Arctic Convoy JW 53 battered in gales

HMS BELFAST leaving Iceland on 21 February 1943 to escort convoy JW.53 on its voyage to Russia.

HMS BELFAST leaving Iceland on 21 February 1943 to escort convoy JW.53 on its voyage to Russia.

The view from the bridge of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as she battles heavy seas while escorting convoy JW 53 to Russia, February 1943. The ship suffered severe structural damage during three days of storms and had to return to port for repairs.

The view from the bridge of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD as she battles heavy seas while escorting convoy JW 53 to Russia, February 1943. The ship suffered severe structural damage during three days of storms and had to return to port for repairs.

In the distance HMS OBDURATE (centre) leaving a Russian bay, with HMS CUMBERLAND (left) and HMS BELFAST (right) with HMS FAULKNOR alongside. Photograph taken at Vaenga after the arrival of convoy JW 53.

In the distance HMS OBDURATE (centre) leaving a Russian bay, with HMS CUMBERLAND (left) and HMS BELFAST (right) with HMS FAULKNOR alongside. Photograph taken at Vaenga after the arrival of convoy JW 53.

Munitions and supplies from the United States had been arriving in the Soviet Union for some time. The Royal Navy took the largest part of of the escort work, meeting the ships at Iceland and taking them through the icy northern seas around the North Cape. Earlier convoys had come under sustained attack from German torpedo planes and bombers, and there was always the risk of German capital ships making an appearance.

Some men on Convoy JW53 would therefore have welcomed the exceptionally bad weather that they encountered, which shielded them from the the enemy. Others might have felt treacherous seas, that were bad enough to cause structural damage to large ships, were an enemy in themselves:

On February 15th twenty eight Merchant ships set out in a gale for North Russia in the heavily defended Convoy No. JW 53. The escort was made up of three cruisers, one anti-aircraft cruiser, one escort carrier, sixteen destroyers, two minesweepers, three corvettes and two trawlers which was a very good escort and as the daylight hours were getting longer, trouble was obviously expected.

Due to having to maintain absolute wireless silence the Radio Officers stood their watches on the bridge with the Navigation Officers on duty.

As we sailed North the gale developed into a hurricane and ships began to get damaged. Six of the merchant ships were damaged and had to return to Iceland. On our ship the deck cargo began to break adrift and we were not sorry to see the oil drums going over the side but when the lorries in wooden cases were smashed up and eventually went overboard things were not so good. But we managed to save the tanks and kept on battering our way northwards.

I remember trying to use an Aldis lamp from our bridge to signal to a Corvette and found it very difficult since one minute she would be in sight, then she would go down the trough of the wave and all I could see would be her top masts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all that would be seen was water, but eventually we got the message through.

At one stage the convoy was well scattered but as the weather moderated the Navy rounded us all up and got us into some semblance of order once again.

The loss of our escort carrier meant that we had no air cover and, as expected, a few days later a German spotter plane arrived which flew round the convoy all the daylight hours to keep an eye on us. The next day we had a heavy attack by JU 88 bombers in which our ship was damaged and our gunlayer was wounded by bomb splinters but we still kept plodding on towards North Russia.

At this part of the voyage we were steaming through pancake ice floes which protected us from the
U-boats which could not operate in these conditions. The blizzards when they came were always welcome as they hid us from the enemy.

Two days later, on 27th February, we arrived at the entrance to the Kola Inlet which is a long fiord with hills on either side and the town of Murmansk situated near the top.

We had not lost any ships to the enemy and I must pay tribute to the good job done by the Royal Navy and our own D.E.M.S and Maritime Regiment Gunners on the merchant ships. Of the twenty two merchantmen in our convoy, fifteen were bound for Murmansk and the remaining seven went on to the White Sea ports near Archangel.

Little did we know at this time that we would not leave Russia until the end of November. The Navy ocean-going escorts which had taken us to the Inlet would now refuel and set off homeward with the empty ships from the previous convoy.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

He was not alone in remaining in Russia until November. Several ships were meant to remain there until a return convoy could be organised, but this did not happen until October – they became known as the Forgotten Convoy. Amongst them were several US Merchant ships and eventually the US Naval Attache in Russia issued members of their crews with certificates. A typical certificate was issued to Third Engineer Philip N. Enegess:

Be it known to all men by these presents: That Philip N. Enegess on board the SS City of Omaha, did suffer eight months confinement in North Russia and did undergo all privations connected therewith, that he did shiver through the Arctic and bask in the rays of the midnight sun, and by virtue of these facts is herewith declared to be a certified member of the Forgotten Convoy.

See US Merchant Marine.

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The whole leaflet can be read at US Merchant Marine.

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