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