The Armed Guard met it's supreme test in the long and dangerous voyages to North Russia. Without doubt there were more hazards in these trips to Murmansk than in any other kind of naval duty. Gales were frequent. Ice fields were a common menace to navigation. Magnetic compasses became completely unreliable. Floating mines were often encountered. Choice of routes was limited. German submarines and surface craft were able to operate from nearby bases. German planes could shadow convoys for days and bomb ships from bases within twenty minutes flying time of Murmansk. Before escort carriers were used, only the weather and the guns of escorts and merchant ships stood in the way of wholesale destruction of every merchant ship which ventured to the relief of the hard-pressed Russians. Convoys battled their way to the approaches of Murmansk and then underwent constant attacks in the harbor as they patiently waited to unload their precious cargoes. Cargo handling facilities were very limited and the constant bombing of the city was not calculated to improve the situation. The story of the voyages to Murmansk, therefore, is one of almost unbelievable horror, or matchless courage, and of unlimited devotion to duty. There is nothing quite like it in all history. Ships which left the ports of the United States for Russia had about one chance in three of returning prior to the spring of 1943. After that date the odds were much better. Chances of rescue from sinking ships in sub-zero weather
THE NORTH RUSSIA RUN
were not very good in spite of all efforts to save personnel whenever possible. Even if nothing happened, the long watches in severely cold weather made the trip one of the most trying experiences imaginable. But on most of the trips the Germans were encountered. Young men went to Murmansk in perfect health. They returned tired and nervous from loss of sleep and the sight of men dying all around them. Few men could stand the strain of many trips to Murmansk. They would generally agree that it was the most horrible experience of their lives. Even the return trip was full of danger. Sea power was confronting land based air power under the most trying conditions imaginable. The odds were heavily stacked on the side of the Germans. Yet the convoys, or remnants of the convoys, got through. The life blood of victory never ceased to flow to the Russians. Fire power of merchant ships continually improved. Ship losses did not cease, but they decreased.
It is with the part the Armed Guard played in this drama of life and death that this chapter deals. American ships were almost constantly in North Russian waters either en route in harbor, or on the return voyage to the United States. They were under almost daily attack. It is obviously impossible and undesirable to mention every enemy encounter. We are interested, therefore, in describing the most spectacular clashes with the enemy and in presenting to the reader a description of what life for the Armed Guard in this theater of the war was like. No attempt is made to describe the losses of British ships. Many of the escorts were British and the British merchant ships were going to Russia side by
side with American vessels. But the story of the part played by escorts and ships of other nationalities must be told elsewhere.
Merchant ships going to North Russia required special installation. Their bows were strengthened to give some protection from ice. Heat coils were installed in their double bottoms and in water tanks to prevent freezing. The only ships which could undertake the voyage were those which had received the special winter treatment.
The records of the Arming Merchant Ship Section of the Fleet Maintenance Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations indicate that some 347 merchant ships were dispatched to North Russia through April 26, 1945. Most of the losses were sustained between January 5, 1942 and March 14, 1943. In this period 143 ships departed for North Russia and 111 arrived. Losses en router were 32 ships and on the return voyage 14 ships were lost. These figures indicate that about one out of every three ships was lost.1 After this early period of heavy losses the tide turned; only 10 ships out of more than 200 were lost on the North Russia run for the remainder of the war, according to the records of the War Shipping Administration.
The Navy made every effort to give ships for Murmansk the best possible armament and large quantities of ammunition. These efforts began to pay off as expert Armed Guard crews gained experience in gunnery. While some of the early Armed Guard crews went to Russia with
improper winter clothing, every effort was made to remedy this situation in 1942.The advice of Admiral Bird's expert on winter clothing was sought on the best available clothing for the North Russia climate and before 1942 ended these crews were being furnished with the best and most complete sets of winter clothing which could be obtained.
On December 6, 1941 the SS Larranaga left the port of Boston on a trip which was ultimately to take her to Murmansk. The Armed Guard on the Larranaga got its first taste of battle when it fired three rounds as a surfaced submarine on Christmas Eve, perhaps scoring a hit on the second round. Not until January 8 did the ship depart Reykjavik, Iceland, with British Convoy PQ 8 for Murmansk. The Larranaga was lucky. German submarines inflicted losses on the escorting vessels on January 17 while the convoy was about 60 miles northeast of Kilden Island, but the merchant ships had scattered during the submarine attack. High level bombing attacks on Murmansk on the last three days in February disturbed the stay of the Larranaga at Murmansk but did no damage to the ship. She was back in New York on April 20.2
The SS El Lago and the SS West Nohno went to North Russia in Convoy PQ 9-10, but there are no Armed Guard voyage reports for these ships. The SS West Nohno carried an Armed Guard. Three ships were in PQ 11. They were the SS City of Flint, SS Makawao, and the SS North King.
Some of these early ships to Russia did not carry Armed Guards and were either unarmed or at best carried a few .30 or .50 cal. machine guns. Nevertheless, the urgency of their cargoes was such that they were not delayed for armament. PQ 11 arrived in Murmansk on 23 February. At least one ship, the SS City of Flint, engaged enemy planes on February 26 and 28. Nine planes, three of which were Stuka dive bombers, were able to straddle the SS City of Flint with four or five bombs on the latter date. On March 2 the Germans concentrated their bombing attack on the city rather than on the ships in the port. The return trip to Iceland was worse than the trip to Murmansk. Numerous floating mines were encountered and storms were a daily occurrence. A Russian merchant ship was torpedoed, but an escort accounted for an enemy submarine.
PQ 12 contained five merchant ships from the United States, none of which appears to have carried an Armed Guard. They were the SS El Coston, SS Capulin (later named SS Illapel), SS Artigas, SS El Occidente, and the SS Stone Street. The SS El Occidente carried guns but did not have trained men to man them. She was torpedoed and sank within two minutes on the return voyage from Murmansk on April 13.
PQ 13 was the first convoy to feel the full fury of the German attack. But even the attacks on this convoy were only a foretaste of what was to come in the months to follow. Of the 10 American ships in
this convoy, three, the SS Raceland, SS Effingham, and the SS Bateau, were lost before the convoy reached Murmansk. No reports exist for the SS Gallant Fox, the SS Elestero, the SS Mana, the SS Bateau, and the SS Ballot, thus indicating that they did not carry Armed Guards at this time. The SS Eldena, the SS Mormacmar, and the SS Dunboyne carried Armed Guards and their Armed Guard officers give a vivid description of events, especially of the heavy air attacks sustained during a month at Murmansk. The whole trip was a bad one for the SS Mormacmar. She left Boston on February 18.On her deck were barrels of phosphorous which would burn if it came into contact with water. She also carried tanks, trucks, and planes. When one day out of port, news came to the ship that another ship had been torpedoed about 60 miles ahead. Rather than risk her valuable cargo, the ship went to Portland, Maine. She sailed again on February 22. When near Halifax she passed a burning ship which had been torpedoed. While underway to Loch Ewe a severe storm, engine trouble, and fire on deck came as triple blows to the ship. The Armed Guard helped save the SS Mormacmar from fire when some of the barrels of phosphorous broke open and started burning. More trouble came on March 8 when a member of the ship's merchant crew broke into the slop chest and stole a case of rum. Three of the able bodied seamen were unable to stand watches because of drunkenness. At Reykjavik the merchant crew refused to work deck cargo ad the Armed Guard was forced to work cargo from midnight of the 17th until the afternoon on the 18th so that the ship could leave port and try to join up with the convoy which had sailed on that day. Floating mines were spotted
on two occasions on the way to Murmansk. Worse still, a sever gale caught the convoy on March 25 and scattered it. Only five of the original 20 ships were together two days later. A German plane began shadowing the ships on March 28, just out of range of their guns. Meanwhile five other ships, including a destroyer, had joined up with the convoy. It was on this date that the SS Raceland was torpedoed or bombed and the SS Bateau was lost from unknown causes. Fortunately four destroyers and a cruiser joined the convoy on March 29 in time to protect it in a surface battle with German destroyers about 150 miles northwest of Murmansk. The battle was fought in a heavy snow squall. Shells were falling all around the merchant ships in the convoy. The escorts sustained considerable damage and also inflicted damage on the attacking ships, including the sinking of at least one German destroyer. The convoy was able to plow its way through heavy ice fields towards Murmansk.
The Dunboyne witnessed much action on the approaches to Murmansk, apparently with another part of the convoy. A scout bomber attacked on the morning of March 28, but dropped its bombs into the sea after the Dunboyne opened fire with all nine of her guns. Later in the day a bomber dropped five bombs close to the SS Mana and five close to the SS Ballot. The Ballot developed trouble with her steering gear and dropped astern out of sight. She was not lost but apparently did not reach Murmansk. On the morning of March 30 the SS Effingham was torpedoed 150 feet astern of the Dunboyne, but was able to launch two life boats. Some of the men died in these boats from exposure. The
Dunboyne joined the convoy on March 30 just before the entry into Murmansk. Only nine of the original twenty vessels were present when the entry was made into the port of Murmansk. Even the entry into port was contested by the Germans. When the convoy was abeam Kildin Island, about 20 miles north of Murmansk about four bombs were dropped ahead of the Eldena and two near the Mormacmar. One of the bombs damaged the Mormacmar slightly. Enemy submarines were also in the area and were heavily attacked by the escorting vessels. The presence of Russian planes and the effective fire from anti-aircraft guns in the hills around Murmansk were welcome sights to the battle weary men as their ships slipped through Kola Inlet and came to anchor at Murmansk.
The convoy was at Murmansk until April 28. During this period it was under almost constant attack. One witness stated that there were 110 alerts and 54 actual bombing attacks. While this figure appears somewhat exaggerated, it is known that the Dunboyne manned her guns 58 times. None of the American merchant ships appear to have received any appreciable damage while in the port. On the other hand the Eldena was credited by the Russian government with shooting down three bombers and the entire crew was rewarded one month's pay. The Dunboyne was officially credited with two enemy planes and may have helped bring down another. This action took place on April 3 when the Germans used four-motored bombers against the convoy for the first time. At least three British ships were hit. Armed Guards suffered greatly from loss of sleep. A very bad day was April 15. In the early afternoon about 50 enemy planes were in the air at one time and late in the
afternoon at least 125 planes became involved in dog fights. Two British ships were hit. Murmansk was taking a terrific pounding, but allied planes were hitting back at the attackers.
At last the long nightmare at Murmansk was over for the merchant ships. The men on these ships had seen bombs fall repeatedly all around them. Now they had to fight their way back home. The convoy left Murmansk on April 28 and arrived at Reykjavik on May 7. The most serious challenge other than from floating mines came on May 1. On this date four of six German planes delivered a torpedo or bombing attack without success. Shortly after noon came a surface engagement with German surface units. During this engagement a Russian merchant ship was torpedoed, and went to the bottom in about two minutes. At times enemy shells hit dangerously near the merchant ships. On May 2 the escorts dropped depth charges and the Germans shadowed the convoy by plane, but the convoy was now safely through. On the next day friendly aircraft appeared overhead.
Only two ships had Armed Guards aboard in convoy PQ 14. These were the SS Yaka and the SS West Cheswald. They left Reykjavik on April 8 and arrived at Murmansk April 19. Many of the ships in the convoy turned back because of fog and snow. On April 15 the inevitable German plane appeared and circled the convoy out of range of
the guns. The escorts made contact with three enemy destroyers. Next day a German plane appeared at about the same time but did not remain in the vicinity of the convoy very long. At 1235 the Convoy Commodore's ship was torpedoed and sank in about a minute. Rescue ships picked up 31 survivors from the icy waters. At least two more torpedoes passed through the convoy but missed all ships. On April 17 from one to three planes dropped bombs without doing damage. Torpedoes passed ahead of the leading ships in the convoy and the escorts apparently sank a submarine. The convoy entered the port of Murmansk on April 19, with its escort increased by two Russian destroyers and with fighter planes overhead. While in port the ships shared in the daily attacks which PQ 13 was receiving. The Yaka had a long stay in Murmansk because she required repairs to her bow and propeller, and missed sailing with the convoy which left on April 28. On May 12 and 14 she received damage from near misses and on May 15 a bomb hit her No. 2 boiler. Bombs on May 27 missed the ship, but bomb fragments on June 13 opened her deep tank and made 14 holes in her port side. On this date the Yaka shot down one enemy plane. While in Murmansk from April 19 to June 27 the Yaka experienced 156 air raid alarms. Bombs were dropped on the town or ship 48 times and on 19 occasions planes dropped no bombs. The Yaka was attacked five times and about 50 bombs were dropped near her. On the return trip German patrol planes picked up the convoy on July 2. Near Iceland on July 5 the Germans sank at least seven ships and damaged another during a dense fog. The West Cheswald was lucky enough to escape
damage from enemy action while at Murmansk, but a bomb fell fifty feet from the ship on the morning of April 23 and destroyed a 50 ton crane which had been used in unloading tanks from the ship. She left with the April 28 convoy.
PQ 15 included sixteen American ships when it left Iceland for Murmansk on April 26. Before most of these ships returned to Iceland on May 29 they had experienced constant attacks by the enemy and had inflicted some damage. The convoy ran into the dangerous season on the Murmansk run when ice began to force ships closer to Northern Europe and daylight endured for 24 hours. The late spring and summer was always the period most dreaded by men bound for Murmansk, for this season of the year permitted continual air attacks and brought ships closer to German air bases. The sixteen American merchant ships were the Alcoa Rambler, the Expositor, the Deer Lodge, the Mormacrio, the Texas (later the Kapitan Vislobokov), the Seattle Spirit, the Zebulon B. Vance, the Bayou Chico, the Paul Lukenbach, the Capira, the Lancaster, the Hegira, the Francis Scott Key, the Alcoa Cadet, the Mormacrey, and the Topa Topa.
Floating mines were encountered along the route to Russia. German planes began to scout the convoy April 30. On May 1 one of three enemy planes was shot down. Enemy bombs fell wide of the ships and did no damage. On May 3 five or more torpedo planes succeeded in sinking three British merchantmen in rapid order. The attack took place just
after midnight. One of the enemy planes crashed in flames. A few minutes later an Expositor lookout discovered a submarine conning tower in the center of the convoy and just a few yards off the ship's starboard quarter. When the submarine changed course the four inch gun on the Expositor was brought to bear and the top of the conning tower was blown off. A torpedo was avoided by banking the ship full speed. The Armed Guard on this ship consisted of only four gunners, a signalman striker, and an officer. They went without sleep for two days and nights on the approaches to Murmansk. The convoy reached Murmansk on May 6 and departed May 21, except for ships which had not completed loading or had been damaged in port. The Armed Guard voyage report of the Paul Luckenbach indicated that the Armed Guard went to general quarters 31 times in this fifteen day period and that enemy planes, mostly high altitude bombers were observed on about 15 occasions. Bombs fell around the Zebulon B. Vance on May 10, but caused no damage. The Armed Guard on the Mormacrio shot down one German plane during a low level bombing attack on May 12 in which four bombs were dropped within 50 yards of the ship. On May 15 bombs landed within 75 feet of the Francis Scott Key and showered the ships with bomb fragments.
On the return trip from Murmansk there was less than the usual amount of enemy activity. The high point on the return voyage came when a plane, launched from a British ship, shot down an attacking plane.
Conditions became worse for those ships from PQ 15 which remained at Murmansk after May 21. The Mormacrey experienced 166 air raid alarms and witnessed 56 attacks on the docks and harbor in 53 days. Her Armed
Guard saw three ships sink and two receive damage. She was in the ill fated convoy which sustained such heavy losses from mines or possibly mines and torpedoes off Northern Iceland on July 5. The Deer Lodge was damaged on may 18 and was twice attacked after that date while at nearby Rosta. The attacks of May 27 and June 29 were without serious consequences. Only the latter did minor damage. At the end of July she went to Archangel and, after additional repairs, was ready for sea with a cargo of chrome ore. Not until September 15 did she depart Archangel in a convoy which suffered heavy submarine attacks from September 20-22. On June 21 the Alcoa Cadet sank in Kola Inlet, apparently from a mine which had been dropped from an aeroplane into the mud and had eventually worked loose and struck the ship. The Capira Armed Guard officer reported that his crew went to general quarters 125 times in 53 days and that enemy planes actually appeared 66 times. He actually counted 250 enemy planes over Murmansk in this period. Planes approaching the port from the North were generally at high altitude. When they approached from the south they were much lower, often appearing to be as low as 500 feet. The common form of attack was dive bombing. In every determined raid German fighters accompanied the bombers. The Germans used Junkers 88 or 87 dive bombers, Messerschmidt 110 fighter-bombers, and Messerschmidt 109 fighters. Before each determined raid a Heinkel 111 generally flew over at great height on reconnaissance. The Capira Armed Guard officer counted 24 enemy planes shot down by anti-aircraft fire and fighter interception during his stay at Murmansk. He thought the German bombing rather poor
because only two ships were sunk and two damaged by near misses while he was in port. His figure did not include the Alcoa Cadet, sunk by an enemy mine. The Capira and Lancaster left Murmansk on June 27 in convoy PQ 13, consisting of 33 ships from Murmansk and Archangel. The Capria witnessed the horrible spectacle of six out of seven ships in sight suffering violent explosions off Iceland July 5.
The next convoy to sail for North Russia, PQ 16, consisted of 35 ships. It left Iceland on May 20. The convoy split on May 29. Part of the ships continued to Archangel, arriving on June 1; the largest part of the convoy arrived at Murmansk on May 30. The convoy departed from Murmansk on June 27 and those ships bound for Reykjavik docked on July 6. Behind these simple facts about ship movements lies a grim story. Without doubt the German attacks on this convoy were heavier than on any ships yet sent to North Russia, but the full fury of the German attack did not materialize until a short time later.
One of the merchant ships in this convoy already had a proud claim of success against the enemy even before she reached Reykjavik. The Mauna Kea Armed Guard reported four or more hits on a German submarine on April 3. When debris flew into the air, the Armed Guard officer concluded that the submarine had been sunk. Another ship, the Alcoa Banner, had no guns aboard until she reached Iceland. Even after five .30 cal. guns were placed aboard at Iceland there was no Armed Guard, only a Navy radioman
and a signalman to keep the guns ready for instant use.
On this voyage, as on all voyages to North Russia, numerous floating mines were encountered. The Germans discovered the convoy on May 24 and for the next six days attacked it more than 25 times. Both submarines and planes were employed. Ships in the convoy were machine gunned several times. There was no night, only day, and, therefore, little rest for the Armed Guards. The enemy began attacking on May 25. On that date the Carlton was hit and had to return to Iceland. Bombs fell close to a number of ships, including the American Robin (later named Perekop), the City of Joliet, and the Michigan. The City of Joliet avoided an aerial torpedo by hard right rudder. The Michigan shot down two German planes. There was no let up in the attack in the early morning hours of May 26 as the convoy was off the north coast of Norway. At 0105 a submarine attack developed. A torpedo passed just astern of the John Randolph. This ship led a charmed life on the outbound trip. She experienced four near misses from bombs and two from torpedoes. The Syros heavily loaded with TNT was torpedoed at 0100 on May 26 and sank in less than 2 minutes. Shortly after noon the Alamar was hit just aft on the mainmast and sank. All hands were rescued. The Armed Guard from this ship was on the Massmar when she too was sunk on the return voyage, thus making two ships which had been sunk from under that unlucky crew. May 27 was the worst day for the convoy. Perhaps as many as 108 German planes attacked. The American Robin was straddled by seven bombs. The Mormascul sank. The Mauna Kea was shaken by several near misses. When
the day ended six ships had been sunk, three were listing noticeably, and two were on fire. An unfortunate episode of the day was the shooting down of a British plane which had been launched from the convoy. The American gunners did not recognize the plane as friendly. The pilot was rescued. The West Nilus received credit for shooting down one German plane.
The tide had turned by May 28. Russian destroyers met the convoy on that date. The City of Joliet sank from the damage of the previous day. The Armed Guards were saved and later placed on board the John Randolph. They were on board this ship when it struck a mine and was lost on the return voyage, but all Armed Guards were saved. The Richard Henry Lee found pieces of aluminum on her deck after firing at a four motored plane. Presumably these were shot off a German plane. This ship had a narrow escape on May 29 when she mistakenly turned to go with the convoy to Archangel rather than follow the ships to Murmansk. While recovering position an enemy bomb was dropped 10 yards from the ship. The Mauna Kea received slight damage on the same day. Russian fighters helped beat off an attack on May 30, the day the convoy arrived at Murmansk, but 13 bombs were dropped around the American Robin.
The Germans bombed Murmansk on every clear day while the ships from PQ 16 were anchored there. There were more than 70 alarms. The Steel Worker was sunk by a mine while standing out in Kola Inlet on June 3.
Relatively few enemy planes were encountered by the convoy on its return. The entire trip from Murmansk to Iceland was made in heavy fog
which afforded some protection. But on July 5 grim tragedy stalked through the convoy. With visibility about 800 yards the ships ran into a mine field some 10 miles from the northwest point of Iceland. Three of the six ships lost were American. They were the John Randolph, the Massmar, and the Heffron. The Exterminator was damaged but reached Reykjavik. Many present at the disaster were convinced that submarines were present. The Nemaha reported near misses from shell fire. But it appears that the ships ran into a British mine field. The work of the escorts in rescuing survivors was notable. The Free French corvette Roselys was especially praised, for she rescued 180 men.
The ferocity of German warfare reached a new high in the tragic destruction of PQ 17. In no other convoy to North Russia were American losses so high. We lost more than three fourths of all our merchant ships in this convoy and our losses on this voyage alone were more than one fourth of our total losses in all voyages to North Russia. The reason for these losses in to be found in the fact that merchant ships dispersed July 4 and were left to shift for themselves. The escorts went west to meet heavy units of the German navy which were reported be steaming toward the convoy.
The convoy left Iceland on June 27. Heavy ice floes were encountered by June 30, for on that date, the John Witherspoon suffered damage to her forepeak water tank. A German plane sighted the ships on July 1. From July 1 to July 10 a large part of the convoy was wiped out. On July 2 the enemy made several attacks. One enemy plane was shot down
and another landed to rescue the pilot. July 3 was an easy day. Enemy aircraft were over the ships and at least one bomb was dropped. Independence Day witnessed heavy attacks in which at least eight enemy planes were knocked from the sky by Armed Guards and two American ships, the Christopher Newport and the William Hooper were sunk by torpedoes. Patrick Hugh Wright, and Armed Guard on the former ship fired his .30 cal. gun at the approaching torpedo until it struck the ship. The Armed Guard on the Daniel Morgan claimed better luck, for they assumed credit for hitting a torpedo 20 yards from the Carlton and saving that ship to sink another day. About an hour and a half before midnight the convoy received orders to disperse so the slow and heavily loaded merchant ships were left virtually defenseless except for their machine guns and a few heavier guns.
From this point the history of the convoy becomes largely a series of separate attacks by German submarines and planes, most of which ended in sinking the merchant ships involved in the attack. Most of the ships headed for Novoya Zemlya and several sought safety in Matochkin Strait.
After being at General Quarters for over 28 hours, the Daniel Morgan witnessed the sinking of the Fairfield City by bombs on July 5. Five enemy planes then bombed the Daniel Morgan. Her Armed Guard shot down two planes but the ship was so damaged by bombs that she sank. Other American ships which sunk on that grim day were the Pan Kraft, the Washington, the Carlton, the Honomu, and the Peter Kerr. The men of the
Washington spent almost 10 days in their boats. After seven days in the bitter cold weather, they went ashore on Novya Zemlya and had seagull soup. They went down the coast again and two days later snared over 100 hell-diver ducks. This feast was shared with survivors from a British ship. Again they departed in their boats and came upon the Winston-Salem grounded on a sand bar. This was their first opportunity to have a real meal in 10 days. Not until 24 July did the survivors reach Archangel. More than a third had frozen feet. The men from the Daniel Morgan were rescued by a Russian tanker on July 6 and reached Molotovsk safely. The Pan Atlantic was sunk on July 6 with the loss of 25 men. The John Witherspoon was sunk by torpedoes on the same date. Part of the Armed Guard and ship's crew were in a boat for 53 hours before being rescued by the El Capitan. The remainder were in an open life boat even longer before a British was ship picked them up. Far luckier were the Hoosier, the Samuel Chase, the Benjamin Harrison, and El Capitan. They were able to make Matochkin Strait, where several other ships had also found safety. On July 5 the Ironclad joined the Silver Sword, the Troubador, and a trawler. They too were able to make Matochkin Strait. Some of the ships, including the Ironclad, the Troubador, and the Benjamin Harrison were painted white so as to blend with the ice and snow.
On July 7 the Olopana and the Alcoa Ranger were torpedoed and sunk. The Bellingham took a fish, but this torpedo failed to explode and she was able to reach Archangel on July 10. Her gunners had been on almost continuous watch from July 3 to July 10.
Two ships which attempted to break out of Matochkin Strait prematurely
came to grief. They were the Hoosier and El Capitan. The Hoosier was bombed and abandoned on July 9. El Capitan was bombe and sunk by escort on July 10. She was about 65 miles northeast of Iokanski.
The remaining American ships, the Benjamin Harrison, the Ironclad, the Silver Sword, the Troubador, the Winston-Salem, the Samuel Chase, and the Bellingham were able to get safely through to Molotovsk or Archangel. Two ships, the Benjamin Harrison and the Troubador used machine guns from tanks. The former also removed ammunition from her cargo to use in defending the ship.
Two more ships, the Silver Sword and the Bellingham, were torpedoed and lost on the return trip with QP 14 in September. Another, the Ironclad, went aground in Russian waters in November and was turned over to the Soviets to become the Marina Raskova. Only four American ships from the ill fated convoy were able to return safely from Russia to fight again. The loss of life had been very light because of the cooperation of all ships in rescuing men from life boats.
Survivors from the Carlton and the Honomu fell into the hands of the Germans and were not liberated until 1945. Nine of these men liberated were survivors from the Carlton Armed Guard.
PQ 18 took everything the Germans could throw at it, suffered tremendous losses, but pushed through to Archangel. In this convoy were some forty merchant ships and almost as many escorts. The British supplied an escort carrier, the Avenger. Twenty-three of the merchant ships were American, all defended by Armed Guards. Almost one third of the merchant ships were sunk on the voyage to Archangel, of which eight ships were American, two were Russian, and three were British. So dark did the prospects look for pushing ships through to North Russia in convoy that the United States and Britain experimented with a "trickle movement" of ships into Artic waters. Merchant ships would depart singly, without escort, every twelve hours. But this scheme failed to work. As a matter of fact, PQ 18 marked the turning point in North Russian operations. It demonstrated the value of escort aircraft carriers even in restricted waters. Further, it showed that ships which were given sufficient armament could fight through stubborn opposition and inflict heavy losses on the enemy. Up to this time ships for North Russia had been inadequately armed because guns were not available. But most American ships in PQ 18 were supplied with four or eight 20 mm guns and with a 3"/50 AA bow gun, as well as a stern gun for fighting submarines. This was the best armed and best defended convoy we had sent to North Russia up to this time. While the ultimate armament of eight 20 mm guns, a 5"/38 dual purpose stern gun, and a 3"/50 AA bow gun was not yet available, the ships of PQ 18 gave proof of what they could do against a land based aircraft when even a few
suitable anti-aircraft guns were supplied. PQ 18, therefore, was a landmark in the war, a turning point in the battle of supply. It represents the dark hour which comes just before the dawn.
Reports of some nature are in the Navy Department for all of the American ships which took part in the action, except the SS Hollywood. While these reports do not always agree on details, such as the number of planes attacking, the time at which the action took place, and the exact results of the encounter, they allow no doubt as to the main pattern of the action and they present a clear and dramatic story of the main events which transpired. It should be remembered that a convoy of more than 75 ships takes up a lot of ocean. Armed Guard officers on individual ships were not able to report clearly on events which they could not see. Then too, men who were almost continually at battle stations for days at the time and who went through the grim experience of leaving a sinking ship can be forgiven if they become slightly confused on dates and times when combats take place. After all, the Armed Guard officer was a busy man while in a war zone. He did not take a typewriter with him to the bridge when attack was imminent. He did not even have a typewriter furnished by the Navy Department. Normally the signalman kept notes during the voyage and entries were made in a rough log which every Armed Guard officer was required to keep.
Convoy PQ 18 slipped quietly out of Loch Ewe, Scotland, late in
the afternoon of September 2, 1942. It carried the customary sinews of war, tanks, planes, oil, T.N.T., shells. It reached Archangel on September 21 and left that port on November 17, arriving at Iceland on November 26. Additional ships joined when the convoy was off Reykjavik, Iceland on September 7.
Throughout September 3 the barometer was falling and by evening the convoy was in a gale with seas reported at least 90 feet high. It became necessary to station Armed Guard forward gun watches amidships and for ships to turn into the wind in order to protect their heavy deck cargoes. Many ships lost life boats in the storm. With the return of better weather on September 5 the first enemy contact was made. This was a submarine sighted on the surface. No attack developed.
The presence of friendly planes over the convoy on September 8 and 9 must have been a reassuring sight, although on both days these planes sent Armed Guards to their battle stations. There was an atmosphere of tenseness throughout the convoy. Men were jittery as they realized that the zero hour was fast approaching.
A German four-motored bomber sighted the convoy on September 11. Next day a German seaplane received a rude surprise when planes from the British carrier interrupted the customary circling procedure. Both planes escaped and prepared the way for the heavy attack on September 13.
The convoy was between Jan Mayen Island and Spitsbergen. It was Sunday, the worst Sunday the men in PQ 18 will ever experience. Early
in the morning German reconnaissance planes appeared on all sides. Shortly before 0900 German submarines struck twice and when their deadly torpedoes had dome their work two ships from the convoy were at the bottom of the ocean. One of these was a Russian ship, the other was the Oliver Ellsworth. The latter, a Liberty ship, did not sink until destroyers finished the job with gun fire. Very few of the men in PQ 18 had any appetite for lunch as they watched the dull red glow on the horizon behind.
The worst attack came in the afternoon. First came a formation of bombers, perfectly camouflaged so that they could barely be seen as they skimmed through the heavy grey clouds. They met such a barrage of gun fire as had never been experienced on the North Russian run. One bomber was shot down, but not before bombs had been dropped all around ships in the convoy. It was a wonderful sight; ships which were judged to be relatively impotent were filling the air with tracer ammunition. The British also launched carrier planes. A short time later a very large formation of torpedo planes came in for the kill. It is impossible to state how many planes attacked. Figures vary from 20 to 50. They came in quite low; one account says at about 30 feet. Many were painted black with green or orange wing tips. They were weird and awful to behold. They darted up and down to confuse the aim of a thousand guns. Soon the water was alive with torpedoes. British planes were able to take to the air to help drive the Germans off, but not until they had done their deadly work
and sent eight ships to the bottom. Two were British, one Russian, and five were United States owned and carried Armed Guards. The United States ships were the Macbeth (Panamanian flag), the John Penn, the Wacosta, the Africander (Panamanian flag), and the Oregonian. In spite of German attacks on the ships crippled in the initial attack the loss of life was relatively small. At dusk more torpedo planes were over the convoy without doing damage. One fourth of the merchant ships had been wiped out in a single day. But at least ten German planes had been destroyed. It is impossible to assign credit to individual ships for planes destroyed. It appears that the William Moultrie led the field with four planes. One of the Armed Guard officers concluded his description of the engagement with the laconic report "No sleep tonight". This just about summarizes the normal routine for Armed Guards on the long voyages to North Russia.
Less than four hours past midnight a German submarine located the convoy, got a line on a fat British tanker and sent her to the bottom or rather damaged the ship so severely that she had to be sunk by her own escorts. Snow flurries did not interrupt the ever present reconnaissance planes as they stalked the convoy on the morning of September 14 like great birds of prey. Torpedo planes which came in shortly after noon in the hope of repeating their successes of yesterday met a warm reception from the guns of the merchant ships and their escorts, and also from planes from the British carrier. One Armed Guard officer counted six German planes in the water at one
time. About thirty minutes later a seemingly unending line of torpedo planes and bombers approached the convoy from dead ahead and from the starboard side. One Armed guard officer counted thirty-five enemy planes before he became too busy with defending his ship and had to stop counting. One of those bombers, on fire and rapidly losing altitude, drove his doomed plane with its deadly cargo of bombs on the forward deck of the Mary Luckenbach. The ship disintegrated. There was not a single survivor. She was one great mass of grayish black smoke and flame that must have reached a thousand feet in height. The smoke was so think that it appeared the Virginia Dare and the Nathaniel Green were also hit. Actually, the Nathaniel Green did suffer considerable damage to her deck cargo and fittings. There were machine gun bullet marks all over the ship. But she had established a proud record of from five to seven planes destroyed. Next day the Convoy Commodore, a British rear admiral sent the following message to the ship "Reverence to your gunners, you are at the top of the class." The St. Olaf was hit just aft of amidships by a 3" shell, but suffered no casualties. This happened during an attack by high level bombers in which a large number of bombs were dropped around the ships in the convoy. The shell landed only a few feet from the No. 5 hold which contained T.N.T. Estimated enemy losses for this day ran to 14 planes. All enemy attempts to sink the British carrier had failed.
On September 15 German bombers returned in great numbers to drop
bombs from high levels at the carrier and the other ships. Wave after wave came over to drop their loads for three hours and forty-five minutes. There were perhaps 60 to 70 bombers in the attack. The clouds gave perfect protection. The men on the ships could only gaze skyward and hope their luck would hold out. Men stood by their guns almost dead from lack of sleep. One Armed Guard officer reported that he had not slept more than two hours at night for the past three nights. He did not even leave the bridge for food. It was 21 hours out of every 24 on duty if men of the Armed Guard wanted to live, and there was no overtime pay.
Next day enemy planes appeared, but a friendly Catalina also showed up. By noon a welcome snow storm covered the convoy completely and allowed tired men to relax slightly for the first time in days. The carrier and some of the other escorts left to take a returning convoy back west. The survivors were sent back with the escorts. For the next two days the only danger came from floating mines and very limited submarine activity. Enemy air activity was limited to reconnaissance on September 17. Russian escorts joined the convoy as it headed southwestward along Novoya Zemlya.
At daybreak on September 18 Russia proper came into view when the tip of the Kanin peninsula was sighted. Bombers and torpedo planes returned to the attack. Many ships had close escapes from bombs, but the attack by the torpedo planes was much more serious. The William Moultrie claimed that she exploded a torpedo by gunfire.
The Kentucky took a fish and then was bombed to go down as the last ship lost on the trip. The enemy lost at least two planes.
On 19 September 1942 the convoy arrived in Archangel Gulf only to face a raging gale from the northwest. Several ships ran aground. The Germans made one last attempt at the convoy on September 20, but their bombs were ineffective. The convoy was safe. While some attacks were made on Archangel, the ships remained safe enough.
The Armed Guards were officially credited with the destruction of 28 enemy planes on the voyage, and voyage reports of Armed Guard officers would seem to indicate the possibility that this figure is too conservative. The Nathaniel Green led the field with eight planes destroyed, closely followed by the Virginia Dare with seven, and the William Moultrie with five. The exact number of planes destroyed by carrier planes and by the escorts is not known, but it appears that the Germans most more than forty planes, with many more damaged. This was big league shooting. The convoy had weathered the most furious attacks which the Germans could possibly throw at it. It had lost 13 ships, but it had modified the daring attitude of the German pilots considerably. They were not as bold after September 14. The battle for this supply lane had really been won, but no one could be sure of this fact at the time.
The return voyage from Archangel was relatively uneventful, except for foul weather which made it virtually impossible to keep station in convoy and which covered the ships and guns with ice and
snow. The Lafayette (later the Novosibirsk) reported two torpedoes fired at her when she was separated from the convoy on November 21, but no ship received damage from the enemy. The weather was a powerful ally of the Armed Guards when it became very bad for it kept German planes away.
At the end of October, 1942 a daring and somewhat startling experiment was initiated. Ten ships, five British and five United States flag, were to brave the hazards of the voyage to North Russia without continuous escort. Each ship was to travel independently. Ships would leave Iceland at 12 hour intervals, so that they would travel about 100 miles apart. This was the most hazardous undertaking which could be assigned to a merchant ship. It placed great responsibility on the Armed Guards. While the United States ships did not fare too badly, no doubt because of the element of surprise and secrecy and because of the protection which the fog, rain, and sleet afforded, the experiment was not repeated.
The Richard H. Alvey left Iceland on October 29 and had no contact with the enemy enroute to Russia. She was escorted into the White Sea, grounded off Archangel on November 7, but reached Molotovsk on November 12. On December 10 she proceeded to Kola Inlet and two days later anchored 12 miles from Murmansk. Although there were 52 air raids while she was at Kola Inlet, the Armed Guard fired at planes only once and these turned out to be Russian. No bombs fell within a mile of the ship. The voyage in convoy from Russia was equally uneventful, although the convoy sailed south of Bear Island. The convoy departed December 30 and arrived at Loch Ewe on January 11, 1943. Two storms were encountered.
The John Walker, which left Iceland on October 30, 1942 with an
Armed Guard crew which had never been attacked by enemy planes, had a more exciting trip. On the morning of November 4 six enemy planes engaged in an attack which lasted two and one half hours. Four planes first appeared and began dropping bombs, but one was quickly forced to retire with smoke streaming behind. Later, two additional planes joined. The ship underwent eight separate attacks by the Germans. On six of these attacks bombs were dropped. The ship was able to elude the attackers briefly when heavy snow was falling, but when the atmosphere cleared a plane approached at very close range. This plane was forced to leave the scene with black smoke trailing. In all some 30 bombs were dropped. The John Walker arrived safely outside Archangel where she went aground November 8. Not until 5 days later did she dock at Molotovsk. She anchored in Kola Inlet on December 16 and was sprayed with bomb fragments on December 26 when bombs fell quite close. Her return with the December 30 convoy was uneventful.
The Hugh Williamson was ship No. 7 in the Trickle Movement. A four motored German plane dropped bombs on November 7 and two unidentified planes circled the ship on November 9, but she arrived safely at Molotovsk. The William Clark was torpedoed shortly after noon on November 4. The ship broke in two after the second and third torpedoes struck. There was heavy loss of life, but more than half of the personnel were saved. Some of the survivors were in a life boat for about three days.
The John H. B. Latrobe turned back and did not complete the trip to Russia. She was heavily attacked by torpedo planes on the morning of November 4, but miraculously escaped being struck by seven or eight torpedoes which were launched by eight or none planes in seven attacks. The planes flew in to launch their deadly fish at an altitude of 20 to 40 feet above the water. They attacked in groups of three with only one plane normally launching a torpedo. The other attacking planes strafed the decks. The ship avoided one torpedo; another passed within 20 feet of the bow; and still another passed within 16 feet of the stern. One torpedo either passed under the ship or close alongside to port. Two planes were definitely damaged and several others were hit. Fog, rain, and snow came to the rescue of the Latrobe from the afternoon of November 4 to November 8. On the later date she hit a small iceberg and was no longer able to maintain full speed because of the hole in her side. She steered badly and had much trouble with her magnetic compass. She anchored briefly in Isa Fiord because of snow squalls and high winds. In view of her condition, the reported attacks on her route to Russia, and the value of her cargo, the master decided to return to Iceland.
It will thus be seen that the trickle Movement did not result in higher losses to United States ships than had been sustained in previous voyages in convoy. What would have happened if the experiment had been continued can only be guessed. It is not known to the writer how many of the British merchant ships traveling without escort were
sunk, but apparently they suffered heavy losses. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against sending unescorted ships to Russia was the small possibility of rescuing personnel from ships which were sunk while operating separately. There was small likelihood that ships could be sent through after the Germans discovered what was happening. Perhaps the experiment had value as a means of upsetting German tactics north of Norway.
Convoy JW-51A consisted of some 16 merchant ships and about an equal number of escorts. It left Loch Ewe, Scotland on December 15, 1942, and made the trip to Russia without making contact with the enemy. It traveled through perpetual darkness and low fog. On December 22 five ships continued on to Molotovsk. The remainder arrived at Murmansk on Christmas Day. The ships bound for Molotovsk arrived on December 27.
While the ships were at Murmansk there were from 60 to 70 air alarms and German planes actually appeared over 50 times. After two Russian planes were shot down on December 25, the Russians began placing two spotters on merchant ships to aid in aircraft identification. No American ships were damaged, although bombs fell close to at least one vessel. El Oceano probably shot down a plane on January 24 and the Greylock claims to have sent another away trailing smoke next day. Eleven merchant ships, escorted by an even larger number of war ships, left Murmansk on January 29. The only serious mishap on the return voyage was that the Greylock was torpedoed on February 3 when
the convoy was off the Denmark Straits. She sank in thirty minutes. The Armed Guard got off in the last boat. The convoy arrived at Loch Ewe on February 9.
Convoy JW-51B consisted of some 15 merchant ships and almost an equal number of escorts. It left Loch Ewe on December 22. Among the ten American ships was one veteran of a ferocious German surface attack days earlier. The ship was the Jefferson Myers which was in a convoy from London to Hull when E boats attacked it in "E Boat Alley" east of Yarmouth on December 12. Five ships from the convoy were reported sunk.
The first contact with the enemy appears to have come on December 24 when a Heinkel attacked an allied patrol plane sixty miles north-east of the Faroe Islands. A storm of such proportions struck the convoy on December 29 that some ships, including the Chester Valley, were forced to heave to. The Yorkmar also became separated from the convoy.
On 31 December 1942 a surface engagement took place between units of the German Navy and the escorts. The German force probably consisted of a pocket battleship, a heavy cruiser, and several destroyers. None of the merchant ships was seriously damaged, although shells fell all around them. Shells landed within 100 feet of the Ralph Waldo Emerson and fragments actually did minor damage to the Calobre. Aside from reconnaissance, German air activity was non-existent during the remainder of the voyage.
The Ballot ran aground on Kilden Island on 2 January 1943, and was a total loss, except for guns which could be salvaged. The other ships arrived safely in Kola Inlet on January 3, except for four ships. The Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Chester Valley, the Jefferson Myers, and the Puerto Rican, which went on to Molotovsk. The ships which went on to Molotovsk had no action, although enemy planes were over that port three times.
Convoy JW-52 included only five American merchant ships. This convoy, consisting of about 15 merchant ships and a large number of escorts, left Loch Ewe on January 17. After its arrival at Murmansk on January 27 its history merges with that of JW-51B and a few ships from JW-51A. Ships in this convoy came close to floating mines, notable on January 20 and 22. An unidentified plane first appeared on January 23. An air attack developed on January 24 in which at least three planes participated. The weather was cloudy and there were frequent snow squalls which offered protection for the planes. Nevertheless, it appears that three planes were shot down and that only one torpedo was launched against the convoy. The Cornelius Harnett, El Oriente, and Nicholas Gilman each was credited with the destruction of an enemy plane. The Cornelius Harnett was one of the first ships to be armed with a 5"/38 gun. The Delsud aided in the firing. Nothing more eventful than the dropping of depth charges took place between January 24 and the arrival of the convoy at Murmansk, except that one or more enemy planes appeared on January
25. The Gulf Wing reported that four bombs were dropped and that one landed close to her. Only the Cornelius Harnett was late in arriving. She did not reach Murmansk until January 29, for she had become separated from the convoy. Five ships, including the Chester Valley went on to Molotovsk, arriving 7 January 1943.
Throughout February the Germans hit Murmansk heavily, but they did not initiate constant and consistent bombing until February 19. The Gulf Wing reported 102 plane attacks until she left with other merchant ships in the return convoy. The Executive from convoy JW-51B reported going to general quarters 52 times. It is impossible to describe the strain which was imposed on the Armed Guard during the month of February. According to the Armed Guard officer on the Nicholas Gilman, "The suffering they endured is beyond my power to express." Men on his ship lost from 10 to 20 pounds. They manned four of the eight 20 mm guns constantly day and night and the other guns were action commenced. After the long days of strain from witnessing bombs cascading down around the ships, this officer wrote that ten seconds could mean a lifetime of caught unprepared. The Executive accounted for an enemy plane on February 5. On February 19, when bombing began in deadly earnest, the Nicolas Gilman was damaged by a bomb exploding 150 feet away. The Chester Valley, which had moved to Murmansk, was straddled by bombs on February 21. On the same day the Germans dropped mines in the harbor. The Nicholas Gilman shot down a plane on February 26 and
the Calobre got another on February 28. The first and only ship to receive serious damage was El Oriente on 27 February 1943. A 100 pound bomb hit her poop deck, killing one Armed Guard and wounding three. Russian spotters on board identified these planes as friendly and probably prevented the Armed Guard from warding off the attack.
All hands on some 30 merchant ships were glad to leave Murmansk on March 1. Depth charges were dropped between March 2 and 5, indicating that German submarines were around. On March 5 they took their deadly toll. First came German planes which did no damage. Floating mines were encountered in the morning and early afternoon. Two torpedoes struck home at about 0930 with deadly accuracy. The Executive was hit and later sunk by gun fire from the escorts. The Richard Bland took a fish but managed to stay afloat. The Calobre reported that three torpedoes were fired and that one passed under her stern some 25 to 30 feet from her hull. In the early afternoon 12 German bombers came in for the kill. Each is reported to have dropped from three to six bombs, and one report states that a total of 44 bombs were dropped. One enemy plane left trailing smoke. Bombs were close to the ships, but they survived.
The next few days witnessed some of the worst possible weather. Ships were unable to keep station in convoy and became scattered. They managed to ride out the gale, but the J. L. M. Curry's hull and deck plates began to crack on March 7 and the ship was abandoned on
March 8. On March 9 the Puerto Rican was torpedoed some 287 miles north of Iceland. She had straggled from the convoy in the gale. There was only one survivor. The boats overturned and the men froze on the rafts. All of the Armed Guard perished. On March 10 the Richard Bland took another fish early in the morning and still another late in the afternoon. She had lost two boats and all of her rafts and did not have enough boats left to take her crew off. More than half were saved, but 15 Armed Guards were listed as missing. Wayne Baker BM 2/c did an heroic act when he refused to come aboard a life boat loaded with 27 men. He stayed aboard the half of the ship which was still afloat and assed a knife to the survivors in the boat so that they could cut it loose from the sinking ship. For his heroism and sacrifice he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
The men from the remaining ships which anchored at Loch Ewe on 14 March 1943 had the satisfaction of knowing that with adequate guns they could hold their own against the most determined attacks the enemy could offer. They must have sensed that the tide was slowly turning. But at the moment all that mattered was sleep.
Convoy JW-53 was a large convoy of about 30 heavily loaded merchant ships. It left Loch Ewe on February 15, 1943. Eight American ships were in this convoy. It became known as the "Lost Convoy" because American ships were help in Russian ports until November 1. Two American ships did not leave Archangel until November 26. The decision was reached to delay movement of the ships until the
ice cleared to the north and total darkness came. This convoy is significant because it was one of the last to be heavily attacked on the North Russia run. But most of the attacks took place at Murmansk and were not primarily directed at the merchant ships.
German aircraft detected JW-53 on February 23. They apparently directed submarines to the convoy, for depth charges were dropped on the next day. Two enemy planes again appeared on February 24 and dropped bombs, but not until the following say did a determined air attack develop. About a dozen German planes made the attack but did no damage. Bombs fell near the Bering and that ship shot down an enemy plane. On February 26 part of the convoy split off to go to Molotovsk. High level bombing accomplished nothing. One plane came in at about 1500 feet to lay bombs 150 feet from the Francis Scott Key. Bombs also fell close to Israel Putnam. So accustomed had some of the Armed Guards become to the German patrol plane which circled out of reach of gunfire that they gave it the name "Peter the Leach."
Part of the convoy anchored in Kola Inlet on February 27. Incendiaries landed on the deck of the Mobile City and the Beacon Hill was strafed. The Bering, now in the White Sea with the Molotovsk bound convoy, had a close call when bombs fell only 50 yards away. The Molotovsk bound convoy, which included the Beacon Hill, the Bearing, the City of Omaha, and the Israel Putnam, arrived at Molotovsk on March 2. Some of the ships engaged in a shuttle service between
Russian ports during the long stay in northern waters.
The ships which remained at Murmansk were heavily attacked. On March 3 several planes dropped high explosives and incendiary bombs. A British ship was hit. The Mobile City accounted for one plane on March 10 and the Thomas Hartley got two. A bomb fell about 50 yards from the Mobile City on March 13 and another bomb threw fragments on the ship. A British ship was sunk and incendiaries were dropped on the Francis Scott Key. In March, April, and May there were many heavy bombing attacks. On March 27 the Thomas Hartley accounted for her third plane. Another British ship was hit on April 4 and on April 11 bombs landed close to the Mobile City. The Artigas may have damaged two planes on April 13.
The return trip was uneventful except for the collision between the Francis Scott Key and the Mobile City which did only minor damage. On November 8 a few depth charges were dropped. Most of the ships arrived at Gourock, Scotland on November 14. Their stay in Russian waters had been a long one, but not an American ship had been lost. This was to set the pattern for the future. Only seven more American ships were lost in North Russian operations and two of these were marine casualties.
The first year and a half of operations to North Russia had brought to the men of the Armed Guard great suffering and destruction. By the fall of 1943 their chances for survival were good, although the trip was still a long and grueling experience. Behind this change in
the situation were a number of factors. More and more of the ships going to North Russia were new Liberties armed with a 5"/38 dual purpose gun, a 3"/50 AA gun, and eight 20 mm guns. Proper clothes were being furnished to the Armed Guard. As the result of refresher gunnery instruction, they were becoming very adept at using the guns. Escorts were available in adequate numbers. Escort carriers rendered invaluable protection. Soon the Germans were experiencing a shortage of gasoline which kept their air operations in this sector at a minimum. The protective cover of friendly aircraft over the ships was constantly expanding. It was becoming unsafe for German aircraft and submarines to attempt to knock out convoys. In all this much credit goes to those who administered the Armed Guard. They gave the ships to North Russia every preference in armament, amount of ammunition issued, and in necessary equipment. The hard and costly experience of 1942 paid off in a better Armed Guard in 1943 and 1944. Enemy land based planes were challenged by ships and defeated. This had hardly seemed possible in 1942 when surface units everywhere were taking such a terrible beating from enemy land based aircraft. It is one of the miracles which the Armed Guard help accomplish. Life had simply become unsafe for anything in the sky above a convoy in which all ships were manned with Armed Guards and fully armed.
Only two United States ships were in the next convoy which went to Russia. But this 19 ship convoy which left Loch Ewe on
November 15, 1943 appears to have experienced nothing worse than the lurking presence of German submarines, enemy planes in the distance, and mines. A mine floated by within 30 feet of the Thomas Sim Lee. The return trip was equally uneventful. Only the sickening sound of depth charges reminded the Armed Guards that the enemy submarines were stalking their quarry on January 3 and 4. The return convoy arrived at Loch Ewe on January 8, 1944.
The United States ships, the Arthur L. Perry and the John Fitch, were in a slightly smaller convoy which left Loch Ewe on November 22, 1943. Neither ship experienced direct contact with the enemy, but the John Fitch reported enemy aircraft over Murmansk and floating mines and one enemy plane seen on her return trip. Depth charges were also dropped by escorts as she was making her way toward Molotovsk on December 2. These reports indicate that for the time being the enemy was doing little more than harass ships bound for North Russia.
Before the six United States ships which left Loch Ewe on 12 December 1943 returned to the friendly waters of Scotland they witnessed extensive submarine activity, enemy reconnaissance planes, bombing attacks on Murmansk, and floating mines. But the ships themselves were never in any serious danger.
The high point in the voyage of convoy JW-55B to North Russia was the surface engagement between the escorts and the pocket battleship
Scharnhorst which ended in the destruction of that ship on December 26. There were only five United States ships in this convoy and their Armed Guards played no part in the surface engagement except as spectators of the distant gun flashes as the escorts maneuvered for the kill. This engagement took place southeast of Bear Island. Earlier an enemy plane had apparently dropped four bombs at the escorts on December 23. But no merchant ships appear to have been in any serious danger either on the trip to Russia or on the return trip to Belfast in early February.
More than half the ships in convoy JW-56A were United States flag. The nine United States ships were part of a convoy which seemed to face hard luck throughout the voyage. Although the ships left Loch Ewe on January 12, 1944, they did not reach Murmansk until sixteen days later. A storm forced them to heave to on January 14. Not until January 21 was the convoy reformed at Akureyri, Iceland. During the night of January 25-26 disaster came thick and fast for the tired Armed Guards and merchant crews. In rapid order the Penelope Barker, the Andrew G. Curtin and a British ship which carried the convoy commodore were torpedoed. Such disaster had not befallen a convoy since early 1943. The return trip to Loch Ewe witnessed another sinking when a British ship was torpedoed on March 4, just two days out of Murmansk. The large number of depth charge patterns laid by the escorts testifies to the presence on many submarines in North Russian waters.
Nearly all of the ships in convoy JW-56B which left Loch Ewe on January 22, 1944 were United States flag and carried Armed Guards. In this convoy were 12 United States flag vessels. Depth charges dropped from January 27 to arrival at Murmansk on February 1 were were estimated to be 1,500. Enemy planes were circling the convoy from January 27 to 31. The customary mines were encountered. One enemy plane was reported destroyed on January 29. All of the ships got safely through either to Murmansk or Molotovsk. While at Murmansk enemy planes appeared 14 times. No ships were damaged by bombs. The history of this convoy merges with that of JW-56A for the return trip to Scotland. The voyage reports of the Armed Guard officers might almost be summarized "Depth charges as usual". The enemy is still able to send his submarines in for sneak attacks which do some damage, but he is rapidly losing his ability to inflict serious losses. Escort carriers shield the convoys from air attacks. If planes do get in, they are met with a curtain of anti-aircraft fire from the escorts and the now well armed merchant ships. Numerous destroyers and destroyer escorts drop seemingly inexhaustible numbers of depth charges, thanks to the system of having tankers carry large supplies of these weapons for supplying the escorts. Rescue ships pick men from unfortunate ships out of the water within minutes after their ships go down. We have already learned to use the favorable seasons of the year when darkness covers the ships and when ice allows
them to go north of Bear Island. The convoys which go to Russia have become task forces of great striking power. Heavy units are able to deal with any German battleships or cruisers which dare to offer a challenge. The run to North Russia is still tough, but the danger from Germans has been reduced to a point where it is little worse than the constant gales. Men no longer go out to die without hope. They have the ability to defend themselves. From now on the convoys of over 40 ships becomes the accepted size for North Russia. Escorts are practically as numerous as the merchant ships. Two escort carriers become the accepted standard.
The twenty-eight ships which carried United States Armed Guards in convoy JW-57 made up more than half of the large and important convoy. This convoy left Loch Ewe on February 20. It split on February 28. Part of the ships went on to Molotovsk; the remainder turned into Kola Gulf to unload their vital supplies at Murmansk. An enemy plane detected the ships as early as February 24. But enemy planes did not attack the merchant ships. Next day submarines made contact with the convoy. Late in the evening a red flame shot 200 feet into the Artic sky and then mushroomed out to indicate that a German torpedo had found its mark on a British escort. Thereafter about 400 depth charges were dropped in the period before the convoy split. The only other serious incident came on February 29. As part of the ships were enroute to the White Sea and Molotovsk, the Charles M. Schwab collided with a Russian escort. The latter sank. There
was some enemy activity over Murmansk while the ships were unloading. The Nathan Towson reported a dog fight between Russian and German planes on February 29. Incendiary bombs were dropped on March 12 and 25, but no ship was under attack while at Murmansk. The ships left Murmansk on April 7 and arrived in British ports on April 15. Many depth charges were dropped and a few mines were encountered.
Another large convoy was pushed through to North Russia before perpetual daylight set in. More than two-thirds of the ships in JW-58 were United States flag, for we sent thirty-five ships out of Loch Ewe on March 27 in this convoy. Depth charges were dropped in great numbers from March 28 until the ships reached Murmansk on April 4. More charges were dropped on April 5 as some of the ships went on to Molotovsk. Floating mines were seen on several days. It appears that much damage was done to enemy submarines. Enemy air activity was negligible. The Armed Guards had no actual contact with the enemy, thanks to the strong escort. The convoy left Murmansk on April 28 and by May 7 the last merchant ship had anchored in The Clyde., except for the unfortunate William S. Thayer. This ship was torpedoed late on April 30 when about 50 miles south of Bear Island. Two torpedoes struck the ship. Many merchant seamen, some Russian passengers, and seven Armed Guards were reported missing in the freezing water. The after section of the ship remained afloat for about three hours. Floating ice cakes and a school of porpoise confused the lookouts on the merchant ships and gave the appearance of many periscopes and torpedo wakes. As a result many of the merchant ships opened fire on alleged
submarines. That enemy submarines continued to shadow the convoy is proved by the many depth charges which the escorts continued to drop until May 4. Floating mines were sighted at least six times on the return voyage.
The next convoy for North Russia left Loch Ewe on August 15, 1944. About half the ships were United States flag. The voyage was uneventful, except for the expected depth charges and floating mines. Not so uneventful was the return trip. The return convoy left Murmansk on September 28. On the afternoon of the next day two ships, the Edward H. Crockett and a British vessel were torpedoed. All of the Armed Guards on the Crockett were saved. Enemy submarines continued to shadow the convoy on October 1 and 2. But no further losses were sustained and the remaining ships reached British ports on October 5.
Depth charges and floating mines summarize the activity of the convoy which left Loch Ewe on September 15 and departed from Murmansk on November 2. There were 22 United States flag merchant ships in this convoy. Perhaps the explanation why the voyage was so uneventful is that on only one day of the outbound trip was visibility clear for a brief time.
The convoy which left Loch Ewe on October 20 was made up predominantly of United States merchant ships, for twenty-one of our ships were in this convoy. The ships left Murmansk on December 10 and were back at Gourock on December 20. This voyage almost turned
out to be as routine as other trips, depth charges and mines. But a determined air attack on December 12 in which 16 torpedoes were launched by German planes and avoided by skillful maneuvering of the convoy converted the trip from being entirely routine. Apparently carrier aircraft destroyed two German submarines on the return trip. The Harold L. Winslow was credited with an assist in knocking down one of the attacking planes on December 12.
The convoy which left Loch Ewe on November 29 was made up of about half United States and half allied ships. We had 17 ships in the convoy. Depth charges were dropped about a dozen times before the ships reached Murmansk on December 7. More serious than the ever present German submarines on the return trip was the weather. The convoy left Murmansk on January 11, 1945. It ran into three severe gales in eight days. So serious was the weather that the convoy took refuge in Thorshaven, Faroe Islands on January 18 to reform. The ships left on January 20 and proceeded to British ports.
The convoy which left Loch Ewe on December 30, 1944 contained 29 United States flag ships. It met with new enemy tactics, which were in themselves an admission of defeat in the battle for the supply lane to North Russia. German submarines now lay off Kola Inlet to pick off ships which arrived at and departed from Murmansk. On the afternoon of February 14 several ships were preparing to enter Kola Inlet in order to join the convoy which would leave for
Scotland three days later. A Norwegian tanker and the Horace Gray were torpedoed. The latter was beached and no lives were lost. She was a total loss. As the homeward bound convoy was proceeding down the Kola River into Kola Inlet to form up, the Thomas Scott and an escort were torpedoed on February 17. On February 20 about ten enemy torpedo planes appeared. The John La Farge and the John Ireland were each credited with the probable destruction of a plane. A bomb fell within 50 feet of the Caesar Rodney. Then came bad weather which spelled ultimate disaster for the Henry Bacon. She weathered the hurricane, but was out of the convoy because of a breakdown of her steering engine. Thinking that she had passes the convoy, the Bacon was reversing her course in order to join up. About 23 German torpedo planes hit her with from 24 to 46 torpedoes. She did not have a chance to survive, but put up what must have been one of the finest battles of the entire war. She may have shot down as many as five planes and damaged three others, although some reports indicate a more conservative figure of three planes destroyed and two smoking. When an enemy torpedo finally struck home on the afternoon of February 23 the ship went down in less than an hour. There are many heroes in the Armed Guard service, but none perhaps set a finer example than Lt. (jg) John C. Sippola who was one of the seven Armed Guards lost. His whole interest was in the safety of his men. Finally he was too weak to grasp a line near him in the icy water and went down. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. There were 64
survivors out of 84 aboard. Some Norwegian refugees from the island of Soroy got safely away in one of the life boats. The Germans could still strike hard in spite of heavy armament on merchant ships, carrier plane protection, and large numbers of escorts. But this attack was to be next to the last major one on North Russian ships before the collapse of Germany in May, 1945.
A convoy which left Gourock, Scotland on February 3, 1945 ran into heavy air opposition on the way to Murmansk. Convoy JW-64 included 19 American flag ships. Enemy planes attacking on February 6 were met by carrier based planes which shot down two. Not until the convoy was about 120 miles off North Cape and south of Bear Island did a large plane attack develop. In this case the German airmen met a curtain of shellfire from the merchant ships. The Nathan Towson led the list with credit for a plane, for an assist, and for a probable. The Edwin L. Drake was credited with two assists. So many ships were firing at the same plane that it is impossible to give definite credit. The Armed Guards manned their 3"/50 AA guns with icy seas breaking over the bows of their ships. It seems fairly certain that at least four of from five to seven attacking planes were shot down. Bombs were dropped but did no damage. One serious incident was that ships fired at one of their own escorting planes. The remainder of the voyage was anti-climax, the usual depth charges
and engagements between carrier based planes and the enemy on March 26 and 29. An oil slick was observed after 161 depth charges were dropped on February 11. About 100 depth charges were also dropped as some of the ships continued on to the entrance to the White Sea on February 13. About 100 depth charges were also dropped on March 24. It was a victorious convoy which finally reached Gourock on April 1.
Convoy JW-65 was the last North Russian convoy to sustain loss from German submarines. It left Gourock on March 12, 1945. In this convoy were 18 United States flag ships and about half as many allied ships. The trip was largely routine, with the expected depth charges and floating mines, until the ships were almost at their destination. Then on March 20 the Germans struck. The Horace Bushnell was the first to be torpedoed on that morning while 24 miles due east of North Kilden Light. She was beached at Tereberski, but declared a total loss. No Armed Guards were lost and merchant seamen casualties were mainly in the engine room. Later in the morning an escort was hit and sunk. About noon the Thomas Donaldson was torpedoed while about 20 miles from Kola Inlet. No Armed Guards were lost. The convoy left Murmansk on April 29 and arrived at Gourock on May 8. Many depth charges were dropped, especially as the ships were leaving Kola Inlet. The high point in the trip home came when escort gunfire sank a surface target on April 30, presumably a surfaced submarine. About 13 floating mines were reported on the return voyage, thus indicating that North Russian waters would still be dangerous now
that Germany had surrendered. Two other convoys went through to North Russia, leaving Gourock on 17 April and 12 May 1945. Even after the surrender of Germany we were taking no chances on action by fanatical submarine commanders. As a matter of fact the convoy which left before the surrender and the one which departed after that date dropped depth charges. But there was no action by the Armed Guards on the merchant ships. Ships in the 12 May convoy returned independently, but those in the April 17 convoy traveled with escorts on the return trip late in May.
Whenever men recall the brave deeds of World War II they will think of the North Russia run. It was by all odds the toughest assignment the Armed Guard faced. In spite of the large number of sinkings in the early days, the loss of life was almost unbelievably small. The North Russia run was tough, even without lurking submarines and vulture-like planes, but the ships went through. It represented the greatest single challenge of ships to land based planes. The ships took quite a beating, but won out. Credit goes to many men and many types of ships. The escorts and the carrier based planes formed a protective curtain around the slow merchant ships which plodded along, their hulls low in the water with the sinews of war. Without the escorts, mainly British, the North Russia run would have turned into tragedy of the first order. But much credit also goes to the Armed Guards who endured severe cold, who manned their guns through unbelievably long hours, and who left their mark on the might of the
Luftwaffe. Their performance was in accordance with the highest traditions of the United States Navy and is one of the sagas of warfare. What higher compliment could be paid to a Navy man than to indicate that he had made the run to Murmansk or Archangel?
Special mention should be made of the great services which Captain Samuel B. Frankel, USN, the Assistant Naval Attache stationed at Murmansk, and his two assistants Comdr. G. D. Roullard, USN and Lt. Comdr. J. Harshaw, USN (Ret.) rendered to Armed Guards. Without the help of these men the trips to North Russia would have been even less endurable for the weary and battle scarred veterans of the North Russia run. These men rendered all possible assistance in all matters which concerned Armed Guards at North Russian ports.
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1. Op-23L conf. memo. for File, 28 April 1943.
2. The principal source of information on Armed Guard Combat is the confidential Voyage Report which was prepared by the Armed Guard officer and sent to the Chief of Naval Operations.