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Convoy to Russia - Leonard Dibb-Western MN

by Norman Date

Contributed by 
Norman Date
Article ID: 
A1945659
Contributed on: 
01 November 2003

I first sailed on the Norwegian ship the “SS Marita” from Bristol Docks in the year 1941 as a 16 year old boy. This came about through the Association of Bristol Boys Clubs We used to go to an office at the top of Colston Street where a Mr Richardson was in charge of sending boys to Norwegian ships. The Norwegian Consul in Baldwin Street was also involved with this, sadly this Consul Office is now gone.
My pay was £30 per month, which was a big rise from the pay I earned on shore of £2/8/0 per month in “old money” of course. Two other shipmates that I remember from those ships were Joe Williams from Brighton Street, St Pauls and Phillip Morris or Morrison. I have not been lucky enough to meet up with then again. Together with my brother, Ern, who has lived in Australia since 1949, we were serving aboard the gasoline tanker “M.V Nortind” which we joined at Avonmouth in early 1942.
Sailing unescorted in the Gulf of Mexico we were on our way to Texas when we were torpedoed, I was on the wheel at the time during the 4-8 watch and although we were hit just forward of the bridge, I never heard the explosion. We were lucky that the U-boat did not surface and shell us. Unfortunately one crew member was lost as by all accounts he had jumped overboard. We were able to continue to Mobile, Alabama, where the ship underwent repairs.
Another tanker was also undergoing repairs in Mobile by the name of the “Eclipse”, with I believe some Bristol boys aboard her. The four of us completed two trips on the “Nortind” before we left her at Swansea. I know that some Bristol boys joined her as we came ashore, although unfortunately she was sunk on her very next trip with the loss of all hands.
I have seen the ships name “Nortind” on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, London where one name recorded is that of Capaldi as being lost on this ship, his brother , Credo Capaldi was on the “SS Tanafiord” with Joe Williams, Phillip Morris, Joe Pearce and myself when on one trip we had engine trouble and were stuck in Takoradi for about three months.
In 1943 we all joined the tanker “MV Herbrand” which had been converted to an escort fueller in Hoboken, this was a very interesting task for us to undertake. How those chaps lived and worked on the Corvettes is a marvel to me, as we thought that our ship was bad enough during the winter in the North Atlantic, but those escort crews had it much worse.
On one trip we ended up unloading in Scapa Flow, where to our surprise it seemed that there were 13,000 matelotes and 13 Wrens. I did at one time go ashore armed with a parcel of ladies make-up together with another containing female underwear, mind you to this day I do not no why, as there was not much chance of making a hit there with the numbers so stacked against me. Whilst carrying the parcels I met two Wrens and said to them “excuse me here is a present for each of you”, gave them the parcels and carried on to the N.A.A.F.I. I wonder what they thought when they got back to their billets?.
I left the “Herbrand” in Glasgow during December 1943 and was then sent onto the “SS Fort McMurry” after taking some leave. On this ship I came down to under half of the pay that I had been getting as an A.B, the food was rationed, which it never was on the Norwegian and there were no sheets or pillow-cases and the conditions certainly “opened my eyes”. On this trip we were loaded in Manchester and were bound for Russia, which was cold, dark and unfriendly. Following our arrival at Murmansk ourselves and the “Empire Carpenter” were sent to a place called Bakaritsa, way up past Archangel, when during the voyage we were towed by ice-breakers through the White Sea. All the time whilst being towed a man was stationed on the forecastle armed with an axe, ready to cut the ropes tying the hawser to the ice-breaker. Once the ice-breakers had broken sufficient ice for us to tie up at the quay, we made fast, although it was so cold that everything had frozen solid again in fifteen minutes.Looking ashore, it was a very sad sight to see the condition of the men and women who were unloading us, we were unable to give then anything as a notice was displayed in the messroom informing us that if we were caught bartering or associating with the women, we could get five years in the salt mines, so we did have to be very careful. The ship was lucky on this trip, for I read much later in a “Convoys to Russia” book that fourteen U-boats were waiting for our convoy, although we did lose one escort vessel.

Footnote

811 merchant ships sailed in convoy to North Russia, of which 58 were sunk. A total of 98 ships were lost including those lost on the return trip. The number of Merchant Navy personnel lost in the Arctic waters amounted to 829 officers and men, not counting the number who suffered from frostbite and exposure. The total value of war material (tanks, aircraft etc) shipped by Britain only, amounted to £308 million pounds at Second World War values. In addition £120 million pounds worth of other materials such as foodstuffs, medical supplies etc, were also shipped.

From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK

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