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CONVOY PQ 13 - Induna's Report
Received from Roger Griffiths - His source: Public Records Office, Kew.
Report of an interview with 2nd Mate E. Rowland
Dated May 13-1942
He refers to a small escort vessel HMS Silda throughout this report - I believe this should be Silja(?)
We were bound from Reykjavik to Murmansk with a cargo of 2700 tons of war material and gasoline. The ship was armed with a 4" gun, a Bofors, 2 Savage Lewis, 2 Hotchkiss and 2 P.A.C. rockets. The crew, including 4 naval and 6 military gunners, numbered 50, and we had on board 16 of the crew from the S.S. Ballot; out of these 66 men, 15 died in the boat and 2 died later in hospital, and 27 are missing, a total of 44 dead or missing. Included in this total of 44 are 11 of the crew from the Ballot*, 2 naval and 4 military gunners. All confidential books, including wireless books, were thrown overboard in a weighted box, and convoy papers were burnt by me in the chartroom. The vessel was degaussed and the apparatus was switched on.
We left Reykjavik at 07:20 A.T.S. on Friday, 20th March, in convoy PQ 13, our number being 41. Nothing of incident occurred until the night of the 25th/26th March when we lost the convoy owing to bad weather. On the morning of the 26th the convoy had become very scattered, so we continued on our own and later met the S.S. Empire Starlight, and the Panamanian S.S. Ballot, also a small escort vessel, HMS Silda, of 200 tons, which was being sent as a present from our government to the Russians (as mentioned, I believe he means Silja). We continued together, and later on the 26th a plane was sighted about half a mile away on our port beam. As it approached a green flare was dropped, but as it drew nearer still we recognized it as a Blohm-Voss 140 reconnaissance plane. It flew in straight towards our port beam, turned along the port side, passing round the S.S. Ballot on our port bow, then turned to starboard, flew round the Empire Starlight, and came round our stern from starboard to port at a height of 200 feet and within 200 yards. When he was about 400 yards of our port quarter the military gunners at the Bofors opened fire. The first round hit the fuselage and appeared to glance off, the second shell struck his starboard engine, there was a bright orange flash, followed by a cloud of black smoke, then the plane disappeared into a snow squall and was not seen again, so we were not absolutely certain that we had brought him down. We also fired 5 rounds with the port Hotchkiss but this was not effective.
No damage had been sustained and we carried on until the evening of the 26th when we met a further three ships from our scattered convoy, the S.S. Effingham, S.S. Dunboyne, and S.S. Mana, making six merchant ships and the escort HMS Silda. We were receiving positions for rendezvous by wireless and steered to make these positions. On Saturday 28th weather was clear with good visibility except during snow squalls. Between 09:30 and 10:00 we were attacked by dive bombers and opened fire at a Ju 88, but it was out of range. We fired 40 rounds from the Bofors and 100 rounds from each Hotchkiss, and the plane flew off without doing any damage. At about noon the same day we sighted a cruiser and a destroyer on our starboard beam which turned out to be part of our escort, the cruiser being HMS Trinidad. Later in the day we lost touch with these HM ships.
All the morning we were circled by a plane which kept well away on the horizon, and we thought this might be our air escort, but at 12:30 he disappeared. About an hour later we again heard the sound of engines, but could see nothing owing to the low clouds which were then about 1000 feet. Suddenly, at 13:30 on the 28th a twin-engined plane dived out of the clouds at an angle of 50° and attacked the Ballot on our port beam. The plane, which our gunners said was a Messerschmitt 110, dived with his engines full on to a height of 250 feet, and dropped two bombs close to the Ballot before pulling out of his dive. All the ships opened fire, our military gunners being very quick at the Bofors, and the plane flew off to port, but he returned and attacked the S.S. Mana which was on our starboard quarter. Four bombs were dropped which straddled the ship, then the plane flew off.
The Mana was able to continue with the convoy but the Ballot dropped behind. The escort vessel Silda circled her for a time, then the Ballot disappeared in a snow squall, and we did not see her again. Apparently her Master told the crew to abandon ship as later 16 of her crew were picked up from a lifeboat by the Silda. The Ballot herself later reached Murmansk safely under her own power.
During the evening of the same day, 28th, the captain of the Empire Starlight suggested to our captain, we being the Vice Commodore ship, that we should steer more to the Northward, and this was agreed upon; at midnight we came to the ice, which I at once reported to the captain but he told me to carry on our course. We wended our way throught the ice, the group now consisting of five merchant ships and the Silda, but in the mate's watch, between 04:00 and 08:00 on the 29th, the Silda called us to ask if we could tow her as she had run short of fuel, and she also requested us to take on board 16 men from the Ballot which she had meanwhile rescued from their lifeboat. We took Silda in tow, but during the morning of the 29th we met really heavy ice which eventually became a solid field, so we had to stop. The other four ships asked if we could get out, we told them we should be all right, so they turned round and left us. We worked the ship round in the icefield, and then went to get the Silda clear. We turned successfullly, went alongside Silda and took the 16 men from Ballot on board, and again started towing until 15:00 when both vessels were clear of the ice, our position then being roughly 72N 38E.
We now proceeded direct for Murmansk. The wind started to freshen so the Silda lengthened the tow line, paying out a further 15 fathoms of chain, but the weather worsened and she sheered about a lot, putting a great strain on the cable, so that at 20:00 on the 29th the tow parted. I went aft with a couple of men and hauled in the tow line, then we turned to search for the Silda. We flashed lights, blew whistles, but there was no trace of her. We continued the search until 04:00 on the 30th but visibility was poor, with frequent heavy snow squalls, and as we could not find her we decided to proceed to Murmansk and report her position so that help could be sent. Eventually a minesweeper was sent out and they found her the following day, 31st March.
Weather on the morning of 30th March was poor, with snow squalls, fair visibility, rough heavy sea and swell with the wind N.N.W. force 6. We steamed at 10 1/2 knots steering a course approximately south (true) until 07:20 A.T.S. on the 30th March when, in position 70 55N 37 18E, we were torpedoed. Nothing was seen of the track of the torpedo which struck without warning on the starboard side in No. 5 hold, well aft. This hold contained gasoline and the after part of the ship immediately caught fire, the flames shooting up to a tremendous height. The vessel was shaken violently by the explosion and I was thrown off my feet. The gunner who had just taken over watch at the Bofors ran forward through the fire and escaped, and the gunner who had just come off watch was all right, but unfortunately the torpedo struck almost directly under the gunners' accommodation and the other gunners are missing, probably being burned.
The alarm was given for boat stations, I stayed to help destroy the confidential papers, etc., which we burnt, then went to my station at the starboard boat. We had two lifeboats and one small jolly boat. When I reached my station the starboard lifeboat was full, but I got into it and the chief officer told me to lay off with this boat. We were about 200 yards from the ship when the submarine surfaced 300 yards on the starboard beam. It was then about 07:50, the submarine steamed towards the ship and fired a second torpedo which struck in No. 4 hold on the starboard side. The track of the torpedo was not seen but the explosion was very loud, there was no flash, and a lot of debris was thrown into the air. The ship started to settle quickly by the stern and we watched her rise out of the water by the bows until she was vertical, then she plunged straight down and disappeared at about 08:00. (We only had one watertight door, leading to the engineroom, and this was kept open).
The U-boat was a large craft about 200 feet long, of about 500 tons. I noticed a jumping wire and a small gun just forward of the conning tower. It appeared to be a modern type of boat, with a sharp bow. I myself did not see any markings but some of the men in our boat said they could see a number on the bows, either U 140 or U 104. There were no marks of any kind on the conning tower. (The culprit was, in fact, U-376).
After the ship had gone we could see nothing of the port lifeboat as there was a high sea running, and it was all I could do to keep our boat head on to the seas, the men rowing as hard as they could. Fortunately the wind was blowing from astern, towards the land, so we could make some progress on the course we wanted to make, and I decided to set sail, but it was some time before we were able to get the mast secured and jib-sail set as none of the men, except myself, knew how to handle a boat, the only two A.B.'s having had but 3 months sea experience. There were 32 of us in the boat which we found very cramped. We kept sailing all that day, the 30th March, running before the wind, and towards the land. It was bitterly cold during the night and the 6 or 7 bottles of whisky which were in the boat were passed round; I myself only had a mouthful, but unfortunately some of the men drank a good deal of the spirits, several of the older men fell asleep and died during that night. In fact, most of the men who drank the whisky died in their sleep that night. We put the bodies over the side of the boat, without removing their clothes.
We continued sailing for 3 days, seven men died during the first night, including the donkeyman who was very badly burned, one or two died each day, and on the last day, Thursday, four men died. It was bitterly cold, everone suffered from frost bite in their hands and feet, but not in their faces. The boat was leaking a little and we had to pump and bail with buckets, until we managed to keep the water down, but the seas were continually breaking over the sides of the boat. My feet were wet all the time, but I had a lot of clothes on including a naval duffle coat. I was not wearing a protective suit, but some of the others had theirs on; all of us had our feet in water the whole time. Nobody had on sea-boots but I had a pair of fur-lined boots over my ordinary boots and this probably saved me from getting my feet so badly frost-bitten.
The lifeboat was fully stored with the new food - pemmican, Horlick's milk tablets, biscuits and chocolate etc. The food was quite good but the water was frozed into a solid block. We sucked the ice to moisten our mouths, having to burst the breakers to get at the ice. I found it was better to suck a large piece rather than a handful of small pieces, but in any case we were all very thirsty and did not want very much to eat. The chocolate was most appreciated and was very good indeed. I liked the milk tablets, and we were all able to eat a few biscuits, but the pemmican was frozen and our hands were so cold and numb that we could not break it up. No one ate very much, nor complained of being hungry, but we all craved for a drink.
We rowed in spells to keep ourselves warm, but our hands were so numb that it was all we could do to hang on to the oars. We used the fore-sail as a shelter on the weather side, as the waves were breaking over us continually. We managed to keep going until within about 4 miles of a Lighthouse, but we were now so weak that we had almost given up hope of ever reaching the shore when three Russian aeroplanes flew over, we waved a flag, which they spotted, they circled us three times and then flew off. Half an hour later, at 20:00 on Thursday 2nd April, a Russian minesweeper came out and took us on board. They came alongside the boat and helped us, as we could only just stand, it was impossible to walk. They treated us very well but took all the gear from the boat, including a sextant and my binoculars. They put us in a warm messroom, stripped us, then wrapped us in thick woolen coats, and gave us hot coffee and vodka. I was taken to the engineers' messroom to sleep.
As soon as we were aboard there was an air attack but we continued our course towards Murmansk where we arrived next morning. Whilst I was asleep, the Russians picked up the survivors from our port lifeboat. There were only 9 men remaining in this boat - 2 gunners, 5 Americans, a fireman and a steward's boy - all of whom were alive when picked up, but one of the Americans and the boy died later in hospital. We met the others in the hospital next morning and they told us that when the boat was put into the water they could not keep her alongside and had to push off. The chief officer ordered them to go round the stern to the starboard boat, but as they were rounding the stern the second torpedo struck the ship. They told us that they saw the rest of the crew on the boat deck trying to launch the small boat, the falls of which had fouled, and when last seen they were trying to clear the falls. After the ship went they saw nothing of any of the crew. (The boats had not been damaged by the fire, but the smoke made launching them very difficult).
We arrived at Murmansk on the 3rd April where ambulances awaited to take us to hospital. A British Naval doctor visited us and I reported the loss of our clothes and the other gear. He made enquiries about the missing gear but could not get any satisfaction. None of us had any clothes, as the hospital people had removed the thick woolen coats we had been lent on the minesweeper and all we were left with were the hospital nightshirts.
By the end of the week 6 of us could walk fairly well, including the cook and myself, neither of us being quite so bad as the others. The cook had been in the fore part of the boat until the last day, and his feet had been kept comparatively dry until he came aft. The English doctor again visited us and told us that as we were fit to walk we would have to go home in an H.M. cruiser, and he asked us about our clothes. I again told him what had happened and he applied to the Russian Naval Authorities, but they knew nothing about them. Eventually they gave us some thin Russian summer uniforms. We sailed in HMS Liverpool*, being put in a recreation room which was very cold and draughty and this made our feet worse. We told the doctor but he could do nothing about it as there was no other accommodation available, there being a number of Naval, Army and Air Force personnel returning to England, making an extra 200 people on board.
We eventually arrived at Scapa Flow where we remained for 10 days, then the Army and Navy gunners were discharged to Barracks, the cook remained, under observation for tuberculosis which had recently developed, and the rest of us were sent to Aberdeen from where I was discharged from the hospital a week ago. I learned that several of the men who were left behind at Murmansk have unfortunately lost their feet and legs owing to frostbite.
The military gunners who manned the Bofors were very keen, and exceedingly good a their job; their work was excellent. Unfortunately, 4 of these gunners are missing.
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