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Chapter Four - CONVOY PQ.17, the Russian convoy "massacre" June 1942

on to 5 - Maimska - North Russia


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The first noticeable alteration to the Gem was the small boats, which previously had been located one at each side of the casing containing the after mess deck, the davits being attached to the casing. They had been in that position ever since she had been built, and this may have been the correct place for them when she was at her normal job of deep sea fishing, for here they were out of the way of the working of the trawl gear. The times for the boats to be used when fishing were very few and far between, and in the past even when trawlers were sinking or were aground there were not many cases of the lifeboats getting away from the vessel. Since she had been used as a minor war vessel, we had found these boats and davits very hard and cumbersome to use in any other conditions but a flat calm sea, and there was always the danger there that the davits would cause trouble and fail with the weight of the boats. Sure enough they had done just that on the last patrol we did before going in for the refit. (below - British and Allied escort and cover forces taking part in PQ.17. "Northern Gem" was one of the few ships to go through to Russia.)



The smallish seamen's and stokers' mess-deck had been rebuilt, and now covered the whole of what used to be the fish room area. There was now an alley-way which ran fore and aft all the way along the entire length, on each side of which was a large roomy mess for sleeping in and for recreational purposes. There were bunks for some forty or so men, and these were going to be needed, as our crew went up in numbers from about 16 in 1939, to 25 at the end of 1944, and then between 40 and 50 after this refit. Finally when I left her in July 1943, there were 67 officers and ratings of all kinds in the crew, so in just under four years another 41 men had been sent onboard to maintain and operate new equipment and also to fill the requirements for more deck, engine room and gun crews.

On the top of the casing, where the old twin Lewis had been between the two small boats, we now had a circular gun platform, with twin point fives installed on it, and other more useful guns were now in the wings of the bridge. We stored ship taking on ammunition for use on the various guns, tons of tinned food and all the other things necessary to feed our large crew. All the things that had been put into the warehouses on the dock side had to be checked back onboard and signed for. There was quite a lot of sorting out to do in the time before we left the dockyard and took up our new duties, for now we had become a rescue ship as well as an escort vessel, and things looked as though they were going to liven up from now on.

Under the mess-deck alley-way forward, there were several small store rooms, one of which was now packed out with sacks, each one containing a complete new kit of gear for each survivor that was picked up out of the water, underclothes, and a thick shirt or a Canadian lumber jacket, I was told these were a gift from the Canadian people and their Government. If this was so they were very welcome because on many occasions previously when survivors had been picked up, many of them had very few if any clothes on their backs, or if they had they would often be covered in fuel oil. These clothes then had to be cut away from them and thrown away, and the men had to rely on the generosity of the Gem's crew, who all came forward unstintingly with bits and pieces of clothing to give to these unfortunate survivors. No matter what the nationality of the men picked up turned out to be, they were all given the same consideration; after all we were all fighting the same war, and the cameraderie between seamen of all nations had to be seen to be believed. In peace-time it was the same, but in war I don't think there was a more patriotic set of men than the merchant seamen. They gave of their all when at sea, while people onshore either did not understand what these men were going through day in and day out to bring the much wanted and needed commodities into the country, or they just did not care as long as they got their portion and a bit more besides. I'm sorry to have to say that but it is true.

Before I go on to tell of the next voyages that we made in the Gem, I would just like to put a word in here about a job of work that was rather unpleasant, but one that had to be done by someone, and I thought that as I was the coxswain, even though only acting, it should be one of my duties. Thus with one volunteer, Jack Sullivan, it was my job to see that any of the men that we picked up who were dead at the time, or who died later, were prepared for burial at sea. They were treated with respect and care as much as was possible, but with a great deal of haste in many cases, that I will admit, in order to get the job done quickly, if the weather was bad, or if other circumstances warranted it. A piece of stout canvas, needle and twine, and two fire bars were all that were needed to complete the task.

When all was finished, the body was placed on a plank of wood, and was then covered with a flag, a White Ensign or the Red Duster of the Merchant Navy; we then reported to the officer of the watch, who in turn would let the CO know, then either he or the first lieutenant would come down to the deck where most of our crew, and those of the dead man's shipmates who could do so, would gather round while the officer read out of the Holy Bible the usual service for burial at sea. When he had finished, the plank would be picked up and one end placed on the ship's rail; the other end would be raised until the body slid over the ship's side and into the sea, feet first to its eternal rest. The ship which had been stopped for the short time that this had taken, would then get on its way as quickly as possible, for while it lay stopped it made a good and easy target for any U-boat in the locality. There were the odd occasions when the senior officer of the escort would not give permission for the ship to be stopped for the purpose of a burial, for it might be too dangerous and not very prudent to do so.

These were sad occasions for everyone who remained behind to carry on the struggle, especially if one was a person with a sentimental nature. I must confess that I was like that, and often thought about the relatives of the ones who had been Discharged Dead, who they were, and how long it would be before they got to know that their husband, father or sweetheart would not be coming back to them. But I was not a man to dwell on these things for very long - you could not allow yourself to do so, or you could soon lose your nerve and crack up altogether.

During the January and February of 1942, ex-fishermen like myself onboard these anti-submarine trawlers, who had worked in those treacherous waters so far from home in the pre-war years, scratching a living from them, heard with mixed feelings that convoys had started to sail to and from the North Russian Coast. At first we did not believe that this could happen, but then we spoke to men from other trawlers who had already done the trip. Apparently they had started in the August or September of 1941. Soon we were to get confirmation and know for certain, as we were destined to take part in them, but before this we were lucky enough to get another leave.

There are not many things that I can remember about any of the home leaves that I had. I suppose that I enjoyed them all and made the most of what time I had at home, like all service men and women did. It was a relief in our case to get away from the constant and never ending strain of being at sea for days and weeks on end, and from seeing good ships being lost and men dying terrible deaths, especially in the tankers and those carrying ammunition. Many of the latter were gone in a second with a mighty explosion and a brilliant flash of flame, with only a huge tower of smoke being left to show that a few seconds before a ten or twelve thousand ton merchant ship had been steaming along with thirty or forty human beings like us on board it. But even if there were no attacks on the convoy, the strain was always there for one was always keyed up waiting for something to happen. I guess that the people at home went through a similar sort of thing during the raids by the Luftwaffe. At least we had a chance to hit back, whereas they had to sit in their shelters and take all that came down from the heavens. I know that on my leaves if there was a raid on Hull, I felt helpless sitting in an Anderson Shelter in the garden, while other folk sat playing cards or just having an impromptu sing song. The citizens of Hull had a tough time of it as did many others in the country and spent more time in their air raid shelters than they did in their own beds.

The girl who was to become my wife eventually, even though we were not engaged at the time, was now a member of the Women's Royal Air Force and was stationed in Hull, helping to defend the city against attack with barrage balloons. She and her mates had to stay there on the balloon site once their charge was in the air come what may. It was hard work for the girls from what I could see of it, but they were a great crowd of lasses that she was with.

Unfortunately on this leave, my future wife and I had a few words with each other over something that neither of us can now remember and we parted not the best of friends. But during the next year or so I found that I could not forget her, and apparently she felt the same about me. In the meantime however there was still a war to be fought, and so it was back to the Northern Gem and whatever was in store for us.

The crew of the old Gem were a happy crowd of men. On odd occasions there would be a clash of tempers, but nothing serious, but I suppose this was to be expected due to the conditions under which we lived and worked. Little things seemed to get under the skin at times and cause a bit of friction, yet by and large although the discipline wasn't as strict as on a larger naval vessel, the men knuckled down and did their jobs as they should have been done. Local leave was very rarely abused and only a small number found themselves on the CO's defaulters' list.

In the early part of the war I can remember one thing that did get at the crew no end, and that was the destroyer escorts. They all did trojan work, and we were always pleased to know that we had one or two with us but as far as I am concerned I would not have swapped the Gem for any of them, especially the old lease lend ones from America. I know from some of the men off the newer built British destroyers, that even these were never dry, for the mess decks were continually awash with water with all sorts of gear and stores floating about. We on the Gem at least kept dry down below, apart from the inevitable sweat and condensation that dropped from the deck heads (or ceilings to landlubbers), and trickled down the bulkheads and ship's sides. There were the odd times when she would dig her head into a heavy sea and some of it would find its way down the companionways or the ventilators and flood everything, but by and large the trawlers were good sea ships. Being a lot lighter than they were in their peace-time occupation of fishing, they were inclined to ride over most of the seas; although they got thrown about tremendously, we suffered more from bruising by being in contact quite heavily with immovable objects than by getting wet.

To get back to this niggle about the destroyers. The trawlers, once they had taken up their allotted positions on these earlier convoys, were glued there in that place regardless of how long the voyage out and back took, yet to us the destroyers seemed forever to be getting relieved to go back into harbour for refuelling, for at that period of the war there was no tanker with the convoy for them to get their oil from; those came along later when there was more of the larger class of new escorts available, and the Battle of the Atlantic got more and more hectic, so that escorts could not be spared to steam back to Iceland or wherever for oil. The trawler men got more than a little frustrated at the thoughts of these crews being able to get at least one night's good sleep in relative comfort, and as well as the oil they took on board to replenish their tanks, we had visions of them being topped up with more fresh food of some kind, while we had to slog it out on the old four hours on and four hours of routine, feeding off the seemingly endless Red Lead, Sardines and Bangers, and the continual supply of Chinese Wedding Cake. We felt at times that we were not really accepted by the RN (Real Navy), only when it suited them.

We were only Reservists and Hostilities Only men, but by heavens we did a difficult job to the best of our ability, with what armament and speed we could muster, and as far as I am aware none of us ran away from danger at all. I think that the trawlers did a good job during the first couple of years of the war, when the Royal Navy was being pushed to their limit by their lack of numbers of escort ships. In the Norwegian Campaign they were Jacks of all Trades, being sent into the most inaccessible places in the fiords, harried by the German bombers, bombed and shot up while they were speeding along at their steady nine or ten knots full out, with the entire ship being shaken to pieces with the vibration of the engines and exploding bombs. About ten of them were sunk in the course of the campaign, one of them, the Arab, earning a VC for gallantry at Namsos, so we could not have been all that useless.

It may be interesting to some to know that the pay for this work that we were engaged upon, was the princely sum of eighteen shillings and nine pence a week, two shillings and five pence per day, plus six pence per day (Hard Layers, a term used I believe to denote that there was some discomfort in being one of the crew of a small ship in the service).

At last in the middle of 1942 we in the Gem found ourselves going north once more, this time to the Russian port of Archangel, not knowing that the convoy we were to escort was to become the most tragic and controversial of all the convoys during the whole of the Second World War.

The middle of June 1942 found us in company with three other A/S trawlers, the Lord Austin, Lord Middleton and the Ayrshire, the first two being ex-Hull trawlers, and the latter ex-Grimsby. All three I knew pretty well from pre-war days, having often fished alongside of them on the different grounds. We four minor warships left Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, for Hvalfiord on the north-west corner of Iceland, supposedly to sail with convoy PQ 17 early in June. This was not to be, for we had a long wait until there were enough destroyer escorts to accompany the convoy of merchant ships which were arriving almost daily to drop their anchors and wait for the day of sailing. It wasn't until the afternoon of the 27th June that we all left the shelter of Hvalfiord, and meanwhile we saw with amazement the fiord filling up with the ships of several nations. There were British, American and Russian merchant vessels of all sizes. Some of them were piled up with deck cargo lashed down and chained securely to the decks, and consisting of tanks, lorries, planes and huge wooden crates. The contents of these we could only guess at, and what they carried below decks in their holds must have been war equipment of all kinds to aid the Russians in their fight against the invading German armies. We could see by the way they sat in the water they were loaded to capacity, right up to their Plimsoll lines.

From where we four trawlers were anchored, we could see not only the mass of merchant ships, but also British and American warships at anchor in the deep blue and still icy waters of Hvalfiord. Even now in June it was cold from the snow and ice melting from the tops of the high mountain peaks surrounding the fiord. The view from the deck of our small ship was awe-inspiring. I had seen such sights before many times, but with so many ships in the anchorage it was even more beautiful. An aircraft carrier, for all its huge size, looked tiny with the backing of those high mountains, the lower regions of which were decorated here and there with colourful farmhouses, and the mauves, yellows and greens of the plant life.

Once the anchor was in the water, and the routine of squaring up of the ship was completed, some of the crew got out their fishing lines to try their luck at catching some fish to give us a change of diet. Soon the CO left the ship on one of the many duty boats that were chasing about all over the fiord, to attend a conference about the future convoy. As the days went past, the usual buzzes started to go around the Gem, gathered from the occupants of these small boats. We learned that this was the largest convoy yet to set sail for Russia. There were more rumours going the rounds of the mess decks, and the fact that so many ships were in the vicinity seemed to give credence to what we were being told. My heart goes out to all who sailed in those great lumbering merchant ships during the war years. It must have been terrible to have to plod along at times at the same speed as the slowest ship in the convoy, expecting to be mined, or bombed or torpedoed, sometimes even shelled by German raiders who managed to evade the naval and air patrols in the Denmark Straits. Yet, at the bottom of their hearts, they must have been saying, if they were anything like me, 'It can't happen to me'. But unfortunately it did to so many of those brave men whose ships went to the bottoms of the many oceans of the world, where they still lie rusting.

As we cast our eyes over this array of ships at anchor in the fiord on those days in June 1942, I suppose we wondered which of them would be the unlucky ones, the ones which would not make it to Archangel, and how we ourselves would fare on the trip, for it was being said that we, the convoy that is, was to be the cheese in the trap, the means of drawing the Tirpitz (above - in a Norwegian fiord in 1943, Maritime Quest), Lutzow and the Admiral Hipper from their anchorages, along with others of their tribe, and that the other and smaller convoy which sailed at the same time as PQ 17, would make them think that an invasion of Norway was on the cards. We know now from the books written since the war, about PQ17, what the plan really was, but I am trying in this record of the Northern Gem's war, to record what we on the lower deck felt about things that were going on around us at the time. The ordinary matelot was lucky if he was in a ship where the CO gave them a good insight into what was going on. I'm not certain which was best, to be told or not to be told.

On the afternoon of the 27th June, several things happened when the convoy cleared Hvalfiord and formed up, which in our position at the stern of the convoy we mostly did not see. For a convoy of thirty five ships along with their escorts and accompanying tanker, and in this case three rescue ships, covers very many square miles of ocean, and what is going on at one side of such a huge and very complex conglomeration of ships, is not necessarily known at the other side. While one side was in clear sunny weather, apparently the other was in fog, and encountering ice which holed one vessel so badly that it had to turn back to Iceland. We in the Gem were in clear weather as far as I can remember with no knowledge of what was happening some ten or fifteen miles away, and so we just plodded on, a small part of Convoy PQ 17, to whatever was in store for us in the tiring and frantic days ahead, which would bring memories of sights, sounds and fears that have stayed with me to this very day: the two or three air attacks that were beaten off with such ferocity by the escorts and the merchant ships, and then, when everything seemed to be going well for us and our morale was at its highest, the signal that came from the Admiralty which sent us off to all points of the compass, seeking a place of safety and in great fear for our lives.

I don't intend to even try to put down here the reasons that caused the Naval High Command to scatter this fine convoy of ships. All this has been gone into by far better brains than mine, and argued about by those more knowledgeable than I. With their hindsight maybe many of the twenty-four ships that were lost could have sailed on to reach their destination, but more important still, many more brave merchant seamen would still be alive and others might not have lost their minds and reason as they did. Here I am trying to state the feelings and thoughts of myself and others on the Northern Gem on this tragic convoy. I am certain that many of the men on the other ships taking part, whichever nation or service they belonged to, will have similar memories to mine, and that they will feel the same as I do, after all these years.

PQ17 was our first Russian convoy, and during the few days before sailing, a feeling of quiet apprehension and foreboding as to what would happen, circulated round the crew, I told myself, 'Well here goes, either we get there or we don't; we had to take our chances along with the rest.

After coming out of Hvalfiord, leaving Akranes on the starboard side, and Reykjavik on the port, the convoy formed up, and we in the Gem took up our position on the starboard quarter. There seemed to be ships stretched out as far as the eye could see. The cavalcade carried on until we left 'Snowy Jokell', (Snaefells Jokull) a large extinct volcano on our starboard side, then Patriksfiord and Isafiord, then once past there we turned on to a more north-westerly course which would take us further away from the north coast of Iceland until we reached the point somewhere off and to the northeast of the rocky island of Grimsey, where the destroyer escorts were to join up with us at a certain time. They had been waiting at Seydisfiiord for some of the latecomers who had been on a Malta convoy. What a comparison from the lovely sunny blue Med, to at that time the sunny but cold Arctic Ocean, and only God knew what.

By this time although we didn't know it, one of the ships, a fairly large merchantman, had turned back to Hvalfiord, having had the good or bad (whichever way you look at it) fortune, to run into some ice as she steamed merrily along, and put a hole in her hull. There were reports of fog around, but whilst I was on deck or at the wheel, I don't remember seeing any at all. With the convoy taking up so many square miles of sea space, this was not unusual. At times we did not hear for some time what was going on, on the opposite side at all. As the other escorts joined us, we breathed a sigh of relief at the knowledge that at some point just over the horizon were the big boys, the cruisers Norfolk and London, and the United States Navy with their Tuscaloosa and Wichita and battleship Washington. There was also the Duke of York and the aircraft carrier Victorious, from which I believe the photograph of the Northern Gem was taken. I remember passing her as she lay at anchor in Hvalfiord. I was at the wheel on the bridge at the time and I felt very proud just looking at her. This knowledge that they were at hand made our foreboding turn to a feeling of exhilaration, and with it that 'piece of cake, and easy' attitude, which, although we didn't know it at the time, would in a matter of a few days be knocked out of us by something that no one on this vast array of ships ever expected or had even thought about.

In our minds, I think that all of us were pretty certain that the enemy ships would not come out to fight when they had a report from their spotter planes about the armada moving across the Arctic Ocean, the outer covering force and the inner escort of destroyers and corvettes, two submarines, and two anti-aircraft ships, the Pozerica and the Palomaris, not forgetting of course the four armed trawlers, coal burning ex-fishing vessels. After all we were equipped with Asdic gear and depth charges to hunt the U-boats, and they were hunted and some were sunk by trawlers manned by men of the RNR and ex-fishermen like myself, along with some men and youths who in some circumstances had never seen the sea before being called up.



Of course we did expect the usual U-boat attacks, but the weather as far as we in the Gem were concerned was great, with the sea almost as flat as a mill pond. At that time of the year it was daylight for the whole twenty-four hours; we knew that we could be seen for miles and miles. The smoke from the merchant ships and coal burning trawlers was going straight up into the air, until it reached a certain height, and then it spread out horizontally helped by the winds in the upper atmosphere to form clouds in an otherwise lovely blue summer sky.

A few hours after sailing from Hvalfiord, the ships (listed above) had got themselves into their allotted positions; the crews had settled down once they had taken in the inspiring sight around their vessel, to the usual watch-on watch-off routine. When off watch, they would play cards and dominoes which were the favourite off-watch pastimes, as well as reading and sleeping of course. All the usual duties had been carried out, all the guns had been cleaned and checked over and over again, the depth charge throwers and rails, the lifeboats, rafts and the gear in them had been checked and checked again, to ensure that they could be dropped into the water should the need arise with, we hoped, very little effort. The old four-inch quick firing gun that was positioned on a platform over the whale-back, was pulled through, and cleaned, traversed and elevated up and down, to make sure that the movements were loose and free, the dust and crystallized salt was removed from the telescopic sights, which were then polished up to perfection. Yes, we were fit, and as ready as we would ever be.

Being the coxswain, I had no regular watch as I had to be ready for any emergency, and in the event of an attack my place of action was on the steering bridge, at the wheel. One of my favourite spots, when things were calm and quiet, was on the point five gun platform over the galley, just abaft amidships. There I kept a few tins of tomato juice (purchased in Reykjavik) to keep them cold. To me they were a luxury that I enjoyed very much when we were not able to get a pot of tea or Kye. I was up there on one of my voluntary vigils, when I saw my first German spotter plane, the nose to sea bloodhound, as I christened him. He went round and around the convoy, and looked as if he were set to escort us all the way to the White Sea. Some days later on 2nd July, I was up on the gun platform when I saw six or eight planes come up over the horizon, right astern of our position on the starboard quarter. Action stations were sounded, and I just had time before running to the bridge to see that they were biplanes, of a similar appearance to the Swordfish, but these had floats below them instead of wheels, and they were carrying torpedoes.

Thinking back, it seems to me that they had no intentions of coming in too close to the convoy, or that was my impression. I was on my way to the bridge and had just got to the foot of the bridge ladder, when I heard someone shout at the top of his voice, 'Torpedo on starboard quarter'. I stopped and looked around, and on sighting its track of air bubbles, I stood rooted to the spot, one foot on the ladder and the other frozen to the casing. I saw that it was approaching the ship's side at an angle of about fifteen degrees, and heading straight for the engine room under where I stood. My heart was thumping like mad, and I was scared almost to death, believe me. I heard the CO shout, 'Hard Aport', then 'Steady', and to my relief, saw the track of the torpedo was now travelling on a parallel course to that of the ship, and was gradually overtaking us. I heard the order given to bring her back on to her original course, and hypnotized I watched the track of bubbles from the torpedo sweep under the cut-away icebreaker bows of the Gem. I came back to life taking in deep breaths and gulps of that sweet and clean Arctic air, then continued on to relieve the man at the wheel, where both of us commented that it had been a close thing.

Whether this 'fish' had been dropped from one of the planes or from a sub, I don't really know, but I would assume that it had come from an aircraft. The Gem was doing about eleven knots at the time in order to close up with the convoy, as laid down in the orders during an attack on the convoy. What bit of wind there was that day was coming over the port bow causing the smoke coming from the funnel to lay along the surface of the water of our starboard quarter; this was helped by our speed through the water, so we came to the conclusion that one of the Heinkels had crept into our smoke, before dropping the torpedo. Still it missed us, or our skipper evaded it, and from our warning signal other ships on our port side were able to keep clear of it. We lived to fight another day, with the faithful nose-to-sea bloodhound still keeping his eye on the convoy. (below - the attacking German forces, actual and potential)



If I remember correctly, it was about twenty-four hours later, that we got a second shock (With thanks to Pieter Graf, 20 Feb 2011 - "The second attack was on July 4"). We were at this time nearing an old haunt of mine from pre-war fishing days, Bear Island. We had received a warning of a further air attack, and as I was standing on the after gun platform, waiting for the alarm that would send me rushing to the bridge, we gazed in awe at the sight astern of what looked like a flock of birds coming into sight over the horizon. I started to count the planes 1-2-5-10-15-25. There I gave up and ran for the bridge. The alarm had not been sounded for everyone was on his way to action stations, or was there already, hearts beating sixty to the dozen, and the saliva was thick in our mouths; we were hoping that they would not come for a small ship like ours. Once I got on the bridge, I saw very little of what was going on around us, except for the area immediately ahead of the Gem. I saw the leading plane go flashing past the port side of the bridge, and another along the starboard side and across our bows, very close and making for the convoy. All of our guns were having a go. It appeared to me that tracer shells were hitting this last one from all sides; then I heard one of the look-outs shout from the top bridge that he had crashed onto the tanker, a Russian ship named the Azerbijan, and that she was on fire. Taking a quick glance in that direction I could see the smoke and flames billowing out from her bows.

One or two merchant ships seemed to be slowing down, and the two small rescue ships, the Rathlin and the Zamelac were manoeuvering around. One merchant ship that I had in sight just vanished as I was looking at her; one second she was there and the next all there was left was a huge pall of smoke, reaching up towards the blue sky. I had not the time to see if she was a tanker or not. The crew would not have known what hit them. It was an unbelievable thing to see happen, and quite unforgettable. Also in my memory of those few hectic minutes of the attack, is the sight of an American destroyer, steaming full out and being very, very aggressive towards these intruder German planes. She was turning in towards them and letting fly with all the guns she had, and I would not have been surprised to see her crew popping off with rifles and revolvers at anything that was airborne, I've found out since that she was the USS Rowan. (Also with thanks to Pieter Graf - "She was not the USS Rowan (DD-405, under LCDR Beverley Randolph Harrison, Jr), but the USS Wainwright (DD-419 under LCDR Robert Henry Gibbs), flagship of COMDESRON 8, Captain Don Pardee Moon, who later on D-Day  as Rear Admiral was CTF 125 off Utah Beach.")  

Personally, I did not go much on being cooped up in the bridge on the Gem, while all this was going on around at the time, so I felt the greatest sympathy for all engine room staff who could not see what was happening. At least I could hear the shouts from the men on the top bridge, and I did know a little bit of the local and close incidents. Yet I felt bad enough for all that, especially when I heard them shouting, 'Here's one', and 'Christ, look at that', and I could not dash out to see. Our chief engineer, Bill Maitland, a dour Scot from the granite city of Aberdeen, once told me when I asked him how he felt down there at the time, 'I'm all right all the time I can hear the thumps and bangs of the explosions; it's the silences that I cannot stand.'

One incident happened within a few hours of this attack. To us in our state of mind at the time it appeared rather funny, though I cannot imagine the pilot and his crew seeing our side of it. An old Walrus plane (above - in Kola Inlet, courtesy NavyPhotos/Alan for Mr S Vallely)  from one of the larger ships of the outer escort, wandered over the convoy, and ran slap bang into the enemy spotting plane, who immediately chased the Walrus around the convoy. The Walrus of course wasn't fast enough to get away, and after making several attempts to get back to his own ship only to be met by the spotter each time, thought that discretion was the better part of valour, and landed on the flat surface of the sea, to be taken in tow by one of the escorting corvettes.

0n 4th July, American Independence Day 1942, one that a lot of our American friends will never forget, the sight of the outer escort of battleships and cruisers, along with their own destroyer escorts, closing in towards the convoy, the American ships amongst them having a great display of flags flying all over the place, had us all guessing for a time, but suddenly the penny dropped. Someone had realised what day it was. With the success the convoy had had in fighting off the attacks, and now the sight of all these large warships celebrating the day dear to the hearts of the people of the United States of America, my pride and the feeling of being safe in their hands came back to me, and I say once more that I am proud to have been there and to have witnessed this great display. That the feeling was destined to be so short-lived is irrelevant.

Even though the skies had kept fairly clear for us, there had been patches of fog in various parts of the convoy, and we soon got our share of it. Though it was not too clear at sea level, there seemed to be clouds of the stuff forming overhead, but we kept on moving along very nicely. So it was with great surprise that a single plane dropped through the clouds and sent a torpedo into one of the merchant ships, the crew being picked up by one of the rescue ships. Not long after this the convoy sustained a heavy attack from bombers flying above the clouds of fog. We could hear them in the air, but never caught sight of one of them. Yet again while this was going on, in came more torpedo-carrying planes to carry out a brave and damaging attack during which two or three more merchant ships were sunk. As suddenly as it began, so the attack finished, and all was quiet after the noise of the exploding bombs and the roar of the many guns of the convoy. Several of the planes were seen to be shot down by the members of our crew, and each time a cheer went up from those who had seen them go down.

By this time we were somewhere to the north of Bear Island, and this put us well within range of the enemy airfields in Norway which was not so very far away as the seagull flies, and as the clouds and fog began to thin out, we began to think that we would be getting many more of these heavy attacks. Here we were wrong, for suddenly we saw flag hoists going up on all the destroyers and the big ships, and Aldis lamps flashing in all directions. As the outer escort closed in towards us, we sensed that something out of the ordinary was going on. It was. A few minutes later the word was passed around that the convoy was to scatter; apparently the German Navy had dared to come out from their bases in Norway after all.* (* In fact they had not. The Admiralty faced with conflicting intelligence reports, made the wrong deduction, and sent the 'scatter' signal). Word had come from the Admiralty in London, and it was to be every ship for themselves as far as the small escorts and merchant ships were concerned.

To say that all of us on the Gem were stunned would be putting it mildly. I can remember the words that I said at the time, 'What are we splitting up for, we're better off as we are, on our own we have no chance at all'. The more we thought and talked about it, the more horrified we became. I was only twenty-two, and like many others of my age, was still young enough to want to live and come through this war, but now I felt that my time had come. It was probably only because I had a responsible position that I was able to keep my worst thoughts to myself.

More than two thirds of our crew had never been to sea before they joined up. One of them acted up badly, constantly saying to everyone 'We'll never get there, we'll never make it', and 'We'll never get home again', until in the galley an hour or so later, I literally had to shake him by the shoulders to get him to stop saying what most of us were thinking; by saying it out loud, he was making everyone feel much worse. Standing on the bridge a bit later on, my own thoughts sorted themselves out, and I thought, 'Well, we are a small ship on a very large ocean, and with a bit of luck we should take some finding.' The sea was my life, and I had loved every minute of it, but this was different, and I wondered if my Mother knew what we were going through now, as she had done in 1940.

The departure of the outer big escort vessels and their attendant destroyer force, who were joined by the close escort destroyers, hell bent on getting at the German ships for a right royal battle, meant the convoy now no longer existed. The merchant ships, the rescue vessels, and the remaining small escort corvettes and trawlers, along with the two ack-ack ships, 'scattered' to all points of the compass. Ships were making off at their top speed in all directions, and many had already vanished from our sight over the horizon by the time we on the Gem realised how serious the situation was. But here and there we could still see the odd plume of smoke from one or other of these ships, its crew no doubt praying as we were for a safe landfall. The deadly game of hide and seek was on for us once more in deadly earnest, the ships piling on the revs, and each man with his own thoughts and a prayer of God Save us



As our speeds through the water were about the same, at the most about eleven knots, the Lord Austin, Lord Middleton, and our own ship Northern Gem, decided to stay in each other's company for mutual protection, and in line ahead we made to the north to find the edge of the ice. Since the Gem was German-built it has crossed my mind on more than one occasion since then as to whether a U-boat skipper, (and one must have sighted us at some time during the next four days), from our shape and our silhouette, the ice-breaker bows, and the cruiser stern, typical of their own fishing vessels, might have mistaken us for one of their own units, or did he think that we were not worth one of his torpedoes, or that we might eventually lead them to bigger game?

Our two lifeboats were now slung out over the port and starboard rail respectively, ready for a quick getaway in, the case of an emergency. Owing to the calm sea, there was very little rolling movement in the ship, and the boats could be lowered almost level with the ship's rail. Into each one we put extra food, clothing, and blankets, water, a couple of gallon jars of navy rum, rifles and quite a lot of ammunition for those and some revolvers, last but not least we threw in one or two tins of 'Tickler's', (Tobacco), fag papers and packets of cigarettes. All of these items were made secure, along with the mast, sails and oars, in case there were any accidents, in the event of us having to make a quick getaway. We had seen too many upturned boats over the last couple of years which had lost all their equipment, and we were determined that this would not happen to our boats. The life rafts of which we had three were also made ready. Two of these were on small wooden platforms level with the top of the galley, and over the deck, as they were laid flat on these platforms, the lashings holding them were released so that if the ship were hit and went too quickly for us to get the boats away, they at least would eventually come to the surface, to give those who had survived something to get into if they could. The third raft was a different proposition, as it was secured almost upright on end to the starboard rigging of the foremast, by quick release grips. But with a ship the size of the Gem, the chances of anyone being able to get at these grips to release it would depend on how quickly the ship was going under. Of course there was always the problem that a torpedo hit would leave nothing at all, but that was one of those horrible thoughts that one tried hard to bury at the back of one's mind. However, we made all the arrangements that we could to escape as quickly as would be possible under all but the worst disaster. Now we had to think of ourselves, as well as the survivors of other ships that we might have to pick up, and to save time we made certain that the rescue nets were hung over the sides of the vessel, ready for this act of mercy should it arise.

Each man put on extra clothing, for the further north we went, the colder it was getting. Even though the sea was calm, there was the odd shower of snow now and again; there were a few fog banks about for the three trawlers to dodge into, the temperature of the sea being well below freezing point even though it was summer in the northern hemisphere. A swim of much more than two minutes and one would lapse into a deep sleep of unconsciousness, and inevitable death. Apart from the clothing, we all made certain that we had our bicycle inner tubes on, the navy issue life belts, our steel helmets at the ready; also we had our pockets full of personal things that we did not want to leave behind. One man even packed a small pusser's suitcase. This gives an idea of the feeling that was touching every one of the crew. Old Frampton, the second engineer, who had been called back to the service after being pensioned off, and now found himself in a ship that was hardly pusser's Navy, as he had known it for most of his early life, now had his pension book and all of his other private papers, hung around his neck in a well-used oilskin bag, and underneath the few bits of clothing that those below could stand to wear in the oily heat below.

The usual ship's joker, Jack Sullivan, when not on the Asdic set, was helping everyone along with his wit and joviality. Never seeming to be down in the dumps, he would always come up with something to make us laugh when we were feeling low. On our way to the ice barrier, we saw on odd occasions a ship in the distance either on fire, or lying abandoned after being attacked, but due to our slow speed and small amount of armament, we could do little to help. How we regretted it, we really did. After all, the three skippers of our small flotilla had about a hundred and sixty men in their care, and had their lives to consider, as well as their ship's. Selfish, probably some would say, but those who did not go through this awful experience have no idea just what the feeling of self-preservation was at the time, nor how awful we ourselves felt, knowing that somewhere out there were probably men in rafts or boats, maybe wounded, but definitely in serious trouble as the temperatures were freezing during the night, even though the sun never sets in those latitudes at that time of the year. Our hearts went out to those men but we were in no position to give them more. When I took a spell at the wheel with Leading Seaman Tim Coleman, as we carried on at top speed to the north, the showers of snow came down with more frequency, and we could see far away in the final spells between these showers, a thin layer of fog low down on the horizon. I told Tim that I could smell the ice, and that it wasn't so very far away now.

An hour or so later we were in the ice, thin pancake stuff at first, and then as we pressed further on into it, we got amongst the smaller floes, and then the larger and more dangerous lumps. The skippers had to ease down on the speed of the ships, for safety's sake, and for hours on end which seemed endless Tim Coleman and myself stayed in the wheel-house, taking turns at steering the Gem along, following the open water and leads through the much larger and more dangerous lumps of ice. Soon there was plenty of ice between us and the open sea, and we felt that here at least, we were reasonably secure and safe, from torpedo attacks, both by U-boat and torpedo-carrying aircraft, should they find us. What we would do if the enemy bombers found us was another matter, as there was no room to manoeuvre amongst the ice, as there was always the chance of being holed, or even losing blades off the propeller, which would make us or one of the other trawlers a lame duck. So we were having to take extreme care when coming upon the much larger floes and small bergs that were in our path, and we listened intently to shouts from the top bridge and the men on the forecastle head, who were keeping a good look-out from both places.

Our CO, Lieutenant Mullender, now let it be known that we were making all haste for Novaya Zembla, hoping that no German ships had arrived there before us. If they had, and it was thought that escape by sea was impossible, then the three trawlers would be run ashore on one of these God-forsaken islands. We would then salvage what we could from them and try to make our way overland and the sea ice, until we found a settlement, or until we reached the Russian mainland. Not a very charming or happy prospect to look forward to, but at least it would be a great deal better than freezing to death in open boats, if the enemy gave us the chance to get away in them. Others were now already going through that ordeal much to our regret. I don't know just how long it took us, but it seemed an eternity, before we saw on the horizon, two humps of land rising out of the sea ahead of us, the two islands of Novaya Zembla.

We made our way carefully out of the ice and into the open sea once again, all hands now standing at some vantage point around the ship keeping a good look-out. By this time Tim and I were having trouble with our eyes, through the constant staring at the ice for so long. Until getting clear of the ice we had not needed to use the compass to steer by, but now in the open sea we found that the only way we could see the compass points was by almost closing our eyes in concentration, otherwise we felt as though we were looking through frosted glass. Distant sight did not seem to be affected, and later we both found that our eyesight was back to normal. The order for full ahead was given, and the three trawlers were soon going full out and making for the gap between the two islands, the Matochkin Straits. We had at least made a landfall. The only problem was what was waiting for us in the straits? Some of our side, or some of theirs? We kept our fingers crossed very firmly indeed.

When we got closer to the shore, we turned beam on to the land and the speed of the ships was reduced to allow us to creep up to the entrance to the straits. This was a vital period. All eyes, something like three hundred or so of them, were hypnotized by the sight of the strait opening up like a page of a picture book. From behind the port side promontory appeared the bows of a ship, and as the angle of our approach opened up the straits more of the vessel came into view. In those first few minutes we thought that the enemy had got there before us, and were waiting ready to blast us out of the water, but to our intense relief, an Aldis lamp flashed in English. We saw that it was a corvette, and the three of us made our way past the Poppy, for that was her name, to make for a spot to drop the anchor and come to rest if only for a short time.

Once in the strait, with the anchor down, we had time to take a proper look around, and saw the La Malouine, Pozerica, Palomares and one of the rescue ships, the Zamalek. There were also three Fleet sweepers, Halcyon, Salamander and the Britomart. Five merchant ships had also found their way in to uneasy safety of the strait, Samuel Chase, Ocean Freedom, El Capitan, the Hoosier and the Benjamin Harrison. Later there was another welcome arrival, the corvette Lotus. Her decks were crammed with survivors; she had gone back after hearing reports on the RT of ships being bombed and torpedoed, and had picked up about a hundred men from the sea, and certain death. What pluck and courage the crew of the Lotus had shown, with complete disregard for their own safety. If only the Gem had been able to give us a few more knots, we might have been able to do the same, but of course we did not have those few extra knots under our belt. We had to be satisfied with being one of the lucky ones who had got this far. It had not seemed possible some twenty to thirty hours previously, but then neither had the order for the convoy to scatter. Now here we were at anchor in the Matochkin Strait, between two almost barren islands, with what may well have been the only ships remaining out of that magnificent array of fine ships, Convoy PQ 17. It was unbelievable.

There were, perched on one side of the strait, what appeared to be a few wooden shacks, which we were told were a Russian settlement, and we did occasionally see one or two people moving about, and I seem to remember at one time some kind of a boat coming alongside from the shore. We were also told that the strait was alive with fish, but even if we had felt like putting out the fishing lines, I do not think that we would have caught any as there was a very strong flow of water rushing past the ships, suggesting a very strong tide. However none of the crew had any interest in fishing, for there were much more important things to do first. There was not much else to see of the land, the coast appeared to be very rocky, and there was not much vegetation to be seen. The two islands were pretty much the same in appearance; from the shore line the ground climbed steadily upwards, until it came to the top of the two large 'mountain' tops, which we had seen when we were coming out of the ice. I remembered that there were some great plaice fishing grounds around here and the Sem Islands not so far away, but this was actually the first time that I had seen these islands in the daylight. Usually these fishing grounds were worked by trawlers of many countries, but mostly in the winter months. During the summer and when it was daylight the trawlers were mostly working the Bear Island and Spitzbergen grounds, when the ice receded back towards the North Pole.

While we lay there wondering what was in store for us next, we talked of the land we could see, and of what it would be like if we had to try making our way over it, had we been forced to run our ships onto the shore. I for one would have been sorry to have had to leave the Gem on that barren shoreline, for she had been my home for almost three years. Some people may think me stupid when I say that I loved every inch of her, and the affection I had for her is still with me to this day, I often 'walk' around her in my thoughts, and can remember how sad I was when I learned that she had been broken up for scrap in the early fifties.

The officers from each vessel in the group of surviving ones that were anchored in this barren but welcome place, which was giving us .at least the chance to get a small amount of respite, went over to the ack-ack ship Palomares for a conference about what the next move was going to be. Some sort of plan of action had to be arrived at, because we all realised that we could not stay in this haven of dubious relief for very much longer, without being found by the German bombers. In here there would be no room for manoeuvre, and we would become sitting targets. Not only that but the longer we stayed, there was always the chance that U-boats would be .gathering for the slaughter outside the Strait. The outcome of this conference, the CO told us when he came back aboard, was that first the three trawlers had to coal ship, for supplies were running low; it must have been fifteen or sixteen days since we had last coaled at Londonderry, and I don't recall taking any on board during our stay in Iceland at all. Each trawler went alongside the Ocean Freedom, and took on a specified amount of the precious stuff; the whole of the crew got stuck in to the job, and we soon had our quota down below in the coal bunkers. The CO also told us that the conference onboard the Palomares had ended with a unanimous decision to form a small convoy of the ships already in the strait, along with any others who came in before we sailed, and try to make our way along the coast of Novaya Zembla, and into the White Sea, where it was hoped we should be able to expect some air cover from the Russian Air Force, and possibly some help from their Navy.

When all was ready, anchors were hove up, and each ship made its way out of the Matochkin Straits, and back into the open sea once again. The six merchant ships which included the rescue ship Zamalek, soon formed themselves into a small and compact convoy, and the escorts took up their allotted positions around it. There was a cold wet fog covering the area, and the visibility was not too good, though we welcomed it at the time as being heaven sent. Our position in the screen this time was on the port quarter of the convoy, so we were between it and the land. We found ourselves alongside the Ocean Freedom, but there was no freedom in this bloody ocean. As we steamed along the fog got thicker, and we edged nearer to the Freedom; at times all that we could see of her out of the bridge window, despite our close proximity, was the white foaming water rushing past a dark patch of her hull; her upper structure could not be seen at all. The ships in the middle of the group were streaming fog buoys at the end of a cable, so that the next in line could follow at a safe distance,. but in this lot there must have been some very near collisions at various times. My job at the wheel was to keep as near as I could without actually hitting the Freedom, and with Tim Coleman keeping a wary eye open alongside me, it wasn't a hard job.

After steaming along in these conditions for a considerable period, during which Tim and myself spelled each other at the wheel and on lookout, we broke out of the fog into brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies. It was like walking along a blacked out street at home and opening the door of the house to walk into a brightly lit room. On looking around, apart from the Ocean Freedom and ourselves, there were no other ships to be seen at all. The others had vanished. At some time in the past hour or so we had got separated in the fog. That old feeling came back, once more we felt fear, and this time something else which I find hard to describe. Only people who have been in, and experienced that sort of situation can know what I am trying to explain. It was a horrible lonely feeling of being watched akin probably to being locked in a haunted house at the dead of night all on your own.

There were ahead of us to port and starboard banks of fog lying low in the water, but which of these the other ships were in was anyone's guess. After a hurried conversation over the loud hailers, the two skippers decided to make for the fog bank on the port bow. It seemed to be the nearest and would also keep us closer to the land, so we steamed for it, still close alongside each other. It turned out to be a real pea-souper, and once again we huddled close up to the side of the big merchant vessel, just close enough for us to be able to see the dark bulk of her hull at the water line. Both ships went on in this way for some time, until suddenly on the water under the fog there was ice, masses of it, too close to avoid. I was at the wheel, and, as we both saw it, Tim reached out for the handle of the bridge telegraph, anticipating the order to go full astern even as he made the move. There was no order for an alteration of course, and in the bridge Tim and I stood there, bracing ourselves for the inevitable crunch, for there was no time to do anything else.

The old Gem hit it stem on, and with the forward momentum of the ship, the ice-cracker bows started to lift up into the air, and right on to the thick layer of ice. The order came down the voice pipe to stop engines. She had gone onto the ice almost up to the foremast, and stayed in that position for a few seconds, then broke through and was afloat once more along the whole of her length, shivering from the shock of the impact, and the way she had launched herself back into the sea.

The voice pipe from the top bridge came back to life again, with the CO shouting down it, 'Coxs'n, go forward and see if she is taking any water in, and check for any signs of damage'.

Leaving Tim in the wheelhouse, I ran down the ladder and onto the deck, and forward to the fore-peak hatch. Lifting it up after knocking away the wedges holding the tarpaulin cover on, I peered down expecting to hear water gushing in from a hole, caused by the first explosive meeting between the ship's bows and the solid layer of ice, but I could hear no more than the sound of the lumps of ice, hitting the ship's side with the motion of the swell. Going down the ladder into the fore-peak with a couple of the seamen, I left them to have a look around, while I made my way into the cable locker where the anchor chain is stowed when it comes inboard as the anchor is hauled in. I could see no signs of any damage by the light of the torch that we always kept handy down there, nor was there any water, except for the usual amount that was down there at any given time. So breathing a sigh of relief, I made my way back onto the deck, from where I shouted up to the CO on the top bridge that she was dry, and that everything was OK. She was snuff dry. The old girl had brought us through again. What a fine ship she was; they had certainly built her well in Bremerhaven. Thanks jerry, I thought to myself.

While I was inspecting the fore-peak, some conversation had been going on via the loud hailer, with the Ocean Freedom. Apparently she had not been as fortunate as the Gem. With her square cut stem and her huge dead weight of cargo, plus the speed at which we both had been going through the water, she had not been able to ride up on to the ice as we had done. She had gone right into it and had finished up with a fair-sized hole in her bows. This, although it was not too bad, was serious enough for her to have to cut her speed down by a knot or two. Eventually we both went astern to get clear of the ice, and with the Gem again taking up station on her port side, the Ocean Freedom, now having to keep down the flood of water which was entering through the hole in her bow, set off in the general direction which would we hoped take us to the entrance of the White Sea. The fog was still thick, but skirting the edge of the ice which we could still see faintly, and keeping a weather eye on the spot ahead where the fog met the sea, we both plodded along at a reduced speed.

As had happened before, we shortly burst out of the fog into the blue skies and sunshine, and there a few miles ahead of us were the rest of our small convoy. They were under air attack. We could see the black specks of the aircraft and the flashes of sun glinting on perspex noses and cockpit covers as they wheeled about over the ships, and in the water alongside them we could see huge fountains of water rising into the air from the bursting bombs. Later we were to find that the Hoosier, and the El Capitan had been sunk, and that all the other vessels had suffered from near misses. The Gem and Freedom now went along at the best possible speed to rejoin the other ships. The sky over them looked as though it was now clear of aircraft, and we hoped that the planes had gone for good. But they did not give up so easily. When we got to within a couple of miles of the convoy or what was left of it, we saw coming up over the horizon some six or eight aircraft, and we noticed with not a little apprehension that this time they were making for us and the Ocean Freedom. In no time at all they were on us, and bombs were falling all over the place. The Ocean Freedom vanished from our sight two or three times, and we thought that she had gone, but each time she came out of the deluge of foam and spray caused by the near miss explosions of the bombs. We wondered how long the luck would last. Answering an enquiry from our CO, her Captain shouted across that she had suffered some damage but nothing that they could not handle. Almost as quickly as it had started, the attack finished. The silence after the noise of the bomb explosions and the chattering of the guns was startling. Now there was just the noise of the sea rushing past the Gem's hull as we made all speed to get back into the company of the other vessels. Finally we made it, and away on the horizon ahead of us we could see land. It must have been around midnight because the big red orb of the sun just touched the horizon for a few minutes and then started its climb back into the heavens to start off another day. It was 11th July 1942.

During the next few hours before we reached the White Sea there were a couple of half-hearted attacks by the Luftwaffe, but none of the now much smaller convoy suffered any further damage. We were met by two British fleet sweepers, and a couple of Russian ships which helped to escort us out of the Barents Sea, and into the confines of the White Sea proper. We were almost at our destination, though not quite for we now had to wait for the Russian pilots to come on board to take us up the River Dvina, and up to our moorings at Archangel, or wherever they decided to put us.


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