In the supplement to the London
Gazette of October 8th 1943, there was a list of names of 19 Merchant
Navy officers and men: five had been awarded the Order of the British Empire and
14 the King’s Commendation for brave conduct. The citation read, very simply,
“For dangerous work in hazardous circumstances”.
I write the story as I remember
it but I write on behalf of the 19 men, as we all worked together and none of us
did anything different from anyone else.
On January 13th
1943, I joined the Dover Hill at anchor off Gourock in the Clyde. I had signed
on as radio officer and going on board the ship I discovered that we were bound
for North Russia. We were heavily loaded with fighter aircraft, tanks, guns,
lorries and a large tonnage of shells and high explosives. Our deck cargo was
made up of lorries in cases, Matilda tanks and drums of lubricating oil covered
with a layer of sandbags, presumably to protect them from tracer bullets.
Needless to say we were not very happy about the last item.
We left the Clyde on January 23
and arrived in Loch Ewe on the 25th, where we lay at anchor until the
rest of the merchant ships had gathered for our convoy. Loch Ewe is a very
beautiful place in the summer but in January or February, with a north-westerly
gale blowing and a few large, heavily laden merchant ships dragging their
anchors, it can be very different.
On February 15th, 28
merchant ships set out in a gale for North Russia in the heavily defended convoy
JW53. The escort was made up of three cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser, an
escort carrier, 16 destroyers, two minesweepers, three corvettes and two
trawlers. This was a very good escort and as daylight hours were getting longer,
trouble was obviously expected. Due to having to maintain absolute wireless
silence the radio officers stood watch on the bridge with the navigating
As we sailed north the gale
developed into a hurricane and ships began to get damaged. H.M.S. Sheffield had
the top of her forward turret torn off and had to return to port along with the
escort carrier Dasher which was also damaged. Six of the merchant ships were
damaged and had to return to Iceland. On our ship the deck cargo began to break
adrift. 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
I remember trying to use an
Aldis lamp to signal to a corvette and found it very difficult since one minute
she was in sight and then she would go down the trough of a wave and all I could
see were her topmasts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all
that could be seen was the 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 up and got us into some semblance of order again.
The loss of our escort carrier
meant that we had no aircover and, as expected, a few days later, a German
spotter plane arrived and flew round the convoy all the daylight hours, keeping
an eye on us. The next day we had a heavy attack by Ju88 bombers in which our
ship was damaged and our gun-layer was wounded by bomb splinters but we kept
plodding on towards North Russia. During this part of the voyage we were
steaming through pan-cake ice floes which protected us from the U-boats which
could not operate in such conditions. The blizzards, when they came, were always
welcome as they hid us from the enemy.
CONVOY JW 53
British: Atlantic, British Governor (bomber April 4), Dover Hill (bomber
April 4), Empire Fortune, Empire Galliard, Empire Kinsman (bombed April 6),
Empire Scott, Llandaff (bombed July 24), Ocean Freedom (bombed and sunk March
13). American: Beacon Hill (tanker), City of Omaha, Mobile City, Bering,
Francis Scott Keyes, Israel Putnam, Thomas Hartley. Dutch/ Panamian:
Pieter de Hooge, Artigas. Norwegian: Marathon (tanker). Polish/
Russian: Tobruk, Petrovsky, Tbolisi.
Belfast, Sheffield, Cumberland, Scylla. Aircraft-Carrier: Dasher.
Destroyers: Boadicea, Eclipse, Faulkner, Fury, Inglefield, Impulsive,
Intrepid, Meynell, Middleton, Milne, Obdurate, Opportune, Obedient, Orwell,
Pytchley, Orkan (Polish). Corvettes: Bergamot, Dianella, Poppy, Bluebell.
Minesweepers: Halycon, Jason. Trawlers: Lord Austin, Lord
Two days later, on February 27th,
we arrived at the entrance to Kola Inlet which sis a long fjord with hills on
either side and the town of Murmansk 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 the
DEMS and Maritime Regiment gunners on the merchant ships.
Of the 22 merchant ships in our
convoy, 15 were bound for Murmansk and the remaining 7 for 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’s ocean-going escorts which had taken us to the
Inlet now refuelled and set off homeward with the empty ships from the previous
We were all very tired when we
arrived because over the previous few days we had either been on duty or at
action stations for most of the time. After picking up the Russian pilot and
setting off independently up Kola Inlet we were looking forward to having a good
sleep when we anchored near Murmansk but we were very quickly disillusioned
when, about a mile up from the Inlet, we passed a merchant ship on fire and her
crew taking to the lifeboats.
On asking the pilot about the
ship, which was from the previous convoy, he cheerfully told us that on the way
down to meet us he had seen her being attacked by aircraft, obviously a common
occurrence. We now understood why we had been fitted with so many anti-aircraft
After two days at anchor we
went alongside at Murmansk to discharge our cargo. The port was being bombed a
good part of the time and one of our ships, the Ocean Freedom, was sunk
alongside the quay near to us.
When we had discharged all our
cargo we moved out and anchored about a mile apart on each side of the Inlet. We
appeared to be on the side nearest the German lines, which were only about ten
miles away, and we were regularly attacked by Me 109 fighter-bombers which
swooped down over the top of the hill down the side and came tearing at us about
20 to 30 feet above the water, dropping their bomb as they flew over us just
above our topmasts. Our gunners were very skilled and opened fire only when the
planes came well within range.
These attacks only lasted for
about a minute but were very vicious and we had gunners wounded and damage done
to our ship. We shot down one plane and on another occasion we damaged one which
flew out of range before we could finish it off. The ship anchored astern of us
then opened fire when the damaged plane came within range and blew it up. We
only got a half credit for that one so ended up with one-and-a-half swastikas
painted on our funnel.
We now come to the incident
whereby, to our surprise, our names in the London Gazette.
On Sunday, April 4 we were
anchored in Mishukov anchorage, I was playing chess in the officers mess when
“Action Stations” sounded and our gune opened up at the same time. I went
through the pantry, looked out of the door, and say 2 Ju 88 bombers coming from
astern, high up. Our Bofors shells were bursting below them and when they turned
away I assumed we had beaten them off and stepped out on deck.
This was a foolish thing to do
as, unknown to me, the planes had released their bombs before turning away. Four
bombs exploded close on the port side and one on the starboard side and I was
blown off my feet. As I got up our gun-layer came down from one of the bridge
Oerlikons and pointed to a large round hole in the steel deck a few yards from
where I had been standing. It was obvious that a sixth bomb had gone through the
main deck and ‘tween decks into our coal bunkers and had not exploded.
When we informed the Senior
British Naval Officer, Murmansk of the situation and were advised that there
were no British Bomb Disposal people in North Russia. We then realised that we
would have to dig the bomb out ourselves in order to save our ship. The
minesweeper Jason was ordered to anchor astern of us and to come alongside to
render assistance if the bomb should explode, although I should doubt if there
would have much to pick up.
Although the Dover Hill was
only a battered old merchantman she was our home and no German was going to make
us leave her while she was still afloat. The captain lines up the whole crew on
the after deck and asked for volunteers and 19 of us, including our captain,
formed our own bomb disposal squad. We had no equipment; in fact we only had a
few shovels borrowed from our stokehold and 19 stout hearts when we started
digging back the coal, trying to find the bomb.
The bunker was full of good
British steaming coal which we were saving for the homeward dun so we used a
derrick to bring it up on deck, hoping to replace it when we got the bomb out.
When the Russian authorities heard what we were doing, although they had many
exploded bombs to deal with in the town, they kindly offered to send one of
their own Bomb Disposal officers to remove the detonator id we could get the
bomb on deck.
When we had dug about ten feet
down into the coal we found the tail fins and, by their size, decided our bomb
must be a 1,000lb one. Unfortunately, the Germand also discovered what we were
up to and came back and bombed us again, hoping to set off the bombe we were
digging for. Due to the bomb explosions and the concussion of our own guns the
coal fell back into the space where we were digging and things got difficult at
times. We had to dig down approximately 22 feet before we got to the bomb but
after two days and two nights hard work we finally got it up on deck.
I was standing beside the bomb
with two of my fellow officers as our Russian friend started to unscrew the
retaining ring of the detonator, but after a few turns it stuck. He then took a
small hammer and a punch and tapped it to get it moving. I can honestly say that
at every time he hit it I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up
against the hood of my duffle coat.
After removing the detonator
and primer we dumped the bomb into the Kola Inlet, where it probably lies to
this day. We then moved back to Murmansk for repairs.
Of the 15 ships which arrived
at Murmansk in February, one had been sunk and four damaged. On May 17, in
company with three other ships, we left the Kola Inlet and set out for Ekonomiya
at the mouth of the Dvina River where we stayed until July 18 when we moved to
Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk). Finally, on November 26, with eight other ships,
some damaged, we set out for home.
Since it was dark for almost 24
hours each day and we could only make seven knots maximum speed we went north to
the edge of the ice. Knowing that a Russian bound convoy was coming up to the
south of us we expected the Germans to attack that one and leave us alone. This
in fact happened and we eventually arrived in London on December 14 in time to
be home for Christmas.
The time we spent in the White
Sea was mostly peaceful and our main problem was lack of food; for part of the
time we suffered from malnutrition, but we survived. I do not think it did any
of us any harm as it makes us appreciate all the more the peaceful times we now
When we sailed up London River
towards Surrey Commercial Docks to pay off, with our Red Ensign flying and
patched on our decks and side, we were as proud of the old ship as if she had
been a spick and span Navy vessel arriving in port. Our Red Ensign had a hole in
it when an Oerlikon shell had gone through it during the fighting but it was the
only one we had left.
The Dover Hill finished her
days as a navy Special Service vessel and was sunk as a blockship on 7 February
1944, but I do not know where. This is a kind of way of saying that the old ship
had taken a bigger hammering than we though and that she was no longer fit to go
To finish on a personal note. I
was the youngest of the young squad which took part in the incident in Mishukov
anchorage, having had my 18th birthday on the way up to Russia. I was
no longer a greenhorn, however, having joined my first ship at Plymouth as a
cadet in 1940 when I was 15 years old. Due to a problem with my eyesight I was
unable to continue in navigation department and came ashore, went to wireless
college and returned to sea in the radio department.
I returned to Murmansk in 1980,
mainly to find the grave of a friend who had been killed by a bomb splinter
which went through his steel helmet and with the help of Russian authorities I
was able to do so. I went back again in 1985 and again in 87, 89, 91, 93 and 95
with a group of veterans and great kindness and friendship was shown to us by
the people of Murmansk who greatly appreciate the help we brought to them during
In 1987 I also found out the
name of the Russian Bomb Disposal officer who had helped us was Pavel Panin. I
have had word from the Northern Naval Museum in Murmansk that he was killed in
August 1943. He was a fighter pilot in the Red Air Force and was killed in a
scrap with German ME109F planes. He is a Hero of The Soviet Union and rightly so
as he was a very brave man who we admired very much. I have seen his picture in
museums in Murmansk and Severomorsk. It would have been wonderful to have met
him after all those years but it was not to be.
Note courtesy of Editor of
The Dover Hill 5, 818 grt, was
built by the Northumberland Shipping Co. Newcastle and was launched in December
1917 as the Maenwen but before completing was acquired by Clan Line as Clan
Macvicar. In 1936 she was sold and renamed Dover Hill. After returning from
North Russia she was taken over by Ministry of War Transport and was sunk at
Arromanches on 9 June 1944 along with other ships to form an artificial port for
the invasion of Normandy.
He who knows not – and
knows not that he know not: he is a fool – shun him.
He who knows not – and
knows that he knows not: he is simple – teach him.
He who knows not – and
knows not that he knows: is asleep – wake him.
He who knows – and know
that he knows: is wise: follow him.
Scots at War