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Chapter Seven - CONVOY JW51B
and the crucial Battle of the Barents Sea, December 1942

on to 8 - Gem for the Last Time


click "Battle of the Barents Sea & Russian Convoy JW51B" for a summary


Arriving back in Londonderry we found that our Skipper, Lieutenant Mullender was to be relieved for the trip to go on another course of submarine detecting. In his place we were to have another ex-fishing skipper, Lieutenant H.C. Aisthorpe RNR who hailed from Grimsby. All of us on the Gem had some misgivings about losing Skipper Mullender, even for one trip - it was the old thing about changing a winning team. We had come to know and like him very much indeed. To me he had been more than just a CO; he had been a friend and a confidant, but, much more than that, he had been an advisor and teacher. I had learnt a lot from him and would miss him. I felt that if he did not come back to the Gem after this trip at the school, I should definitely put in to go to Lowestoft to sit for my mate's certificate, I was in two minds in a way. At that particular time, I had been in the Northern Gem for just over three years; they had been active but happy years, and we had been blessed with more than our share of good luck. A new skipper might change all that, and yet if I were to leave her, my own luck would probably change. Chewing this over in my mind, I finally decided to leave things as they were for the time being, and see how it all turned out.

Rumours were circulating around the trawler crews at the base, that instead of convoys sailing to Russia, individual merchant ships would set off from the UK with a gap of twenty-four hours between each one, and that in between these would be a lone trawler. None of us had any liking for this idea at all, but of course we should have had no choice in the matter if this was to happen.



On 18th December we sailed from Belfast with the trawler Vizelma for company on the way to Loch Ewe to join the escort for Convoy JW51B (above), and five days before Xmas once more our anchors were heaved up and made secure for yet another trip, and another eventful one at that, to North Russia. This time we were hoping that we would arrive safely at the port of Murmansk. The two trawler skippers had in the meantime been ashore for the briefing. Merchant ships were already there when we arrived, but we could only see from the bridge of the Gem a couple of corvettes and a fleet sweeper at anchor, and as we waited for the return of Skipper Aisthorpe, we wondered if this was the complete escort for the convoy, and if the rumours that we had heard in Belfast were true. There was not much to do onboard, for much of the stowing away of ropes and other tackle had been done already.

We were to sail on 20th December, the following morning, for Murmansk, with fourteen merchant ships in the convoy, two corvettes, Rhododendron and the Hyderabad, the fleet sweeper Bramble, and the two trawlers Vizelma and ourselves, the Northern Gem. Other escorts would join us when we were passing Iceland. A short route was to be taken to Murmansk depending on weather conditions, and how far the ice had come south this winter, we should most likely be at sea for ten to twelve days.

The time to weigh anchor and sail out through the boom came, and we steamed out of the loch and into the Minch on the first leg of our two thousand mile journey. Once outside the boom, I watched from the wheelhouse as the deeply laden vessels made their way out and formed up into two columns in order to move more comfortably up the narrow Minch, between the Outer Hebrides and the West Coast of Scotland. This was to be the only peaceful and calm part of the trip as far as the weather was concerned had we but known it. Once out of the Minch, and well clear of the Butt of Lewis and Cape Wrath, the sky took on that look of approaching bad weather, the sea looked oily and sullen with the long Atlantic swells rolling in from the west and starting to break off at the tops, the white crests being whipped up by the cold icy winds coming from the Greenland ice-capped mountains, winds which were freshening up with each watch as they changed. Somewhere off the north-east coast of Iceland, the escort was reinforced by six destroyers; the sight and presence of these vessels made us feel less vulnerable. They were the Onslow (pictured - courtesy NavyPhotos and Mike Pocock), Obedient, Oribi, Orwell, Obdurate, and the Achates. In the not too distant future, the Achates and the Northern Gem would be involved in a life and death situation.

As the arrival of the destroyers lifted our hopes, so did the sure knowledge that at this time of the year inside the Arctic Circle, there would be no daylight as there was at the height of summer on the PQ17 episode. We knew that the enemy bombers would not be able to get at us as they had done then. I had been asked many times by those of the Gem's crew, who had not come by this route before at this particular time of the year, just what it was like. I told them that daylight 'happened' around mid-day, that it was no more than just a twilight world for about an hour, and then once again darkness settled in for the remainder of the twenty-four hours. The weather could be fine, but more often than not, the area was being swept by gales of wind and blizzards that whipped the seas up into a frenzy, and that it was so cold that your breath froze on your beard, eyelashes and eyebrows.

Now as we got clear of Iceland, the wind was howling through the rigging, sounding a warning of much worse weather to come. The cold water of the Arctic Ocean was beginning to throw its weight about, and making itself felt, as malevolent as ever, reminding us of what it was capable of. The old Gem was plunging and rolling, as were the rest of the ships. The merchant ships that we could just see in the darkness from our position at the stern of the convoy were rolling heavily under the weight of all the deck cargo they were carrying. Keeping station in these conditions and the darkness that prevailed was very difficult, and at times could be downright dangerous, for no lights other than a very dim stern light could be shown from any of the vessels. It was possible to creep almost under the stern of the one ahead of you before you saw its dark heaving bulk, for now along with the gales of wind and wild seas, we were on the receiving end of snow and rain squalls, and visibility became worse by the hour.

It became difficult to tell whether it was midday, or midnight, and after a few days of four hours on watch and four hours off, when tiredness from being thrown about, and the staring out into the never-ending darkness began to tell, time was defined by meal-times. Even then some of the crew were not certain whether they were having breakfast or supper; all they were concerned about was that they were either going on watch after their meal, or coming off-watch to get into some dry clothes and a warm bunk for an hour or so, even though it was being heaved about in so many directions at once.

Apart from the deterioration of the weather, and the difficulties of station keeping, which I mentioned earlier, the Northern Gem with the rest of the convoy had no other visible worries at all. Our Christmas Day had come and gone, with dinner consisting of corned beef sandwiches for those who felt like eating. Strong and sweet tea washed the meal down the throats of those who had, and it was the same ones who were downing their tots, and any others which they could get hold of, not only on Christmas Day, but on any other day that the weather was bad, and those days were prolific.

Inevitably, due to the full gale that was churning the sea into mountains and valleys of tormented water, some of the larger and heavily laden merchant ships were having to steer a course which would save them from taking too much punishment, and some became separated from the convoy. Our accompanying trawler, the Vizelma, keeping station on one or two of these ships, found herself to have been led away with them, and not until we arrived at Vaenga on the Murmansk coast, did we learn that the Bramble, a fleet sweeper, had been sent off to try and contact these vessels to shepherd them back to the fold. She was never seen again.

On the morning of the last day of December 1942, New Year's Eve, I had my breakfast as usual at 7.30 am, put on some warm clothing, and then made my way up to the point five gun platform to have a talk with the look-outs who were keeping their cold vigil up there. It was a miserable morning, bitterly cold, with thick black clouds sweeping across the dark early morning sky whichever direction I looked into. Snow squalls were sweeping over the ship, driven by the north-easterly gale, and visibility was very limited even between the squalls. The day before the lads had taken part in their first ice-cracking and shifting job. Wherever there was an accumulation of ice that they could reach with safety, I'd had them knocking it off with axes, hammers and even hatch battens. It was essential but backbreaking work, and despite the cold everyone got quite a sweat on. The thickest and worst of the ice was broken up and shovelled over the side, or into the scuppers so that the sea swilling over the deck would wash it away and into the sea. The starboard boat deck was covered with a thick layer of ice, almost like a skating rink, and after spending some time having to go at trying to clear it on my own, I considered that it was much too dangerous for anyone to tackle it. After having a look for himself, the first lieutenant agreed with me as he did not want any of the lads to slide over the side as it would be almost impossible to find them in that sea.

Standing on the gun platform that New Year's Eve morning, before I went the rounds of the ship to see if the ice had built up on the deck again during the night, I sat on one of the ammunition boxes taking stock of what I could see of the nearest vessels. I followed the bottom of the low scudding black clouds where they touched the sea, at a distance of what I judged to be some five to seven miles away on the starboard beam, around to the stern, then up across the port quarter, I saw suddenly some dark orange flashes. In that second or so my mind registered that it was lightning of some sort, but then, almost immediately, the alarm bells sounded, and I saw nothing else as I made my quick dash to the bridge to take over the wheel. On my way I felt that I had seen, rather than knowing that I had seen, reflected by those flashes, some kind of ship, which was just a black shape. Nothing had been mentioned of an attack of any sort, no warning of an enemy presence from our officers or any of the W/T ratings, so it came as a shock that the convoy was now under attack from enemy surface vessels (Battle of Barents Sea - below).

Taking over the wheel, my view was now limited to the port, starboard and front bridge windows. I reported to the top bridge that I had taken over, and I could feel the vibration as the Gem picked up her speed from the order to ring the engine room for full ahead before I got up there. The CO shouted down for me to keep as close to the merchant ships ahead of us as I could. From this point on, although I knew that there was a battle raging around the convoy, I saw very little; I remember at one point seeing what I took to be a destroyer over on our port beam, dashing about with smoke pouring out of her funnel laying a smoke screen across the stern of the convoy. During the next hour or so I was given the order to alter course several times; the engine room had been ordered to make as much smoke as possible, which was an innovation for us for normally we made too much being a coal burner. I was told that the Onslow, the escort leader, had been hit and put out of action, and also the destroyer Achates which was the vessel I had seen laying smoke; I wondered now how long it would be before we ourselves copped a few heavy bricks. We must have made a grand sight belching out thick black smoke. It was usually the other way on convoys, trawlers as well as some of the merchant ships were the bad boys, and were often told to cut down on the fog, especially on fine days, when the smoke could be seen for many miles, and was easy to spot by any patrolling U-boat. This was a different kettle of fish; the smoke was needed to hide the merchant ships at any cost to ourselves.

For some time we helped to cover the convoy of ships with our smoke, and then I was told that Tim Coleman was coming up to the bridge to take the wheel, and that I had to go on to the deck to get the heavy towing cable out of the forehold, and prepare it in readiness to take the destroyer Achates in tow; she had been badly damaged and had requested our help. I went down on being relieved by Tim, and found Mr Pooley the first lieutenant, already at the fore hatch with a gang of the lads, and working as quickly as possible we had everything we required up on deck in readiness, laying out the cable or towing wire, flaking it up and down the whole length of the port side. No sooner had we completed this job, than we were told that the Achates was in a bad way, and was in no condition to be towed, and that we were going to stand by her. Rescue nets were put over the port side, and heaving lines were got ready; those of our crew who were not doing essential work were positioning themselves along the full length of the port side, as we came up on the starboard side of the stricken Achates.

She certainly seemed in a bad way, from what I could see of her as both ships were being lifted on the top of the heavy broken swell. She looked well down by the stern, and had a great list over to port. Within minutes of our arrival, I saw her going further and further over, until she lay completely on her port side. I could see the figures of men, some with red lights on their life jackets and some even smoking, clambering through the rails and on to her starboard side which had now become her deck. As she went further over until she was floating completely bottom up, the men slid down her side and into the water, her keel now pointing to the heavens. Then as the men in the water started swimming towards the Gem, we stood on our deck and listened in amazement as we heard their voices giving out with a rendering of 'Roll out the barrel'. Here they were in dire peril, not only from drowning, but freezing to death if we could not get them out of the water within a few minutes, singing at the tops of their voices. Those who had survived the action and the struggle to keep their ship the Achates afloat, were now fighting for their own lives, to save themselves in those cold and freezing waters of the stormy Arctic Ocean. Their agony was our agony, and the few minutes, until the gallant Achates slid beneath the surface of the disturbed seas, taking with her the dead and the badly wounded who could not be moved for ever, seemed more like hours, until we had got safely onboard all that was possible of those who were still alive.

Along with several others of our crew I took a spell for a few minutes over the side on the rescue nets. We entwined our legs in the nets to leave our arms and hands free, making sure that we should not be pulled away by the suction of the seas rolling under the ship's hull, or by the weight of the men in the water, as we grabbed them and hauled them up high enough for others of our crew to pull them over the ship's rail and onto the deck, from where they were taken below as quickly as possible into the warmth of the seamen's messdeck. It was freezing as we were rolled incessantly and completely under the water, and we could only stand it for three or four minutes at a time; we were relieved by others of the crew who took our places on the nets, while we stamped up and down the deck to bring some life back into our limbs. Then we picked up a heaving line or anything like that to throw to those in the water. I myself at this time took a line to the port quarter of the Gem, and managed to catch one man and drag him back to the nets and safety. Running back to the same place, I saw a young lad drifting passed the stern with his arm outstretched to catch a line; as I threw it to him it dropped over his shoulders, but he seemed to have lost all the feeling in his body due to the cold. I screamed at him to hold on, but he could do nothing to help save himself, so I tried to throw several loops of the line around his arm, but in those last few seconds, I distinctly heard him crying out for his mother. 'Mother' was the last word I heard as he disappeared below the surface. I know that I was crying myself with helplessness and frustration as I saw him go.

Just at that precise moment, there was a terrific underwater explosion, and the Northern Gem was lifted bodily out of the water. The surface of the sea shivered for a few moments then burst into a boiling cauldron of confused froth. When it returned to its former state, there was no one left alive in the water, there were probably six or eight bodies floating past, still with their life-jackets, on which glowed the red lights, but there was no sign of any life; they had either been killed by the explosion, or had succumbed to the frightful cold of the water. Our CO then thought it wise to go onto full speed to catch up with the convoy as the German surface vessels as far as he knew were still lurking in the area, and the Gem wasn't built to fight a ship to ship battle of that sort.

Everyone was now clear of the deck for with going full ahead the ship was being swept with heavy seas, and it was not safe to linger about. I had run down to my cabin and changed quickly into some dry clothes, my others being frozen. When I had done so, I went down to the forward mess deck, dodging the seas on deck as I went. I had to take stock of how many survivors we had managed to pull aboard. The total was eighty-one officers and ratings; some had been wounded in the action, twelve seriously enough to warrant the attention of a doctor, but unfortunately we did not carry one. One of the wounded was a young sub-lieutenant named Barrett; this young man never uttered a word all the time he was being stripped and made comfortable in a bunk. There were no obvious or outward signs of wounds or injuries on his body, but he was in a very serious condition. I went round the mess with the old rumjar and gave every one a liberal 'dose' of the stuff to help get the blood moving again.

Those survivors who were able helped themselves to towels, dried their bodies and rubbed their limbs briskly to bring back some life to them, then climbed into bunks, and were wrapped in warm blankets; I made certain that I missed no one with the rum jar. As the circulation gradually came back to the limbs of many of these men, some were screaming with pain, a pain which must have been excruciating. Our lads were doing their best to alleviate this by massage, followed by covering them with warm blankets or clothing brought up from the store of survivors' clothes, after some time the sounds of the men in pain gradually died away as they lapsed into various depths of sleep.

The wounded were a problem, for as I mentioned we had no doctor onboard, but we had amongst our crew an ordinary seaman named Eric Mayer. He was forty years old, and had been a bank clerk before joining the service. His wife was a State Registered nurse. He also had a friend who was a doctor, and of course Eric Mayer had picked up a bit of medical knowledge from these connections, so he was put in charge of the wounded. He soon realised that many of them required more skilled attention than he could give them, and with the few medical stores that we had onboard at the time, he could do no more than clean and disinfect their wounds and bandage them up to the best of his ability.

As I was going the rounds taking names, I came across Lieutenant Peyton Jones, the first lieutenant of the Achates; it was he who had taken command of her when the captain was killed on the bridge during the action. He was sat in the forward mess-deck, very concerned about his crew, though he realised that we were doing our best. I apologised for the fact that he had been taken to the seamen's mess, and conducted him to the wardroom to join the other three surviving officers where he was greeted warmly by them and our own officers who were present. They had all thought him to be lost with the ship, and the surprise and pleasure on their faces when I took him in was good to see after the happenings of the last few hours. Later, he and our skipper made plans to go alongside a destroyer at the first opportunity to get a doctor onboard to attend to the wounded. With the sub-lieutenant, in the forward mess-deck who was to die later, this made five officers and seventy-six CPOs, POs, and other naval ratings taken aboard out of the sea.

Some forty or so others, including the captain, had been killed in the action by the shelling, and apparently another thirty very badly wounded men who could not be moved, had been taken to the skipper's day room on the Achates. These unfortunate men had, with two brave men who had volunteered to stay with them to the end, gone down with the ship, together with those who succumbed to the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, and those last few who had been killed by the explosion which had occurred. I think about one hundred men had been lost, but I don't think that we could have done any more than we had done at the time. We had worked as quickly as was humanly possible under the circumstances, and as far as we knew the enemy vessels were still in the vicinity, and could have found us at any time.

When the explosion blasted the surface of the sea into, first of all, a flat shivering expanse of water, then into a boiling white foam, we all apparently had thought the same thing as the Northern Gem was lifted bodily out of the water - that we had been hit by either shells or a torpedo on the opposite side to where we were pulling the men onto the deck, our starboard side, yet no one panicked. It must have been either the boilers of the Achates blowing up, or her depth charges, but whatever it was, the explosion had given us all a fright. Much of our crockery had been broken, and some of the cabin clocks had been blown off the bulkheads, but more than that it had killed off all the men who may still have been alive in the water, and had robbed us of the chance of saving them.

While taking the names of the survivors, one of them told me that the sub-lieutenant had been on the bridge when the salvo of shells hit the Achates, one of which had exploded on the bridge, killing most of the men up there and in the wheel-house. What a shambles it had been. The cries of the survivors were dying down now, and although they were still in a state of shock, they were beginning to find that the Gem's mess deck was a warm, dry, and friendly spot to be in, even though it was heaving up and down like a tormented and demented thing.

Going up on to the deck was like going into another world, a world of total darkness, a shrieking and howling wind going through the rigging like a tortured and mad being, snow blizzards helped to make it look like another planet, and feel like Hell. During all this there was a scare on the Gem's bridge, when in darkness another destroyer was seen going across our stern. At first it was thought to be an enemy vessel, but fortunately for us it turned out to be the Obedient, another of that gallant band of destroyers that had fought off the attack made by the German surface forces. We were still steaming at full speed, making every effort to catch up with the convoy, the Skipper only guessing at the course to steer to pick it up once again, for it could have altered direction to any point of the compass to keep away from the enemy.

Seeing the Obedient going across our stern, signals were passed with a shaded Aldis, and the Skipper learnt that he was on the right track; a short time later we caught up with the convoy. At one point we passed the Onslow fairly close and in the dim light of the Arctic day, saw what a fight she must have had; men were on the foc'sle head apparently trying to get a collision mat over the bows, all around the bridge and funnel we could see signs of damage, and we wished her a silent good luck. Now amongst friends again we got ourselves tucked in astern of the ships of the convoy, to stay there for the rest of the night, greeting the New Year of 1943 as we did so.

When the northern skies had turned a shade lighter, getting on for mid-day on 1st January 1943, orders were given for the Gem to approach and close the destroyer Obdurate to take on her surgeon. A boat could not be launched, the weather being still very bad and sea conditions still atrocious. Even though we were fortunate in that the wind had dropped away a little, the fierceness of it had gone at this time. In any case our port boat had been swept away during the gales earlier on, I went up to the wheel-house to take over the wheel on the run up to the Obdurate, getting the feel of it in those heavy swells and choppy seas, ready for when we finally went alongside the destroyer, but at the last moment Skipper Aisthorpe entered the wheel-house and said, 'Right Cox, I'll take her. See if you can get the starboard boat inboard, if possible, but don't take any chances. We don't want to lose anybody'. I got some of the hands who were standing watching, but try as we might with axes, hammers and shovels, we could not even clear a part of the small boat deck without using both hands to hold on with. So I reluctantly told the men to stand down from that dangerous job, and to get some fenders ready for going alongside the Obdurate.

This also was a hazardous thing to ask them to do, for as a ship the size of a trawler rolls with the swell, the rail tends to dip under the water and the midships deck becomes flooded. One has to keep a weather eye open for the heavy ones and be prepared to jump for the engine room casing and safety. But they stood by their task very willingly, knowing that the presence of the surgeon was sorely needed onboard for the treatment of the badly wounded men. With the Obdurate going slowly ahead into the wind, with just enough way on her to keep her as steady as possible in the turbulent seas, the Northern Gem, with Skipper Aisthorpe at the wheel, crept up to the port quarter of the destroyer, Gem's starboard bow coming within heaving line distance of her and creeping closer every second. We could pick out in the grey watery daylight on her deck a small group of men standing on the quarterdeck. Amongst these was the surgeon, Maurice Hood, who had a line around his waist, waiting to risk his life. A reception committee of two of our officers and several men waited to catch him as he jumped, and to release the line quickly so that the two ships did not stay too close for too long.

As our starboard fore-deck came abreast of the Obdurate's quarterdeck Skipper Aisthorpe slowly edged the Gem in towards her, waiting for the correct moment to bring her alongside as close as possible, without too much risk of a hard collision which might damage both vessels, and of course to give Surgeon Hood a closer and steadier platform form to leap on to. Suddenly, as he thought the moment had arrived, a quiet moment between the heavy squalls, we watched with apprehension as our bow swung in towards the destroyer. Then with only a few feet separating the two vessels, Skipper Aisthorpe put the wheel over to port to straighten her up; her previous course and momentum, added to the helm being put hard aport, with the engines full ahead, caused her to keep sliding steadily to starboard, just enough to close the last few feet of the gap. The two ships touched momentarily. As they did so, Surgeon Hood bravely jumped some seven or eight feet on to the deck of the Northern Gem, and into the arms of the reception committee.

The hearts of everyone watching were in their mouths for the few seconds that he was airborne, in case the Gem swung away from under him. This was the most dangerous part of the operation as far as he was concerned, and we were happy to see him land safely. The damage caused by the touching of the two ships was only very slight. It was a satisfactory operation, successfully completed by all concerned, and we now had a surgeon aboard.

Surgeon Hood was taken below with his bag of instruments, to prepare himself for the job of work he had come to do. And this was to prove no mean feat on his part due to the conditions in which he was to work in. The forward mess-deck became the operating theatre, and the mess-deck table the operating table; this had to be held firmly in place by several other members of their crew, so that it would not be thrown on to the deck by the crazy gyrating movements of the ship. How the doctor managed to carry out these operations and to keep his hand steady to cut away the damaged flesh, I shall never know, but he did. Lieutenant Peyton Jones of the old Achates administered the anaesthetic. Both he and the surgeon had to be held in their positions at the table, and many of the Achates survivors volunteered for this.

After our last search around the area in which the Achates sank, while I was going round with the rum jar and the stripping of the survivors was going on, I came to one man who was standing up against the mess-deck table, in a state of shock and kept looking down at his right shoulder. Two of our crew were about to take off his jersey, and as they eased it over his head, the whole fleshy part of his shoulder came away with his clothing. I shouted to Eric Mayer to come over and have a look at it. He separated the piece of flesh from the clothing, did something to it and the wound that it had come from, then bandaged them both together again. He was doing a responsible job and making good work of it considering that he had no qualifications, and when the surgeon did start to do his operations with Eric as assistant, he complimented Eric for what he had done.

There was also a young seaman that I found sitting in the galley, he was keeping himself warm by the galley fire. When I gave him his tot of rum, during our conversation, he said the back of his head was hurting him, and asked me if I would have a look at it for him. I did so and could see a piece of metal at the back of his left ear, it was sticking up out of the bone, with no sign of blood; the metal was a good quarter of an inch thick, and was protruding about half an inch from the skin. When Surgeon Hood saw it eventually, he said that he would not attempt to take it out as he had no way of knowing the length or the shape of the metal, which was a piece of shrapnel. When it was taken out at Murmansk, it was a jagged piece almost as long as a cigarette packet; this young man had been very lucky indeed to survive this.

The young Sub-Lieutenant Barrett was examined in his bunk by the doctor, who said that although there was no visible signs of injuries or wounds, he had apparently taken the full blast of an explosion in his stomach, possibly from the shell that had hit the bridge. There was nothing that could be done for him, and we were told to give him anything that he asked for, as he was dying. All he did ask for was a drink of water; he never complained and passed away sometime during the night. He was buried the next morning, the service being read by Lieutenant Peyton Jones, while the Gem lay hove to in the now worsening weather. He included in his service those of their crew who had gone down with the Achates, and now lay many miles astern of us, somewhere in the vast spaces of the Barents Sea, amongst the many who had gone before them on other convoys taking aid to our Russian allies.

Taking stock of the convoy now that we were back with it, we knew that the trawler Vizelma and two merchant ships along with the fleet sweeper Bramble were adrift since losing the convoy the night before the attack by the German force. The Onslow which we had seen as we closed the convoy had by this time left the convoy, and was trying to make Murmansk on her own but a lot of her crew had been killed and wounded. We were to lay close to her later when we arrived at Vaenga, and we saw more plainly how much she had suffered. Her CO, Captain Sherbrooke, who was severely wounded and had lost an eye in the battle, was later to be awarded the Victoria Cross, for the successful defence of the convoy, whose attackers had been the Admiral Hipper, the Lutzow, and several large destroyers, one of which was sunk by our covering cruiser force Jamaica (above - courtesy NavyPhotos) and Sheffield. Onslow looked a shambles when we saw her at Vaenga; there was a great gaping hole in her starboard bow, and the crew had put the collision mat over it, to stop the flow of water that was threatening to sink her; the mat had frozen to her hull on her trip back to port. Her bridge was a tangled mess of ruptured steel, and the funnel like a colander with holes that had been made by the jagged pieces of shrapnel.

The wireless room had been ravaged by splinters, and those on watch there at the time had been killed at their posts. Once again the Northern Gem had been most fortunate; this time in the midst of an attack by enemy ships, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, and the pocket battleship Lutzow along with six large destroyers, one of which, the Friedrich Eckholdt, was lost. They were all out of our league and we shuddered to think what our fate would have been if we had come face to face with any one of the enemy.

The weather on the way in to Vaenga continued to be at its vilest, with storm force winds which caused havoc with the heavily laden merchant ships, but all of them survived. Blizzards which swept continuously over the convoy and the escorts, made station keeping a hazardous job due to almost nil visibility, but we all arrived at the Kola Inlet safely with no more incidents. All the survivors of Achates were put ashore here from the Gem. From what we saw of the port from the ship during the short period of daylight, it seemed to be a place that none of us would relish staying in for any length of time - not that I went ashore very often, once to see the young lad out of the galley, and to see how the other wounded were getting on. I had a walk around the area out of curiosity more than anything else but I would not like to compare it with Maimska or Archangel from our previous run to North Russia. I know that once again, when we arrived at Vaenga and made fast to a merchant ship alongside of the jetty, I was almost out on my feet, having been at the wheel for a considerable period. And I remember quite well, as though it were only yesterday, that I rolled into my bunk just as I was, sea boots, duffle coat and life jacket still on. I can remember Tim Coleman shaking me and calling me, telling me that he had been down several times before and could not wake me up. On the last occasion I had apparently swung my legs over the side of my bunk, without waking up.

When he did finally get through to me, he told me that the Northern Gem was on fire and that I had to get on deck as quickly as possible. Still with my eyes full of sleep and hardly open, and to be honest, with hardly a bit of interest, I pulled on my gloves and put on my helmet, asking him what the 'whooshing' sound was that I could hear; he replied that the noise was incendiary bombs, dropping in the water alongside, and also into the almost empty merchant ship which we were tied up to. Then I became wide awake and ran onto the deck with him. Great fiery chandeliers were falling and coming to rest in many places around about. Apparently several had fallen on the Gem but had been shovelled over the side; only one had been difficult to get rid of and it had almost burnt through the engine room casing before it had been dealt with.

Just after this we moved alongside of the Onslow. I must have been completely exhausted at the time I turned in, as never before nor after was I like that. Normally I was a very light sleeper and woke up before I was called, sensing that something was going on or that I was about to be called. This was a condition that I had got used to in pre-war fishing days. Previously when we had picked up men from ships which had been sunk, one or two had mentioned that they had called one of their mates who had been asleep in his bunk after the 'Abandon Ship' had been given, and that person had not awakened; it was something that I could not readily believe, but I now found this to be only too true. The Gem had been on fire and I had slept through it.

What if she had gone down? The date would have been the 3rd January 1943, the day we arrived at the Kola Inlet, and were secured to Vaenga Pier.

The following day, the Onslow moved away from her berth inside the Northern Gem, at Vaenga Pier. She was proceeding to a place called Rosta, for a quick repair job before going home with the next available convoy. As to the weather at the time, the thermometers were showing minus zero degrees, everything was frozen up, and snow was in abundance. The Russians were not a very friendly people on the whole, considering what all the men in the numerous convoys had been through to bring them their much needed supplies, and as far as we were concerned, we could not get on our way home quickly enough. The Germans had one or two airfields, not so very far from the Kola Inlet in flying time, and we did not want to stay too long within reach of them.

The Northern Gem pulled away from Onslow's side, to allow her to slip out to make her way to Rosta. Most of our crew were on deck and I was at the wheel with most of the bridge windows down. There was no daylight yet and to keep most of the windows up and closed meant that they would be soon steamed up from the heaters and would make it difficult to see where we were going. As Onslow began to move out slowly, the sound of a trumpet was heard, and soon all other sounds from the dockside cranes, and the winches on any merchant ships which were being unloaded were silent, and everyone within the sound of the lone trumpet, stood still. It was being played on our forecastle, by one of our officers, Skipper Tommy Buchan, and I'll bet that he never played to a more receptive and appreciative audience than he did on that morning.

At first everyone stood in complete silence, looking around in the faint light, to see where the sound was coming from as it was so unexpected, then, first one group, then another, joined in singing, until all round men were giving out at the tops of their voices, a rendering of that lovely old song 'Auld Lang Syne'. There must have been many salty old sailors, both Royal Navy and Merchant Navy, who were close to tears as the Onslow and her gallant crew moved away, and past the Gem. It was a very moving and never to be forgotten scene, believe me, and one which all who were present at the time will remember for ever.

We stayed at Vaenga for just over three weeks. There were many air raids by the Germans, and Murmansk was a ghost town of shattered buildings, with burnt timbers sticking up in the air, the smell of burning mingling with the smell of death, a sweet sickening smell which clung to your clothing. Yet it was here in Murmansk that I tried out skiing. I was looking at some skis outside a hut and an elderly Russian came out and motioned me to put them on. There was a gentle slope, running away from the hut, so I thought, Why not? After two attempts during which I was on the floor in the snow more often than I was on my feet, I passed the skis back to him, thanked him, and gave him a new packet of twenty Senior Service cigarettes.

The Vizelma, our 'chummy' trawler, had got in with her two merchant vessels, so although the convoy had lost none of the stragglers, or any of the merchant ships come to that, we had lost two of the escorts the Achates, and the Bramble, which we learned had been sunk somewhere in the Barents Sea. There were no survivors. Theirs had been a lonely struggle against both the elements and the attacking force.

So with the two trawlers from the previous convoy JW51A, which had left Loch Ewe on 15th December 1942, and had arrived in the Kola Inlet on Xmas Day, there were now four trawlers to coal and take on provisions. These were the Lady Madeleine and the Northern Wave, (the latter being a sister ship to our own which had been on the Norwegian Campaign with us), the Vizelma and the Northern Gem. On 29th January 1943, a convoy of eleven merchant ships left Murmansk, escorted by a larger force consisting of seven destroyers, including the Onslow, two fleet sweepers, three corvettes and the four trawlers. With the Kola Inlet astern of us and fading away in the right direction, and the weather not too bad, we had a fairly quiet trip back. Only one merchant ship was sunk by a U-boat. This time we were not in the position to be of help; this job went to the Lady Madeleine and the Northern Wave, and not one man was lost.

We arrived at Loch Ewe on 8th February 1943, ten days out from Murmansk, a pretty quick trip by the shortest route possible. The four trawlers diverted to Belfast, from where some of us got leave. When I got my turn, and arrived in my home town of Hull, I saw the Onslow again, this time in the hands of the ship repairers. As I stood on the Monument Bridge, where once the statue of William Wilberforce looked out over the docks, my mind went back to the Barents Sea, on that cold, dark and wild New Year's Eve day, with its snow squalls being driven by storm force winds, and to the events of that day, When Captain Sherbrooke of the Onslow won the Victoria Cross. Now here that same ship lay, in my home town, having her wounds attended to. I watched with pride and I wondered if the men working on her decks at that moment, knew what she had been through, and did they feel as I did about her? What a difference to that other convoy, PQ17, when so many men lost their lives for nothing more than pitting their courage and their determination against such great odds. JW51B had been a great victory, and had helped to boost the morale of those of us who had been on both convoys. On PQ 17 we had finished up as a disorganised shambles, feeling disgusted, dismayed, discouraged, and utterly shocked at the way things had gone. But after JW51B we thought, 'That's a smack in the eye for you, Jerry', and 'Who's doing the shouting now?' If the backing and trust of those in command at the Admiralty had been given to those in command of the escorts on convoy PQ 17, in July 1942, there would have been another successful convoy of ships for Russia. There would have been losses of course, but not on the same scale as those that did happen, though I realize that in saying those words, that I am being wise after the event. I only hope that the men of the merchant navies who were left to their fates, have seen fit to forgive us after all these years. It was not the fault of the ordinary sailors that they were abandoned, nor those of the officers in command of the escort ships. All of us would have seen it through, come hell or high water, make no mistake about that.


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