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Setting off on PQ18, Aug/Sept 1942 (part 3)

by Leona J Thomas

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Archive List > Diaries > Setting Off On PQ18

Contributed by 
Leona J Thomas
People in story: 
Leonard Herbert THOMAS
Location of story: 
North Atlantic
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8948073
Contributed on: 
29 January 2006

At home in Portsmouth on leave May 1941

Part 3

As I say the increase of tension was very apparent, we kept exercising, the guns were 'cleared', the radar sweeps were perpetual motion and, most of all, thousands of eyes were constantly scanning sea and sky for what we knew sooner or later was to be our greater demand and concern. The most comforting we did hear was that we had an attendant escort of no less than 18 destroyers, and I think I should say here and now that to see a screen of destroyers at work is not only the most comforting sight but has all the intelligent signs as a sheepdog has when working a flock of sheep. You seldom see them for long periods when working is pending, all you know is that just over the horizon they range about like gun dogs sniffing, sounding, searching and quizzing even the shape of a cloud as it changes. And then periodically they can be seen combing the lanes, following a ping or the mere suggestion of one, questing and all the time guns at high angle and torpedo tubes manned. They know little comfort even on fine days as they purposely take on anything, weather or what, and take a lot of sea over their bows, especially to take up new positions. Constantly aware of what their role is they are never still, never idle nor do they make wrong decisions but keep checking where suspicion lies. We knew that to have this force meant a great drain on the fleet tanker but again this was the job we all had to concentrate on. And then in the US convoy, which we rendezvoused with late one evening on the 4th day out of Loch Ewe, we came up to another comforting sight, the 'Avenger', a Woolworth carrier, an innovation to the Fleet, these recently adapted merchant ships were ideal in convoys, and began to pay their way early in the War as they came on stream. They were able to carry no less than 12 Sea Hurricanes, and had three Swordfish planes for reconnaissance duty, and the mere fact of this unit to our growing strength began to give us a great surge of comfort and thankfulness.

Our disposition lay now in forming ourselves into a favourable position in this great convoy in which we could really feel of greatest value, and because we became by virtue of our radar, the most important ship, we found ourselves in the back half of the convoy but in the centre of four rows of ships. 'Avenger' lay directly ahead of us but a long way ahead, and it was said when she pitched heavily we could pick up her planes on our radar and kept on reporting "12 planes in tight formation" only to let it be known she was well in view! The time would come as well we knew when this strong escort would reckon to have taken us to the point of no return, and then in turn, about turn to take QP14 back to UK having left Archangel the same day as we left Loch Ewe. The intention was for us to go as far to the East until the convoy was reckoned to be out of range of the German bombers, but also to shorten the range of the
hoped-for Russian navy escort to come out to us, at approximately our entrance N. of Kanin Point, turn due south to run for Archangel, all this to the accompaniment of the German efforts to down us, or severely maul us!

As we circled and reversed to take up our allocated positions, that night in a fiery sunset, we began to work out how long it might be before it all began to happen for us as Iceland was reckoned to be the outer limit for the Condors to operate in. We could only be a day or less from that island, and from now on look-outs were doubled, gun crews went to yellow alert, and a lot of men took to sleeping(?) on deck in the corners of flats, or alleyways conveniently near to their action station so that less time was spent dashing to and fro. In fact it might be correct to say the favourite thing to do was to put on as much clothing as you could manage, and then with your lifebelt inflated, you lay down daring yourself to sleep, but fully aware you'd be wanted very soon! On watch (viz. 4 hours on and 4 off) you could at most only reckon on about 3 hours sleep, but it went by so fast you hardly knew you'd been asleep. Trying to get up was hell, you never worried about the toilet, gone were the days you had time to go to the heads, you lurched along to your post, and enveloped yourself in the loose clothing you needed with you, the toilet came as you got to the firm you worked, or it has been known a lean out against the guard rail and let fly! One thing the latter did, it woke you up with a vengeance, the rain, wind or spray lashing you out of the thick state your head was in! To go down below was murder, for the heat and fug were much worse than the mess deck, and you had to keep moving for a not-too-busy watch! Within an hour someone would go for "Kye" - that thick Naval cocoa, with a skin on it like a rubber disc! - and almost white with the cocoa butter encapsulated in it! How good it was, how necessary it was, and how you looked forward to it! It truly gave you life.

We had our first action stations in full convoy as the perennial Condor was spotted but strangely enough it seemed to be fascinated by the 'Avenger' so much. Only bad visibility that we had prayed for came to our rescue, for it was a day or so past Iceland and we were now well and truly strung out in four long lines, we almost in the rear company of the line nearest Norway. This line comprised of 13 ships, and on receipt of the Condor's presence the whole convoy moved to the North East to pass Jan Mayer Island and at the same time head for Bear Island, this later was altered for a new course to Spitzbergen, and as such was to extend any ideas the German torpedo bombers might have had of getting a return for their efforts. Immediately the new course was in practice a Hurricane went up off 'Avenger' but flying near the clouds the Condor was able to bury itself there. How they could have felt glad that the planes we had which could have downed it were still in crates for Russia, and thus a chance was lost.

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(*) Ulster Queen
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Convoy on first day's attack, steaming East

The Condor was known to have called up U boats, but our luck was in for no sooner had one entered our paths, the destroyer escort caught one and sank it, while the Swordfish reconnaissance harried some others and kept them out of harm's way. In all eight U boats took turns to probe and chance a shot at us, but violent depth charging, which kept most people awake all night, was responsible for deterring them from a dangerous presence or a successful torpedo shot. Intercepted enemy reports were of dismayed chatter referring to the 'Avenger', something they viewed as highly loaded against them, and how strange it seemed, directly they had no aircraft carriers they thought they were being unfairly treated!

There was some pretty grim wreckage seen now and again especially by our reconnaissance, and closer inspection showed it to be of PQ17. From the moment we went to action stations there was an entirely different atmosphere in the ship, somehow the feeling that there was death about now, and even an unusual noise could promote some feeling of something attacking us, the conversation practically evaporated, and each of us seemed to lend his ears and eyes to a collective shield against the unknown. From leaving the shadow of Iceland, the upper deck was secured and no-one except gun's crews
or the special sea duty men allowed up there, for the rest of us some 200 men, it meant a continual wait, and at times a painful silence as a distant roar or thudding noise was left to our imaginations and whispers of what we thought it might be. Most times we were wrong, but so many noises can and do sound familiar although there's no mistaking the noise of a torpedo as it goes by - you hear enough to hear the hissing streak of bubbles; the most welcome noise is the depth charges that betoken a run on a U boat, but similarly to be down so low in the ship when this is being pursued gives you the same feelings as the submarine crews must be suffering for those powerful and merciless crashes are very frightening! Then, too, certain times demanded the shutting down of the fans or some machinery to reduce 'ship noise' and what that meant was at times the listening devices of submarines could almost pick out certain ships, the difference between a merchant ship or a destroyer, or a large ship as against something much smaller, thus it was policy to reduce as much noise as possible. The unfortunate thing was the lack of air we got in the Boiler or Engine Rooms, and in the case of the Generator Rooms it was imperative fans were kept on to supply the only air possible, that was how dependent we were here! No-one needed telling about the essential safety of the ship, of all scuttles shut, and alleyways kept clear, mess decks were so observed as to remove or stow nothing 'unwanted', only a few hammocks were ever slung now, men preferring to 'crash' on the many available places near to their action stations, but obviously the sleep they went into was no more than a short period of exhaustion, of a desire to sleep but a fear of dropping into it too deeply.

From leaving Iceland too, we down below were probably more aware of our reliance on fuel and water, the former, as we could be called upon to dash about in the areas of the convoy to get clearer reception, or at times, lend our short range weapons to an attack on adjacent ships. But of all the units the Avenger and ourselves were going to be the goal of any attacks and as I say we had to be more than able to extricate ourselves out of situations that could penalise us. The first day's contact with the enemy was not much more than a passing skirmish but done in such a way to observe the disposition of the vital ships, in particular ourselves and 'Scylla', the Commodore Escort ship, but what was dropped was insignificant only as if to say, 'Get on with this, we'll be back later!' and that was it. The next day, we held our positions as previously, but the 'Avenger' dropped astern too, to loom up ahead of us, somewhat closer, in fact I stole a glance at her by crawling up the escape and from a small slit in the casing was able to see quite a lot at dawn on that day. She wallowed in the NE swell, pitching to show the whole length of her flight deck and certain planes seemingly tied on like toys, but in effect ready to tear off when they were needed. There were 13 ships in the right hand line, many huge heavy American freighters, but as ever the elephantine progress of these because the slowest of the convoy was coughing up blood to do 9 knots, made a splendid target for any bomber flying in at right angles at 300 miles per hour. We knew it would soon arrive, and even to have prior warning almost as they left Banak, Bardufoss or Kirkenes, we could do no more than have the fighters up waiting for them, in all honesty they were as good as us at going for their targets, we had as much right to prevent them but they could have the advantage.

It was a dull day, early that morning two ships were sunk by U boats, the destroyers continuous depth charging being matched by the awful roar as an ammunition ship went up, then down. But already the far North screen had reported ice, this drew the convoy onto a slightly more Easterly course, in full realisation that we could know what waited for us at Bear Island . At the time these two ships were sunk we were 150 miles NW of Bear Island and whereas once it might have been policy to go North of the island we now had to beware of ice, and of course, in this we could never manoeuvre enough to evade the U boat or plane. We were also some 400 miles, or extreme range for the torpedo bombers to attack us, and the decisions on both sides were agonising. We could reduce the threat of planes, by going North, about, but rely on our destroyer screen for another few days to 'clear the area' of U boats, or know the homeward bound convoy would soon 'meet' us for us to lose the escort, and as not to be able to fully defend ourselves as we came to the Narrows, the entrance to the White Sea. In all honesty though, once we got the news of U boat attack prowling on the flanks of the convoy it was expected hourly or less that we must be subjected to attacks, once the sky cleared enough. The decisions did not occur to us, only as by 'mess deck navigation' we said what we would do, how right we always were, but no-one would listen to us, so that is why some of us are here today! They didn't have to listen to us!

This is only a small part of my father's memoirs - there are many hundreds of thousands of words yet to be transcribed!
In loving memory of Leonard H THOMAS 27.3.1912 - 24.4.2000. By his daughter, Leona J Thomas

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