The Arctic Convoys
“We Are Fulfilling Our Obligations”
Britain’s unquestioned dependence upon her sea lanes led the Admiralty and the Air Ministry to agree in 1937 that British merchant shipping should only sail in protective convoys. Pre-war preparations included assigning planning personnel to all major commercial ports, mapping of convoy routes, and the Admiralty’s taking control of all merchant shipping. By early 1941 the Battle of the Atlantic and the struggle for Malta were both in full rage. Already scant resources were stretched to the limit when Germany invaded Russia in June. With yet another theater of war heavily reliant on sea transport opened, the Royal Navy scrambled to assemble the needed convoys. Hard-pressed escort ships were forced to shuttle between the Mediterranean and the Arctic. Winston Churchill called it the “worst journey in the world,” but he vowed to keep Russia supplied as the fall of that country to the Germans would have left Britain and Western Europe fully exposed to the concentrated force of the Nazi war machine.
The convoys ran from Hvalfjordur in Iceland or Loch Ewe in Scotland to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel. The battle to get ships from Scotland and Iceland through the treacherously rough and freezing cold waters of the Denmark Strait, Norwegian Sea, Arctic Ocean, and Barents Sea and into Murmansk or Archangel was as deadly as it was frightening. In the far northern latitudes, groups of slow and unarmed merchant ships under the protection of harried, but brave escorts waged countless struggles for survival against determined enemy air, surface, and submarine attacks. An equally cruel enemy of Britain’s ships and sailors was the fury of nature’s elements.
The voiceover of a wartime British newsreel stated,
The help which Britain is giving to the Soviets is no light thing to be brushed aside. As her ally, we are fulfilling our obligations, and will continue to do so, until the Nazis are finally obliterated by the United Nations. 1.
The Russian convoys bore the designations of “PQ” (eastbound, full) and “QP” (westbound, empty) until December, 1942, when they were changed to “JW.” The first of the numerically sequential PQ convoys sailed in August 1941. For a time, the convoys were fortunate that the Germans were not as yet fully prepared to attempt disrupting them. PQs 1 through 12 and return convoys QP 1 through 9 were able to sail with minimal losses: a total of two merchant ships and one Royal Navy destroyer sunk and one merchant ship damaged against the loss of one U-boat for the Germans. Once the Germans began to mount better organized efforts against the convoys, however, casualties among ships, material, and men rose. PQ 13 lost five out of 19 merchant ships, PQ 14 lost 17 out of 25, it was three out of 22 on PQ 15, and seven out of 35 supply vessels were sunk from PQ 16.2.
It was July 1942 as PQ 17 was making good headway towards Murmansk. Three of its ships had been sunk by air attacks and several others had been forced to turn back for various reasons. The remaining 30 ships and their escorts had just sailed past Bear Island, directly to the north of Norway. Meanwhile, the Admiralty was busy with intelligence that a powerful force of German surface ships was on its way to attack the convoy. Before realizing that the information was incorrect, the Admiralty ordered PQ 17’s escort to withdraw and the merchant ships to scatter. U-boats and aircraft took advantage of the situation to methodically pick off 20 of the fragmented convoy’s unprotected ships. The surviving merchant sailors were angry and bitter about what they considered wanton, or even cowardly, abandonment. Since many of the ships were American, the diplomatic relations between Washington and London suffered severe strains.
Many of the officers and men aboard the escorts were frustrated and even ashamed that they had to leave their charges to the slaughter. Although they could not know at the time that there were to be no German ships to fight, the crews aboard the escort ships had been eager for battle. As it turned from the convoy, an officer aboard one of the escort group’s cruisers wrote,
Our last sight of the merchantmen showed them opening up and separating (as per orders). The effect on the ship’s company was devastating. Twenty-four hours earlier, there had only been one thought – that, at last, we were going to bring enemy surface ships to action. I have never known the men in such good heart … then … we abandoned the convoy. The ship was in turmoil; everyone was boiling, and the Master at Arms (a senior enlisted man who would closely know the men’s attitudes) told me he had never known such strong feelings before … It was the blackest day we ever knew – sheer bloody murder.” 3.
The next convoy, PQ 18 of September, consisted of 40 merchant ships that were extremely heavily escorted. A total of 17 warships were disposed as the close escort and two battleships, three heavy cruisers, and a number of light cruisers and destroyers were formed into the distant escort. Close escorts, as suggested by the name, remained near at hand to the merchant ships. They were usually destroyers, frigates, or corvettes responsible for anti-submarine and anti-air defense. The distant escort was made up of large ships that stayed beyond the horizon. It was there to provide protection in the event of an appearance by enemy cruisers or battleships. PQ 18’s close escort included, for the first time on an Arctic convoy, an escort carrier. Small carriers had just begun to become available in late 1941 and early 1942. Eventually many of these small aircraft carriers of would be transferred to the Royal Navy via the American Lend-Lease Program. Over the remaining course of the war, they would prove invaluable against all manner of enemy threats. Twenty-seven of PQ 18’s 40 ships made it to Archangel which lay several dangerous days additional sailing to the east of Murmansk. The escort carrier’s airwing shot down more than 40 aerial attackers and assisted in the sinking of one of the three U-boats destroyed by the near escort. 4.
Until the final victory in Europe, a total of 78 convoys travelled to or from Russia. Some made the journey relatively unmolested while others, like PQ 17 which was the worst hit of all, endured terrifying struggles and heavy losses of ships and men. Of about 1,400 ships that sailed in the Arctic convoys, 85 were lost. Of the escorts that accompanied them, two cruisers, six destroyers, and eight other escorts were sunk. 5.
“You Were Attacked From the Time You Left”- Convoys to Hell
Thousands of men went to sea on the Arctic convoys. No ship, large or small, merchant or naval, was ever immune from sudden destruction. No amount of training or preparation could help prevent the unspeakable injuries and suffering that attack victims endured. Survivors of ships that went down in an Arctic convoy, if they chose to speak about it, were unanimous about the terror of the experience. At one extreme there was fire, such as from an exploding tanker. The fortunate ones were those killed by the blast. At the other extreme, there was water which brought on such a quick state of hypothermia that anyone who fell or jumped into the sea could be frozen dead before he even had a chance to drown.
One former convoy sailor recalled,
Well, Winston Churchill called them the convoys to hell, (and) it was terrible; we lost ships there and (if) you went into the water, you were gone … You were attacked from the time you left until the time you got there and you was attacked even when you got there… I was 17 when we went to the Arctic, not old enough to have any sense, somebody said.
Another former merchant sailor described some of the rigors of Arctic convoy duty.
We went to Philadelphia to load, with alcohol – industrial alcohol – we were assured it wasn’t for Russian Vodka. We then sailed back to Loch Ewe in Scotland, and waited there for the convoy to be assembled. (They) then provisioned us, (and they) even sent some big boxes with corned beef in them. I remember the Captain taking one look at that and saying, ‘If anybody thinks I’m going to eat corned beef, they’ve got another thing coming!’ 6. … We never knew what they (the ships) were loaded with … all we knew was to get them loaded and get the bloomin’ steam going … we were taking all the goods; aircraft, tanks, motor vehicles, aluminum; all sorts of stuff to support the Russians who were fighting at the front up there … We sailed from Loch Ewe and went up round North Cape (the northernmost point on the mainland of Norway), for Archangel. There were about 30 ships and about 40 escorts … We left in a tremendous gale, massive waves and everything; a hurricane. I must tell you now (that) I was always seasick. I never, ever got my sea legs. And the ship was top heavy and she rolled; I couldn’t eat; I was sick … When the seas broke over the ship, immediately they hit the cold surfaces (and) they froze. You were always the expert with your little chipping hammers; so we used those and you had to keep getting the ice off, otherwise the ship became top heavy and would go over … you hear them banging and you knew very well they were chipping the ice away, (and) you didn’t touch nothing without gloves on, (the cold would) take the skin off your fingers. It was pretty grim … When it got a little bit lighter we were shadowed by a Focke-Wulfe Kondor, the German reconnaissance plane which circled the convoy, and he sent signals to the U-boats about us … you’d see the plane and we’d fire haphazard shots at him … of course, it was just out of range and there was nothing we could do … then you just waited and waited … you had to go about your normal work, you couldn’t just wait to see if you got torpedoed or not; just hope that it (would be) somebody else, and not you, that would get it.
A member of an engine room crew spoke of his constant dread of being sunk. While he was fortunate to have escaped the experience, he could not forget a time when others were not so lucky.
My job was in the engine room. The oil used to be pumped through sprayers going into the furnace (and) sometimes during action stations I would have to go down to where the steering went to keep checking on temperatures down there to make sure anything didn’t overheat in the shafts driving the propellers … it was warm down there because everything was shut and there wasn’t anything open and if you was torpedoed, then you didn’t get out — couldn’t really worry, could you? You was hundreds and hundreds of miles away from land so you couldn’t worry too much. … if you did get out (in case of being sunk) you wouldn’t have lasted very long, because you weren’t dressed for that kind of weather. The seamen; they were alright; they had duffel coats on, and masks, and gloves; they weren’t too bad. In the call to abandon ship and you had to dive out, all you (an engine room rating) was (dressed) in was a boiler suit. And you’d be going into a lifeboat or going into the water (it would be) freezing cold without anything on.
We were doing this every day (and) week after week. Month after month. We were at sea – we were at sea all the time. You’d hear these big bangs and you wouldn’t know if they (Germans) were dropping bombs or if we were dropping depth charges. You would have to shout to your mates, ‘What the hell was that, I wonder.’ I’d be on the ladder, ready to run up (from below decks) if I felt water coming through … one of the worst things; we had been equipped with radio telephones because usually the convoy signaled by flag, but due to the darkness this was a bit difficult … and we could hear the people in the radio office on this destroyer as it was sinking, still talking to us quite calmly … we had seen people being killed and so on before, but the first time we had heard people dying, I think, in some ways it was worse than seeing it. The last thing they said was, ‘The water is now coming in through the door. It’s rising higher.’ 7.
The torpedoing of a ship was recounted as follows,
We left the convoy because of U-boat activity; we jumped from the frying pan into the fire. 8. We ran into two U-boats. One of them fired all his torpedoes at us and missed but the other one fired all his torpedoes and two of them hit us. I was having my tea and that’s when the torpedo hit the next mess deck down below. There was a huge flash, a red flash and kind of a bang. There was 57 killed there. All of a sudden the ship goes dead quiet because before that you had things like fans, machines going; noise … after that the ship goes deadly quiet and it was heaving over on the starboard side … next thing, I was going up a sloping deck; the ship was going to turn over. All oil and water coming in, in the dark. I couldn’t walk. I was on my hands and knees; the only way to the escape hatch was to hang on to the legs of the lockers and pull myself up that way. When I woke up – I was unconscious – I had regained consciousness after being blown unconscious by (another) torpedo (that hit us). Around me was cable, pipes, bits of deck, bulkhead, and what have you. So (I’m) lying there and what have you, and I thought, ‘Am I alright? Anything broken?’ I started tentatively moving my arms one at a time, then my legs, but for a long time I wouldn’t bother to try my body; my spine. I thought, ‘I hope that’s not gone.’ So I lay there for a while (then) I found I was physically fit. I was blown unconscious and I was physically fit. Anyway they said, ‘Abandon ship.’ So we all left the ship and I went on (another ship from the convoy). I watched the ship go down then; because you get attached to a ship. 9.
Yet another merchant sailor offered additional memories of the convoys to and from Russia.
It’s very hard to go as far north as you could. Close up to Bear Island. But the ice pack forced you south. Now, they (the Germans) had Tirpitz (sister of Bismarck) in Norway. They had dive bombers on the Norwegian coast, and they had the submarine packs at the exit of the Bering Sea coming into the Kola inlet (and Murmansk). And of course, all the skippers were told the same, “No heroics. If you’re hit, drive the ship ashore. You lose the ship; you’ll save the crew.” … Cold journey. It was bitterly, bitterly cold. If you sneeze, all the globules of spit froze as they came out of your mouth. It was the same for everybody. And of course, two minutes in the water and you were finished.10.
Stanley Shield served in the Arctic aboard the destroyer HMS Somali. Shield had worked as a postal clerk for two years before deciding to join the Navy in 1941. After serving as an ordinary seaman for an initial period of six months, he was deemed to have performed well enough to merit an opportunity to seek a commission. He eventually went on for officer training. Shield experienced a total of four PQ convoys. Of life aboard Somali he said, “… well, frankly it wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s (2005) prisons.” 11.
(We would start in) Iceland; that’s where the convoys mustered. Merchant ships came over from America and Canada as well as UK … and then we (the escorting warships) came round … to the Arctic Circle and into Kola Inlet (and Murmansk). It was about 3,000 miles … and they used most(ly) ships of the Home Fleet … on escorting convoys to Russia. The German battleships were always a peril … every convoy (I was on) was attacked all the way by submarines and aircraft because we were only 300 miles away from the Luftwaffe bases, you see, they were in north(ern) Norway and we were 3,000 miles from home and 300 miles from them! … the speed of (a) convoy was only 5 knots … they didn’t put the best merchant ships into these convoys, I have to say, some of them were real old tramps because they lost so many … we communicated with Aldis (signal) lamps … didn’t use radio unless it was urgent because they could pick it up. Not that they needed it; they knew exactly where we were. As soon as we left Iceland, we would be picked up by German reconnaissance aircraft which just (flew) round and round the convoy and we couldn’t hit it (with gunfire)! They were there every mile of the way! We were there from March to September … 24 hour daylight most of that time. That’s why the aircraft were such a damned nuisance because they came around the clock. 12.
Many years afterwards the thoughts of Arctic convoy veterans reflected ongoing relief that they would need never again experience trips to Murmansk or Archangel.
I don’t think the population, as a whole, was told of the losses that we suffered on the Russian convoys … I never talked about it a lot; very little. It just doesn’t seem relevant. It was finished, all over now. Forget it. We’re back home safe and that’s it. It’s not days that you want to remember much, either. It weren’t very pleasant, so get it out of your mind. When I came home … I had stress — post-traumatic stress – but I got over it …
I think if the Arctic convoys hadn’t been going, it would have made a hell of a difference to the war. Russia would have been gone, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t have been having any materials from us … I think it was worth it, really … there was a lot of losses and the loss of human life; we just accepted it, did it, and were very glad when it was all over.
My wife and I went cruising in our later years, and she sometimes said, ‘Let’s go to Russia and the Baltic.’ I said, ‘No, thank you very much. I don’t want to go back there again. I’ve had my trip to Russia and that was good enough for me.’ 13.
There was scant relief for the men assigned to Arctic convoy duty even when they were safely in port and not under attack. At one end of the convoy run was Hvalfjordur near Reykjavik, Iceland the bleak and empty landscape provided little to see. With only a single wet canteen ashore that served Canadian beer there was just as little to do. At the other end of the convoy runs were Murmansk and the Kola Inlet where there was even less to see and do than in Iceland. Marine musician Gus Guthrie of the cruiser HMS Cumberland still managed, on at least one of his days ashore in Russia, to enjoy a little entertainment.
There was a hill down which a lot of people were skiing so a friend and I made our way to the top and some Russian soldiers were offering their skis to some of the ship’s company. And I thought, ‘Ooh, I’ll have a go at this.’ And a Russian chap invited me and I said, ‘Oh, yes’ and I eventually got my shoes in the skis and then, without handing me the poles, he gave me an almighty shove and down ten feet of this hill I went like clappers, upright. The remaining 200 feet was upside-down, backwards, and forwards … when I eventually stopped and looked back up the hill, they were all laughing … having a tremendous time at my expense. 14.
“I’ll Have Your Balls for a Necktie!”- A Hostilities Only Sailor and HMS Edinburgh
HMS Edinburgh was a Town class cruiser of the mid- to late 1930s. The lone surviving example of the class is the museum ship HMS Belfast which is presently anchored in the Thames. Edinburgh, Belfast, and their eight sister ships were designed and built for the protection of British shipping. The cruisers carried 12 six-inch guns in four turrets but, were criticized for being under armed in comparison to the then new Japanese and American light cruisers of the time. The latter ships carryied 15 six-inch guns in five turrets. Britain made no effort to alter its Town class ships as it was unwilling to assume the additional costs of equipping them with any more guns.
Raymond Veneables enjoyed academics and athletics at school. In the late 1930s he entered university to study English, German, and French. He had met his wife to be as a student at Leicester University and, as war approached, imagined that he would wind up in the army. His uncles had told him horror stories of their World War I experiences, and Veneables fully expected to become an infantryman charging over the top to his death. Following his Christian beliefs, he considered himself a pacifist but, faced with his personal aversion to Hitler and the persecution of Jews in Germany, he did not really feel that he was a good enough Christian to be excluded from service. He eventually chose what he called “the lesser of three evils” from among the army, navy, and air force. He enlisted in the Royal Navy as a hostilities only ordinary seaman, or HOOD, in January 1941. 15.
Veneables remembered that there were volunteer ladies at the station to offer hot cocoa, buns, and other refreshments to recruits waiting for the trains that would take them to their training bases. While train travel of the era, according to Veneables, was awful, it was at least interesting because the trips were long enough for passengers to learn about one another through conversation. Once in training, Veneables quickly came to realize that the Navy’s way of teaching things to people was to scream and bark at them. He did not enjoy such instructional methodology, but bore it as he knew that he had no choice but to do so. He remembered that there was lots of marching and drill which he did not take seriously. He felt that there would never be any use for any of it in the operation of a ship. He felt that one of the least useful drills he had to endure was bayonet training. He believed that it was conducted simply to instill a sense of martial spirit into the trainees. He found that seamanship, knots, and gunnery made more sense, however. He fondly remembered being accomplished at tying the bowline on the bite because it would be the knot of choice to tie around one’s own waist in order to be pulled aboard a rescue vessel in case of having had to abandon ship. Another useful knot that he kept with him his entire life was that which was used in slinging a hammock.
After training and leave, he was given orders to report to a temporary barracks at Plymouth to await assignment to a ship. While he was on a short leave from Plymouth, the city suffered extremely heavy bombing by the Germans that left large portions of it in ruins. When he returned, Veneables could see search parties combing through the rubble to look either for bodies or safes from businesses that had been destroyed. Veneables spent a few days assisting on search and rescue parties in Plymouth until he was sent north to Scapa where he joined Edinburgh. The cruiser remained at Scapa for a number of months.
Veneables remembered the base as dull, boring, cold, and bleak. He got only one brief leave on which he and his companions simply went to the nearest drinking establishment. All returned to the ship thoroughly intoxicated. Many sailors who went through Scapa do not recall that there was any difference between being anchored there and steaming out at sea. As an HOOD, Veneables was at the absolute bottom end of the naval social ladder. The inexperienced ordinary seaman would be constantly reminded of his lowly status by the many regular professional sailors who had been aboard the cruiser since the pre-war days. He learned to use expletives and crude language in order to fit in. As a university trained linguist, Veneables rationalized that it was natural for him to adapt to the language of whatever location he should find himself in. As an ordinary seaman, his duties were those of a general deckhand. He did lots of scrubbing, cleaning, and painting. Painting was an endless chore as there would always be some part of the ship where old paint would need to be chipped off so that new paint could be applied. One shipboard routine on Edinburgh was the daily early morning scrubbing of the wooden decks. Veneables recalled that he and his shipmates did such a good job that the cruiser’s decks literally shone white. When the admiral of the force to which Edinburgh was attached came aboard one morning, he was incensed to see the ship in such a polished peacetime condition. He demanded that the decks be immediately darkened and camouflaged. The deck crew enthusiastically saw to it right away. From that point onwards, Veneables and his shipmates were happy to have been relieved of their deck scrubbing chores.
Tasks of daily living that are generally simple ashore can be difficult to get done at sea. Sailors must often resort to creative means by which to accomplish them. Veneables recalled how the need to dry a pair of just washed work overalls led to his one and only face to face conversation with an officer aboard Edinburgh.
Ordinary seamen spent a lot of time washing and cleaning the ship … (and) I hardly ever met an officer in that ship (although) once I did because I wore overalls all the time and I had to wash them a lot and if I went on the upper deck a great blast of hot air came out of a funnel. I tied them to this and they stood out horizontal and would dry in ten minutes. Well, the young engineer officer came up to me and said, ‘Did you put your overalls by MY funnel?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did, sir.’ (He replied) ‘If you do that again, I’ll have your balls for a necktie!’ 16.
Outside of their immediate duties of running the ship, there was essentially no relationship between enlisted men and officers at all. Ships all had various sports teams that would compete against those of other ships. One sport, field hockey, was reserved for play by officers only. Edinburgh’s team saw fit to add Ordinary Seaman Veneables and one of the ship’s gunners to the team, however, after word got around that they were highly skilled players. The fraternization went no further than that.
It must have appeared in my papers that I had once played hockey so I was invited to play hockey for the (ship) and I was the only non-officer except the gunner’s mate who also played. It was in Gibraltar where there was no grass on the pitch. It was very dusty and very hot. I found that the midshipmen, in particular, were rather surprised that an ordinary seaman could play, I may say, a lot better than they could, but they didn’t see it like that. What really horrified me was, at the end of the match, they all took into an officer’s bar and drank beer and failed even to send a glass out to these two non-officers who had been playing. That was in 1941. Edinburgh had been in commission since before the war started and the relations between the officers and the men were not good. 17.
The crew was quartered in the mess decks which were large open spaces used for eating or sleeping. The meals would be taken on rows of long tables set up for that purpose. Several of the hands would go to the galley and bring food back to dish out for the men. The best food at sea was that which was served immediately after a period ashore and replenishment because things would be fresh. After a few days out to sea, the fresh food would have been all consumed. Frozen, tinned, or powdered forms of comestibles would be served until the next run to shore. Among the tinned foods more commonly remembered by the Royal Navy’s wartime sailors, were things like corned beef, kippers, and enormous solid puddings. One of the first things a man would do whenever in port would be to go ashore for a meal.
Mess tables would be cleared in the evening and hammocks would be slung from hooks in the overhead (ceiling). There was a minimum of privacy. The space allotted per man, at not more than about 18 inches, was scant. Veneables recalled that he developed a technique of scrunching down and pulling the hammock netting around his head and shoulders in order to read. Reading, for lack of other activities, was popular among sailors at sea. When off watch, men seemed to always be able to find a quiet corner in an otherwise busy and crowded ship to read. Most ships had a lending library on board. There was also the Royal Navy War Library which would send, upon request, books to men out at sea. Books were one of the more popular purchases ashore. Many men would have friends or family send parcels of reading material to them which sometimes included hometown newspapers that, however dated, were always welcome and passed around from man to man. Veneables was fortunate to have discovered that it was alright for him to sling his hammock outside the crowded mess deck in the narrow passageway beside the ship’s store. He had a good deal more privacy and quiet there, and the storekeeper would, on closing shop, toss him a nightly bar of chocolate.
The mess deck was also the usual spot from which the daily tot would be issued. At six bells of the forenoon watch, 11:00 AM, the call of “up spirits” would be piped throughout the ship. Each man who was not under aged would receive his daily tot of 1/8 pint of rum. During the war years (but not because of the war) the rum issued to seamen was diluted 1:2 with water. Petty officers and above received their rum “neat”, or undiluted, which made it approximately 2-1/2 times the strength of normal commercially sold rum. Neat rum was sufficiently strong to cause at least mild drunkenness in some crewmembers. Under aged crewmen and those who chose not to drink received extra pay, or “grog money”, in lieu of rum. Some of the teetotalers would sell or trade their ration to others for greater value than provided by grog money. Others, who did drink, would take their daily ration, accumulate it, and drink it in quantity later. Under special circumstances, a ship’s captain could order an extra rum ration which was announced by the call to “splice the main brace.” 18.
A day at sea included watch standing which, depending on the potential for danger, varied in intensity and frequency. If danger were imminent, however, action stations would be called. Short of action stations, a watch usually lasted four hours and could involve being on lookout. One relaxing and enjoyable deck watch might involve keeping a lookout for a friendly ship that could be delivering mail from home. A more tense sort of lookout would be keeping alert for telltale signs of an enemy submarine, surface ship, or aircraft. Routine watches also involved working with or maintaining shipboard equipment. Stokers would tend to engines and boilers, gunners would tend to guns, and seamen would perform the tasks of ship’s upkeep through cleaning, washing, painting, or chipping paint.
“Going to Bat Against a Nasty Fast Bowler on a Bumpy Pitch”- HMS Edinburgh at War
While Edinburgh was attached to the Home Fleet at Scapa, she assisted in the interception of a German weather ship. The significance of the capture was magnified by the recovery of a highly prized “Enigma” coding machine from the captured vessel. The device was sent to the British Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park; the heart of British intelligence. Many ships and sailors’ lives were spared by advanced knowledge of German plans and operations when the mysteries of “Enigma” were unraveled. Edinburgh also helped with the capture of a merchant vessel attempting to sneak war materials into Germany.
Ordinary Seaman Veneables was assigned to guard some of the German sailors from the captured ships. As a former language student, he was pleased that he could converse with the prisoners. He remembered that they were all relieved to be out of the war even though things were going well for Germany at that time. When Veneables asked the Germans about their feelings towards Hitler, they mostly expressed that they were not at all in favor of him or his style of government. Veneables admitted that he felt a certain bond with the Germans as he felt that he and they shared the common experiences and dangers of a life at sea. He continued to chat with them and they sang folksongs in German until the ship’s Master at Arms, the head of shipboard discipline, made him stop. Veneables was sternly warned that he was dealing with enemies who might, at any moment, attempt to kill him. At the time, Veneables had no sense whatsoever that the Germans were even remotely considering such an act. 19.
In late 1940, Edinburgh was sent to join Force H at Gibraltar and to escort a convoy to Malta. The ship endured the gauntlet of Axis threats and attacks by submarine, aircraft, and surface ships, but managed to get through, stand by as the merchant ships off loaded their cargoes, and make the return to Gibraltar. The crew’s spirits were lifted by the sight of cheering Maltese who lined the shore as the convoy and its escorts made their way into Valletta’s Grand Harbour. The sailors were not less frightened by the war, but their morale received a boost. They were granted some time ashore when they got back to Gibraltar.
Shore leave was not always plentiful during the war years. Ports like Scapa and those in Iceland or Russia were unpleasant for their barren and extremely cold nature. In contrast, Gibraltar, whose harbor was continuously packed with Royal Navy and merchant ships, was sunny, warm, and not subject to too many air raids. The port offered all manner of recreation and entertainment such as shopping, dining, beaches, cinemas, and, of course, bars. Shipboard sailors often complained, however, that the prices for drinks in Gibraltar establishments seemed to be needlessly high. The residential sections of the town included steep and narrow streets that Veneables recalled lazily wandering through. He enjoyed listening to the Spanish style music that drifted softly through the open windows of people’s houses. There were many shore based military personnel who could be readily distinguished from ship based sailors by their well-tanned skin. The men who had been out to sea would have had little time to be out in the sun and were, for the most part, pale and pasty in appearance. Many of the naval personnel on Gibraltar were Wrens, and these, according to Veneables, usually seemed pleased to go dancing or for other recreation with sailors on leave from their ships.
After her first Malta convoy, Edinburgh was assigned to meet troop convoys going from the United Kingdom to the Red Sea by way of the Cape of Good Hope. The cruiser, tasked with keeping a watch for German surface raiders, would steam out of Gibraltar to accompany the convoys as far as Freetown before turning about to return to Gibraltar. Since no German raiders appeared and the weather was generally fine, these runs were not particularly dangerous. The duty produced what Veneables characterized as “mostly lazy journeys” and, on one of them the cruiser was met at sea by a destroyer which was carrying mail for Edinburgh. Veneables received 30 letters from his sweetheart. Reading her letters, he found it ironic that she was being strafed and bombed during the Luftwaffe’s blitzes on Liverpool while he was leisurely reading his mail under warm sunshine with his feet up on the ship’s rails. Letters were always valuable for morale and Veneables found them so precious that, many years after the war, he refused to discard them even when his wife, who had originally written them, asked him to throw them out.
When Edinburgh made a weeklong port call to Cape Town, a Royal Navy admiral who had been born in South Africa made arrangements for the ship’s crew to be well received and treated kindly by the citizens of that city. Veneables and three of his shipmates were met by the owner of a local luxury hotel and his wife who took them into their home. Later on during their leave, and not having had much opportunity to spend money previously, the four young men decided to treat themselves to the type of lavish meal that every man aboard every Royal Navy ship constantly dreamt about in those wartime days. When they requested the bill after the meal which had included cigars and fine liqueurs, they were told that there would be none. The restaurant had been informed ahead of time by “some rich old lady” that any Royal Navy sailors who chose to dine there would have their bill paid by her. 20.
Although they enjoyed hitherto unknown kindness, and even luxury while in Cape Town, many of Edinburgh’s men were shocked by the behavior of white South Africans towards black people. They found it odd and even horrifying that people who were treating them so kindly, generously, and gently could turn in an instant to talk and act with such degrees of cruelty to the blacks. Veneables and his friends were surprised at the segregation aboard busses and naively elected to sit in the “black only” seats. They earned an unpleasant, if unspoken, lesson in the nature of racism when they observed the extreme discomfort they were causing the black passengers. The four sailors switched seats. 21.
After South Africa, it was back to Gibraltar for assignment to another Malta convoy for Edinburgh. Veneables became very uncomfortable when he heard the news. He thought that after surviving one Malta Convoy, going on any others would simply be tempting fate. The evening before their scheduled departure began with a beautiful sunset. As Veneables gazed at it, the thought crossed his mind that he might be spending his last night alive. He compared his feelings to a cricket match where he was “waiting to go in to bat against a particularly nasty fast bowler on a bumpy pitch.” Once underway and busy, however, he began to feel better. He and his equally nervous shipmates took great pains to pretend that they were not frightened. Even as they were piped to action stations and reminded to don tin hats and to blow up their life belts, they continued to strike poses of unconcern and bravado. They frequently made jokes or off-color comments to get a laugh. Even the tannoy announcer, seated topside by the central gun director, would try to lighten mood with casual wording and a jovial tone for his reports on the progress of a particular action. Veneables mimicked him from memory: “Lovely day up here … we have just over 120 Italian planes inbound … but not to worry, some of our ships are going to blow the pants off of (some Italian base) …” 22.
Such announcements were made especially for the hands stationed below decks and, as was the practice throughout the Royal Navy, they were designed to reduce tension as much as to be informative. According to Veneables, air attacks out to sea did not usually last more than a matter of 10 or 15 minutes during which enemy planes would fly low overhead to drop bombs or torpedoes and to sometimes strafe. The ships would twist, turn, and dodge at speed with the helm hard over one way only to be hastily followed by a high speed hard over the opposite way. The ships would fire every possible gun at their attackers. By the action’s end their decks would be awash in spent brass shell casings.
Both Veneables and Edinburgh survived their second Malta convoy and were deployed back to Scapa with the Home Fleet by late 1941. The ship next served with the distant escort for several convoys to and from Murmansk in the early months of 1942.
“There Was This Huge Explosion”- Edinburgh’s Sunken Treasure
After bringing a convoy to Murmansk in late April 1942, Edinburgh was tied to a dock when several Russian barges were pulled alongside by a tug. Ninety-one heavy boxes were hoisted aboard by crane and lowered into the ship’s empty bomb magazine well below decks. Until one slipped and broke open, hardly any of the ship’s company knew that they contained bars of gold that were a part of Russia’s payments for Allied war supplies. Once loaded, the convoy, designated QP 11, headed homeward with 5.5 tons of gold aboard Edinburgh. According to one of the old crew, likely a former officer,
The boxes were covered with ice and snow when they arrived alongside the starboard side … and we started getting it up with (a) derrick … Because (we were by) the head of the galley there was a full head of steam (that was) red hot … the ice and snow started to melt away and running like a river of blood … (it was) the (red colored) paint coming from the stenciling on the boxes. And Commander Jeffries came and said, ‘How are we getting along?’ … I said, ‘This is a bad omen, you know … all this Russian gold, running with blood.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t think like that.’ Well, as it happened, three days later we were gone and the gold was gone with us .23.
Edinburgh was well in front of the convoy and on a zig-zag course when she was hit by two submarine launched torpedoes. According to a second crewman,
I had a cup of tea in my hand, and all of a sudden there was this huge explosion. The table disappeared, my cup of tea disappeared, and the stool (I was sitting on) disappeared. A huge flash penetrated the mess deck … the lights went out and the ship felt as if someone had it in a giant hand tremblingly turning it over to port … I saw them dragging the lads covered in fuel oil from the hatch where they had lowered the stuff (gold) down … I saw them hand to hand, bringing people out from there … Up until then I thought we’d been hit by just the one torpedo, but going aft, I saw that 50 feet of stern had been completely blown away and the quarter deck had ripped up like a sardine tin … guns of the Y turret (were) poking through the deck. 24.
Edinburgh was badly damaged, but still seaworthy. While her rudder and one propeller were destroyed by the hit on her stern, she could still make way with her remaining two propellers. Two British destroyers, Foresight and Forester, and a pair of Russian ones joined her. One of the British ships took the cruiser under tow. Several British minesweepers stationed nearby in the Kola inlet to help keep access to Murmansk clear of mines were ordered out to assist Edinburgh. Additional assistance was sent in the form of a Russian tug and the Russian gunboat, Rubin. The tow from the British destroyer broke. The Russian tug took over, but lacked sufficient power to make any headway with the damaged cruiser. One of the minesweepers attached herself by cable to what remained of the cruiser’s stern to provide steering as the damaged ship pushed herself forward with her propellers. The destroyers, gunboat, and remaining minesweepers circled Edinburgh as an antisubmarine screen. 25.
As she slowly labored through the water, Edinburgh was set upon by a force of three German destroyers. The minesweepers had been ordered to retire under smoke screens in the event that enemy surface ships were to appear, but they either did not get the word or elected to ignore it. They commenced fire, as did Edinburgh and her two faithful destroyers. The Germans fired back on the British but, possibly assuming that they were against greater strength than a handful of small combatants and a crippled cruiser, maintained their distance. Edinburgh’s gunners were good. They scored hits on one of the German destroyers that so damaged her that she eventually sank. The two remaining German destroyers, however, were able to maneuver into torpedo launching position. As she could only move in a slow circle, Edinburgh took a hit amidships. One of her crew recalled,
I came up onto the bridge and I saw this firing from these ships and the next thing I saw three torpedoes approaching … the next thing (there was) an explosion on the port side. A huge column of water came over the flag deck … I thought, ‘Well, this is my lot now’ 26.
The Germans did not press their attack, but Edinburgh’s engineers had determined that she was just a few steel plates shy of breaking in two. She was ordered abandoned and her crew was removed by two of the minesweepers. Lest the Germans realize what her cargo was and manage to get at it, one of the minesweepers was ordered to sink the hulk by gunfire. The little warship fired some twenty rounds into the cruiser with little effect. The minesweeper was then ordered to lie alongside and drop depth charges set to detonate directly beneath Edinburgh, but even after that the cruiser still would not sink. There was some thought of re-boarding her with a skeleton crew, but Foresight was requested to fire her last remaining torpedo at Edinburgh. The torpedo hit and sank the cruiser. About 60 of Edinburgh’s men had been killed. The ship and all the gold she was carrying went under in icy water more than 800 feet deep on 02 May 1942.
The British and Soviet governments were well aware of the gold’s underwater location but, given the limitations of technology available for the first quarter century after the war, could not hope to recover it. In 1981, however, a privately contracted salvage company did recover most of the gold. By 1986, all but five of the original 465 bars had been raised. Britain claimed 45% of the gold which, at the time of its salvage was estimated to be worth £40 million. The Soviet Union was awarded the other 55%. The whereabouts of the five missing bars remains unknown. 27.
Many Royal Navy veterans of the Arctic convoys along with many historians tend to characterize the Russians at Murmansk and Archangel as stand-offish or even hostile. The Captain of the Rubin offered some lie to that belief. Moved by the brave battle put up by the Royal Navy’s men and ships in their determination to save Edinburgh, he sent the following message to the commander of the British minesweeping flotilla based in the Kola Inlet:
From Commander of Divisions, USSR Gunboat Rubin, 4th day of May, 1942
Dear Sir, Soviets seamen was witness of heroic Battle of English seamen with predominants powers of enemy. English seamen did observe their sacred duty before Fatherland. We are proud of staunchness and courage of English seamens – our allies. I am very sorry what injured your ship by approach to board for what I must beg pardon.
Commander of Division 28.