Naval History Homepage and Site Search



Chapter Five - MAIMSKA - NORTH RUSSIA, Awaiting a return convoy

on to 6 - The Road Back with QP14

(for more ship information, go to Naval History Homepage and type name in Site Search)

As soon as the pilot came onboard, we proceeded down the River Dvina between muddy looking banks, small sandy bays overlooked by forests of pine trees. The air was impregnated by the smell and aroma of the scent from these forests. Huge tree trunks floated past the Gem, hitting us on the hull at times and sending a dull clanging sound throughout the ship. We were to see many of these tree trunks during our stay in Russia, some made into large rafts, being towed or sometimes rowed along the river with families living on them. There were other things we saw too, but these will come later; first let us reach Maimska, for this was where we should stay for an unknown length of time, owing to certain circumstances which at the time we did not know of.

We finally put our ropes ashore on a wooden jetty. Maimska, or what we could see of it from the top navigating bridge of the Gem, seemed to consist of nothing but pit props, piles and piles of them. In fact Maimska was an island built on wooden piles, and the buildings on it were made of pine logs. There were lots of shabbily dressed women and girls, and seemingly hordes of young children around. Watching these poor unfortunate people and the guards who stood over them, was to become a regular thing in the weeks to come. Moored at the same wooden jetty were two of the other trawlers, the Lord Austin and the Lord Middleton, with whom we had kept company since the scatter signal. Of the other one, the Ayrshire, we had seen or heard nothing since the convoy broke up. The fleet sweepers, the Halcyon, the Britomart (above, courtesy - NavyPhotos/Mark Teadham) and the Salamander, and also the Leda, were tied up to the same jetty ahead of us; so was the A/A ship Pozarica, with the writer and journalist Godfrey Winn onboard. He had come along on the voyage to see what life on the ocean wave was really like and subsequently wrote a book about Convoy PQ17, though limited at the time as to what he could write about it.

Once we had moored up securely and exhausted our conversation with the lads from the other ships, the next thing was to catch up on some sleep. I know that I felt absolutely shattered, and I am certain that everyone on the other ships must have felt the same. What bit of sleep I had been able to get for at least five or six days and nights had been odd snatches lying on the deck or on the top of the engine room casing where it was warm, and near to the bridge ladder and the ship's wheel-house where my action station was. My eyes were in bad shape, but did eventually get back to normal. Following our much needed rest, it was time to take stock of what food and ammunition we had left; we had certainly got rid of a great quantity of small arms ammunition, but provided that we did not have to go through the same sort of gauntlet on the homeward run, we should not be too badly off. We had enough food for two or three weeks, so with what we could get from ashore, (we thought), we would be all right for that. While all this checking and cleaning was going on, it gradually dawned on us that we had made it; talking together on the deck, we found that we all shared the same sense of relief, which I suppose is only to be expected after such a harrowing journey as we had just completed. We were the lucky ones who had a ship to finish the journey on. There was also a feeling of remorse for those fine ships and men, who had not reached safety as we had. The full impact of what had really happened out there in the Barents Sea, came to us gradually, as we talked to the crews of the larger escort ships alongside the jetty at Maimska. We believed at that time that out of the thirty-five merchant vessels that had left Hvalfiord in Iceland on 27th June, only the four that had arrived with us via Novaya Zembla had survived. But this was later amended to eleven surviving ships. What a tragedy it had been, though many more years were to pass by before the full and true story was published for all to see. This including those of us who had taken part, for, as I have mentioned previously, we only knew to a certain extent what was happening in our immediate vicinity, and everything else was hearsay.

Routine returned, and an armed quartermaster was on the deck at all times of the day and night, while on the jetty Russian soldiers both male and female paced up and down, watching both their own people who were working in the area, and of course the movements that we made as we moved from ship to ship for a natter. Sometimes we got Russian children coming right up to the ship's side, begging for Patuskas, (potatoes), Paani, (bread), Chocolad and cigarettes. Food was very scarce as we soon found out. While the Russian guards had their backs turned, many scraps of food and other edibles that were left over from meals, were bartered for badges or crudely made pen knives for souvenirs to take home. Many things could be had for a slice of corned beef or chocolate as we could see from the top bridge when some seaman or other went ashore and made for the wood piles where the young women and girls worked. It was a box office attraction in the weeks that were to pass, watching the antics that were supposedly going on unnoticed by anyone but those who were taking part in these clandestine nuptials.

To get to the village of Maimska, one had to pass through a rather long wooden hut. There was a door at each end, and at each of these doors stood a Russian soldier, at times female, all armed to the teeth with sub-machine guns, or rifles with bayonets attached, and on some occasions they had both. Each time you went into the village, and when you came back to the ship, these soldiers stopped you at each end of the hut. Sometimes they came up to the ready as you were approaching. You would have thought that once would have been enough to be challenged, but it wasn't. On going ashore for the first time, each of us was warned that if we heard anyone shout at all, even if it was not directed at us personally, we were to stop and stand quite still until we knew what it was about. At that particular time the Russians were not taking to us very kindly at all, considering what we had gone through on the way over. We were given to understand that they did not believe that all the convoys of ships promised were leaving Britain and ports in America, and that so many were being lost on the way in the process.

The atmosphere was very strained, and could be frightening at times. On more than one occasion, while I was waiting for the ferry to take me to Archangel, about eleven miles away, I was disturbed by the fact that I was surrounded by a score or more ordinary Russian civilians who were asking me in rather excited Russo-English, questions which at first I could not understand. Ultimately I gathered that they wanted to know when the Prime Minister Mr Winston Churchill was to start the Second Front, and when the British and the Americans were going to start fighting in the war. I made out that I did not know what they were saying, 'Niet capiesh', Niet capiesh'. I kept repeating that over and over again until I was able to board the ferry, where I felt a bit safer.

After a couple of weeks, I had to make this trip to Archangel almost every day, to forage for food for the crew. We were down to drinking tea with no milk or sugar, hard ship's biscuits, and Purser's Peas. On top of this we had left a few tins each of tomatoes, beans and soya link sausages. There was flour on board but no yeast to make bread with, and pretty soon we were on a diet of hard peas, ship's biscuits, and black tea without milk and sugar. This was to last us until we were given passengers to bring home, when we were allocated a few cases of mixed tinned stuffs, but this did not last the trip home, as you will see later.

I never had any success with either the Russian or British authorities in Archangel, with regard to food, even though I went on many occasions during our stay there to try and get some. Anything would have done. As it was, eventually we had to get one of the boats into the water and pull up and down the River Dvina, to see what we could beg off the merchant ships which were anchored at various intervals along the river, or tied up alongside some jetty or other. Luckily we managed to get some liquid yeast off an American vessel; you can't realise how smashing it was to taste once again freshly baked bread, and to be able to dip it into the old and the last of the red lead.

Word had been going round for days that there were not enough ships to make up a convoy to take back to the UK, and that we should have to wait until the next one made the hazardous journey from there, and was unloaded ready for the return. What we did not know until some time later was that sailings to the Russian ports from the UK, had been suspended for the time being, due to the losses on the outward voyage of PQ 17. So then we began to feel as though we were going to be left here in Maimska for the winter, for if we did not get out before the sea froze over, we should be frozen in, and we were not looking forward to that at all. But like all the other ships' crews, we knew that we should just have to grin and put up with it, as some of the fleet sweepers had done during the previous winter months, when they had been based in the White Sea area, carrying out sweeps to keep the approaches clear.

One day we heard a buzz that three destroyers had made a short but quick trip along the Norwegian Coast, from England, and had brought over some new gun barrels for the A/A ships, Pozerica and Palomaris, who had worn out the rifling on their old ones on the way over. They had also brought with them some more ammunition, a bit of food, and more welcome still, the buzz had it, some medical supplies for the sick and wounded. The Russians were desperately short of medicines, and our wounded were having a bad time of it. So much for the efforts that we had all put in to get war supplies over to them; this was the thanks that these unfortunate men were receiving. That the Martin, Marne and the Middleton, had in fact made the quick dash over, was made evident to us by the delivery onboard of no less than eleven full bags of mail. We could not believe our eyes, as we had not had any mail from home for two months. The longest time we had gone previously had been about three or four weeks without news of our families, so this was a field day for us. Never before had we had such an accumulation of letters and parcels dropped on the foredeck.

During the first month we were laid alongside at Maimska, two Russian civilians dropped a sackful of vegetables on our deck, and as we had not tasted fresh veg for some considerable time, we were to say the least looking forward to a good dinner the next day. But alas, almost before we had time to move the sack to the galley for the cook, they were back, this time with two armed soldiers. They regretted, they said in broken English, that they had left it on the wrong ship. It was for one of the fleet sweepers. There was nothing that we could do in that case but watch them take it away as our mouths watered with the thoughts of what we almost nearly had. We realised later that we had been slow, and that we should have had a few of them stowed away. There and then we decided that if such a thing should happen again, we should definitely make certain that we at least got a taste, but there never was a next time.

A great morale booster for us while we lay alongside, came after a get-together of the officers from the fleet sweepers, and the three trawlers to help to try and get rid of the boredom that was creeping gradually over us all, both officers and men alike. They came up with the idea of holding intership sports of various kinds; in some of the sports the trawlers were classed as one ship, the men from all three who wished to take part putting their names down for any type of sport which took their fancy, and were then chosen for a team to represent us all. This made for great rivalry, and despite the weather, we enjoyed some good sport and fun, either by taking part, or by just watching and cheering the teams on to do their best aided by some ribald comments.

The Northern Gem's own newspaper, the Sunday Buzz, Vol 1. No 1, for Sunday 2nd August 1942, gives this story and the following list of results:-

Sports. . . Despite inclement weather, we have enjoyed some good sport during the past week, in which the trawlers have by no means disgraced themselves. For the benefit of future historians the results are summarised below. We hope that these events are only the forerunners of a series of contests, thoughtfully provided to relieve the monotony of our sojourn.

  • Whaler Pulling Shooting Whaler-cum~ Canoe Race
  • (1) Halycon (1) Halcyon (1) Halcyon
  • (2) Trawlers (2) Britomart (2) Leda
  • (3) Britomart (3) Leda (3) Trawlers
  • (4) Leda (4) Northem Gem (4) Salamander
  • (5) LordMiddleton (5) Britomart
  • Sailing (1) Britomart (2) Leda (3) Trawlers (4) Halcyon (5) Salamnder
  • Tug of War At the time of going to press this event had not been held.

Around about the last week in July, the trawler Ayrshire arrived, bringing with her three merchant ships. We had thought her lost but she had gone due north into the ice, escorting the three ships of her small convoy. They had used up all their white paint and many bed sheets, making themselves look as much like the ice that they buried themselves in as possible, in order not to be seen by the enemy bombers, and had eventually made their way to Novaya Zembla, where they were picked up and escorted in to the White Sea to an anchorage and safety. Ayrshire was later moored some distance away from the rest of the trawlers, and one evening, two boats set out on a social call to her. One of these was from the Lord Middleton, and the other from the Gem. Both were manned by officers and men from these ships, and apparently they all had a good night's entertainment on the Ayrshire. They were rather late returning, and were caught in a sudden squall which sprang up from nowhere, as often happened. Efforts were made to lower the sails before the full force of the wind struck them, but only one boat succeeded in doing so, and then only after a struggle. The other boat was overturned and its crew were thrown into the icy fresh waters of the River Dvina. The rescue operations were hampered by the fact that a strong tide was running, and due to low cloud and heavy rain so late that night, complete darkness reigned, but by dint of good seamanship, and by some skilful manoeuvering by the crew of the other boat, all the men were picked up out of the water, and no one seemed any the worse for their involuntary ducking. When the storm abated shortly afterwards, almost as quickly as it had started the other boat was salvaged, and returned to the Lord Middleton.

Other ships in our vicinity that took part in the sports were, as I remember, the corvettes Lotus, La Malouine, and Dianella, and also the rescue ship Rathlin. They all enjoyed the fun, and of course the opportunity to keep themselves busy and their minds off what could be in store for us in the future. During our stay in North Russia, which began on 11th July 1942, we saw many different things, some of which have stayed in my memory more than others. One of the most vivid of them was the air raids, of which there were many. The German bombers dropped mostly incendiaries, many tons of them, into the pine forests around Archangel in an effort to set them ablaze. These fire bombs hung like huge chandeliers in the frosty night air, and seemed to fall very slowly, eventually disappearing from sight amongst the trees for a few seconds, then flaring up into huge fires which could be seen many miles away, the glare reflecting up into the sky and illuminating the tall columns of smoke that reached up to the dark ceiling of the sky.

I think though that most scary of all, though most exhilarating during these raids, were the antics of the Russian fighter planes, which would take off from some aerodrome a short distance away, and streak past where our ships lay, with all of their navigation lights on, then would zoom straight up through the barrage of flak which was being sent up to greet the German raiders. After the first one or two raids we got used to them and refrained from shooting as they thundered past, but I am sure that some of them must have been shot down or at least damaged by the firing of their own countrymen, though I never saw this happen. But it was something to see, believe me, watching these planes dashing past our ships, and through all the anti-aircraft barrage that was being put up.

Then there was the day that I and several others of our crew stood on the Gem's bridge and watched a man shot down in cold blood; his crime was making off with some food stolen from the community soup kitchen. Set back on the jetty was a large wooden hut, and in the first few days of our stay in Maimska we noticed that around noon a long queue of the poorly dressed workers gathered outside this hut. The way they were treated made us think that they must be some kind of political prisoners, or slave workers. Each one of them carried a container of some kind, either a tin, a jar or a pan, inside of a bag made of netting; it gradually dawned on us that the hut was a food kitchen, and that these unfortunate people were queueing for what looked like a broth or a soup.

On this particular day when we were watching, a man ran out of the hut and along the wooden jetty as fast as his legs would carry him; one of the guards on the jetty shouted for him to stop, but the man either failed to hear the shouts, or was too afraid to stop, and the guard who was carrying a sub-machine gun as most of them did, immediately opened fire with a short burst which hit the running figure squarely in the back. This was swift and animal-like justice, and it sickened me; those poor devils were starving, and killing in that way for such a small crime as that of trying to alleviate one's hunger made my blood run cold. It also made us more aware of the repeated warnings we received from our officers when we went ashore, to stop dead when we heard a shout, and to stand still until we knew what it was all about.

A happier memory of those now far-off days is that of watching a group or platoon of both male and female soldiers, marching along a muddy track in perfect formation, with their arms moving in unison, with their guns slung over their shoulders. They were singing in their deep and loud voices one of their rousing marching songs. It was one that at the time made us feel proud to watch them, and to know that here was a people fighting for their country and its very existence, and yet they could still sing like that. They had, as far as we knew, done nothing to help us or even to make us welcome during our stay, but I still could not bring myself to run down the ordinary Russian people after seeing things like that.

On our weird trip through the ice towards Novaya Zembla, we had seen the amazing sight of ships steaming along upside down in the sky. On one occasion as we got closer to the islands, there, hovering above the horizon, was the replica of a complete town; even the factory chimneys could be seen smoking quite clearly, with towers and spires and domes of churches reflected in the sky along with some tall buildings. We guessed that it was Archangel being shown up as a mirage, yet although the reflected image showed what looked to be a fine-looking town, the real thing was nothing like it at all. On the many times that I went into it, I felt as if I was in some old wild west town, with wooden pavements for walking on, and the roads in a terrible state especially when it rained. The houses and the shops, as well as some local government buildings, appeared to be very dilapidated. Above all it is the smell that lingers in my memory, the scent from the pine forests, mingled with the smell of rotten sewerage amongst other things; it smelt more like a scented cesspit than anything else. It's a wonder that the whole population of the town did not die from some disease or other, I was always glad to get back to the Gem as the air smelt somewhat sweeter there, even though the scent of the pine forests was still noticeable to some extent.

On reflection, I suppose that we looked for faults at the time because of the reception we received when we arrived there, and I can only think now that we might have been biased by the things we saw, and the fact that we never got any help in the way of food etc. during the whole of our stay there. But after all we were in a country at war with our common enemy, and they were it seemed giving one hundred per cent action on their land fronts, so this could be why everyone not engaged in that fighting was in such a bad way for food and clothing, and why nothing was being done to keep towns and villages clean and in good repair. Now we were waiting to see if we had to go through the same ordeal on our homeward journey, but if we made it at least we should be in a more civilized country.


on to 6 - The Road Back with QP14
return to Naval-History.Net

revised 28/9/11