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CONVOY PQ 13 - Raceland
Received from, and painted by, Jan Goedhart, Holland.
Received from L. Myrhøj, Denmark (see his story on this external page - his uncle died on Raceland).
|Raceland (ex Italian Ircania, ex Br. Dovenden, built in Port Glasgow in 1910 as Br. Howick Hall) was owned by South Atlantic S/S Co. Ircania had been taken over by the U.S. at Jacksonville on June 24-1941, and was assigned by The War Shipping Administration to the South Atlantic Line on Dec. 31-1941 with the name Raceland. This page (external link) has information on Howick Hall and owners before she became Panamanian Raceland.
Her captain, Sverre Brekke, was Norwegian, and she had previously arrived the U.K. with Convoy SC 69, which left Halifax on Febr. 10-1942. She subsequently joined PQ 13 on March 10. According to "A Careless Word-A Needless Sinking" by Captain Arthur R. Moore, she had a cargo of 9000 tons of Russian Lend-Lease material consisting of tanks, trucks, and aircraft. PQ 13 had been scattered in heavy gales on the night of March 25 (see Page 1), and Raceland was sailing alone when she was attacked by German aircraft on March 28. Arthur Moore gives the time as 11:15 GCT (about 110 miles NE of North Cape, Norway), while the Notes for this convoy on Page 1 gives the time as 12:20, position 72 40N 20 20E. Arthur Moore adds that she was attacked by two aircraft, two bombs hitting about 20 yards from the ship on the starboard side near No. 3 hatch. There were no direct hits, but the concussion of the bombs caused a hole in the starboard side of the forward hull, breaking deck fittings, steam pipes, and stopping the engines. The engine room flooded and the ship took a 45° list to port(?) and finally sank at 20:00 GCT.
Please note that this ship is mentioned in several place on this website - go to my Search Page then type Raceland in the search field.
Interview with one of the Norwegian survivors, Steward Herman Torgersen:
"Former steward Herman Torgersen, which now after the war runs the youth hostel Dahlheim near Larvik, is tall, slim, quiet, barely shows his 50 years and shows even less of the horrible experiences he has had in his chiselled features. On one finger a joint is missing, and his hands are rather numb and stiff, so much so that the American doctors have declared him unfit to go back to sea again; other than that the man is completely capable to work and in excellent condition. His story is possibly the most dramatic one in this book.
In March 1942 Herman Torgersen, like so many other Norwegian seamen was in New York waiting for a ship. 6 months in port without proper work. He went to the Norwegian General Consulate in New York where they expressly said that as long as he sailed for an allied flag, it didn't matter which one. When the amount of seamen later decreased considerably, the tune was different: each man HAD to wait for a Norwegian ship. This regulation - saying that the sailors were not allowed to join any ship other than a Norwegian one - caused a lot of bitterness among the seamen. There was something unreasonable in the fact that for example almost 100 captains alone were without work in the port of New York, while at the same time our American allies were in great need of qualified seamen and were pushing hard to get hold of them. The reason for the Norwegian stance is obvious; fear of losing people. To each individual who had to wait in port for years while receiving low "waiting pay", it seemed bitterly unreasonable.
Torgersen went to the Norwegian consulate at the beginning of January 1942 and was told to sail, no matter under which flag. The consequences of this decision very clearly shows the advantages and disadvantages of such a choice. On a Norwegian ship many more would without a doubt have been saved, for one thing because we had the obligatory rubber suits which at that time had not been introduced to the Americans (I have a description of this suit on my page Statistics and Misc.), and because the number of casualties on American ships was on average 3 times higher than on the Norwegian ones. On the other hand, the rich United States take care of their veterans, from the army and from the sea, in a way that is not seen here at home, and do so regardless of citizenship.
There were many Norwegians on board S/S Raceland of Savannah, Georgia, which in March 1942 started her dangerous voyage. The captain and 2 mates were Norwegian, as were 1 or 2 of the engineers, the steward and 4-5 able seamen. Torgersen can't understand today why he actually agreed to go to Murmansk; it was practically considered suicide. But the Americans kept pushing; the shipping-master came to to see him at least 20 times to talk him into it. The wages on the American ships were 3 and 5 times higher than those on Norwegian ships.
It was an ordinary cargo ship, about 10-11000 tons, with a cargo of all sorts of things: tanks, aircraft, big heavy 'ore crushers', weapons of all sorts, canned foods, leather. Each and every ship in the convoy had the same cargo, so that even if some were lost a little of everything would get through regardless. On deck were 36 tanks. Trouble started soon after Halifax. From day one U-boats were announced, and the large escorting destroyers were dropping depth charges all the time. No one was out of his clothes, and there was no peace for even a day during the crossing to Glasgow. From there they continued to a little port in the North of Scotland (probably Loch Ewe?) where the special convoy for Murmansk was assembled; it was completely closed off and was regarded as one of the most secret areas of Gt. Britain. 20 ships alltogether, all American with the exception of a Norwegian tanker, went out together, escorted by 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers, as well as some smaller vessels whose job it was to try and gather up the shipwrecked. In this convoy only 3 ships went down en route to Murmansk, all American (note that the details in the last 2 sentences are not all correct - see Page 1).
At first they headed west, all the way to Reykjavik; no one was allowed on shore, and they were on full alert at all times. Then they headed east again, but when they had sailed as far as the east coast of Iceland the convoy returned towards Reykjavik: Tirpitz had left the Trondheim fjord, and that was one to keep away from. But before they had reached Reykjavik for the second time the all clear was given, and now the convoy moved in earnest. North along the coast of Norway, but naturally not close enough for landfall. The first day was calm, but then it all started again with U-boats and exploding depth charges constantly.
On the 6th day a terrible snowstorm started, of the kind that Torgersen and others we know had a lot of experience with, typical for the Arctic in March. First a boiler went and had to be repaired, then the midships rudder chain went. They were able to attach a chain and extended it all the way into the deck in the hope that it would hold better. Then the other boiler went, and it was during the rrpairs of this that the ship lost contact with the convoy, and now she was left alone in the heavy snow and storm. Again the rudder chain went and this time in the stern - an excellent effort by all, captain and crew alike, was put forth to get to where they were able to steer the ship.
On board was a conglomerate of nationalities, Swedes, Danes, English, Poles, Estonians, Spaniards etc. Finally everything was fixed, and the weather was nice and calm, completely clear. The ship was somewhere between the North Cape and Bear Island, closer to Bear Island than the Cape. On Saturday morning the alarm was suddenly sounded; Torgersen was in the food storage room sorting potatoes and said to the Canadian next to him: "now it's getting serious". The aircraft came right above them, but disappeared again; a few shots were exchanged. The next time the aircraft came from behind; again the alarm sounded; all men got their lifebelts. Torgersen donned his tall sheepskin lined boots, but without socks which he later bitterly came to regret. The ship was poorly equipped in the way of defence, and the aircraft dropped 2 bombs from about 30 meters; they went underneath the ship and destroyed the ? (slabs? plating?) in the engine room on the port side, so that the ship immediately started to list to starboard at a sharp angle.
Torgersen belonged to the starboard lifeboat which was difficult to launch, but they managed to do so in the nice weather. He says all 45 got safely in the boats (another source says she had a complement of 47): the 1st mate had one boat with 15 on board, the 2nd mate one boat with 18, the captain and the boatswain a small boat with 6 men each. None of them had a motor. The ship didn't sink, and the captain gave orders to wait, which they did for 12 hours. Torgersen and the Danish 1st Engineer Svend Svenningsen (later died) went back on board, got some food and blankets, canned fruits, preserved milk, clothes and anything they might need. Torgersen can remember how he had to break a lock in the food storage room in pitch dark - he put it in his pocked and it's the souvenir he has of Raceland, his own clothes, money etc were, of course, lost.
At 10:30 that evening Raceland went down. A tall column of flames went to the skies in the tremendous explosion that followed. In the middle of the fire the profile of a raft being flung to the skies could be seen. And now, finally, the lifeboats tried to set a course for Murmansk. All 4 were tied together, and the 2nd mate, who had a good compass was the leader. They had about 600 miles to go. But already on the first night a terrible hurricane blew up, bringing with it indescribable cold. The boats were separated and never saw each other again; this weather lasted for the 11 days they were on the sea. The 2 smaller boats probably went down immediately, debris like oars etc. were found after only an hour. They had the sea anchor out for 2 days, then they again headed for Murmansk.
The cold and the storm bothered them terribly. Torgersen had a nice sweather that his daughter had knit for him; he unravelled it and tried to wrap the yarn around his feet, as he didn't have any socks on. But it immediately froze to ice. All the food was lost during the first day of the storm, and soon the real tragedy began. The 1st engineer, a nice Danish fellow, suddenly stood up, took the precious compass and flung it in the water, then fell on his knees in front of Torgersen and wrapped his arms around his legs; he died immediately. For hours the steward struggled to free the dead arms from his legs, but they immediately froze stuck. He turns pale even now, while talking about it. The 2nd mate gave the order to throw the body overboard, nobody wanted to do it. But the boat was overcrowded, and finally 2 of them gave him to the sea.
From then on there was a death every single day, usually preceded by a period of varying degrees of insanity. A fellow from Bergen had such cold feet; suddenly he pulled his tall fur lined boots off and threw them into the sea, stuck his feet into the ice cold water and said "this is lovely. Now I can get warm". He was dead within 5 minutes, they could see the paleness of death crawl from his feet and up to his heart. Some died quietly, but only a few of them did. One man threw himself overboard; they managed to get him on board again, but life had left him. Another wildly flung an ax around, and cut the ropes while yelling and singing, before he got really quiet.
No land, no ships to be seen. Illusions all the time, the whistle from imaginary steam ships, brightly lit luxury steamers sailed into their fantasy. But eventually no one dared speak about what they saw and heard.
The 2nd mate was the last one to die. His name was Johansen and he was from Bodø; had been the skipper of a yacht and a pilot on a passenger plane to South America. He proved himself a first class seaman in the lifeboat. But he too lost his composure and sailed the lifeboat around in circles for days, they all realized this, though they were not navigators themselves. Eventually, he too was seized by a violent death cramp, started hitting on a dead Canadian messboy whom nobody had the strength to throw overboard. 5 of them were now left alive, and headed for Murmansk. Torgersen says "I worked energetically to stay alive. Continuously for 11(? I believe it was less than that) days I excercised my arms and legs; they were not still for a moment. None of the others bothered to do that".
After 11(?) days they arrived in a little bay where there was nothing but snow. They tried to row to land, but ended up further and further away. They saw a little reef and thought - maybe there would be eggs there? Nobody remembered that the egg season would be far off. But no one had eaten for 11 days, and the only liquid they'd gotten came from sucking on ice. But they couldn't reach land here either due to the current; no one could stand on their legs, which were as big as logs and blackish blue. Torgersen was rowing, and approached a small island; he and the other Norwegian, Arnold Torjussen from Porsgrunn somehow managed to get ashore. Torjussen was badly hurt when he had to jump ashore and his legs wouldn't carry him; he got a huge sore in his face. Soon they saw a small cabin, and in the window, a Viking milk tin (Norwegian brand)! They thought they were surely off Russia or at least Finland. They managed to break the door open, but there was no food at all. Somehow they all managed to get ashore, and were able to thaw some ice on the stove, started to dry the blankets. It was the 2nd Day of Easter at 12 noon.
What now follows is what seems like the biggest miracle of Torgersen's life: Already after 4-5 hours people turned up. It was fisherman Bernhard Larsen from Kvalvær who had gone out in his row boat even though it was the 2nd Day of Easter. "He saved our lives". The Norwegians in the fishing boat could hardly believe their own eyes; these were extremely dangerous waters, and here this crazy lifeboat with not a single man with his mobility intact sailed around all night for full sails, across thousands of underwater reefs, and had made it safely ashore. Torgersen asked their rescuer to take them to the Faroe Islands, but he said no, he had 9 children at home. Everyone felt as if something had sort of ruled what had happened, though none of them were consciously religious. They were 70 miles from Tromsø, and were taken directly there in 7 hours, to the Norwegian police, who notified a doctor and the German police. The hospital refused to take them in, and they were placed in a room at the school. As a thank you for his rescue operation Bernhard Larsen got a 500 kr fine and had his fishing boat confiscated, "because he hadn't reported to the Germans first".
What follows is sadly characteristic of the conditions in Norway during the occupation. On one of the first days, 3 friendly, smiling women came in with Allers and Hjemmet (these are weekly magazines, which are still published toady) and all kinds of things to eat. They informed them that the 1st mate's boat had already reached land near Sørvær on Sørøya (South Island) the week before (Apr. 1), and the crew had been taken to the hospital in Hammerfest. 8 had died, 7 still alive, 2 of whom had to have both their legs amputated. "Now we would like you to talk on the radio, like the 3 from the other lifeboat did. You'll get 5000 kr., 3 months salary, and you'll be released right away". Talk on the radio, about what? "Well, we know only too well how awful it is for the poor Norwegian seamen abroad, how you're being shanghai'ed and forced to serve". Torgersen immediately declared he could say no such thing; he and all the other Norwegians on Raceland had joined the ship voluntarily, and it was impossible for him to say anything to the contrary. The smiling faces darkened considerably: If he wouldn't talk he'd be sent to Germany! Well, so be it, he wasn't about to come out and lie on the radio. Whereupon the 3 took off, taking all the reading materials and the goodies with them. Arnold Torjussen also stood firm.
Several of them got gangrene in their legs on the 2nd or 3rd day and had to amputate. Torgersen had gotten as far as the operating table one day; 2 German doctors wanted to take his right leg, but the 3rd one said no, maybe the leg could be saved. After that no doctor saw to him at all; the other 4 survivors had to have both their legs amputated; 1 Norwegian, 1 Swedish, and 1 Polish already while in Tromsø, an Englishman not until later, at a camp in Germany.
Transport south now followed. A few days at Akershus (this is a fortress in Oslo, I believe the Germans had a prison there) - then a visit to Akers Hospital and the car drove right past Torgersen's home at Sinsen, but he couldn't get a message to them! Great dispair was ruling there at the time; Mrs Torgersen had received an official notification of her husband's death. Not until 3 months later did she get the real message, in the form of a small card from a German concentration camp. In the meantime relatives and friends had sent condolence telegrams and gifts of money.
21 months in a camp in Germany. First 6 weeks in Wilhelmshaven, where they weren't even allowed to go to the toilet - everything had to go in the mattress. Nobody washed for 6 weeks; water for that purpose was not distributed. When the officer in charge discovered this, the guards got a powerful talking to; it stank something awful in there.
Then to Marlag-und-Milag Nord, a camp for seamen between Hamburg and Bremen, closer to Bremen. Not many Norwegians, the highest number was 26 at one time. A special occurence - the "deathbell" on the radio, when the Germans announced the name of a ship that had been sunk. As far as they could determine the news was usually true, because survivors often enough came to the camp. He says there were 6 of them from Raceland in the camp: 2 Danish, 1 Spaniard, 1 Englishman and 1 Estonian in addition to Torgersen himself, but 12 are named in the list below. The others had spent the time waiting at the concentration camp Sydspissen on Tromsøya and could tell them about the excellent tone and discipline there among the Norwegian prisoners.
Towards autumn the Germans were starting to send the seamen home. 24 Norwegians were called up to Lager 3 to sign a document saying that they would not sail for the allies if they were sent home; Torgersen refused. He realized he would never go to sea again, but there was a limit to what one would sign! The officer was frustrated, had never experienced people not wanting to sign - "Wouldn't you like to go home?" Yes, but not on those terms. 12 men signed, mostly young boys, 12 refused. The 12 who signed had to join a German ship the day after arrival Norway, the other 12 never heard a thing, so sometimes it pays to be virtuous.
The rest is just sunshine. His wife was in Larvik visiting her father, but it was a very happy Christmas. When the Americans arrived Norway in June 1945 Torgersen was told to go to the States. He didn't really want to, but had to go over to report, and get American medical treatment. For 6 months he was at a seamen's hospital on Long Island, or rather a sort of a convalescence hospital. In the end he got a doctor's statement saying he would no longer be able to go to sea, and therefore he gets a full salary from the time the shipwreck took place until and including June 1-1948, in addition to a number of other compensations and privileges. No wonder he's thinking about emigrating to the States which are open to him, and where he has family in many places!
The others, the ones who talked on the radio, how did they fare? To be fair one needs to remember the inhuman pressure they were under. Well, they didn't get 5000 kr, but just 2000 kroner each, and that was a loan from the Shipowners' Association! No extra 3 months salary. And obviously, they've lost all their right to anything at all from the American company".
Survivors and some of the casualties:
The US Merchant Marine Website (link below) lists the following prisoners at the German prison camp Milag Nord (those denoted * were among the 7 who had landed at Sørøy on Apr. 1, the others were in Steward Torgersen's lifeboat):
The Memorial for Seamen in Stavern, Norway (link below) lists the following Norwegian casualties:
Also among the casualties were the Danish Eskild Ditlev Lauth and Svend Svenningsen - the 1st link below has more on them. Additionally, the British James Joseph Burns and the Dutch Niek Odijk perished (see this posting to my Ship Forum).
The second external website that I've linked to at the end of this text also mentions 3rd Mate Arne Berghaas as a casualty, listed as American.
Related external links:
More on Raceland - This site says she was built in Genoa in 1921 (this is incorrect).
Merchant Marine POW's of WW II - Scroll down to Raceland for survivors (many Norwegian).
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