Home' Work Boat World : September 2016 Contents wave, and she passed just a few feet from us. That was when the
line was thrown to the Soviet crew. Full marks to our captain. Had
it been any closer the ‘Kharkov’ would have landed on top of us. If
that had happened, anyone below would not have stood
The messenger line was caught, but when the heaving line to
which it was attached began to be hauled in, the ‘Kharkov’s’ crew
accidentally dropped it into the sea and the whole procedure had
to be repeated. Eventually the tow wire connected to the heaving
line was hauled aboard and secured by a bridle made from the
cables of the ship’s two anchor chains.
By 1400 the weather had moderated sufficiently for ‘Assiduous’
to start moving slowly ahead. However, she was high in the water
not good for towing – and at first any headway could only be
made with the wind and sea almost abeam. It caused ‘Assiduous’,
as Stanford wrote in his official report, “to roll heavily continually
and though to the great discomfort of all on board the roll was
never dangerous. For the first three days no food could be cooked,
corned beef and tea being the menu.”
However, Hubbard makes clear that conditions were very much
worse than Stanford’s laconic statement revealed, once ‘Assiduous’
had turned into the wind to reach Trincomalee. “We had to sail
head-on into the waves. These were so large it seemed as though
we went through them. Sometimes they crashed right over us,
funnel and all. We ran low on water on the second day, so we
weren’t able to wash and had little to drink. Salt water had to be
put into the boiler, which must have been perilously close to
exploding by the time we docked. Anything that could break,
broke. Anything that could break loose, broke loose. Eating and
sleeping were impossible.”
This horrendous return voyage took four days to cover 348
miles. At Trincomalee, Stanford went aboard the ‘Kharkov’ and, as
was the custom, posted a salvage claim to her mast. But now that
his ship was safe Poliakov reneged on his assurances that he would
sign the salvage form, asserting the rescue tug’s duties had only
entailed towing. He also said he required 900 tonnes of fuel oil to
continue his voyage but wanted to obtain it at Trincomalee, not
Colombo where his agents would have provided him with what he
required. Colombo was a long way from his destination, which he
asserted was Calcutta (Kolkata), but it’s not hard to guess that he
had had orders to avoid the British naval base in case he was
detained there. The British thought his request gave them useful
leverage in the negotiations with the salvage claim. In this they
“That is torture,” Poliakov said, “do
you mean I stay here forever?”
Naval headquarters at Colombo informed Woodhouse that the
Lloyds salvage form had been received from the Soviet ship’s
Colombo agents but it was blank except for ‘Kharkov’s’ name and
their signature, which the Soviet authorities could, and did,
During the fruitless exchanges that followed it also became
clear that the ‘Kharkov’ had been making for Madras (Chennai)
before going on to Calcutta, a further 890 nautical miles up the
coastline. It seemed Poliakov was trying to extract the maximum
amount of fuel he could out of his involuntary hosts, but he was
informed during an interview with Captain Bayliss, the Captain-
in-Charge, Ceylon, that no fuel would be available until he had
signed the Lloyds salvage form.
“That is torture,” Poliakov said, “do you mean I stay
That, said Bayliss, was for the Admiralty to decide. Poliakov
continued to deny that his ship had been in distress, and his
signals had not meant to imply this. If a tug had not been
available he said he would have drifted backwards to the Andaman
Islands, and with his remaining fuel make the safety of Port Blair.
This was an unlikely scenario to say the least, and one Bayliss
quickly demolished. If Poliakov thought he had that alternative
why had he accepted the rescue tug’s assistance when it had been
made quite plain to him that it was a salvage matter?
“Well, it was not salvage,” was all Poliakov could mutter.
When Bayliss realised he wasn’t getting anywhere, he ended the
meeting and the ‘Kharkov’ was refuelled once the Admiralty had
received a deposit from the owners’ London agent. She sailed on
May 28 and Woodhouse confirmed to the Admiralty that no
avoidable delay had been caused to her. But it was not until
November 1950 that the Treasury Solicitor extracted from the
owners’ representatives in London the value of the ship and her
cargo: £8,600 (US$11,100) for the ship and £128,273 for the cargo.
“The former figure is absurd,” the Admiralty’s negotiator
commented, “for the Ministry of Transport has identified the
‘Kharkov’ as a former American vessel, and they suggest an
approximate salved value of £60,000.” Nevertheless, the Treasury
Solicitor said, in view of the difficulties he had encountered
extracting any figures at all, the Soviet figures should be accepted,
and on May 21, 1951, three years after the incident, the Admiralty
accepted the ludicrously low offer of £4,500.
The law of the sea had been upheld, and an incident that could
have escalated was resolved. But the Cold War had ensured the
British taxpayer shouldered most of the burden.
*Ia n Dear is the editor of The Oxford Comp anion to World Wa r II
and the second edition of The Oxford Compa nion to Ships and the Sea .
His most recent book, The Tattie Lads, is the previously untold story of the
Admira lty’ s r escue tug service in two world war s, wh ich wa s publish ed in
June 2016 (Bloomsbur y, £25, ISBN 978-1 -8448-6401-0).
Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world?
Each month, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
WORK BOAT WORLD September 2016 49
‘Assiduous’, seen here in peacetime after she had been stripped of her
armaments. She was one of 21 Assurance-lass rescue tugs built by
Cochrane’s of Selby and launched in June 1943. 148metres long, she
had steam reciprocating engines which gave her a top speed of 13 knots.
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