The Russian Convoys

On the shores of the Black Sea stands the city of Odessa. A city forever synonymous in Russian history, for it, was there on 22 June 1941, that the German Wehrmacht troops fired the first shots of Operation Barbarossa, marking the beginning of Hitter’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Russia was in no position to fight a war, many of her senior officers purged during the revolution, she simply crumbled before the German onslaught. Stalin’s plan was to move his factories to the icy wasteland of Siberia. geographically as far from the front as possible from the front line. Over 1,500 factories were systematically dismantled and shipped on 1,800 trains. Burning what they could not move, they left nothing for an invading army to feed upon. Badly in need of Western aid, Churchill in 1942, and against all advice from the Admiralty, promised Stalin three convoys of war aid every two months, some would come from Britain some from America. The ports of Archangel and Murmansk would be their destination, the Russians preferring Archangel, Murmansk being just thirty miles for the German lines. Archangel, however, was frozen in for much of the year, notwithstanding Russia had undertaken to supply ten ice-breakers, promising to keep the port free from ice, only two ice breakers materialized, and in 1941 a number of ships were stranded there throughout that winter.

Added to the natural hazards, these Arctic convoys would face, was a shortage of escort vessels, inadequate numbers of ice breakers, little in way of discharging facilities, or medical care for wounded, and the failure of Russia to provide coal, ballast, stores and fresh water, required for the return voyage. On the plus side the ships that were used were modern, since they had to be specially fitted out in order to withstand the awful Arctic climate and mountainous seas. The first twelve convoys all reached their designated ports without incident. Convoy PQ13 was less fortunate her losses amounted to 30,000 tons of merchant shipping. In June 1942, convoy PQ17 set sail for Archangel, Her escort was ordered to withdraw and the convoy to scatter, PQ17 was decimated by the Germany bombers and U-boats a total of twenty-nine of the original thirty-eight merchant ships lost. The Royal Navy did not come out of it well, Rear-Admiral Burnett, giving his explanation of events, on his return to Scapa Flow, only succeeded in gaining the nickname ’Bullshit Bob’. The Admiralty wished to put a complete embargo on further convoys during the continuous hours of daylight found this far north in summer, Churchill, however, was adamant that they go ahead and ordered Admiral Pounds to fight another convoy through the Barents Sea. In his own words, “If a naval battle should ensure, so much the better”.

In August 1942, the Merchant Navy Shipping Officer, sent for me, I was to report to Loch Ewe to join Empire Snow, one of thirty-four ships due to sail in convoy code named PQ18, our destination, Archangel, in Russia. Maggie did not wish for me to return to the sea, saying I was still not well enough to go, and the doctor almost agreed with her. Endless days in freezing ships engine rooms and the biting cold air of Antarctic had taken their toll, leaving me with a hacking cough, he was now saying my Woodbine cough might be something more serious, and that I should maybe spend more time ashore; however, I managed to persuade him to let me sail. What would I do washed up on the beach at my age, any way any money that I had made during the good days was dwindling fast, my 21 gold sovereigns a distant memory. I assured him I would rest up after this trick, reluctantly he signed my chitty, if it had not been for the war, I am sure he would not have done so.

Our escort included an aircraft carrier, two anti-aircraft vessels, eighteen destroyers, four corvettes, four-armed trawlers, mine sweepers, even two submarines, it seemed we were part of an armada rather than a convoy with an escort. At 16.10 on the 2nd September, we started the first leg of our journey, sailing for Hvalfjordur in Iceland, there to pick up six Russian freighters before heading through the Denmark Strait to rendezvous with various other freighters and warships that would finally form as Convoy PQ18. By the time we had left Cape Wrath astern of us we were pounding through high winds and heavy seas, gale force 9 to storm force 10. Already the convoy was being torn apart. The American and Panamanian ships with no previous experience of convoy work, gave little attention to signals and were seldom found to be on station. The Campfire and the American liberty ship Patrick Henry raised their ‘out of command’ signals reduced speed and put their helms over to port as dangerous beam seas threatening to swamp them. At 7,167 ton, the sea for us was no more than a discomfort, for the smaller ships of the Royal Navy was a night of pitching, rolling and corkscrewing, their scuppers streaming water, all the way across the stretch of open sea, between Iceland, the Orkneys and the Shetlands, commonly called ’The Rose Garden’. To add to this already formidable escort, the cruisers Cumberland and Sheffield along with destroyers Amazon, Echo, Venomous and Bulldog patrolled off Spitzbergen. Whilst the three cursers Norfolk, Suffolk and London, gave support off Bear Island. Crossing the Greenland Sea, the swell rose and the horizontal rain blown in on gale-force winds turned to snow. On the 12th September a flight of Sea Hurricanes were dispatched from Avenger to intercept a Blohm and Voss BV 138 but they easily avoided capture by flying into the cover of low cloud. At 21.00, Faulkner sunk the U-boat Bohmann’s U88 with depth charges ahead of the convoy, this was turning into an eventful journey.

At 08.55 on the 13th September, we lost the Stalingrad, hit by a single torpedo on her starboard side. Rescue ships were quickly on the scene and picking up all of the crew uninjured. Almost at the same time the Liberty freighter Oliver Elsworth was hit by a second torpedo again on her starboard side. Little could be seen from above, the damage all blow below the waterline, at the command to ‘abandon ship’ all but one of her crew managed to get clear. The skies were now filled with aircraft, fighters, bombers and torpedo-bombers, the planes came over the ship and dropped a torpedo, not in the water but clear into the hold of Wacosta exploding inside her hold, seconds later Oregonian, was hit and started to sink, just ahead of her, the Panamanian freighter Macbeth hit by two torpedoes and quickly capsized. The Empire Stevenson carrying explosives simply evaporated in a column of flame and smoke. A second Panamanian ship Africander torpedoes and sank, her crew all rescued. Empire Beaumont also lost. The American liberty ship John Penn was less fortunate the torpedo entering the engine room killing all four-crew members instantly. Another torpedo fired haphazardly, snaked its way through the convoy and unluckily found Mary Luckenbach in the eighth column. She was carrying ammunition and went up in a ball of flames, the explosion, rocking the ships around her. Although attacks followed an attack by plane and U-boat no more ships were lost, and by 16.00 hours on the 18th the weather deteriorated aiding our escape. On we battled through high winds heavy seas, final to approach the Kola Inlet, there to be met by the ships HMS Salamander, HMS Hazard, HMS Britomart and HMS Halcyon it was they that would lead the convoy through the shallows and over the Devina Bar. Proceeded against an ebb tide and with such severe weather conditions, few pilots were prepared to put out, forcing the convoy to come to anchor.

Life onboard Empire Snow was now a misery, dragging anchors and snapping cables as the ship rolled and pitched. The temperature dropped rapidly throughout the night and by dawn the ships were unrecognizable. Cross-trees, superstructure, winches, rigging, stays, halyards mast and ladders all were now coated in ice, so thick we feared she would turn turtle. Steam hoses were rigged and constantly played on the superstructure to lessen the topside weight, but almost as soon as large chunks of ice were dislodged the windblown rain and foam would freeze the instant it touched any solid object. By the 20th September, no fewer than five ships were aground on the Devina Bar, ships and crew could do little in such conditions except endure. As the weather moderated the ships not aground again got underway. On the 27th September, the tides were high enough and the remaining ships were finally floated free to make their way upriver.

It would be a further month before all the ships could be unloaded and made ready to return home. It may have been the Russian Convoys to blame, for my mental and physical condition, or simply the drip, drip, dripping of hard sea-time, but Maggie was physically shocked when I returned home in mid-November. My recovery was a long one, first I spent months in the sanatorium, then when recovered sufficiently, sent to work in the Donibristle Aircraft Factory. The warm dry conditions there did much to restore my health. After some instruction I was given a team of young girls to work with me, we would produce many fine aircraft wings. Maggie seemed happy to have me under her feet, and steady regular wages made life much easier for the family, bonuses too since it was piecework. When the war ended in 1945 the demand for aircraft wings fell off and within a year I was again out of work and once more found myself down the Seaman’s Union, much too Maggie’s dismay. I was now off to lift wrecks from the French harbour’s.

Dad did not take any wages when in France, for they were paid in French francs which were practically worthless, instead he had all his wages sent home. Spending money came from the sale of salvage from the ships they dragged from the bottom of the harbour, They would go around the bars and cafes and take orders, to be sold or bartered for food and bottles of wine or Cognac, then volunteer for fire picket over the weekend. I certainly remember at that time we had some very fine cutlery and dinner sets on our table all with ships names in their decoration.

Some years on Blue Peter (a kids program on the BBC) was asking us children to box up unwanted cutlery and take it down to the post office to be collected and sold, the money would go to charity. We asked mum if we could send some off and ‘Silly Mum’ said yes. Dad had to drive her down to the Co-op to buy new cutlery before he could have his dinner.

I have never sailed with the Royal of Merchant Navy, but I did spend much time with my father as a young lad, and heard the many stories of his time in the Royal Navy and Merchant Service, (Dad hung up his sea boots in the early 1950s). I have always loved sailing and working on boats and I know how seductive the sea can be. I can also understand why it is not for everyone. I use to sing a song around the folk clubs and countless yacht club bars, one that sums up the two sides of the argument, much better than I could ever hope to do, it’s called:

Lock Keeper by Stan Rodgers.

You say, “Well-met again, Lock-keeper!
We’re laden even deeper than the time before,
Oriental oils and tea brought down from Singapore.”
As we wait for my lock to cycle
I say, “My wife has given me a son.”
“A son!” you cry, “Is that all that you’ve done?”

She wears bougainvilla blossoms.
You pluck ’em from her hair and toss ’em in the tide,
Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside.
Her sighs catch on your shoulder;
Her moonlit eyes grow bold and wiser through her tears
And I say, “How could you stand to leave her for a year?”

“Then come with me” you say, ” to where the Southern Cross
Rides high upon your shoulder.”
“Ah come with me!” you cry,
“Each day you tend this lock, you’re one day older,
While your blood runs colder.”

But that anchor chain’s a fetter
And with it you are tethered to the foam,
And I wouldn’t trade your life for one hour of home.
Sure I’m stuck here on the Seaway
While you compensate for leeway through the Trades;
And you shoot the stars to see the miles you’ve made.
And you laugh at hearts you’ve riven,
But which of these has given us more love of life,
You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife.

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