WWII Arctic Convoys: weather as enemy

HMS Campania escorting Arctic Convoy © Roy Elwood

Below is an extract from an account by an unknown officer serving on the escort carrier, HMS Campania, flagship on escort duty for convoys JW64 and RA64 in February 1945.

Roy Elwood, a convoy veteran serving on the destroyer HMS Zambesi and who has written for us and acted as a contact for other veterans who have got in touch with us, has given us this material and the photographs we are using to illustrate this incident. Roy went on to become a well known and exhibited photographer – of which more below.

This report is from the Campania’s experience on the return convoy, RA64. It relates to a sequence of days on the convoy’s return journey from the Kola Inlet. The weather that was so destructive also dispersed the convoy, resulting in the legendary sinking of the one of the Liberty Ships on the convoy, the SS Henry Bacon.

The unknown officer’s story

‘…………..Another hurricane, lasting 24 hours, scattered the convoy for a second time. The furious seas were exhausting for us in a 16,000-ton ship, but in the destroyers and smaller escorts it must have been a thousand times worse. In the ‘Campania’ it was almost impossible to stand without support. Men walking along the alleyways looked like drunks staggering from side to side. I tried going from the bridge to a ward-room aft; one moment I felt like a fairy with my feet hardly touching the ground, and the next I was like an elephant with feet of lead. I could hardly get my feet off the ground. To get to the ward-room required almost as much effort as walking three miles. I just got there when the ship gave a terrific roll from side to side. She went through 81 degrees, officially recorded. Tables screwed to the deck were wrenched from their fixings; chairs, crockery, books, and settees – everything was slung in a heap of debris in one corner, and on top of a mound of struggling officers. It was amazing no one was hurt. Yet even more amazing, everyone was laughing.

‘After twenty-four hours the wind began easing and we started reforming the convoy for a second time. We began to take stock of the situation. It was not very encouraging. One merchant ship reported a split deck, as a result of the bad weather, another was steering with block and tackle because her steering gear had been smashed. Others could move no quicker than walking pace. Destroyers reported smashed boats and wrecked gear. Then once again the Ju88’s (torpedo bombers) arrived. But instead of the convoy they choose a single straggler – the ‘SS Henry Bacon’ – nineteen of them attached her. She did not have a chance, but she fought for quarter-of-an-hour and damaged two aircraft before she went down. I am glad to say our destroyers picked up most of her gallant crew. (About 43 of the 72 crew that included a naval guard were saved, together with 19 Norwegian refugees.)

‘For the rest of the dreary voyage we rolled and rocked along at three or four knots, an occasional hour or two at six was a luxury. Then, when we were almost in sight of Britain the sun came out, a pale watery sun that showed up the salt-caked funnels of the merchant ships and escorts against the wintry sky, like black shadows on a back-cloth, but to us, this sun was a symbol of home. Bone weary and exhausted though we all were. Admiral McGrigor had got us home.’

Buried in this story…

HMS Nairana on Convoy duty © Roy Elwood

HMS Zambesi was an escort on this convoy, with Roy Elwood aboard. He describes it as ‘the worst ride I had’.

The rescue of the survivors from the SS Henry Bacon was carried out by Destroyers Zambesi, Zest and Opportune  – not the Campania herself. She was the flagship with the Admiral commanding aboard her.

The 19 Norwegian survivors from the sinking of the SS Henry Bacon, mentioned in the report, were also immediate survivors from a siege of their island community of Soroy by the occupying German army.

Soroy was evacuated by a force of four Allied destroyers, three from the British Navy – Zambesi, Zest and Zealous; with the Canadian Navy’s Sioux.

The evacuation was led by Zambesi and is described in an illustrated article we published here in September 2009, written by Derek Hirst who, like Roy Elwood, was aboard at the time.

When the rescue fleet reached Murmansk after the evacuation, the Norwegians were out aboard the SS Henry Bacon for the convoyed passage to Britain. Out of the frying pan… But the crew of the Henry Bacon put the Norwegians in the first of only two serviceable lifeboats and took their own chances in open boats. We understand that all of the Norwegians survived the sinking.

The photograph at the top shows the crew on HMS Campania clearing the decks of snow and ice – an endless and repetitive job on the convoys where ice formed as they were clearing it. Ice had to be constantly chipped form decks, deck fittings guns and rigging. Otherwise it would have added layer to layer with the weight and its distribution capable of rolling the ship over.

The photograph above, taken from Campania during the period described in this report, shows the escort aircraft carrier, HMS Nairana.

It shows Nairana struggling in the heavy seas – and shows her nature as a converted craft.

She was built at the John Brown yard on Clydebank, designed as a merchant ship but converted during construction to serve as an escort carrier on the Russian Convoys. She was the first and the basic template of three such conversions, another of which, Campania, was Admiral McGrigor’s flagship on these two convoys.

They were being built at three different shipyards – Harland and Wolff [Campania] in Belfast, Swan Hunter [Vindex] in Newcastle and John Brown. As Nairana was first, John Brown gave copies of her plans to the other two companies but each still emerged distinct from her peers.

Roy Elwood – a one-man link to Argyll, the Arctic Convoys and Loch Ewe

Roy Elwood is a convoy veteran who became a well known photographer. He did his torpedo training on Loch Long and danced in the hall at Arrochar at weekends – which he wrote about for us here.. He served on HMS Zambesi who was with the escort group for the convoys JW64 and RA64 features in the report above, led by HMS Campania. He was on Zambesi for the evacuation of Soroy [and the end-of-war liberation of Bergen]; and for the rescue of the evacuees from the sinking of SS Henry Bacon on this convoy.

He went up to Loch Ewe two years ago for the Memorial Service for the veterans of the Arctic Convoys, many of which which gathered there to sail to the Russian Arctic ports of Murmansk and Arkhangel. He is going back to Loch Ewe in May this year, for the Arctic Convoys and WWII week being run there from 6th – 11th May by the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project. This promises to be a very special occasion, with the event honoured by being given one of the national ceremonies presenting the long overdue Arctic Star Medal to the 40 veterans who are making the trip.

Then, in June, Roy Elwood has another exhibition of his photography at the Royal Photographic HQ in Bath. While the exhibition will have some summary shots of the first four decades of work, its emphasis is on his more recent favourite work and on his latest work.

Of his time in the convoys, Roy says: ‘I did not have a camera until I traded coffee and cigs for one in Wilhelmshaven in 1946.’ He says of Loch Ewe: ‘We camped at Gairloch and all I really remember is the long beach and the fish & chip shop.’ He refreshed his memory in 2011 at the Memorial Service there at Cove and will do so again this May.

Note: we had also published Roy Elwood’s own story on his time on HMS Zambesi on convoy duty, on the evacuation of Soroy and the liberation of Bergen. That article – illustrated by some of his own photographs – was amongst a body of archived material  lost in one of the transfers of this site to new server hosts. It was an important text and we continue to try to recover it.

Note: The photographs above were given, with some other material, to Roy Elwood by Kieron Tench whose father Don Tench was serving on Campania and who died in 1991. Kieron had commented on one of our Arctic Convoy stories and we put him in touch with Roy – who is now trying to get back in contact with him.

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