History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Alec James Charlwood

Alec James Charlwood

Information and photos provided by Pamela Charlwood (daughter)


This is about the Arctic convoy to Russia from Reykjavik to Archangel, numbered PQ18.  It all happened in September 1942.  I was First Lieutenant on the asdic trawler HMS St Kenan and we thought something was brewing when we were sent to Aberdeen to have our bows strengthened for going through the ice; we knew then that it wouldn’t be long before we were on a Russian convoy.  A few weeks later we found ourselves in Reykjavik where the convoy was assembling with its escorts; a cruiser, several destroyers and corvettes and two trawlers.  When all was ready we set sail up the West coast of Iceland.  Several weeks had elapsed since the disaster which had befallen PQ17.

Our convoy consisted of about 32 ships.  We rounded the North coast of Iceland and headed East by North for Bear Island, giving the coast of occupied Norway as wide a berth as possible.  Almost immediately a long–range Focke-Wolf reconnaissance aircraft picked us up and from that time we were shadowed all the way to Russia.  We did carry one Spitfire on a CAM ship and no doubt this Spitfire could have shot the Focke-Wolf down easily, but the Spitfire can’t land on water and certainly not on the CAM ship, so the idea was that after it had carried out its mission it would make for the nearest friendly airport and put down there.  In fact, the Spitfire was kept in reserve until we got nearer to Russia.

U-boats too were in close attendance from about the third day out, but these were no great problem as they were kept at bay by the escorts, notably the destroyers.  I should say that our main job as a trawler was to assist in U-boat detection and to pick up survivors from the merchant ships and take them to the small hospital ship which was in the convoy.  We also had a good anti-aircraft armament and we hoped to be able to do something with our guns against the torpedo bombers which we knew were bound to attack.

There was no darkness at this time of year, just a kind of half light around midnight.  On the fourth day out we came within range of the torpedo bombers stationed in Norway, and the first attack was horrendous.  A wave of about 25 bombers came in very fast from the West, i.e. astern of the convoy, and only a few feet above the water.  This meant that our HA anti-aircraft guns were virtually useless and the best we could do was to put down a barrage from our main armament so that the bombers had to fly through it.  A cheer went up when we saw two go down into the sea, but in a short time they were through the escorts and weaving amongst the convoy.  Every merchant ship in the convoy opened up and the sky was covered with shell bursts.  But the bombers hit several ships in this first raid.  I shall always remember an ammunition ship going up.  One second there was a ship there: a second later there was a pall of smoke and a mass of debris.  Only one man survived the explosion.

We had work to do.  A USA ship was sunk and we went alongside to pick up survivors.  One gentleman in a homberg who was in a life raft received our line and instead of making it fast to the raft he attached it to a large brief case which he was carrying and insisted that we haul that in first, which we did.  We then threw the line back to him and he kindly fixed it to the raft and we were able to pick him and his shipmates up.  This man was the ship’s purser, or the ‘Pusser’ as we called him.  He was a pain in the neck from the moment he climbed on board.  The brief case which he treasured so much contained the ship’s papers and a large quantity of money.  So not long afterwards we were able to transfer our survivors to the hospital ship and resume our station on the convoy screen.

This was the first of many torpedo attacks, but I think that we must have done more damage to the bombers in the first attack than we thought, because although we didn’t see too many go down, later attacks were much less intense.  Nevertheless, ships were steadily being sunk.

St Kenan played her part in repulsing the bombers.  We carried twin Oerlikons together with Lewis guns on the port and starboard wings of the bridge.  The torpedo bombers were so close we had no difficulty in aiming and firing at them, but to our disgust the shells from our Lewis guns just bounced off the fuselage of the bombers.  They were obviously armoured against a .303.  The Oerlikons were much more effective, but we cannot claim to have actually shot down a bomber single handed.

Within three or four days the convoy passed out of range of the torpedo bombers and German medium bombers took up the attack.  These were largely ineffective and I think this was due to the great height from which they released their bombs, keeping out of range of our HA guns.

Soon we neared Murmansk, which we by-passed on this occasion and headed North East into Archangel Bay.  Archangel lies at the head of the bay and is at the end of the railway system which runs down to Leningrad, which was in desperate straits just then.  Needless to say, the Russians lost no time in unloading the ships.   We had one remarkable experience when a party of Russians came on board and demanded to unload our ammunition.  They evidently thought they were entitled to do this, but of course we couldn’t possibly let them do it or we would have had to run the gauntlet of the German bombers on the way back without being able to fire our guns.

Another episode which worried us for a time occurred in Archangel Bay.  The Russians float masses of logs from the interior into the bay, from where they are loaded onto ships.  Unfortunately our C.O. tried to take a short cut through one of these rafts, only to find they were held together by steel hawsers, one of which wrapped itself round our propeller.  So we came to an abrupt full stop.  This was a particular nuisance to me because I was the only man on board who had any diving experience – I had done a short diving course at HMS Dolphin.  So I was the one who had to go over the side and have a look see, and find out how bad it was.  Well, it was pretty bad, with several turns of wire round the screw.   There was only one thing to do and that was to hack-saw though the wire holding us to the raft, but this still left several turns round the propeller shaft.  To clear this, we turned the screw anti-clockwise by hand and hauled the wire on board.  Drinks all round when this was completed.  I found the waters of the Bay distinctly chilly despite the fact it was late summer.

Well, we thought that we would be going home soon, but we thought wrongly because we were used for several months to escort Russian ships steaming between Archangel and Murmansk.  The German U-boats were a great nuisance at the time and no ships could be left to make the trip on their own.

Food was bad.  In fact, it was practically non existent.  This was hardly surprising in view of the desperate fighting going on around Leningrad and many other places on the Russian front.  In the end they sent us a reindeer.  Fortunately it was a dead one, so we didn’t have to slaughter it.  But, try as he could, the ship’s cook couldn’t make anything of it.  It didn’t matter whether he boiled it, roasted it, or stewed it, it was as tough as old boots, but it was something and I daresay we would have been a lot worse off if we hadn’t had our reindeer.  What made things worse was that we were tied up alongside an American ship.  Now, Americans live pretty well and it was frustrating to see their chicken bones going over the side.  So, we sent our victualling officer on board to see if he could do a deal and he did!  Two bottles of whisky were exchanged for some meat and other goodies.  We thought this wasn’t a bad deal, but we thought wrongly because a few months later we received a bill from the ship’s owners and it was quite a big one!  Well, it had to be paid and it taught us a lesson – “There is no such thing as a free meal”!

Weeks passed and Christmas came and went.  By now we had moved down to Murmansk because Archangel Bay had long since iced over and even in Murmansk the first ice was beginning to form.  I had a personal problem because my wife had been expecting our first baby in November and mail simply was not arriving.  Many of the ships carrying mail to the North Russian fleet had been sunk.  It was a worrying time, but to my delight early in January a signal arrived from the Admiralty to say that all was well and a boy had arrived on 11 November.  My wife’s father worked in London and he had badgered the Admiralty so successfully that some kind hearted person there had sent off a signal.

The ice was beginning to thicken early in January; it was a bad Winter and we thought that we were going to spend the rest of it trapped in the ice.  Then, to our delight, an ice breaker arrived and we soon headed South with a convoy making for the UK.  We naturally expected some attention from the enemy, but it was dark, the weather was grim and this I think was too much for the torpedo bombers.  The U-boats were with us always and these are difficult customers.  Nevertheless they too found the conditions not to their liking and my recollection is that we did not lose any ships on this convoy.  We must have lost 10 to 12 ships on the northbound convoy PQ18, which was a great loss of valuable stores and ammunition to the Russians and for us a tragic loss of seamen.  Many of the crews went down with their ships and, though we did our best to get there, many sank so suddenly that only a few managed to get onto the rafts or into the boats.

And so home to Liverpool.  What a marvellous place after Archangel and Murmansk.

Alec James Charlwood

Temporary First Lieutenant, RNVR

HMS St Kenan – ASDIC trawler

Date of birth 10 July 1916

Mention in a despatch, for distinguished service on PQ18, published in the London Gazette on 23 March 1943


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