- Contributed by
- Ron Kilby
- People in story:
- Robert Kilby
- Location of story:
- Russian convoy run
- Background to story:
- Merchant Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 March 2004
During the Second World War a vast amount of fighting equipment was sent to Russia in order to help in their war on the Second Front against Germany.
A lot of this equipment consisted of tanks, aeroplanes, and other very heavy items, which the derricks fitted to normal merchant ships could not handle.
Consequently three ships were constructed which were fitted with special heavy-lift derricks, and these ships were stationed at the convoy arrival ports, in order that the heavy equipment could be off-loaded from the decks and holds of the normal merchantmen.
This is the account of a year in the life of one of these ships, the Empire Elgar. The other ships were the Empire Bard and the Empire Purcell.
AN ACCOUNT OF THE VOYAGE OF THE S.S.EMPIRE ELGAR TO RUSSIA DURING WORLD-WAR 2 AS PART OF CONVOY PQ16
T.Frances First Mate
M.W.Irvin Second Mate
J.Watson Third Mate
J.Lauder Chief Engineer
R.M.Kilby Second Engineer
J.McCann Third Engineer
Catering staff R.Appleyard
` CHAPTER 1 SETTING SAIL
We signed on this steamer on the 13th April, 1942, at West Hartlepool, Co. Durham.
When fitting-out was complete and stores taken on board, we left for Middlesborough to load war supplies. This was finished on Saturday, 2nd May, and we sailed the following morning, at 6a.m., for North Russia, via Methil, Loch Ewe, and Iceland.
After a stay of about 5 days in Iceland we received orders and steamed away into northern waters, along with 36 other merchant ships. We were escorted by one 'Flak-ship’ (H.M.S.Alynbank), four destroyers, three armed trawlers, and two submarines.
It was the evening of the 21st May when we left Iceland. At this time of year there is no darkness in this part of the world. At midnight, all of the ships could be clearly seen in their respective stations, making good speed in the most favourable conditions. We did not notice that it was getting colder, the sea temperature being now down to 36 degrees. Sailing under these conditions was ideal, and all that one could wish for. Our only hope was that they would remain so until our voyage was over.
However, things changed rather suddenly at 7a.m. on the 24th, (Whit Sunday-also Empire Day). Four light cruisers joined us and took up stations in the centre of the convoy. Then we ran into a very thick fog, but the speed of the ships remained unaltered. About 11a.m. we suddenly heard the sound of a plane passing overhead. As we could not see it we, of course, assumed that it could not see us. Shortly after mid-day the fog cleared away, and several miles ahead we saw a plane cruising backwards and forwards across the course of the ships. At first this was thought to be a friendly Russian plane on patrol, but after a destroyer had gone ahead and fired a few shots, we knew differently. It was a Blohm and Voss 139 reconnaissance plane on a scouting mission.
Towards evening this plane began to circle the convoy, then later we saw another of the same type, which was a relief for the first one, it returning to its base. For nearly six days these reconnaissance planes kept with us, keeping us under observation, much against our wishes! They were, of course, sending our position back to their headquarters, so that at the right time their bombers could come and visit us. These planes were given various names, the most popular for print being the 'Northern Bus'.
Whit Monday morning found us still keeping good station, and maintaining a steady speed of about nine knots. The weather was again fine and clear, with the sea like a sheet of glass. The temperature had now dropped to 32 degrees.
About an hour before breakfast a signal was hoisted, the black flag. This meant that unidentified aircraft were in the vicinity. This was soon changed to A.K.1, meaning 'Enemy Aircraft Approaching'. Now we all began to wonder what excitement was in store for us. We had not long to wait. Two or three groups of bombers were coming in from different angles, and very soon all guns were as busy as they could be, putting up a barrage, which made them drop their bombs in rather a hurried manner, so that not a single ship was hit.
This first attack had gained the enemy nothing, but it made every one of us rub our eyes and sit up and take more notice It was certainly too exciting to be anything like comfortable.
After these first waves of planes had turned for home, more were reported to be coming in towards us, so all hands were on the look-out again. Soon groups were spotted, and it was not at all pleasant, seeing them get ready to make their dive on a selected target. Neither the gunners, nor those of us without guns, were given any rest. No sooner had one wave of planes come and done their job, than another was coming in again for us.
Round about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, all was quiet, and we began to think that the show was over for the day at least, but no, about 7 o'clock those alarm bells sounded again. This time we saw, coming in from the starboard side, 12 or 15 planes, flying just at mast-top height. They were torpedo carriers, and the sight of them approaching so low gave one a very nasty feeling.
As they got closer every gun was let loose at them, at simply point-blank range. This made them drop their 'tin-fish' sooner than it was necessary for them to do. Still, all of the ships in the starboard line had to alter course to avoid being hit. The sight of those torpedoes dropping into the water gave us a very, very, big fright, and made us wonder what was 'in the bag 'next time. This attack was all over in a few minutes, and I can tell you that we were more than glad to see the last of those planes. However, peace was not ours for long. More dive-bombers were reported to be approaching. Soon they were spotted, some on the starboard side, some ahead, and more from the stern. Guns seemed to be barking in every direction. Certainly an excellent show was being put up by all of the gunners.
An order had been sent to the CAM (catapult assisted merchantship) ship to send up her Hurricane. This plane was soon in the air, but eleven minutes later had crashed into the sea owing to the pilot having been wounded and having to bale out. What he did in that short time was not clear, one report was that he had attacked five Ju88's, shot one down, and then had to bale out owing to having been wounded in the leg.
About this time our own ship's gunners were having rather a hectic time as two planes made attacks much too close to our ship for us to feel comfortable. Both of these planes were hit by scores of bullets, but not in that vital spot that means 'another brought down'. One which flew along our port side certainly looked a 'probable', as, when it turned to make for home, smoke was seen coming from it as it passed out of sight.
It was nearly midnight-still as much daylight as there was at noon-and we began to realise that there were not any planes flying around, except for, of course, the 'Northern Bus', so most of us took a chance and lay down to try and get some sleep-no good getting undressed for bed.
When I was called at 3.45 a.m. I had had nearly two hours sleep and felt a good deal refreshed. A nice cup of tea and I was ready to relieve the 3rd. engineer at 4a.m. Going down below to the engine-room gave me a creepy feeling, and when, a couple of hours later, the bombers returned, the sound of the exploding bombs in the water was terrible. Sometimes they were so close to our ship that you felt the vibration in such a manner that you thought that the ship was about to fall to pieces.
Before breakfast on Tuesday we had those bombers back again, but not in such big groups as yesterday. When the gun-fire was at its height we thought that there was something missing from the previous day's display .It was then that we noticed that those four light cruisers had sailed quietly away and left us. What part they were to play we could only guess; perhaps they had heard of some surface raiders which were about and had gone off to hunt them out. At any rate we neither saw or heard any more of them.
Just before 10 o'clock the signals were again hoisted showing that enemy aircraft were approaching. Naturally the last plane would have reported the absence of those cruisers, and we fully expected to see more daring dive-bombing than we had seen before they left us. Although they now came in large waves they were not diving any lower than those of yesterday. At any rate we had expected them to be more daring, but for all that we had some pretty 'hot' moments.
A Russian ship, the 'Stari Bolshevik', was number 83 in the next column to us, carrying Boston bombers on her deck. A plane soon spotted this outstanding target and hit her on the fore-deck, setting paint and oil on fire.
At the entrance to the White Sea, H.M.S. Alynbank went ahead and led us through the channel which the ice-breakers had cut through the ice. It was now about mid-night, and it was a wonderful sight to see this great ice-field on our port side, with seals playing about. Now and then we saw one or two swimming quite close to the ships, and care had to be taken to avoid damage, hence the slow speed.
At about 8 o'clock in the morning we stopped, and from the ice-breaker, 'J.Stalin', pilots came on board each ship. Then we started once more on the slowest part of the journey, following behind the ice-breaker. About noon, we, being in the lead, had to stop, as those behind were having difficulty in getting through, as the large pieces of ice kept forming up again, so that the breaker had to go back and help them through. This took some considerable time, and it was about 10 o'clock when the ice-breakers - there were two of them by this time - came ahead again, and by the time we managed to get under way the other ships were passing us, so we had to just follow on, and be last in the line instead of first.
Progress was very steady for the next two hours - now Monday - and we were soon clear of the ice altogether and going at full speed. This speed was maintained until 4 o'clock. Just as we were going to have tea we were stopped once again, this time to change pilots, and to allow customs, police, and military officials to come aboard. This was our first sight of how the Russian people work. There were women officers as well as men. It took them hours to get all of the details which they required from each member of the crew.
At 8.30p.m.we were passing the town of Archangel on our port side and saw several ships which had been caught in the ice, and frozen in for the winter. The crews of these ships had a very rough time as there was a shortage of food and of both cigarettes and tobacco.
We proceeded about five miles past the town, and to the opposite side of the river Dvina, where a very long quay was in the course of construction. By 9-30 p.m. we were tied up, and for the time being they were 'finished with engines'.
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