The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” Winston Churchill
Considering the challenges faced by Britain and the Allies, that’s quite a statement. It’s a statement that puts into stark reality the fact that almost everything needed to fight and win a war in Europe would have to be brought to the war zone by ship.
Arctic convoys weren’t just extra miles after crossing the Atlantic. In these 1,500 miles merchant ships and their escorts would have to contend with arctic weather, icebergs, fog, and huge seas. In addition to the elements there was the human enemy, U-boats and persistent aircraft attack from Luftwaffe bases in Norway. Forced between arctic ice and the Norwegian coastline, this was perhaps the most exposed convoy route of the second world war. Prime Minister Churchill recognized the peril of these trips when he called the convoys to Murmansk “the worst journey in the world.”
The first allied convoy formed up in August 1941 in the waters off Iceland, code named ‘Operation Dervish,’ the convoy made it through to Archangel after ten days at sea without loss. This first convoy was small by later standards consisting of six small merchant ships escorted by nine Royal Navy vessels ranging from anti-submarine trawlers to the aging aircraft carrier ARGUS. (Woodman, Richard, Arctic Convoys, John Murray Publishers, 1994)
Not all future convoys would be as lucky. Between August 1941 and the last convoy, which sailed in May of 1945, a total of 41 convoys sailed the arctic route. Over four years, 104 allied merchant ships were sunk, 84 of these were listed as American flag ships. Escorts were not immune to the dangers on this route, 18 naval escorts were sent to the bottom of the Arctic in their efforts to protect the supply line. By one count there were 829 merchant mariners and 1,944 navy personnel killed on the Arctic routes. The Soviet Union lost 30 merchant ships and an unknown number of personnel.
By 1942 the Nazis had realized the importance of the Arctic convoys to the allied effort and dedicated assets to stop the flow of cargo to the Russian military. In this way the arctic convoys played a strategic role in the war well beyond their supply mission. German aircraft, ships and U-boats deployed in the arctic and at airbases in Norway couldn’t be used elsewhere.
Statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story. What was it like to be exposed during almost 24 hours of light in the summer, or, total darkness in winter. How did crews cope with knowing that even if they survived a sinking, the cold water would kill them in minutes? The real story is about the sailors, merchant and naval, who served and died in the dangerous Arctic waters.
At the outset of World War II the American Merchant Marine, like most of the US industrial economy, was still feeling the effects of the great depression. The number of merchant seaman was nowhere near the number that would be needed to man all the ship’s that would have to be built to carry the supplies to troops and allies overseas. Into this world at war, like most of his generation, came a young man.
His story is worth telling.
Captain Stephens, it's 1943 and you are 19 years old. What brought you to the merchant marine?
My mother was very anxious that I not become “cannon fodder.” My father had been in WW1 and only nearly escaped with his life. My mother had heard a lot of war stories from him, so she was bound and determined to protect her son.
My mother discovered that if one were going to college or some type of advanced training that you could avoid the draft. So, I guess she had to beg, borrow, and steal to put me into an expensive prep school to study for West Point. I didn’t make it. I failed both Geometry and the eye sight test. She spoke to an uncle of mine, who had a friend who was a Chief Mate on a merchant freighter. My uncle came home and told my mother that the Merchant Marine was a nice, safe, civilian job. My mother volunteered me for training with the Maritime service in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn NY.
My training at Sheepshead Bay, was very well handled by a combination of the Navy, the sea scouts, and some older merchant officers. We finished in 90 days. I was shipped down to Philadelphia to wait for a ship.
As we exited Sheepshead bay a man stood at the gate pointing at each one of us saying “SIU, NMU, SIU, NMU”.
After finishing your initial training what was it like to join your first ship? What was life onboard like?
I was sent to a non-union ship, the SS Henry Middleton. It was a terrible shock, because it had representatives aboard from unions and the owners, each one trying to discredit the other.
Very soon I was in a 100 ship convoy, something I could never conceive of. First night we were blacked out, and destroyer escorts were dropping depth charges around the perimeter of the convoy every 15 seconds. Its hard to imagine what it sounded like. The sound reverberated throughout the ship and the whole ship just shook. In the engine room it was even worse. First night out, dark with depth charges going off, I thought to myself, “what in the Hell have I gotten into?”
But I was bound and determined. Whatever happens you face it, you put your best face forward, you try not to worry and you do whatever it is you’re supposed to do.
Learning actual deck work was laborious. We had a very strict Finnish American Bosun. His English wasn’t so good, so the few words he knew came out forcibly, very caustically. There were ten booms to take care of, plus a 50 ton jumbo, and a 30 ton jumbo. There were three tarps on each hatch, followed by wooden wedges driving steal battens in place. Fortunately, we usually didn’t have to lay the wooden cargo hatches ourselves, there were 500 of them. It was back-breaking work. The Bosun drove us.
I had to steer and thought I knew how from my training, but the one thing they hadn’t taught me was that the ship turned around the compass. I thought the compass turned. Of course, I turned the wheel the wrong way and got a tongue lashing from the Mate. I quickly became a good helmsman.
You had to learn how to live with other guys in a very small foc’sle. Depending on who your roommates were it could be miserable or comfortable. I was in a room with another young man and a 33 year-old A&P store manager.
The young fellow in my foc’sle was only 17 and he wanted to fight all the time. I did wind up getting into a fist fight with him, the only fight I had in all my life on a ship. Fortunately, I had taken some boxing lessons so I had a rough idea how to handle myself. I landed a few punches that were effective and we settled that problem.
We had to be alert standing our watches because the agitators aboard were causing all this trouble amongst the crew. People began getting tripped, getting pushed off of crosstrees. Just in general there was a lot of havoc. My watch came up with a password. When we were on lookout at night we carried a shackle and if the right password wasn’t used we would punch out whoever was up there trying to cause trouble. I never had to do that.
Each liberty ship had 10 guns, (8) 20mm anti-aircraft guns, a 5 inch 38 on the stern, and a 3 inch 50 on the bow. The Navy Armed Guard manned them. The merchant crew were loaders if we chose to volunteer. All the younger guys, not knowing any better, volunteered. Several of the older men, knowing how dangerous this was, wouldn’t volunteer at all.
Some men would just lay in their bunks with their man overboard suits on worrying. The rest of us dashed out when the general alarm rang. That took a degree of courage, because if you had to run to your gun, it was 200 feet either way on an open deck. We used to zig zag up the deck to dodge the bullets coming from the planes that would dive on us and spray our decks.
We had canvas tarps on the holds. The Germans used to make their first attacks with incendiary bullets to set the cargo hatches on fire. As we broke out fire hoses to put out the fire, they would then come down with live ammunition and try to get us in that fashion. If one were to think too much upon all this, on what might happen to you, you would just get all serious and depressed and worry yourself to death. So, I compartmentalized each of these fears, put them in a little box and closed the door. Don’t open that door until you had to face that particular problem. That helped a lot in maintaining equanimity. I also learned to do nothing in my bunk but sleep. Don’t think in bed, go right to sleep, say a mantra to yourself to block out racing thoughts. Keep yourself calm that way. That was a big help.
You sailed as part of arctic convoys. JW63 going eastbound and RA 64 westbound.
I sailed on the SS John Ireland. I was able to make two trips to sea before I had to make the Murmansk run. We formed up a thirty ship convoy in Scotland in preparation for our run over the top of Norway.
The Gulf Stream flows north-easterly across the North Atlantic then goes up and over the top of Norway and Russia and winds up going down the Kola River into Murmansk making an ice free port all year. This route also put us behind the German lines which only got as far as Stalingrad I believe it was. There they were bogged down by both the Russian resistance and the terrible Russian winter.
At any rate, the allies provided armor, food, railroad engines and planes. Everything under the sun. They would load left handed boots on one ship and right handed boots on another so they wouldn’t be stolen. Pairs were put together after they got ashore.
Our British escort consisted of a number of small corvettes, armed trawler’s, and maybe one or two destroyers, it was a little sparse. Before our convoy left Scotland, British intelligence discovered that there was a wolf pack waiting for us at a choke point just above northern Norway. They raced ahead and forced the wolf pack to submerge. They kept them down while we slipped passed. After that we got into fog which we had all the way to Murmansk. We got up there safely without the loss of any vessels.
What was Murmansk like?
When we arrived at the entrance to the Kola River I saw my first Russian female officer, she was a Captain standing on her bridge. I thought to myself, ‘my goodness, a women Captain how can that be?’ She looked hale and hearty and waived to us as we went by. She looked like she could throw any of us over her shoulder.
There was only daylight twenty minutes a day. The Nazis bombed us every night at the docks. Thank goodness for the blackout that the Russians had imposed. The planes had a hard time hitting us and my ship didn’t get a scratch. One or two ships were damaged but not sunk.
The Russians had a seaman’s club for us in Murmansk, but to be able to see a movie or dance with the lady hostesses we had to sit through an hour long indoctrination in communism each night. This was very difficult to take, but we sat there and gritted our teeth.
These were winter convoys, how did you and your shipmates deal with the weather and darkness?
It was dark all the time and foggy. The younger guys were apprehensive but we had this very unusual Norwegian-American Captain, who was able to put us at ease with his apparent nonchalance, he always seemed to be calm. He would say, “No problem, we got it made guys. This isn’t so bad, look at the advantage of this fog, we are going to get there without any problems.”
Of course, as young men we didn’t know the difference but we had tremendous confidence in him.
The British discovered that on a small Norwegian island the locals were using a clandestine radio. There was Norwegian resistance on the island. The Germans were on their way to annihilate the entire island population, 400-500 people. They were going to kill them all. As I said, the British found out about it and raced their ships in there first. They picked up some 200 refugees off of this island. They then brought these refugees back to Murmansk and put them on our ships to go back to Britain. They chose our ship to put all the women and children aboard, then they put us in the center of the convoy with two baby aircraft carriers on either end of us to give as much protection as they could.
As we were forming up on the Kola River our ship was a little slow getting in position. A British corvette, the Bluebell, came alongside us and began bawling out our Captain over a bullhorn. Right in the middle of this tirade a torpedo meant for us hit the corvette and she blew sky high. Her topsides were still raining down as she sank in front of us. Only one man survived.
It was certainly a rude awakening to me, because I happened to be standing only fifty feet from the ship when it blew up. The angle I was at and the fact that it hit them on their offshore side absorbed most of the blast, all I got was a huge sound and a gust of wind and that was that.
On the way back, we encountered some unbelievably bad weather. Three nights in a row the wind rose to 125 mph. We knew this because the aircraft carrier’s anemometers blew off at 125 mph. We estimated the seas were one hundred feet high. There were two liberty ships, each 425 feet long each going down one side of the swell while two others were going up the other side. You can only imagine. As we slid down a wave the ship would hit the bottom of the trough, my head actually shook, and the entire ship shuttered.
We were steering from up on the flying bridge because the Captain could line up and control the ship better from up there. But it was bitterly cold, and yet he had us all calm because he just marched back and forth on the bridge humming Norwegian folk tunes. We were convinced this is the way things get in bad weather up here. We had no idea what we were experiencing because we had nothing to compare it to. The older seaman aboard were scared to death, us young guys, I guess we didn’t know any better.
During the days, which were very short, the JU88 dive bombers would fly over and pick up our convoy. With a thirty ship convoy and a ten ship escort that was 400-500 guns all firing shrapnel up in the air, they didn’t dare attack us at the center of the convoy.
The bad weather scattered many of the ships on the fringes of the convoy. The weakest part of the Liberty ship was the steering engine, if the captain of your ship didn’t know to rig relieving tackle on the quadrant, as my captain did, the steering would break down and ships would fall out of the convoy. German planes would attack and sink them as they fell out of position. Five of our ships were in that predicament and were sunk. As they sank, the women and children refugees on our ship would stand on deck and cry because they didn’t know which ship their husbands, fathers, brothers were on. Each time a ship went down they assumed that it was their relatives going down. It was a pretty pathetic scene to have to watch. We tried to calm down the children and give them candy, but because their mothers or sisters were so distraught the little ones could not be calmed. That was hard to take.
What ships made up your escorts and how were they organized?
As to our escorts and how they were organized sailors didn’t have any idea of how the escorts were organized. Usually they were way beyond our perimeter so we could hardly see them. I do know that our convoy had the two baby carriers because we were right smack between them. I think the rest of our convoy was protected by frigates, corvettes, and armed trawlers. We hoped that there were destroyers out there somewhere.
If the weather was moderate enough our smaller escorts, especially the corvettes, would dash in and out in between the lanes. They were pinging, as they called it, using their sound equipment to detect any submarines that might have managed to get underneath us. They were very successful with that.
Hugh Stephens survived his Murmansk runs and went on to serve in convoys in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. He passed his Mates license in 1945 and became a Master in 1952. He is still an active mariner today.
Captain Hugh Stephens started as an Ordinary Seaman and rose through the ranks to Master, Unlimited. He has had a long and successful career in the maritime industry, afloat and ashore. He is now a Lecturer at the SUNY Maritime College
Anthony Palmiotti holds a license as Master, Unlimited. He is the Chairman of Marine Transportation at the SUNY Maritime College