ALTA Cruise 2016
To Sea Again in a ‘Sweeper
Allan George, Ordinary Seaman HMS St David
South Wales Division RNR and later Press Officer in Navy Public Relations
How many of us day dream of recapturing our lost youth and going back to sea in a minesweeper? Well the nostalgia can be recreated and without roughers or middle watches. A party of six of us, most with ‘Ton’ experience, enjoyed a short cruise from Oslo in ALTA, a Norwegian ‘sweeper, arranged by Maritime Heritage Tours, (maritimeheritagetours.co.uk) run by Mike Critchley. Having sold his publishing company, Maritime Books, he continues to organise warship museum tours. Other trips to Malta, Gosport and the Far East are in the planning stage.
ALTA is the last of 10 Norwegian minesweepers built in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Completed in 1953, after service in the US Navy she was transferred to Belgium and then to Norway in 1966. Decommissioned in 1996, she was handed over to the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum, close to her berth in Oslo.
Several hundred of her class were built, mostly in the US, and many were transferred to Allied navies. However it is believed ALTA is to only one to survive. In general the ships were similar to Ton class vessels.
She is kept in sea going condition by a group of volunteers, the ALTA Society, which in effect is part of the Museum, and whose 300 members raise funds, maintain her and take her to sea.
Lars Andreas Tobiassen, the Society’s General Manager explained the objective is to keep the Norwegian public aware of its naval and maritime heritage, and what better way to do this than to keep alive a type of ship in which so many of its sailors served.
Maintenance is expensive and finance is a constant concern. In addition to the Society’s fund raising, she receives generous commercial sponsorship and active support from the Royal Norwegian Navy.
When we arrived, our first impression was that ALTA is still in naval service, neat, clean and freshly painted, a First Lieutenant’s dream. We were warmed by our welcome and the instantly offered small ship comradeship. No sooner than we were on board, special sea duty men closed up and the ship prepared to sail. Her crew of Society members, had all served in the Navy.
We slipped from ALTA’s berth close to Oslo’s cruise liner terminal on a balmy Friday evening, bound for Horten, the former main base of the Royal Norwegian Navy, 35 miles to the south. It felt good to be back on board a warship, the thump of the diesels and old smells evoking memories from long ago. It was like returning to a long lost home.
Captain for the voyage, Tore Pettersen, retired as a Lt Cdr after 17 years in the Royal Norwegian Navy including command of a FPB. As a Midshipman he served in TANA, a sister of ALTA’s. He explained it was expensive to maintain the ship in her seagoing condition, at least £100,000 annually. But there would be little point in doing so unless she was used, so there is an annual programme of visits to ports along the Norwegian coast as far north as Bergen. She shows the flag to the Norwegian public and keeps their Navy in the forefront of their minds.
We steamed down Oslo Fjord, its steep sides dotted with brightly painted wooden homes, and through the narrow Drobak Straits, site of the opening shots in the 1940 German invasion of Norway.
The 11 inch guns at Oskarborg Fortress, which dominated the southern end of the Straits, scored two hits on the BLUCHER, a heavy German cruiser leading the force to capture Oslo. Blazing with fire she staggered on only to be hit by two torpedoes from a secret battery. This was fatal and she now lies in 35 fathoms in the middle of the Sound, directly beneath our course. The remaining ships reversed course, and the delay it caused allowed the Norwegian Royal Family and Government to reach the UK.
Horton was the RNoN’s main base until the mid 1960s when it was shifted to Bergen, nevertheless it retains the outstanding Royal Norwegian Navy Museum. Among its exhibits are NARVIK an OSLO class frigate; RAP, believed to be the world’s first torpedo boat; BLINK an FPB and UTSTEIN a submarine dating from 1965.
We berthed alongside NARVIK after a not very demanding four and a half hours cruise, and were introduced into an ALTA tradition. The entire crew gathered together to listen to a traditional poem, in Norwegian, giving thanks to a safe voyage through stormy seas. We didn’t understand what was being recited, but we did understand the punctuation at the end of each verse, the toast ‘Skol’ and a small shot of schnapps.
Around the corner from NARVIK lay a beamy white hulled vessel, MARGATA. Officially classed as a research ship operated for the Norwegian Intelligence Service, her role was anyone’s guess but judging by the enormous golf ball dome abaft her bridge, the consensus was for electronic eavesdropping on the Russian Northern Fleet.
That night we were given a sharp reminder of the depredations of age with the narrow cramped bunks: the loss of youthful agility was painfully obvious. The next day we were given the ten bob tour of the frigate, and treated to an informal mess dinner in her wardroom, with beef stroganoff washed down with many ‘Skols’. After a cholesterol rich breakfast we, and most of the crew, toured the magnificent Royal Norwegian Navy Museum, claimed to be the world’s first such establishment. Jam packed with exquisite models and naval artefacts it is absorbing even for a casual visitor, but has a serious function as a rich source for serious historians, possessing all the Navy’s ships’ log books from 1814 to today.
That Sunday afternoon, in gin clear air, we steamed back to Oslo, through fleets of yachts, and passing towering ferries bound for Denmark and Germany.
To a man we urged Mike to set up another Maritime Heritage Tour to ALTA, perhaps in the Autumn or next Spring, and we were assured by the crew of another warm welcome. With the ship secured in her berth, we gathered together for a final poetry reading and many ‘Skols’.
Photographs courtesy of Ivor Feist
Frigate Narvik MARJATA
Norwegian Research Vessel ‘Marjata
Utstein, RNoN Museum, Horten
Photographs courtesy of Ivor Feist