- Contributed by
- Alexander Rothney
- People in story:
- Alexander Rothney
- Location of story:
- Atlantic and Barents Sea
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 July 2003
TO MURMANSK AND BACK ON THE SS ATLANTIC
by Alexander Rothney
In May 1942 I was appointed as Chief Radio Officer - there were only two of us - to the SS Atlantic, a cargo ship being loaded at Sunderland with Hurricane fighter planes, explosives and other war supplies destined for Russia by the northern route. We were all issued with Arctic clothing, fur lined coats, sea boots, and so on, and a list of instructions on how to avoid frostbite. The sea boots were of thick leather as hard as iron, and came with the legs folded flat. It was quite an effort to force them open enough to get a foot down inside, but once they had been broken in they were wonderful.
We sailed in convoy round the north of Scotland to Loch Ewe, and then to Hvalfiord, Iceland, where we were joined by a convoy from America. Here I was given a third radio officer so we could keep a 24 hour listening watch for U-boats and plot their bearing. The voyage from UK to Iceland had been this third radio officer's first taste of the sea, and apparently he had been seasick the whole time
On 21st May our convoy of thirty-six merchant ships, PQ16, set off for Russia with an initial escort of a minesweeper and four armed trawlers. We sailed round between Iceland and Greenland and continued in a north-easterly direction, keeping as far from Norway as the Arctic ice would allow. On the 23rd we were joined by a destroyer, three corvettes, a fleet oiler and a merchant ship converted to an antiaircraft warship.
The SS Atlantic had a 75 mm Bofors cannon, four 20 mm Oerlikon cannon, two Hotchkiss machine guns and rocket projectiles as well as a 4-inch naval gun which was only of use against surface targets. The guns were manned by navy and army (D.E.M.S.) gunners and members of the ship's crew.
Early on the 25th we were joined by four heavy cruisers and eight destroyers, so we now had protection against U-boats, aircraft, and enemy battleships. The cruisers stationed themselves within the columns of the convoy. Soon we were spotted by an FW Condor. From then on we always had one of these spotters circling the convoy out of gun range, day and night — only there was no 'night' — we had 24 hour's daylight. During the day hours we passed a homeward bound convoy, QP12.
In the evening we were attacked by HE111 torpedo bombers and JU88 dive bombers. The Hurricane on a CAM Ship, the Empire Lawrence, was launched, shot down one at least one HE111 but then the Hurricane was shot up and the pilot had to bail out, being picked up by an escort vessel. One of the cruisers fired its 6-inch guns straight over us and the ear shattering 'crack' had to be experienced to be believed. The blast shook a lot of rust out of hidden spaces. One bomb damaged a merchant ship which had to return to Iceland.
Late in the evening a dozen JU88s made an attack without causing any damage. Early the following morning a merchant ship was sunk by a U-boat. Following this the cruisers and three destroyers left the convoy. On the 26th there were persistent low clouds but despite that two air attacks occurred, without losses.
Wednesday the 27th was a different story. Because of ice the convoy was forced to sail close to North Cape and the enemy airfield at Banak. Visibility was good except for a high film of stratus. The first attack came at 3.20 a.m. but did no damage. Then from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. the convoy was subjected to waves of bomb and torpedo attacks. The gunners sometimes hardly had a break after one wave had left than a new group of attackers would be sighted, although much of the time was spent just standing by the guns. The torpedo bombers, the HE111s, would circle the convoy in groups, out of gun range, and the dive bombers, the JU88s would climb high above the convoy, hiding themselves above the stratus. The only way to know where they were was to watch where the guns of the antiaircraft ship were pointing (it had radar), but not firing because the range was too great. Then the enemy would attack in groups, to be met with an impressive display of tracers and shell bursts.
I caught only glimpses of the action because my post was in the radio room, but I was spectator of a cheeky incident during one of the lulls between attacks, when the only plane in sight was the Condor spotter, circling the convoy at low level. Our ship was near the starboard side of the convoy in the second row, and we watched from the bridge as the leading destroyer on that side made a series of high speed dashes diagonally away from the convoy while the spotter was out of sight on the opposite side. It then dropped back to the convoy course and 9 knot speed as the spotter came round again. After doing this a few times it must have been nearer the spotter's orbit by nearly a mile without its action being detected. Next time round the destroyer fired two shells. There was a tense wait, then two puffs of smoke indicated shell bursts appeared just ahead of the spotter, close enough to make it bank away steeply to a wider orbit. Ah well! It had been a good try! I wondered if this was a regular tactic or just a one-off.
We learned later that a U-boat wolf pack had failed to make contact with us, and that one or two U-boats which did get close were driven off. But at the end of the day - it seemed it would never end - five merchant ships had been sunk and three badly damaged but still able to carry on. Other ships had suffered minor damage. Taking stock, ships were being sunk at the rate of one every two hours, we still had at least 60 hours sailing to get to Murmansk, twenty-nine merchant ships were left, and moreover our ship had used up more than half our ammunition, and presumably the others were in similar straits.
If the pace of the attacks kept up the arithmetic seemed to add up to the possibility of all the ships being sunk. The usual 'it can't happen to us', meaning nothing could happen to our ship, became 'it can't happen to us', meaning we personally had hopes of survival even if the ship were sunk. It all depended on where the bomb or torpedo would strike. No. 3 hold was full of explosives and if that were to be hit we would all disappear in a flash and a cloud of smoke - one ship had already done so.
Fortunately, the worst was over. It appeared the Luftwaffe couldn't keep up the pressure. As the 27th rolled into the 28th it began to cloud up making it difficult for the dive bombers. There was only one air attack, late in the evening, without any loss. By this time we had been joined by three Russian destroyers which put up a terrific antiaircraft barrage. They didn't seem to stay with us very long - the rumour was that they had used up all their ammunition!
Early on the 29th there was another air attack which was beaten off without loss. Late in the evening the convoy split up, six ships going to Archangel which had just become free of ice and the rest, including our ship, heading for the Kola Inlet. Shortly after that we were attacked by JU88s, some going for the Archangel section and the rest attacking us, but both attacks were beaten off without loss. About midday on the following day, just as we were lining up to enter the Kola Inlet, we had the final bombing raid, this time by JU87s, the dreaded 'Stuka' dive bomber. But Hurricanes of the Russian Air Force drove them off. [I have not seen any mention of JU87s in various publications, so this might be a case of wrong identification]
We were greatly relieved to have arrived, and to celebrate the Captain issued generous amounts of rum, the first drop of alcoholic refreshment we had had since leaving Sunderland.
At Murmansk we were subjected to almost daily air raids, depending on the weather. The start of a raid would be heralded by dozens of old biplane fighters circling up and up to be at a high enough altitude to intercept the bombers. When the enemy arrived the sky would be filled with shell bursts around which both attackers and defenders, now including Hurricanes, were dodging. Bombs were dropped and then all the action would gradually die down. Strangely enough, since we were now 'safe' in harbour, and were not allowed to use our guns, we felt more like spectators than potential targets. We didn't hear of any ships being damaged during these raids, although a lot of dud incendiary bombs landed on some ships nearby.
Murmansk itself appeared to be virtually closed down. There was a restaurant, where the food was not as good as we could get aboard ship, and a small club where we could buy iced tea and some kind of soft drink. Both were reserved for use by non-Russians. The girls in the club were quite friendly, but when we tried to chat them up outside (despite the language difficulties), they kept casting worried eyes at two uniformed men watching us from a distance.
One evening some of us trudged through the snow to a local dance. It was the only time I have ever been to a dance in sea boots, but then all the Russians, male and female, were also wearing long boots. We sensed we were being tolerated rather than welcomed and soon left. It may have been that they were chary of appearing too friendly in case they fell foul of the police. We heard that Russians suspected of being friendly with a foreigner were liable to be arrested and imprisoned. In sharp contrast, the dockers unloading the ship were quite friendly, and we had been invited aboard a Russian cargo ship by members of its crew.
Despite all the rumours about red tape and officiousness, Murmansk was the only port I had visited during the war where the ship's radio transmitters were not sealed to prevent them being used in port. Nobody objected when we closely inspected the workings of General Grant tanks on the quayside, but a sentry did become very threatening when we tried to collect souvenirs from a shot down aircraft.
Eventually all the ships were discharged and some, like ours, had loaded some cargo for the return trip. Meanwhile, we were all aware that the survivors from the convoy were having a pretty rough time of it in a ramshackle camp further down the inlet, with nobody apparently knowing what to do with them.
The Chief Officer of our ship called all the officers into the saloon and proposed that each of us should share his cabin with a fellow survivor officer — all the cabins had a full length settee as well as a bunk — and that accommodation could be erected for other ranks in an upper hold; the army gunners were already accommodated in this way. The scheme was taken up, and all the survivors were distributed amongst various ships. We three radio officers were joined by the three radio officers from the Empire Lawrence, the CAM-Ship. I had started the voyage with one assistant and now I had five, as all the survivors insisted on sharing our duties.
Now, in cargo ships, which in peace time only had one radio officer, it was usual to have the radio officer's cabin next door to the radio office, or accessed through the radio office. The SS Atlantic was different, everyone had to go through my cabin to get to the radio office. With one "lodger" and four other radio officers constantly passing through, plus the odd visitor, I sometimes felt I was camping in a corridor! But it didn't worry me. Being still a teenager, as were all the other radio officers except one, I had the optimism of youth.
On 27th June, four weeks after we had arrived, we left Murmansk in convoy QP13. Simultaneously the next supply convoy, PQ17, left Iceland for Archangel. The following day we met up with the PQ16 ships that had gone to Archangel, plus some which had been frozen in there all winter. We were soon spotted by a German plane but no attacks followed; it seemed the Germans were going to concentrate on PQ17.
On 2nd July we passed PQ17, and next day we split up. We, with eighteen other ships, headed for Loch Ewe and the remaining ships headed for Iceland. At Loch Ewe all the survivors we carried were taken ashore. We finally docked at Leith to discharge our cargo, expecting to be returning to Russia. Instead we were despatched to Philadelphia, USA, because the Russian convoys had been cancelled. It was very much later before I heard of the disaster which befell PQ17.
Postscript: The third radio officer, having been seasick on the way to Iceland, was seasick on leaving Iceland, and again on the way to Loch Ewe. But in Leith he was introduced to beer, and having been sick on that he was never seasick again!
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.