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Murmansk or Die

By David Sears
11/10/2014 • Gear, MHQ, MHQ Features

It was Winston Churchill who called it “the worst journey in the world”—the World War II Arctic convoy route supplying the Soviet Union. But to the men aboard those convoys, it was something more visceral. To 19-year-old John L. Haynes, a Georgian, it was always “cold…cold…bone marrow cold.” And while 21-year-old Texan Richard Lowe was too busy to be afraid, he thought, “If I’d had one foot on the road, I’d’ve been gone.”

 

THE JOURNEYS OF HAYNES AND LOWE and thousands of other British and American sailors stretched roughly 1,500 miles from departure points at either Loch Ewe in northern Scotland or Reykjavík, Iceland (Haynes, Lowe, and others aboard U.S. merchant ships first had to transit the Atlantic) to Murmansk on Kola Inlet, or the White Sea ports of Molotovsk or Archangel. During the 10- to 12-day northbound voyage, merchant ships laden with heavy equipment, fuel, arms, munitions, clothing, and food steamed with their naval escorts through the Norwegian Sea and into the Barents Sea, passing Spitsbergen before angling south toward their destination. They were boxed in east and south by a German-held coastline, west and north by ice. During the far northern spring and summer—March to September—near continuous daylight enabled German aircraft to attack any time. In addition to that airborne threat, convoys ran a U-boat gantlet. And there was always the possibility that Norway-based enemy capital ships and destroyers might pounce. Obsolete Allied ships and lethal cargoes only deepened the peril: Many merchants lacked both armor and fully watertight bulkheads; most carried explosives, so a single enemy torpedo or bomb could disintegrate a ship with all on board. To add to the misery, merchantmen and their escorts endured severe weather: spray that froze topside, sleet or snow, and violent storms that tossed and scattered ships.

The Murmansk Run, as it was familiarly known, was absolutely vital to supplying the Soviets battling the Germans on the Eastern Front. True, there were alternate routes. One was trans-Pacific, plied exclusively (after Pearl Harbor) by Soviet bottoms given passage by the Japanese to avoid drawing the Soviet Union into the Pacific War. Another required routing Atlantic coast vessels around Africa or through the Panama Canal toward the Persian Gulf ports of Hormuz and Basra. But the vastly more arduous Murmansk Run was by far the shortest and most direct route. In all, some 40 convoys totaling more than 800 merchant ships, including 350 under the U. S. flag, started on the Murmansk Run from 1941 through 1945.

American president Franklin Roosevelt had pledged aid to the Soviets in June 1941, when Germany first invaded. To trumpet Allied assistance, Roosevelt directed maximum publicity be given to the Murmansk convoys. This helped mollify Stalin and bolster the morale of “Uncle Joe’s” beleaguered Red Army, but it also raised a red flag. German commanders simply could not permit such high-profile targets to pass unmolested.

The merchant convoys were numbered sequentially, with the initial northbound convoys prefixed by the letters PQ and corresponding return (southbound) convoys prefixed QP; in late 1942 designations changed to JW and WJ. PQ 1—eleven merchant ships carrying 15,000 tons of cargo—left Iceland in September 1941 and made the run without incident. For the next six months, until March 1942, only one ship of the 110 convoyed to Russia was lost. Then, two factors converged: As American factories and shipyards stepped up production, convoy size increased from a dozen or so ships to 30 or more; and lengthening high-latitude daylight enabled round-the-clock aerial attacks. In consequence, from March 1 through the end of June, eight convoys (four northbound, four southbound) lost a total of 27 ships to bombing and torpedo attacks.

Individual American cargo vessels had been virtually defenseless until November 1941, when Congress repealed portions of the Neutrality Act that forbade arming U.S.-registered merchantmen. The U.S. Navy immediately began to install weapons (3-, 4-, and 5-inch cannons; 20mm and .50-caliber heavy machine guns; and lighter .30-caliber machine guns). Training of navy armed guard personnel to fire and maintain them was already underway, but the pipeline was slowed by manpower and matériel shortages.

Lowe and Haynes, among the very first trainees, were rushed into the breach. Though Dick Lowe had suffered from polio as a child (he had no limb movement until age six but went on to play basketball for a championship San Antonio high school team), it proved no barrier to enlistment. His abbreviated January 1942 basic training in San Diego essentially consisted of “getting shots, a haircut, and a copy of the Bluejackets’ Manual.” John Haynes enlisted one day after Pearl Harbor and began basic training a week later. On January 22, 1942, he was transferred to the Naval Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn and assigned to a ship as a seaman gunner two days later.

Each armed guard team (in Haynes’s case, seven raw fellow apprentice seamen, two seamen, a coxswain, a signalman and a radioman led by a young ensign) was a military unit grafted onto a labor union body—the merchant marines—resulting in tensions about discipline and pay differences. Navy sailors, imbued with a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” ethos, clashed with some merchant stalwarts, who, they felt, pledged allegiance only to the National Maritime Union contract. There was consequent name-calling; salty merchant seamen disparaged the navy “sea scouts,” while armed guard wags jived about three merchant ship time zones: “sack time, coffee time, and overtime.” Nonetheless, to ensure mutual survival, both sides made accommodations. During combat, for example, merchant personnel passed ammunition or stepped in for downed bluejackets. Richard Lowe and his mates “treasured the merchant sailors who fed us coffee, biscuits, and sandwiches.”

Although America supplied guns and guards and occasionally assigned warships, overall responsibility for the safe passage of the Arctic convoys rested with Britain’s Home Fleet commander in chief, Admiral John Cronyn “Jack” Tovey. The seagoing Tovey, famed for orchestrating the May 1941 destruction of the German battleship Bismarck, had repeated run-ins with Prime Minister Churchill and First Sea Lord Dudley Pound about the timing and conduct of the Murmansk convoys. For their parts, Churchill and Pound were pressed by Roosevelt and Stalin to increase the frequency and size of the convoys, though they repeatedly protested that British naval forces were overextended. Striving to improvise, Tovey arranged for north- and southbound convoys to be dispatched simultaneously so “their passage through the danger area could be synchronized.” In April 1942 additional destroyers, corvettes, and trawlers were transferred from other Home Fleet segments to beef up convoy escorts. Pairs of British submarines accompanied northbound convoys to discourage surface attacks. Iceland-based flying boats afforded antisubmarine protection to the limits of their operational range. Added to this was a grab-bag of experimental devices: tethered barrage balloons; catapult-aircraft merchant ships (CAMs) that launched Hurricane fighters on one-way flights from bow-mounted ramps; wire-trailing parachute-and-cable (PAC) rockets fired in an effort to “clothesline” low-flying predators; and even merchant aircraft carriers (MACs) capable of launching three or four Swordfish biplanes.

 

AS DEMONSTRATED BY PQ 13 (John Haynes’s baptism by ice and fire), “dirty” weather could equally bless and curse. That convoy’s 19 northbound merchants departed Reykjavík on March 20, 1942. After edging cautiously through a huge U-boat-sown minefield, PQ 13 steered as far northeast as possible. As Haynes’s ship, SS Eldena, growled and cracked through a crust of pack ice, temperatures plunged well below freezing, thick ice encased masts and stays, and watchkeepers and gunners became almost immovable ice-sculpted statues. On March 24, PQ 13 was beset by what Haynes called “the mother and father of all gales.” The storm effectively prevented enemy attack, so gun station watches were suspended. Haynes and three bunkmates were virtually trapped in their forecastle quarters. “Getting coffee and sandwiches from the galley was a death-defying act,” he said. When the storm finally subsided two days later, the convoy ships were left widely scattered. The Eldena and four other merchants were in the midst of a heavy ice floe: “Huge flat ice chunks 25 to 100 feet in diameter jammed together.” Then an unrelenting aerial assault began. Stationed at a starboard-side .50-caliber gun mount, Haynes fired just two rounds before the gun jammed. Frozen lubricant was the culprit, so for the balance of the battle Haynes and his loader, Ralph Manor, fired their gun grease-free without further malfunction. Haynes got his clearest shot on March 30—a Ju 88 diving through a cloud—just as the Eldena and eight other ships finally straggled into Murmansk. “The thing filled my gunsight; I could see its cannon firing….I saw the bomb leave the plane, wobble then straighten up. I don’t know how many, if any, hits I scored but he did not go down.”

PQ 13 lost five storm-isolated ships to German submarines and aircraft, and the British light cruiser Trinidad was severely damaged battling German destroyers. This toll, though grievous, was considered “acceptable.” Not so the immense losses to PQ 17, arguably the most calamitous Arctic convoy ever. When it left Iceland on June 27, 1942, PQ 17 numbered 33 merchant ships (two-thirds of them American), three rescue ships, and a fleet oiler. PQ 17’s formidable direct escort was supplemented by powerful support and covering forces. All together, there were more combatants than merchants, but many merchants still lacked adequate shipboard defenses.

Among the merchants was SS Exford, a decades-old “Hog Islander,” shorthand for a class of ships built but never used during World War I. The slow but sturdy Hog Islanders were ugly precursors of the marginally more graceful Liberties. One of the Exford’s able-bodied seamen was 36-year-old Otis Ferguson, a former writer for the New Republic magazine. Although he’d once served a hitch in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson considered himself a novice among the Exford’s three dozen mates, engineers, quartermasters, oilers, and water tenders.

 

THE EXFORD HAD LEFT DELAWARE BAY bound for New York in April 1942. Off Seagirt, New Jersey, a surfaced German submarine suddenly loomed to starboard. With Ferguson steering, the Exford, operating on just one boiler, bore down as hard as it could on the U-boat. The sub crash-dived and disappeared, but the incident sealed the Exford’s reputation. Wrote Ferguson: “She will chase subs with her six knots full speed…the impossible is the only one thing left that she can do.” Ferguson professed piratical pride in not being aboard “some big shiny super-super.…They ain’t lucky; they ain’t villainous enough to live long.”

The Exford joined a Britain-bound convoy, continuing on to Iceland. It eventually sailed with PQ 17, but on the second night out, as Ferguson (again at the helm) related: “We marched right into an iceberg as big as a house, currump, and you could feel her rise and lurch over; and then before we could turn or kill the speed, another, perhaps a bigger. Then you should have heard the hooting and bellowing from ships all around us in the fog, stopping engines and shifting course, like wounded and frightened cows.” Limping back to Iceland, the Hog Islander was offloaded and run up onto “a smooth spot of beach” for two months of repair. It was a lucky break, given the fate of the rest of PQ 17.

 

ON JULY 1 GERMAN RECONNAISSANCE AIRCRAFT were spotted over the convoy, and the next day nine torpedo planes struck unsuccessfully. On July 4 a daylong succession of aerial bombing and torpedo attacks sank a U.S. merchantman, prompted the abandonment of another, and damaged five more. Then at 7 in the evening, with the convoy still fully 450 miles from safety, the Admiralty became convinced that Germany’s Norway-based warships would attack and ordered support force cruisers to withdraw west and the convoy itself to “disperse.” The chaos snowballed when a follow-on signal ordered PQ 17 to “scatter.” Though not directly ordered to do so, the escort commander pulled his destroyers to follow the retreating cruisers—prompting the even smaller escorts to abandon their charges. Isolated and unprotected merchants became easy victims: By July 7, 18 freighters had been sent to the bottom and 153 sailors had died, while 1,300 survivors (581 of them American) were plucked from icy waters. Of PQ 17’s original 33 ships, only 11 delivered their cargoes.

The disaster of PQ 17 (described by Churchill as “one of the most melancholy episodes in the whole of the war”) stunned and disgraced the British Admiralty, prompting Tovey to take even more drastic precautionary steps in advance of PQ 18—now postponed until September. Eleven Catalina flying boats and 32 Hampden twin-engine bombers were flown to north Russia to provide PQ 18 antisubmarine protection in the eastern stretches of the Barents Sea. Still more destroyers were assigned to direct escort. Because of frequent German air reconnaissance over Iceland, PQ 18’s primary point of origin was switched to Scotland’s Loch Ewe. And for the first time, an escort aircraft carrier, HMS Avenger, was assigned to provide close cover (signaling the eventual discontinuation of CAMs and MACs.)

PQ 18’s core—33 merchantmen escorted by five destroyers and five armed trawlers, sailed from Scotland on September 2. Six of the freighters were U.S. Maritime Commission Liberty ships, produced as part of America’s “bridge of ships”—some 700 to be built by 1943; each of the vessels was assembled, launched, and fitted out in under six months. Liberties had sailed with prior PQs and QPs—though perhaps they were never as well armed as now. According to Richard Lowe, one of the 20-man armed guard contingent aboard the Liberty ship William Moultrie, the ship boasted a stern-mounted 4-inch cannon, a bow-mounted 5-inch cannon (where Lowe served as pointer and gun captain), and ten 20mm heavy machine guns.

On September 7 off Iceland, PQ 18 was strengthened by the Avenger, three light cruisers, two dozen destroyers, corvettes, submarines, minesweepers, trawlers, tankers, and rescue ships. All together, PQ 18 was backed by 77 escorts. Scarcely noticed among the impressive assemblage was the inclusion of eight more merchants that had been holed up in Iceland awaiting a northbound convoy. One of them was the Exford.

As the PQ 18 ships plowed northeast, scuttlebutt about the PQ 17 disaster was rampant, and all aboard were, according to Exford’s Ferguson, holding their breath. “We heard they’d been wiped out,” recalled “Guns” Lowe, who waited soaked and shivering with his crewmates in exposed gun tubs aboard the William Moultrie; they would seldom leave their posts. Early on, spray and sleet had fouled communications lines, so in the days to come, the Moultrie’s mostly teenage armed guards would literally “fire when ready.”

For their part, the Germans, unaware of PQ 18’s postponement, had reconnoitered futilely all summer. Not until September 5 did they uncover the new schedule (using documents retrieved from the wreckage of one of the Hampden bombers dispatched to Russia). Rear Admiral Otto Klüber, Germany’s latest Arctic commander, began marshaling a force that grew to 22 U-boats intended to assault both north- and southbound convoys. A special seven-boat group dubbed Trägertod (Carrier Killer) was immediately dispatched to stalk the Avenger.

On September 12, when Ferguson and his shipmates aboard the Exford first saw a German reconnaissance aircraft, “all heads came back to look…at the flat-top [Avenger]….Can we in the name of sweet Jesus knock that guy off before he brings the picture…back to the enemy base?” To be fair, the Avenger’s capabilities were limited. It embarked with just 18 old, lightly armed Sea Hurricane fighter planes (six of them stowed below) and three radar-equipped Swordfish biplanes, on hand less to defend the convoy than to shoo away Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft and U-boats. Still, reasoned Ferguson, “if one plane could come out and roll around us like a Mack truck and…get away with it, where would we be when they sent them driving over like armfuls of knives?”

The Germans’ “armfuls of knives” arrived the next morning. “A fair day,” wrote Ferguson, “but closed in with that thick, pearly fluff and low ceiling of the Arctic Ocean.” Submarine torpedoes struck first, sinking two merchants. Ferguson reckoned that, “We were by then as high as we would go, under the polar cap….From now on we traveled a circle the radius of which was constant, and the radius was the distance to the Germans’ northern airbase.”

As they waited into the early afternoon for the inevitable air assault, the Exford’s crew took cues from two nearby antiaircraft ships. Sure enough, within moments of a warning flag hoist, the first planes were “above us, rumbling over as the battle alarm took up all over the ship, and the noise from our own bridge alone”—where eight Lewis and Marlin machine guns rattled simultaneously—“was deafening.” Guards and merchantmen alike moved in almost balletic precision, nimbly switching stations while always leaving “two or three people free to keep an eye out around the compass, see to the ammunition supply or whatever was needed.”But to no effect. These first aerial intruders were six high-level bombers dropping their loads—also to no effect—well above the reach of even the most powerful ships’ guns. Soon, though, came a swarm of some 30 to 40 low-flying torpedo planes—Ju 88s and He 111s—the combined inventory of two specially trained Luftwaffe air groups. Some were painted black with orange or green wingtips, each was armed with two wing-slung torpedoes, and all were, in the words of one Liberty ship’s armed guard officer, “weird and awful to behold.”

It was part of a new anti-ship tactic called the “Golden Comb” (Goldene Zange). Having staged the high-level bomber raid as a diversion, the Ju 88s and He 111s swept in line abreast (their wingtips scarcely a hundred feet apart) from the forward quarter; the pilots’ aim was to launch the four-score torpedoes simultaneously at 1,000 meters distance so the deadly, tightly spaced “fish” would “comb” directly into the convoy’s flanks.

To complicate matters for both assailants and intended victims, a U-boat-laid minefield was detected, prompting orders for an emergency 45-degree turn to starboard. (A mine-stricken ship just ahead of the Exford abruptly slipped astern; Ferguson saw “a mass of flames aft, with the men still scrambling into her lifeboats.”) Amid the tumult, merchants in the two starboardmost columns failed to execute the turn. Plodding straight on, they absorbed the tines of Golden Comb. Eight vessels were ultimately sunk. Before the day’s three aerial attacks finally subsided, however, the Germans were no less bloodied. Thirteen of their planes and crews fell—some to the aerial guns of the Avenger’s Hurricanes but even more to the cumulative power of an intense ship-mounted antiaircraft barrage unlike any the Luftwaffe had heretofore experienced.

In Otis Ferguson’s vivid account, the aircraft “came in…through…fire…that made the sky look like red-hot lace….We could…see the white tracers spurt into orange as they ricocheted off the armor, the terrific large-size shrapnel bursts near them, following them…as the big wings swept the water….They were either confused by this spotlight of fire and death…or they were just barber-school pilots for all their deliberate unconcern for the fireworks of death.”

Lowe and his armed guard mates aboard the Moultrie acquitted themselves particularly well, claiming three torpedo planes shot down and damage to six others—though not without anxious moments. The Moultrie’s 20mms lacked “stops” (mechanisms to prevent guns from aiming at the ship’s own decks and structures), so personnel occasionally dodged both enemy and friendly fire. Moreover, during the height of the action, an antiaircraft round jammed the barrel of Lowe’s 5-inch cannon. Thinking quickly (the round had a timed fuze set to detonate within seconds), Lowe ordered another casing into the breechblock and then, with the other men standing back as he fired, successfully cleared the gun.

All the while, the convoy’s antisubmarine vessels were, marveled Ferguson, “all over like crazy, seaming the ocean with depth charges” in anticipation of a simultaneous U-boat attack. The charges made huge underwater knocks; it was like “being in a vast iron bathtub full of water [when] someone…fetches the side of the tub a wallop with a vast sledge hammer.” The wallops, reassuring to those busy topside fighting aircraft, unnerved engineers, oilers, and water tenders below decks, “where each [wallop] may be the last sound ever heard.” By day’s end, merchantmen and guards alike had gained new respect for their defensive prowess. At the beginning of the convoy, recalled Ferguson, “We…thought we were weaker than we were.” Then, he realized, “even if our untrained aim was wild…we would be the ones to render the final good account.”

The next day, September 14, opened early with U-boat attacks, this time damaging a tanker that was then scuttled. An early afternoon German air assault—22 torpedo bombers—concentrated on the Avenger but failed. An equally futile perimeter probe by 12 high-level bombers soon followed and then (the third and biggest raid of the day) a sweep by 25 more that triggered the explosion and evaporation of TNT-laden Hog Islander SS Mary Luckenbach. Aboard the William Moultrie, steaming immediately astern, Richard Lowe had his eye glued to his cannon’s sight as the Luckenbach “cleared the water right quick.” Metal shards cascaded onto Moultrie’s decks as men dove for cover. When the Moultrie passed over the spot, her skipper detected “not even a raft—no wreckage, not even a match box; hardly a ripple on the surface of the sea.”

Luckenbach debris also rained down on Liberty ship Nathanael Greene 200 yards to port, smashing cargo boxes, blowing down hatches and bulkheads, buckling cast-iron ventilators, and lacerating gun station splinter shields. Still, according to Lieutenant (junior grade) R. M. Billings, his armed guard gunners kept lighting up the sky. Their 3-inch gun scored a direct hit on the lead attacker and on another crossing the Greene’s bow. The planes were so close, you “couldn’t miss with a machine gun”; 20mm and .50-caliber marksmen splashed two more planes on the port side and yet another to starboard. “Reverences to your gunners,” the British convoy commander signaled the Nathanael Greene the next morning. “You are at the top of the class.”

September 15 and 16 brought a foiled wolf-pack submarine attack and more high-level bombing runs. The Avenger Hurricanes rose to confront the Germans, and ship gunners accounted for several lower flying intruders. Through it all there were no ship losses. Heightened danger loomed on the evening of the 16th as the Avenger and larger consorts peeled off to escort a simultaneous southbound convoy (QP 14.) By the 17th, however, four Soviet destroyers had bolstered the shield and, perhaps more consequential, the Luftwaffe had apparently lost its appetite for staging massed, close-in attacks. Losses weren’t over—a ship was sunk by aerial torpedo on September 18—but PQ 18, the most heavily armed convoy of the Murmansk Run, had effectively stood up to the worst the Germans could hurl. While PQ 18 had lost 13 ships (an “affordable” if not “acceptable” outcome), the Luftwaffe had lost over three times as many aircraft.

 

DURING THE TUMULTUOUS HISTORY of the worst journey in the world, 97 Allied vessels were sunk by aerial attack, submarine, mine, or the wrath of sea and sky. At least 3,000 sailors died. In all, the Murmansk Run delivered more than 22,000 aircraft; 343,700 tons of explosives; 1,900 locomotives; 375,000 trucks; 8,700 tractors; 51,500 jeeps; a million miles of field-telephone cable; plus millions of shoes, rifles, machine guns, auto tires, radio sets, and other supplies to the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

Somewhat lost in this remarkable strategic accomplishment was the no less remarkable human bond formed among men—merchant sailors and young navy sailors—who fought and endured. Months after PQ 18 (and months before he lost his life in a cargo-ship explosion in the Mediterranean) Ferguson offered his “worst journey” brothers a fitting (albeit cynical) tribute: “Just today in the papers I read some very interesting stories…about…the gun crew of the William Moultrie and its shellback ensign….The one-year ensign gets the silver star: the man who aimed, loaded, and fired these remarkable guns got a letter of commendation, which you can’t take with you in the shape of wearing it or giving it to your girl for a trinket, certainly.”

For John Haynes and Richard Lowe—two among thousands who “aimed, loaded and fired”—the Murmansk Run was a proving ground for both the balance of the war and their lives thereafter. Haynes (now 91 and living in Indiana) recalled especially how surviving the run gave him focus: “It was harrowing. I was just 18, but I grew up fast. It made me think about just what it was I wanted to do. I sure didn’t want to stay in the armed guard—though many of the others did. I was really serious about flying, so I did everything I could to get into aviation.” Haynes ended the war as a naval aviator and then went on to a career in federal aviation.

Unlike Haynes, Gunners Mate 2nd Class Lowe (now 92 and retired in Alabama after a long career with a prominent ­engineering-design firm) served armed guard duty on six more ships in the North Atlantic, where he survived a sinking off Scotland, in the Mediterranean, and in the Pacific. But for Lowe, as for Haynes, the run—and his rescue after the sinking off Scotland—had a lasting impact. For many years he became “very quiet and hard to talk with” about what he’d experienced. But at the same time Lowe says he became convinced that, “The Lord was on my side….I can do anything.”

 

David Sears, historian and author, is a former U.S. Navy officer with extensive sea duty aboard a destroyer. His most recent books, on naval aviation, are Such Men as These (2011) and Pacific Air (2012).

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