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15 October 2014
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HMS Onslow on Russian Convoy in The Barents Sea

by brssouthglosproject

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
brssouthglosproject
People in story: 
Commander Robert St. Vincent Sherbrook, DSO; Able Seaman David Evans
Location of story: 
Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Kola Estuary
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A5350880
Contributed on: 
27 August 2005

This story has been contributed on behalf of the Author: Able Seaman David Evans, by Andrew Scott Evans ( his son)

Dad’s Story: The Arctic Circle, December 1942

I do not wish to appear as any sort of hero. With little experience of Naval warfare I joined the service straight from a desk job in a bank in 1942 as an ordinary seaman.

In November of 1942 I shipped aboard the HMS Onslow at Scapa Flow, Scotland. The ship was a flotilla leader, a destroyer commanded by Captain Sherbrooke, DSO. In all we carried three regular Royal Navy Officers, the remainder were volunteer reserves. This applied in similar proportions to other ships in the convoy, the majority being somewhat ‘green’, some with a sprinkling of active service, some being pensioners recalled for duty. Life on the ship was completely different to that which we were accustomed to in civvy street.

We were quickly issued with arctic clothing comprising sheepskin coats, fur hats and fur gloves, quite normal as we were Russia-bound. We had no time to think. On Christmas Day we contacted our convoy which appeared out of the mist and gloom. Almost immediately we ran into a 12 force gale. It had a big effect on the ship, and our stomachs, which were literally hurled from side to side for 3 days. There was more than one casualty among us greenhorns.

All the while we were steadily pushing northwards well into the arctic circle. We met ice and hail full on. Daylight became progressively shorter, between 10.30 am and 2.30 in the afternoon it was like a sort of twilight. Sea spray froze on the ship decks and weapons; if you stood still too long, you would experience a numbing of your mind as well as of the limbs.

On the morning of the 30/31st December the weather abated, we settled down to a steady swell of the Arctic Ocean, still very cold. We could see some of the convoy escorts, the familiar Red Duster of the Merchant Fleet, some American liberty ships, and two armed trawlers, all heavily laden with vital food and war supplies for the Russian Front.

December 31st around 8.30 am two strange destroyers were sighted. At first they were thought to be Russians sent out from Murmansk to meet us. Too late the ships opened fire to show themselves to be powerful German destroyers. Captain Sherbrooke immediately shepherded the convoy to turn away, ordering them to go southwards. Then he placed Onslow at the stern of the convoy to face the oncoming enemy. HMS Achates immediately started to lay down a heavy smoke screen. Soon afterwards another ship was sighted to the north, she greeted us with a broadside from her 8” gun; it was the German heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper. I wish I had my brown pants on, the odds were stacked against us! Captain Sherbrooke, however, seized and retained the initiative throughout, by steaming straight into attack.

The German Navy never appreciated torpedoes coming at them; fearing this may happen, with a game of bluff and hide and seek, the Hipper turned away for a while to think again. All the while Sherbrooke kept Onslow between the enemy and the convoy. Hipper approached again, Onslow fired and had immense satisfaction scoring several hits with a salvo from her guns at a range of seven miles. The Hipper turned away again. Around 10.15 am the Germans were back again and they had found Onslow’s range, she was hit by 8” shells to the funnel and it was reduced to metal ribbons. Two of Onslow’s forward guns were put out of action, and one shell exploded on the mess deck causing a serious fire.

A near miss resulted in considerable flooding of the lower decks, causing a considerable number of dead and other casualties among the crew.

Sherbrooke himself was struck in his face and chest, but still called out orders. In spite of this he refused to leave the Bridge or hand over his ship to his Second in Command until all emergency precautions to save the ship had been taken. The ship was still under control and when it was stable the Command of the Naval Forces was now passed to the Officer Commanding HMS Obedient.

HMS Onslow now presented a dramatic sight, with gusts of flame coming out of a hole in the mess deck, whilst steam and smoke shot up into the sky. The flooding causing the ship to take a heavy list, we were down at the bows. ‘***** Hell’, we were in a mess.

Emergency parties were instantly put into action recovering the dead and wounded. All that could were manning pumps and fire hoses and baling out flood water. I remember one party of sailors in particular passing buckets from hand to hand, singing at the top of their voices, ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’. Meanwhile the sea action continued although the Onslow had turned away under a cover of smoke, taking a chance to recover.

The German cruiser then concentrated her fire power on HMS Achates. She took many hits but bravely carried out her duty, laying down smoke to protect the merchant ships. Our situation now was pretty desperate, but help arrived in the nick of time in the shape of two British Cruisers, HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica. Sadly the destroyer Achates eventually sank. We did not know how many sailors made it until much later, as the Minesweeper HMS Bramble was also lost with all hands, when the Hipper caught her on her own looking for stragglers from the main convoy.

When the British Cruisers turned up our situation changed; the enemy waited no more. HMS Sheffield caught and sank the German destroyer the Friedrich Eckholdt, the British naval action was now over. The convoy entered the Kola Estuary unharmed, we ourselves slowly limped into port at dawn on 1st January, 1943. The preceding night had been one of unremitting effort to save our ship, shoring up bulkheads, extinguishing fires and trying to keep warm. We spent the best part of January in Russia to get sufficient repairs to Onslow to enable us to return home to England; the Russians had done a ‘fast’ job on our ship.

We had various opportunities to go ashore, we visited the local picture house, social clubs, navy institutes; sorry to say we were treated with cool friendliness, but no undue fuss was made over our great efforts to bring them their food and war supplies. We could only think about the loss of our ships and shipmates who never made it home to port. Now we had to return to dear old England and do it all over again. But our tension immediately relaxed after mooring up at Scapa, alongside our parent ship, feeling proud and sad, being cheered off the ship by sailors of the home fleet at the docks.

Able Seaman David Evans, RN

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