Adrift in the Barents Sea with the burnt man

A Liberty Ship in an Arctic convoy bound for Russia.

Convoy PQ13 from Iceland to Murmansk consisted of a combination of American and British merchant shipping. They were about 120 miles north of Russia when they came under attack and the US ship SS Ballot sunk. The survivors were transferred to the British SS Induna. Then on the 30th march the Induna was sunk. One of the survivors, Austin Byrne, was subsequently to describe the conditions on board the lifeboat:

The next morning at about 7.30 am the “Induna” was torpedoed in the number five hold right under a load of aviation spirit and the explosion turned the deck into a burning mess. We were sent to boat stations and a few people started to run through the fire, whilst some on the stern jumped into the sea and away from the flames.

The last man was one of those rescued from the “Ballot” and he had no shoes on so his feet were ripped open by the cargo of barbed wire which we were also carrying, and he was leaving bloody footprints as he made his way to the lifeboat station, the Mate then lowered the boat to deck level and myself with some others were ordered into the boat, this was when we saw this man coming towards us, his hair was burnt off and his face and hands were badly burnt, as his jacket and trousers were also burning we rolled him into the boat and beat out the flames.

The boat was lowered into the sea and as we rowed away another torpedo smashed into the ship, which then sank with all the men who were still aboard. We were in the lifeboat for four days in terrible weather, after all it was winter in the arctic and we were in the Barents Sea.

The burnt man had few clothes and he sat in the boat with the seas breaking over him and we covered him with a blanket and a spare coat, the other six in the boat were of no help, so the gunner and myself did all of the baling. We tried to talk to this man but the poor soul could hardly talk, but I did get out of him that he came from America.

The seas broke over him and a coat of ice formed on him which got thicker as time went by, but never once did he moan but just sat quietly and all that he ever asked for was the occasional cigarette, which I would light for him and put it into his mouth, he would then try to move his head when I should take it out, and that was all that he asked for, a few times a day he would say “ gunner, can I have a cigarette”?

This went on for the four days that we were adrift, and then at dusk on the fourth day we sighted land, when we told him he asked “gunners will you please turn the boat so that I can see it”, and this we did, his next words were “put an oar into my hands and I can rock my body to help”, at this time his hands were twice as thick as they should be, with his fingers drawn and bent with the cold, all black with knuckles burst and covered with scabs, and still he wanted to help!

Then we saw the rescue boats and were picked up, as I was pulled aboard I saw a Russian sailor down in the lifeboat looking at him and a rope being passed down, I do not know how they got him out of the lifeboat as I was taken to the bridge. The next time that I saw him was after one of the females in the Russian crew called to me, she was having difficulty with the cabin boy, a seventeen year old lad called Anderson, who was frozen bent double, and having cut his jacket off I saw that he was black to the waist, when she saw this the Russian said to leave him.

After a few tots of vodka I was taken to see the burnt man, who put out his hand to me and said as best he could “WE MADE IT KID”, words that I will never forget from a man who was now suffering from both burns and terrible frostbite. The next day we arrived in Murmansk and were put into the Russian Hospital, were I went to sleep and when I woke up I was told that the cabin boy had died and later that the American had also died from his injuries.

Read the whole of this story on BBC People’s War. After the story was published attempts were made to identify the man, now thought to be Merchant Marine Russell Bennet. The incident recently featured in a television documentary.

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