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- 22 July 2005
A convoy to Russia - September 1942
The following day, a U-boat sunk an oiler in the rear line of the convoy before dawn, and midday there was another torpedo attack by 20 bombers, again low on the starboard bow of the convoy, but this time seemingly going for the escort carrier and other warships. Some of the Hurricanes got airborne. 11 enemy aircraft were brought down compared to 8 the previous day, and there were no convoy casualties. 10 further aircraft were shot down in subsequent air attacks on the 14th, with only one casualty, the last remaining ship in the ill-fated 9th and 10th columns. One of the crew of another ship watched the death of the casualty, describing how the plane 'came in to about 300 yards .. before dropping its torpedoes and then swept on. As it passed, the ship's gunner raked it fore and aft and bright tongues of flame flickered from its starboard engine. It dipped, recovered, dipped again and seemed just about to crash, when its torpedoes reached their mark and the ship simply vanished into thin air'. It took the plane with it. A lone steward survived this ammunition ship's explosion. There is a well published official photograph of the explosion, but I have another one given me by the photographer on board Scylla. He told me that his camera happened to be facing the direction of the ammunition ship with his hand ready to 'snap'. The force of the explosion shook his hand which unintentionally took the photo. In another incident, a ship's gunner was observed to break down and cry because his hands were too cold and clumsy to work his gun.
In the evening of the 15th, the convoy passed Hope Island, S.E. of Spitzbergen, about 77 degrees North and Scylla took on board some of the ship survivors, 200 or so. When, days later, I was talking to one of them, a great black American seaman whose ship sank very rapidly, I asked what might have happened to him supposing he hadn't been standing on the upper deck. 'Boy', he replied, 'I just ain't supposin' no supposins'. We were told, incidentally, that more than 20 minutes or more in the water could be fatal. The rescue efforts were in fact skillfully done as witness the 550 survivors. Three Hurricane pilots were quickly picked up, having flown through our own flak with enormous courage to get at the enemy aircraft.
Those who had been in the sea for up to 20 minutes usually recovered after stripping off their clothes and being wrapped in warm blankets, plus a good measure of the wonderful emolliant naval rum - virgin, raw unadulterated nectar. More than 20 minutes or so in the water usually involved stripping, wrapping for warmth, artificial respirating and, where required, morphine induced sleep. If no complications ensued, recovery would be within two to three days.
By all accounts, German naval and air forces had special cold climate clothing. I knew of none issued to our crews and airman.
From the 16th the main danger came from U-boats, up to a dozen being in the area. In the afternoon, we parted company with PQ18 to join the homeward-bound convoy QP14, together with the destroyers, the escort-carrier, the two submarines and the two oilers which had been stationed in the rear of the convoy. In lieu, four Soviet destroyers joined and I believe were effective in anti-aircraft support.
QP14 contained some of the surviving ships from PQ17. For three days the convoy had a comparatively quiet run despite the presence of U-boats. But on the 20th the minesweeper HMS Leda was torpedoed, as later in the day was a PQ17 survivor, the Silver Sword. On the 21st an oiler and two other merchant ships went down, sunk by one U-boat. Because of the U-boat danger, Scylla and the escort carrier Avenger were sent off to Scapa and Admiral Burnett transferred his flag to the destroyer HMS Milne. The convoy arrived at Loch Ewe without further loss on 26th September. Our journey from Iceland to Scapa was made in a gale and the ship once rolled 45 degrees. On one occasion, I was standing or rather clinging on the bridge doing my boatswain's mate job when up a gangway appeared the head of the ship's chaplain looking olive green. In fact the poor chap hardly ever looked as though he should be at sea. He struggled on to the bridge, whereupon one of the lookouts asked him whether he would like a cup of cocoa. The reply was almost incoherent, so in 10 minutes or so up came a steaming mug of cocoa, done in the traditional navy way - a mass of cocoa which one could hardly stir it was so thick accompanied by spoons of sugar and condensed milk. But one look at the concoction sent the chaplain running to the loo, thought I doubt he made it.
From our leaving, to the convoy arriving in Russia, PQ18 faced further air torpedo and bombing attacks, but not on the same scale. The escort had been reduced to two destroyers, one anti-aircraft ship and a few corvettes, trawler and minesweepers. Only one ship was lost, but there were weather and navigational hazards before berthing, as well as inevitable crew tiredness.
Our convoy had lost 13 out of 40 ships, 10 by aircraft, 3 by U-boats, QP14 lost 3 out of 15, all to U-boats. The German air force had lost 41 aircraft, and attributed the heavy loss to the presence of the Avenger. In fact, the Luftwaffe never again mounted such an air attack and transferred some of the air groups from Northern Norway to the Mediterranean. Nor were there any large merchant ship losses on later convoys, so PQ18 was something of a milestone. In view of what the fear of surface ship action did to PQ17, it is surprising that the Germans did not risk some of their large ships, but history has shown that Hitler had little idea as to how naval warfare worked and even less idea how to use his ships, highly efficient as German ships and their gunnery had always proved. It may be that the loss of the Bismarck in the Atlantic and the Scharnhorst in the Arctic made his military ego and subjectivity fear further losses. In fact, we now know that the Admiral Scheer, a pocket battleship, and two cruisers, the Hipper and the Koln, wanted, as a unit, to attack QP14, but Hitler warned Raeder, the naval C-in-C, that these ships were important to the defence of Norway so he must not accept undue risks. Raeder then called off the operation and the ships remained idle in harbour.
Another feature of perhaps surprising German inefficiency was the lack of effective cooperation between their air and naval forces.
On our part, by September 1942 ship radar was becoming more sophisticated and so gave earlier and more accurate warning of approaching aircraft. On the other hand, there were hiccups. Not long after we started our journey back, when we were not at action stations, the radar officer picked up an echo of aircraft to the north of us; action stations was sounded but no aircraft appeared. I learnt later that the echoes came from the land of an island, for which Radar got a right rollicking from the Captain.
I have always been fascinated with the relationship between the Royal and Merchant navies and the Russians during the convoy years, and have heard many conflicting views from those who were aboard ships or ashore in Murmansk, Archangel and elsewhere.
It must be remembered that for some time after Germany invaded Russia the country was the only one fighting the Germans on land. It was a bureaucratic country, without quite the same values on life as in the more sophisticated western world. The Russian people were getting used to sacrifice in 1942, and maybe at most levels of Russian life the convoys were, in their view, no more than they were entitled to expect of an ally, not that I think they ever regarded us as one in the sense that the UK and the US did of each other. My very limited experience of seamen who had been in Russia was that they wanted to fraternise but received little or no encouragement to do so on the Russian side, some thought from an inbred fear of the political system. Life did appear to be somewhat easier and better looked after at officer level. In August 1942, the US cruiser Tuscaloosa and three destroyers carried a British medical unit to look after our sick and wounded in North Russia and who had been suffering severe privations. Moscow flatly declined to allow the medical personnel to be landed at Archangel, so they came back in the next westward convoy. But it has to be said that Russian bureaucratic formalities were apparently rather taken for granted. Eventually, in October, permission was given.
One of course wonders, now, how much difference the supplies brought by the convoys made to the Russian war effort. In view of the enormous industry the Russians moved eastwards away from the German Army and the amazing recovery of production, as well as some good technical products, eg probably the best tank of the war, as well as some excellent attack aircraft, I really wonder whether the convoy supplies made much difference other than possibly the psychological one of support for an ally, however little we understood it. I certainly do not think that the Russians ever appreciated the enormous effort which went into the continuing convoys. One of the many facets of Soviet naval and military life which I wish I had experienced is that of discipline and how ostensibly equal comrades took and gave orders. In an interesting book by a Soviet submariner of his wartime experience in the Baltic, most ranks, including the Captain, seemed to have Comrade in front. It is no doubt an exaggeration to say that the submarine was run cooperatively, but there certainly did not seem to be a great divide between the officers and the crew. The individual effective effort of each member of the crew to other crew seemed to be a bigger factor than in British boats. The submarine in the book had its political officer on board and I assume all Soviet ships did. My impression from the book is that which is often expressed, now that the Soviet Union and its archives became more open, namely that life was materially less precious than it was to UK and US forces. There is ample evidence that as the war successfully progressed, the avoidance as much as possible of casualties was often paramount to Allied military strategy; definitely not so in Russia.
Finally, just a few statistics, taken from Richard Woodman's book in 1994 'Arctic Convoys', an apt finale to the history of these Russian convoys. Between October 1941 and March 1946 Britain shipped to Russia war material to the value of £308 million and raw materials, foodstufs, etc. worth £120 million. The war material included no less than 5,218 tanks and 7,411 aircraft.
18 warships went down with the loss of 1,944 men, whilst 87 merchant ships and 829 lives were lost.
Yet some miserable little civil servant in the Ministry of Defence seems to have advised the Government not to let British servicemen, who took part in these convoys, to have the arctic medal of the Russian Government who wanted to give it to them. I doubt the man has ever seen an angry shot fired or put his feet in a cold bath. J.D.Nightingirl 22nd July 2005
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