Despite ice, snow, bombs, shells, subs . . . the supply ships drive on through hell and cold water to their Russian arctic goal
IT WAS in a destroyer that I twice voyaged well beyond the Arctic Circle, to a latitude where, at that time of the year, the sun never sets and there is perpetual daylight. On the first occasion we formed part of a force of cruisers and destroyers bound on an independent mission which, for security reasons, I cannot describe. On our second trip we were engaged in escorting a large convoy of merchantmen carrying tanks, airplanes and munitions of war to North Russia.
Our temperature varied as a rule between twenty and thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit. It was really bitingly cold with the ship steaming fast into a head wind. The salt spray froze as it fell, until the exposed parts of our decks were slippery, and stanchions and guardrails were coated in ice almost to the size of saplings. We wore all the thickest clothing we possessed—woollen mufflers, sweaters and Balaclava helmets, coats lined with sheepskin, sea boots and the warmest of socks and stockings. Lord knows we needed them !
Sometimes we had dense snow squalls in which the visibility fell to a few hundred yards. Sometimes the sea was lumpy and vicious, though there were periods of bright sunshine in a clear blue sky when one saw to the far, knife-edged horizon over a sea as glassy and calm as any in the tropics. It shone like pale green rippled satin.
Occasionally we skirted the vast, unbroken sheet of hummocky pack ice drifting slowly southward from the frozen Polar sea. It stretched to the
horizon and beyond, punctuated here and there by small bergs, formed no doubt by the glaciers of some windswept, inhospitable land far away to the north. From time to time we picked our way through fantastically shaped chunks of loose ice. It would not have done to have scraped the heavier masses in so thinly plated a ship as a destroyer. On one of the smaller floes I noticed a solitary seal. I found myself wondering about that seal. Was it mother, father or inexperienced youngster, and was it on that little floe by accident or design? We were many miles from the nearest land. What would happen when its rapidly melting habitation forced it to take to the water?
This was summer in the Arctic, a period of no great discomfort, even in the smaller ships. But I remembered the winter, when our ships habitually operated in the same area. Daylight then consisted of a few hours of raw twilight round about midday;
with frequent fogs which shut down the visibility to almost zero; with heavy gales, when it blew like the wrath of God, with the fierce wind whipping the crests off the leaden-colored combers and hurtling them to leeward in clouds of flying scud which obliterated the raging surface of the sea. Life was hard in ships, whatever their size. They were out for long periods, plunging, wallowing, pitching, rolling. The cold was intense, away down to zero and below—so cold that ice from condensation formed on the bulkheads and ship’s side in the living spaces, while the air sucked into the boilerrooms under forced draught was so bitter that the men tending the boilers had to wear sheepskin coats.
The decks, guns, boats, ropes, rails, indeed all fittings, were thickly encrusted with ice, partly from frozen spray, partly from driving snow. Guns, frozen into solid blocks, were sometimes unworkable. Picks and shovels are supplied for regular de-icing, which is most important. The extra topweight is dangerous to stability, particularly in smaller ships like destroyers. One British destroyer, in action with enemy craft, reported: “Heavy
spray, which swept over guns and bridge, froze immediately on anything it touched. Gun decks were icy and gun wells full of water and ice. Use of binoculars by bridge personnel was practically impossible.”
it is difficult to realize what some ships endured during the bitter cold of the Arctic winter. One
destroyer I visited liad steam off her main engines for one day during a period of five consecutive weeks. At one time she spent ten and a half days continually at sea in foul weather with the temperature round about zero, while frequently in action with submarines and aircraft. She carried seventy survivors from sunken merchant ships for eight days, which severely taxed her resources and already crowded living spaces. It was of this destroyer that one of her stokers laughingly said to an officer, “We don’t really steam this ship, sir. We carry her around on our backs.”
“Frolic” With the Enemy
XÎUT the highlight of that first Arctic trip was not the vicissitudes of the weather or the scenery, but our “frolic,” as my shipmates called it, with enemy aircraft. I said before there was no friendly darkness in those high northern latitudes at that time of the year, so aircraft could operate for the full twenty-four hours. We were within fairly easy striking range of the German airdromes in Norway, and when we started to be shadowed by an enemy snooper in the shape of a Focke-Wulf, later relieved by a Dornier, we knew what to expect. They wisely kept out of the effective range of our guns, while reporting our presence to their shore-based bombers. They pried upon us everlastingly. 11 was exasperating to watch them. One felt so naked.
And at half-past six one evening, in a pale blue sky that was gradually clouding over, the fun began. In the clear patches of sky away to the eastward we sighted a number of Ju. 88’s. They were approaching fast, and from 6.45 until about eight p.m. amused themselves, and us, by dive-bombing out of the nebulous sun. How many planes took part in the entertainment I don’t know. There was so much else to watch that I hadn’t time to count them.
The gun muzzles of all our ships were cocked skyward with their crews standing by. They twitched and swung as orders went through the telephones. I saw a brilliant orange fia h and a cloud of dun-colored cordite smoke as a cruiser opened fire. Other ships fell to work, shrouding
themselves in dense, rolling fogs of golden-brown with the flashes showing redly through them. Our own ship chimed in, shuddering to her discharges. I savored the hot flavor of burned cordite as the clouds enveloped the bridge and drifted aft. The roar of gunfire became almost deafening. Pompoms and Oerlikon machiné guns opened up as our attackers dived.
I watched our commanding officer, tall, red-faced and smoking his inevitable pipe. It was still alight. He wore his sheepskin coat and a steel helmet seemingly too small perched like a bunion on a thick woollen cap. He stood on the compass platform, conning the ship and giving orders, as calm and unperturbed as though he were taking her alongside some dockyard wall in peacetime. It did one good to see the calmness of these men—the gunnery lieutenant directing the gunfire; the navigator, large, red-faced, black-bearded and buceaneerish, watching the compass; the secretary taking notes; the signalmen and all the rest doing their jobs just as in peace manoeuvres.
The planes flew widely separated, no doubt to make it more difficult for our gunfire. They dived singly, screaming down out of the sun and the clouding sky with a high-pitched crescendo audible even through the roar of gunfire. I can’t say how many bombs they dropped, but at one moment I saw a couple of huge whitish-grey waterspouts more than three hundred feet high leap out of the water close to two of the cruisers. I could have sworn that one ship was hit. I caught my breath as she vanished behind the turmoil of the explosion. An instant later she reappeared—still steaming at high speed, her guns still firing. The next instant 1 saw a plane at barely three hundred feet with tracer bullets flaming after her like flights of red-hot tomatoes. It was a Ju. 88, with black and yellow smoke pouring out of one engine. With its yellow, brown and green camouflage it looked like a crapulous toad wobbling across the sky. It had a long way to go home. I doubt if it got there.
Then, high above the din of gunfire, we heard the screaming roar of a plane overhead. The sky was clouding over. With an eerie screech, familiar since the nightly air raids on London, a bomb came
slanting down in a silver streak to explode on our starboard quarter within about sixty yards of the bridge. A destroyer being long, it was much closer to our stern. The ship quivered to the detonation. Men were drenched when the upheaval subsided.
Meanwhile, the ships were twisting and turning at high speed with their guns flashing. It was magnificent to see their heavy white wakes and bow waves, and their lean, grey shapes often hidden in mingled smoke and flame, sometimes by bursting bombs.
This trip of mine was just one more of those many romps or frolics in which this particular destroyer, .and those in her, had been engaged in nearly three years of hostilities—just an incident of the war at sea which finds no mention in the newspapers. No casualties were incurred. No ship was hit or damaged, though the Germans claimed a cruiser or two and a handful of destroyers. We heard them, and laughed.
It was interesting and spectacular enough while it lasted; breath-taking and thrilling at times. But when it was all over we still found ourselves a little worried about the fate of that solitary seal on its slowly disintegrating ice floe.
SOME days later I was again at sea in the Arctic in that same destroyer as part of the escort to a large convoy of merchantmen taking munitions to North Russia. Some of the merchantmen were British, some Canadian, some Russian, some American. Steaming close to the last we had seen women sailors on deck, or maybe they were cooks or stewardesses. One, sitting on a bollard knitting, was shouted at by our seamen as we slid by. She grinned and waved a hand in reply.
Once more we were persistently pried upon by the enemy reconnaissance aircraft. Once more we loosed off a gun if they came within range. The weather was clear, with full visibility. We rather hoped for fog and snow. They are usually the seaman’s bugbears. But in our circumstances, since they make successful air reconnaissance much more difficult, thick weather becomes the sailor’s delight
The same applies to a low cloud ceiling, provided it completely covers the sky. A perfectly clear blue sky without cloud isn’t so good, though it does allow attacking aircraft to be sighted and fired upon when they come within range. What is worst of all is a blue sky partially filled with cloud, which permits the planes to sight the ships between the rifts and to come diving down through the cloud cover. This often means they can’t be fired upon before the bombs start to fall.
The expected attack came. First we sighted a number of Ju. 88’s, eight, I think, high up like midges against the clear blue of the sky. As before, they were flying widely separated, in no precise formation. We were ready for them. One saw the guns in all ships cocked into the air and following the enemy while they circled round having a good look at us and keeping well out of range. Singly, or in pairs, they moved round in the direction of the clear sun.
Then the heavier guns in some of the escorting ships thudded into action. Ship after ship, including our own, joined in. More aircraft appeared. The clear sky in many directions became pockmarked with shell-bursts ■— black, grey, white and a beautiful golden-brown. “Here come the b s,” 1 heard someone say in a conversational tone.
I couldn’t see everything at once, and completely lost count of time, but one by one the aircraft came screaming down upon the convoy to drop their bombs. They came very low, some to two or three hundred feet. None attacked at more than one thousand. The firing redoubled in intensity as the short-range weapons fell to work. One heard the thudding of pom-poms, and the angry, staccato rattle of Oerlikons and rifle-calibre machine guns. The merchant ships also were firing hard. Once again the air was filled with the red tracks of tracer bullets. Through the racket one heard the screech of diving planes, one after the other. They were persistent devils. 1 saw one flatten out at about 400 feet over the convoy, and a clutch of silvery bombs, looking like ants’ eggs, leaving the belly of the machine in a close bunch. They descended in a curve, falling more or less together to raise a great elongated splash close alongside one of the ships of
the convoy. The thud of the combined explosions was inaudible in the roar of the gunfire.
Plane after plane came screaming down to attack at low level. There seemed to be scores of them. In places the blue of the sky was so heavily mottled by smoky shell-bursts that it resembled the face of a child with measles. How many of the attackers were hit I don’t know. I saw several leaving thick smoke trails behind them as they flew off to eastward, perhaps to come down in the sea before reaching the safety of their airdromes.
Later, according to the various accounts, four planes were apparently seen to crash from our ship. There was so much to watch, however, that I personally saw only one. Badly hit over the convoy, the plane flew across our stern at about 800 feet. She was heading to westward, toward the sun and away from home. She was gradually losing height, though apparently still under control. When she was about two miles away, flying at about 100 feet, I suddenly saw the glint of what I thought was sunlight on one of her windows. 1 put my glasses on her. it was not sunlight. The first sparkle grew into a sheet of red flame, accompanied by a thickening trail of black smoke. She flew lower and lower. Two considerable objects detached themselves and splashed heavily into the sea. Some say they were men whose parachutes hadn’t opened. We could not make certain. Had a ship gone to the spot to lower a boat and investigate, she would have been showered with bombs from many attackers. The temperature of the water was ten degrees Fahrenheit twenty-two below freezing.
1 watched the plane until the end. She dipped toward the calm sea, skimmed it in a flutter of spray, and then, still blazing and smoking, seemed to recover herself. A hundred yards farther on she finally hit the surface in a great burst of water and smoke, it cleared away, and the last 1 saw of her was the tail pointing miserably out of the water at an angle of forty-five degrees.
Torpedo Bombers Attack
IN THE midst of this first attack by the Ju. 88’s, which lasted off and on from 8.40 p.m. until 10.20, we were attacked by torpedo bombers which
came in low over the water, one group of them on either bow of the convoy. They looked inexpressibly evil, like great vampire bats skimming over the sea. They were greeted with the heaviest fire I think I have ever seen, as the majority of our guns lowered their muzzles almost to the horizontal to meet this new menace. The water was literally sprayed with shell fragments from a multitude of miscellaneous weapons. At tipies it reminded me of heavy hail beating downofi a village pond.
Then oertirred one of the bravest incidents I have ever witnessed. A land Hurricane plane, flown by a young pilot of the R.A.F., was catapulted from a merchant ship. He proceeded to attack the enemy torpedo planes coming in from our port bow, and now getting dangerously close. We watched the dogfight that ensued, and heard the rattle of the machine guns. Wounded during his gallant onslaught, our pilot, as we heard later, shot down one enemy plane, damaged another and so scared the remainder that they dropped their torpedoes well outside effective range.
The Hurricane, having once been flown off, could not be relanded, and the pilot had the choice of two alternatives, either of which meant the sacrifice of the plane. He might crash land on the water, though if he »lid so the probability was that the machine, having a sort of wind-scoop beneath the engine, would stand abrupt !y on its head on striking ttie water while its occupant would break his neck. Instead, our pilot carried out. the generally accepted procedure. He turned his plane upside down at about a thousand feet and dropped out. His parachute opened. We saw him floating down toward tin* surface like a whit»1 flower.
The plan«1 crashed fart lier on, and disappeared. The gallant .young man who had flown it dropped gently into the water and was rescue«! by a destroyer within a few minutes, which was as well in that temperature. Apart from the bullet wound in his leg he was undamaged. We were glad to hear it.
Their first attack was over about 10.20 p.m. Badly needed food and hot soup and cocoa W'ere served out to the guns’ crews. Ready-use ammunition wras replenished from the magazines and shell-
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rooms. It was as well, for from 11.15 p.m. until nearly midnight, it still being full daylight, we were again attacked by a dozen or more Ju. 88’s, which flew high round the sterns of the convoy into the glare of the sun and came diving down one by one to loose their bombs. It was much the same sort of entertainment as before, though if anything the gunfire was heavier. I shouldn’t like to guess what weight of shell was flung into the air during these two attacks; but it must have been prodigious, and was certainly magnificent to watch. Bits and pieces came raining and plopping down into the sea all round us.
For the next four or five days, indeed, until it had almost reached its destination, that convoy was practically continuously attacked by bombers, dive bombers and torpedocarrying aircraft, with U-boats cooperating. Ships of the convoy were certainly lost by air and by submarine attack, exactly how many 1 may not say. Nevertheless, the German claim to have sunk eighteen in all was hopeful thinking.
Magni ficen t Merchan t men
WHAT impressed me more than anything was the calm sort of way these attacks were taken. The merchantmen plodded steadily along on their course and in formation as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening, and so did the escorts. The Navy is not given to using superlatives; but in the midst of one battle my destroyer captain pointed to the merchant ships and said to me, “Just look at those fellows. Aren’t they absolutely magnificent?”
They certainly were. Not a ship was out of station. They carried on, their little guns barking defiance at the menace from the skies. Some time later I heard the master of one of those ships, a tall, thin man with pale blue eyes and a parchmentlike skin the color of raw mahogany, casually referring to the attack as “that bit of a breeze we had.” “A bit of a breeze!” I thought to myself.
I have been at sea on many occasions since this war started. I have seen the convoys in the North Atlantic, and have flown over them in a Catalina. I have been with the convoys of small ships passing up and down the east coast of Britain, and through the English Channel. I have seen merchantmen heavily bombed, attacked by submarines, and running the gauntlet past Dover under heavy fire from the enemy’s heavy guns on the French coast opposite. I have been on board ships that have limped into harbor, after having been in action with U-boats or aircraft, sometimes with success. One realizes a little of what the men have endured when one sees funnels, upperworks, boats and hulls riddled and gashed by shell or bomb splinters and bullets.
Yet, after nearly three years of it, I have still to meet a merchant seaman who is afraid, or would willingly give up his job at sea for a comfortable billet on shore. In sober truth, these men are magnificent.
The getting of these convoys through to North Russia has been one of the most difficult tasks of the war, particularly in spring and summer when it is daylight all through the twenty-four hours and enemy aircraft can operate all the time. It means a good deal of risk, and hard fighting nearly all the way.
All the same, the bulk of our convoy got through. The merchant
seamen of Britain, Canada, Russia, and the U. S., not to mention those in the escorting destroyers, corvettes, trawlers and other craft, gave a I wonderful account of themselves in order that the tanks and airplanes, the guns, ammunition and other miscellaneous munitions of war might reach our Russian Allies. This is not the least important direction in which the men of the Allied sea services are helping to overthrow Hitlerism and to win the war.