Re: Hollis Swanson, aboard Bering in Forgotten Convoy
Posted by Siobhan Palmer on November 6, 2012, 6:45 am, in reply to "Hollis Swanson, aboard Bering in Forgotten Convoy"
Hello Carl, |
My Grandfather was Master of the SS Llandaff, the lead British ship on Convoy JW53, the Forgotten Convoy. I can understand why your father was unwilling to talk about the experience - it was absolute hell. Through speaking to my Aunt and my own research, here is summary of what I know. Because I am talking from a British Merchant Navy perspective, some of the details may not be exactly pertinent, but it will give you an idea of what went on. The British convoy left Loch Ewe in Scotland on 15th Feb. The Convoys travelled in winter in order to take advantage of the Arctic darkness - at worst, this meant 24 hours of darkness, but it made it harder for the Germans to locate the ships. It was obviously also bitterly cold. There are instances where sailors went to replace their comrades on night watch only to discover that they had frozen to death. The sailors used to play at dripping to cocoa on the deck - by the time the drop hit the deck, the drip would bounce as it had been frozen. They left in a gale, but the winds developed into a hurricane. Two of the British escort vessels, the Sheffield and Dasher and 6 merchant vessels had to return to port because of damage. The convoy was located by aircraft on Feb. 23rd, unsuccessfully attacking on the 26th. U-boat contact was made on the 24th, but they avoided loss. The vessels were carrying explosives and other munitions - they were sitting on a powder keg, so it must have been terrifying. On my grandfather's ship, some of the lifeboats were damaged in the bad weather and set loose, wreckage was found in the sea and as a result, my grandmother heard twice from Lord Haw Haw's broadcasts (the traitor) and once from the government that my grandfather's vessel was sunk. There was no radio contact allowed, so she did not know he was still alive until he returned home the following November. Although rescue vessels sailed with the convoys, the survival time in the sea was less than 3 minutes - she announced his death to her children.
The military escort returned home, leaving the merchant vessels in Russia. They were then given notification that they would be remaining in Murmansk/Archangel 'indefinitely' - the dominance of the huge German battleship Tirpitz and Sharnhorst, supported by a fleet of U-boats made safe return impossible as the Royal Navy's priorities lay elsewhere.
Whilst stranded, they were subject to ongoing overhead attack. The British vessel Ocean Freedom was sunk in port. The ships were stranded with limited rations - as time went by, they were put on starvation rations. The Russians, in a worse food situation than the sailors, shared their black bread with them. The British swapped limes (to combat scurvy) for spam with the Americans. As summer came in, they were subject to 24 hour daylight. Many suffered mental breakdowns, there were suicides and a murder. The merchant vessels helped with transport of Russian supplies in between Murmansk and Archangel. During this time, my grandfather's ship was bombed and set on fire. It was beached and flooded on Kildin Island and following temporary repairs managed to return to Loch Ewe on Convoy RA54B, the same convoy that your father returned on. This was only a small convoy of about 8 merchant vessels. The diary of the escort ship HMS Anson records that the weather was so extreme, that the destroyers had to temporarily detach from the convoy, so they were sailing with limited protection in appalling conditions.
In the UK, much of what went on with regard to the Arctic Convoys is still covered by the Official Secrets Act and will not be available until 2043. However, from anecdote, evidence from salvaged vessels and some ships records, it is now recognised that some of the vessels returned home with Russian gold and silver, which went predominantly to the US as part of the lend lease agreement. On Convoy RA54B, Royal Naval records show that gold was carried under the code name 'Caviar'.
Churchill described the Arctic Convoys as "the most dangerous journey in the world" - Convoys JW53 and RA54B had the worst of the Arctic weather, plus the hell of being stranded in terrible conditions for many months.
Hope this is of some interest to you.
Carl, if you have a moment, would you consider signing the attached petition? The UK government has refused to issue a medal specific to the heroes of the Arctic Convoys Campaign and is also stopping the few remaining survivors from accepting the Ushakov medal which the Russians would like to award to the veterans. The Merchant Navy website has launched this petition, and could do with all the help they can get to make this happen:
With best wishes
Siobhan Palmer (grandaughter of Captain Edwin Rice O.B.E.)