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15 October 2014
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Winter's Rages

by cambsaction

Contributed by 
cambsaction
People in story: 
Lieutenant John Brackenbury, Captain Allison, Sub Lieutenenant Rodney Bowden
Location of story: 
North Norway
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4508011
Contributed on: 
21 July 2005

Norwegian Evacuees on board one of the ships

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Mike Langran of the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Story Gatherer Team on behalf of Mr. John Brackenbury (retired Lieutenant Commander, MBE, Royal Navy)and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Winter’s Rages

Russian Convoy RA64

The convoy consisted of 40 merchant ships, an escort carrier and close escort destroyers, all under the command of Rear Admiral Roderick McGrigor. The Admiralty had been asked by the Norwegian Government in exile to see if they could relieve a group of Norwegians who had escaped from Hammerfest at the end of 1943. They had lived in caves on Soroya ever since.

The Norwegians wanted to enable the combatants (young men and women) to stay on Soroya and defy the German trawlers who were shelling the island.

The convoy sailed to Polyarno and would dock for about five days for refuelling etc. during that rest period, four destroyers, (Zambesi, Zest, Zealous and Sioux) set off at high speed early in the morning and steamed off to Soroya. On arrival the four destroyers went into fjords. The Norwegians suddenly appeared skiing on the virgin snow. They all came aboard and they decided who was to be evacuated and who was to remain. Those who were staying left the ship, stoic rather than emotional.

We then steamed off back to Polyarno where we had to refuel. The Norwegians were placed in five empty merchant ships that were part of the convoy returning to Scotland. The convoy began to assemble; the Germans torpedoed five of the ships, four of which had the Norwegian evacuees who needed to be rescued again and placed in other ships.

Boffins invent more things that take up more space and need more men to operate the inventions; this means less space per man, now we had to take the Norwegians (Mums and children) aboard.

Later the Bluebell was torpedoed and blew up like a mushroom cloud, you think “Poor b******s!” Another escort caught fire and Captain Allison said “Ping (Naval talk for Anti Submarine officers) can I spare an escort to rescue the men from that burning ship?” I said “Your duty is to get the convoy back safely:” his response was “those men would not survive unless we rescued them” This we did.

The convoy left and made way to Scotland-we were assailed by the worst storm of the war. The sea and swell were enormous and we steamed straight into it: the distance of the wave crests was something in the order of 100 yards, the motion of the ship was that of a lift with 240 people on board. As the ship went down a wave, you could see the next wave-a great wall of sea, straight ahead. You knew you had to climb that wall, every bit of the ship shook and shuddered-at this point you were pleased the ship was built in Newcastle, they knew how to build a ship!

The storm lasted for a couple of days. We hadn’t slept for 48 hours when Captain Allison invited us to his sea cabin. It was about six feet wide and ten feet long. The Captain read the poem “The story of Diego Valdez” by Rudyard Kipling, then closed the book and said “I can’t promise you a careening riot but I can promise a boiler clean in Greenock, and leave to both watches!”

Those two stories show Captain Allison was compassionate as well as being able to keep good order in his ship.

When the storm eventually abated we had to round up the ships and reform the convoy. One American liberty ship named the Henry Bacon was isolated and had developed a defective rudder and was difficult for them to steer. She had some Norwegians on board. She was attacked by a group of Junkers 88s which bombed and sank her. Some Norwegians were placed in one of the ships life boats. The Henry Bacon got a signal off to the Admiral in charge saying what had happened and asked for assistance for the survivors. Our radar had a fix on something 30 miles away. We headed back to the fix and there in the ocean we found a lifeboat with Norwegians in it. We got them on board by coming along side heading into the wind, then scrambling nets over the starboard quarter. Sub Lieutenant Rodney Bowden went down the net and actually helped the Norwegians out of the boat and up on to the deck. He was very brave to do that.

The convoy reached Scotland a week later.

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

Childhood and Evacuation Category
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