A pinnacle of wartime technology, the HMS Trident was supposed to patrol the Atlantic, doing submarine things. Maybe sink a ship or two, enforce the blockade, and smuggle a reindeer from Russia to England. If that last part sounds more like the plot of a Nickelodeon cartoon than a World War II mission, then you clearly don’t understand diplomacy.
Our stage is World War II, 1941. America is the Arsenal of Democracy but is not yet formally part of the war. Russia and England are the bookends to a powerful and super-evil Nazi Germany, and Germany is busily invading the latter while trying to contain the former.
Britain and Russia were not natural allies. Britain had interceded in the Russian Civil War in 1918 on the losing side, and many veterans of that war were still kicking in 1941. Some were resentful. Some, certainly, would’ve cheered if Germany had invaded the British Isles in 1940 and conquered it.
But Hitler made strange bedfellows. And so a Russian bear cuddled up to the British crown, and much canoodling was had by all. But young romances rely on careful gestures, and one side cannot spurn the gift of another. Which brings us to the strange events of the HMS Trident in 1941.
The Trident was sent to fight and kill Nazis in the Arctic, and its patrol took it into contact with a Russian crew. There, the crews exchanged tactics and had to play nice. A slip up on top of the world could cock up the whole alliance to the south. So, the men engaged with one another, were polite, and then the Trident crew prepared to head out for a fight with more German ships.
The Russian admiral hosted the British leaders, and British Commander Geoffrey Sladen mentioned that his wife was having trouble pushing her pram through the snow in England. The admiral had a great idea: The Brits should take one of the reindeer with them, and the reindeer could haul the pram around in England.
Again: This was the international diplomacy equivalent of a new high school romance. If the cute girl passes you a photo of her, even if it also shows her disapproving grandpa and some unsightly dental headgear, you give the photo a kiss, smile at the girl, and then tuck the photo into the door of your locker.
For those who are curious, the reindeer equivalent is: You accept the reindeer, name it Pollyanna, and carefully get it into your submarine by opening the torpedo tube and helping it slip in. You bring a barrel of moss aboard as well, so the young reindeer will have something to eat.
And so the British set sail for another six weeks of wartime patrol. Pollyanna often slept in the captain’s cabin next to his bunk. And, according to the BBC, she would trot to the control room and wait for the hatch to open when fresh air was allowed in. The moss eventually ran out, and the crew fed Pollyanna scraps from their meals.
When the sub returned to England, it took a bit of work to get Pollyanna back out. The moss and the table scraps had taken their toll, and the young reindeer was too large to make it back out of the torpedo tube. Instead, she was winched out through the top.
Polly went to the zoo and was reportedly happy, though she did have a few quirks from her submarine service. George Malcolmson, a Royal Navy Submarine Museum Archivist, said, “It was rumoured that she never forgot her submarine career, for whenever she heard bells or a sound like a submarine tannoy, she would lower her head as though preparing for diving stations.”
Pollyanna died at the zoo five years later, the same week that the HMS Trident was sent to the breakers yard to be reduced for scrap.