The survivors from the ill-fated British cruiser HMS Edinburgh, most with their wives in tow, travelled from many parts of Scotland, Wales England and Ireland and converged on a couple of small hotels in the quiet Birmingham suburb of Acocks Green. It didn't stay quiet for long because many of the survivors hadn't seen one another since we were marooned in a Russian repatriation camp for survivors in Vaerga near Murmansk in the Soviet Union 33 years ago.
With my wife, Trudy, 1 flew to England to meet once more with my teen-age shipmates of 1940, '41 and '42 and to honour our dead we left in that bleak inferno in the Arctic Ocean, our personal teenage crucibles, the Murmansk convoys.
Of the original 900-man crew, about 1110 attended the reunion, the rest were dead, too old, or scattered throughout the world. Of those who attended, 10 of us had been boy seamen aged 16, 17 and 18. We had spent our impressionable, formative years in that 10,000-ton cruiser, a ship whose mandate had been brutally simple - seek the enemy, engage the enemy, destroy the enemy.
The reunion lasted two full days and nights and like the endless actions we were celebrating, there was little time for sleep. It was an electrifying, indelible experience again to meet them. We, the boy seamen, were suddenly 17 and 18 again instead of greying, balding, time - ravaged 50 and 51. Conversations that had been cut short 33 years ago in a Russian oblast near the Finnish front, resumed as though there had been no time interval. It was an instant flashback - an eerie phenomenon. 1 discussed this 'instant - youth' feeling with other survivors there and they felt the same, the moment we met we were thrust back, in history one third of a century. We were no longer anachronisms.
Wives who had never met before, who were total strangers up to then, hugged like long-time friends as though they shared some secret happiness, perhaps some inner relief that an unknown German range-taker had been inaccurate by a few metres, that the exultant skipper of the sub marine U456 had ordered “Torpedo los!” at the instant he did instead of a second earlier or later. Our complex lives often hinged on such trivialities. Whatever – the wives were vibrant, their men were there laughing and living, singing and drinking, dancing and chanting and that was the miracle: a miracle born of a faulty decision by a German destroyer flotilla captain in that bitter wasteland of water between Bear Island and Murmansk, the Barents Sea.
We lay terribly wounded on the gently undulating bitterly cold surface of the Barents Sea. I was on the bridge of the stricken Edinburgh having been directed by my Admiral, Sir Stuart Bonham-Carter, to keep a sharp lookout for the tell-tale flashing wakes of running torpedoes.
Beautiful, grey and deadly, tile three big German fresh out of Altenfiord in Norway and hungry fat the kill. hove in sight fine on the starboard bow. Their 5.9inch guns were winking eerily through the sporadic snow squalls that swept down from the polar icecap to the Murmansk coast. The time by the bridge chronometer was 0630 and the curtain was rising on what was to be our final action in the Edinburgh.
It was as though some master - dramatist had set the scene for a classic surface action. a duel to the death and a Sir Francis Drake had written the lines. For me, just having celebrated my 18th birthday a few weeks before in Murmansk, it was a scrotum-tightener of an action.
Our cruiser, my only home since I had joined her at age 16 was in frightful condition to meet the onslaught of a major surface action. We had been incredibly torn and smashed into a great, grotesque, listing coffin of tangled steel and smashed bodies. Our whole stern had been blown away complete with rudder right forward to the barbette of 'Y' turret by the first torpedo from the German submarine U456 some three days earlier.
The U-boat's second tinfish had slammed into the stokers' mess deck which opened our starboard side' into a massive, obscene, leaking wound. The whole mess deck had dropped into the oil - fuel tanks below it taking some of our shipmates with it. What was left of our quarterdeck was silhouetted starkly against the revealing endless light of an Arctic May like some macabre abstract sculpture created by a demented mind.
One of the four turrets of our main 6-inch armament was operational. The others lacked power supply. Three of our four engines were dead and we were attempting to keep under way with one screw turning while an inadequately - powered Russian tug kept us on course forward and a fleet minesweeper was under tow astern acting as a drogue to further assist the tug. We were making about four knots through the ice - floe - studded sea.
Our two escorting destroyers, Foresight and Forester, sent to protect our torturous attempt to fight our way back to the questionable safety of Murmansk each had four, 4.7 inch guns. Mounted on the three Germans now rapidly closing to engage us was a combined armament of 10, 5.9-Inch and five, 5-inch guns. Thus if the enemy played his cards right he could fight us at about 18,000 yards, snow squalls permitting, which would be outside the gun range of our escorts and one by one they could send us all to the bottom once they had silenced our one remaining turret consisting of three, 6-inch guns which had a maximum range of 23,000 yards, or about 11 miles. But these three Germans had dash. The Hermann Schoemann, Z24 and Z25) despite the fretful cautioning of their commander - in - chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and their battle group commander, Admiral Otto Schienwind, not to unduly risk their precious destroyers, closed in for a textbook torpedo run and close-range bombardment. I suppose we looked too beaten to give battle. We cast off our tows, head and stern hoisted our blue and gold battle flag presented to us by the City of Edinburgh at our fighting yard, loaded the guns with 112-pound projectiles, increased revolutions on our one engine and circling wildly out of control we engaged the enemy. Not even Lord Nelson or Sir Richard Grenville could have asked for anything more challenging. Before tot-time at seven bells that forenoon more matelots would be dead and Edinburgh would join the German destroyer Hermann Schoemann for eternity in the chill black graveyard of men and ships in the depths of the Barents Sea.
We stood in bowed silence in a little store church named St. Mary the Virgin hard by the traffic circle in Acocks Green near Birmingham while the parish, vicar sonorously intoned the litany of names of our dead shipmates whose luck finally ran out so long ago in the Arctic protecting the homebound convoy out of Murnansk cryptically codenamed QP11.
Medals and decorations gleaming dully against the satin lapels of tuxedos, we listened to the Sin Bosun, as sailors irreverently term clergymen, recite the psalm --- though they walk through the valley of death -- " and mine surges back over the decades to that other May morning when our nostrils twitched to the acrid smell of burning cordite instead of the cloying scent of flowers from the parish garden. Valley of Death - bomb alley, for 18 months we had roamed the valleys of death ramming convoys through to Malta sinking E-boats off Pantellaria. We had watched the mighty HMS Nelson take a torpedo in the bows and an endless procession of merchantmen frantically dodge the bombs arching out of a cloudless Mediterranean sky.
We had raided the Lofoten Islands off Norway twice, in an operation that managed to net us in stealth and secrecy the famous 'Enigma Machine' the little black box which enabled us to break the German's naval codes until the end of the war. We had passed from puberty to manhood in a superb fighting machine that had carried its front battle to battle through those valleys of death. It had been heady stuff for a 16 - year -old kid from Alberta; it had been heady stuff for all of us. We had chased the Bismarck to her death, running short of oil fuel just a few miles from Bismarck's gotterdammerung.
We had squired the girls of Capetown to the top of Table Mountain to search for silver leaves. We had experienced our first sexual proposition under the clashing fronds of Lumley Beach in sweltering Freetown, West Africa, “You give me Liverpool baby Jack! Sailor! You come along to my house, give me Glasgow baby, Jack!"
We drank 'Starboard Bowlights', an evil mixture of cheap Malaga wine and crème-de-menthe, in Gibraltar until we didn't know if we were punched, bored or reamed with a Marlin Spike. At one point in time we had travelled four miles every hour of the war. We had exchanged our mess deck cutlery for useless souvenirs from the bumboats of the tropics and were caned by the master - at - arms for our indiscretions.
I glanced around the hushed church. There was Jack 'Taff' Jenkins, a stoic Welshman from Neath who had loaded and fired shells in Edinburgh until we merit down and then was sunk in Trinidad on the way home a few weeks later.
There was Barney Carter from Bolton who had been in a naval uniform since tile age of 10 years because as an orphan he had been placed in a training ship as a child. We had been the young professionals, the ‘lifters’ who had sign on for a total of 15 years at the age of 15. Our spending allowance was six shillings every two weeks, then worth about $1.25. The other 10 shillings of our fortnightly pay was held in escrow until we were 18 years old lest we spend it in riotous living on our infrequent runs ashore.
There was Ron Radcliffe, a boy telegraphist, who had gone on to a stimulating career as one of Britain’s union negotiators after he left the navy when the peacetime ennui set in. The Sin Bosun droned on, “Nash, boy seaman, - Gomery, boy seaman, - “young live halted at 17. Too much, too soon, too much death too soon.
Like sleek lean, avenging wolves the Hermann Schoemann, Z24 and Z25 with guns blazing crossed our line of fire as they sliced the Arctic seas. Battle was joined on our side y the little sweeper Hussar which, sighting the enemy first opened fire with her single in-effective 4 inch gun.
The sea beggar, blossoming with the water spouts of falling shells mushrooming against the backdrop of black oily smoke as Forester and Foresight laid a smokescreen to protect us from German range takers and spotting officers. In and out of the roiling smokescreen and intermittent snow squalls the German and British ships raced in a nightmarish game of blind man’s bluff. The Germans had closed to our secondary armaments gun range and our 4-inch mountings opened fire adding to the indescribable din and excitement as we slewed around and around at eight knots firing at whichever German crossed our lines of fire. We soon dropped a salvo into the Hermann Schoemann and fire broke out on the stricken German and she began to sink, mortally hit.
I glanced at my watch and I think it read 0645, but that's close enough. The seas were now laced with the wakes of torpedoes.
At about 0650 Forester took three shells, one of which exploded on the bridge, killing, among others, her skipper. I was still on our bridge reporting torpedo tracks and enemy ships as they came in view while I listened to Admiral Sir Bonham-Carter, laconic and calm, direct the tactics of the battle and send messages to a desk-bound London Admiralty who were handling the strategic situation in Whitehall.
Our captain, H. W, Faulkner -known affectionately in the mess desks as 'Faulkner the Seadog’ - by cleverly using his one engine and the prevailing wind and sea states managed to dodge an estimated 15 torpedoes fired at us by the German destroyers. We could plainly see the torpedo that finally killed our ship. It was porpoising the end of its run having passed too deeply under the hull of the damaged, smoking Forester. Each time the tinfish surfaced it gleamed in the Arctic light and we on the upper decks watching the progress of the battle knew that this one would hit; this one was the one that was to be our executioner. Captain Faulkner turned, smiled at us and said in his conversational manner: "I think we’re going to wear it chaps, You had all better grab stanchions and hold on. “ He spoke with the same calm he'd probably use if he were inviting you to test his sherry.
The erratically running tinfish blasted into our port exactly opposite the point of impact on the stokers' mess deck from the second torpedo of April 29, three days earlier. It nearly broke us in two parts.
The 10,000 - ton Edinburgh lurched violently to starboard as though lifted by some giant hand and in the eardrum - shattering explosion men again began to die. But still our guns defiantly thundered on and now the Germans were frantically weaving to dodge the pluming waterspouts of pitching shells. Hernmann Schoemann was now listing and burning. Foresight, with incredible self-sacrifice closed the Germans at high speed and proceeded to lay a fresh smokescreen between us and the still healthy, Z24 and Z25.
Massively outgunned and at a range of less than two miles, Foresight under the brutal concentrated fire of the two Germans who now, without doubt, could sense an almost total victory within their grasp. With the black, sea-hugging rolling smoke screen trailing from her throbbing stern, Foresight took four shells which put her boiler room out of action and brought her to a sickening halt.
Our situation had become “rather sticky” as a bridge midshipman remarked to me. The three major British ships stopped like targets in a shooting gallery and our gallant little sweepers were chasing through the squalls and smoke like terriers in a vain attempt to draw the enemy’s fire away from us. We were now practically at the mercy of the German flotilla. Our list to port was increasing alarmingly and our boat deck port side was awash but what guns we had that could still bear c hammering away and a hit was observed on one of the Z-class ships but it tailed to halt her.
Suddenly our luck began to change. Our three little sweepers, Harrier, Gossamer, and Hussar in their frantic cat and mouse game with the speedy Germans dodging gallantly in and out of the smoke and snow squalls suddenly loomed into view riding in line ahead with all the dash of a destroyer flotilla bent on carrying out a torpedo run and apparently this was what the Germans indeed thought they were. Inexplicably the Z24 and Z25 wheeled about and raced to the sinking Hermann Schoemann, took off her survivors and sped off westward in the direction of Norway’s North Cape. Hermann Schoemann sank. She fought well. A sailor’s grave knows no nationality.
Our admiral ordered Harrier to come alongside our port side and Gossamer our starboard and we rigged scrambling nets between the ships to prevent anyone falling into the bitterly cold water. We transferred our stretcher cases first with great difficulty followed by the walking wounded and then Captain Faulkner gave the order to abandon ship. Someone asked “What about the gold?”
We had stowed 2 million pounds sterling in Russian gold bars deep within the ships magazine. It was ultimately bound for the U.S. for safekeeping and I had helped to carry the heavy cases aboard in Murmansk the day before we sailed on our last voyage in this ship.
We left the gold, and as far as I know it is still 300 fathoms under the Barents Sea and getting more valuable every day. It was worth $10 million dollars then at $33 an ounce at the time when a pound was worth about $5.
Captain Faulkner told us to leave the bridge -and he and the admiral followed us down where we boarded Harrier, let go her lines and stood off Edinburgh to watch her go down. Both Foresight and Forester had now made temporary repairs and were under way so Admiral Bonham - Carter ordered Foresight to put a final tinfish into her to speed her to the bottom. Ore of the ships had reported a U-boat contact and it was felt they would soon be moving in to take over where the Z24 and J5 had left off.
It was tot-time in Harrier and her Cox'n broke out a few kegs of 'Nelson's blood’ and we each, boys included - though it was against regulations - were issued a full mug of the heavy, dark, navy rum. We 'spliced the main brace' and stood on Harrier's upper deck and toasted our ship as we watched her go down by the stern. Her bows rose magnificently above the turbid surface of the Barents Sea. She paused briefly and taking our cue from Admiral Sir Stuart Bonham-Carter we saluted and Edinburgh slid swiftly down, down - down forever, taking with her 57 of our shipmates. She had served us well. A giant vortex boiled and shuddered over her grave briefly and it was over. I finished off my tot and Harrier shaped course for Kola Inlet at the entrance to Murmansk. I felt a sort of deep emptiness within me. The action bell jarred me back to reality as a ‘ping merchant' picked up a U-boat contact so I joined the chain of survivors passing shells to the gun.
We gathered in the venue hotel near Birmingham for the banquet. In addition to the Edinburgh survivors, there were a few from Forester, Foresight and the cruiser Trinidad which had been bombed to the bottom of the sea a few weeks after we were sunk - carrying with her to the bottom some Edinburgh survivors who were taking passage home in her. Ironically many who died in Trinidad were wounded merchant seamen whom we in Edinburgh had been repatriating. They had survived the sinking of their merchant ships, our sinking - and finally died when a bomb burst in Trinidad's sickbay.
The banquet was perfect, short speeches, no histrionics, gleaming silver, snowy napery, chilled champagne, good food amid exciting fast-flowing conversation; Trudy and I were asked to cut the huge reunion cake. The night marched on and for several stalwarts; the first glow of a Warwickshire dawn finally signalled the end of all the celebrating and "do you remember?" queries.
More tired than we had ever been in our lives, filthy, oil soaked, hungry, bearded and cold as a mother-in-law's smile, we mustered on the wooden jetty in Vaenga down the Kola Inlet a few miles from badly-bombed Murmansk. After the muster we knew for sure who had died in the ship. There would be many more see England again because we were only back to square one. Each of us sooner or later would have to run to the gauntlet back to Britain in some other ship and they would be waiting for us. First the huge Focke Wulf Condors, lazily circling the convoy like great birds of ill omen, low on the horizon and reporting, always reporting; course, speed, weather conditions, escort strength. Then the U-boats, strung like some deadly necklace astride the convoy's route. Then the screaming dive-bombers peeling out of a summer sky of perpetual daylight, bombers out of Bardufoss, Kirkenes, Petsam and Banak. They would find us again and again even though the melting rim of the eternal icecap permitted us to sail to 75 degrees north latitude. They could choose the time and the place to give battle, to seek us out and kill us off, one ship after another. Even now, as we stood freezing on the Vaenga jetty at midnight the enemy was but 20 miles away. He would bomb and strafe us tomorrow, and the next day even as we nursed the wounds of yesterday. There would be no respite, not this side of eternity.
Heavily laden with these dark thoughts, while we waited to begin the long march to the camp near the Finnish front I thought of Trudy, my girlfriend in Coventry and wondered how she would greet the BBC news of the sinking, wondered how I could get a message to her that I had made it. I hoped someday we would marry.
We marched through the snows of a Russian Arctic May until 1 lost track of all time. At the camp we were issued with a wooden bowl filled with thin soup, a wooden spoon, one thin blanket and a small piece of highly scented but virtually lather less soap. We finally crashed on mattresses that were cloth sacks filled with wood shavings laid along dorm length shelves in three tiers.
An armed Russian sentry was at the door, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, and always with a loaded rifle. None spoke English. None of us spoke Russian. The women in the forces were well and truly liberated in Murmansk even then. Sonic flew Stormoviks and Yaks in combat patrols against the Stukas and Junkers 88s. Some suicidally crashed their aircraft into oncoming waves of German bombers when they ran out of ammunition. They drank Red Army issue vodka straight from the bottle and rolled coarse grained ‘mahorka' tobacco in yesterday's issue of Pravda and Isvestia, twisted the ends of the cigarette and flashed up. Yes, they were well liberated without even having to burn their bras.
We dieted exclusively on (?) made from bruised pine needles and kasha. Kasha was a kind of unsweetened porridge made with whole grain. Sometimes they threw in chunks of reindeer meat in it as a treat. We 'borrowed' or 'liberated’ the occasional case of corned beef from one of the ships in harbour at the time and for a few meals dined lavishly on bully-beef stew. Winston Churchill himself became concerned about the sub-human conditions under which we lived but even he, with access to the very heart of the Kremlin, could do nothing for us. Our own officers were powerless to help. Our own surgeons were not permitted to operate on our own men once they were in the Russians’ hands. They could watch, but they mustn’t touch!
I sent three letters to my, artist-girlfriend, Trudy, in three different warships returning to the UK. She finally received one of them, a cryptic love letter telling her the essentials and asking her to inform my parents in Edmonton.
The convoy QP12 sailed home May 12 and my name wasn't on the list of survivors taking passage so I reconciled myself to a longer stay in the USSR than I had hoped for. I was not stranger to the area by now and I was anxious to get on with the trip home with the upcoming 14 days survivors leave to look forward to on arrival in Britain, In any event his had been my second round trip on the Murmansk run. I had been on one of the earlier convoys in late 1941 and Murmansk held no great attraction for me.
I finally sailed in the convoy, codenamed QP13, on June 27 and was fitted into a gun's crew on the destroyer HMS Inglefield. That same day the star-crossed convoy PQ17 left British waters on its way up to Murmansk and on the afternoon of July 1 we passed each other somewhere off Bear Island in the Denmark Straits. Out of the 35 merchantmen that passed us that day bound for Murmansk, 24 were sunk before they reached their destination. The other survivors and I taking passage in Inglefield were landed in Iceland, stayed there a few days and finally boarded the big destroyer HMS Marne which took us to Liverpool without incident. Kitted out in an ill-fitting uniform, leave ticket in hand, I was soon with Trudy for two glorious -weeks in bomb-battered Coventry. Murmansk became a memory.It was 11:00 and the sun was over the yardarm so Trudy and I invited some of the 51 year old boy seaman and their wives up to our hotel room to say farewell, opened a bottle of wholesome, health giving Canadian rye and they all vowed it was even better than Red Army vodka. We left for Wales to visit with "Taff' J enkins and his charming wife where Trudy sketched the Gower coastline. We visited Boy Signalman Jackie Thwait in ancient Wantage near Oxford. King Arthur of the Round Table was born in Wantage and so Trudy sketched the old marketplace where his statue peers wistfully at the Elizabethan pub on the corner.
Jackie still has copies of the signals Edinburgh sent before she sank. He showed me those old and faded signals and suddenly in my mind's eye I could visualize the shattered Edinburgh in the cold, black depths of the Barents Sea with her final phantom crew of 57 men and boys, mute monuments forever to a Cause that has since become a question mark - the convoys to Murmansk.