Arctic convoy PQ 18 fights back

An aerial view of the escort carrier HMS AVENGER at sea with Sea Hurricane aircraft ranged on the flight deck.

A Hawker Sea Hurricane taking off with Fairey Swordfish aircraft alongside during an anti-submarine sweep from on board HMS STRIKER.

The battle for PQ 18 continued during the four days that it was within range of the Luftwaffe as it passed north of Norway. J.D. Nightingirl was on the cruiser HMS Scylla, part of the convoy escort:

The following day, a U-boat sunk an oiler in the rear line of the convoy before dawn, and midday there was another torpedo attack by 20 bombers, again low on the starboard bow of the convoy, but this time seemingly going for the escort carrier and other warships. Some of the Hurricanes got airborne. 11 enemy aircraft were brought down compared to 8 the previous day, and there were no convoy casualties. 10 further aircraft were shot down in subsequent air attacks on the 14th, with only one casualty, the last remaining ship in the ill-fated 9th and 10th columns.

One of the crew of another ship watched the death of the casualty, describing how the plane ‘came in to about 300 yards .. before dropping its torpedoes and then swept on. As it passed, the ship’s gunner raked it fore and aft and bright tongues of flame flickered from its starboard engine. It dipped, recovered, dipped again and seemed just about to crash, when its torpedoes reached their mark and the ship simply vanished into thin air’. It took the plane with it. A lone steward survived this ammunition ship’s explosion.

There is a well published official photograph of the explosion, but I have another one given me by the photographer on board Scylla. He told me that his camera happened to be facing the direction of the ammunition ship with his hand ready to ‘snap’. The force of the explosion shook his hand which unintentionally took the photo. In another incident, a ship’s gunner was observed to break down and cry because his hands were too cold and clumsy to work his gun.

In the evening of the 15th, the convoy passed Hope Island, S.E. of Spitzbergen, about 77 degrees North and Scylla took on board some of the ship survivors, 200 or so. When, days later, I was talking to one of them, a great black American seaman whose ship sank very rapidly, I asked what might have happened to him supposing he hadn’t been standing on the upper deck. ‘Boy’, he replied, ‘I just ain’t supposin’ no supposins’.

We were told, incidentally, that more than 20 minutes or more in the water could be fatal. The rescue efforts were in fact skillfully done as witness the 550 survivors. Three Hurricane pilots were quickly picked up, having flown through our own flak with enormous courage to get at the enemy aircraft.

Those who had been in the sea for up to 20 minutes usually recovered after stripping off their clothes and being wrapped in warm blankets, plus a good measure of the wonderful emolliant naval rum – virgin, raw unadulterated nectar. More than 20 minutes or so in the water usually involved stripping, wrapping for warmth, artificial respirating and, where required, morphine induced sleep. If no complications ensued, recovery would be within two to three days.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War and also the memoirs of Leonard Thomas on the same site.

Seen from the deck of an aircraft carrier (possibly HMS AVENGER), a merchant ship is bombed in the convoy PQ 18.

HMS Scylla at anchor on the Clyde

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