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Russian Convoy JW51B, Official Report, HMS Achates, HMS Bramble

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People in story: 
P.O. Morgan Griffiths (Royal Navy)(Merchant Navy)(German Navy-Operation Regenbogden (Rainbow)
Location of story: 
Battle of the Barents Sea
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
27 August 2005

This story has been submitted by Author: David Robert Griffiths, in memory of his father P.O. Morgan Griffiths, and all those that perished in this episode. David has fully agreed to the sites terms and conditions.

The British convoy of ships left Loch Ewe, Scotland, on 21st December, 1942, comprising 14 freighters and merchant ships with their cargoes, The Royal Navy ships (numbering 11) comprising 2 light cruisers (HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica), Destroyers, Minesweepers (including HMS Bramble) and Trawlers. This was just one of many convoys, known as the KOLA RUN, which were to support merchant ships taking essential supplies to Russian Ports. My dad, Petty Officer Morgan Griffiths, was a chef on the Bramble, but had been called away to another ship just days before she sailed.

The Convoy had been at sea for 10 days when it was spotted by a German U-Boat (U354) and reported to the German High Command. The German battle fleet left Kongsford Fjord, Norway, to intercept the convoy in a twelve force gale, snow squalls and very poor light. The Germans advanced on the British convoy and made contact briefly at 9.30 am on 31st December, 1942; the weather was really awful.

Bramble, with her up-to-date radar had been sent to find stragglers who had lost contact with the main convoy and were 15 miles astern. During this she happened upon the German Ship Admiral Hipper with two destroyers. Although no match for this vastly superior force, with their much heavier guns, the Bramble immediately engaged them, firing her guns as quickly as she could.

The Hipper returned fire, the brave minesweeper sustained severe damage and many casualties, but Commander Rust fought on gallantly. The German observer reported what seemed to be an act of defiance, with the Bramble still firing her four inch guns, and a few rounds from the Oerlikons, right at her enemy. However, Bramble was overwhelmed and sinking. The Hipper turned away and gave orders to the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt to finish off the minesweeper. Captain Rust and all 121 crew, dad’s shipmates, were killed or drowned.

The German navy turned its attention to the escort ships protecting the convoy. HMS Onslow was hit. Its captain, Commander Sherbrook, although badly wounded in the face and eye, stayed at his station and fought on. The Onslow sustained considerable damage; Commander Sherbrook was awarded the Victorian Cross for his part in this battle.

The destroyer HMS Achates, whilst taking hits, was performing a sterling service laying down a smoke screen protecting the convoy’s stern. The brave ship attacked at every opportunity, but was repeatedly hit, finally taking a direct hit to her bridge. Captain Tyndale Johns and nearly all of his main officers were killed outright; slowly the ship began to sink. The crew tried their very best to save her; there were many acts of bravery that day on board that ship.

In terrible weather the trawler Northern Gem tried to pull alongside. After a couple of attempts she managed to pick up 81 of the 114 crew. Many of the worst wounded went down with the ship.

This action of the Royal Navy protecting the merchant ships lasted for four hours, until the arrival of two British cruisers, HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica. It is ironic that HMS Sheffield caught up with and sank the destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt one hour after it had sunk the Bramble.

The Convoy arrived in the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel on 3rd January, 1943. None of the merchant ships and cargoes were lost. The wounded and survivors from HMS Achates and HMS Onslow were taken to Polyarnyy town, Murmansk Naval Hospital (a converted school) and a small hospital at the Russian Submarine base at Polyarnoe. The Bramble was reported missing on 8th January, 1943, on its 13th trip in convoy to Russia.

The Lost Ships

We remember with honour the two royal ships lost, HMS ACHATES and HMS BRAMBLE. These ships were well known on the Russian, or KOLA (Estuary) run, and mourned by all the Merchant Fleet and Seamen. None mourned more that the sailors who had served in these ships but for various reasons had been posted off to other duties prior to the departure from Loch Ewe on December 21st, 1942. Bramble took on the might of the German Navy and was lost with all hands.

We also remember the act of bravery from George Drummond, who stayed on board the ship to be with the wounded sailors and went down with it, and the brave naval surgeon L/T Maurice Hood, transferred from HMS Obdurate, who did good work treating the wounded in such terrible conditions; he was later to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

BBC Radio one interviewed my father, P.O. Griffiths, about the loss of the ship and crew. He was one of the lucky ones that did not take Bramble’s last trip to Russia.

David Robert Griffiths.

From: The Senior Surviving Officer, HMS Achates
Date: 2nd January, 1943
To: The Senior Officer, Escort JW 51B

1. Achates sailed from Greenock in company with Bulldog at 0900 Monday, 21st December,
bound for Seidysfjord where both ships were due to arrive P.M Wednesday 23rd

2. A strong SW gale was encountered PM Tuesday, 22nd December and both ships remained
hove to on an approximate course of 200 degrees for the next twenty-four hours.

3. Bulldog suffered severe structural damage necessitating her return to the UK. Achates sprang her new topmast but was able to resume course for Seidysfjord AM Thursday, 24th December, where she arrived at about 1130.

4 The topmast was restayed and the ship, after oiling, sailed at 2300 on the same day in company with Capt, (D) 17 in Onslow, Oribi, Obedient, Obdurate and Orwell, to rendezvous with Convoy No JW 51B.

5 The convoy was met about 1430 on Friday, 25th December and Achates took station 5000 yards 50 degrees on the port quarter.

6 Nothing of interest occurred until Wednesday, 30th December, when several depth charges were dropped by Obdurate at about 2130.

7 At about 0920 on Thursday, 31st December, gun flashes were observed astern of the convoy. The ship’s company were piped to Action Stations and the third boiler connected. Shortly afterwards an enemy report of 3 destroyers was received from Obdurate and Achates altered course and speed as necessary to screen the convoy with smoke, in accordance with previous orders.

8 Almost immediately the ship was straddled, and at about 0945 A very near miss on the port side holed the forward shell room, magazine and Stokers’ Mess Deck, and shrapnel caused several casualties amongst the port Oerlikon guns crew and bridge personnel. This shell also put the RDF Type 271 out of action; the last range of the enemy passed from this set has since been reported as 17,000 yards.

9 An attempt was made to close the magazine and shell room hatches and plug the holes on the Stokers’ Mess Deck, but it was found that both strongbacks had been lost in the explosion and by the time those belonging to the after magazine and shell room had been sent for, the whole Mess Deck had had to be abandoned. Efforts were made to pump out the magazine and shell room by steam ejector but it was discovered that the steam line had been shattered.

10 The portable electric pump was then brought forward and a start was made on pumping out the half-flooded mess deck, but after 20 minutes it became apparent that no progress was being made; the mess deck was therefore closed down and the hatches, forward and after bulkheads shored up.

11 Meanwhile all hands between decks were employed plugging the innumerable shell holes in the ship’s side on the forward mess deck, though this work was impeded by first having to clear away the lagging.

12 The portable electric pump was then moved aft to keep the water down in the ERA and Stoker PO’s messes, which were slowly filling, but an electrical fault on the pump held up this operation for about 20 minutes.

13 The downton suction line was employed pumping out the forward lower mess deck, which was also holed on the port side, and which started filling slowly as the ship trimmed down by the head.

14 Meanwhile Achates continued her role of smoke-layer until at 1100 hours she was ordered by Obedient to ‘Prolong the line to port’. On informing Senior Officer that she was damaged and maximum speed reduced to 20 knots, a further signal was received to ‘Proceed to head of convoy and take Onslow under your orders’.

15 This she proceeded to do, but at about 1115, again came under accurate enemy fire and in spite of increasing speed and zig-zagging, received a direct hit on the fore end of the bridge which killed or seriously wounded all bridge and wheelhouse personnel, except the Yeoman and the Coxswain, and put B Gun and its crew out of action. A cordite fire was started on B Gun Deck but was soon put out by the seas, which came over the forecastle as the ship turned into the wind.

16 On arrival on the bridge, a few minutes later, I found the ship circling to starboard under 20 degrees of wheel and doing 28 knots, giving her a 20 degree list to port. All bridge and wheelhouse instruments had been wrecked, but the wheel and Engine Room Telegraphs remained undamaged.

17 Speed was reduced to 12 knots in order to bring the damaged port side higher out of the water, and the ship steadied on a mean course roughly parallel with the convoy. The engine room was ordered verbally to re-commence making smoke and, as it was not considered desirable to exceed a speed of 12 knots until the damage had been fully brought under control, Obedient’s last signal was disregarded and the ship continued as requested to keep the convoy screened with smoke.

18 A new crew was formed for B Gun but it was found impossible to move the gun in training and they were dispersed. No communication could be established with Y Gun, and although a verbal message was sent ordering them to open fire on the enemy, then bearing on the port quarter, it never reached the gun. A few minutes later the enemy was lost to view.

19 The ship was straddled on two more occasions before the firing ceased, and received direct hit in the Seamen’s’ Bath Room port side and a near miss abreast No.2 Boiler Room.

20 The former hit put the T.S out of action and killed most of the crew. It also fractured the after bulkhead of the now flooded Stokers’ Mess Deck and penetrated the ship’s side abreast the E.R.A’s and the Stoker P.O’s messes, necessitating the shutting down of these and the Torpedo men’s mess decks and resulting in the flooding of the Low Power Room. This caused a temporary failure of lighting and power forward, but emergency leads were run from aft, and in the meantime all secondary lighting functioned correctly.

21 The near miss abreast No 2 Boiler Room caused large holes in the ship’s side and this boiler room became flooded and was abandoned. No. I Boiler Room was also holed, but not seriously, and the water was kept under control by the steam ejector. This damage was not reported to the bridge until some time later.

22 The ship had by this time taken up a 15 degrees list to port, and being down by the head, became difficult to steer. With the aid of a boat’s compass in the wheelhouse she was, however, kept steaming across the stern and starboard quarter of the convoy and endeavours made to keep the smoke laid between it and the enemy.

23 Gun flashes could still be seen to the north and North West. At 1145 Hyderabad was asked by V/S whether the smoke screen was still effective and of value and replied to the effect that it was most useful. ‘Damaged. 12 knots.’ Was made by V/S to the only destroyer visible about this time.

24 At about 1200 a signal was received from Sheffield, ‘Report situation’. Being unable to transmit, even from the emergency set, a V/S signal was made to what was thought to be Hyderabad but subsequently proved to be the Northern Gem, asking her to pass the following signal to Sheffield on Fleet Wave. ‘One Boiler Room and forward, lower compartments flooded. Bridge out of action. 15 degrees list. Maximum speed 12 knots. About 30 casualties, including Captain killed’. This signal was subsequently cancelled and was never transmitted.

25 Meanwhile all spare hands were put under the orders of the Engineer Officer for work on damage control. The situation, though serious, was not then considered critical, but the port list gradually increased and, as it did so, more and more holes in the ship’s side, as yet unplugged, were submerged, until at 1300 it was no longer possible to maintain steam in No l Boiler Room and the ship was stopped. She was then about three miles on the starboard quarter of the convoy.

26 ‘Not under control. Please stand by me’ was made to Northern Gem at 1300, and preparations were made for the ship to be taken in tow from aft. The list to port continued to increase, however, until the upper deck was awash and the order was given to clear away boats and rafts, and all men ordered on the upper deck.

27 Consideration had been given to firing torpedoes set to safe and jettisoning ready-use ammunition in order to reduce top weight, but it was decided that these measures would not appreciably improve the ship’s stability.

28 A hasty check was made that no C.B. or S.P.s were left on the bridge or in the wheelhouse and it was confirmed that those in the W/T Office were locked in the steel chest provided.

29 A signal was commenced to Northern Gem asking her to take the ship in tow aft, but was never completed as the ship rolled alarmingly to port until she lay on her beam ends.

30 Achates sank at about 1330 in approximate position 73 degrees 03’ North, 30 degrees 42’ East.

31 All Carley floats and rafts from the starboard side got away and a few of those from the port side subsequently floated to the surface.

32 Northern Gem stopped about half a cable on the starboard beam, and in spite of the semi-darkness and a considerable swell, succeeded in picking up 81 survivors.

33 Orders were given to remove all primers from depth charges early on in the action, but it subsequently transpired that three or four had so iced up to be immovable and these exploded some 35 minutes after the ship sank. No more survivors were then visible from Northern Gem, and it is not considered that this explosion caused any further loss of life.


1 Enemy fire appeared very accurate for line but spread for range averaged 400 yards. Near misses caused more extensive damage to the hull than actual hits. All shells were H.E. and burst on impact, but caused no serious fires.

2 All ice on the upper deck and superstructure had been cleared away the previous day, and it is not considered that the ship was made unstable by the added top weight of any ice formed during the night.

3 The low temperature of the water and the fact that many men were wounded before ever they entered the water, undoubtedly contributed to the large loss of life. Approximately forty of the ship’s company were killed in action before the ship sank.

4 The untiring efforts of the Captain, Officers and Crew of the Northern Gem, maintained until the last survivor had been rescued, were beyond praise, and their prompt and effective treatment of semi-frozen and wounded men undoubtedly saved many lives.

5 Obdurate’s medical officer was transferred to Northern Gem early on Friday, 1st January and rendered most valuable assistance under most difficult conditions to the sick and wounded.

End of Report

There are more stories about HMS ACHATES and HMS BRAMBLE. See story titles; ‘P.O. Morgan Griffiths, RN’, The Loss of HMS Achates’, and HMS Onslow on Russian Convoy In The Barents Sea.

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