- Contributed by
- Audrey Lewis - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- Alfred Longbottom
- Location of story:
- In the Mediterranean and Arctic Seas
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 December 2003
Russian Naval Concert Party on Board HMS NIGERIA at Murmansk 1941. Picture taken in the hangar. The Cruiser carried two Seaplanes which were launched by Catapult crewed by the Fleet Air Arm.
(Alfred Longbottom is a long-standing friend of my family. He has given me full permission to write this account of his experiences on this website.)
Alfred Longbottom of Halifax in West Yorkshire spent the Second World War years in the Royal Navy and three years on Russian and Malta Convoys as a decoder aboard the Colony Class Cruiser HMS Nigeria with a complement of 750 men. The Convoys carrying arms and ammunition, tanks and planes were vital to the allied war effort. The ships were prime targets for German aircraft and submarines, and were continuously under attack from air and sea as they battled their way to Murmansk and Archangel with their armoured escorts.
Alfred said, "Escorting those convoys was sheer murder. We were continually under attack, even after we docked at Murmansk. It was only 50 miles away from German-occupied Norway."
"Sometimes the temperatures fell to minus 40 degrees C. We were given sheepskin hoods and clothing by the Russians but they didn't keep the cold out. There was no heating on board and ice formed on the inside of the cabins...we couldn't win either way - when it melted everything got soaked. The days were long and exhausting."
Alfred remembers the PQ17 Convoy of 36 ships out of Scapa Flow in 1942 when only six arrived in Russia. In Russia the sailors saw very little of the people, except for the queues outside the bread shops and Red Army patrols.
"We used to exchange bars of chocolate with them for the Red Army badges. Russia looked a very poverty-stricken country", he remembers.
A Pedestal Convoy to Malta was so battered it was estimated so many ships were sunk on approach to the island there were 2000 men in the water at any given period.
During a particular Dog-watch Alfred says of his own ship, "It was 7.58 pm and Charlie, his friend, was almost due to relieve George who was on watch. But George rang to say he was feeling groggy and could Charlie relieve him straight away. No sooner had Charlie relieved George and he came up top - a torpedo struck and Charlie was killed. George soon felt better and was fine, but Charlie's death preyed on his mind and caused him a lot of trouble. I would have been Charlie's best man at his wedding next leave. I still have the letter I received from Charlie's fiancee."
"The Navy were trying to locate a German Station providing weather and movement of shipping news to their own ships and submarines. I was on HMS Nigeria (a colony cruiser), and before getting under weigh we had a good idea of the general area in which the Weather Ship would be found but, immediately before the incident, it is most likely we simply 'came across' her. We were not at Action Stations, always triggered off by radar contact and often the result of locating floating debris, empty lifeboats and even whales! I was on deck as HMS Nigeria sailed into proximity to a large iceberg when I first saw an orange glow in the 'iceberg', followed by splashes of water in the sea near the stern of Nigeria. Almost with disbelief, I realised the iceberg had opened fire on us with enormously heavy guns, the spashes so clearly disturbing a perfectly calm sea - like a sheet of glass. At this point I could not see a ship. It was covered from stem to stern in white canvas. Together with our two destroyer escort we had located the German Weather Ship Lauenberg and it was June 1941. (Alfred only recently discovered that on the day a copy of the Enigma Code was taken from the Lauenberg by the boarding party from the destroyers. It was not the job of Nigeria to stop or to take prisoners.) Scuttling-charges sent the Lauenberg to the bottom. I well recall seeing two lifeboats packed with her crew being rowed away from their ship to the destroyer HMS Bedouin and internment."
"On the 12th August, 1942, I was on the sloping deck of a torpedoed ship, and in what appeared to be a hopeless situation. Everything was out of action - the guns, radar, radio, steering, - all gone. Flames were leaping out of one of the funnels, with the diesel on fire. Down below, fifty officers and men had perished, and others were wounded - some mentally. Stationery, we were a sitting target for a further attack. Privately, I said 'good - bye' to my mother and father and my brothers, as I was absolutely convinced that I would never see them again. As a final act, our code books and other secret machines were put into sacks weighted with lead, and sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Suddenly there appeared on the horizon a group of Italian torpedo bombers which were flying straight towards us - their huge torpedoes clearly glistening in the evening sunshine. They flew straight through the destroyer screen, directly towards us."
"At this point, there was a loud cry from the Chief Yeoman high up on the bridge - 'For what we are about to receive ....', and immediately my thoughts went back to the little village where I used to live and the vicar saying those words before a meal at local events."
"With massive damage amidships, we could hear water rushing into the HMS Nigeria. Down by the bow, and with the stern rising, she was in danger of going down. Admiral Burrough left the ship to continue the mission in the destroyer HMS Ashanti. As the torpedo bombers got nearer, the Chaplain led a group of men in reciting the Lord's Prayer - there was nothing else we could do. A three-badge 'Stripey' next to me said, 'Keep your feet dry laddie as long as you can', (I was only 21)".
"Now the end was surely near as the Italian aircraft dropped their several torpedoes on to the water. We watched, with bated breath. Incredibly, every torpedo missed us, nor (I believe) did they strike any other ships in the convoy. This was so remarkable since we were a motionless target, simply waiting for the end."
"A few hours later, I felt a sudden vibration under my feet which reverberated throughout the ship. Engines were running! None of us could believe it but,.. and miraculously, some power was restored to the engines. This in itself was beyond our wildest dreams, and must have required tremendous skill and courage down below to bring it about."
"I believe some form of emergency steering was set up, and slowly we moved, escorted by destroyers, to start the long journey back to Gibraltar. On the way we survived another torpedo attack from a submarine but eventually reached 'Gib', and were able to bury, with full military honours, so many pals we had lost on just this one journey."
LAST WORD FROM ALFRED
"These events had a profound effect on me - I'll admit to shedding a few tears as I wrote it! But I am not ashamed of this!"
"I have never regreted being there. Most of the friends I made were killed. I think of them often - unfortunately almost every night when I have nightmares."
At the age of 67 Alfred was awarded a medal by the Presidium of The Supreme Soviet of the USSR - the country's highest state authority. It was only given to men who served on the convoys. The medals are inscribed in Russian to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. He made 13 trips on the convoys, including the PQ17 convoy of 36 ships in 1942. Only six ships arrived in Russia as the rest were sunk.
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