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Chapter Eight - LEAVING THE GEM FOR THE LAST TIME, to April 1943

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This leave from the Northern Gem after our return from Russia, was to prove my last from her. Arriving back in Belfast, we found that the minor repair jobs onboard had been completed, and we now got down to the work of getting stores onboard, cleaning the ship up and getting her ready for sea again. We had the usual shore leave, the odd pub crawl, met old friends, made new ones. Then we sailed out of Belfast once more, helping to escort the convoys of ships out to Iceland, or on the first leg of their journey to the various destinations around the world to which they were bound. If we sailed out into the vast and open spaces of the Atlantic, we would still stay with the ships until we reached the halfway boundary, then switch over to another lot of ships that were on their way back to England and home.

Our job then would be to shepherd this new flock of ours, laden down as they were with food and war materials, both below and above decks some looking for all the world like huge piles of timber, with mast bridge and funnel stuck on the top, in the general direction of the Western Approaches, and say to ourselves, 'Well, that's that bit over, thank God, Now we are on the homeward trek.'

Some of these convoys turned out to be rougher than others. On one nothing untoward would happen, and then the next one would turn out to be a running battle with the U-boats. There were occasions when one or other of these U-boats got into the centre of the convoy, and created havoc amongst the merchant ships before the escorts found and attacked them. Rumours were rife on these occasions: such and such a corvette had clobbered a U-boat on the surface, and that her skipper had been so incensed that he did not stop to pick up any survivors, but just kept running them down until none were left. Now this may or may not have been true, but I do know the feeling after having seen some of your own countrymen, going down with their ships with no chance to be picked up, others, smothered in fuel oil, and choking and coughing their hearts up, their lungs burning away inside their bodies. Then there were those who froze to death before your eyes, just out of reach, and all you could say was, 'Christ almighty, I can't get to him'. Why such things were allowed to happen I don't suppose that I shall ever know.

What was to prove to be the last trip that I would do on the old Northern Gem, began on either 21st or 22nd of April 1943, when we sailed from Londonderry to join up with a convoy bound across the Atlantic, consisting of forty-two vessels, and was, from the way we waddled through the water when we had taken up our position on the starboard quarter, a slow convoy of about six or seven knots. After about a week or so during which the weather had been very bad with strong to gale force winds and heavy seas, causing the merchant ships quite a problem as a lot of them were in ballast, and they were being flung about like empty cans, by the long and turbulent heaving seas of the North Atlantic, we of the escort vessels were beginning to get weary from trying to keep the forty-two ships within the convoy confines.

The Northern Gem, although pirouetting about like a cork, was nevertheless weathering the storms well. She took nothing in the way of heavy water onboard, but was continuously being swept by spray and spume, which travelling at the speed of bullets, rat-tat-tatted on the bridge windows, making the look-outs on the top bridge, which was open to everything that the weather could throw at it, duck down below the canvas screens fastened to the rails forming the outer limits of the navigation bridge. In weather like this one was nearly always wet through, no amount of oilskins or protective clothing was adequate enough to keep one dry. Fortunately in the majority of trawlers, the engine room staff would always allow you to hang your wet and soaking gear to dry on a line stretched above the engines.

So now on a northerly course to pass to the west of Iceland, ONS5 wallowed its way along through the heavy seas, the escorts pulling out all the stops trying to keep the convoy together, not wanting to let the ships wander off to split up into small groups. This was no small task in the prevailing weather, and for the four trawlers whose top speed in fine conditions was ten or eleven knots, it was a problem to catch up with the convoy again, once they had been dispatched to round up the stragglers. Once alongside a straggler, to tell him to wind the elastic up a bit, the few words of reply that were not being blown away by the wind, were nothing short of blasphemy, but more often than not they gave us something to laugh about, even though it was a serious game we were playing.

Once we had passed Iceland, and turned on to a more westerly course towards Newfoundland, the wind and seas eased down considerably, and soon we had a smooth calm sea with a long rolling swell, common to the deeper water of the North Atlantic. This was U-boat weather, and soon we suffered the first casualty, the American freighter McKeesport, which was hit by a torpedo around about breakfast time on 29th April. As we were the nearest trawler to her, we were sent back to pick up the survivors from her. Her crew never got their feet wet as they came alongside the Gem in one of the ship's lifeboats and climbed comfortably onto our deck. The only exceptions were two dead men whom they had towed from the stricken McKeesport, who were given a burial held in front of all their shipmates, the service being read from a well thumbed Bible.

This was the stage of the war when I first began to realise that the strain was beginning to get at me. I had been almost four years in the Northern Gem, and much of that time had been continuous sea-time, I really did not know how much longer I would be able to stick it out, but I would not give in voluntarily, as to me that would have been cowardly. So I decided to say nothing for the time being and to stick it out until I could face it no longer. As coxswain I felt it my duty not to show fear in front of the crew, even though I felt it as much as they did at times. It was that thought which kept me going, for I like to think that they looked to me for courage and support, but the strain was terrific.

The larger escorts were now beginning to run short of fuel; at first it had been the bad weather which had stopped them refuelling, but now that the seas had flattened out a little and the wind had gone, the threat of enemy action put them off, for it was too dangerous for the escorts to hang on to the end of a fuel line from a tanker for too long.

We had so many survivors onboard, that Mullender had to get permission from the escort commander (I believe) to leave the convoy and head for Newfoundland on our own, as we were down to a state of severe rationing, both of food and water. Due to the speed of the convoy if we had stayed with it, we should have had neither food nor water to last the remainder of the trip. There were about two hundred and fifty merchant seamen spread out all over the ship by the time we got permission to leave. I have a blank spot about parts of this voyage, probably caused by the state of my nerves, the constant attacks on the convoy, the lying stopped while picking up men from the water during the attacks. All this coupled with the worry of sleeping, feeding, and fending for all onboard, caused me to lose track of the majority of events which were going on around me.

Leaving the convoy was a relief in one sense, but it only increased the worry for Mullender. I think that we were all a little reluctant to leave, and yet at the same time perfectly glad to do so, if one can understand that kind of muddle-headed reasoning. When we left, Skipper Mullender decided that it would be better if we made for the ice, as we had done the previous year, on the PQ 17 debacle, knowing that if we reached it without being attacked, there would be a better chance of surviving to reach St John's. The ice, this early summer of 1943, was much further south than was normal for this time of year, and although there were a few thick patches of fog here and there which to some extent we were pleased to see, there were also patches of clear blue sunny skies, and the little bit of wind which was helping the movement of the ice south, was enough to burn the skin if you were not careful. Three of our stokers, fed up with the very crowded conditions of the mess deck, decided to sleep out in the open on top of the engine room casing, and later found themselves in some trouble with severe wind and sun burn. They went in front of the CO for not being able to carry out their duties, and were very fortunate to get off with a caution from Mullender, who said he thought that they were suffering enough from the burns and from letting their mates down through their stupidity, but he warned them not to come in front of him again with a similar thing.

We were not short of look-outs for most of the men we had picked up came along and volunteered for something or other, either below deck in the bunkers or stoke-hold or engine room, or on the deck as extra lookouts or watch keepers. But there were still the few, as we had found on other occasions, who would go below for no one, not even to eat or sleep, for the thought of what would happen if the Northern Gem were to be torpedoed was never very far from anyone's mind. With close on three hundred men onboard, most of us realised that being on deck would not help much in the event anyway. If she had got one under the forward mess deck where the magazine was situated, we'd not have known a thing, and if hit in the engine room she would have gone like one of those iron ore carriers which we had seen vanish before our eyes.

Then of course there was the ice. Small floes were not so bad for our ice-cracker bows were a big help there. It was the very big bergs that worried us; they were like great cliffs or shaped similar to cathedrals, and if we had run into one of those stem on then that would have been the end.

Not many days later, looming up out of the fog, we saw the dark bulk of the land, and quite suddenly we were in brilliant sunshine again, and there ahead we saw the two great headlands, denoting the entrance to the natural harbour of St John's Newfoundland. As we approached, the coastguard station on the top of one of the high cliffs which stick up so solidly out of the sea, started flashing to us wanting to know who we were and where we were from. The sea between us and the headlands was as smooth and as shiny as a sheet of glass, and as we steamed into the hive of activity that was St John's Harbour, I looked out of the bridge windows to see that both our port and starboard rails were packed with men all staring, in wonder of the fact that we had got there at all. We could see some of the other escorts of our group, and I wondered what had happened to the convoy after we left.

It was the last time I saw any action with the Gem and her crew, for it was to be my last trip in her, and also Skipper Mullender's.

I steered the Gem in between the headlands, and up to the quayside of St John's. The worry and the strain of the last week or so gradually gave way to a feeling of excitement, born first from the relief of tension, secondly from the knowledge that at last we had arrived safely, and thirdly, that we had never before been right across the 'pond', the Atlantic. True we had seen the coast and the mountains of that icy land called Greenland, whilst searching for survivors in the Denmark Straits some time before, but this was the first time that we had actually gone into a harbour on the other side of the pond, and put our mooring ropes ashore.

Our first task now, once the survivors had been taken ashore, was to get back to a normal routine, with all hands taking part in a general clean up of the ship, getting her shipshape and Bristol fashion once again, and did she need it! The accumulation of oil on the decks took some removing, especially in the messdecks where oily clothing had been cut off some of the survivors as they had been taken below. Most of this discarded clothing had been gathered up and put into the sacks dumped on to the jetty for disposal by burning; any other discarded clothing which could be used again, was placed in other bags ready to be sent ashore to a laundry for washing, and when they were returned clean, they would be put below with the rest of the remaining survivors kits in the store, ready to use again.

Previously, it had cost the crew of the Gem money from their own pockets, in order to replace their own gear from the 'slops' ashore, which they had given to the survivors that we had picked up. We did not begrudge doing this at all, far from it, but there had been times when we, or some of us, had nothing left to change into at all. This gave us the idea of washing any clothing left behind ourselves, for the future use of men pulled from the sea, and even when we started to get these 'survivors' kits' onboard the idea stuck, and helped us no end. All the men who had been picked up on this last trip and had needed a change of clothing, had been given a survivor's bag. By and large it was mostly the engineers and firemen who had been below and had not had time to dash to their cabins for some warm clothing who needed it the most. It also was these poor devils who were the casualties or the missing when a ship was hit by torpedoes and sunk.

After the chores were finished and the survivors whisked away, shore leave was given to all except a minimum of men who were to keep a watch on board in the event of the ship having to be moved to a different part of the harbour. Those who went ashore did so, or so they said, with the idea of finding something to take home to their girl friends, wives or mothers. Then there were those who did not get past the first bar or club, some went to the cinema, others had their own ideas of what shore leave consisted of, though this did not appeal to as many as rumour has it. With our signalman Charlie Keen, I and one or two more of the communications branch had a run ashore to do a bit of shopping and to have a look around the place. As far as I can remember from the short time that we were there, it reminded me of a frontier town of the kind that you saw on the films in those days, as I suppose it was really. We then went back to the Gem, dumped our parcels and got changed into some old clothes, then walked around the harbour towards the outlet to the sea. Once there we climbed to the top of one of the headlands, the sort of exercise we required after being cooped up on the ship. The view from the top was well worth the climb. Looking out to seaward we could see for miles and miles out over the calm sunlit waters of the Atlantic, and we sat and talked about how lucky we were to have made it so far, and wondered how many poor devils were still trying to reach this peaceful haven. On the way to the top of this headland, we had passed several pools of water which were crystal clear; someone suggested a swim and I think that we were all in agreement, until some one came forward with the idea that we touch the water first. When we did we realised that these were pools of melted ice and snow. I'm sure they would have given us a heart attack if we had dived in first. Charlie Keen and I were taken back in our thoughts to Norway where we had been prisoners of the Germans in May 1940; there was a similarity in the terrain and certainly in the coldness of the ice pools. Charlie and I joined the Northern Gem together in September 39, and he was to remain with her until she herself was demobbed in 1945.

The ships in the harbour looked like toy boats moving across a pond and not the huge merchant vessels which they really were. If we had not known where the Northern Gem lay we would never have been able to pick her out at all. She appeared so tiny that we all voiced the same opinion, that you would not think a ship of that size could cross the Atlantic. Yet she had done so, as had many others, some much smaller than her. On our walk around the town, we noticed that most of the buildings were constructed of wood, and that they were painted in many colours, the whole town being surrounded by large trees. It was indeed showing a resemblance to the scenery in North Russia.

Soon we were on the move again, this time to join a convoy which had left Halifax in Nova Scotia a day or so earlier. We were to be one of the escorts to help it reach the confines of the Western Approaches safely, our own destination Liverpool. In spite of our forecasts of another great convoy battle with many ships sunk and a host of survivors to pick up, surprisingly we had a comparatively quiet journey home. None of us realised it at the time, but there were apparently very few U-boats remaining in the North Atlantic, for their losses had been so great over the months of May and June, that they had been withdrawn to other areas, by their Commander in Chief Admiral Donitz. From that time on the battleground of the Atlantic, remained fairly quiet to what it had been over the previous years. But quiet or not, this was to be the last time I would cross the Atlantic towards the New World. My time in the Northern Gem was coming to an end the closer we got to England.

After a quiet voyage during which time we all lived like fighting cocks, (veal, ham, beef, and pork, you name it we had it to eat – in fact believe it or not, it was a pleasant change to get baked beans on a piece of fried bread) we arrived at the approaches to the Irish Sea, where we were despatched from the convoy to proceed to Liverpool. Skipper Mullender sent for me to tell me that when we got alongside, his relief would be waiting, and that he would be going ashore straightaway, this time for good, and we all said our farewells. Mine in particular, for he had been a good friend to me. His parting words to me were, 'You won't be long after me, Cox. Look me up when you get back to Lowestoft.'

We put to sea again for reasons which I cannot remember now, but we returned the next day to Liverpool, putting into one of the docks this time. It was not long before Mr Pooley came down to see me, to tell me that my relief would be onboard the next day.

Strangely enough my relief was another Hull man, an ex-fisherman like myself. I had known him slightly, as I gathered all my personal belongings together, I found one or two things which I thought would be more useful on the Gem than if I took them with me, my Arctic clothing for instance, I should not want them while I sat for my mate's certificate in Lowestoft.

After my last walk around the Gem, I said goodbye to those of the officers and men that I had known for so long, hoisted my case and kit-bag onto the quayside, and made my way to the railway station, taking a last look back before I got behind the cargo sheds on the dock side, and out of sight of the ship that had been my home for so long. I had brought her into harbour and into the dock for the last time without a pilot, or any orders or interference from any of the officers, and she had become like an extension of my right arm, if anyone can understand what I mean. On odd occasions I had stood four hours on and four hours off-watch for one or other of the officers when they had been under the weather through illness. And apart from the small part of her that I keep in my heart, plus the key and brass identity disc of the oilskin locker which I still have to this day, my best and most cherished memento is a letter written by Mullender some years later in which he told me, 'You are the best coxswain that I had all the time I was in the service'. I cherish this letter for that, and because I believe him to be the best skipper that I went to sea with, I would have gone anywhere with him, for he understood men and was very fair in his dealings with his crew on the occasions that he had to deal out punishment for their misdemeanours. Very rarely did he lose his temper or vent his spleen on anyone, be it officer or rating. I don't want to appear big-headed when I say this, but the Northern Gem was a damn good ship, and she had a good and contented crew, because of the mutual respect between officers and men. Not many vessels were so lucky.


Chapter Nine




Chapter Ten




Chapter Eleven





The Sparrows Nest was originally a country estate; it was taken over by the local authorities to be used as a park for the public at large in Lowestoft. In 1939, it consisted of amenities such as a concert hall, some conservatories, and an open air stage amongst other things. Elsie and Doris Waters were appearing there when the war broke out, and the Sparrows Nest then became HMS Pembroke X. It was to become the rallying ground and the base for men of the Royal Naval Reserve and later Hostilities Only men, all to be classed as the Royal Naval Patrol Service, an assembly point for all the brave men who were to be sent on their various drafts, to many parts of the world, to ships, depots, and all the places that were to come into contact with, and to be used for war purposes.

The Sparrows Nest, eventually became HMS Europa, and was so until the end of the war when both the Germans and the Japanese were beaten and all the 'Sparrows' were demobilized and sent home for good.

In October 1953, a memorial was unveiled by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roderick McGrigor; on its base were 17 bronze panels bearing the names of some 2,385 officers and men of the RNPS, the Royal Naval Patrol Service, who died at sea in action, and have 'No Known Grave but the Sea.'

On October 6th 1979, I went back to the 'Nest', 34 years after I last saw it, to be at the Memorial Service there held beneath this lovely tall column of gleaming white stone. At its peak a replica of the Golden Hind, shining brightly in the sun of that early winter day. Reading the names on the bronze panels of the many men who did not come back, here and there I found the names of some of the lads I had sailed with in pre-war days of fishing; there were also two I had known on the Northern Gem, it was a sad but very moving occasion and many memories came back.

One happy thing happened on that visit to Lowestoft. A meeting took place between my wife and me, and Tim Coleman and his wife Lily. It was the first time that we had seen or spoken to each other for 34 years, and it all happened by chance. As we walked around Lowestoft, we passed a telephone kiosk and I said to my wife, 'Just let's have a look at the phone book in there'. Selecting a 'Coleman' from the group of 8 or 10 on the page, I dialled the number. It was Lily who answered the phone, and I then spoke to Tim, who thought I had come back from the dead. He sent his daughter whom we had nursed on our knees all those years ago, to pick us up in her car, and when we arrived at his home, they were waiting for us at the garden gate. The meeting was similar to the This is Your Life programme on the television. We kept in touch by phone and letter after that, and he told me that it was weeks before he got over the shock of hearing my voice, and stopped shaking.

I'm sorry to say that he has since passed away, and to the best of my knowledge, there are only two of the old crew left, myself and Charlie Keen who was the Gem's signalman, and the longest serving member of her I believe. We keep in touch by phone and by letter, and one of these days before it gets too late, we shall meet for the first time since 1945, we shall have a lot to talk about. I have not been able to trace any others of her crew, it is possible that some are still around. If they are and they happen to read this, I say Dosvi Danya.

Sid Kerslake Fleetwood 1983


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