpitz the Pig’. Image: © IWM. Catalogue reference: EPH 9032. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30088283

After a period of restoration and conservation, it was displayed in the First World War Galleries at Imperial War Museum London when they opened in 2014. (7) (8)



(1) https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2015/dec/07/barbara-polar-bear-cats-in-cannons-royal-navys-animal-mascots – retrieved 12 December 2017

(2) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205020716 – retrieved 12 December 2017

(3) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80025513 – retrieved 12 December 2017
Reel two, approximately 27 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording.

(4) https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2024904/photography_ProvidedCHO_TopFoto_co_uk_EU044495.html – retrieved 12 December 2017

(5) http://www.scotlandswar.co.uk/PDF_Cats.pdf – retrieved 12 December 2017

(6)The Sheffield Telegraph’ newspaper, 7 August 1918

(7) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022108 – retrieved 12 December 2017

(8) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30088283 – retrieved 12 December 2017