In the supplement to the London Gazette of October 8th 1943, there was a list of names of 19 Merchant Navy officers and men: five had been awarded the Order of the British Empire and 14 the King’s Commendation for brave conduct. The citation read, very simply, “For dangerous work in hazardous circumstances”.
I write the story as I remember it but I write on behalf of the 19 men, as we all worked together and none of us did anything different from anyone else.
On January 13th 1943, I joined the Dover Hill at anchor off Gourock in the Clyde. I had signed on as radio officer and going on board the ship I discovered that we were bound for North Russia. We were heavily loaded with fighter aircraft, tanks, guns, lorries and a large tonnage of shells and high explosives. Our deck cargo was made up of lorries in cases, Matilda tanks and drums of lubricating oil covered with a layer of sandbags, presumably to protect them from tracer bullets. Needless to say we were not very happy about the last item.
We left the Clyde on January 23 and arrived in Loch Ewe on the 25th, where we lay at anchor until the rest of the merchant ships had gathered for our convoy. Loch Ewe is a very beautiful place in the summer but in January or February, with a north-westerly gale blowing and a few large, heavily laden merchant ships dragging their anchors, it can be very different.
On February 15th, 28 merchant ships set out in a gale for North Russia in the heavily defended convoy JW53. The escort was made up of three cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser, an escort carrier, 16 destroyers, two minesweepers, three corvettes and two trawlers. This was a very good escort and as daylight hours were getting longer, trouble was obviously expected. Due to having to maintain absolute wireless silence the radio officers stood watch on the bridge with the navigating officers.
As we sailed north the gale developed into a hurricane and ships began to get damaged. HM. Sheffield had the top of her forward turret torn off and had to return to port along with the escort carrier Dasher which was also damaged. Six of the merchant ships were damaged and had to return to Iceland. On our ship the deck cargo began to break adrift. We were not sorry to see the oil drums going over the side but when the lorries in wooden cases were smashed up and eventually went overboard things were not so good. But we managed to save the tanks and kept on battering our way northwards.
I remember trying to use an Aldis lamp to signal to a corvette and found it very difficult since one minute she was in sight and then she would go down the trough of a wave and all I could see were her topmasts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all that could be seen was the water, but eventually we got the message through. At one stage the convoy was well scattered but as the weather moderated the Navy rounded us up and got us into some semblance of order again.
The loss of our escort carrier meant that we had no aircover and, as expected, a few days later, a German spotter plane arrived and flew round the convoy all the daylight hours, keeping an eye on us. The next day we had a heavy attack by Ju88 bombers in which our ship was damaged and our gun-layer was wounded by bomb splinters but we kept plodding on towards North Russia. During this part of the voyage we were steaming through pan-cake ice floes which protected us from the U-boats which could not operate in such conditions. The blizzards, when they came, were always welcome as they hid us from the enemy.
February 15-27 1943
Merchant Ships - British: Atlantic, British Governor (bomber April 4), Dover Hill (bomber April 4), Empire Fortune, Empire Galliard, Empire Kinsman (bombed April 6), Empire Scott, Llandaff (bombed July 24), Ocean Freedom (bombed and sunk March 13). American: Beacon Hill (tanker), City of Omaha, Mobile City, Bering, Francis Scott Keyes, Israel Putnam, Thomas Hartley. Dutch/ Panamian: Pieter de Hooge, Artigas. Norwegian: Marathon (tanker). Polish/ Russian: Tobruk, Petrovsky, Tbolisi.
Escorts - Cruisers: Belfast, Sheffield, Cumberland, Scylla. Aircraft-Carrier: Dasher. Destroyers: Boadicea, Eclipse, Faulkner, Fury, Inglefield, Impulsive, Intrepid, Meynell, Middleton, Milne, Obdurate, Opportune, Obedient, Orwell, Pytchley, Orkan (Polish). Corvettes: Bergamot, Dianella, Poppy, Bluebell. Minesweepers: Halycon, Jason. Trawlers: Lord Austin, Lord Middleton.
Two days later, on February 27th, we arrived at the entrance to Kola Inlet which sis a long fjord with hills on either side and the town of Murmansk near the top. We had not lost any ships to the enemy and I must pay tribute to the good job done by the Royal Navy and the DEMS and Maritime Regiment gunners on the merchant ships.
Of the 22 merchant ships in our convoy, 15 were bound for Murmansk and the remaining 7 for White Sea ports near Archangel. Little did we know at this time that we would not leave Russia until the end of November. The Navy’s ocean-going escorts which had taken us to the Inlet now refuelled and set off homeward with the empty ships from the previous convoy.
We were all very tired when we arrived because over the previous few days we had either been on duty or at action stations for most of the time. After picking up the Russian pilot and setting off independently up Kola Inlet we were looking forward to having a good sleep when we anchored near Murmansk but we were very quickly disillusioned when, about a mile up from the Inlet, we passed a merchant ship on fire and her crew taking to the lifeboats.
On asking the pilot about the ship, which was from the previous convoy, he cheerfully told us that on the way down to meet us he had seen her being attacked by aircraft, obviously a common occurrence. We now understood why we had been fitted with so many anti-aircraft guns.
After two days at anchor we went alongside at Murmansk to discharge our cargo. The port was being bombed a good part of the time and one of our ships, the Ocean Freedom, was sunk alongside the quay near to us.
When we had discharged all our cargo we moved out and anchored about a mile apart on each side of the Inlet. We appeared to be on the side nearest the German lines, which were only about ten miles away, and we were regularly attacked by Me 109 fighter-bombers which swooped down over the top of the hill down the side and came tearing at us about 20 to 30 feet above the water, dropping their bomb as they flew over us just above our topmasts. Our gunners were very skilled and opened fire only when the planes came well within range.
These attacks only lasted for about a minute but were very vicious and we had gunners wounded and damage done to our ship. We shot down one plane and on another occasion we damaged one which flew out of range before we could finish it off. The ship anchored astern of us then opened fire when the damaged plane came within range and blew it up. We only got a half credit for that one so ended up with one-and-a-half swastikas painted on our funnel.
We now come to the incident whereby, to our surprise, our names appeared in the London Gazette.
On Sunday, April 4 we were anchored in Mishukov anchorage, I was playing chess in the officers mess when “Action Stations” sounded and our gune opened up at the same time. I went through the pantry, looked out of the door, and say 2 Ju 88 bombers coming from astern, high up. Our Bofors shells were bursting below them and when they turned away I assumed we had beaten them off and stepped out on deck.
This was a foolish thing to do as, unknown to me, the planes had released their bombs before turning away. Four bombs exploded close on the port side and one on the starboard side and I was blown off my feet. As I got up our gun-layer came down from one of the bridge Oerlikons and pointed to a large round hole in the steel deck a few yards from where I had been standing. It was obvious that a sixth bomb had gone through the main deck and ‘tween decks into our coal bunkers and had not exploded.
When we informed the Senior British Naval Officer, Murmansk of the situation and were advised that there were no British Bomb Disposal people in North Russia. We then realised that we would have to dig the bomb out ourselves in order to save our ship. The minesweeper Jason was ordered to anchor astern of us and to come alongside to render assistance if the bomb should explode, although I should doubt if there would have much to pick up.
Although the Dover Hill was only a battered old merchantman she was our home and no German was going to make us leave her while she was still afloat. The captain lines up the whole crew on the after deck and asked for volunteers and 19 of us, including our captain, formed our own bomb disposal squad. We had no equipment; in fact we only had a few shovels borrowed from our stokehold and 19 stout hearts when we started digging back the coal, trying to find the bomb.
The bunker was full of good British steaming coal which we were saving for the homeward dun so we used a derrick to bring it up on deck, hoping to replace it when we got the bomb out. When the Russian authorities heard what we were doing, although they had many exploded bombs to deal with in the town, they kindly offered to send one of their own Bomb Disposal officers to remove the detonator id we could get the bomb on deck.
When we had dug about ten feet down into the coal we found the tail fins and, by their size, decided our bomb must be a 1,000lb one. Unfortunately, the Germans also discovered what we were up to and came back and bombed us again, hoping to set off the bomb we were digging for. Due to the bomb explosions and the concussion of our own guns the coal fell back into the space where we were digging and things got difficult at times. We had to dig down approximately 22 feet before we got to the bomb but after two days and two nights hard work we finally got it up on deck.
I was standing beside the bomb with two of my fellow officers as our Russian friend started to unscrew the retaining ring of the detonator, but after a few turns it stuck. He then took a small hammer and a punch and tapped it to get it moving. I can honestly say that at every time he hit it I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up against the hood of my duffle coat.
After removing the detonator and primer we dumped the bomb into the Kola Inlet, where it probably lies to this day. We then moved back to Murmansk for repairs.
Of the 15 ships which arrived at Murmansk in February, one had been sunk and four damaged. On May 17, in company with three other ships, we left the Kola Inlet and set out for Ekonomiya at the mouth of the Dvina River where we stayed until July 18 when we moved to Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk). Finally, on November 26, with eight other ships, some damaged, we set out for home.
Since it was dark for almost 24 hours each day and we could only make seven knots maximum speed we went north to the edge of the ice. Knowing that a Russian bound convoy was coming up to the south of us we expected the Germans to attack that one and leave us alone. This in fact happened and we eventually arrived in London on December 14 in time to be home for Christmas.
The time we spent in the White Sea was mostly peaceful and our main problem was lack of food; for part of the time we suffered from malnutrition, but we survived. I do not think it did any of us any harm as it makes us appreciate all the more the peaceful times we now live in.
When we sailed up London River towards Surrey Commercial Docks to pay off, with our Red Ensign flying and patched on our decks and side, we were as proud of the old ship as if she had been a spick and span Navy vessel arriving in port. Our Red Ensign had a hole in it when an Oerlikon shell had gone through it during the fighting but it was the only one we had left.
The Dover Hill finished her days as a navy Special Service vessel and was sunk as a blockship on 7 February 1944, but I do not know where. This is a kind of way of saying that the old ship had taken a bigger hammering than we thought and that she was no longer fit to go to sea.
To finish on a personal note. I was the youngest of the young squad which took part in the incident in Mishukov anchorage, having had my 18th birthday on the way up to Russia. I was no longer a greenhorn, however, having joined my first ship at Plymouth as a cadet in 1940 when I was 15 years old. Due to a problem with my eyesight I was unable to continue in navigation department and came ashore, went to wireless college and returned to sea in the radio department.
I returned to Murmansk in 1980, mainly to find the grave of a friend who had been killed by a bomb splinter which went through his steel helmet and with the help of Russian authorities I was able to do so. I went back again in 1985 and again in 87, 89, 91, 93 and 95 with a group of veterans and great kindness and friendship was shown to us by the people of Murmansk who greatly appreciate the help we brought to them during the war.
In 1987 I also found out the name of the Russian Bomb Disposal officer who had helped us was Pavel Panin. I have had word from the Northern Naval Museum in Murmansk that he was killed in August 1943. He was a fighter pilot in the Red Air Force and was killed in a scrap with German ME109F planes. He is a Hero of The Soviet Union and rightly so as he was a very brave man who we admired very much. I have seen his picture in museums in Murmansk and Severomorsk. It would have been wonderful to have met him after all those years but it was not to be.
Note courtesy of Editor of Sea Breezes.
The Dover Hill 5, 818 grt, was built by the Northumberland Shipping Co. Newcastle and was launched in December 1917 as the Maenwen but before completing was acquired by Clan Line as Clan Macvicar. In 1936 she was sold and renamed Dover Hill. After returning from North Russia she was taken over by Ministry of War Transport and was sunk at Arromanches on 9 June 1944 along with other ships to form an artificial port for the invasion of Normandy.
He who knows not – and knows not that he know not: he is a fool – shun him.
He who knows not – and knows that he knows not: he is simple – teach him.
He who knows not – and knows not that he knows: is asleep – wake him.
He who knows – and know that he knows: is wise: follow him.