- Buckley, Lieutenant N.W. AM RNVR
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Arctic Circle passes just north of Iceland, but our route went as far north as 74 degrees. The sea-ice floes retreat further north in summer than in winter, but the Admiralty had apparently miscalculated how soon that retreat began, so we ran into trouble.
Constant ice chipping
We started with 32 merchant ships, with an escort of four trawlers, two minesweepers and one destroyer. We soon ran into snowstorms with thick ice forming on every horizontal part of the ship. This required constant chipping off and throwing overboard, to avoid capsizing.
Three nights later we suddenly ran into sea- ice floes (pack-ice) and these persisted for two more days and nights, together with patches of thick fog, at the end of which time we had only eight cargo ships remaining in the convoy, the others having turned back. My ship had also had its anti-submarine dome (below the hull) broken off by the ice. The oscillator was no longer operational. We were glad to see that we had been joined by four destroyers and four corvettes, and a cruiser (HMS Edinburgh) was in the neighbourhood.
Unfortunately for us, our ship had also developed engine trouble, which necessitated stopping for a quarter of an hour to effect repairs, and then racing to catch up with the convoy. We were not amused to receive a signal from the Commodore of the convoy saying “Try to stop making smoke.”
A further two days later, when we were nearer the Norwegian coast, our convoy was sighted by a prowling German reconnaissance plane, which circled out of gun reach, homing submarines on the convoy.
At this point we were joined by a further five destroyers. Because of sightings of submarines by the destroyers, we were at Action Stations all the next day (16 April), and at about 1 pm the Convoy Commodore’s ship (Empire Howard) was hit by two torpedoes and sank rapidly.
We were ordered by the Senior Naval Officer of the convoy to pick up any survivors, and this we did with some difficulty because our engine defect didn’t allow us to go astern. We picked up 18 men and another trawler picked up 20, out of a total crew of 56. Three of those we rescued died on board shortly afterwards because of the extremely cold water they had been in; over a quarter of an hour in the ocean there meant death!
It took the convoy a further three days to reach Murmansk, during which time my ship had to make another 35-minute stop to repair the engine, a German Junkers plane tried bombing the convoy (without success), we met patches of most welcome fog, and we saw some distant icebergs.
Frequent air attacks
Murmansk, in Kola Inlet, was not an attractive place. It was under very frequent air attack, being only about 50 miles from the German front line in northern Finland. There was almost nothing to do ashore. It was most depressing to see the large number of wounded Russian soldiers waiting for hospital admission in a very slow-moving line.
Our ship had to go into dry dock there in order to replace our A/S dome beneath the hull. This and other repairs (to the engine) took so long that we missed joining the next return convoy. This turned out to be all to our advantage for at least two reasons. First, because that convoy was savagely attacked by German warships and the cruiser Edinburgh was sunk following torpedo damage. Second, her loss was our gain, in that the load of rum with which she had replenished us in Murmansk was recorded only in accounts at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, and that rum was most acceptable to us for use as a body-warmer on many subsequent icy occasions.
Our return journey of nine days to Iceland, towards the end of May, was with QP12, and was not quite so exciting, due in part to protective fog. However, our ship had further engine trouble and when we had to stop to effect repairs, one of the escorting destroyers signalled “Too bad!” which we thought rather out-of-place.
However, the minesweeper (HMS Harrier) offered to tow us while the repairs were carried out, and they did so and enabled both of us to gradually catch up with the convoy.