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The Last Commission of H.M.S. Achates

by H.J.Scott-Douglas

Contributed by 
H.J.Scott-Douglas
People in story: 
H.J.Scott-Douglas
Location of story: 
mainly at sea
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A1090838
Contributed on: 
26 June 2003

This is my recollections of the last trip of a small ship with a big heart;and a tribute to 113 brave young men who did not make it.
Copied from the unpublished “THE EARLY DAYS” By H.J.Scott-Douglas

Commissioned at Swan and Hunters 9th. April 1942

We left the Tyne and went round to Loch Ewe for working up, exercises and practice with our new weapon, a hedgehog that threw 24 bombs ahead of the ship to sink submarines. After some submarine sweeps in the Minches we returned to Gourock on the Clyde which was the base for the Clyde Special Escort Group. We now prepared for our first convoy to Russia it was P.Q.16 in May 1942, my 19th. birthday had just passed. We escorted the convoy to Iceland where it would join up with the American section; we stayed at Seydis Fiord until the convoy was assembled. The following account is from the only diary I kept during the war, at this time of the year it was 24hrs. daylight no darkness, the sun sank to the horizon travelled to the east and rose again it was never out of sight:
Saturday 23rd. May 1942.
Left Seydis Fiord to pick up convoy, it is the biggest convoy to go to Russia.
Sunday 24th. May
Picked up convoy, also sighted Folke-Wolfe bomber shadowing us.
Monday 25th May.
0230 Oiled at sea.
0510 Focke-Wolfe picked us up again.
1930 Attacked by torpedo bombers.
2130 12- J.U. 88's attack, 1 ship hit and returned to port.
Tuesday 26th May
0055 Torpedo reported fired at convoy . No damage. Depth charges dropped.
0605 Sighted U-Boat on the surface, engaged with gunfire, result not known.
0650 2 more U Boats sighted. 2 torpedo's fired at us, we slewed and they missed.
1600 Attacked by torpedo bombers. No ships hit.
1610 J.U. 88's attacked. No damage. sunk.
2000 2 U-Boats sighted. Depth charges dropped, submarine believed
0000 6 Torpedo bombers attack. 1 ship hit and sunk.
Wednesday 27th. May
1100 Attacked by J.U.88's.
1155 Attacked by J.U.88's. Tanker sunk.
1220 30 J.U.88's attack. One ship hit and set on fire, it had to be. sunk
1525 Attacked by 17 J.U.88's.
1830 Torpedo, high level and dive-bomber concentrated attack. Ship hit and sunk in under a minute
2000 J.U.88's attack biggest raid yet. Ship sunk.
Over 108 bombers attacked today

Thursday 28th. May.
3 Russian destroyers join us.
1220 Attacked by dive bombers, no damage.
1520 Dropped depth charges. Not known if we scored a hit. Oil on water, claimed a hit.
. 2100 J.U.88's attack. No damage.
Friday 29th. May.
0430 Attacked by torpedo bombers.
Convoy split some go to Archangel, some to Murmansk .
We go to Murmansk .
1230 Attacked by J.U. 88's. Biggest raid yet, no damage.
Saturday 30th. May.
0500 2 Russian Hurricanes arrive.
0800 J.U.88's attack . No damage.
1200 J.U.87's (Stuka’s) attack. No damage.
P.M. Arrived Kola Inlet. Alongside at Veeanga. Murmansk is about 25 miles from the front. Raids all day. Food is short, living on black bread and yak.
" Oh Mum I miss your apple pie "
That completes my one and only diary. We were short of food because we had given most of it to the survivors ashore who were waiting transport back to the U.K., we thought we would run straight back home because we had used most of our ammunition on the way to Russia. We were wrong, the local Admiral decided to keep us there as his despatch boat running between Archangel and Murmansk until a minesweeper came to relieve us. During this period bombing sank H.M.S.Gossamer (minesweeper).
Eventually we left for the U.K. for a fast run on our own, halfway home we were redirected to look for a German Squadron believed to be about to attack P.Q.17 which was on its way to Russia, P.Q.17 scattered: though we had very little ammunition left we still had four torpedoes. The information was wrong (lucky for us) but by now the U Boats and aircraft were picking off P.Q.17. like sitting ducks. That was the one and only time a convoy was scattered on the Russian run. We returned to Tyneside to Middle Dock at High Shields for repairs (we were so old we needed repairs after every trip). I carried on courting Margaret, these were happy days but it did not last long because in about three weeks we were off to Loch Ewe again for more exercises, then back to Gourock to the Clyde Special Escort Group, where I passed my exam for Leading Seaman. In September we formed another convoy for Iceland and from there P.Q.18 set off for Russia, it was a large convoy and had the largest escort ever assembled up to that time, Beside the usual close escort s there were 16 Fleet Destroyers an A.A. cruiser H.M.S.Scylla also a converted merchant ship to an A.A. ship the Ulster Prince, for the first time we had an escort carrier with us H.M.S. Avenger, the distant cover consisted of destroyers, cruisers. carriers and battleships (these turned back as soon as we turned the "corner " into the Barent Sea ). This convoy was the most heavily attacked from the air of any of the Russian convoys, after the third day air attacks were continuous day and night until we split for Murmansk and Archangel. This time we went to Archangel where the air raids continued.
We were sent back to the U.K. accompanied by other destroyers, they had another job for us. Back to Tyneside for our usual repairs and seeing Margaret again, by now I was staying at Aln Street, it was not until many months later that I found that I was sleeping in her bed while she slept on the couch in the dining room. After two weeks we were parted again, it is hard to explain our feelings on parting (which we never showed), we never knew if we would see each other again because of my job and the continuing air raids on the U.K..
Our next trip was to North Devon to pick up a convoy of Landing Craft which we escorted to Gibraltar, the trip was uneventful no air raids only a few submarine alarms. At Gibraltar we had shore leave where we stocked up with goodies such as nylons and perfume and things we could not get at home; then we were off again on a "club run " escorting two carriers full of Hurricanes and Spitfires, we steamed to within range of Malta and flew the planes off to supplement the squadrons on Malta, then turned and steamed back to Gibraltar, as it was a fast run we had few alarms to worry about. A couple of days in Gibraltar then we were off into the Atlantic to meet a convoy coming from the U.K., it was a large troop and supply convoy and two days later we met up with another large convoy from the U.S.A., it was then we were told this was the start of the North African invasion. The combined convoys were the biggest I had ever seen and spread for miles but even so we never saw a submarine or aircraft: all these ships passed through the Straits of Gibraltar at night without raising the suspicions of the Germans who were always watching from Spain. We had to go into Gibralter to fuel but were not allowed to communicate with anyone outside the ship, we were soon underway again as soon as oiling was finished and on 8th November 1942 (Margaret’s birthday) we were escorting an aircraft carrier giving air support to the ships and troops going ashore at Oran, the invasion was on. During the day we contacted a submarine on our Asdics, it did not respond to our challenge, we dropped depth charges and observed debris coming up which we collected, we were credited with a kill eventually.
On the way back to the U.K. escorting the empty troopships, in the Bay of Biscay the troopship Capetown Castle was sunk by a torpedo and we picked up over 100 survivors. My mate and I went down the scrambling nets and pulled two men in, it was after this we were told to put in our request to be rated Leading Seaman, I was 19 1/2 years old. The ship was rolling so much while we picked up survivors that our foremast, made of wood, snapped off just above the bridge, so all our aerials were down, we cut the mast free and tossed it over the side. Arriving back on the Clyde we were allowed a few days leave which I spent with Margaret before returning to the ship where a new mast had been stepped with it's aerials and radar aerials.
It was now December 1942 and we set off for Iceland as close escort to another convoy, we anchored once again in Seydis Fiord where we remained until Christmas Eve when we shoved off to escort convoy J.W.51B. to Murmansk, at this time of the year it is dusk or dark all the time (you never saw daylight ). We decided that we would have our Christmas dinner when we arrived in Russia so we left our turkey and puddings in the fridge, it was just as well because for the next three days it blew a force 8 gale and we were all over the place because of the confused sea coming from the Denmark Straits and Norwegian Sea, at the height of the gale a wire hawser washed over the side and got round our propellers, we had to heave too and lay there tossing and rolling around; we managed to turn the propeller by hand from inside the ship and release the hawser , we were very lucky, all the time the ship was wallowing dangerously but luck was with us this time. We caught up with the convoy and resumed our position ahead of the convoy doing our usual anti-submarine sweep. The gale eventually abated and we steamed on close to the pack ice, in fact sometimes we were in it, we made contact with an Admiralty tanker the Grey Ranger to replenish our fuel, we did this as often as possible in case we (or the tanker) ran into trouble. Since leaving Iceland we had only had a few submarine alarms, they were affected by the same weather as us, but we did hear aircraft flying over but the overcast dark sky saved us. As the ice pack was so far south we had to turn east to enter the Barent Sea before we reached Bear Island, which was closer to North Cape in Norway than we would have gone during the summer, our convoy consisted of about 20 ships so it was a small one, the escort was four escort destroyers, four fleet destroyers, two minesweepers, two trawlers and a rescue ship.
At 1000 on 31st. December 1942 astern of the convoy a minesweeper H.M.S.Bramble made an enemy sighting report and " am engaging ", shortly after we saw an explosion and she was gone. The enemy consist of German heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Lutznow (13,900 tons 8-8" guns) and four destroyers of Leberecht Maass class (2,200 tons 4-5" guns); the convoy turned away, the fleet destroyers, H.M.S. Onslow leading, turned towards the enemy who were visible on radar. The remaining escorts closed up on the convoy to prevent any submarines taking advantage of the situation, and as visibility was at it's best at that time of day we were ordered to lay a smoke screen between the enemy and the convoy, which we did with great success. The destroyers under Captain Sherbrooke kept up feinting attacks on the enemy to give the convoy a chance to escape, this frustrated the enemy; while the enemy destroyers kept Captain Sherbrooke busy the cruisers concentrated on Achates who was prominent at the end of the smoke screen which was preventing the cruisers from seeing the convoy; we were hit several times causing us to list to port but even under this attack we carried on laying smoke until about 1400 when we lost power, we had many dead and wounded and even frantic damage control efforts could not prevent us from turning on our side and the order was given to abandon ship , all our boats had been shot away and most of our rafts had been holed . The bridge had been blown away and the Captain killed, boiler rooms and engine rooms were flooded. The trawler Northern Gem (655 tons) was detached to come back to assist us, it was too dangerous to come alongside us so she layed about 100 yards off and we jumped into the sea (33*F), the air was below freezing point, luckily it was very calm at this time and we swam to the Northern Gem, you could feel nothing because all feeling was frozen out, this assisted the wounded as they could not feel the effect of their wounds, it seemed to take ages to reach the trawler where I grabbed a rope and was hauled inboard . I was 19 1/2 and had lost my first ship. I remember looking back as I swam and seeing Achates rear up and slide below the sea stern first to the seabed. The firing at us had stopped about an hour before we sank, we found out later it was because the destroyers had carried out torpedo attacks and drove the enemy off. During the action Onslow was hit but carried on fighting, Captain Sherbrooke lost an eye but carried on in command, for this he was awarded a Victoria Cross. Also our distant escort, two 6" gun cruisers, H.M.S.Sheffield and H.M.S.Jamaica, Admiral "Nutty " Burnett was aboard the Sheffield, had arrived and in the admiral's own words " steamed towards the sound of the guns ", using radar they opened fire and sunk a German destroyer the Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt. After this the Germans turned tail and ran, they outgunned us and outnumbered us but they could not beat us. Not one ship in the convoy was lost, our losses were R.N. the Bramble, Achates lost and Onslow damaged, the Jamaica was hit but the shell passed through one side and out the other on the forecastle deck.
On board the Northern Gem we were given a tot of rum and allowed to thaw out (which was very painful) then we took stock, there were 81 of us, 12 of whom were wounded, we had lost 113 shipmates. That afternoon a storm blew up and we needed a doctor, the destroyer H.M.S. Obdurate came alongside, the ships were rolling and pitching all over the place in the storm when I witnessed the bravest action I had ever seen, the young doctor as the ships rolled together threw his bag across and launched himself across after it, he was grabbed by the trawlers crew and gratefully taken below, his name was Surgeon Lieutenant Maurice John Hodd of Glasgow, he was awarded a D.S.C. for courage and endurance. on the trawlers messdeck we scrubbed down a table and the doctor carried out many operations to make the wounded as comfortable as possible. Our First Lieutenant L.E.P.Jones, the coxswain, a stoker and myself assisted. The First Lieutenant administered the anaesthetic by injection, the coxswain held the patient’s head, I lay across their middle and the stoker held their feet, this was necessary because the ship was tossing around like a cork in the gale. We did this for many hours until all the wounded were treated. Two days later we were in the Kola Inlet where we joined Obedient for passage to U.K.. Before we left Russia we sent telegrams to our loved ones because we had heard about the " Battle of the Barent Sea ", with the names of the ships lost, on the B.B.C. Overseas service to South Africa, which we received in Russia, and knew they would be worried, none of the telegrams arrived. It was a problem all through the war knowing if your loved ones were safe so we took comfort in the adage " no news is good news " and it helped. From Russia Obedient went to Scapa Flow to refuel, we steamed through the fleet (battleships, aircraft carriers, etc.) who manned the side and cheered us in, the Obedient, between salutes, played over it's loud hailer system the record " Miss You " which was a bit unkind, but the capital ships often turned back just before we needed them. From Scapa Flow we steamed to Leith (near Edinburgh) where we entrained for London, we were a sorry crowd unshaven and in the clothes we had been picked up in. I managed to send a telegram to Margaret and we had a few precious moments together at Newcastle when the train stopped there, she phoned my Dad and he met me in London at Victoria Station. This was the first time they knew I was safe. The rest is a story for another time.

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Forum Archive

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - HMS Achates

Posted on: 11 November 2003 by sherstonschool

Thank you, Mr. H.J Scott-Douglas for sending your message in to this website.
My Great Uncle -Peter Dickenson- was on the HMS Bramble, and unfortunately died when it sank. He was a coder for the Royal Navy-and died on the 31st of December 1942. I am 10 and have began finding out about him for a while at school and I found it useful to find this out about him.
Best wishes,
Ben Dickenson.

 

Message 2 - HMS Achates

Posted on: 13 November 2003 by Bradders

I was very pleased to read the mail by H.J. Scott-Douglas. My wife's Grandfather lost his life on the Achates on Dec 31 1942. His name was GEORGE DRUMMOND and he worked in the ships canteen.
I believe he was mentioned in despatches and is mentioned in the book "73 North" by John Pope.

Thanks

Bradley Aston

 

Message 3 - HMS Achates

Posted on: 23 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear H.J.Scott-Douglas

What a story! This is a superb account of a very gallant action. The detail is invaluable as is the earlier diary.

Kind regards,

Peter

Message 1 - HMS Achates

Posted on: 07 May 2004 by steve_adams

My grandfather, Harry Relf, was aboard the Achates. I believe that the ship was accompanying some aircraft carriers to carry out a raid on Germany. My grandfather went below deck after completing his watch. The young sailor that was to replace him had only recently come on board, and was suffering with chronic sea-sickness. My grandfather sympathised with him, decided to do his beat for him, and left him below deck. That night the Achates hit a mine, and the young man, along with many others, was killed. My grandfather survived, and the ship was towed into Reykjavic for repairs. Does anyone have any further details on this story?

Message 1 - The last Commission of HMS Achates

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by wakers

My uncle Charles Thomas Wakefield was one of the crew lost in this action. He was a 20 year old Able Seaman. Like the author H.J.Scott-Douglas he was a Geordie lad and might have been known to him. Any recollections would be very much appreciated. Incidentally his younger brother also went down with his ship 2 years later. I am determined that neither shall be forgotten.

Message 1 - The lst commission of HMS Achates

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by wakers

Further to the last letter posted by me. My uncle lost on Achates was in fact Ordinary Seaman Robert William Wakefield, 20 years old, born on Tyneside. I foolishly mixed him and his brother, also 20yrd old and lost with his ship. Apologies and I hope I can get some information.

Message 1 - H.M.S.ACHATES

Posted on: 14 May 2005 by curleyworley

my brother william wilkinson was a stoker on this ship and was one of the survivors and recived a mention in dispatches

 

Message 2 - H.M.S.ACHATES

Posted on: 09 October 2005 by thankfulMacanne

My father,Able Seaman Kenneth Roy Tarrant,was lost in battle of the Berent Sea and served aboard HMS Achates.In the hope that there maybe a survivor still alive who may have known him. I would dearly love hear from you

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