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15 October 2014
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The Russian Convoys - Part 1

by BBC Open Centre, Hull

Contributed by 
BBC Open Centre, Hull
People in story: 
Thomas Squire
Location of story: 
Arctic Waters
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 July 2005

As part of my previous work on installations of radio communications and radar equipment on new ships, it was necessary to go on river or sea trials, when the vessels were completed. This was required for the hand over of the vessel to the owners, from the shipyard. Everything had to be in working order, or put right, so the contracts could be completed. Of course everything had been tested at the shipyard, or fitting out berth, but as is usual last minute adjustments had to be made. Some checks could only be made at sea. The Direction Finder had to be calibrated, for differences in the bearings caused by the vessel’s superstructure, and the true bearings from the radio beacon on the light vessel being used for the calibration. The compass adjusters had to check and set the compasses so that they gave the correct bearings. The engines had to be tested, maximum speed and measured mile had to be run and recorded. With all the engineers, workmen, and owners and their representatives, supervisors and experts on board, the situations at times were chaotic.

Everything possible seemed to be done to test the engines to destruction, full speed ahead, then straight into reverse, the vibration was terrific. The anchor would be dropped, and pulled up several times, with all the vibration and noise that caused, so there was little rest, as these trials started in the afternoon, on into the night into the early hours of the morning.

Because of the tiring work, plenty of coffee and sandwiches were available to sustain the workers. However, sometimes there would be a quiet period, when something had broken down and repairs were being undertaken. It was during one of these quiet periods, relaxing in the saloon, that myself and Decca Don reminisced on our wartime experiences. Decca Don was the engineer responsible for the Decca equipment on board the vessel. We found out that we had both been on one of the Russian convoys, and over a cup of coffee, discussed our experiences. He had served on one of the destroyers protecting the convoy, as a radar operator,

It was on the 22nd of November 1943, I was assigned by the Marconi Company to the OCEAN VALOUR at Birkenhead. The Captain was Mr C. Tilley. I was third Radio Officer; it was my second vessel since joining the Merchant Navy. Although it was top secret, It was very obvious where we were going, because the outside bulkheads were covered with a timber frame, filled with small sized coke, obviously for insulation, There had been heating pipes fitted inside the water tanks, to keep them from freezing. We were supplied with a warm lambswool blanket, a lambswool waistcoat, and an extra Calor oil-heater for the cabin. So with all this insulation against the cold, it was obvious that our trip was to Russia. I didn’t feel frightened. I just accepted it as part of the war effort. I indicated to my mother that I had been assigned to a cold weather voyage, and she understood. It was just as dangerous to be at home in Hull then, as there were air-raids nearly every night. With the Merchant Navy we were allowed two telegrams per month. Relatives could send them via the Post Office and the Admiralty, short messages to the shore naval station at our port of destination. My mother would not know to where they would be sent.

We had Canadian Marconi radio equipment on the OCEAN VALOUR, as the ship had been built in Canada, so we had up-to-date equipment. There was a main and an emergency transmitter, A short-wave transmitter and receivers covering all the marine radio bands, However, we were supposed to have a Radio Telephony transmitter, fitted for this voyage, by the Marconi company, but the Marconi engineer could only fit us with a radiotelephone receiver, as equipment was in short supply. However this receiver turned out to be very useful during the voyage.

When all the fitting-out work had finally been completed on the vessel by the shore workers, and the special cargo loaded, we received orders to sail for an assembly point in the north of Scotland.

We arrived at Loch Ewe, Scotland and dropped anchor in the loch, awaiting orders. We had picked up a Scottish pilot at the entrance and he remained onboard. He told us about the local crofters who were helping the war effort by raising sheep. Helping with the food shortage. They received an allowance for each sheep from the government in London. They couldn’t count the number of sheep they had, so they received more in allowances.

Whilst at anchor, we had to keep a listening watch on the local radiotelephone station. I think it was every hour for sailing orders. We were waiting for more ships to arrive, to form a convoy, and it was now confirmed to all on board that our destination was Murmansk Russia.

There was a mutiny then by some members of the crew, who were led away in handcuffs by police. This would never be reported to the press, because of moral. We waited for replacements to arrive. All Merchant Navy personnel were volunteers, and signed on Articles to obey orders. We were paid £8 per month by the Marconi Company and £10 per month War Risk allowance from the government.

The Captain and the Radio Officers had to go ashore to receive the convoy orders, secret codes and special radio frequencies we had to keep watch on during the voyage. No one else of the crew was allowed ashore. I always carried a large stamped addressed envelope with me, hoping to pass a convenient post box. This was not to send secret information to the enemy, but, as the ships bond had been opened on board ship, to post a large bar of chocolate home. As sweets were on ration, this would be a nice treat for them. On 20th November, the convoy set sail about two hours after we had returned onboard. As far as I can remember there were only a small number of ships in the convoy. We seemed to have more destroyers protecting the convoy than merchant vessels. At this time of the year, December, it would be dark nearly all the way to our destination. As we got further north there would be no daylight apart from about two hours as we would be within the Arctic Circle. The sun would not rise above the horizon.

We were off the coast of Norway when we got the first attack, an air raid. We had had reconnaissance planes previously circling around, but usually keeping well out of range of the navy’s antiaircraft guns. This time it was a real attack. We were surrounded on all sides by the protecting destroyers. They put up a wall of antiaircraft fire around the convoy. Then there was the sharp “crack” “crack”, of firing from the flack ship in the centre of the convoy. This special vessel could fire much higher with its special “ack-ack” guns, and this firing soon made the enemy aircraft leave off the attack.

The weather now began to deteriorate very quickly, with rough seas and storm force winds. In the constant darkness it was difficult to keep our station in the convoy, with the ships rolling all over the place. The bad weather would prevent the aircraft from carrying any more attacks.

As Radio Officers, the three “Sparks” carried out a continuous, 24 hour, radio watch on the distress frequency of 500 kilocycles. (just above the medium wave band) and traffic lists at scheduled times on high frequencies. Also a continuous watch on the radiotelephone calling frequency. Strict radio silence was to be maintained, of course. Every four hours, on the hour, on long wave (low frequency) which could be received all over the world, Rugby Radio sent a list of call-signs, of all the ships that there were messages for. (Secret call- signs were used during the war, instead of the international call-sign of four letters). The coded messages were then broadcast to ships in alphabetical order.

The radiotelephone receiver was now giving some interesting information. Secret coded messages could be heard being passed on this frequency, on very low power. “Hacksaw calling Spanner”, “Hacksaw calling Spanner”, these we presumed were the secret call-signs of naval ships calling and sending coded messages to each other. We knew secretly that there were three big warships or battle cruisers sailing about 50 miles or so out to the west. The convoy was carrying vital war supplies to Russia. The German Pocket Battleship Scharnhorst was hiding in the Norwegian Fjords. Was the convoy also a decoy to entice the Scharnhorst out to attack? Now the weather had worsened to high gale force. During the night we had become separated from the convoy. Was the convoy ahead of us or had we left it behind? We were now on our own, in bad weather and it was continuous black darkness day or night. The lookouts were straining their eyes all the time but couldn’t see anything. The Captain was on the bridge continuously with no sleep. We could not use the radiotelephone to contact the Convoy Commander, as we hadn’t got one, only a receiver. Our vessel was now alone. The Captain carried on sailing north-easterly to reach Murmansk. We hoped there were no German submarines about in this extremely bad weather.

We had been issued with steel helmets to wear. We did not know whether to wear them on our heads, or sit on them. In these icy waters at below freezing temperatures, the longest even a very fit person could survive was about 15 minutes maximum. Usually the shock to the heart, of the freezing cold water would kill with a heart attack. The water casks in the lifeboats were filled with neat naval rum, water would freeze. In wartime, the lifeboats were kept outside of the lowering davits permanently, by means of long padded booms, ready for the boats to be lowered. Hand axes on lanyards, tied to the boats were kept ready to chop away the lashings to quickly lower the boats.

*For the Scharnhorst events I have taken the information from the official reports.

CONVOY JW55B from German official reports

22nd December. German reconnaissance aircraft spot convoy steaming on a northeasterly course in bad visibility.

23rd December. At 1130 hours the vessels were identified as seventeen freighters and three tankers, accompanied by nine destroyers and three or four cruisers. (The German aircraft were using S4cms Radar).

24th December. Contact was lost until 1220 hours when a brief contact was made.

This was convoy JW55B, which had left Loch Ewe on the 20th December for Kola Inlet just south of Murmansk on the Tuloma River. It was made up of nineteen merchant vessels screened by ten destroyers. There were no cruisers in the escort.

This information was taken from the official records given in

® Scharnhorst and Gneisenau - The elusive sisters - by Richard Garrett.
® The Drama of the Scharnhorst - A factual account from the German viewpoint by Fritz-otto Busch

These books give a full detailed story of the events lending up to and during the action.
Added by: Alan Brigham -

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